Emails from my friend Aaron usually say things like this:
“It will be a miracle if I don't quit my job today. Yrs, Aaron.”
“Chorus: I want to go home. Work sucks. Yrs, Aaron.”
“I don't know why I didn't quit. I must be crazy. Yrs, Aaron.”
Aaron is always about to quit his job, and one day, I believe he will quit his job. But he hasn't yet, because Aaron has car payments, and a lease on a nice one-bedroom, and hefty student loans, and a good job with a good law firm that pays him loads of money. It just so happens that he hates it. He hates it, and it is making him sick. So one night, on the eve of a particularly stomach-churning conflict at work, Aaron and I hatched a plan: He would take off a week and join me as I camped through the Southwest, flying into Albuquerque and out of Las Vegas. In between we would hit Santa Fe, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park. It was a good deal: Aaron got some much-needed perspective; I got the company of an old friend.
Part 1: The Perfect Man Except
Before I tell you about the places we've been, let me tell you some about how we got there. I drove the whole way, because I am a control freak. I discovered the joys of cruise control on a flat desert highway. My left arm got tanner than my right arm. My car and my body got covered in red dust. And to pass time, Aaron invented a game.
The game is called “The Perfect Man Except.” It goes like this.
Aaron: He is the perfect man. He is cuter than Jude Law. He is a rock star/dramatist/auteur who likes children. He gives criticism that never feels critical. He wrote a book so good that 'The New York Times' called it the best book ever written in the English language and said that probably the English language should be scrapped altogether so that other writers could have a try. I mean, this man shits sunshine. Except–
Sarah: Except …
Aaron: Except that whenever he tastes food — no matter what kind of food it is — he shouts, “Mmm, mmm! That's a spicy meatball!” Will you take him?
Sarah: I'll take him.
See, the point of “The Perfect Man Except” is to test my romantic boundaries. What can I overlook, where can I compromise? What humiliations will I weather in order to have a man who looks like Jude Law, who writes like Dave Eggers, who sings like Rhett Miller?
I take the Spicy Meatball man, and I take the man who pees continuously, like a statue. I do not take the man who propels himself forward by the power of his own farts, or the man who says after everything he eats, “Hey, this tastes like pussy!”
I try to play “The Perfect Woman Except,” only I'm no good at it.
Sarah: She's the perfect woman. She cooks, she cleans. She's gorgeous and intelligent, but she respects and admires you as the man you are. She likes baseball. She is the perfect woman except –
Aaron: Except …
Sarah: Every weekend, she demands to sleep with women. And you can watch, but you can't participate.
Aaron: That sounds great!
Sarah: It does?
Aaron: What planet are you from? That's like a fantasy.
Sarah: Oh, okay. Scrap that. She is the perfect woman, blahblahblah. Except –
Aaron: Except …
Sarah: She hates your mom, and she's vocal about it.
And this ends up making Aaron sad, because he starts thinking that he might actually take the perfect woman anyway and then feels bad about the whole mom thing and it's just kind of depressing.
We drive through New Mexico, and through Arizona, and through Utah, the red rock cliffs always beside us. We pull off the highway to take pictures, trail off in the middle of a sentence in appreciation of the view. We can't believe the beauty, the desolation. So much land, so little life. But after a while, even the scenery gets old. We're overstimulated, we're taking things for granted. We run out of radio, run out of games to play. Even “The Perfect Man Except” peters out after 150 iterations. By Thursday we are sitting in a cafe for lunch, staring at everything but each other.
In the evenings we have the campfires, which we nurse and coddle like a hurt animal. We feed it, stroke it, readjust it, blow on it, flatter it. We name all the logs and yell encouragement: “C'mon Old Smoky, you can do it! Oh, look at Solomon burn. He's a fine, thick log. But don't let Ezekiel steal your fire!”
A saving grace: We both love campfires and stars, and we love them even more with cigarettes.
In the afternoons, we visit national monuments and national parks, the touristy things. More on that later. This story ends in Vegas, but it is not over yet. As I write this I am on the 12th floor of the Luxor Hotel, sometime between the lunch and the steak buffet, grateful to have washed all the red dirt off, grateful to have this connection.