Seeds in a sandstorm

A writer contemplates love and disaster in a city of transients.

 

Las Vegas is a city of transients. Walking down the Strip is like wandering around an international airport. But even on the margins of the city, where residents try to raise their families, many are in various stages of just passing through.

I was stuck there during the limbo between grad school and the rest of my life. I never liked Vegas, but my mother and sister lived there, and I was job hunting. I spent hours in coffee shops sending out applications, a journalist with a graduate degree in environmental education. In the evenings, I bunked with my family and ate all the Filipino food I wanted. I would stay, I told myself, until I found a job or my student visa expired.

“People stop here a while and end up staying a bit longer,” the locals liked to say. That’s what Laura said one day as I helped her and Ellen, another volunteer, prep seeds for propagation at a botanical garden. We were planting delicate seeds in peat pots — tiny, furry things that drifted away at the hint of a hot breeze.

“This is the most common story,” Laura said, as we dug into mounds of potting soil. “ ‘I was just passing through, and my car broke down. By the time it got fixed, I had a job.’ Kind of my story, too.”

Kind of? I waited for her to go on. But she just smiled. The way she rolled her r’s reminded me of a friend from Johannesburg. I itched to ask Laura where she was from, but I felt I shouldn’t pry.

Instead, I learned that she mends torn upholstery and fixes broken furniture, a curious occupation in a city that prizes the new.

“What brings you here, Ellen?” I asked the tall, quiet woman beside me.

“Just a job,” she said.

“What kind of job?”

“I’m a geologist,” she said. I was about to ask her more about her work when she threw the question back at me.

“Oh, I just finished grad school,” I said, “and I’m here on my way to somewhere else.”

It was the easiest story I could tell, and it seemed right for the moment. It wasn’t the time and place to say that my boyfriend had proposed to me, and then got scared enough to un-propose. Or that I had spent my nest egg on grad school and was broke. Or that I was sleeping on a blanket next to my sister’s bed because my mother became a hoarder after my dad died and there was barely any room in the apartment. Or that I just wanted to land a job and make enough money to restart my life in Manila, where I would probably die a spinster but live surrounded by friends whom I missed and loved. My friends and I could retire to a nice island with our cats, who would eat fresh fish every day. And on some mornings, we would sit by the beach at sunrise to gawk at fishermen pulling their nets to shore, their muscular brown bodies glistening.

The geologist, the mender, and the ex-student. What we chose not to say hung pregnant in the air. We went through 500 seeds that afternoon. But for every seed we planted, at least two flew away.

 

A storm northwest of the Las Vegas Strip in July 2015. The monsoon storm dropped heavy rain and hail in parts of the valley, causing street flooding and power outages.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Two months into my brief residency in Sin City, I dreamed about my father. I was sitting in the bed of an old pickup truck, which transformed into a wooden cart pulled by a water buffalo. Suddenly, I inhaled a huge amount of sand, and realized that the water buffalo and I were in a monstrous sandstorm. The horizon line disappeared, and I panicked. Then my father was beside me, not the least bit bothered by the sand and the whipping wind. He turned to me, held my shoulders firmly and said, “It’s OK.”

I woke up wondering: It’s OK to what? To perish in a sandstorm? To live and die in the desert? 

The day I drove back to Las Vegas from a job interview in Barstow, a sandstorm engulfed parts of the Strip, the old downtown on Fremont Street, and the east and west suburbs. As I got off I-15, a massive, grayish-orange cloud draped itself over the landscape, leaving the Luxor pyramid’s tip sticking out like one of Madonna’s cone boobs. As I entered the city limits, scraps of paper whipped around my car, and dust swirled in the air. I panicked. Was I going to kick the bucket on the Tropicana Avenue exit, driving a crappy rental, overeducated and jobless? “It’s OK,” my dad had said.

I drove on, braced for disaster, but made it home safe and sound.

Natasha Vizcarra works as a science writer in Boulder, Colorado, where she lives with her husband — who is no longer afraid of marriage — and their four cats.