Monday, July 18, 2005

Monsoons in Tucson

Play the Podcast (downloadable mp3 file)

The monsoon storm approached in the form of cumulus clouds, and the breeze was suddenly cool. I was glad Dad was meeting me while I was in Tucson for an end-of-the-summer, pre-semester vacation. I was looking forward to meeting him and spending time discussing career possibilities. The truth was, I was dreading going back to school, and his talk about guiding me, and helping me get started with my own business made me feel buoyantly optimistic. I imagined posh vacations and shopping in designer boutiques fancied by Japanese tourists.

My enthusiasm was tempered somewhat by the realization that I’d have to break the news, somewhere along the way, that I had dented the rental car.

Worse than that, I had crushed the rear end of the car I backed into in the parking lot outside Macy’s where I had been browsing through their Monsoon Madness sale items. It was discouraging to see the victim’s tire go flat right before my eyes.

Thankfully, I had accidentally failed to decline Budget Rental Car’s pricy supplemental insurance coverage. I needed to let them know their car had inflicted damage to an innocent victim’s treasured 1978 Chevrolet Malibu. I would not have to pay anything out of pocket, though.

There were two advantages to going to Tucson during August. First, it was a great time to take a break before the fall semester cranked up. Second, it was “monsoon” season, which meant hot mornings, early afternoons, and the possibility of violent thunderstorms in the late afternoon and early evening hours.

I loved monsoon season. Perhaps that was because I grew up in “tornado alley” and I loved the electricity of impending storms, the drama of the wind, hail, and violent winds, and the aftermath with its intense rainbows, flooded streets, and the sweet smell of scrubbed air and wet dirt.

The clouds were already amassing, but the day was still sultry as I prepared to meet Dad, who was arriving from Reno. I was alone. It might have seemed strange for a 21-year-old to want to vacation alone, but I wanted time to decompress, explore, read books, sleep late, drive aimlessly through the desert, foothills, and mountains. I was celebrating the successful end of a summer job as a summer geologist for Texas Oil and Gas.

I was also forestalling the inevitable. I was going to have to face the guy I once considered a boyfriend, until I opened up one of the boxes he asked me to store over the summer. Actually, the box fell open as I was putting it in my parent’s garage. To my horror, it was stuffed full of hard-core skin magazines.

“If Mother sees this, she’ll have a fit,” I told my best friend, Jan. Jan laughed unsympathetically.
“You’ve got that right. Your mom will flip out.” She picked up one of the magazines. After opening it, she quickly slammed it shut and put it back in the box.

“This is disgusting. I told you there was something really slimy and insincere about him,” she said. “Something is seriously wrong with him.”

I sighed. Hutch had not really appealed to me at first, but Dad knew Hutch’s grandfather.

“Very nice, very successful,” Dad said. “I really liked Hutch’s grandfather. He became quite wealthy, too. You should give Hutch a chance. He’s from a good family.”

Dad was wrong, it seemed. Hutch was not the sort of guy you could rely on. If he said he would show up, perhaps he would, perhaps he wouldn’t. He was invariably an hour or two late for everything. Most of the time he seemed terribly impaired. Instead of being flush with cash, as one might expect the grandson of a prominent businessman to be, Hutch was always broke.

To top it off, he expected me to store pornography in my parents’ garage.

“Being 21, I have certain illusions and expectations of guys,” I explained to Jan. “I expect a relationship to be one of starlight, dreams, trust, and respect. I think there should be a kind of magic in it all, too.”

“It’s the bare minimum,” said Jan. “The guy should also be financially solvent and show up within 15 minutes of when he says he’ll pick you up.”

“But, in the overall scheme of things, a 21-year-old male of the species is probably the worst thing in the world to fall in love with. They’re out of control and crazy – busy learning from their mistakes. Piaget says the brain is mature by age 25. Perhaps by 30, they can keep from breaking someone’s heart.”

Jan secured the cover of the box. She placed a box containing geology and math textbooks over it. It was hot in the garage and her fine, reddish-brown hair was curling around the edges, and her brown eyes glittered.

“If you figure it out, let me know,” she said. Then I remembered that Jan had just gone through her own unrequited love ordeal. On some level she was probably relishing this opportunity for female bonding. If this is what it took to cement a female friendship, I hoped my close female friends would be few and far between, I thought dismally.

Suddenly it seemed urgent to avoid Norman, Oklahoma the week before the start of classes. Hutch would no doubt come by my parents’ house for his things, and Jan would want to talk about how he most likely satisfied his evidently rapacious libido. Ick.

I would go on a trip. Some of the best trips were brief weekend trips alone, where I flew somewhere and simply explored. Sometimes my reasons for traveling were academically inspired: one weekend was spent near Golden, Colorado, as I contemplated transferring to the Colorado School of Mines. Another was spent around Salt Lake City, as I investigated the university in Logan, the University of Utah (in Salt Lake City), and Brigham Young University (in Provo). Each school had a completely different atmosphere. Of all of them, the University of Utah appealed to me most. I applied to transfer there, was accepted, but then at the last moment, did not go.

The palm trees were swaying in the wind as I walked into the Tucson airport. I suspected that it would be raining by the time Dad and I left. I failed to bring an umbrella, I thought, wryly. Oh well, an umbrella might attract lightning. Each year in Tucson, a handful of individuals were struck by lighting as they raced across golf courses, the wet decks of swimming pools, and parking lots to seek shelter from the pounding monsoon rains.

Although I enjoyed traveling alone, I was no loner. In fact, I did not relish the idea of leaving home. It was a pleasure to live with my parents, although I did feel the pressure to do the “normal” coming of age things, and to get an apartment my senior year, and to take jobs in other towns for the summers.

“How was your flight?” I greeted Dad casually, trying to think about how I would break the news about the rental car. I decided I would pretend to have carefully analyzed the contract and, after conducting a mental risk assessment, I chose to pay the extra daily premium for additional insurance. That, rather than the reality – that I had failed to decline the insurance – would make a nice story. I would look prudent and in control, just as a future young female business tycoon should look.

Back home in Norman, I enjoyed going on long walks with Dad, as he discussed his business strategies and decision-making process. Practicing the piano and listening to my mother compliment my playing were also very reassuring.

The trips I took alone, or with my sister or with Dad were magical. Everything seemed fantastic and new. Although I disliked shopping at home, I loved exploring the various malls and boutiques in Tucson. The “Haunted Bookshop” on Ina Road in North Tucson attracted me with its extensive collection of geology books, Victorian novels, and books on spirituality. Behind the bookstore was a little nature walk where one could browse around, enjoy the cactus in bloom, drip irrigated in gravel and sand. Occasionally, I’d see a Gambel’s Quail and a little desert pack rat.

“The approach was pretty rough. Monsoon season,” said Dad. He looked a bit green.

“Well, you're on the ground now! Hungry yet?” I asked. Dad smiled in affirmation.

“You bet.” I headed down the escalator to the baggage claim and rental car area. Dad interjected. “I just have a carry-on,” he said. “No baggage.”

“You’re right. Well, I need to stop by the rental car agency – I need to give them the accident report,” I blurted out, all my rehearsed prefatory statements having vanished like mirages of water on a desert highway.

“The what?” Dad stopped in his tracks. “Are you okay? Was anyone hurt? What happened?”

I could see images of accordioned cars flicker through his eyes. Well. I certainly blew this, I thought.

“It was just a fender-bender in the Macy’s parking lot. But, I need to let the rental agency know.” I paused for breath. “I took out the maximum amount of insurance, so there’s not even a deductible to pay.”

“Good thinking,” said Dad. He still looked preoccupied. “One of these days, they’ll probably increase the minimum age to rent a car. You’re lucky it’s 21.”

Traveling alone would not be quite as fun without the ability to drive and explore, I thought. The vacation so far had been enchanted. One night, I felt bold and made reservations for one at a 5-star restaurant, The Tack Room. By the time I arrived, I was quite ravenous, my body euphoric and hungry after a day of horseback riding, swimming, and reading. After dinner, I walked outside and looked at the skies thick with stars, felt the warm summer breezes on my arms, torso, neck and face, and contemplated the saguaro cacti, standing like bizarre semaphore signalling men with outstretched arms.

One afternoon, after driving back from Kitt Peak and the astronomical observatory, a monsoon resulted in flash floods. I waited at the edge of a torrent of water rushing through a low “wash,” and ephemeral stream bed that generally only contained water after sudden rainstorms. It took at least 30 minutes for the water level to drop enough for it to become passable. In the meantime, I watched the cars and pickup trucks ahead of me attempting to cross. Many were long-time residents or natives, and they had experience in gauging the power of the flash flood or monsoon streams. Snowbirds were long gone in August, and not expected back until December.

“You sort of like it out here, don’t you?” said Dad, contemplatively. I nodded silently as we walked out to the car. He had been surprisingly supportive and uncritical of my lack of driving skill. “Perhaps you could set up your office here, one of these days, after you get your business firmly established.”

I felt the rain come in a rush, horizontal slashes of raindrops and bright razors of light rippedinto the space between sand and sky.

It was a great idea, but I wouldn’t want to do it alone. Thunder rolled, and raindrops pounded the car. I thought of walks with Dad, piano practice with Mother, long, unraveled skeins of conversation with Jan about men, meaning, and material possessions. Travel was one thing, day-to-day living was another.