On my most recent trip to Tucson, I made a point of driving down the street I lived on when I first moved to the desert. My 330 square foot apartment was tucked into a tiny little jut of a dusty street in the Iron Horse District just a hop, skip and jump from one of the sleaziest bars in town, The Buffet. Open 23 hours out of 24, they closed the bar for an hour each morning to hose the place out, and the drunks would stand out on the sidewalk, weaving, bleary-eyed and red-faced as the morning sun. The closure was usually about the time I was taking my dog on his a.m. constitutional, across the Rattlesnake Bridge, down a pathway lined with prickly pear and gravel, and back. The bar flies and I would eye each other warily, likely, me, more wary than them.
It was an accident, perhaps a mistake, that I was newly 30 years old, 1,000 miles from the town I was born in, 1,500 miles from my adopted Midwestern home, living in a place where I didn’t know a single person, not one, for hundreds of miles. The desert was a desolate, desperate, dirty place, full of down-on-their-luck folks. Everything was old and weathered and run-down. It was really, really hot.
I learned the route from my job, to home and back again, and spent my evenings and weekends venturing in larger and larger circles to find my way; the grocery, the gas station, parks, shops, anywhere that might make me feel less lost, less alone. Eventually I started to make friends, discovered where to buy good produce, a nice bottle of wine, where to go on a hike, where to have a meal, see a movie. My community grew and grew. I took day trips, explored the outer reaches of the city, found the hidden gems, cute shops, cafes, shady gardens. By Thanksgiving I had three different invitations to join friends for a holiday dinner. I instituted a regular girls night. I started dating. Tucson became my home. Tucson friends, my adopted family.
Revisiting that street, driving past The Buffet, the run-down buildings with the barred windows, made me terrified for my past self. Unbelievably, I can’t remember now what it must have been like then, but I imagine how daunting it must have felt to be the stranger in such a strange land. Remembering made me sad. I’d gone up against that challenge. I was all alone, with nobody to help me, nobody to comfort me, to encourage me along. But it also made me proud that I survived, that I prevailed, that I actually thrived despite it all. And that I did that. All by myself.
Raised the way that I was, with a traditional family, a mom and dad, husband and wife, four kids, I just assumed I would have a partner in my life, from an early age. I saw the benefit of shared responsibility, commitment, goals, resources and family. I kept thinking, any minute now, he’ll walk in the door, down the stairs, and into my life: a helper, a friend, a lover, a partner. I kept trying on different men for size, who would he be? What would he be like? I got anxious for a happy ending. I tried to force it, numerous times. Always with the absolutely wrong man. So my happy ending never came.
On this trip, revisiting that street, driving past The Buffet, the run-down buildings with the barred windows, made me realize, finally, that I’m going to have to go it alone, maybe for now, maybe for forever. But, also, I have been going about it alone, for all this time, and I’m fine. I’m capable. I can do it, because I have done it. If I want something, I earn it. If I want to go somewhere, I figure out how to get there, by myself. My goals belong to me, my adventures are my adventures, and the vistas, the sunsets, the ones I choose to look for. And the sweet successes are mine, too. All mine, for me to savor.
The desert is a dry, dusty place. But, it’s not a dead place. There is enough water for many, many things to survive, to grow, to bloom. You might have to look harder, you might have to have a little more faith, more hope, but you can always find proof of water in the desert. Love, like water, is a precious commodity. It’s not always there, like a river or an ocean, for the taking. Sometimes, even when you’re very, very thirsty, you only get a couple of sips. Sometimes you have to dig a well, and dig it deeper, or wait for the monsoon. Sometimes you have to move to the desert to find it. Sometimes you have to look at yourself, reflected in the heat-pocked hood of an old car in the desert, to realize that this is your happy ending, and that’s a great place to start.