Sweetie and I had been dating almost a year when he announced that we were going to make a pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon. He had been there once, on a motorcycle caravan, and described that first view with a solemnity reserved for his guitars. I was thrilled; I’d lived in Los Angeles my entire life and had managed to get no further southeast than Las Vegas. And I was eager for other reasons: Sweetie and I had taken a couple of modest car trips and gotten along very well, but the Grand Canyon outing would prove that success a fluke or not. We had love, but did we have endurance? Was there a difference? I shuddered recalling the lone road trip I had taken with an ex-boyfriend up to San Francisco, an unqualified disaster that my brain had almost entirely excised from conscious memory. What I do remember is that my knuckles went pale gripping the steering wheel, and that I seriously considered dropping the man at the side of the 101, at its least populated points, more than once. Naturally Sweetie was much, much different, but there are no close quarters like a car. It‘s closer than a bathroom or a bed, more telling, with zero safety valves and fewer chances of escape. Yet I have to admit that even the prospect of failure was exciting, heart-swelling. Either I had a romantic addiction to drama or an even more romantic addiction to Sweetie; anything that happened in his company was gold. The confines of a car would increase his luster, or not.
We began dreadfully. On the day we left town we awoke to a freak thunderstorm that seemed to dare us to venture out at all. Sweetie wore canvas tennis shoes that got soaked in the two minutes it took him to load our luggage in the trunk. I aggravated an old injury and nearly threw out my left shoulder reaching in the back seat to get my purse. At the gas station he bought us coffee that I promptly spilled down my crotch. As we nudged east along the 10 in rain-stunned traffic, Sweetie looked gloomy. ”That’s it,“ he said. ”We‘re going to die.“
The landscape flattened and the skies brightened as we headed into Arizona. We lost most radio reception and I played all the tapes I had: old soul, an African drum ensemble, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra? Sweetie looked surprised. ”A lot of black folk don’t like Frank, I know,“ I said. ”But he didn‘t just do the white rip-off of black music. At his best he had what all jazz musicians have — tension. He had this reputation of being easy and smooth, but he really wasn’t. He was subversive. Unsatisfied. Jazz.“ I queued up ”I‘ve Got You Under My Skin“ to prove the point. Sweetie listened with new appreciation, even broke into a warble at the bridge. Before he met me he said he had never sung out loud before, not in front of anyone, though he wanted to. I glanced in the side-view mirror and joined in: ”Don’t you know, little fool, you never can win . . .“ We were out of Phoenix and it was warm enough for me to get out of shoes and socks and put my feet on the dashboard. In the middle of a bar Sweetie covered my hand in his.
We spent the night in a small mining town called Jerome. The next day we set out for Grand Canyon National Park, pausing only in Sedona for lunch and a stroll. The road out of Sedona to Flagstaff, canyon-bound, was beautiful at the start, green and piney and burnt red like the rocks we‘d just seen. As it got higher things got more sparse, weary looking, and the air cooled and felt less forgiving. There were fewer trees and more fast food and convenience stores. At the entrance to the park, cars lined up like heads of cattle, waiting to feed on a bit of access and magic. My heart dropped a little: Could such mundaneness be in such close proximity to such greatness? I thought of all the things that I ever believed the Grand Canyon was. Would this be love?
We parked our dusty car and made our way to the edge. I breathed in sharply — it was a deep blue sea of land and sky, with miles of tawny peaks for reefs, the shimmer of air for water. The very picture of what I’d pictured. But the edge was disconcerting; there were no guardrails, and you could fall in if you weren‘t careful. I shivered in the wind. Sweetie wanted to take a photo and I sat gingerly, looking out over a vastness and glory that inspired terror and abandon in equal measure. Then he came over and sat close behind me, cradled me in his legs as if we were in a bobsled. ”I’ve got you, sweetie,“ he said in my ear, over the wind that blew wild but in beats, like Sinatra. ”I‘ve got you.“