Nonfiction by Allison Gruber
for the embattled
there is no place
that cannot be
A glass globe, a myriad of Buddhas, chopsticks, a ceramic mug painted with roosters, a photograph of my grandmother as a teenager, a Led Zeppelin Mothership poster, a framed portrait of Virginia Woolf, another of Anne Sexton, my French press, my clothes, my laptop, my cell phone, the sum total of the items I brought when I moved from Milwaukee to Flagstaff. My dog, and various items of small furniture, left for later retrieval at my parents’ home in suburban Chicago.
Arbitrary ephemera, mostly broken by the time I lugged my suitcases off the luggage carousel at Sky Harbor; each object a futile attempt to leave home without the feeling of having left.
Home is made, not re-created.
One must assimilate. One must abandon one’s longing for lakes, for dark, wet woods, robins and earthworms and maple trees. One must find communion and allegiance where one is now.
At thirty-eight, I had lived in the Midwest all my life and had no intention to leave, but love made me a sudden defector, a runaway.
My job, my apartment, my friends, my family—like my record collection, like my leather sofa, my rocking chair—were things I could not carry.
On the first warm day of spring, I attempt a garden.
Gardens remind me of the Midwest in summer.
I plant radishes, carrots, cilantro, basil, chives, and spinach. I long for tomatoes, but the locals say they won’t grow here, and this detail makes me lust after the fecund gardens of my mother, my grandmother, my aunts.
When I tell them of this endeavor, my students suggest peas. Peas are easy to grow here.
I don’t say so, but I hate peas. Or, more precisely, I resent peas because I want tomatoes.
I build garden beds. I measure wood. I kneel on the ground and pound posts. The soil in the mountains isn’t terribly friendly to vegetables, so we order soil. I haul fifty-pound bags to the beds and empty them until they are full of ashy, manure rich dirt.
I sweat and swear. I remember my beautiful grandmother in a visor, denim shorts, a sleeveless white shirt, her big arms brown with sun as she squatted among her marigolds while I skipped through the sprinkler and blew soap bubbles in my underwear. I think of the ants in my mother’s peonies, and the bees darting in and out of my Aunt Marilynne’s raspberry bush. I think of the way I could almost taste the rain in a fresh tomato.
Three days later, a cold front moves through Flagstaff, freezing the ground. My friends in the Midwest don’t understand how it can ever be cold in Arizona, and I am forced to explain geography.
At the high altitudes it gets cold enough to murder a garden.
I used to say, “I don’t feel at home anywhere,” as though I’d ever lived anywhere but in two states: Illinois, Wisconsin. As though I’d done more but volley between Milwaukee and Chicago, following degrees and jobs until love dropped me a mile above sea level in the mountains of a state I couldn’t easily find, It’s the one next to California, right?
Two days after I moved to Arizona, I got married. Same sex marriage had only recently been legalized in the state, and my wife told the clerk she wanted a judge who doesn’t feel resentful.
I wore a purple tie and cried a lot. My wife had a cold. After the ceremony the judge walked us to the courthouse ATM so we could withdraw cash to pay the court fees.
Two months after that, I returned to Chicago to attend the launch of my first book and retrieve some of the things I’d left behind: my rocking chair, my ottoman, my books, my dog.
I rented a small car. According to Google Maps, the drive would take twenty-three hours and forty-eight minutes. I broke the trip into three sections, eight hours each, and planned hotel stays based on where I could get in each stretch.
That’s a long ass drive, my father said.
I contextualized each eight-hour section concretely: eight hours is four movies, is a whole book read slowly, is a work day, a decent night’s sleep, a single transatlantic flight. And in these terms, the drive didn’t seem insurmountable.
To subdue him in the car, I bought Benadryl for the dog. I left my parents’ house early on a Sunday morning, and my mother cried. She hadn’t cried when I bought my one-way ticket to Phoenix in December. Perhaps, I thought, there was something more permanent, more final about the packed car.
Don’t cry, I said as I hugged her. I’ll be back soon.
She nodded, and explained she’d grown quite attached to the dog, and was sad to see him go. Will you text me pictures of Bernie?
Yeah, I said, setting his crate onto the passenger seat. I’ll send pictures of the dog.
You can’t go home again, can’t step in the same river twice.
For as much as I hate platitudes, all of the ones about home feel true.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with The Wizard of Oz, and what scared me more than the witches or the flying monkeys, was the idea of being that spectacularly lost. Every time, I cried with relief when Dorothy woke up in Kansas.
There must be water, I’d marvel as we drove to Tucson to visit my wife’s parents. How do animals get water?
I’d see highway signs for a creek—Big Bug Creek, Queen Creek—only to discover the creeks were nothing more than curving dry beds where water should be.
We lived forty-five minutes from the Grand Canyon, a fact I’d use often in those first few months to entice friends and family to visit. No one ever came, and a year after I moved, my wife and I went to the Grand Canyon alone. Once there, I had the urge to peer over the rim in the impossible hope of glimpsing the rushing Colorado River below.
I need to see water, I told my wife as we walked a small portion of the canyon’s perimeter. At one point, she successfully entreated me to touch my tongue to a rock that was a million years old, so I could taste a rock that’s been around for millennia.
Days later, my wife discovered a small duck pond a few blocks from our house. We went there one afternoon and brought the dog who barked and snarled at the ducks and disturbed the people painting and fishing on the muddy shores.
My wife is from the Sonoran desert.
So, did you, like, play out here in the desert? I ask, bewildered by the very idea of a child in the desert.
Well, yeah, she laughs. Didn’t you play outside?
Yeah, I say. But there weren’t, like, you know, rattlesnakes and shit.
In the low desert, I notice how the hum of the cicadas intensifies the heat.
In that first year, the Saguaros, with their upward reach, looked like children begging to be picked up, to be plucked from the dry earth.
I think they’re waving hello, my wife said. Or dancing, or praising the sun.
On Phoenix, we agreed.
My wife called it a testament to human arrogance.
I called it, a city for people who actually hate cities.
The truth is that Phoenix was developed by Midwesterners who declared war on the topography with campaigns to “do away with the desert”: crude how-to’s on killing rattlesnakes and cacti, and growing a verdant lawn in a region where there is no water.
On the drive from Chicago to Flagstaff, the dog and I stayed in cheap motels.
The first was in Springfield, Missouri. That night, I dreamed my wife had joined the Merchant Marines; dreamed my new bride had left me irrevocably in pursuit of a peculiar personal ambition I knew nothing about.
The whole trip, I dreamt exclusively of loss. When I awoke in Missouri, the dog was barking at his reflection in a closet mirror, and I called my wife, told her about the dream: It was so strange . . .
No sooner had the phrase come out of my mouth than I remembered an English Professor who crossed out every occurrence of “it” in my poetry. Useless word, she said. A crutch. And I imagined bracing myself on an “I,” the letter’s foot snugly in my armpit.
For the rest of my life I would admonish “it,” tell my students, Avoid it.
On the highway, west of the Mississippi, the country grew unwieldy, the dog slipped into a Benadryl coma, the radio went static, and I was deep inside of an it: sexless, inarticulate, tedious.
I felt afraid.
Was I supposed to fear it?
What was it?
Was it the ants in my mother’s peonies; the sun setting in a Milwaukee alley the night before I first met my wife, tornado drills in elementary school, a dandelion struggling through a sidewalk crack, contraband cigarettes atop the sled hill in spring, the gray lake quivering, carrying cats to the basement when the storms got serious, playing marbles alone in a crawlspace, lightning, lightning, lightning–
Home is this; the wider, more sibilant sibling of it–
And the migration west was a sentence with awkward diction and fucked syntax: all this and all it.
Through the shaggy crops and still, red ponds of Oklahoma, the radio resurfaced to David Byrne singing, It was not an accident at all.
We rent the front part of a house near downtown Flagstaff. Our front yard faces a busy intersection, and all my students know where I live.
I saw you yelling at your dog, a student tells me.
This house, built in the 50s, is sinking into the ground. Random items are belched from the foundation: spools of thread, hairpins, bottle caps from beer that’s been discontinued.
The cats are happy with the gifts from the house, but we are disquieted.
In winter, we also get mice. Sarah doesn’t want to kill them, but I am triggered by their presence, remembering the summer before I left Chicago for Milwaukee—the rats from the alley invaded my ground floor one-bedroom.
My girlfriend at the time didn’t want me to kill those either, advised I find “live traps.”
They’re rats, I argued. They carry plague. They’re a fucking scourge. Even Jesus hated rats.
They’re living creatures, she rebutted.
Unbeknownst to her, ahead of a trip to Iowa, I bought blocks of green poison and half a dozen kill traps. I figured I would return to rodent carcasses. Instead, I found all the poison disappeared, and the traps ominously dragged against the back door, bait-less.
Unlike the Chicago rats, the mice in Flagstaff keep themselves to our garage, startling me when I go out to do laundry.
I bring up Hantavirus. You’ll be a widow, and all because you couldn’t bear to kill a mouse.
You won’t get Hantavirus, Sarah says. God wouldn’t do that to you.
God talk rattles me.
Faith confounds me.
Religion is the exposed root end of some existential nerve, a wet live wire down, a series of hot shocks.
And though most dykes I ever knew were agnostic at best, my wife can quote scripture. In her blood, Mormon and Greek Orthodox comingle in precise, equal measure. In me: city immigrant Catholicism, rural Protestant zealotry.
Death, in the Christian tradition, is “home.” We “go home” to God. As a child this euphemism perplexed me: how can we go home to a place we can’t remember?
Are we in Heaven before we’re born? I asked Sister Enid. What I meant was, “Are we dead before we’re born?”
In the theological sense, home is less about place and more about a feeling—a feeling of purpose. As in, one is “supposed to” be with God.
But the distinction between where you’re supposed to be and where you want to be matters.
Home is where the heart is.
There’s no place like home.
Love is a kind of home, and yet, the heart can totally displace a person.
When I was a kid I did not want to fall in love. I feared growing up because I thought adulthood meant life in a big, dark city with a man and many children, and so I resolved that if I could not support myself with a career in roller-skating or writing, I would become a nun.
Ultimately, I would live in a big, dark city, but alone. Ultimately, I would fall in love but only with women who made me feel most like a martyr.
I would feel devoid of miracles. I would forget how to pray. But I would always be in possession of a fierce willingness to die for some romantic cause: the straight girl, the girl who settled for me, the girl with a drug habit.
Marriage is a sacrament, and sacraments are absolutes. Absolutes make me uneasy and yet, despite my unease, I was converted.
The drive from Chicago to Flagstaff is my devotional: how I ride past yawning fields and road signs for small towns imploring travelers to stop and behold their eccentricities, how I tolerate country music on a bad frequency, how I endure the sensation of falling down the wide, dry, throat of America with my comatose dog and my hands at ten-and-two.
When the dog and I trip suddenly into Texas, I am not surprised that such a godless geography begets religious fanaticism.
We stay in Amarillo, a city stitched up in train tracks. My friend John Paul says he was born here, and it seems hard to believe that anyone could be born here.
The motel is situated on a dreary frontage road. Nearby, large, unmarked white storage bins sit behind a chain link fence on which hangs a sign that reads, “All copper has been stolen from this facility. Keep out.”
Translation, What you want isn’t here.
Amarillo was what I might have conjured had one said, “imagine Texas”—a crime scene, cruel in its lack of pretense.
Though March, and somewhat cool, the city seemed like a place whose natural state was set to scorch—the chill in the air nothing but a fleeting, gentle derangement in the body of an evil.
Before checking into the motel, I stopped at a convenience store to buy Diet Coke and peanuts for dinner. At the cooler, I became aware of the one-armed cashier and his friend, a wide woman with high, drawn-on eyebrows and a neck tattoo. I noticed them noticing me.
There’s a town at the base of the mountain that Sarah calls “Killdyke, Arizona” because of its rampant social conservatism, its endless stretches of unsettled desert where a body would never be found.
Rural America never felt the same to me after Matthew Shepard.
In the convenience store, I feel inexplicably frightened, and return to the room hungry, feed the dog on the floor.
I call my wife and tell her I’ve arrived in Killdyke, Texas.
When she asks, “why?” I cannot explain.
Nothing happened, I say. It’s just a feeling I got.
It was the silence in that store. It was the feeling of the Texas panhandle, the alien oil rigs pumping, the windmills turning in the dust. It was the drive, my frank willingness to leave, and all that time on the road to think about the years I believed I was safely moored. It was how easy the unmooring was.
By late the next afternoon, I’d be docked in Flagstaff.
Who’s ever heard of Flagstaff? I thought.
The first time I visited Sarah in Arizona, we went to Walnut Canyon—a smaller, lesser known sibling of the Grand Canyon.
Below the rim of the canyon, the limestone walls are trenched with ancient pueblos, homesteads of a now extinct Native American tribe, known by archaeologists as the Sinagua—so named in accordance with what the Spanish called this region: Sierra de Sin Agua, mountains without water. Like me, the explorers defined the area by what was lacking.
The Sinagua lived in the canyon not out of desire, but necessity. They followed what little water they could get. When the snows came to the high desert, they fell into the basin of the canyon, melting and supplying enough water for months.
As we made our way down the canyon trail, we ducked into these dwellings and marveled at the sheerness of the stony cliffs just feet from where the long gone occupants once would have slept, cooked meals, raised children.
How many toddlers tumbled off these cliffs? I wondered out loud.
In a home this perilous, loss of life must have been constant. Or perhaps the ancient inhabitants were more sure footed.
Southwesterners, in general, have to be more surefooted than most. With an abundance of mesas, cliffs and canyons, there are plenty of edges to fall off of.
The early inhabitants of Arizona, like the Sinagua, were stuck where they were. There would have been no purpose in complaining about the heat, or imagining some far away wetter climate.
In summer months, valley dwellers drive up the mountain to escape the heat. In the time it takes to listen to Houses of the Holy, one can find oneself in a better, more inhabitable climate.
It’s still crazy to me, I told Sarah during our last drive to Tucson. I leaned over into the driver’s seat to watch the dashboard temperature gauge climb significantly in the forty-five minutes between Flagstaff and Sedona. I’m struck by a thought, and laugh, It would be like driving from Milwaukee to Sheboygan to avoid the cold. In the Midwest, if you want to escape the weather, you have to get on a plane.
Knowing I profoundly miss Illinois and even Wisconsin at times, Sarah says, See, there are things to appreciate about Arizona.
Where are the snakes? I ask Sarah, once we reach the desert. I’ve lived here over a year and I still haven’t seen a fucking snake.
Oh, they’re out there, Sarah assures me. It’s like a Whitman’s sampler, but of snakes.
Strangely, I like this thought. I’m impressed that most things in the Sonoran Desert can kill a person. No one, that I’m aware of, has ever been mauled to death by a deer. Nothing in the Midwest, but the cold, fatally bites.
Of course, there are the random bear sightings, random coyote sightings. When I was in graduate school, an Orangutan got loose in the Chicago suburb of Elgin. The first woman to report it, was dismissed as a drunk. That same year, a cougar found its way into the city proper, and Mayor Daley faced great criticism after ordering Chicago Police Officers to shoot it. The fact is it was a damn cougar, he said during a press conference. In traditional Daley fashion, he was red-faced, gripping the podium, on the verge of belligerence. We can’t have cougars running around the city.
The second time I ever spoke to my wife, she told me about eating Oleander as a child. A ton of it, she said, describing how she folded the gorgeous, soft petals onto her tongue. It was too beautiful not to eat.
This resulted in a trip to the emergency room.
I told her about Nightshade, my father poking a cluster of ruby red berries, instructing me not to touch them, much less eat them. They’ll kill you, he said, bluntly. The deadly fruit was gorgeous, glistening like gemstones, and this was one of the first things I ever learned about beauty: you don’t consume beauty, you observe beauty from a safe distance. Women and art museums often confirmed the legitimacy of this lesson.
The highway to Tucson is surrounded by flat, dry land, coppery dust devils spin up from the earth and mountains rise on the horizon. The sky, as Sarah describes it, is clean and rinsed.
When I first brought her to Chicago in February, she complained she couldn’t see the sky.
What are you even talking about? I laughed, pointing up. The sky. There it is.
Clouds, she said. All I can see are heavy clouds.
She was right. The sun was imperceptible. This was the first time I realized that not everything above me was sky.
Fuck, I sighed in reticent agreement. We can’t see the goddamn sky.
I remembered riding the 151 bus with my friend Dana. She was in Chicago for school, and couldn’t wait to finish and return to the west coast. As we rode alongside Lake Michigan, she clutched her neck and emphatically observed, Christ, the lake looks so lonely.
For a moment, I saw the lake as she saw the lake—a shivering gray expanse upon which nothing could ever grow. Desolate and unsteady, maybe even a space to fear.
But mostly, for me, Lake Michigan was safe, a familiar story.
By contrast the desert seems primitive, overly harsh.
In time, however, I come to see that the prickly pears have a puppy-like quality, and that bats are curiously beautiful shadows, and that sunsets in the Catalina Foothills hemorrhage hues most exquisitely.
I have learned that baby rattlesnakes are most deadly, as they don’t yet know how to control the release of their venom. I learn that cacti contain tap roots that can store water for months. I learn that pack rats, which are more like rabbit-hamster hybrids than rats at all, have made cozy homes of the palm trees that are beloved in, but not native to, the region. I’ve learned that sometimes, even in the driest part of the Sonoran desert, it rains for several days in a row, and the locals call this a “monsoon.” In this respect, though hostile and severe, the desert is not without mercy.
Still, I miss water. I miss Lake Michigan; with every passing month the lake becomes the memory of a story I once heard. Home too becomes a story that with each new telling evolves into mountains rising outside of my classroom window, into the tomatoes that don’t grow, and far into the desert that is its own story of perseverance, impermanence.
© Allison Gruber
[This piece was selected by Sommer Schafer. Read Allison’s interview]
Allison Gruber is the author of You’re Not Edith (George Braziller Inc, 2015) which was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her work has appeared in Gravel, The Literary Review, Foliate Oak, and The Huffington Post among many others. A Chicago native, Gruber now teaches literature and creative writing in Flagstaff, Arizona where she lives with her wife.