Arizona, Part One
Your Rotten Romance bonus fiction
This last addition to Rotten Romance (excluding a postscript post) is largely fiction though based on a few facts. I felt like experimenting, and seeing what the impact would be if I made up a lead character bearing only a partial resemblance to me. I will look forward to your feedback.
I should have known better. I was a grown-up woman in her fifties, a responsible “professional” woman (the phrase always amused me, wouldn’t a “professional woman” technically be a hooker or perhaps a drag queen?). I had raised a son, buried a husband. But I was in a new town, with a new job, craving a new life. After finding an affordable casita outside Santa Fe and teaching my first semester in Victorian lit and bonehead grammar at the university, I was craving adventure, and not the backpacking camping outdoorsy crap that seems to be the chief extracurricular pursuit of my students and the few friends I had made.
Believe me, reader, when I say I had never tried internet dating. I was married for nearly 30 years and spent the last two of those nursing a mate with colon cancer whose abrupt downhill slide left a bedroom still faintly smelling of unguents and his nurse’s lavender perfume. In New York, I was too numb after Kirk’s death to imagine wanting another man. Mostly I spent my time sleeping and wandering our dark narrow apartment, cleaning out reams of stuff—clothes, papers, books, Charlie’s toys, family pictures. That whole period of my life, the first few months of widowhood, felt like a rat-in-a-maze journey to the incinerator chute and the basement recycling bins and then back to the apartment to sleep some more.
But in the Southwest, basking in early-morning, mid-summer sunshine like a gecko on a rock, sipping margaritas at outdoor cafés, a girlish self returned, someone whose long legs and flaming red hair once drew stares across campus. Who never lacked for dates, who flirted with ease. I caught glimpses of her again, in shop windows in town, in the full-length mirror, wrapped in a towel after a shower, drops of water shimmering on smooth freckled shoulders, legs still good from all those runs in Riverside Park. “Not so bad,” I thought. The long hair streaked with gray seemed the fashion among the area’s stylish Earth Mother types, swaddled in linen, dripping turquoise and silver. Not my look. I stuck with jeans and blazers and crisp shirts. But I dyed my hair for the first time, a shade called Early Merlot, which turned out to be more copper-bottom saucepot than young wine.
I could have asked Charlie for dating advice. Kids in their 20s navigated the corridors of cyberspace as easily as the freeways. We had a joking, close, loving relationship. He approved the move to Santa Fe, promised to visit at Thanksgiving. He was finding his way as a screenwriter in L.A., and I planned on seeing him more often, since the flight was a short one from Albuquerque.
But I couldn’t talk to him about this. His father loomed large between us, an imposing man who wrote imposing books, who held a prestigious chair at Columbia, well-liked by all, adored by Charlie. Dating anyone felt like a betrayal.
And so I stayed up late one night, narrowing down matchmaking sites, cruising the photos and blurbs of men within a sensible radius, the most mind-numbing exercise since playing solitaire on my cell phone, which I did endlessly during hospital and doctor visits. Every man whose photo showed a reasonably attractive middle-aged male (no dreadlocks, no tattoos, no wifebeater tees) was into “healthy living,” “outdoor adventure,” “kids and family,” “spirituality.” The writing was execrable.
I poured a snifter of Grand Marnier and sat in my little garden, breathing in the scent of sage bushes and thinking, “Well, why not throw yourself out there, old girl?”
And so I did a few days later. I uploaded a few selfies, and then turned to my landlady, Kestrel, a potter with a face as creased as an old leather work glove who had taken me under her wing as soon as she heard the word “widow.” She produced a couple of nice candid snaps in the garden, ones that showed off my legs, and I added those along with a brief description: “New to the Southwest….recently widowed….academic with literary inclinations….”
Some fitful correspondence and two dates ensued: one brought his sick elderly dog with him to a café on the edge of town, another thought it amusing to drive at top speed in an open Jeep along a twisting road beside the Rio Grande.
And then there was Thomas, who found me first because he lived in some godforsaken outpost called Portal, Arizona, way beyond the geographic parameters in which I was searching. He was a tall, fair-haired, fit-looking guy in his fifties who loved river rafting and hiking. More of interest to me, he also loved cooking and reading. What was he reading? I asked. He said he was spending the summer “wrestling with Gravity’s Rainbow.” That sounded promising. He was driving up to attend the Indian Market in Santa Fe in a couple of weeks, did I want to meet up? I thought, Why not? What could be safer and saner than a date to look at pots and jewelry?
We met in a parking lot behind a few blocks from the plaza. I texted him once I found a spot for my Toyota, and he was at my door in less than a minute. He wore a straw hat that left his face in deep shade, khaki shorts, Birkenstocks.
“You look like Susan Sarandon,” he said as I accepted his hand to clamber out of the car.
“I do not,” I said hotly, wanting to add, I don’t have a rack like hers, but was not sure how that would fly on short acquaintance.
He raised his palms. “No offense intended.” He grabbed my hand and guided me toward the plaza. “Have you ever noticed how everyone on matchmaking sites has to look like someone else? I look like Brad Pitt, doncha think?”
“Brad Pitt’s buns were the only reason to watch Troy, which was otherwise an abomination.”
“Want me to pull down my shorts?”
“You are fresh, sir!” I laughed, but reclaimed my hand.
“You asked for that.”
We walked in silence toward the center of town. Were we getting off to a bad start? He took my hand again to cross the street. I let him keep hold of it.
“How are you coming with Pynchon?” I asked.
He shook his head vigorously, like a dog flinging off water droplets. “Not so good.”
“Well, it’s a very difficult book.”
“To be honest, I put that in to impress you. I found your profile from your old job at CUNY and figured that would get your attention.”
“But my field is the Victorians.
“Would you have believed me if I said I was reading Middlemarch?”
That earned another laugh. I tried for a sexy, head-thrown-back, Sarandon-type laugh.
He stopped and looked at me sternly. “We need to buy you a hat.”
“No, really. I’m all right. I’m not a hat person.”
“You have to wear a hat in this sun. I can’t have you passing out on me. I’m not young Lochinvar.”
He really was very sharp.
“No, Tom. It’s okay. I run around without hats all the time. I’m not going to have a stroke.”
“It’s Thomas.” The severity in tone caused me to lose pace with him.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
“Please.” He whipped his straw hat off his head and settled it on mine. “You look fabulous.”
It felt loose and floppy, in spite of all my hair, and the sweat band seemed a little greasy against my forehead. I longed for a mirror but felt self-conscious about pulling out a compact.
“Do you know the joke about the three ages of woman?” he asked.
“No…. I haven’t heard that one.”
“Never mind. Tell you later.” Again, a tone that brooked no objections. Without his hat, in the harsh sunlight, his hair was nearly platinum, and the shape of his head reminded me of something carved brutally from stone, a Mayan or Aztec deity perhaps.
The crowds on the plaza were thick and hot and moved sluggishly. We browsed among stalls selling what looked to my eyes like cheesy rip-offs of Kachina dolls and other Indian figurines (I had already been sternly admonished by Kestrel not to call members of local tribes Native Americans). There were loads of paintings that seemed almost paint-by-numbers trivial but some of the pottery looked like the real deal. And much of the jewelry, if I could get past my growing aversion to turquoise and silver, beckoned for a closer look. Thomas picked up a bracelet of gemstones in many different colors and tried it on, turning his wrist this way and that. I noticed how carefully manicured his nails were, almost polished, and wondered if he had his hands professionally groomed. He thrust his wrist in my direction. “What do you think?”
I noticed a price tag of $1100 and automatically assumed the same skeptical tone as when Charlie lobbied for expensive electronics in the Apple Store on Broadway. “Well….”
“Nah, this is not me.” He tossed it back on the table. “Do you have a favorite spot for lunch?” he asked.
“Not really, but I wouldn’t mind something other than Mexican, for a change.”
“How about sushi?”
Without waiting for a response, he guided me by the elbow across the street and then again took my hand crossing the plaza. It still seemed way too soon for hand-holding, but it also felt rude to pull away. On Lincoln Avenue, he stopped before a window and peered into the dim interior. “This place is usually pretty good.” The portly sushi chef was wiping off a section of the long wooden counter but looked up and smiled broadly at Thomas, his head bobbing like the big plastic toy cat at the cashier’s counter. “Let’s sit at the bar, okay? It’s fun to watch this guy in action.”
As we were taking our seats, the two men exchanged some phrases in rapid-fire Japanese, both nodding and smiling.
“My God, you speak Japanese?”
“Only a little, enough to get by in restaurants. He’s going to fix us up with a special platter of goodies.”
Without being summoned, a waitress brought two Kirin beers and frosted glasses. Thomas did the pouring. I was finding it strangely pleasant not to be making decisions—I’d spent nearly three goddamn years making so many decisions—and when the long bamboo tray arrived, garnished with the green plastic fronds Charlie used to call “Jap grass,” I dove in with my chopsticks.
Thomas wanted to know all about my job, if I was liking Santa Fe, did I miss New York? I told him the students were not quite as bright as my kids at City, but I expected that, and their sweetness made up for a certain lack of sophistication about books. I was only an adjunct in the city, which I still called “the city,” never on the tenure track, not remotely the superstar Kirk had been, though this was not something I mentioned to Thomas. In fact, I didn’t want to talk about Kirk at all, and as if sensing that was still a sore spot, he never brought up the subject of marriages, neither mine nor his—he listed himself as “divorced” on the dating site.
By the end of lunch, I realized I had done almost all the talking, and knew next to nothing about him. He checked his watch and signaled for the bill. “I’m staying with friends in Abiqui and better hit the road soon.” I retrieved his hat from the stool next to me and handed it back.
“Keep it, please. A souvenir of our meeting. I have another in the car.”
I didn’t want the hat but dutifully placed it on my head as we left the restaurant. On the short walk to my car, we stopped at a silver Porsche parked in the shade of the lot, and he rapped the hood with his knuckles. “This is me. Want a lift to your buggy?”
“I—” the end of whatever sentence I was hoping to articulate stalled in my throat.
“Never seen one of these before?”
“Yes, of course, not too many—”
“I bet you were expecting me to drive a truck.”
“I had no expectations whatsoever,” I said, a little too stiffly.
“Come on, I’ll drive you.”
“Thomas, I’m only in the next row!”
He took my hand again, and at the driver’s side of my suddenly rather scruffy-looking Corolla, leaned over to kiss me quickly on the lips, so quickly he knocked the hat off my head. He retrieved it and made a slight bow. “I’ll call you.”
And he did. After waiving the Skype option—I hated the wobbly faces on the screen—we had an hour-long phone conversation that was funny, warm, and intimate, like talking to an old high-school chum after many years. He did some kind of management training for Hewlett-Packard, traveling often out of Phoenix. The ex-wife had been a fanatic birder, and so they built the house in Portal, a birdwatching paradise backed up by the Chiricahua Mountains, but the isolation drove her nuts and she soon moved back to her family’s hometown in New England. When I yawned and made ready to say good night, he asked abruptly, “Why don’t you drive down here next weekend? It’s only about six hours, we’ll make a long weekend of it.” I had learned that Westerners seemed to think six-hour drives as easy as a jaunt from Manhattan to the Jersey shore. “I will have to work most of Friday, but you can settle in and I’ll show you the sights, such as they are. And I’ll cook for you.”
And I thought, Why not? I was a big girl, I could handle myself. I had a book review to write on a volume of Victorian fairy tales; I could wrestle with it down there. And so we made a plan for me to leave on Thursday morning.