Cybill in Between, a novel, and "Cybill at Burning Man," a short story
EPILOGUE to Cybill in Between:
The photograph shows a naked woman with her back to the camera. Her short blond hair is curly and disheveled. She is lying sideways on the bed, a position that accentuates the curve of waist and hip. The woman’s hands are flung over her head, her legs bend gracefully at the knee, and her ankles are tucked neatly side by side. It is not immediately apparent that her ankles are bound together with strips of cloth, as are her wrists, because her body is relaxed, at peace, an image of willing invitation and submission.
I take the photograph from its hiding place in an old handbag and gaze upon my image, as I have many times. It was late afternoon, and Mel had used just available light—no filters, flash or fill. When he’d begged to take my picture, I’d said, “Just from the back,” and he’d leaped naked for his camera before I could change my mind. “You’re going to love this,” he’d said, composing the shot.
And although it ended badly between us, I do love the picture. It’s a flattering angle. Because my thighs are drawn up, there’s no sign of the cellulite I have had since age thirty, and because it’s a back shot, my peculiar breasts are concealed. The woman in the photograph looks slender, provocative, mysterious.
Sometimes I miss Mel, but not often. We have had no communication with each other in years. Still, as I look at the photograph, the old excitement courses through me, and I let myself remember Mel: the games and toys and credo that he offered, his intensity, his expertise. Despite reason, despite Quinn, I’d been as obsessed as any teen-ager in love.
Yet when Mel took that photo, I had just turned fifty.
I return the picture to the zippered compartment of the handbag and feel a smile curve into my cheeks.
Oh, to be fifty again!
“But why would you want to go there? Five days without bathrooms or showers? No beach, no historical sights, no restaurants! You call that a vacation?” Cybill’s best friend, Johanna, was appalled.
“It gets worse,” Cybill said, putting away the plates from the dishwasher as she talked on the phone. “It’s supposed to be really uncomfortable: too hot by day, too cold by night, with these random, blinding dust storms.”
“So why on earth are you going?” asked Johanna.
Cybill said, “If people go back despite these conditions, it has to be incredible.”
“What does Quinn say about it?” asked Johanna
Quinn was Cybill’s husband, a young singer-songwriter who had an important gig in Boston on Labor Day weekend, so he couldn’t accompany Cybill to Nevada. Not that he wanted to. “Quinn’s as baffled as you are,” Cybill whispered into the receiver.
Johanna said, “For the cost of the ticket, and your flight to Reno, and renting that van, and the bike, you could get a week at a health spa and really relax!”
Cybill smiled. Relaxing was not what she had in mind.
Cybill was fifty-three. She had heard about Burning Man from Parker, who was twenty-three. Parker was her daughter Rain’s wild friend from high school, with tattoos encircling both biceps and spiky red hair. “Burning Man is like paradise,” Parker had told Rain and Cybill on the back porch. “You exist in the moment. There’s art all around. You live out your fantasies.” Turning to Cybill she’d said, “There are lots of cool people your age, too.”
Rain had said, “All that dust! Artie has asthma. We could never go.”
But Cybill had gone to the website and spent hours looking at photos and films and manifestoes. She found lots of reasons for going to Burning Man: the landscape, the costumes, the artworks. The spontaneity. The music. The ecological ethos.
And then there was the reason she never admitted aloud and scarcely to herself. One of the festival founders said in a documentary, “It’s not just a sex party in the desert”—which meant, Cybill hoped, that it was. Quinn was a wonderful lover, but they had been together for almost a decade, and Cybill knew herself to be, at heart, polyamorous. Who knew? Perhaps Burning Man would provide a vacation from her virtuous life as a wife and mother and job-holder and Democratic Party officer in her town.
It seemed only a minor complication that at the last minute, Cybill’s twenty-one-year-old son, Jesse, who lived in Seattle, decided to go to Burning Man, too, with a theme camp called the Flaming Jews. After all, it was unlikely they’d run into each other by chance, in a city of fifty thousand. He would be on the Esplanade with thirty guys who juggled fire, and she would be camped alone somewhere in a Eurovan. She and Jesse agreed in advance to meet at Center Camp at noon on Thursday, and Cybill wondered how many other intergenerational reunions took place at Black Rock City.
And now it was Wednesday morning, and she was waking up for her first full day at Burning Man, in her snug little camper with its pop-up top so you could walk around inside, and its cute little stove and sink and fridge, though the fridge didn’t seem to be working so well. Cybill pulled a Japanese kimono over her nightgown and walked to the Portosans, about a block away. They weren’t as bad as she’d expected. Back at her camper, she washed and dressed. At home in Westchester, she’d been quietly accumulating Burning Man clothes and had devoted a dresser drawer to leggings and leather vests and camisole underwear.
Cybill still had a good body, though now, she supposed, more attractive clothed than in the nude. More from vanity than from modesty, she didn’t want to get naked herself, and she had no intention of being part of the Critical Tits parade. Still, she liked being around nudity. That was part of this festival’s appeal. A lot of the women went topless, and Cybill could vicariously enjoy being an exhibitionist, and a lot of men showed their butts, and Cybill could actually enjoy being a voyeur, even if many of the butts on display should not have been.
Cybill got dressed in leopard skin leggings and a coin belt and a tank top with no bra. She checked the fridge. Still warm, and the milk would spoil soon. She would go meet the neighbors and perhaps get some help. Cybill opened the camper door and stepped outside.
During the night, a young couple from Oregon had set up a little tent to her left, about fifty feet from her camper. Now they were sitting on camp chairs under the fly of their tent, holding hands, looking rapturous. They seemed so involved in each other or a drug that Cybill was discouraged from approaching them. Immediately ahead of her, she faced the back of a large RV. There were many French voices on the other side. Cybill was both Francophone and Francophile, so she hoped she’d get to meet the hidden Frenchies. And now, from her right, she saw a man coming toward her, holding out a frying pan. “Would you like a Spanish omelet?” he asked.
“Me?” Cybill was surprised.
“Yeah. It’s hot. I just made it.”
“Well . . . sure,” Cybill said.
“I see you’re for Obama,” he said.
The theme of Burning Man that year was the American Dream, and Cybill had taped the cover of a recent Utne Reader to the door of her camper. It was a picture of Obama, with the headline “The American Dream.” Getting him elected president was Cybill’s American dream. Earlier in August, on her big back porch, she had held a Banjo Bash for Obama which had had raised $2,152 dollars for the Obama campaign.
“Of course I’m for Obama,” Cybill said. “Aren’t we all?”
“Uh-huh. What a cute camper.”
What a cute cook, Cybill thought, for he was blond, tanned, with a white wolfish smile and a good body. Just a little chunky, how she liked men to be built. And, adding to his appeal, he seemed to be roughly Cybill’s age, not a youngster, like her husband Quinn. She said, “Come inside and take a look.”
“I’m Troy,” he said, stepping in.
“And I’m Carmella,” Cybill said. She’d decided that would be her playa name. She loved the idea of a playa name. She loved that she was sitting here with this guy whose name might be Troy and that he would think of her as Carmella. She sat on a banquette, and he sat opposite her on the front seat that swiveled to face back. She took a forkful of omelet and said, “Wow, this is good. Thank you. ”
“I had an extra one,” he said. “Anyway, we’ve been wondering about you. Are you all alone here?”
“Yeah,” Cybill said. “I couldn’t get any of my friends to come with me. They thought I was nuts.” She didn’t mention that her husband couldn’t come because of his gig. It seemed Carmella didn’t have a husband. “Who are you here with?” she asked.
“Oh, there are about ten of us, friends from Sacramento.” He pointed to a muddle of small tents around a truck.
Cybill said, “I’m from New York.” She observed that she and Carmella had that much in common, at least. “Hey, Troy, are you at all mechanically-minded? My fridge doesn’t seem to be working. Although it worked fine on the trip from Reno.”
Troy squatted to open the fridge and look inside. He put his hand on the carton of milk. “It’s warm, all right. Do you have the camper manual?”
“Yes, it’s in the glove compartment.”
He swiveled the seat to the front and unlatched the glove compartment. He reached inside and got the manual. Soon he found the page for the refrigerator, which held instructions for changing the fridge from battery to propane when the camper was not in motion. “See, all you have to do is press this switch,” Troy said. He flipped the switch. They heard the propane firing up.
“Hey, that’s great,” she said. “Thank you.”
“Did you ever think about looking at the manual?” Troy asked mildly.
“Actually, no. But I will from now on, I promise.” To distract him from her ditziness, she said, “I just don’t understand how propane can act as a coolant.” Or did that make her sound even ditzier? Cybill took a last bite of omelet, relishing a burst of jalapeno. “Mmmmh. That was so good.”
Troy glanced out the window. Outside, a woman in a jumpsuit was waiting. “Hey, I gotta go. Nice meeting you, Carmella.”
He reached across and took her in his arms, and she felt herself relaxing into him. “I’ll see you later,” he said, and she knew that she would. Oh, this was a neighborly treat to look forward to . . . whenever.
She ate some bread, washed her plate, and began filling her backpack with the day’s essentials: goggles and headscarf and sweatshirt and sunscreen and lip balm and two bottles of water and two joints and a lighter and a mug and breath mints and eye-drops and tissues and sunglasses and gifts and a peanut-butter sandwich and an orange and—she had to stop because the backpack was full. She went out to the bike and began pedaling along the street to the Esplanade.
At Parker’s suggestion, she had camped by the 6:00 meridian to be away from the loudest music camps and to be centrally located. And now on her bike, she was part of the stream, the procession of people who invited you to look at them or know them before you moved on. They were people worth looking at. Cybill thought that Burning Man, by its nature, selected for the hardy, so most people here were in good physical shape. They were also into costume and adornment, so Cybill’s head went from side to side and her bicycle wobbled as she admired one person or another. It gave people-watching a whole new dimension to know that you could say hello to anybody here and they would say hello back and probably talk to you and hug you. Or more. It was another world.
The landscape was alien from anything Cybill had ever encountered. There wasn’t a plant visible anywhere: not one shrub or blade of grass: just sand so fine it was more like dust, stretching out in utter flatness to a circle of blue mountains. No leaves, no insects, nothing living. All the land was beige. The lifeless landscape compounded her feeling that she had landed on some other planet. It wasn’t like any camping she had ever done before, in green and private places: here, it was somewhat like a refugee camp, with miles of tents and vehicles parked in the sand.
But the tents and the structures were colorful and festive. There was always something to tantalize the eye: red sails, geodesic domes, tents made out of lacy netting, mutant art cars like telephones or spiders.
Beside a tent made to look like a cloud, a man on a chair called to Cybill, “Want a margarita?” She wanted to get to the Esplanade and look at the desert beyond, so she said “No thanks” and pedaled onward. This was the most difficult cycling she’d ever done, over furrows of soft dust. Yet when she got to the Esplanade, Cybill kept going: she bicycled out to the Man and then to the Temple and then she rode about from one art installation to another. Out in the deep desert, inside a sculpture of a dinosaur skeleton, a young man and woman were fucking, doggie-style. The man waved at Cybill. Cybill cycled on. It was incredibly hot, and her legs were aching from the difficult pedaling. The sun was blinding, even with her hat and sunglasses.
When she got back to the Esplanade, she got off her bicycle, exhausted. She went into one of the nearest tents to get some shade. She saw a sign: “Head Massage. For Women Only.” A skinny bald man was giving a head massage to a young woman with very short hair. “Would you like to be next?” he asked Cybill.
“Sure.” Cybill sank into some cushions and took out her backpack. She had smoked pot out there in the desert, and she sucked on a mint for her breath. She closed her eyes. She was so hot and tired. . .
She must have drifted to sleep because the next thing she knew, the masseur was touching her head very lightly, his fingers making circles on her scalp. “Are you awake?” he asked.
Cybill saw that they were alone in the tent now. “What a great way to wake up,” she told him. And now his fingernails dug just a bit into her scalp, and she couldn’t withhold a soft moan of pleasure. His hands moved from her head to her neck, from her neck to her back, from her back around the front to . . . “Hey!” she told him and sat up. “That’s not my head.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to stop completely,” said Cybill, flopping down again. He wasn’t an attractive man, yet his hands felt so wonderful on her head. He massaged her scalp for another few minutes.
Then he said, “Would you like an ice cream sundae?”
Cybill sat up and said, “I can’t think of anything I would like more! But how do you have a freezer in here?”
“I’m in an RV,” said the masseur. “With a freezer. Come on.”
Cybill followed him through a jumble of tents and cars to a good-sized RV. He flipped on the air conditioner. She sat on a couch and cooled off.
He said, “I’m Paul.”
“I’m Carmella. This is so luxurious.”
“We might as well be comfortable at our age,” he said to Cybill.
Were they the same age? He was probably somewhat younger, Cybill thought. Then again, most people were.
Paul said, “You’re a very desirable woman, do you know that?”
What could you say to this question? She didn’t find him appealing, but he was coming closer, asking, “Do you want another head massage?” She thought, who in the history of the world has ever refused a head massage? Soon, as before, he was extending the massage onto her back and neck, and, once again, he attempted to come around her body and to the frontal area. “No, please,” said Cybill.
Paul said, “Don’t you want that ice cream sundae?”
“You mean, if I don’t let you touch my breasts you won’t give me any ice cream?” Cybill was amused and amazed—and suddenly very aroused.
“That’s right,” said skinny bald Paul.
Cybill had never been so demeaned in her entire life. “Okay,” she said. “But just the breasts. Nothing else.”
“I promise,” said Paul, and he kept his word. He was very good on her breasts, and the sundaes he made with vanilla ice cream and hot fudge and aerosol whipped cream were even better. She said goodbye to him and got back on her bike, convinced she’d entered an alternate reality. What was making her do these things?
Now she really wanted to find that cute Troy, but he was nowhere about when she got back to her campsite.
The next day, she set off to Center Camp for her reunion with Jesse. There were the usual long lines by the coffee bar, where they were supposed to meet, and Cybill got out her mug to be on the shorter line. After she’d drunk a cappuccino, she wandered around. She listened to a jazz trio. She filled out a census form. She looked at her watch. Jesse was now an hour late.
She decided to go to his theme camp, which was listed in the program, so she got on her bike and set off. Ten minutes later, she was at his beautiful encampment, fashioned from various shades of flame-colored silk. She stepped inside the tent. A young man with a yarmulke was juggling four zucchinis and a pepper, but he brought them down one by one when Cybill approached him. “Do you know Jesse?” she asked.
“Sure,” said the kid.
“Could you try to find him? I’m his mom.”
“How cool is that! Sure, I’ll get him. You wait here.”
Cybill sat down on a straw mat, and in a few minutes, Jesse came in. He had a wide leather bracelet on each wrist and a shirt with ragged arm-holes. He stared down at her. “Mom? What are you doing here?” She jumped up and they hugged. He seemed astonished to see her, although very pleased. His pupils were huge; his irises were narrow green circles.
Cybill said, “You didn’t show up for our meeting at Center Camp today.”
Jesse smacked his hand to his cheek. “Was that today? Gosh, sorry, mom. It’s so hard to make plans here.”
She said, “So hard to keep them, you mean.”
He looked into her eyes, as if she had said something wise. “Keep them, yes,” he said. A chuckle bubbled out of him. “But where exactly does one keep one’s plans?” He began to laugh some more.
“Jesse? What’s up?”
“I ate all these mushrooms,” he explained.
“Aha. Are they good?”
“Mom, they’re so good.”
“Well, I’m glad.” She herself hadn’t had mushrooms in twenty years, but she remembered them fondly. She said, “This may seem a little weird—but do you have any more of those mushrooms for me?”
He did, and she saved them for later. After she left Jesse’s encampment, she biked back to her van. Then she cut up two avocados and sprinkled salt and lemon on them. She brought them round to the Frenchies, saying “Aimez-vous les avocats?”
Cries of joy and surprise! They did like avocados, it turned out, and Cybill got to use her French.
Later, she had an apple for dinner. It was strange being here in the desert: she scarcely ate, and she scarcely peed. And even though there were hot sweaty people in close quarters, no one ever seemed to smell bad.
Night fell, and the desert floor was pulsing. Cybill was going to dance, she had to dance. She put on her headlamp and got on her bike and headed off into the night, pulling up her flouncy skirt so it wouldn’t get caught in the chain.
She got off her bike at the first place where people were dancing. She danced alone, but soon a tall gray-haired man began dancing beside her, a very handsome man with a hawk nose and piercing blue eyes. “You are sensational,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“It’s Cyb. . . Carmella.”
“Carmella? That’s pretty. I’m Kirby.”
“I’ve never met a Kirby before.”
“I can be your first,” he said, looking into her eyes.
Oh, Kirby was a charmer, and he knew it! I could fall in love with him, Cybill thought, absurdly. Soon they were strolling hand in hand from one bar to another. Cybill was sure that the number one drug at Burning Man was alcohol. Kirby said he was a film director from San Francisco. “Horror films,” he said. She was surprised that he was so forthcoming, as it didn’t seem the custom here to talk about your life in the outside world: “the gray world,” Burners called it. But of course, Kirby could be lying.
He twisted the wedding ring on her hand. “What’s this?” he asked. “Are you married?”
“So where’s your husband?”
“He’s in Boston. At a music gig.”
He squeezed her hand hard.
She said, “Hey! That hurts.” She pulled her hand away from his.
“You shouldn’t come to Burning Man if you’re married. It isn’t right.”
“We couldn’t have a relationship.”
“I thought Burning Man was all about the moment, the present. Anyway, even if I wasn’t married, you and I couldn’t get involved. I live in New York, after all.”
“That’s true.” Kirby’s mood suddenly changed. “Come here, beautiful.” And he pulled her toward him and kissed her. It was a delicious kiss. “Do you want to be my Burning Man girlfriend?”
“Maybe.” She was thinking, Maybe we should kiss again.
As if reading her mind he brought his mouth down to hers and kissed her deeply and completely. Then he bit her lips. The pain was shocking.
“Hey!” she pulled back. “That hurt! Don’t do things like that.”
In response, he gripped her shoulder so hard she cried with pain. She said, “Let go. That’s it. You are out of control.”
He reached down and pulled up her skirt. She pulled away. “Cut it out!”
“You love it,” he said.
Tears stood out in her eyes. “I do not. I’m going home. Goodnight.”
“Suit yourself, Carmella.”
“See you on the playa, Kirby,” she said sarcastically. And she ran away from him, dodging tents and encampments in a zig-zag path. Fall in love with him? How could her instincts have been so wrong? She looked back to see if he was following her. He didn’t seem to be, which was good. She didn’t want him knowing where she lived.
She was breathing hard when she got to her camper. She didn’t realize she was crying until Troy came over to her and said, “Carmella? Are you all right?”
She shook her head.
He asked, “What happened?” So she told him. He said, “What a creep. Give me a hug, you’ll feel better.”
After a time, they went into her camper. She said, “Would it be all right if we just sort of cuddled?”
“I love to cuddle,” said Troy.
And that’s what they did for the first two hours of that night, cuddled and talked, and then they fell asleep, and then they woke at dawn and reached for each other, and then things got serious, and seriously wonderful. She would open her eyes and see his wolfish smile and close her eyes again out of renewed excitement. This thrilling new man in her arms. His every move was sure and right, including putting on the condoms. He moved slowly and surely. She sighed. He seemed to like her, too.
Outside, the sky was streaked with gray and pink.
“Shall we go for a walk?” Troy said.
They saw many people on the road, people who’d been up all night. They were walking with their glow-sticks in their tutus and their rags. Cybill said, “Do you think anyone here voted for George Bush?”
“Probably somebody,” said Troy.
“It’s hard to believe,” Cybill said.
He put his arm around her.
She said, “I’m so glad you found me last night.” My Burning Man boyfriend, she thought, but did not say. That would be asking for a two-day commitment. Yet why should they look for other people when they were getting along so very well? And, in fact, they ate Jesse’s mushrooms and stayed together through the Temple Burn. They even exchanged email addresses.
A week after returning home, Cybill got an email from Troy. She read, with growing horror:
I misled you about something, and I have to set the record straight. I let you think I was for Obama, when in fact I’m for McCain. I’m a life-long Republican and I voted twice for Bush. There! I had to get this off my chest. You are one classy lady and a total fox. I’m so glad we met!
Cybill gave a shriek of disbelief. This was worse than betraying her marital vows, worse than letting a guy feel her up in exchange for some ice cream, worse than making out with a sadist who directed horror films. This was the Burning Man legacy, this was the after burn, this was what living in the moment had wrought.
She had let a Republican into her body.
But, no, Cybill thought. She hadn’t done that. Carmella had.