Our finger glides along the screen, pulling images upward and into view. The Millers and their kids laugh in organic bliss beside a pool.
We can’t believe it’s already summer vacation. We send a heart to the status.
Tyler in Charleston pulls a delicious pie fresh from the oven.
Save a slice for me!
We absently glide and thumb through the pages. The glow from the phone tickles our cheeks with an undulating cerulean light.
Glide and thumb.
Glide and thumb.
Glide then halt.
A mysterious, disembodied sun-kissed hand is frozen in a still-frame, slipping a bouquet of Indian paintbrushes, honeysuckle, and sunflowers into a matte handmade vase. The photographer, visible only in our mind’s eye, emerges in our imagination as someone beautiful and worldly with sensitive, thoughtful eyes. Their washed-out photo frames a thin, delicate hand. A presumably female body and face are kept off-lens. The background is a blurred sea of whites and pale caramels that amplify the woman’s latte skin and cerise nails of her floating fingers. The flowers and painted hands balance on a table covered not with some elaborate cloth, but something jade in color and oily. Our heart races as we spread our fingertips apart, zooming closer to spy a jigsaw of hundreds of prickly pears and golden barrel cacti. The caption reads simply: 🌵
We are devoted followers of @oliviamarie and her Cactus House after that.
We press the plastic button, and the machine groans out a dribble of acrid dark coffee. We open the hatch and throw away the used plastic tub, then slosh the blackened water into a chipped Santa mug, residue from last year’s office holiday party. Translucent skim milk pours into a candy cane-striped plastic bowl filled with crispy sugary cereal. We dutifully grimace between gulps from unseasonable tableware and bipolar blasts of charcoal and sugar. Ho ho ho.
Groggily we pause from our breakfast, scanning through the news, our e-mail, and the people we follow. The bombing of a shopping mall by a white supremacist. Dick Randall of Estate Farm wants us to pay our car insurance. Our WebFlix subscription needs to be put on our new debit card for auto-pay this month.
Then mid-gulp from our java, we spot @oliviamarie lounging. There she is: face obscured by a large hat, at a bistro table on a whitewashed patio flanked by rectilinear gold and orange chairs. Papaya, bananas, and granola tossed next to a porcelain cup filled to the rim with an amber-tinged liquid. Her back is turned, leaving us a silhouette against a rising sun beside what seems to be an adobe villa. In the distance, a forest of cacti dots the view of violet mountains beyond. Our eyes flick as the light bounces from the glowing screen.
“Good morning #adobelife,” the caption reads.
Other days we catch her on our smoke breaks. She is laughing, arms up with the rest of her face hidden under the shadow of a cowboy hat. A glow cast by a roaring chiminea. Sometimes she is clasping a glazed mug filled with coffee. Beyond, a bespoke lapis-lazuli necklace is dangling against an intricate hand-woven patterned top. #Winning
Other times we visit @oliviamarie as we head to bed. Our head is propped against a scratchy polyblend pillow as we squint through our thick glasses. She is blurred out, just beginning her evening twirling under twinkle lights at some trendy cafe. While typically she is solo on nights like this, when she does appear with friends, they are chiseled and magazine-worthy or have that casual ambiguous ethnic exoticism found often among the globe-trotting wealthy. Always with her face obscured under a hat, behind a scarf, by a creative blur.
Despite her facial anonymity, we slowly piece together an image of @oliviamarie. She seems to be an interior designer for hotels in the Mediterranean. No, a foreign correspondent for a fashion magazine. Her tastes are expensive, but her income stream is enigmatic. Perhaps she is an heiress. It is doubtful she has a well-paid but slogging side hustle, or she wouldn’t look so consistently put-together. Maybe she survives entirely off of retweets and likes.
Eventually, under the consistent pressure of snap and gram, we replace our scratched dishware with minimalist earthenware in bone whites, pearly grays, and slates. We begin to prepare our coffee in an elegant Japanese filter that drips the caramel-colored stuff into a clear glass mug with a gold handle. We sip it black, accompanied by homemade tahini granola.
@oliviamarie never tags a location, yet we try to pinpoint where she lives anyway. Equally puzzling are her companions, all unattributed fashionistas, brawny mannequins, and brooding artsy sidekicks. And then there is @oliviamarie herself, always with a face turned away. The only clue is the often-photographed setting, presumably her home, a white-washed adobe surrounded by cacti. New Mexico? Palm Springs? Sedona? Marrakech? After we learn in National Geologic that even Hawai’i has arid deserts, we know the search is hopeless.
Those endless sunny images. The broad-brimmed hats. Yellow and orange sand against blue hills. Endless vistas. The hunt itself is a fantasy, unlike our own reality of gray north wind and icy winters punctuated by traffic and shopping mall concrete. We long for the warm desert and its endless foreverscape.
When our job offers a transfer to Reno, we jump at the opportunity. It may not be Sedona or Marrakech, but we make do. We find an old ranch-style cottage half-heartedly refurbished in a faux-western style by some overzealous retiree. The walls are brick, not stucco, but someone years past installed peachy Saltillo tiles and decorative wooden beams in the living room. Our bare feet stick to a soiled vinyl floor in the kitchen, and in the bedroom a brownish carpet is worn with the indentations where furniture once was. With its ranch style and low-pitched roof, the house could almost be anywhere- suburban Atlanta or Ottawa. Maybe Phoenix. An absolutely ordinary house that only just happened to have landed in the desert.
The lackluster interior is redeemed by the back patio, which manages to avoid the otherwise constant views of power lines and vacant strip malls and instead trains its focus upon the expanse of the desert. At night, we connect the stippled dots of the popcorn ceilings, forming elaborate night sky constellations in our mind. Under this sky punctuated by cigarette-stained ceiling fans, we have dreams of what could be.
The next morning, we woke up on our mattress tossed onto the floor. Disoriented, we are not sure where we are or what to make of this neglected domicile. Can we make it the house of our dreams? Silhouettes of cardboard boxes look like canyons against vacant shadowy rooms. Our hands graze the walls, tanned with stale pot smoke, while our bare feet rub blackened grout. We look out at the patio to a well-worn fire pit. Rather than be overwhelmed by moving, by the sad scene of transition, we decide to respond by unpacking. We pull out our handmade cups and begin to polish the tile floor.
“What would @oliviamarie think of the place?” It is the end of the day. Our back is tired from unpacking and we are full from take-away pizza. Still, we leave time for our nightly visit and use it to scan her past posts for inspiration. Cactus. Blue skies color-blocked against stucco. Authenticity. Honesty.
We purchase a terra-cotta chiminea and reed wind chimes for the porch and plant pillowy mimosa trees. We curate saguaro cacti to blend with the cholla and prickly pear native to the nearby hills. We clean the crusty grout off the neglected terracotta floor and repaint the walls a crisp linen white. We desperately try to make it a home.
While Reno is not Tokyo or Beirut, we eventually become entertained by a rotating cadre of WeBnBers, well-proportioned casino employees, and the occasional free spirit fresh from Burning Man. We host the travelers in the spare room and use the extra cash to cover the brick with a thick white stucco. We grab a long rustic dining table, handmade and well-worn, from an estate sale. After hours of ViewTube and weekend trips to the hardware store, we install our own brilliant blue backsplash in the kitchen.
On crisp desert evenings and warm Saturday mornings, we all lay out at the table on the veranda. Friends from the hotels often drop by with elaborate avocado toasts and shrimp cocktails left over from room service. We spend these times under a spell of mimosas and whiskey, swapping stories of the odd gambles people take in life.
“I took that casino job, left San Salvador, and married Susan. I’ve never looked back.” the hotelier said wistfully, blowing billowy smoke rings from a cigarette.
“I decided to take MDMA at my retirement party from the bank,” an elderly Black Rock City denizen laughed between gulps of bourbon.
“I moved here,” we said quietly to ourselves.
We still toil at the office instead of prancing down a runway. While we may have a French press, we still drink the standard national branded coffee we love. Our sweatpants are not replaced by silky kimonos. The tract home in Reno is renovated, but is not a romantic palace in Jaisalmer. We love the house, despite its imperfections. We are meeting our mortgage most of the time. And every once in a while, on days the orange sun sets just right against the turquoise hills or our hands softly graze the white plaster we painstakingly added to the brick, we have a flash of pure bliss. In those moments, we forget we are here and briefly are instead in some far-off place with @oliviamarie.
One day, Alejandro, a particularly lovely WeBnBer, sits beside our weathered chiminea. He lounges, sunbathing on the back patio, looking out onto the firepit nestled within the field of cacti and mimosa trees as we do some gardening. By now our skin is sun-kissed, with the beginnings of delicate crow’s feet. The memories of exchanging our waterproof winter coats for airy linen have become fuzzy and lost to time and the beginnings of grays. Alejandro lifts himself from a daybed to hand us a bouquet of wildflowers as a thank-you for the stay. Then he stands flipping through his phone as we glide toward a matte earthen vase to arrange the flowers. Suddenly, he stops and his eyes lift to meet our own.
“Is this you?”
He has stumbled upon @oliviamarie. We smile, flattered and ready to correct his error until we are struck with sudden confusion.
There is that wind chime, that long wooden table, those flowering trees that have now grown in. A figure stands with her back turned, the linen of her clothes billowing as the sunset behind her. We know this scene. This is our house. This the Cactus House.
We feel woozy and become flushed. We manage to softly place the bouquet of yarrow flower, honeysuckle, and sunflowers into the vase. The pottery wobbles ever so slightly as we lay it among the hundreds of miniature prickly pears and golden barrel cacti we gleaned from the garden and that now cover the furniture like a tablecloth. Alejandro snaps a photo.
This is no Cactus House! It can’t be. The Cactus House—like the prickly spines dotting the xerophyte’s flesh—prefers to be seen rather than touched. Viewed only from a distance, it is a phantasm of form and shape. Touch it or live it, though, and the Cactus House has a painful, imperfect spiny realism complete with mortgages and failed home projects despite captured moments of sublime beauty. We know now: the house is elusive and two-dimensional.
@oliviamarie’s Cactus House—no, our Cactus House—is as alluring as it is constrained. We see it now as one snippet of something larger cropped by a frame, obscured by acute angles, and strategic lighting. It is flattened by the sleek confines of our devices. We look at it through the lens of a camera, in the gloss of the magazine, or on film. Can we live totally within its frame, or is it a fleeting fantasy? Is it an uploaded moment – eternal, fixed, and unreal?
Adam Chamy is a writer, visual artist, and architectural designer living and dreaming in Washington, DC. “Cactus House” is a part of The Etcetera Houses, a fabulist story collection reflecting on the idea of home through mythical memos collected by misfit Census workers. His diverse creative practice bridges the mystical to the narrative; employing a wide artistic range of scales from surreal illustrated short stories to expressionistic mixed media to layered adaptive reuse architecture and urban design. His artwork has exhibited at the United Nations, Washington National Airport, and various galleries in the District of Columbia and recent design work has garnered awards for the creative adaptive reuse of a historically landmarked mental health asylum into affordable family housing.
You can follow him @adamchamy on Instagram.