Late in December, Paula and Sélim took a road trip through the desert, driving toward the bright knifeline of the horizon in the early morning. Spiky pods of vegetation were scattered around the gray landscape. She rubbed the opal ring that had belonged to his mother. Maybe things would work out. There was a chance.
She had suggested the road trip because he wanted to experience firsthand the desert that he had seen in cowboy movies back home in Egypt. She told him that most of those movies were filmed in Spain. He tapped his forehead and said, “In my mind, America is here.”
She patted at a spot on his collar. Ray Charles sang on the radio, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”
Sélim wanted to visit the Lion Habitat Ranch, a casino, and the aquarium. “My friend say I should visit Caesar’s Palace and take photographs. He’s blind. I will describe it to him.”
And now they were in the cold desert, rolling toward Las Vegas, city of chance, hope, glittery promise. It was a foolish ideato use their Christmas vacation to drive from Minnesota to Nevada and be back for spring semester. “We’re allowed to be foolish,” he said. “We’re young.”
“Not that young. I’m 29.”
“I’m 24.” He smirked. “A little baby.” He lifted his hands off the steering wheel as if to measure a tiny infant body.
One tire thumped over a dead tortoise with a broken shell and the car veered. Her heart jumped as she turned and looked out the rear window at the feet poked out of the shell. “You’re scaring me.”
“Sorry. I meant to scare you only a little.”
“Let me drive.” Her hands trembled. She looked around the flat landscape, gray stubble, colorless sky. “Is this like home?”
He slowed down, stopped, climbed out. He got the camera from the back seat, clicked three times. “Now I have it forever,” he said, as if he were a successful big-game hunter.
She leaned against the fender, crossed her arms. “Forever.”
“I’ll show it to my family.”
“Will you take a picture of me? Will you take me with you?”
“I am the Emperor of Egypt. That’s what you called me.”
“I said, ‘King.’ You just promoted yourself.”
“Look.” He closed his eyes. “In the Nevada zoo, there’s a lion and a unicorn. The lion is protecting the unicorn, and the unicorn is telling stories, fairy tales to amuse the lion.”
“I have a story. Once upon a time there was a handsome cowboy, and he left his ranch to seek his fortune. He sailed to America and found a schoolmarm, carried her home, and together they ruled happily all the days of their lives.”
He tapped his nails on the car roof. “The pretty schoolmarm, she left his country to go back to her rich country, and he wanted to rob her country.”
“Maybe they’ll both get rich, and he won’t have to rob. See Las Vegas up ahead? Maybe we’ll get rich.” She pointed to a spot in the distance where the straight road met the horizon. “That dark smudge?” She hummed Ray Charles’s song out loud.