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I like the way this piece is a little movie of my first years in Arizona, when I'm trying to be open and really can't be, although everything that happens in the life I start with Richard in 2006 opens with the proposition, Well we’re together . . . now what?
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Afternoons I walk to the mailbox. The air is burning, and the blond woman in the bikini floats in the pool. I carry an umbrella and slip into shade under palm trees. Today, an article in the NY Times names Phoenix the first domed city—a place that doesn’t belong in a desert and will prove untenable as temperatures climb. They already soar past 120 in summer. This week it’s been 110 every day. I have come here to live with Richard. He says we’ll have 100 days above 100. He’s English and likes heat.
His body has adjusted and doesn’t sweat. With 8% humidity, moisture escapes from your pores as you walk. Saturday morning, we hike a trail called Dreamy Draw. It’s 95 when we arrive: windless, hazy, and dry. The trail’s name derives from the mercury mined there in the 19th Century, “dreamy” referring to the effects of mercury poisoning—the madness of hatters who used mercury to mold felt.
We move through scrubby pines until emerging onto a scene of blooming cacti, thorny ocotillo plants with licks of flame shooting from their tips, slithering lizards, and brown rabbits whose long ears have adapted to circulate blood and keep them cool. The desert comes to life after a period of coolness and rain, but the rain didn’t happen this year. As we hike, dust gives way to red soil, and everywhere are rocks burnished black with desert varnish: sun-baked bacteria, the oldest living things containing DNA.
We sit for a while at the top of a hill, in a bit of shade under a palo verde tree. Richard talks about the scientific method. The way the recording of facts that can be tested and measured replaced “knowing” through the body. I say numbers can’t convey this heat. You have to feel it in the body. Every year hundreds of Mexicans cross the border into the desert and on the way north become dehydrated, fall unconscious, and die.
Later, as the sky darkens, we sit beside the pool at the complex where we live. Birds tweet and ducks wander up from a nearby park. Compared to New York, Scottsdale is bucolic. Today, I don’t miss the city’s anxious energy. I don’t miss my mother, who has been disabled by a stroke. When I call her, I hear the dreamy draw in her voice. The phone has pulled her back from somewhere else.
She asks if I talk to neighbors, if I’ve made friends, if I’m lonely—as if I am a bride without work come to live in her husband's world. I suppose I am. She must have felt that way when we moved from Manhattan to Long Beach in the 1950s and she left the streets that had given her a reason to get out of bed. So far in Arizona, I talk to no one and don’t seem to care. When Richard leaves for work, I stay in our little house and write. When I think about New York, I see my mother’s body.
No one walks the streets here. Today the temperature is 103. By the weekend it will be 107. This morning at 7:30, I walked under trees and beside hedges. By 8:00, the shadows had curled up, and the sun was riding high.
For several weeks the golf course I walk around has been pocked with holes dug by desert squirrels, a breed of light brown rodents whose hairless tails end with neat little tassels. The newborn babies were everywhere, dodging in and out of nests or standing frozen in place as you passed. Many of their tiny corpses now lay along the path. Did they cook in their holes? Ants crawl around them, and I worry I’ll step on one before it dries to a crisp.
People are losing their homes here to foreclosures at the fastest rate in the country, especially those on the outskirts of the sprawl that is Phoenix/Scottsdale/Tempe. It’s too expensive for people to drive back and forth to downtown in trucks and SUVs. Gas prices are now $4.15 a gallon. I receive a book in the mail by Naomi Klein with the great title Shock Capitalism, a 50-year history of globalism and its strategies. The title refers to the capitalization of events such as 9/11—the way it’s been converted into a boon for oil producers and weapons manufacturers, among others.
The thing to be said for extreme heat is it doesn’t need to know you to erase you. Also, your hair dries the minute you step outside. At night we watch lightning fracture the sky. The darkness shudders like a body waking from a spell. When you look back at attraction, you see the shape of what was missing somewhere else.
The people here wear rugged boots, as if at any moment they’ll spring from the town square and hike up six thousand feet to one of the surrounding, snow-capped peaks. Flagstaff used to be a railroad town. Northern Arizona University is here, and wherever you have mountains and outdoorsy, eco-conscious students, there’s a coffee shop like Macy’s: Grateful Dead t-shirts, white-people dreads, mismatched tables, newspapers left about. The boys have facial hair. Everyone has tattoos. Faintly, in the background, hip-hop plays on a radio. I see no Black or Asian people in Flagstaff. Perhaps they’re in Phoenix or Tucson. The coffee is strong. The pastries are made with granola. Nothing here has changed in 50 years, except people sit with laptops. You order from the counter and pick up your own water and silverware. A young woman with a runway slouch takes your dirty plates. You could spend the rest of your life here and no one would care. I love the scruff. I love imagining what strangers look like under their clothes.
This morning Richard and I drove to Sunset Crater and walked along the lava flow. The crater erupted a thousand years ago, spitting molten rock across a 50-mile range. Twisted trees, trying to anchor themselves on slopes of ash, look like people caught in a sudden cataclysm. We walk along trails cut though Beckett landscapes. I remember dreams where I search fruitlessly for precious things I’ve lost. I’m happy with my beautiful, odd man. On the way here, he said that his ex-wife was a better driver than me, and I punched his arm.
Richard says I flirt with everyone, even dogs. At a pueblo site, a blowhole shoots cold air up from the earth’s crust, and I stand over it, my skirt billowing high. The sky is turquoise. The walls are lipstick red.
Last winter, we hiked in the Superstition Mountains, walking past black rocks with prehistoric shapes. Richard said the mountain seemed at rest but really it was moving slowly. We didn’t know how to think about movements so small or time on such a large scale. Around us were boulders that had broken loose from the tallest peaks 10,000 years before. We climbed like goats in black leather coats. How long after our human ancestors stood upright did sex become a private activity? When the lovers went off alone, did privacy gain an erotic component?
Where we live in Arizona, the coyotes have drunken parties at night, celebrating a kill—someone’s small dog or a cat they’ve captured. The animals are yellow with burning eyes. In some traditions, the coyote is a wolf, howling to feel air across its throat. In other traditions, the coyote is a lazy schemer whose plans don’t work out.
At the start of a hike, I stand on the road while Richard studies maps. He explains where we’re going, but I don’t care. I know the walk will be difficult and hot and I won’t exactly enjoy it. I just want to do it, and usually I see lizards and birds. The sky stares down like the eye of a killer. Shade is beautiful where you can find it, cutting a knife edge against glaring light. One day, we arrive at the top of a hill, and Richard sees a higher point marked by black, jutting rocks. As we walk up, we find the old wall of a fortified area. A small sign indicates an archaeological site, but the sign isn’t marked to attract visitors. Everywhere around us are petroglyphs—designs scraped out on black desert varnish by people who lived in the region 900 years ago. I copy a stick design into my notebook. It looks like a Giacometti figure. What does a Giacometti figure look like? Maybe a twig remnant of our past we carry around?
Last spring, we visited a pile of stones on an empty, wind-swept plain. The clouds were low and dark, and it started to rain. The wind was so extravagant; we were nearly thrown over a wall. We were running and laughing. You have to be impressed with nature like that. In the car Richard said, “You could get us killed.”
It’s free night at the Phoenix Art Museum, and two of Richard’s students are on a panel about Chicano art. We live in a world of Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans, and artists here work against a backdrop of discrimination. Although the sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, has become famous nationally for his anti-Latino policies, over 65% of the electorate have voted him into office for nearly 20 years. In 2005, the Arizona legislature passed a law making it a felony punishable with two years in jail to help an undocumented person across the border. Arpaio has instructed his deputies and members of a civilian posse to arrest and jail undocumented people rather than remand them to federal authorities whom, he claims, would only give them “a free ride back to Mexico.” In March, 2009, the US Department of Justice notified Arpaio it was looking into his enforcement practices and possible “unfair targeting of Hispanics and Spanish-speaking people.” He scoffs at the charges.
The curator of the Chicano show is an English woman with a Scottish accent. The art she’s gathered isn’t massed in a single gallery. Rather, it’s layered throughout the museum—the statement being one of inclusion, rather than suggesting a keyhole into particular themes or styles. The show is saying: yes, Chicano artists are a category, and no, Chicano art is not definable. The work of a woman on the panel chronicles her personal experiences—although, she says, they are shaped by the way, as a brown-skinned person, she is “othered” in the city where she was born. Another artist aligns his work with the Chicano Art movement of the 1960s, saying that art issuing from this heritage must be political. The younger artists aren’t interested in educating or uplifting anyone. They just want to be artists.
Afterward, in the courtyard, Richard speaks with the curator of the show. She’s curator as well of contemporary art at the museum. She’s fired up about local artists, but what does Chicano culture mean to her? Is she attracted to its passionate depictions? It’s rough, street smart edge? Richard asks why she is here, meaning in Phoenix, thinking she might say, For the border art. She leans in, smiling. “For the job, of course.”
We arrive at sunset. Flamingo colored clouds pose in a turquoise sky, and the Canyon is a riot of gold and red bands. Eight thousand feet above sea level, the air is cool, although the rocks and side canyons are on fire. It’s quiet. People cluster on ledges, looking below toward the silver ribbon of the Colorado River. The Canyon—10 miles across and 300 miles long—was formed six million years ago. According to one theory, two rivers were flowing away from each other while the land rose up. Over the centuries, wind has torqued buttes into giant Lipchitz sculptures.
The next morning we wake up to a fuzzy aura around the window in our hotel room. It’s nearing six, and we rush to Yavapai Point, where, from a spit of rock, we see the Canyon bathed in blue light. After a while, a streak of gold stabs a piece of cliff side, and then more chunks of rock are lit like a theater coming to life. In the course of an hour all the blues grow more intense against reds and golds. The topmost peaks look like pyramids floating in space and like Mayan temples. Afterward, on a sign, we see that the peaks are actually named after the pyramids.
The Canyon is marked, too, by the history of its development: Teddy Roosevelt, the Harvey Girls, the Acheson, Topeka, and Sante Fe. We visit the El Tovar Hotel, built in the style of a camp lodge during the early days when the site was a lawless, Deadwood-type trading post, growing in the shadow of the railway line. People lived in mud. Mounds of garbage were burned when they rose too high.
Richard buys me a poster of the Canyon and a silver ring with a green stone. On a bench, we read a story by Lydia Davis called “Happy Memories,” in which the narrator considers what makes a happy memory and whether she will have stored enough to console her in old age. “You have to make sure, somehow, that nothing spoils the thing while it is happening,” she concludes, “and then that no later experience erases it. . . . I can see that the things I do with another person, and with a feeling of warmth toward that person, and with a person who will want to have me in his or her happy memory may make a good happy memory, while the things I do alone and especially with a feeling of ambition, or pride, or power, even if they are good in themselves, will not make a good happy memory.”
I have to tell you, this story has stayed with me since I read it. I think about it all the time. I remember climbing Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire with Gardner and my dog Sasha. It was more than 30 years ago. The climb was harder than I’d imagined it would be. At the icy top, Sasha had slipped and nearly fallen to his death, but Gardner had snatched him up, and because the dog lived, the memory remains a happy one.
Chekhov play, 2009
I am turning into the Chekhov play where the women stand at the window of their provincial outpost and pine for Moscow. Moscow, Moscow, Moscow is all you hear in The Three Sisters. In a city like Moscow, the streets are your arteries and veins.
Before I moved to Arizona, Richard said: “You’ll miss your life, your friends,” I said: “I can work anywhere.” When has anything you thought about the future turned out right?
We visit Kierland Common, an outdoor shopping mall designed to look like a village with a square and a fountain in the center. The stores are the usual suspects: Barnes & Noble, Banana Republic, Eileen Fisher. Scattered around are a few expensive restaurants and a place where you can get a sandwich and coffee. Richard says, “It’s based on Main Street, Disney, rather than an actual town square. It’s an evocation of village centers that in reality have been abandoned.” What a smarty-pants boyfriend I have. He’s wearing a carrot colored t-shirt, and his silvery hair spikes up. These streets are a break from the Valley’s dominant suburban sprawl, punctuated by strip malls and condos, but they’re depressing.
Richard asks why I’m sighing, and I don’t know I am. I say this place, this place where we live is an indistinct fuzzball and in it I am a fuzzball, too. We start to fight about cities. We’re not fighting about cities. We’re thinking why did I abandon whatever the hell I had for this piece of crazy? I’m also thinking: I would be just as lost in New York without my love.
But my love is pissing me off. Why is he protecting Arizona? I say: “What’s Arizona to you, huh? Every day when you write, you don’t situate yourself here. You’re in England, down some cobbled street or on a windy moor. Or you’re in New York at a jazz club. You have hardly any friends here! So what’s this defense of Arizona?” He says, “There’s something to what you say, but I feel that badmouthing Arizona is snobbish and an easy target for outsiders, and I hate snobbery.” I say, “Well, I’m not a snob, and I want to talk about how I feel without you thinking I’m attacking people.” And he shoots me a grumpy smile, and I see his even row of top teeth. It hurts him if I’m unhappy here. How can I forget that it hurts him? He says: “What the hell am I defending?” And it hits us both we’re defending ourselves against being swallowed up in the other, and I think I could talk to this man for the rest of my life. I mean, I’m sixty-two. How much longer do I have?