The Phoenix

Act II of my life: Or, the successful failure.

Deep in the heart of the desert, in the Summer of 2000 and new to driving, I pulled the Dodge Intrepid over as Limp Bizkit’s “Take A Look Around” blared from the car speakers, and my father, my sister and my brother and I all piled out of the car to hit up a Jack-in-the-Box for some road fuel.

It had been four days since I’d last called the girl I’d been dating — a winsome, lovely woman with a heart of gold, a true gem of a human I’d longed for and lusted after — but I was not lonely or pining for her. I was satisfied, exploring undiscovered country as far west as I’d ever been, hopeful for the new world that laid out before me.

I was 17, about to enter to college, enrolled in the Broadcast Journalism program at (arguably) the most prestigious Broadcast Journalism school in the country. I was about to make it. I was about to cash in on all my dreams in childhood. I was peaking.

The desert is an illuminating place. The barren, windswept landscapes bring loneliness and smallness into sharp relief. The browns, oranges and bleached greens. And the silence. It’s cold under the hot sun. You bake out there. You reaffirm your place in the world every 10 minutes or so. You feel detached from the life you were living, however you were living it. I was living mine well.

Within the next two months, I would begin drinking. I would lose my virginity to the aforementioned woman. I would fall in love for the first time. I would see myself off to school. I would take my first bong rip. Blow my first line. Pick up an acoustic guitar for the first time. I would become, in many ways, more like the self I know now. The creative. The flawed professor. The table-stakes would be formed for the man who’d emerge half a lifetime later — finally on his way back. Not to visit who he once saw, no, those figures have long since disappeared into the ether, but rather to see who he now knows: people who’ve shaped his life since, and people who arrived because of how he shaped his life since. The writer. The comic. The singer. The artist. The drunk. The fool. The smoker. The seducer. The visionary. The failure. The runner. The reclamation project. All perfectly book-ended by two trips out west. The adult who still can’t adult. The child who still can’t child.

I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t dream of it. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know what to expect, and yet I somehow didn’t get it, anyway. This isn’t a sad story, mind you, this is a story of life taking winding trips, odd detours, mad escapes into the metaphorical desert before you climb clear out the other side how you ever ended up where you are. I live in Texas now. It’s a far cry from New York. And if you’d asked me in that moment, in that desert, “Hey, would you live in Texas?” The answer would be a flat, sharp “no.” Not that I had a better place in mind.

Life plays tricks on you. It crackles and burns in the darkness. It erases over files you’d been saving. It writes over what you wanted to say. Time does that. The wind does that. The world roasts and the crickets chirp as you wonder aloud. I’m no sage, no poet, no oracle. I can’t see the future, nor stomach the past. I’m a realist now. I’m a hard-edged, soft-in-the-middle curator of whatever the hell is laying around. I mold things. I bend them. I try to interpret them as best I can. And the best I can interpret what’s coming is both an end and a beginning.

Many things this year feel like they’re on their way to a close, if they haven’t already shuttered their doors. My old life feels as distant as the Sonoran, my old ways feel as tread-worn as the path of least resistance. Something new is coming — and yet, I cannot be sure what.

I do not hate what’s come in the 17 years since I last made my way to where I’m going. And yet I cannot say I love it. The world feels different now: let me explain.

The brother in that car is gone. Disappeared into the wind. He’s been away for over two years now. Existing somewhere outside the realm of communication. I miss him, and yet it’s hard to miss someone you never really feel you knew in the first place.

The girl? She’s long gone. Lost to the memory of time and the harshness of Facebook blocking. Last I saw her, in 2008, I proposed to her at the end of a 674-page manuscript that detailed our romance. It was the first thing I ever wrote. I never got the ring back. I’ve loved since then. I’ve loved hard. But they’re all gone, too. Nothing more than a box of memories that range somewhere between wistful, romantic and disturbing. If only I’d never, or if only I’d ever … if only.

The family we went out to visit last time around has had its deck shuffled by incalculable change and unconquerable odds. I won’t be seeing them. I wouldn’t even know how to or why. My grandmother has left this Earth. Winds take the ones you thought you knew, and they fade away in the dust. You’re left only with yourself. Out there alone, among the cacti and scorpions, wandering your way around an endless abyss, praying for rain or water or civilization. We do this more often than not in deserts of our own making.

I am a writer now, I guess. And a mildly successful career man. I inspire people with my words, entertain them with my stories, and occasionally fail to do both those things despite my best efforts. (This may be one of those times.) This is all Act II. This is all what’s come since that last trip. I had hair back then. Hell, it was blonde. And gelled. And now it’s all gone. And these crows feet have become vultures encircling my skull. The mind grows hard. The drinks grow harder. The body grows soft. The skin grows thick. The soul grows hallow. Aging will do that to you. The desert will do that to you.

Yet, still, there is something rising. Something coming. There’s an anxious, exhilarating hope nudging its way down the interstate, shining its high-beams down a lonesome highway deep within the middle of nowhere. I’m not sure where it’s leading. I’m not sure where it’s taking me. But it’s there. And it’s not a Dodge Intrepid.

I think back to all that has changed since I last gorged myself on the oil-canvas beauty of the Arizona steppe. How vastly different life can become if you double its length. How vastly strange the world begins to look if you stare at it long enough, or move just far enough. How you can begin to forget your own face when you go too long without a good, hard look in the mirror. I wonder what I look like now. I wonder if he looks vaguely like the man that woman once loved, or the man my family once adored. I wonder if there’s any of that left in me.

Because what’s come is just fine, and what’s come is definitely me, but what’s coming could upend the entirety of what I know — a monsoon, a dust-bunny, a cracking of the earth. For I’m about to begin Act III, which will take me to nearly 52. Yes, I’ve risen before. Yes, I’ve also fallen. How different will I be? How different will I look? How many people will I lose? How many people will I find?

I quiver at this line of questioning. The time ticks away. The water runs dry. And when it’s all said and done, all we become is cracked landscape, withering and rotting in the heat of the desert summer, having only left behind our tracks of where we dared to venture before the sun went down on us.

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