Did you know that I used to live in Arizona?
Some of the people I today consider my closest friends may not even know that. Or they perhaps have only a vague recollection of that fact: an interesting anecdote about their Toronto-based friend. Wife. Mother.
I first stepped on Arizona soil sixteen years ago. I was in the middle of a two-month road trip across the United States with a (platonic) male friend. The minute I crossed the state line I felt something special. I felt moved by the red rocks and wild horses and endless sky.
“Life’s too short not to live in Arizona,” I announced to my boyfriend when I got home. He believed me. And for the next year and a half we saved and planned and researched and I dreamed of ancient canyons and blooming sage.
In June of 1994, we sold all of our possessions, jumped into a jeep convertible, and started to drive. We had no jobs, no green cards, and very little money. When we hit Phoenix five days later I remember being hot, tired, and disoriented. But I had never felt more alive.
Carving out a life was hard. The very first night we huddled beneath the sheets in our cheap hotel room when the junkies came banging at the door, cursing and demanding we let them in. The next night a man lighting a crack pipe veered my way and fell into me as I talked to my mother on a pay phone, assuring her that everything was fine.
Eventually it was. We left the first neighborhood within days and found one that was livable. Our apartment cost $390 a month. It was one room with a Murphy bed and sometimes we would find cockroaches, more than two inches long, that had inexplicably died on our kitchen floor. Once we found a dead scorpion almost twice as large.
We secured illegal jobs right away. I started work as a nanny and tourist guide for two preteen girls that were visiting their divorced father from out-of-state for the summer. My boyfriend hung around in front of a convenience store with Mexicans every day, waiting to be picked up by landscapers who worked him like a dog in the summer sun and paid $7 an hour cash before dropping him off at the end of the day. He always got picked first. He was white.
In the evenings, we cooked our food on the barbecue grills found throughout the apartment grounds, swam in the pool, and talked about how we’d make our fortune and build a huge hacienda in the desert.
In the fall, we moved to a better apartment complex with a bigger pool and more barbecue grills. We joked that we lived at Melrose Place, though we had never been so poor. We sold aluminum cans to recycling centers to get by. I got another job as a nanny for a wealthy family with two boys, one biological, one adopted. The adopted one had been abused as a baby and his rage and confusion was destroying the family that was trying to nurture him.
I joined a writer’s group. My boyfriend started playing trumpet for a ska band that quickly became a local sensation. We had countless visitors from Canada and I beamed with pride as I showed them my Arizona. We visited Flagstaff and Tucson and Tombstone. On weekends, we would go camping in the desert.
My best friend Julie, who was living in Los Angeles at the time became suddenly, gravely ill. With one day’s notice, I drove all night to a hospital in North Hollywood to hold her hand. I thanked God that I was living in Arizona and able to make it just hours before she died.
I lost my job as a nanny when the younger boy I was minding was made a ward of the state after his family determined they couldn’t control his increasingly violent and disturbing behavior. He was ten. I got a new job baby-sitting for a family who lived in an apartment complex down the street. I admired their neat-as-a-pin surroundings until I learned the mother was a meta-amphetamine addict who cleaned it frantically when high.
I published some articles in the local newspapers. I interviewed two of Canada’s most popular bands,Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip, when they passed through. I organized a Terry Fox Run for cancer research, Arizona’s first. I met a lot of Canadians and reflected on what fine people they were.
I thought about moving back—a lot.
My boyfriend became a minor celebrity when his ska band started to hit it big but their success was nerve-wracking because local white supremacists targeted his racially-integrated band and started to cause trouble at shows. I was tired all the time. I tried to make all his gigs, but I rose at 6 a.m. to begin work. On the nights I couldn’t go, he stayed out later and later. One night he didn’t come home at all.
He knew he loved me but he wasn’t sure he was in love with me anymore. I moped for a few days before announcing I would return home immediately to spend time with my family, which appeared to be faltering under its own stresses. I couldn’t hold it together if I stayed and I’d be damned if he’d see me weak and needy. After I left, we’d see who loved whom. Who needed whom.
He drove with me to Vancouver and then snuck back across the border while I continued on to Ontario. I planned to make lots of money all summer and return in the fall, flush and confident. We’d start over.
We drove out of Phoenix in the early evening almost a year to the day after we drove in. As the lights of the city receded behind me, I burst into uncontrollable tears. Arizona had been my idea, my dream. Why was I leaving? Why did he get to stay? I hated him. I hated Arizona. My heart was breaking—I think I knew I wasn’t coming back.
We broke up over the phone three and a half weeks after I returned home. I barely noticed. My family was indeed faltering and it was worse than I imagined.
I moved to Toronto. My life over the next year was all about survival and parts of it are still a blur. By 1997, I started to feel like my old self. I got a good job and my family started to heal. I cut off all contact with my ex and put away Arizona out of my mind.
It’s been thirteen years since I returned to Canada and I rarely talk about Arizona anymore. Sometimes I talk to Rob in vague terms about returning, about wanting to show him where I lived and laughed and made plans to build my hacienda. But I’ve stopped dreaming about red rocks and wild horses and the mysteries of the desert. I’ve stopped waking with the smell of sage in my nostrils and an unbearable yearning in my chest.
But do you know what the damn difficult thing is about leaving your wildness behind and getting older?
It’s the reduction of youthful experiences and passions to mere anecdotes. It’s the quiet knowledge that however full your life is, there will always be, must always be, roads not traveled, dreams not fulfilled.
It’s being forced to accept that life is long and as a result some parts of you will always be unknowable to the people who love you and call you friend. Wife. Mother.
Photo courtesy of Don Mills Diva