Part II of “May-December at Arcosanti”
A few nights later, Nate stood on the lanai watching the stars come out. He would never get tired of this scene. He filled his lungs with fresh night air. But he didn’t feel the usual peace rush in. Paolo was in Italy for a year. He didn’t want to admit why he came out here tonight—until he heard her voice.
“I want to be a nurse because I want to earn lots of money.”
The tremor of excitement that Merci’s voice set off short circuited. Just like Kerry.
Her musical laugh crossed the distance between them and he turned toward her.
“I made a joke. I don’t care about things you own. People suffer. Maybe I can help.”
And every night for weeks they both happened to show up on the lanai at nightfall. Nate had dragged two discarded lounge chairs to the edge of the mesa so they could look out across the gorge. They talked about sociology, art, the environment, conservation, carbon footprints, but they never talked about the shooting stars that zinged between them.
“When are you leaving?” He said one still night in August when the citrus and cedar smell of her filled his senses.
“Leaving?” Her eyes filled with tears that didn’t spill over. “You want me to leave?”
“No, of course not. But you came to see the United States and you’ve only seen Phoenix and the Grand Canyon.”
“I’m happy here.” Her voice seemed small. The tears still hung in her eyes. “I don’t want to go anywhere else.” She stood, turned her back to him. “Nineteen is too young. You don’t care for me—like a woman.”
His heart jackhammered and he jumped to his feet. His hands reached for her bare arms. He could almost feel her pliant skin beneath the pads of his fingers. His arms wanted to crush her to his chest and feel every ridge and valley pressed against him. He wanted to tell her that he cared. Too much. He turned and strode away without a word, walking beyond Arcosanti into the desert night. Merci was younger than Caitlin. He could easily be her father.
The next morning Nate went to the kitchen to tell her she was lovely, but he was too old for her. She needed to find a guy like the young studs who showed up at Acrosanti in waves four times a year to learn Paolo’s method of pouring cement into molds for building.
But she was gone. Manny had given her a lift to the Chevron station in Cordes Junction at five a.m. to catch the Greyhound.
In minutes he was flooring Manny’s pick-up south on Cross L Road. Merci had to be there. If she was gone, he’d seen her for the last time. His chest ached. She would remember him as the man who found her lacking. But she was perfect. He just wanted a chance to tell her so.
When was the damn bus due? Maybe she was already gone. Was she headed south to Phoenix? North to Flagstaff? Hell, she could have even taken a bus to Las Vegas. He shook his head. Merci would hate Vegas.
He jostled past Arcosanti Road where the road changed names to Stagecoach Trail, saguaros and tumbleweeds standing as sentinels to his fool’s errand. He didn’t see them or feel the 9 a.m. sun baking his elbow as the hundred-degree air flew across his skin. His mind’s eye saw only Merci’s feline green eyes framed by pale, almost colorless, ultra-fine hair. He saw her supple skin splattered with freckles, the muscles that bunched beneath it when she moved, testament to a life lived mostly outdoors. Her curious mind lit on so many subjects they held in common. Her gentle heart ached for every hurting creature. A knot lodged beneath his breastbone. Good-bye would be the hardest word he’d ever said to her.
The truck hiccoughed, and his gaze flew to the gas gauge. Below empty. The motor died—along with most of his hope. He steered off the asphalt and onto the rocky berm. The truck coasted to a stop, the engine crackling in the sun. He was a mile, give or take, from the Chevron. He didn’t think, he jumped out of the truck, his ratty tennis shoes stiff against the pavement. He jogged, the sun vengeful, even well before noon. Sweat ran into his eyes and he wished for his hat, hung onto a thread of hope. He saw the Xtra Space Self-Storage, seemingly plunked in the middle of nowhere, and slowed to a walk to catch his breath. Up ahead was the Tesla Supercharger electric car charging station next to a Subway restaurant. Beyond that, the Chevron sign rose like a water tower. He broke into a run.
He didn’t see Merci at first, her body curled up like a fist on the concrete, leaning against the glass in the shade cast by a garbage bin. Then, his eyes took in everything at once—her red eyes, the beef jerky display through the glass, the clay-smudged shorts she’d worn last night, a lime green backpack. Her eyes widened when she saw him, but nothing else moved.
His limbs prickled as though the blood had been cut off and was just now flowing back. He squatted down, took one of her soft, sun-freckled hands in his. Their eyes welded and for a moment he absorbed her presence, who she was.
He took a deep breath and let it go. All the wrong words came out in a rush—not the ones he’d assembled last night like a speech. “Don’t leave. I love you. I was the one who was too old for you, not the other way around.”
Though she didn’t move, she seemed to unclench. “I’m old enough to know what I want. We never had the other half of our first conversation. My mother is ten years older than my father. Numbers have nothing to do with who we are or who we love.”
Part I of “May-December at Arcosanti” can be read here.
NOTE TO READERS: Sometimes fiction has roots in reality. “May-December at Arcosanti” was sparked by a visit to Arcosanti that made me think about my late father. He would have loved this pile of artsy buildings in the desert, the vision behind them, the ragamuffin devotees to Paolo Solari’s dream who remain years after Soleri’s death. Dad, an Olympic caliber swimmer in his youth, had a nineteen-year-old Sweedish girlfriend the year I was twenty. At the time, I blew up like a puffer fish and spouted righteous indignation. Decades later, this story is my attempt to see Dad’s romance from his point of view. Though his girlfriend returned to Sweeden, Dad spoke lovingly, if not longingly, about her into his eighties. To my knowledge he never had another long-term relationship.