“I can’t believe I missed all these things.” I walked like a zombie along the paved trail taking little interest at the ancient Indian apartments carved on the giant walls that would have captured me on ordinary days.
“Jeff, stop feeling sorry for yourself or the kids. You’re making it harder. Move on. We are here. Enjoy the trip. If you want to make it up to them, now is the time. Smile.” She lifted her camera as I forced to lift my lips.
I wished she didn’t do that.
“Alright, c’mon. Let’s go.”
“Mom, do we really have to rush?”
“Yes! I don’t want to miss the sunset, remember? Good we bought an annual pass here. That was a deal. We can plan for more trips to National Parks. File your PTO for the summer.”
"If I still have a job.”
“You’ve decided to accept the package?”
“No. I meant—“
Kate waved her hand and walked ahead. She had enough of my venting about the merger. What else was there for me to talk about? I was buried. Deep. And it was caving down on me.
I dragged myself to the exit.
The girls moved past the gate, and now talking to the park ranger, who was pointing at a lizard on the roof of the Visitor Center. When I reached them, they waved goodbye and cackled.
“I can’t believe she just called that plain lizard a gecko,” Annie said. “Like we don’t have it in our living room.”
“When you want to sound so smart,” Sarah said and flayed her arms in a dramatic fashion. “Hey kids, there’s a snake with legs here.”
Annie burst out laughing and slapped her sister. “And look, the dragon just lost its wings. So pretentious.”
I shook my head. Silly girls.
Kate caught up the talk and whispered to me. “I wonder if the snake really had wings and legs at the Garden of Eden before God made it crawl on its belly.”
I groaned. “You're too literal in your interpretation of the Bible again.”
She widened her eyes. “Isn’t that what you writers usually do? Ask your endless what-ifs and come up with a plausible story?”
“I’m not a writer.” I slid into the driver’s seat and yanked on my seat belt.
“No need to be touchy on that issue, Jeff. I still think that abandoned story line has a lot of potentials. You really should pick up your pencil, sharpen it again. Or grab your laptop for that matter.”
“Next topic.” I revved on the pedal, and the passengers screamed. “Sorry.”
“I absolve you from all your sins.” Kate mocked up a blessing of the cross at me.
I sighed and fixed my gaze on the road. Why did she have to bring up that topic? Now the ghost of the multi-rejected manuscript sat on my shoulders. Of all days, when I couldn’t distract myself with work.
“Next destination, the Chapel of the Holy Cross.” Kate pointed at the itinerary.
“A church! You’re not gonna push me into confession again, Kate.”
“Mother Goose! It’s not a church. Chapel. And no confessions and masses.” She combed her hand into her long black hair. “It’s a must-see tourist spot according to this book.” She waved the travel book like it was the Bible and shoved it in her bag.
I flickered a glance at her. She was browsing through the book I bought at Arcosanti. Nodding at one moment and shaking her head at another. “Your verdict?” I teased.
“Well, since you were so drawn to this book when it’s been awhile since you’ve picked up one, I’d have to say, the universe is conspiring in your favor.”
Here she was again, quoting my favorite line from The Alchemist. Soon, she’d be ranting about my Personal Legend, my calling in life. “Maybe against me,” I said.
“Why are you so pessimistic? Oh, look!” She pointed at the strip mall to her right. “There’s Panda Express! Remember those days, girls when we thrived on that on road trips, splitting one order to feed four?” She chuckled.
“And you are the ever hopeful optimist. You had to use the word thrive when you could easily just said survived.”
“Oh well, it’s easier to say the glass is half full than half empty. Two syllables vs. three. That’s a no-brainer, Jeff.”
I held her hand and kissed it. “I don’t deserve you.”
The girls at the back “oooh” and sighed.
“Remember this moment girls when you start scouting for a husband,” she said.
“Eww,” Annie said. Sarah laughed.
“If you should have a strict check-off list, let it contain these three. That your guy makes you sigh, makes you laugh and smile, and makes you willing to die to yourself. It’ll make the marriage commitment easier to embrace especially when the going gets tough.”
Wow. That was a very generous compliment from someone I had neglected these past few months.
“And is the going getting tough right now, Kate?” I knew I had not been the easiest man to live with these days.
“It’s a daily decision we make.” She kissed my hand back and released it to pick up the book again.
I turned my attention to the endless highway, leaving behind fields of desert cactus.
After a while, I pushed the radio button on.
Kate turned it off at the first blasting sound.
“Listen to what this Michel guy is saying,” she said. “`My definition of a dream resides in the capability to make happen what was first perceived as impossible. This is the way I experienced it myself when I moved here, changing career, writing books, commissioning music. In many ways, my dream came true— and probably yours, too, Paolo… don’t you think that, should you have stayed in Italy, what you have accomplished here would have never been possible?'”
“Good for them,” I said.
Kate’s voice faded in the rampaging desert wind as I gripped the steering wheel. The American Dream. So these guys in the book were also immigrants like Kate and me.
It was true. America was the land of opportunities. But some opportunities were too steep to climb and too dry like this desert to venture on.
Along the way, you had to compromise and settle for the good or better. The best was not for everyone otherwise the best would lose its meaning.
Kate gasped and fumbled for her camera.
“What?” My heart picked up a beat from her agitation.
“The mountains.” She zoomed and clicked. “It’s right in front of you, and you could not see it? In what galaxy did your brain fly?”
I followed her focus and whistled. The mountains stood like ridged red bricks, with their creases flowing down the valley of trees. What a view! My lungs expanded at the display.
“This must be the Red Rock Scenic Byway,” she said. “Oh my Lord, You are so majestic in your mountains.” Kate turned and waved her hands. “Kids, put down your gadgets. Goodness, gracious. You’re missing this grand parade.”
“Ooooh.” Annie’s head leaned over my seat and Kate’s.
“See, girls. You’re missing a lot with your eyes on your iPhones. Kate, turn off the hotspot,” I said.
“No, that’s not fair.” Annie blasted on my right ear. “Sarah has a line!”
“Duh, you’ll have one when you’re thirteen.”
“And who said you can use the cellular data? We’re down to 10%. Turn that off, Sarah,” I said. Annie slumped behind as more groans bellowed from the backseat.
“I’m not paying for this road trip just so the two of you could stare at your phones. Watch me throw those in the desert.”
Phones rustled into bags. Good. “I left my work laptop and iPad behind. You better do your share of sacrifice.”
Kate rubbed my arm and turned her attention back to the quaint colored houses beside the highway.
“Oh, look, a round-about, just like in England, but counter-clockwise,” Annie said.
I maneuvered to the round-about while casting quick glances at the red mountains around. Beautiful.
“This town reminds me of the movie, Cars, with the red mountain at the backdrop, those yellow, orange, green and blue shops. It’s so cute,” Sarah said. “I can take a picture, right?” A series of shutter clicks followed.
“The chapel should be a couple of minutes from here then we can have a late lunch,” Kate said.
“3:30 already?” The dashboard clock was small. “No wonder I’m lightheaded. Anything to eat back there?”
After she rubbed her hands with hand sanitizer, Kate fed me with a granola bar, some chips, and a date.
“I’m good, thanks.” I waved off her hand as I took a turn towards the sign that read Chapel of the Holy Cross.
“I read that there are more parking spaces as you get to the top.” She pointed to the uphill snaking road. “But we can park right here.” Cars flanked the sides, and people hopped off their cars to walk.
“Look, I did my research. Keep on going.”
What was the use of arguing? She’d win anyway. I continued to drive up the winding road while she closed her eyes and her lips moved in silence.
I knew why. As we neared the top, a car backed up and rolled down the road.
“Thank you, Lord, for the parking spot. As always, You never fail.”
I shook my head as I maneuvered to park. “God spoils you.”
She shrugged. “He can spoil you, too if you allow Him.” And she got out.
I don’t know about that. God seemed more responsive to her. I had to work hard to get what I wanted.
I locked the car and followed the crowd heading to the top.
The chapel sat nestled between two boulders of red rocks. Its floor to ceiling glass window faced the surrounding mountain range and the blue sky, looking like a giant face of a god gazing down at the people laboring their way uphill. And I was panting.
I needed to workout. When I found the time. If I had the time.
At the bend, the path opened to a vast entrance door into the chapel, where people milled in and out. A group of tourist left the area and gave more room for me to breathe. Kate pulled me inside. “I’ll check for a souvenir magnet at the gift shop downstairs. Let’s join the girls for photos later.” She disappeared and left me standing by the votive candles. I gazed at the heavily-tinted glass windows and slumped on one of the benches. Somebody left a small prayer book on the bench in front of me. The bold white letters on the cover tugged at my sagging spirit. Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. - Matthew 11:28 The words echoed in my heart. Labor. Burden. Rest. I stared at the giant cross, which supported the whole glass structure, looking sturdy and robust. It made me look weak and small. Weary. I heaved a deep sigh and allowed the words to settle as I closed my eyes. Random images hovered in my tortuous mind. Darkness. Background noise hummed as I drifted in and out of wakefulness. And then a pencil appeared flying around and landed inside a sharpener top side down. Stuck. “Come, Jeff.” A hand tugged my shirt. I jerked to consciousness. “Did you just fall asleep?” Kate grinned and helped me up. “Power nap, my greatest talent, which reminds me to fuel up.” “Already? Didn’t we leave with a full tank?” “Not the car. Me. Starbucks for my fifth cup.” Slinging my arm around Kate, I noted the bench in front. The prayer book was gone. How long have I slept? I raised my arm. My watch showed not the time, but throngs of email notifications, like the world was ending tomorrow. Starbucks. Wifi signal. But Kate had other plans.