I remember sitting in a Denny’s in Tucumcari, New Mexico, eating onion rings and a milkshake. I’m sure that Carl and I, at some point, had re-enacted the scene from Smoke Signals where Thomas tells Victor about the time Victor’s dad took Thomas to Denny’s for the Grand-Slam Breakfast. I remember sending a post-card, though I don’t know whom it went to, with a photograph of a site where dinosaur remains were found. I recall looking at my little red Geo Prism, into which we had shoved our entire life, parked in this desert outside the restaurant, feeling like a lone dinosaur myself, utterly lost and hesitant about my future out here among the cacti.
For years afterward, I imagined that “A Denny’s in Tucumcari” was the ideal setting for a short story, though I’ve never written it. I can’t separate it from my own story—one that’s felt so hard to tell because at the time, it felt like the epitome of a failure. We wanted so much for it to work, and it didn’t, and we came back wondering what our lives might have looked like if we had stuck it out there in the Southwest. I’ll never know, but I do know that a less than 40-day blip on the radar of my life still shapes who I am, thirteen years later.
In the summer of 2004, I applied to, and was accepted by two universities that couldn’t be farther from my home in Upper Michigan, or from each other. At this point, I’d been on a 6-year hiatus from school. Both my forays into higher education were a bust, but the overseas teaching-exchange programs Carl and I wanted to be part of required a 4-year degree. So, we figured, we’re sick of the snow and the cold, and we’ve got nothing holding us down, so why not go somewhere warm?
I gathered my credentials and ambitions and sent them off to one wet-hot climate (University of Florida, Gainesville), and one dry (University of Arizona, in Tucson). When I got “yes” letters back from both, I toyed briefly with the idea of becoming a Gator, but ultimately sided with Wilbur and Wilma Wildcat, and enrolled in the Asian Studies program for the fall of ’04.
You’ll never know how much stuff you can do without, how trivial the belongings you’ve collected, until you have to pare them down to fit in a tiny hatchback. I rode for two thousand miles with a two-foot bronze Buddha and a houseplant between my knees. As we moved through Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri, the air warmed. In Kansas, we were met by toll roads, giant white crosses and road signs about redemption. In Oklahoma, we ate authentic Mexican and watched a beautiful sunset. The panhandle of Texas was a brightly-lit blur in the night. Las Cruces and Albuquerque were mazes of orange construction cones. Our waiter told us the origins of the city’s name at a Pizza Hut in Truth or Consequences.
Our apartment complex in Tucson was called Catalina Mission. It sat across from Davis-Monthan Airforce Base. Upon our arrival, the management through whom I’d set up the rental had vacated and been replaced with another, headed by Yesenia, a thick and pretty young Mexican woman with long curly hair and huge hoop earrings. She was sympathetic to us befuddled Northerners and let us use her office phone while we waited to get ours set up.
One of my more serene memories is walking under some kind of willow trees to the laundry room in the courtyard with a basket on my hip. The floor had a big crack running through it and the room, at least to me, always smelled of eggs and bacon. I hang onto this memory, as well as one of walking around the complex with my headphones on, hearing a radio DJ announce the new Foo Fighters song. I don’t have a lot of great memories of our month in Tucson. Everything that could have gone wrong did.
Months before, while still in Michigan, my boss and I had set up a transfer to another Blockbuster Video store. When I arrived at the Tucson location, they nonchalantly told me that a mistake had been made and that they didn’t need or want me at that store. Instead I was to head to another store, way out in the mountains. As we made our way there by car, I wondered how in the hell I was supposed to get out here every day, as the original location was within walking distance from our new neighborhood.
At the mountain location, I was met by the Store Manager, who, instead of welcoming me as the transfer I was, treated me to an interview in his office that felt more like an assault. “Why do you want to work for Blockbuster Inc? What will you bring to our team? Why should we hire you?”
Nevermind that I had already been working for the company for 6 years at that point and had been an assistant store manager in Marquette. I left the store and got back into the car where Carl was waiting for me, and burst into tears.
In the meantime, Carl had found work at a Subway location and was headed for his second pee-test. Two pee-tests to work in a sandwich shop? He had set up the interviews and appointments with a calling card and a payphone in the courtyard while we waited for Cox to set up our apartment phone. Cox had said they were finished, but we had no dial-tone. They said we needed to call the grounds electricians. They came and went and said the job was done, but we still had to dial-tone. They said to call Cox as the problem was with them. We called Cox, who said the problem was with the grounds electricians. The whole month we were in Tucson, we had no telephone.
While our respective start-days drew nearer, we drove around Tuscon, gazing at strip mall after strip mall, cactus after cactus. There were some cool looking places to eat and drink, but we had no money to spend there and our savings were dwindling. We had no cable hook-up, just fuzzy local channels. As Christmas drew near, the news reported a Toys for Tots drive and an older woman who’d gone missing from a local mall. People began to put luminescent plastic snowmen on their front lawns (“lawns” in Tucson are made of light-colored rocks) and string lights in their yucca trees. We spent most of our time playing Champions of Norath II on our Playstation, or watching old DVDs of Mystery Science Theater 3000 while playing games of Upwords and eating homemade curry. At night we slept on a futon mattress on the floor and propped it against the wall when we woke.
Our neighbor to the right was young woman with a puppy that would cry for hours on end every morning after she left for work. To our left, a group on young guys who blasted-bass heavy music all day long. In the courtyard, a guy with a leaf-blower woke us up every day, blowing what must have been every leaf in creation for half an hour each.
In the midst of all of this, the UofA registar let me know that I owned them a metric fuck-ton of money. Somewhere along the line, having no prior experience in these matters, I had screwed up my paperwork, and basically had received no financial aid. I couldn’t pay tuition. I didn’t register for classes, and my stint at the university was over before it began.
Back at the apartment, our neighbors continued to shake our walls with their music. I complained first to Yesenia, who said she’d talk to them. After that had no effect, I called the cops. They came by and I heard them speak to the men next door. After they left, the noise continued. We drowned our sorrows at a local bar that showed four or five football games at once on Sundays. We ate baskets of fries and wore our Lions jerseys while cheering along with people wearing jerseys from all over the country. We walked home in the bright sunlight, high on beer and the small comfort of something we loved. We came home and put our speakers up to the wall, and blasted the most bass-heavy CD we had, which happened be “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers),” and laughed silently till we cried.
One day while Carl was out looking for prospective new jobs, I sat inside the bathroom of our small apartment, sobbing. Between screwing up my school stuff, still not having a phone after fruitless arguments with one party or another, relocating to a remote job location where they regarded me as a an untrustworthy stranger, and being sandwiched between two loud and inconsiderate sets of neighbors, I had never felt so lost in my life. It was then that someone knocked on my door. I didn’t answer. They must have heard me crying though the thin walls. When I collected myself enough to go out and open the door, they’d left a bright yellow flyer on the knob. “Need help? Don’t know where to turn? We’re there for you.” Below was the number of a local Christian Church.
I threw it in the garbage.
Sometime later, Carl and I sat in our car. I remember only removing my seat-belt and saying, “I want to go home.” He trusted my judgment.
I recall going to the payphone in the courtyard with the last minutes on my calling card, phoning my boss and asking for my job back. She gave it to me without a second thought.
Yesenia let us break our lease. We sold anything we had bought in the month we lived at Catalina mission and again packed our Prism to the hilt, Buddha and the houseplant included.
On our last night in Tucson, we ate at an Indian restaurant. The meal was bittersweet, because our plan had fallen through and we didn’t know exactly what we were going home to. I remember low lights, blue and white patterned dishes and saag paneer. Two mornings later, a freak snowstorm hit New Mexico and I had to buy magic-mini mittens at a gas station. We tried to set out in the storm but backtracked when we saw a semi jackknifed on its side on the side of the highway. We found ourselves once again at that Denny’s in Tucumcari, waiting it out, feeling like the snow back home was reaching out across the country to remind us what we were going back to.
We spent Christmas Eve in a haunted Howard Johnson’s in Emporia Kansas. I ate peanuts from the vending machine and watched some show I had no interest in on the Cartoon Network.
Rather than head directly back to Michigan, we detoured to Minnesota and stayed with my parents long enough to set up another apartment, sight unseen, in Marquette. After a few days and an argument with my folks about money, we left early one morning without saying goodbye. We drove on frighteningly snowy roads to stay a few days with our best friend in Brainerd, then headed on to Michigan.
We arrived back in the U.P. in early January. Two feet of snow covered the ground. I didn’t have enough money to buy tampons. My co-workers at Blockbuster video gave us a hundred-dollar gift card to EconoFoods—between that and a cannister of Quaker Oats given to Carl by a co-worker at Subway—who had also taken him back, we were able to eat that month. We traded rocks for snow, cactus for fir, desert for Great Lake. No disrespect to AZ, but I prefer the latters.
The following autumn, I enrolled at NMU. I majored in Philosophy, double-minored in English and Art History. I began writing. I graduated Magna Cum Laude in the spring of 2009. I started grad school and began working for the University when Blockbuster closed its doors. A writing professor encouraged me to begin submitting my work to literary journals. In my grad workshops, I wrote and submitted story after story, each accepted in time by different publications. Each story took place in Michigan or Minnesota. We were home.
It’s hard to look at the photos from this time, not just because I look awful in them; road-weary, unwashed and pudgy, but because I don’t know how to regard this period of my life without a tinge of regret. I feel it most when the car is stuck in the driveway because the plow has deposited a wall of snow two feet tall at the end of it. Or when our Halloweens are snowed out or I’m driving to work at 30 mph in zero visibility and negative temps. I think about how we could have stayed and lived in diverse area close to concert venues and cultural events and maybe even moved overseas. I used to picture myself scouring outdoor markets in Tokyo with a bilingual baby on my hip.
But we didn’t do any of that. We came back to the U.P., settled in, and started a family. Would my beautiful blue-eyed son have been part of our Arizona life? Who knows. There’s only now; what is, and the what might-have-been lies forever frozen in those photos. We had to go to know. Carl recounted a Tom Waits’ lyric: “I never saw the east coast until I moved to the west.” It was like that for us. But who’s to say if we’ll stay here, or move on again someday to another completely unfamiliar landscape? I guess it’s just good to know that if it doesn’t work out, you can always go home again
And home ain’t nuthin’ ta f’wit.