Qualia Literary & Art Journal

The Saguaro Party

We awoke expecting rain. This was Friday, the end of a week of dreary clouds by day and roaring thunderstorms by night. We’d fallen asleep Thursday to the sound of rain against pavement and cars splashing through muddy potholes.

But Friday dawned bright and perfect. Peeking out of my boyfriend’s curtains just before 9 a.m., I was greeted with the sight of a brilliant sky, the crisp cerulean of my father’s best shirt, edged by smart little clouds. The glass surfaces of cars glittered with raindrops, and even the taupe apartment complex walls looked dressed up in their rainwater glaze.

“Alex,” I squealed, “no way are we going to class today. It’s perfect out. Let’s do something!”

Within an hour, we were in the car with the windows down. Nothing in the world smells quite so fresh as the Sonoran desert after a storm. The bitter creosote leaves soaked with rain and the dust churned to mud thick and red as paint combine to scent the air with an odor like biting into a thunderstorm. I breathed deeply, eyes closed, enjoying every movement of wind and sunlight on my face.

“I love ditching,” I murmured. Alex nodded and grinned.

We drove east on Speedway through Tucson, under the I-10 and past the edge of town into the sprawling suburbs. Enormous, low-slung adobe houses nestled into foothills that had turned soft and green overnight. After the week’s storms, objects seemed to have taken on sharper edges, etched against the washed-clean blue of the sky.

In the midst of a haze of mid-semester stress, capping off a dismally soggy week, a perfect day had emerged. I felt frantic with the need to capture it, to preserve every slant of sunlight, every nuance of green and blue and yellow. Out the window, the foothills rolled by, giving way in the distance to hazy mountains capped with snow. Every feature of the land was so rare, so unfathomably lovely, that I felt my throat tighten. I sniffled once.

Alex looked over at me. “Are you okay?” he asked. I nodded, but my welling eyes gave me away.

“Yeah. No, it’s stupid. I just … it’s too pretty, you know?” I fumbled. Too pretty to last for more than an afternoon, too exquisite a day to expect more than one every hundred years or so. The day had turned from warm, inviting adventure, to icy and mocking. You will never feel quite this good again, Mount Lemmon scoffed with her lacy cape of snow. You are young and in love and absurd in your happiness, but none of this will last. The next time the world looks like this, you will be long dead. Perhaps you will even die tomorrow. I nodded at the mountain, acknowledging my smallness in her shadow. The road, curving through rising hills, seemed suddenly treacherous; I held my breath every time the car maneuvered around a bend, ready to hurtle to my death.

I’d heard that morning on the radio that a city bus had overturned in Phoenix, killing at least six people. They were just on their way to work, I thought. None of them woke up this morning thinking, ‘Something is going to happen,’ thinking, ‘Perhaps I’ll die later today.’ They probably were thinking how great it was that the weekend was going to be sunny, finally. Well, I won’t make that mistake, no sir. If death is coming, here I am waiting.

As I was busy wrestling with mortality, I didn’t notice that Alex had chosen a destination until we pulled into a parking space at Gate’s Pass. We climbed out of the car into mid-morning sunshine. A tiny stone cabin housing a picnic table and fire pit sat partway up the hill adjacent to the lookout, and to this we decided to climb. Though I was wearing flip-flops, we scrambled up the rocky hillside and arrived at the little cabin. Stretched before and beneath us lay a shallow valley littered with spindly saguaro and scrubby yellow-green brush.

The saguaro, with their many arms stretched toward the arc of sky, appeared to dance on the hillsides, each striking a pose of dynamic glee. I imagined them coming alive at night, whooping and hollering at one another, perhaps wearing cowboy hats and telling campfire tales. Saguaro live for hundreds of years; they do not suffer the knowledge that they’ll die before the next perfect spring day. I glared at the nearest cactus, its sole arm bent in a jocund wave. Lucky cactus. I wanted to join their hillside dance party, to shed my flimsy pink skin for a thick green rind and spines.

Alex beckoned me into the cabin. The walls were littered with graffiti, mostly just names and dates, with the occasional offensive slogan and anatomical drawing. He pointed to an inscription. “Look at this.”

Karen and John, 1951, it read, with a heart underneath. “But that doesn’t look like it was written in 1951,” I pointed out. “The marker looks fresh.”

“I bet 1951 is their anniversary year,” he said. “They probably came up here when they first fell in love.”

I thought about that. Sixty years ago, Karen and John were probably young lovers like us, taking the time to enjoy a beautiful day in the desert. They must have come back as an elderly couple, on another gorgeous day, and climbed gingerly up to the cabin to write their names on the wall. They got more than one perfectly happy day; in six decades together, they probably could remember at least a handful of them.

I took Alex’s hand. “I don’t really need to be a saguaro, actually,” I said. “I can be a human.” He looked at me strangely, but squeezed my hand, and then we began to climb back down the hill.


About the Author
Heather Price-Wright holds a B.A. in creative writing with an emphasis in nonfiction from the University of Arizona. She is a recent transplant to Brooklyn. Her work is forthcoming in Ardor, and her reviews have appeared in The Diagram, where she is the assistant nonfiction editor.

More of Heather’s work can be found at: