By Jake Friedman
It’s been over ten years since I was in the academy. Though I’m beginning to remember now. The last couple of days I’ve been sick. I’d forgotten how hard the end of semester is—the Sisyphean incline of a final assignment, the unchanging angle of ascent. How there is no way around it—no shortcuts, no switchbacks. You just have to get through it. How the body holds out for you until it gives in. I’ve been wiping my nose with recycled toilet paper. I’ve been drinking cups of Yogi tea. Each one comes with a little message on it–mostly meditative or inspirational, occasionally macabre. Today’s bag tells me to socialize with kindness, compassion and grace. This is good advice, I think to myself. I am open to this.
My partner and I spent the last ten years in Phoenix. Our whole adult lives were there. It was a hard decision to leave. When the pandemic barreled into Phoenix, it washed everything away. After a few years, we were finally starting to rebuild—venturing out to bars and restaurants, having friends over for dinner. But something had shifted. It felt like we were running out of options. That we had reached as far as we’d be able to go. That we outgrew the city, or it outgrew us. Maybe this is how it always is. Downtown had become a developers playground. All the businesses had changed ownership or closed. There was going to be another election in a few years, too, which was sure to be a shit show. We weren’t sure if there was going to be a future. It was the same conversation everywhere you’d go—how hard it was to get a Canadian visa, where you could apply to teach English overseas—riding out the last wave of empire, whatever way you could find to leave. You’d start asking yourself questions. What would happen if another country invaded this one. Was the war already happening from within. Was this what it was like to live in decline. Would you defend something that was never yours to begin with.
Sometimes I wonder whether what I’m doing here is unnecessary or frivolous. Or to be more specific: that being here increases my complicity, pulls me deeper into a system I don’t agree with. And further: that disagreement is itself a luxury, being critical a privilege, another turn in a spiral of never-ending reflexivity. That instead of reading theory, and talking theory, and writing poems, and talking poems, I should be learning how to build a home, or installing solar, or growing food, or raising chickens. Something more direct and beneficial. I like to write, sure. But in terms of surviving, it is not the highest priority. I’m just not sure how much time left there is. All the more reason, then, to simply admit that I enjoy it. That being here is a gift. And to try my best to feel this not so much as a pressure or debt, but as something to be honored, a way to do justice–if you believe in that, if that’s possible. Whatever that is.
We like it here, we think. When we got here, everybody seemed so happy and carefree—walking around on these little cobblestone roads with all of their dogs, eating appetizers on patios, stopping in at all these shops, buying cute things. We thought, surely there must be something wrong with all of these people. Surely they must know how terrible the world is. But after a few months, we’re getting used to it. We’re beginning to understand their reasoning. We like being able to walk places—all-you-can-play at Pinball Jones for $5 on Mondays, finding a corner to squeeze into at Alley Cat on the weekends. We like going to house parties with the MFA cohort—going to the good thrift stores, trying to pull together a costume for the theme. We do not believe there is any good ice cream here—we would love to be corrected, please—but there is lots of beer, and also cookies. Also: a constitutional amendment to protect abortion. Also: water, or at least more of it than there is in Arizona. These are all good things.
Certainly, it comes with some adjustment. We are still figuring out how to wear our winter coats, are constantly oscillating between over- and underdressed. Still blinking our eyes in disbelief when it gets dark at 5:00 pm, the day turning itself off with the flick of switch. Even the cat would meow plaintively at us from the bottom floor of the apartment, unsure how to use the stairs. But he’s a smart boy. He figured it out in a couple of days. Though he still needs someone to rub his back when he eats. We’re not sure where he picked this up from. It’s an endearing neurosis. He’s insistent. He doesn’t know he’s okay. He’ll just look back at you and meow until you do it.
- The one bedroom in our one-bedroom apartment in Phoenix, the last place we lived. The landlord had painted over all the windows–white, predictably. I had to cut out all the gunk with a knife to get them to open. At night, we’d hear our neighbor Barbara’s TV. She died in that apartment, towards the end of our time there. Peacefully, we hope. On the wall, there’s a broadside of a poem from our dear friend Charles–an older gentleman, a wonderful writer and poet who we met at our writing group. The mirror was made by my partner’s mother’s grandfather out of walnut, back on their farm in Minnesota, before they ended up in Oregon, and then California. It is one of the few things we own with that kind of history. The lamp reminds me of lamps my parents used to have in our house back in Maryland–brass, mid-century. The globe my partner bought me for a birthday. My partner is good about making the bed. That’s probably on me.
- The downtown skyline of Phoenix, probably headed south on 51, looking east. It’s hard to identify any specific buildings. You can see a few palm trees. If you look closely, you can also see me taking the picture in the passenger window, which I did not mean to do, but am glad it did, as it creates a kind of watermark, and raises certain questions about representation or perspective that I find interesting. The 51 is one of two main north-south highways in Phoenix, purely local. The other one is the 17, which goes all the way up to Flagstaff. The main east-west highway is the 10, infamous. There are also several loops–202, 101, even a 303. I don’t remember what we were doing that day–by the order of the pictures, I think we were going to see our friends J and S in Tempe, which is where Arizona State University is, maybe 10 or 15 minutes away. Both of them are writers. One of them is also a weaver. Pretty much everyone we knew was a writer or did some kind of other thing.
- Where the magic happens. I used to have a really enormous, really heavy L-shaped desk that my partner made me get rid of when we moved into that apartment. First the L, then the other I. It was a multi-year process, a gentle weaning. So much for family heirlooms. But this one is good. I like it. We brought it with us here. I write longhand in pencil in red Top Flight college-ruled single subject notebooks, only the red ones which you can get at Safeway for like 99 cents. I started getting the red ones after I read something by Paul Auster, and then it took on another meaning. I also write on the computer. I drink coffee. That mug was purchased at the Raven Cafe in Prescott, where I was working on a zombie-jail screenplay with a few people from writing group, way back in the early 2010s. (Don’t ask.) There’s a brass piano light, which gets really hot when you leave it on, that my partner hates because it burns her. The bulletin board is mostly my partner’s. This was between the kitchen and the living room, neither of which are pictured. We were sharing the desk. The placard reads, “Best Literary Journal” and was from the Phoenix New Times Best of Phoenix for 2014. Four Chambers was the journal and small press my partner and I were running, which was how we knew everybody, how we made us who we are. There were no other literary journals in Phoenix, just to be clear, but we still found it very meaningful. The cat is Truman, as in Capote, the writer. My partner’s old boss, who owns a bookstore, found the cat on the street, in Garfield, which is the best downtown neighborhood, and my partner took him in. Have I mentioned how smart he is? Also handsome? We tell people that we were going to put him in pictures and get him cat modeling gigs but he’s an unruly, James Dean type—a bad boy, too poorly behaved. He gets mad when people besides him receive affection. He’s been trapped inside for eight and a half years. At this point, I don’t think we can free him. My partner and I also have a long-standing argument about what to do with his body when he dies, which is less of an argument and more of a joke I keep making that I am also serious about and trying to find support for, even though both of us know that will never happen. But still, my partner might also be a little mad about the fact that I alluded to it.
- It’s not enough to tell him he’s a good boy, or that he knows how to do it, or that you’re here, or he’s okay. He doesn’t believe you. A relationship is a labor that cannot be commodified. He just needs you to tell him he’s okay.
Jake Friedman is a writer, editor, and culture worker currently based in Fort Collins, CO, where he is currently pursuing an MFA degree in poetry at Colorado State University. Before that, he was the Community Engagement and Programs Manager for the City of Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture. Before that: multiple roles at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. Before that: he started a small press and literary journal called Four Chambers. He has a poem on the corner of 7th Avenue and Glenrosa in Phoenix about how much he hates Elon Musk, among other things. He also received a Gallway Kinnel Memorial Scholarship from the Community of Writers in 2020. And sundry other things. He misses and sends love to everyone in Phoenix. He lives in a two bedroom apartment with his partner and a cat.