When I'm home for Christmas, I run. I run because I have nothing better to do and because I won't accept the holiday season as an excuse for sloth. In spite of this, I always manage to put on a few pounds. Phoenix has never agreed with my ass.
My mother no longer lives in the house where I grew up. Ten years ago, she moved to a bigger house a few blocks away. It is the same neighborhood, dense with the standard issue white stucco, red-roofed homes. This is southwestern suburban living: rocks instead of grass, a barrel cactus or palm tree in the yard. The streets are empty -- even in the 70-degree winter, no one really hangs around outside. When I ran on Christmas day, I saw a few kids riding their new bikes, but generally there are few signs of life. So I run around like I own the place, through the housing developments with the meaningless names I remember from childhood: "Discovery at the Orchard" and "Peppermill Run." I sing along with my Ipod, something I would never do in L.A. When I was a kid, I had a song called "Peppermill Run" that I sang, loudly, as I rode my bike through the empty streets.
I like to run the bleachers and track at my old high school, which I never did as a student. I ran there the day after Christmas, a Sunday, and found men in masks and worksuits, spraying the track the color of so many desert rocks, burnt sienna. So I kept running, past the high school into a part of Peoria I forget exists: a few blocks of older, sprawling ranch-style homes with orange trees in their front yards and barns in the back. There are no sidewalks here, the road is lined with dirt, and a few of these homes feature horses grazing in their front yards. One horse, white with big brown patches, nodded as I ran past, and I recalled the first time I saw a horse with an erection, its penis dragging along the ground like some giant parasitic worm out of a horror movie. Still, I saw no people. Growing up, I never knew the kids who lived in these non-stucco homes.
We moved to Arizona from Long Island when I was eight. We moved because the cost of living was so much lower -- it was a place where my mother could afford to buy a home, something that was very important to her, but remains of little consequence to me. It was also a place where there would be no shortage of employment: my mother is a nurse on the assisted living circuit and Arizona is where old people go to die. Our town, Peoria, borders Sun City on the east. Sun City is the nation's oldest retirement community, constructed in the 1960s by Del Webb. It is 98.5% white and you can drive a golf cart through the streets.
"I'm getting old, Meg," my mother said on Christmas. She'd been lamenting the implementation of computers at her workplace, the transition to electronic med charts. She doesn't know how to type let alone navigate any kind of digital interface and she's having a hard time keeping up. "I'm older than some of my patients now."
My mom often works holidays because she is paid time and a half. We spent Christmas morning together until she disappeared into the bathroom for her daily grooming ritual. Meanwhile, I went running. I was sitting sweaty in the living room when she emerged two hours later looking basically the same.
And then it was off to the old folks home for her 3-11 shift.
I took the mostly deserted Loop 101 to Rick's family's North Phoenix home. I exited 7th Avenue and made a left on Utopia, where churches guarded both sides of the intersection: Methodist to the west, Church of the Nazarene to the east.
For Christmas dinner, we ate crab from the shell. It was my first time. I used a nutcracker and crab juice splattered across my glasses.
Afterward, Rick and I retired to the guest room we were sharing, our clothes, luggage and Christmas gifts strewn everywhere, an obstacle course to be conquered. We curled up in bed and watched Wasteland Utopias on the giant flat screen TV. The documentary makes tenuous connections between psychiatrist/naturalist Wilhelm Reich and construction mogul Del Webb, two men with divergent utopian visions. While Webb was erecting Sun City on the western edge of suburban Phoenix's sprawl, Reich was approximately 200 miles southeast, trying to make rain with his cloudbuster, a device that could drain the atomosphere of Deadly Orgone or DOR. Reich believed that DOR was the antithesis of Orgone, a term he coined to describe a primordial cosmic energy associated with libido.
Reich believed that desert-living was conducive to DOR poisoning, hence his cloudbusting experiments in the Sonoran Desert. In addition to "a dull gaze in the eyes, with an expression of despair of the face . . . emotional outbursts of hatred," Reich wrote that diarrhea is a symptom of DOR poisoning.
When I arrived on my mother's doorstep Christmas eve, my stomach was in knots, and she hugged me so hard I thought I might crap. She clung to me like a hungry parasite and I felt her curved spine, the growing hump on her back. She shook as she sobbed and I fantasized about a porcelain bowl. When I finally extricated myself from her grip, I headed straight to the downstairs bathroom and clogged the toilet. A few ill-advised flushes later, I stood ankle-deep in my own dirty water, dreaming up a way to get out of this shit.