In April of 2003, Jason and I cashed in our air miles, earned one bottle of tequila at a time, for 2 plane tickets. We wanted to go anywhere, and nowhere in particular. So Jason threw a dart at a map, and we booked our tickets for Phoenix, Arizona. We decided on a random date in July and decided to let the wind take us where it may. We made no hotel reservations. We knew nothing about the area, and we didn't even buy a map. We ticked the days off the calendar.
A month before we were set to leave, I got a phone call. After months of waiting, I had finally made it to the top of the list for my elective knee surgery. I couldn't believe that after a relatively easy procedure requiring only a few short days in the hospital and small, laproscopic incisions, I could actually live a life with 2 fully functional knees. My surgery was scheduled for 2 weeks hence. Nearly every day, I was weepy with the thought of walking, sitting, bending without the pain that had become part of my daily life.
Unfortunately, this marred our vacation plans. There was a good chance I would be mobile in the 2 weeks post-surgery, but there's a big difference between hobbling around on crutches and free to enjoy a much-anticipated vacation.
Four tiny holes were drilled into my knee, and plastic parts made up for where my kneecap was deficient. I was pleased with the results, a model physical therapy patient, but I was completely dependent on demerol and crutches to get me through the day. I was in no condition to go exploring, but we went anyway. We're like that.
The plane ride was actually the worst part. My knee screamed in pain until I took enough demerol to pass out.
Phoenix to my eye looked pretty much like any other big city in any other place, so we didn't stay there long. We forrayed into small, dusty towns and I was delighted to see a real live cactus for the first time in my life. Small town Arizona struck me as one big commercial for ranch salad dressing. There weren't as many fringe-trimmed suede jackets as I had hoped to see, but there plenty of corny cliches walking around to keep a bemused smirk on my face the entire time.
Remembering Arizona for me is like looking at a photo album that's been smeared with vats of vaseline. We sent ourselves postcards from all the nameless towns we passed through, and when we received them back home, my handwriting was unrecognizable and illegible.
One night does stick out in my mind. It was the last night of our 10-day visit. July was drawing to an end, and I sat outside drinking rum and diet pepsi, watching the burning sun set from the balcony of our posh hotel room downtown in Phoenix. Jason was wrapped in sweaty sheets, with no hope of regaining consciousness anytime in the next 10 hours. I slurped up the last dregs of my drink, and I maneuvered myself down to the street, where I found a little bench to sit on.
I sat out there, in the cooling night air, for hours, just thinking. I was so high that thinking must have been quite a challenge, but I don't remember it that way. I remember being quite content to sit on the little bench. It was probably my favourite part of the vacation.
It was maybe midnight when I realized I had been sitting there for a stretch of time. I didn't particularly want to get up, even if I could, which was doubtful since my knee was surely stiff and impossible by this time. But I didn't get up; I was transfixed by the sudden appearance of a not unfriendly companion. He sat on the ground, near me but not too near. He made deep sounds in his throat, and he smiled at me gently. I thought briefly about being afraid of this stranger, but discarded the thought and put out my hand to touch him gently on the shoulder. It sent a thrill through me to have a secret moment out in unfamiliar streets.
"Nice night" I observed.
"I'm from Canada" I proclaimed proudly, if disjointedly. Conversation was not my forte in my overly-medicated and overly-liquored state. He laughed at that, a snorting, surprised laugh. I liked him immensely for it.
He asked me if I believed in God, and if I was happy, and whether I had ever tasted rain. We talked for hours. He told me he liked my magenta hair. I told him I liked his stripes.
He thought about this for a while. "Yeah" he said, "I like them too."
When dawn seemed to be breaking in the spaces between sky scrapers, it was time for him to go. I told him I had never met such a gentle, pensive tiger before, and he was pleased with this remark. We both ambled off in opposite directions.
Jason stirred when crawled into bed with him.
"Where have you been?" he asked.
"I don't know. Not far. I just sat and talked."
"Talked to who? Was he cute?" suddenly Jason was wide awake.
"No, not cute. He was a tiger."
"A tiger? As in, a real tiger?"
Quiet. The room was saturated in quiet.
"Yes, Jason. A tiger."
"Oh hun, we need to get you off these demerols."
And with that, he put a firm arm around me, and fell back to sleep. Eventually, I followed him down into the inky sleep of the heavily drugged.
The next morning, we scurried around trying to pack in haste, late as usual for a plane that would most definitely take off without us. Every once in a while, he would laugh quietly to himself, and mumble something about the tiger.
It was a mistake to tell him, maybe. Some things should stay secrets. I let him track down the socks and shampoos and souvenirs. I sat, nursing my knee, sipping orange juice and eating toast. I read the complimentary newspaper, starting with the funnies, as I always do, and ending up on the front page.
"Tiger Escapes From Local Zoo!" the headline cried. I thought to myself that they needn't be so sensationalist; he's a friendly fellow. I folded the newspaper neatly, and tossed it in the garbage.
"Anything interesting?" Jason asked.
And we turned off the lights, and left Arizona behind us.