Phoenix is a big shopping mall with palm trees. Street after street of mall, interspersed with manufactured home parks so the shoppers can sleep at night.
I get lost. Never so far lost that I can’t find my way home again, but so lost that I can’t find where I am going. The library, in particular, is mercurial, shifting position from one mall to another five miles south. (Turn right, not left, on Tatum. Right, not left. Right, not left. Right again at the B of A.)
I fight down panic attacks, talking to myself. Right, not left. I am a grown woman. I am fifty-five years old. I am a happy newlywed. I can drive in a strange city without someone to hold my hand.
“You just have to learn the grid,” my husband coaches.
But the roads all look the same—six lanes, divided, 45 mph. The corners all look the same. Walgreens, Safeway, Food City. The 99 Cent Store. Sprouts. Walgreens again. Safeway again. Every parking lot is planted with leafless palo verde trees, which cast no shade. Every median strip or driveway is landscaped with saguaro, prickly pear, ocotillo, churro.
The mountains are no help. There is a rim of distant blue peaks around the valley, and they all look alike. There are mountains that stick up like big rocky thumbs above the palm trees, and they all look alike.
The street signs blur. I need new glasses. When I buy new glasses, the blur gets worse. I drive home at night with the new glasses and find myself driving the wrong way down one of the six lane roads because the median was invisible when I turned.
I miss the left turn for home, every time. The Chevron at the corner is the one landmark that is fixed and permanent, the place where I can turn north to slink the half-block back to my own driveway.
I lie awake at night with my head on my husband’s shoulder, talking. “There isn’t a heart,” I say, “and everything looks the same.”
Some old neighborhoods, he tells me, have character. A few.
But he agrees. There is no heart. “This is just a place where lots of people decided to move for the weather. It doesn’t have any other reason to be here.” He believes this too, even though his family roots are here.
I am sticking it out, because this is where he is. I plant tomatoes in pots. I plant carrots, peas, lettuce, in a box. I weed the gravel yard.
People ask, “So how do you like Phoenix?”
I answer, “I’m adapting.”
There are gunshots at night, from the neighbors on the far side of an eight-foot concrete wall. He can identify the shots by caliber. Sometimes someone calls the police. Sometimes no one bothers. “Was anyone screaming?” the police ask. “Did you hear glass breaking?” Sometimes a helicopter comes to hover at the corner.
The cat sits in the window and watches the feral cats hunting birds. She is not allowed outside.
I have to take my glasses back to Walmart, to find out why I can’t see to drive and get them fixed. Left on Bell, then miles and miles. Maybe tomorrow.
I lie in the dark with my head on my husband’s shoulder and talk about the fall of civilization. We start with the children who will never learn to read anything deeper than TV Guide and work our way up to apocalypse. It’s coming; we’re convinced of it. Between climate change and peak oil, something will snap, somewhere. We’re one bad harvest away from starvation, one more war away from the end of fossil fuel. One city will fall into darkness, then another. I lie awake and imagine the whole west coast collapsing into barbarism, when the trucks stop running and the water stops flowing. “We won’t be alive to see it,” he tells me. “Our children will,” I say. “And our grandchildren.”
I hold them in my mind, those children, just coming of age, faces soft as flower petals, hearts full of music. “You would want to be somewhere with water. The mountains of Washington State,” he says. “That would be a good place to be.”
I lie awake, holding those lost green hills in my mind, the free-running water, the children.
Elizabeth Evans is a poet, teacher, and wife who has recently been transplanted to the desert from the wilds of Washington state. She lives in Arizona with her retired professor husband, who spends his plentiful spare time chasing her around the kitchen. When she is not dodging her husband, she grows tomatoes upside down and grows green leafy stuff so she can kill and eat it. Her work has been published in We Accept Donations, Street Lights, Spring Hill Review, and Salal Review.