If Monet Had Painted the Western United States
by Nikoletta Gjoni
We pulled into a gas station—the first one we’d seen in at least an hour—and stepped out to stretch our legs. The sun had been beaming down all afternoon, sitting on the horizon like low hanging fruit. It made everything around us look like a hazy mirage, until suddenly darkness began to creep up from the fold between earth and sky.
Even though the air was warm I rolled my sleeves down, feeling a shiver climb up my spine. We were nearing the end of August but out here in the endless, cavernous space of South Dakota, the fall chill was around the corner. We stood around staring in awe, feeling the need to whisper, to not disrupt the intricate hush surrounding us. We admired how the sky had taken on an ombre coloring—mauve and Pacific Ocean blue at the horizon, and a velvety black above our heads.
I’m used to obstructed views in Maryland. Forest lined hills and highways that curve sideways, going uphill and downhill like the flow of cooling lava. Slow. Steady. Gray. I’m used to driving towards my house and seeing the glow of lights from the next town over, far off into the distance.
But South Dakota didn’t care to remind us where the next town over was, or that civilization was just around the next turn. There were no turns. There was no civilization. Like being on a ship and seeing only ocean and sky, the Great Plains yawned out on all four sides of us. Mustard yellow and mossy, the grass simply existed. Endlessly.
The next day we saw the earth change out of its clothes into something a little more vibrant; a little more show stopping. We drove through the Badlands in silent astonishment, feeling as if we were roaming Mars. Occasionally I felt like I was in a Looney Toons episode, half-expecting the roadrunner to dash across the road. Upon discovering there were no fences or restrictions, my brother and dad ran off the road towards the purple and pink striped mounds, their laughs echoing off the rock surfaces and flitting between the blades of grass.
I felt the heat down to my feet, the bottoms sweating and slipping in and out of my sandals. Unable to keep up, I resorted to sitting in the reeds, discovering they were less mossy and more hay-like. They scratched against my bare legs, making my whole body itch. Insects whirred and sang in rhythm. My black dress clung to my back. Even though the sky was gray the sun blazed high above us, allowing no midday reprieve from the heat.
I inhaled deeply before asking my mom for a picture; before I could be overrun by the wilderness of a place that was half-desert, half-field. I yelled at her to grab her phone, my voice echoing before dissipating. I’ve never felt smaller, I thought, and wondered if the need to feel lost was a modern day desire born out of over-stimulation; over-compensation. The smell of dry heat settled on my tongue like sand grains.
In the picture, I’m a black and cream dot against a world of gray, yellow, and variations of pink. I look at it now and remember the taste of Little House on the Prairie stories; of salt licked off my lips and the rivaling sweetness of melted chocolate disintegrating in the heat of a car whose windows we refuse to roll up; our heads hanging out, tongues lolling, we catch the world at a blur—a western Monet.
Nikoletta Gjoni is a fiction and creative nonfiction writer living outside of Washington, DC. She currently has a collection of linked short stories out on submission about people living in Communist Albania, spanning the 1970s through to the present day. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the Kindling Volume III anthology, Cleaver Magazine, Cotton Xenomorph, and Riggwelter Press, among others. Her first published story was nominated for the 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau prize. You can follow her on Twitter @NikiGjoni.