Editor’s Note: Burning Man, the desert festival dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance, returned this weekend, but was hampered by rain, muddy campgrounds, closed roads, and one reported death. An estimated 70,000-plus attendees were isolated at the venue known as Black Rock City. This story on a woman who goes to Burning Man alone was submitted for our short story contest in the spring and is categorized as fiction. Just sayin’.
“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
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.
Her partner Quinn had an important gig in Boston on Labor Day weekend, so he couldn’t accompany Cybill to the fabled arts festival in Nevada. Not that he wanted to. “Quinn is 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.
Getting to Burning Man
Cybill was fifty-six. She had heard about Burning Man in the media and from Parker, who was 23. 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.”
Perhaps Burning Man would provide a vacation from her virtuous life as a mate and mother.
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 manifestos. She found lots of reasons for going to Burning Man: the landscape, the costumes, the artworks. The spontaneity. The music. The ecological, anti-capitalist ethos: nothing was for sale except coffee and ice.
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 living together for almost a decade, and Cybill knew sex would be more intense with somebody new. She wondered if by nature she might be polyamorous. Weren’t many others, at heart? Cybill had recently learned that the most common sexual fantasy was about group sex, which was a relief, for she had concocted several potent scenarios on that theme. Who knew? Perhaps Burning Man would provide a vacation from her virtuous life as a mate and mother and Democratic Party officer in her town.
Here Comes the Son
It seemed only a minor complication that at the last minute, her 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 temporary city of 60,000. He would be on the Esplanade, on the festival’s main boulevard, with 30 people 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, the festival site.
The woman gave Cybill a smack on the butt with a ping pong paddle, while the man said, “Welcome, Virgin.”
She looked around her on the plane to Reno, speculating about the other passengers. Were any of them going to Burning Man? Most likely some of them. She picked up her camper at the airport and bought a used bike from a special place set up for “Burners.” Then she stopped at a supermarket and bought groceries for five days. She drove through the desert and saw impossibly blue lakes in the distance. What minerals were in the water to give it such a hue? After two hours, she got to the site of the festival. When it was her turn in line to be admitted, she was asked to step out of the camper. She gave her ticket to the man and woman greeters. He was almost naked, wearing shorts and bunny ears. She wore a bikini and a large hat. They each gave her a hug. Then he asked, “Is this your first time here?” She admitted it was, and the woman gave Cybill a smack on the butt with a ping pong paddle, while the man said, “Welcome, Virgin.”
After her welcome, she found a campsite and parked. It was the last time she would move the camper for five days, for driving was not allowed at Burning Man; you went everywhere by bike. After a long travel day, Cybill ate a peanut butter sandwich and crashed.
The First Day
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 she 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 Port-o-Potties, 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.
A lot of the women went topless, and Cybill could vicariously enjoy being an exhibitionist.
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, not with her unevenly-sized breasts. 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.
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 on 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.
Well Hello, Troy!
And then, 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.
She decided that Carmella would be her fake Burning Man name.
“Yeah. It’s hot. I just made it.”
“Well . . . sure,” Cybill said. “Thank you.”
“What a cute camper,” he said.
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 partner 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, for people who came to Burning Man often went by an alternate 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 man couldn’t come because of his gig. It seemed Carmella didn’t have a man. “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.” She poured some orange juice into a coffee mug. The mug bore an image of Hillary Clinton.
“So you were for Clinton?” asked Troy.
“Well of course.” Several years earlier, on her big back porch, Cybill had held a Banjo Bash which had raised $2,152 dollars for the Clinton campaign. Now she told Troy, “Burning Man isn’t exactly Trump country.”
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.
Taking in the Sight
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 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.
It was like a refugee camp, with miles of tents and vehicles parked in the sand.
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. Was this what it was like when the ancient Jews had been forced to leave Egypt? Not an animal, not a leaf: 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” tricked out to look 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.
Going to Her Head
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 had just let a total stranger pleasure her head!
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 to the front. . . “Hey!” she told him and sat up. “That’s not my head.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to stop completely,” said Cybill, surprising herself. She flopped down again. He wasn’t an attractive man, yet she craved more of his hands on her head. He massaged her scalp for another few minutes. Then he murmured, “You’re a very desirable woman, do you know that?”
What could you say to this question? She didn’t find him appealing, but she loved his fingers on her scalp. Soon, as before, he was extending the massage onto her neck and back, and, once again, he tried to come around and touch her breasts. “No, please,” said Cybill, standing up. “I have to go now.” She grabbed her backpack. “But thank you. That was great.”
Cybill was glad to see another woman waiting for a head massage. Maybe he’d get to cup a breast after all. She got back on her bike, convinced she’d entered an alternate reality. She had just let a total stranger pleasure her head! And this morning in her camper she had given another stranger a full frontal hug. What was making her do these things?
Just because she could. Just because she was anonymous. Just because no one would ever find out.
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 ceramic mug to be on the shorter line, for Burning Man was environmentally responsible. After she’d drunk a cappuccino from her Hillary mug, she wandered around. She listened to a jazz trio. She filled out a Burning Man census form. She looked at her watch. Jesse was now an hour late.
“Mom? What are you doing here?”
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 20 years, but she remembered them fondly. These days, she knew, they were sometimes used therapeutically. She said, “This may seem a little weird—but do you have any more of those mushrooms for me?”
What Really Happens at Burning Man?
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 avocadoes 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 avocadoes, 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 and sitting on 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, on a large wooden stage. 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.
“You shouldn’t come to Burning Man if you have a partner,” he said. “It isn’t right.”
Oh, Kirby was a charmer, and he knew it! I could fall in love with him, Cybill thought, absurdly. Soon, they left the dance floor and began 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 ring on her hand. “What’s this?” he asked. “Are you married?”
“I live with someone.”
“So where is he?”
“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 have a partner. 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 was single, you and I couldn’t get involved. I live in New York, after all.”
“Yeah, you’re right. 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. Are you on drugs?”
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 was camped.
The Burning Man Boyfriend
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.
I misled you about something, and I have to set the record straight.
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 Trump?”
“Probably somebody, sure.”
“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? They strolled around the playa together, investigating giant artworks. They returned to the camper for a snack and to make love again. They ate Jesse’s mushrooms and giggled through the realization that they were all just chemicals anyway. Together, they watched the Temple burn, signifying the temporality of all man-made things, and afterwards, they danced wildly beneath exploding fireworks. They even exchanged email addresses.
The Shocking “After Burn”
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 Clinton, when I really voted for Trump. 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 darling Quinn, worse than letting some stranger caress her head intimately, 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, a Trumpster, into her body.
But, no, Cybill thought. She hadn’t done that. Carmella had.
Catherine Hiller is the author of six novels, including the just-completed Cybill Unbound, from which “Cybill at Burning Man” is excerpted. She is also the author of Just Say Yes: A Marijuana Memoir.