Today, I Wrote Nothing - Under The Tucson Sun
Under The Tucson Sun
They’re on both our flight to Phoenix, which leaves in the late afternoon on a Thursday, and on our return flight to Minneapolis, late on Sunday night. A mother and her teenage daughter—probably 16, 17 at the oldest; on the flight out, they sit in the row directly in front of us. From the middle seat, where my wife is, she notices that the daughter is watching episodes of “Bones” on her iPhone for almost the entirety of the flight. The mother sits in the middle seat, so from where I am sitting, on the aisle, I watch her watching numerous episodes—at least three, maybe four—of a show called “In Plain Sight.”
I’ve never heard of this show; it seems to be some kind of police procedural, with sallow, vapid looking male and female leads as partners that probably deal with a lot of sexual tension in each episode. It looks absolutely horrible—the kind of guilty pleasure that pulled in enough viewers to keep the series on for four years, but nobody would ever really admit to watching it.
This woman in the row ahead of us—she, however, is enthralled. So enthralled that she completely ignores the pilot’s instructions about not using electronic devices until the plane has reached a specific altitude.
So enthralled that she continued to watch while the flight staff went over the safety information before the plane even got off the ground.
I get it, if you’ve been on enough flights, you understand how the floatation device under your seat is going to work in the ‘unlikely’ event of a water landing, but still, you humor the flight staff while they pantomime this routine before take off.
She only pauses “In Plain Sight” to occasionally interject something to her daughter. She drinks water from a large plastic cup with a purple lid; her fingernails are painted black. Her fingers glide across the smooth glass of her iPhone screen as she hits ‘play’ and the show continues.
In the Phoenix airport, late Sunday evening, this mother and daughter sit across from us at the gate. The daughter sees us waiting, and gives a very small glimmer of recognition—the mother does not; she’s already watching more episodes of “In Plain Sight,” while the daughter sets up a laptop computer and an iPad, putting forth minor effort in some school work that is presumably due the following day.
They both sit the same way in the chairs at the gate—one leg pointed toward the ground, and the other crossed, and placed underneath; they both wear brightly colored ankle socks, and are both wearing Birkenstocks. We have a brief exchange—that kind of fleeting moment of camaraderie you sometimes have with a stranger—when we realize our flight is leaving 40 minutes later than it was supposed to.
The daughter loudly exclaims how, because of this delay, she will not be making it to her first hour class in the morning.
They do not sit in the row directly in front of us on the flight home—they are a few rows ahead. As my wife Wendy and I make our way to our seats, the daughter smiles at us. I have the aisle seat yet again, and midway through the flight, at one point, I can see the daughter’s hand, clutching her iPhone, dangling it slightly into the aisle of the plane.
She is still watching “Bones.”
My wife and I don’t do a lot of traveling—and when we do travel, rarely is it for what you could consider a ‘vacation.’
We went a decade without taking what you could call a vacation—traveling purely for leisure, and not to visit family in another state. In October of 2017, we took the Amtrak for over 30 hours to the Pacific Northwest. Roughly a year later, we decided to stay a little closer to the Midwest, and drove a few hours south to Baraboo, Wisconsin, and then to Madison.
I wrote, at length, about both experiences, and the idea I was able to use as a way to connect both pieces together is this: whether we realize it or not, we are running away from something.
Ahead of me a few rows, on the other side of the plane, in the aisle seat, there is a man—maybe in his 40s. He has a bland, middle-aged man haircut, wears a black, ‘North Face’ style jacket with red detailing, and ill-fitting blue jeans—the bottoms of which are frumpily crammed into the tops of what can only be described as ‘Uggs for men.’
Throughout a majority of the flight, this man has a laptop open on his tray table; at times, when I glance over, he’s scrolling through what looks to be a very long Word document. Other times, he struggles with the flight’s uncooperative wi-fi connection, attempting to watch, of all things, The Hangover—one of the movies that is available via Sun Country’s in-flight entertainment.
As our flight continues, despite the fact that I have absolutely no interest in watching, from two rows back, with no sound, an edited for content version of The Hangover, I find myself compelled to look away from the book that I am reading, and from over his shoulder, watch the movie—but mostly, watch this man’s behavior.
The stream of the movie is not very stable—I can tell this, even from where I’m sitting, as frames of it freeze for a few seconds before jumping back to life. And his frustration is palpable, as he tries to re-start his computer, or re-set his internet connection, over and over, in an effort to watch the movie without interruption.
There are moments where he becomes so frustrated that, upon regaining access to the main menu for movies available to stream on the flight, he selects a different movie; shortly before the pilot tells us we are getting ready to land, he tries watching the Sandra Bullock film Gravity.
And twice, he tries to watch the Christopher Nolan war film Dunkirk, but shuts it off almost immediately on both attempts.
The flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix is roughly three hours—you gain an hour on the way there, passing into Mountain Time, and it’s a long enough trip that the flight staff provide refreshments, awkwardly moving their hulking, rolling cases of single-serving snacks, and small cups of soda, throughout the narrow aisle.
The further into the flight, and the deeper into The Hangover this man gets, the more I notice him turning around, looking toward the back of the plane—presumably looking for when the refreshment car will be arriving—and then sighing exasperatedly, looking incredibly agitated while doing so—implying to no one in particular that he is tired of waiting.
Eventually, as the refreshment cart is rolled near his seat, I see him purchase a Fulton Lonely Blonde from the flight staff; what I don’t see is the two other cans of Lonely Blonde he’s purchased at some point. Maybe he even bought all three at the same time, and I just missed this part of the transaction.
However, I see all three cans as we are leaving the plane—each can has been crushed by hand; one left on the seat he’s just vacated, and the others crammed into the pocket of the seat back in front of him.
‘We are all running away from something.’
I wrote this down in my notebook while on an Amtrak from St. Paul to Seattle—and it’s a phrase that came into my mind after I saw one specific person; a young, rather intense looking woman, waiting to board the same train. A toddler strapped across her chest, she carried two canvas tote bags in either hand, with a large backpack weighing down her shoulders. Maybe I was reading too much into the fact that her train ticket stated, in huge letters, ‘one way,’ and the fact that she bore an incredibly serious face—but she looked like the kind of woman who was trying to leave something behind her.
It was in the Pacific Northwest, and in reflecting upon that time away, it became very obvious that I was trying to run away from my own debilitating mental health issues—the depression that followed me around everywhere, flaring up, but not to the point where it would immobilize me almost completely; no, that kind of depression would arrive later on.
This would cause what I could only refer to as ‘sad days.’
There is, of course, the anxiety that always kept me on edge—worried about things that hadn’t happened yet, and would more than likely not happen—but they could, and I needed to work myself up into a state where, at times, I was unable to function.
In the Minneapolis airport, at our gate, we sit near a very frail, tired looking woman, who is attempting to, and doing a poor job of, watching over three young boys, each of them carrying a crinkling plastic bag from one of the small convenience store-style markets within the airport.
I have a hard time figuring out this woman’s age. Maybe she just physically appears a lot older than she is—her hair is black, but graying, and it’s thinning on the top of her head.
Her clothing hangs frumpily off of her rail thin frame.
I cannot tell if the boys are related somehow—either brothers, or cousins. One is slightly older than the other two. All three of them wear athletic pants, they all insist on running everywhere, rather than walking, and none of them are listening to this woman when she meekly asks them to sit down. One of the boys is named Brooks, and she continually calls his name, attempting to get his attention, but it does not work.
The boys all press themselves up against the windows of the gate, pointing and shouting with a group of other young children, every time they see a plane taking off or landing.
I’ve completely forgotten what it must have been like to be a child—to be young, and vibrant, and full of enthusiasm. To never have the novelty wear off from seeing an airplane take off, or land, even when you’re in an airport and they are literally everywhere.
Maybe I was this energetic once in my life—in a part of it I cannot remember very clearly. I see these children, awkwardly running through the rows of seats at the gate, looking gangly in their athletic pants that are maybe a tad bit too short in the leg, and I think the same thing I think whenever I see a child: that these children didn’t ask to be born.
I think the same thing when I look at the relatively newborn child, directly across the aisle from me on our flight out, spending his time on the plane cradled in his mother’s arms. He is a literal wet noodle—large eyes that aren’t really focusing much on anything, a mess of unkempt, matted hair on his small head; he’s so young, and so small, that he can’t really hold his head up yet, or understand how to use his arms or hands.
I think the same thing during the last 20 minutes of the flight, as we slowly begin our descent into Phoenix, when the young child sitting behind us begins to have some kind of meltdown. He has, as kids go, been fine for a majority of the flight, but it becomes clear that he has a behavioral disorder, and grows more and more agitated. Wearing large headphones that light up, he begins hitting them with his hands, repeated and quickly, while his mother tries her best to calm him down.
Once the plane has landed, and we are taxiing to our gate, he reveals to his mother that he needs to use the bathroom—after the plane comes to a stop, she takes him by the hand and tries her best to push him through the aisle full of people, fumbling with all their personal belongings.
He makes it, I think, to the front of the plane1 to use the bathroom without having an accident, and the mother handles this all as gracefully as she can—this is, without a doubt, not the first time this, or something similar, has occurred.
But as graceful and patient as she is, I can tell that she is simply exhausted, and more than likely, will never cease to be exhausted—both physically, and mentally.
We are all running away from something.
At 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 29th, 2018, I watched a member of my family die—I heard her take her final, incredibly labored breaths, which are truthfully, sounds that I will never be able to un-hear.
Our companion rabbit Annabell passed away—a slow decline beginning in April, and lasting for roughly two full months—a rollercoaster of heartbreaking, frustrating, humbling moments where we, at times, were able to grasp onto false hope that, eventually, much like her health—but never her spirit—faded.
The house becomes silent.
My grief takes the form of an emptiness inside that I am still uncertain will ever be filled, and the words ‘Every love story is a ghost story,’ which are tattooed in large, black letters, onto my right forearm.
A majority of my anxiety while traveling stemmed from worry about Annabell2—we had a sitter staying in the house with her, and I would perpetually check in via text to make sure everything was going well, but in the Pacific Northwest, I found I was plagued, as I so often was, no matter where I was, no matter how far away we were or how long we were gone for, with worry over what is commonly called the ‘what ifs.’
But now the house was silent, and there was no rabbit for me to worry about being in the care of someone other than myself.
We cringed at the idea of calling it ‘guilt free travel’—an expression that someone, at some point, used when talking to me. But that’s what it was.
What I found is that a year after being in Seattle and Portland, and five months after Annabell passed away in my wife’s arms, when we wind up in southern Wisconsin, we are all still running away from something, and that we are not running fast enough.
On each flight, Wendy is nearly certain she will be the recipient of the window seat, and on both times, as we arrive at our row, the window seat has already been taken.
I presume that is has something to do with a lack of attention to detail when glancing at your boarding pass, and how it corresponds to the order of the seats within your designated row—but it, more than likely, is because the act of being in an airport, and boarding a plane, tends to bring out the worst in people.
On both of our flights, our seats are in ‘zone six,’ which my wife and I agree is airline code for ‘ALL OF THE OTHER POOR PEOPLE STANDING AROUND AT THIS GATE.’ Departing Minneapolis, by the time we file into the line, hobble through the vestibule taking us onto the plane, and make our way to our row of seating, my wife discovers an elderly woman has taken the window seat.
My wife looks dejected at this development. ‘I’m too polite to say anything,’ she mumbles to me, as we plop down into the other two seats of the row, awkwardly futzing with our seat belts, attempting to cram our backpacks3 underneath the seats.
Leaving Phoenix, the window seat is taken by a middle age woman—probably in her late 40s or early 50s. She has a look that gives off an air of wealth—a suburban housewife or a ‘wine mom,’ so we are both surprised she is slumming it in zone six, gazing out the window, sitting in the seat my wife so desperately craved. There was a willing suspension of disbelief that, on our flight out, the elderly woman simply made a mistake, and didn’t mean to sit in the window seat.
My wife does not have that same suspension of disbelief on our departing flight—this woman knew what she was doing when she got onto the plane and plopped down into row 20, seat F.
During this flight, the woman in the window seat spends a bulk of her time looking at the camera roll on her iPhone. It’s night, and save for the occasional reading light turned on overhead, the cabin is almost completely dark—the light from this woman’s phone screen casts a small glow across her face, as she makes a small motion with her thumb, flipping through image after image. A majority of the photos are of whom I can only assume are her children—teenagers, a daughter for sure, and maybe a son.
The image of young people, posed outside, is the background on the phone—icons for social media and weather applications cover the faces.
She’s not the only one using this time to aimlessly scroll through the photos stored on their phone—to my left, a row ahead, a middle age man is doing the very same thing. He drags his stubby thumb across the screen, flipping through images of himself, his family, what are presumably accidental captures of the home screen to his phone, among other things.
These individuals, going back through moments in time—moments that they were not entirely present for.
The plane slowly descends through the darkness. From the window, we can see the headlights moving up and down highways; the street lights illuminating neighborhoods.
For a number of years we called them our ‘Northfield friends.’
‘Friendship,’ as an idea, is difficult when you’re in your early 20s4—if you are right out of college, your instinct is to try your hardest to maintain relationships with the people you were close to while in school.
And sometimes that works, at least for a little while, but the further away from that time you get, the more of a challenge it is to maintain those friendships; at the same time, you are faced with the challenge of being a relatively young person attempting to meet new people.
Elizabeth was one of the first acquaintances I met, around two months after I moved from Iowa to Northfield, Minnesota, during the summer of 2006. We met through a youth-oriented theatre program sponsored by the community’s arts organization—she taught classes during the morning session of the three week program, and I would come in during the lunch hour to work as a ‘director’ with a group of kids (I was almost always saddled with the youngest) to help them put together a short play that would be performed at the end of the workshop.
Much later, Elizabeth told me that, the first time she met me, she thought I was gay—quickly adding she also thought the same thing about her husband the first time she met him, when they were in college together. Coincidentally, his name is also Kevin—and once Wendy and I started socializing with them, I began referring to him as ‘my friend who is also named Kevin.’
It took a while—almost two years, actually, for Wendy and I to realize that this was a relationship we should be cultivating. We’d run into them occasionally in town—at Target, or whatever, and we had invited them to one of the Halloween parties we used to try and organize when we were younger, but it was a lengthy conversation over drinks in the spring of 2008, two months before Elizabeth and Kevin got married, when we really solidified that, yes, these were new friends that we had successfully made.
The following year—the year Wendy and I got married—we helped them move from an apartment on the south end of town, to a duplex that was just around the corner from a house we had been renting. In turn, maybe a month or two later, we bought a house, and they were kind enough to help us move.
Eventually, we began scheduling almost monthly gatherings—dinners where one couple would cook for the other. The very first dinner was based around soup—the Three Sisters5 chowder, that my wife made for everyone after a day of helping them move into their duplex.
We began calling these gatherings, as well as Elizabeth and Kevin themselves, ‘souper friends,’ though we would, eventually, serve other meals that did not involve soup.
In 2012, they moved to St. Paul, and while it took more effort than it did before, when they were a two minute drive across our small town, we still would convene roughly every month, occasionally skipping one or two depending on how busy they may have been, or we were.
Both Elizabeth and Kevin have backgrounds in music—and, near the end of the summer of 2016, after having received a masters from the University of Minnesota, he was accepted into the doctoral program for choral conducting at the University of Arizona, in Tucson. Their house was sold, and their belongings were spread between their two vehicles and a giant, metal shipping container that was then trucked across the country to their new house in the Southwest.
Even before we said goodbye to them over dinner—mediocre Indian food, on the porch of the mediocre Indian restaurant in Northfield—the invitation for us to visit them in Arizona, at some point, had already been extended.
We leave behind what both Wendy and I had taken to calling a ‘frozen hellscape’ in Minnesota—a seemingly endless and unrelenting winter of blistering cold days and almost weekly snowstorms, dumping inch upon inch, foot upon foot, to the point where we had run out of places to put it all as we shoveled the driveway one more time.
Even before Elizabeth and Kevin and relocated to Arizona, when we were encouraged to come and visit, we were told the winter and early spring months were the best time—both as an oasis from the bleak landscape of a Midwest during this portion of the year, but also, because it was still temperate in the Southwest.
The drive from Phoenix to Tucson is long—an hour and a half down a stretch of desert highway referred to by the locals as ‘the 10.’ The sun was setting as our plane began its descent—pink and orange hues obscured by the haze of pollution that covers the atmosphere of the city, and by the time we get on the highway in our rental car, night had fallen, making for a long, dark drive down an unfamiliar road, done mostly in silence after I complain about how awful all the radio stations we manage to pick up are.
One thing that I know about myself is that I do my best—or something close to my best—when I am within a schedule and a routine. Even on my days off from work, I still need to stay busy, and remain focused—so this is why vacations can be difficult for me, because it doesn’t so much take me out of a ‘comfort zone,’ but it removes me from the regularity I try to live my life with.
The entire time we are away, I feel what I will later describe as ‘untethered,’ simply because I am still not entirely used to the idea that there is nothing for me to be concerned about back at home—no companion rabbit sitter to text every few hours just to ‘see how things are going.’
I should be present in the moment that I am in on our vacation, but instead, there is a small portion of me that is drifting back into the routine that I know, and remember, from the past, that I almost a year later, I am unable to completely shake.
I don’t sleep well the entire time we’re visiting our friends in Tucson—but, to be fair, I never sleep well, even in my own home, so this shouldn’t be surprising to me. I wake up the first night uncertain of where I am—my throat is dry and I am covered in sweat. It gets cold in the desert at night, and occasionally I can hear the furnace kick in, and the dull roar of heat blowing through the house.
I continually look at my phone, charging on the nightstand next to me, to see what time it is—the clock tells me one thing, but my body is conditioned to telling me something else.
Elizabeth has spent her entire professional career as a teacher—putting in a number of years at a private/Catholic high school when they still lived in Northfield, then to what was a private school for the Twin Cities elite after moving to St. Paul. We’re told that Arizona notoriously undervalues, and therefore underpays, its teachers—so the school she teaches at in Tucson (religiously affiliated) as well as the kids she works with, are burning her out on the profession completely.
Friday is still a school day, so while Elizabeth is at work, my friend who is also named Kevin shows us around Tucson.
I learn very quickly on our drive all over town that Tucson is a vast labyrinth of urban sprawl—there’s a downtown, or at least an ‘older’ part of town, sure, somewhere in all of this, but for the most part, we continue to drive down streets that are populated by neighborhoods, strip malls, big box stores, or chain restaurants.
It takes roughly a half hour to get from one thing to another in Tucson.
It’s overcast and cooler out on Friday morning—Kevin apologizes for the weather, telling us it was much warmer the day prior. We spend a majority of the morning on a tour of the Tohono Chul Gardens—walking the winding, seemingly endless paths filled with myriad desert plant life. An eccentric, wildly enthusiastic, older woman named Miriam conducts the tour—the group that meets at the main entrance to the gardens is so large, it’s split up between Miriam and her husband, who also happens to be a guide at the gardens.
His name—no joke, is Don Johnson.
A few times throughout the tour, which extends well beyond the hour we are told it will last, my friend who is also named Kevin checks in to see how I’m fairing, and asks if I think we should have taken Don Johnson’s tour—which, based on his demeanor when the groups were leaving, is probably far less energetic.
It’s cold and overcast, and I am so very tired already, even though it’s not even lunchtime yet, but I tell him, “No. We have to keep that same energy,” as Miriam, ahead of our small cluster touring the grounds, continues speaking at length about the cacti and other trees. The walking paths never seem to cease winding around all of these plants—much to the delight of the group, a hummingbird zips by.
At one point, as we are seated and listening to Miriam regaling us with the history of a large metal sculpture of a horse, I look out into the distance, over the walls of the garden. I can hear the low whoosh of the passing cars, and I can see construction equipment in use.
I see the Starbucks logo on the side of a building.
On Friday evening, over dinner (soup that Wendy has made, but of course) there is minor dissention about what we are going to do with our Saturday—specifically, where we are going to go.
One thing that I either did not know about my friend who is also named Kevin, or perhaps just simply had forgotten, is that he is rather ‘outdoorsy.’6 We are, in stark contrast, not. But due to the sheer amount of natural splendor around Tucson, and the mountains that always seem to looming in the distance—not in an ominous way, but just ever present, even though were forced to pack light for this vacation, we were somehow able to include clothing that isn’t too wildly inappropriate to wear for a ‘short hike.’
But the length of a ‘short hike’ and where to take it, was up for debate, until it was decided that we would drive across Tucson, to Catalina State Park, just outside of town.
The further you get away from the winding road that eventually continues to take you up higher into the mountains, the further away you get away from everything, really, as you continue a slow and gradual ascent, you realize just how quiet and still everything is in the desert. The sound of cars passing on the road just in the distance eventually fade out, like the ending of a song, and there’s really just the immediate sounds around you—the sound of the gravel, crunching down underneath your boot, with each step you take, and the sound of your own partially labored breathing, as the air grows thinner and thinner the higher you go up the trail.
It’s beautiful in the desert—it really is. It’s a lot to take in, especially if you’ve never been to the Southwest before and are only accustomed to the Midwest’s stark, flat, farmlands and endless groves of non-descript trees, or all of that—but just dead and covered in ice and snow. It’s a striking beauty at first—the way the deep blue color of the sky contrasts itself against the dusty browns and greens of the sand and desert plants. I realize it after we’ve left the city limits of Tucson on Friday afternoon, and stop briefly in Saguaro National Park.
I don’t say a whole lot when we’re standing on a small incline in Saguaro National Park. The wind is brisk, and there are a lot of other visitors, wandering around the area near where we are. I stand and look out towards Tucson, and then the other way, out towards an undeveloped desert. I know I’m supposed to be moved by all this, or feel good about being outside, seeing all of this beauty.
But I feel nothing.
On Saturday, after we’ve hiked for much longer than I had anticipated—a vague ‘it’s just a little bit further,’ and some ambiguous pointing ‘over there’ from my friend who is also named Kevin, brought us to a place where we could sit down on some large, flat rocks in order to rest, and eat lunch. As I balance both catching my breath from the hike and eating the large sandwich from my backpack, I gaze out at the scenery surrounding us. Much like the National Park from the day before, it is beautiful, though today is slightly overcast, and there is a mild, gray haze coming from parts of the sky—I wonder if I am supposed to be finding some kind of peace within myself by being out here, in the desert, and taking all of this in.
We are all running away from something.
You can hike up the side of a mountain, and the awful void inside that you’re always trying to outrun has been with you this whole time.
The hike down the mountain goes a lot faster, for the last few minutes of it, I wind up ahead of the rest of the group. I can hear their voices behind me, quiet though, and muffled, being swallowed by the stillness of everything around us. The closer we get to the beginning of the trail, the louder the sounds of passing cars from the road becomes.
After getting back into the car, we drive up the mountain a little more—the terrain changes. We see piles of snow, recently plowed off of the road, and there are fewer and fewer cacti, and more and more trees. On the long, winding drive back down the mountain, and into the town, I realize how tired I am—from the hike itself, and the overall lack of sleep—and I shut my eyes, trying to doze while Elizabeth drives—her car speeding down the winding roads.
Occasionally, when I feel the car come to a stop at an intersection, I open my eyes. Every intersection we stop at has a Walgreens, a CVS, a Chase Bank, or a U.S. Bank—sometimes all four, all across from one another.
I know that these are different intersections, and that the car has been moving the whole time, but if you were to tell me that we were just driving in circles, and that it was the same intersection with the same two pharmacies and the same two franchised banks, I would have believed you.
We are all running away from something.
Very shortly before Elizabeth and my friend who is also named Kevin moved to Tucson, one of their dogs passed away—making an already difficult time exponentially more stressful.
They adopted Ciera, a Sheltie, in early 2011, shortly after their first dog, Casper, passed away from bladder cancer. She was older when they adopted her, so by the time her health began to decline, Ciera was roughly 12 years old.
Things happened very quickly—she became very ill, and was diagnosed with tumors on her kidneys and adrenal gland. At the time of the diagnosis, Ciera was given two days to live, but somehow managed to make it a week and a half before she, as well as Elizabeth and Kevin, were in too much pain, and they had to let her go.
When I was still writing a monthly column for a magazine called the Southern Minnesota Scene, the piece that ran in the January 2017 issue was one that reflected on the amount of loss from the year prior—both of celebrities like David Bowie and Prince, to name just a few, and about real loss as well. There’s a distance between us—regular people—and someone renowned who dies. We may admire their work, but we didn’t actually know them, and what I wanted to write about was what happens when death touches somebody you actually know—how do you grieve for them, and how do they grieve?
I wondered if the cross country move might have helped Kevin and Elizabeth work through their loss—like the chance to give them a fresh start, someplace new, and leave behind the devastation they had just faced.
But he told me it didn’t.
When I reached out to him over text, about three months after they had left Minnesota, he told me, “I think the only thing that the circumstance might have helped is that I have been so busy over the past few months that I still haven’t had time to sit still and fully process it all.”
“I’m not sure if that is a good thing, though,” he continued. “I still wish she was here, and probably always will.”
|Zander, a very good boy.|
Elizabeth and Kevin adopted a second Sheltie, Zander, around two years after Ciera—and maybe a year or so after relocating to Arizona, they took in Eddie, a relatively young and rambunctious yellow Labrador.
While we’re visiting, Ciera’s name comes up a handful of times—mostly in reference to how she was the domineering of the pair and that, in her absence, Zander has become much less anxious of a dog. But a few times, her adventurous spirit is mentioned, and I watch my friend who is also named Kevin get a wistful look on his face, and the sorrow that is still somewhere deep down within manifests, ever so slightly, in his voice.
“She would have loved it out here,” he tells us.
We are all running away from something.
Every love story is a ghost story.
There is a point in all of these incredibly verbose personal essays where things are supposed to converge. Where all of the ideas and themes and various threads are, if everything works out, expected to come together as things careen toward a conclusion.
It’s a little formulaic, yes, this style of personal essay writing that I have settled into over the last year or so; it’s also ambitious—at least from my vantage point, being the one behind the keyboard, and with that ambition, comes the risk that I might be placing too much pressure on both myself, as a writer, and the piece itself, and that it will buckle under the weight of itself.
Sometimes it’s almost too easy to make all the various strands converge, the essay going, rather effortlessly, where I wanted it to in the first place. There are other times where it’s a bit of a stretch, or it takes a little more work to make everything come together.
Then there are the times where it doesn’t so much seem impossible, because I shouldn’t have made it 6,000+ words into something without some vague idea of where it was all going to wind up—but there is something that is preventing the anticipated convergence from occurring.
Commonly, the word ‘essay,’ used as noun, means a ‘short piece of writing on a particular subject.’ Less common, and I just learned this recently, is that as a verb, ‘essay’ means ‘an attempt or an effort.’
There is an adage about ‘trying your best,’ but what I’ve found, especially within the last couple of months, is that maybe you are unable to ‘try your best,’ but you are still trying.
We are all running away from something.
Wendy and I manage to make it through our vacation to Tucson without one of us having a total meltdown—I, famously, fell apart the day before we left Seattle. A number of factors contributed, but I became very anxious about making it to visit a rabbit rescue and sanctuary at the time I told the organization’s executive director that we’d be there by. We were running late due to another activity from earlier in the day going longer than anticipated, and I more or less fell apart while trying to navigate the terribly congested streets of the city in our rental car.
In Wisconsin7—Baraboo, specifically, Wendy grew increasingly frustrated with the boots she had decided to wear for a hike up the ‘Balanced Rock Path’ at Devil’s Lake State Park. Inexpensive boots purchased from Target a number of years ago, whatever traction had been on the soles is long, long gone now, and she continued to slip, and struggle up the path, losing her patience entirely with the situation at hand, as well as with me, because of the ease with which I was walking up the path due to the length of my legs.
We had a near meltdown in Phoenix prior to returning the rental car and getting to the airport, when the restaurant we were planning to eat at was not open on Sundays—but Wendy quickly was able to find a place to eat just a block away.
The meltdowns came the following day—once we returned home.
Due to the late hour of our return flights, we had both wisely taken Monday off from work. On the way back to Minnesota, we lost two hours—not only were we traveling from Mountain to Central Time, but also on this trip, I learned that Arizona, as a state, does not observe ‘Daylight Saving.’
Our flight left Sky Harbor Airport8 in Phoenix about an hour later than we had anticipated—and in departing before 8 p.m. Mountain Time, we arrive back in Minneapolis at 12:30 a.m., getting us back home close to 2 a.m. Central Time—to a driveway full of more snow that will need to be shoveled once the sun was up; but we also came home to the same thing we had come home to, every day, for the last 10 months—a still, dark, and cold home with little to no life left in it.
The meltdowns came as we were trying to decide what to do for lunch. We didn’t really have much of a plan for the day—just try to recuperate a little from the late flight back, and at one point, I suggested we go someplace new9 for lunch.
But it turns out that the place Wendy was interested in going to isn’t open on Mondays, and the more we begin talking about it, the less either of us are in driving all the way back into the Twin Cities simply for something to eat.
I offer the option of the Thai restaurant we frequent every couple of months, and suggest we could stop at a grocery store nearby it on the way home, in an effort to replenish the refrigerator—emptied prior to our vacation—and grab groceries for the coming week.
When I has suggested going someplace new, originally, Wendy said that it sounded like an ‘adventure,’ but the idea of the same old Thai food, and buying groceries soured her spirit.
“This isn’t an adventure,” she says, dejectedly before we leave the house. “This sounds just like doing errands.”
The meltdowns come at the end of the day, after dinner, later in the evening, as we sit on opposite ends of the couch, following an ill-fated attempt at watching the first episode of the 2007 HBO series10 “John From Cincinnati.”
We get a few minutes in, and during a heated exchange between Luke Perry11 and Bruce Greenwood, I tell Wendy I don’t think I can do this—it is, by all accounts, practically unwatchable due to the terribly written dialogue. She grows irritated with how quickly I want to turn it off, demanding that we stick it out, because it may get better, and I should have the patience and courtesy to stay with it.
The episode concludes; we, more or less, get ready for bed in silence.
A number of weeks later12, I ask her if she remembers how upset and irritated we both were on that Monday evening, and more importantly, if she remembers why—because I really can’t.
These things, situations like this—they aren’t exactly arguments, because there is nothing to actually argue about, but these emotionally driven escalations have been happening with more frequency now than they ever have in the past. I can sense within myself something awful. There is the rising, volatile irritability that spills over the surface, and there is the seemingly endless abyss inside that I may never be filled.
But I am trying.
When I ask her why we were so upset with one another the day after we returned home, she laughed, because it was over something that didn’t really matter13—but she, specifically, was so viscerally upset because of the fact that our vacation had truly ended, and she was returning to work the following morning.
There are people who take vacations, and when they return, or shortly before returning, will post the expression ‘back to reality’ on social media, or they will share an image from a recent vacation for a ‘throwback Thursday’ with the caption ‘Take me back there!’ There is a wanderlust in people of a certain age—a need to disregard, or take for granted, what you have within the life you live, and want something more.
This wanderlust is seemingly magnified if there is something within your life that is making you absolutely miserable.
We are quite different from our friends—maybe there are more differences than similarities. Maybe that was the case all along, and it’s just something that I had forgotten about after they moved out West. Following my wife’s response to why she and I were both so agitated and upset the day after our return, I recognize the very apparent similarities in our lives and the lives of Elizabeth and my friend who is also named Kevin.
The thing I often forget is that he and I both have struggled with serious mental health issues—this topic comes up while we are staying in their home. I think he asked me how I am doing and I respond the same way I usually respond to this question—“Despite my best efforts, I am still a person,” and I mention the recent development that not only am I on one prescription anti-depressant that may or may not be doing anything to help me, but things have become dire enough that a second one has been added in a ‘booster dose.’
He tells me that he is currently not taking any prescription anti-depressants—something that, at this point in my life, I can’t really fathom, and I ask him how that’s going. He tells me that there are some days that are just fine, and other days where it’s difficult for him to do anything other than sit on the couch.
The real similarity I recognize, though, when Wendy and I have come back to Minnesota and returned to our regular lives is that my friend who is also named Kevin and I both have found ourselves in circumstances that, unintentionally, place a lot of stress and pressure on our spouses.
For two years, I wrote for the local newspaper in Northfield—it was a job that never paid very well, but money was not the reason that I took the opportunity. I learned very quickly after taking the job that I was not really the kind of person who was going to thrive at it—but I, erroneously, did little about that until it had taken a drastic toll on both my physical14 and mental health.
When I left the paper in August of 2016, I took a job that wasn’t going to follow me home; one where I would, hopefully, be less stressed15 and possibly a little happier. Three years later, for the most part, that has been the case—however, it’s a job that, again, does not provide very much in terms of financial compensation.
My wife has been at her current position for over seven years—she’s been allowed the opportunity to grow, yes, but there are also things that have stifled her. There are days that turn into weeks that turn into months where it seems like there are more elements that are frustrating or disheartening, and fewer things that provide a glimmer of fulfillment.
It, however, pays exponentially more than I make, and because of this, she has wound up, at times, feeling trapped—or that I, unintentionally, have created a situation where she has to do something unfulfilling, as a sacrifice of sorts, so that I may continue working someplace that isn’t causing me to become alarmingly despondent.16
I am not sure why it took me so long to realize the parallels—or why I didn’t notice it while we were in Tucson.
In the final stretch of completing his doctorate in choral conducting, my friend who is also named Kevin has been involved in post-graduate programs for a number of years now, meaning that Elizabeth has been the one to provide the primary source of income for their household—and for the last two years, in a state that undervalues and underpays for the profession she is in, causing her disdain for it to grow.
You, unintentionally, create a situation where your partner is doing something unfulfilling as a sacrifice, of sorts, so that you may continue to pursue a passion.
We are all trying.
On the plane, through both flights, I’m unable to stay with one thing for very long—too easily distracted by the people around me to focus on reading the book17 I picked up before we left; it doesn’t even do that terrific of a job holding my attention even after our vacation is over and I am still working my way through it. Some of the time, I put my headphones on, playing lengthy ambient droning off of my phone—the sound is faint, as it always is on a flight, eclipsed by the sound of the plane itself.
Wendy sits next to me, diligently reading a small paperback copy of At The Mountains of Madness, occasionally taking a break from it.
I haven’t taken enough flights in my life to ever truly become comfortable, or at least, less anxious about the concept. I’m a nervous flier—every little bit of ‘rough air’18 puts me on edge, and I still become very tense during take off and landing.
There’s a point on the flight out to Phoenix, where I look down at my shoes, and the backpack that I have poorly tried to place under the seat, and I understand why people have difficulties flying—it’s because there is truly nothing beneath you.
Yes, there is luggage stowed somewhere in the bowels of the plane, among things like the mechanics of the craft itself—but other than that, there is a vast nothingness beneath you and we, as passengers on this flight, are simply floating through it at a speed we are unable to comprehend.
I realize, much later, that this is, while heavy-handed, an allegory for the human condition.
We are all trying.
1- I should mention that, as this child held onto his mother’s hand, and she tactfully, albeit slowly, tried to ‘excuse me’ her way to the front of the plane after it landed, there was a small part of me that wanted to stand up, and yell: “AYO, LIL HOMEY NEEDS TO USE THE BATHROOM. EVERYONE NEEDS TO SIT THE FUCK DOWN AND LET HIM THROUGH.” But I was also not sure if this woman would look fondly on me causing what would be, more or less, a huge scene on her behalf.
2- A quick clarifying point is that I was also concerned about Annabell’s sister, Sophie, who passed away in February of 2015; and prior to us adopting them, I was concerned about our first companion rabbit, Dennis Hopper The Rabbit, who passed away in April of 2012.
3- In flying Sun Country, we learned that they charge for checked baggage, which is kind of the industry standard now—but they also charge for a carry-on that will be placed in the bins above the seats. Each passenger is allowed one ‘personal item’ to bring on the plane, and it is roughly the same dimensions as a backpack. We managed to cram everything for our trip into two backpacks, but they were, like, bulging at the seams, and barely slid under the seat to be properly stowed during the flight.
4- This got too long, and I truthfully kind of lost control of this one, but for a while, I was trying to figure out a way to write about how difficult it is maintaining friendships once you are in your late 30s, and how you lose touch (not intentionally) with almost everyone you know, and there are friends who say things to you in passing, like through a text, that say ‘Oh we should get together sometime,’ and you’re like ‘Yeah for sure,’ but you know that you will most definitely not be getting together any time soon because neither of you will put forth the effort required to make that happen.
5- Not to be confused with the play of the same name by the gawd Anton Chekov, the Three Sisters chowder is comprised of corn, butternut squash, and pinto beans. It is an absolute delight.
6- My friend who is also named Kevin is apparently so outdoorsy that he, in fact, rides a mountain bike through trails more intense than the one we were simply walking up. During our hike, we came across some mountain bikers; one of which was a young woman, who had apparently taken a spill at some point, since there was a large, fresh gouge on her arm, a dazzling red. The very idea of mountain biking down something like this sent me into a case of the howling fantods.
7- A clarifying point—I also had a meltdown in Madison, but it was with regards to driving into the city’s downtown, having no idea where I was going, and trying to find a garage to park in so we could have dinner.
8- I learned recently that the final track on Clarity, by Jimmy Eat World, was partially written about, and named after, this airport.
9- The ‘someplace new’ I suggest, it turns out, isn’t even really a restaurant—more of a bakery that may have some light lunch options, but nothing substantial.
10- We had a short subscription to HBO so that we could watch the recently concluded third season to “True Detective,” and I was curious about “John From Cincinnati” because a number of members of an internet forum I frequent, at one time, claimed that it was an incredible show. It turns out that we have differing opinions on what ‘incredible’ is.
11- Luke Perry had just passed away shortly before this. RIP to the gawd.
12- Just a quick point of clarification that I asked her this a number of weeks later because that’s how long it took me to get to this point in the essay, where, like, things need to ‘converge’ or whatever.
13- Nothing does.
14- In February of 2016, about six months before I put in notice at the paper, things had become so bad for me that I began vomiting without warning. I would be minding my own business, not even feeling ‘sick’ or nauseous, and then, suddenly, I would realize that I felt like I needed to vomit—and dashing to the toilet, or whatever sink happened to be nearby, I would. Never very much, or never very violently, but just enough to cause concern within the household for my wellbeing.
15- For what it’s worth, my job can be stressful at times—but it’s a stress that doesn’t usually continue beyond the shift, following me home. However, prior to vacation—like the week or two before that, there had been countless equipment problems in my department that had caused a substantial amount of stress for both my immediate co-workers and myself. This vacation was really coming at a good time.
16- I guess I may have blocked all of these memories out, but according to my wife, when things began reaching their lowest points at the paper (and before that, even, at other jobs) I was, more or less, barely functioning as a person.
17- In case you are curious, the book in question was The Book of Delights by Ross Gay—bought on impulse, kind of, after I saw he had done a reading with Hanif Abruraqib. It’s not a terrible book, but it was also not as compelling, overall, as I was hoping it would have been.
18- ‘Rough air’ is something flight staff now says instead of ‘turbulence.’