"Prices may be higher for single travellers, people may stare and maitre d's in dumping restaurants may hassle me. But life is short, and trips shorter. I've reached a point where I've decided to deal with both on my own terms. - Susan Spano ("Table For One")
"Good morning!" The receptionist at the Hilton Garden Inn beamed broadly when I walked through the door. "How are you?"
I parked my suitcase in front of the desk and commenced to getting out my passport and credit cards. "I'm fantastic..." I glanced up from my wallet to read her name tag, "Chelsea. How are you?"
"A little tired," she laughed, "but it's early." She checked me in and told me my room was ready now. In the interest of polite conversation, she asked if I was here for business or pleasure. "Where are you from?" She wanted to know when I told her I was just visiting Scottsdale for a few days.
"Wow," she marvelled. "And you came all the way down here?"
I paused, trying to decide from which angle to attack this question. "You know, Chelsea," I smiled finally, handing her my credit card, "at some point you and I may need to have a longer conversation."
I swiped myself into my air-conditioned palace of a room, flicked on the light and sighed. It was the Hilton. What more needs to be said? As always, shower first. Then sleep. Despite the twenty-six-hour transfer, I wasn't even sure I wanted to sleep. I was too energized from the sheer bliss of being here, from the thrill of seeing my luggage tumble down the baggage chute, intact and wholly and completely HERE. A perfect game. Once that concern was behind me, it didn't take long for the magnificent reality to sink in that I was back in Arizona, my home away from home. It was a place I hadn't been in years and, for a time, a place I worried I might never see again. Getting clean and rested sounded like a waste of my time here. I wanted to go out and do, see, be.
But the steady, unending stream of scalding water melted my enthusiasm, relaxing my muscles so I felt every second of travel I'd endured over the past three months as well as the past day. Maybe I could just lay down and close my eyes for a few minutes... The bed was soft and white and so big I could lay sideways across it without my feet reaching the edge. I turned on the widescreen TV. The remote worked and everything. I marvelled at the fact that every single channel was in English. There was one I could always watch no matter what was on. I flipped instinctively to the Food Network. Diners Drive-Ins and Dives was playing. I fell asleep listening to Guy Fieri's obnoxious guido voice describing too much food as "out of bounds" and "off the hook". I woke up starving, and made a beeline for the only restaurant idea I had.
I was sixteen the first time I came to Arizona. We always vacationed somewhere warm for Spring Break, and my mother and stepfather hadn't been able to decide between the desert and the Caribbean, so they let me pick. I'd weighed my options: jungles and coconut cocktails, or cowboys and tumbleweeds. One of the first places we ate in Scottsdale was the Cheesecake Factory. I remember rifling through the novel of a menu, drooling over every item I saw. My eyes sparkled when I got to the last page. Cheesecake was my favourite dessert back then. I remember feeling as though everything about this fabulous, perfect state had been designed just for me.
Seven years later, when I took my table for one in the gaudy dining room, I didn't even look at the menu. Cheeseburger was the only thing on my mind. Good old-fashioned Americana. I ordered a Dulce de Leche milkshake to go along with it, and was given an abrupt reminder of American excess when a foot-high glass overflowing with whipped cream and caramel sauce arrived in front of me.
I may have steeled my stomach with adventurous eats from all over the world, but it was no match for the richness of American food. I got through half the burger, a quarter of the fries, all of the shake and about four bites of cheesecake. It was toasted-marshmallow-s'mores-flavoured, with a filling of solid Hershey's chocolate. I waddled over to the Barnes and Noble, which I knew was in the same plaza from memory. There I basked in the same wonder I'd experienced flipping through the channels in my hotel room. Except for one microscopic corner in the back, EVERY SINGLE book was in English. It was the inversion of the bookstores I'd combed abroad, desperately hunting for one section, even one volume of English literature. Now I had shelves upon shelves of fiction, travel essays, cookbooks, histories, biographies, memoirs, religious and political tomes, two whole floors at my fingertips. And I could read every word. I felt like Belle in Beauty and the Beast when the beast presents her with her own library - more books than I could ever desire in a lifetime. There is something to be said for American excess.
Arizona and I spent the next few days getting reacquainted, like old friends. I was surprised and delighted to discover that, after everywhere I'd been, Arizona was still my favourite place in the world. I hadn't expected it to live up to its memory. I thought it would be a let-down, but, as impossible as it seemed, it still outshone everything else I'd seen and done by a mile.
I loved that there were bronze statues of horses in the fountains. I loved that there were entire stores dedicated to western and riding apparel, and I loved that, when I went into one to buy a long-coveted pair of cowboy boots, there was country music playing and the sixty-something owner in the cowboy hat was saying that he only had thirty dogs now. "Oh," the saleswoman remarked wryly, "the herd is thinning."
"Yeah well that's just 'cause they keep dyin'," he explained.
I loved the twanging accents. I loved the cowboy culture. I loved the authentic Mexican food (chicken mole was perhaps my favourite dish in the world), and the restaurant scene so competitive it made finding even a mediocre meal impossible. I loved that the streets were named things like "Broken Arrow" and "Drinkwater Blvd". I loved the turquoise jewellery hand-crafted by Native Americans. I loved the cacti and the red rocks and the mountains that turned purple at dusk. Most of all I loved the sun and the sky. I even loved the heat. I thrived in it. It was dry and embracing, nothing like the suffocating humidity of Greece, or Windsor for that matter. And it stood by you, loyally, through the winter.
I'd never felt I belonged more anywhere else. Everything about this place called to me, like the love of your life you couldn't help returning to over and over, because they were The One. The more time I spent here, the less I was able to shake the certainty that the next time I came back, I wouldn't be leaving. I wouldn't be able to.
Something strange happened, too. I stopped moving. I read recently in one of the short stories in A Woman Alone: Travel Tales From Around the Globe that stillness is just as important as movement in travel. I'm beginning to understand what the author meant. I spent large chunks of the day channel-surfing from my bed, something I hadn't done in years. Whenever I used to watch TV at home, it was on a proper couch in a proper living room. I knew exactly what I wanted to watch, since school and work schedules forced me to be selective, and my shows were always PVR'ed, because I never had time to watch them when they aired. I couldn't remember the last time I actually sat through a commercial.
If I didn't feel like watching TV, I would lay in bed in the middle of the day and read. Sometimes I would fall asleep, even if I'd gotten more than enough sleep the night before. Sometimes I would just stare into space, and an hour would pass without me having a single conscious thought. There was just...nothing going on up there. It took me a few days to recognize this stillness, this silence for what it was: confidence. Security. My brain wasn't cluttered with worries and obsessive-compulsive details, because I knew that whatever happened now, I would be able to deal with it. Maybe it had been this way all along. The only difference was, I hadn't known it before now. I was relishing the rest. I was relishing the reflection.
I dedicated one of my first days in Scottsdale to rest and recovery. It seemed like the perfect place for it. I booked a full-body massage first thing in the morning, and ate chocolate and plantain chips for breakfast while laying in bed watching True Grit on HBO, because I didn't feel like going out. The Hilton arranged a golf cart to take me to the spa, where I checked in and was given plastic flip-flops and a big, white, fluffy robe. I sat in the lounge reading a new-to-me issue of Travel and Leisure and sipping fresh-brewed iced tea from the fruit and beverage bar while I waited for my masseuse. Or should I say 'masseur'? I should have taken the cue when the receptionist asked me over the phone if I preferred a female massage therapist, or if I was okay with a male. I told her it didn't matter. And it didn't. I viewed massage treatments in the same light as doctors appointments. I expected them to be conducted in a wholly professional manner. Most male therapists were gay anyway, and the strength, size and warmth of their hands often made for a better massage than those given by women.
At least that was my attitude until I met my masseur that day. He was tall, built like a jock, in his twenties, and straight. I found that out when I told him I'd come from Peru, and he said he had an ex-girlfriend who lived in South America. With an uncomfortable twist of my stomach, I realized I'd not only given him legal and personal consent to touch my naked body, I'd also let him know, on the medical form I'd filled out prior to the appointment, that I was on birth control. I'd thought I was being cute: "Are you currently on any medications?" "Yes," I'd written. "Tri-Cyclen." And then in brackets, "birth control". "Are you currently pregnant?" "No," I'd written, and then in brackets, "see above." The possibility of a man being the one to read it never crossed my mind. Now regret washed through my body as efficiently as the colour flooding my face.
Once I got over the initial mortification, the massage turned out to be one of the best I'd ever had. Instead of being uncomfortable with a man's hands on me I didn't know, I latched on to the opportunity to enjoy the physical contact without the annoying emotional strings. His job was to help me relax and to feel good, and I made the conscious decision to let him do it. I couldn't have chosen someone more suited to relieving my aches and pains from the trek in the Andes. He'd gotten most of his schooling as a sports therapist. He was exceedingly discreet and sensitive to the responsibility of making me feel comfortable as he guided me through a series of stretches. Even when he braced my bare foot against his shoulder and pressed my knee into my chest, remarking as he did so that my "hips are pretty tight", he was careful to tuck the sheets in around my thighs.
By the end of the hour, I was beginning to wonder what his contract said about personal relationships with clients. He did live in Arizona, after all. He was healthy, attractive and considerate. The fact that he was a professional masseur was just icing on the cake. Alas, I convinced myself to leave without a number or even a name. Me Myself and I weren't quite through working out our kinks yet. Maybe 'kinks' isn't the right word.
Included in the price of my massage was unlimited use of the swimming pool, hot tub, sauna and steam room. I took full advantage before going back to the hotel to shower and get ready for lunch. I put on a new shirt and my boots, plus makeup. Just because I was alone was no reason not to look as good as I felt. Wasn't I as worth it as anyone else? I checked myself in the mirror before I headed out the door. My hair was smooth from the Hilton's luxury shampoo and conditioner. I was wearing dangly earrings and lipstick for the first time in a long time. "Hello, beautiful," I whispered aloud. "Where did you come from?"
I treated myself to a pricey but worth-it lunch at the Mission, an upscale Latin-American restaurant in Old Town Scottsdale. My mother and stepfather had taken me there during our last trip to Arizona, and I remembered it being one of the best meals of my life. This time I ordered chicken anticuchos in a peanut-raisin mole sauce and a bowl of posole. It may have been the first posole I'd tried, but I had a feeling that none other would come close to topping it. The shredded pork was melt-in-your-mouth tender and the broth was spicy, sweet and smoky all at the same time. I read a novel while I ate, and smiled kindly at the waitress whenever she came to check on me, as though I were as important as any of the other customers there with partners or family. I have always been shameless when it comes to eating alone in restaurants, even - ESPECIALLY - really nice ones. Why should I wolf down a frozen dinner or eat out of take-out containers in front of the TV just because I was alone? Wasn't that just as much, even MORE cause to treat myself well?
The handcrafted caipirinha I had to drink was well-worth the twelve dollars I paid for it. I could taste the sugar and lime but the cachaca liquor made itself known, too. By the time I was through I was plenty lubricated enough to spring for dessert. I happily dropped eight more bucks for a rich dark chocolate pastilla with fig compote and homemade tres leches ice cream.
I whiled away the afternoon browsing Trailside Gallery, admiring paintings exclusively of horses, and then had a designated movie night in my room. I opened the bottle of sweet red moscato I'd gotten from the Fry's down the road, poured some into a paper coffee cup and drew myself a hot bath. Once that order of business was taken care of, I dimmed the lights and turned on tonight's feature film: Eat Pray Love. Although I'd probably watched it more times than any other movie, it was one of those films I restricted myself from watching more than once in a very great while, like a favourite shirt you wanted to keep from stretching and fading. Now that my own round-the-world pilgrimage was drawing to a close, it seemed like a fitting way to ring in the occasion.
Dinner was a bag of microwave popcorn from the hotel lobby's convenience pantry and a Ghirardelli Intense Dark chocolate bar the Mary's had given me back in Peru. It was my last lonely night, which, after three months on my own, was a very big deal. Tomorrow my mother would knock on my hotel door and put an end to the unbroken aloneness, complete the circuit to the anchor of home and family. This was as much a relief as it was a burden. I couldn't say what was going to happen or how I was going to feel after that, but I knew I was looking forward it.