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Bus Rape Soliloquy IV: Leaving the Desert

February 1, 2010

When the bus stopped in Pecos, I made a note in my journal: “If I ever wanted to disappear, I’d go to Pecos.” (All creditors and stalkers will please disregard this statement.) The town wasn’t more than a wide spot in the road built around a convenience store, a Dairy Mart (painted like with black and white spots – I guess to look like a dairy cow) a post office, and a church. I saw some cows and horses roaming free in the colorless grassland between the road we were on and the railroad tracks that ran parallel. It was 9 o’clock Sunday morning, and the streets were dead, except for our bus. In fact, I was mildly surprised that the convenience store was even open; the two women who worked it – who looked like morally judgmental mother and single-parent daughter – were just as surprised when the bus load of us wandered in searching for coffee, snacks, and a toilet.

The stop of any duration had been El Paso, which is right across the border from Juarez, Mexico. The difference between those two cities is staggering. El Paso is all lights and wandering herds of young people bouncing from bar to bar and club to club; the streets were filled with people. I saw more than one underage prostitute wandering the sidewalks, and twice I saw some dumb bastard getting the once over from an irate pimp. I also saw a few drug transactions; once you know what those look like, they’re easy to spot regardless of what time it is. That was before I got off the bus. The bus station itself was under the guarded by two uniformed and armed security guys who looked like they knew they were getting paid too little for what they were doing; as I walked into the station for the two hour wait, I was greeted by a sign warning me not to leave any bags sitting around and that if I left the station I would not be allowed back in unless I could prove I was riding a bus.  The neon glare of El Paso was only increased by the darkness of Juarez; there were no lights – only deep shadows cast from blinding light of El Paso on a Saturday night. I thought of my friend Jose and his trips to Juarez to help the women there develop small businesses so they can stay out of the American factories and (hopefully) avoid the predators that have kidnapped, savagely raped and murdered, or simply disappeared more than 300 women over the past five years or so.

Standing in the parking lot in Pecos, I took in my surroundings – what little there was to take in. There is certainly a lot of beauty in the desert; but what beauty exists was absent from Pecos. It was dry and cold and colorless, like the scenery in a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. I said I could disappear there; not because there are a lot of places to hide, but because it’s the kind of place nobody would go unless they had a very good reason or unless they were tired of the entire color spectrum. Think of a dirty sponge left out to dry and rot and you will know the kind of colorlessness I’m talking about. I knew then I was on the edge; we would be in Oklahoma soon, and the vestige of the desert would give way to endless flat fields – the edge of the tundra I was heading towards, where the beauty is less romantic and more Dostoyevskian.

There’s something romantic about the desert – not only in its sometimes difficult to see beauty, but in its tragic shrinking at the edge of civilization.  America has overpopulated nearly everyplace else within its borders. Besides Alaska, there’s no real wilderness left except the desert; and since there are no natural resources to be exploited, they only thing left to exploit is the acreage itself. This, of course, if what led to the real estate bubble that contributed to my moving to Arizona; and the bursting of that bubble was one of the factors –albeit minor – that led to our decision to get out while the getting was good.  The sparse nature of living in such a climate – even with all the monotonous stucco “progress” and tourist kitsch that is steadily eroding the things that make the Southwest a unique and history filled place – did bring out in me a sense of what is important. This is the upside of erosion, I suppose. Nothing can be created unless another thing is destroyed. And while I have reservations about this process on a cultural level (despite its damned inevitability), on a personal level, it’s exactly what I needed.

As the bus pulled out of Pecos and towards Oklahoma, I became aware that I was leaving behind more than furniture (that I don’t miss) and more than friends (that I do miss); I was also leaving behind a self I no longer was.

I moved to Arizona a teacher who writes; I left a writer. And while some people – most of whom I’m related to by blood or marriage – may not understand this, I am becoming more and more aware of what this means each day. I joked over a Christmas visit with my family that I might just be having a mid-life crisis; my mother, for one, seemed to take visible comfort from my statement, since my employment status has vexed her at various times over the years. My wife, true to the wonderful woman she is, defended me to my status-aware sister-in-law who queried her (behind my back) as to whether she was fine “as a woman” with me not having a steady paycheck.

The first weeks here in northwest Illinois have been full of adjustments – to the cold; to small town life; to the silence; to living 30 miles from anything (in spite of the fact that we live in town), and to the absence of delivery Chinese or decent coffee. I have also been adjusting to the fact that I am now doing what I’ve been saying I wanted to do for years: my only daytime obligations are to my writing.  And YES, I’m happy. And NO, I don’t miss teaching. And FUCK NO and I don’t see me going back to it in any capacity.  But as the realization sunk in … as I told myself over and over again I am no longer a teacher … the label I had used to identify myself since graduate school …a slight panic swept over me. Ok. More than a slight panic. A panic rooted not in myself, but the echo of other people’s expectations. I am still learning, even as I approach my 37th birthday, that my status as a man is not linked to my being a wage earner; this not uncommon anxiety is rooted in all of the well intended but erroneous advice (some queried but mostly not) from my family and various relations for whom my status as a useful member of society – and hence the appearance of my happiness – was infinitely more important than my actual happiness.

I don’t (believe it or not) harbor any hard feelings; I believe that the people who truly love me only have my best interests at heart. And for some of them, worry is as natural as breathing. If they weren’t worrying about me, they would worry about something else.  (In this way, I suppose, I am fulfilling some larger function.) I wish I could tell them something to make them feel better; but if I know anything, I know better than to think my saying anything to them would do any good. So I accept their goodwill in the spirit its intended – or how I HOPE its intended – rather than in the manner it is transmitted.

The tragedy of the self I shed in the desert is not that the world is missing one more teacher – it is the truth that it’s taken me this long to figure all this out. And while I know I am living fodder for the rumor mills and various small town busybodies (because every small town has them) I know that, for the first time in many years, I’m doing what it is I need to be doing. And I’m grateful because I’m married to a woman who loves me for more than my pay stub who understands me better than I do and believes in me enough to give me space to write and push forward into another, more suitable and more satisfying life. I don’t know that I would have reached this place unless we moved to Arizona. I don’t know if we’re going to stay here forever, and I don’t think that far ahead anymore anyway.  I spend my days living in the present tense – even if my writing takes places in the past or (god help us all) in the future. And if there’s any great lesson in all of art and literature, it’s that the only place anybody can live is where they are, and that being less than honest and being less than who you are is the single most horrible avoidable tragedy in the world –more than obesity, heart disease, or high blood pressure, and more than unemployment, derision, disrespect, or misunderstanding.

As the bus wound its way northward, I steadied myself for the snow and cold and new possibilities that were waiting for me. And while I was not in anyway molested by the trip, I can’t say I wasn’t touched. Recently my wife said to me, “Sometimes it hurts to do the thing you love.” I rank that statement among the most truthful I’ve heard, and probably one of the wiser. (Though I rarely admit to when my wife is either right or wise.) Nestled here in the great Illinois northwest, where life is slow and next to nothing happens, the next struggle will – at least – not be why I have to get up every morning. The new struggle is not against the elements, or against other people’s expectations.  It’s not even against the insane level of lethargy and ennui resulting in moving from a place where there’s always something to do to where there is nothing to do but drink, get fucked up, and fuck; because the truth is that regardless of where you live or how late things are open, those are pretty much always the options – it’s just that in other places you can choose a different background to engage in such human (and humane) activities.  The only struggle I’m left with is the one I’m engaged in at that very moment: putting the words on the page and making them count. Being honest and making sure that I have as little to apologize for at the end of the day as possible. Most everything else is something people do to kill time until time kills them; and when that happens to me, all that will matter is whether I will feel the need to apologize or the need to laugh.

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