All my life I’ve been surrounded by paintings of cowboys. Longer still, I’ve been surrounded by people who wanted to be cowboys. Sometimes I count the paintings, the cowboys. There’s my grandparents’ acrylic that hung above their couch of a man, close to death slouched on his horse, reaching towards the mirage of water in the horizon. There’s the man with broad hat and bolo tie on the wall in the doctor’s office. There’s the watercolor in my grade school of three blonde cowboys yodeling at the stars, which roped me always to my father’s unending record collection of western harmonies; each crooning more desperately about the freedom in the expanse of the range against the biting comfort of loving women from many miles away with no intention of ever having to grow old together in the true grit of real adversity.
These men, in the paintings, in the songs, in my neighborhoods, they came from the Midwest, running from tuberculosis and the slow rot of farm towns and heaviness of families, and they turned west. They turned west, when the land was cheap and it felt like they could reinvent their generation from the war and the weight of the July pressing down with questions about houses and veteran’s services and college and children. So they moved west to fish and teach and sell and buy cowboy boots in August. The paintings were waiting.
I have kissed men who wanted to be cowboys, like the paintings. One was paid, likely in beer and promises, to pretend to part of Doc Holliday’s gang. He used to tell me he thought we might make it if I would change to be a cowboy too, like him. He used to wear his boots, stiff and unblemished to country club dinners. He painted for me sometimes, painted on me sometimes.
I don’t think about that man if I can help it. This summer I think about new paintings. I try painting again. The man on the wall with the bolo tie in the canyon looked down at me or his boots in the doctor’s office this summer when they cut the patches out of my body, all burned by sun. I’m sure this man smelled like the iron in the rocks in that canyon. My mouth tasted like iron.
I have also loved a man who had the desert all over his walls, broad brimmed hats littered his home, and he liked to call me baby and spin me too quickly when he drank. We’d look at pictures of ranches, framed with the wood from the barns, already destroyed, and talk about running away. We’d kiss and I’d taste iron. He smelled like rain and had moved east from the city, like the painters.
I was born in a room in a hospital with a cowboy hanging on the wall in the hallway and I went home to a rocking horse. It was my cousins and my other cousin’s before that. My mother gave me her cowboy boots from when she was 17 and blonde, and they fit me better than any other shoes I own. I am not a cowboy. I was almost a painter, but I am not a cowboy. Horses terrify me—I see them and I hear my parents telling me to hold my palm out, stretched flatter still, to feed the horse that lived a block away, because otherwise the long sharp yellow teeth will scrape the muscles of my fingers off clear to the bone, just like the door did to my cousin, just like I do to the chicken wings I eat when I watch football with men who want to be cowboys. I was almost a painter.
When friends visit, they want to meet the cowboys from the paintings. I take them to shops with overpriced boots and serapes and salsas and bronze horse statues, I take them from hotels, full of cactus and gravel and weeping Navajo statues, and they are tickled with the exotic differences, and surmise that it’s ok that my desert is so backwards and hateful like they’ve heard, because how could anyone see like them when there’s so much cowboy art to distract. They see the cowboys in the paintings, so white and disheveled, their flannel clinging to their muscles, and think about who has hurt them at home and dream if only their lovers could be a little more like that oil-based ranch hand. They paint these new lives in the desert from their seats on eastbound planes.
Everyone in my family has tried to paint. Everyone in my family but my sister who loves horses also has had patches cut out from the sun and burns. They all wanted to be brown as berries, so they poured oil on their skin and ran to the river to bake in their boots and their hats and little else. Now, we watch as men and women lose patches each year to the watchful eye of the cowboy who smells like rain and iron in the painting in the doctor’s office.
I have known and loved women who are cowboys. They each have been strong and tan and sinewy and full of the chaos that falls down from the stars in Montana and Tennessee and Kansas. One just pushed life from her body and named him Danger. Another tries to keep me safe from giving my spark to men who run away into the security of the night. These women are unbreakable. They are not afraid of horses or night or being alone. They belong in paintings. They are brave and strong and my best friends or my seatmates on busses or strangers swearing into their phones and kicking the ice off of Spokane curbs or the shit off of rodeo grandstands.
I think about the painters and I wonder who was on their walls, in their beds. I wonder who they thought of as they cut themselves out of the east. Were they born to the scenes of deer and waterfalls? Of still-life of fruit? Of Kandinsky or Rivera? They are also patches, cut out and put up on walls. I am not a cowboy, so I do not think about their cowboys they painted. I think about the taste of iron and the smell of honey in rain. I do not worry about the cattle or the loneliness or the heat. I know some of these things, for it is my desert too, but I have no cowboys on my walls and I am not a painter.