It wasn’t until I began scaling a stone wall behind a stranger’s hotel room in the desert darkness of the Arizona night that I became confident that the Tucson Conference’s hot tub party was, at best, a myth and, more likely, some elderly academic’s idea of a hilarious snipe hunt. My severely under-dressed body was frozen stiff and my feet had been worn raw and I made myself swear that any future backcountry swimsuit trekking would involve a less hilarious swimsuit that protected enough of my delicate and precious inner thighs to defend against an assault from the Arizona desert scrub and chaparral. Nonetheless, Mike and I gritted our teeth and clutched our beers tighter and pressed onward while all hope seemed lost and our bubbling beacon of chlorinated comfort shone dimmest.
I broke the silence. “Lo!” I declared into the obscurity, “Paradise, Shangri La, the New Zion! Our deliverance and our delight await. Yonder, among the saguaro and the jackalope.”
Mike remained mute. His silence was largely predicated on the fact that I didn’t actually say any of these things. Although I didn’t let this fact stop me from holding his speechlessness against him. Resentful as I was, and despite my lack of arcane exclamations, we did manage to find what we had already exhausted ourselves looking for.
We approached our destination and found one last obstacle in the form of a wall of impenetrable steam. This final obstacle shrouded what turned out to be an unlocked and open gate to a six-foot, black iron fence topped with decorative yet intimidating spearheads designed, no doubt, to prevent the onslaught of what one must assume to be a formidable population of desert-dwelling, Jacuzzi-bound vagrants. Without any effort of our own, our obstacle slowly parted and our destination was revealed to be everything we had imagined and nothing we had hoped: a small pool of hot water that effectively compensated for its lack of size with a surplus of shirtless, middle-aged men drinking brandy out of plastic hotel cups and comparing the respective sizes of their intellectual man-parts.
We jumped headfirst, with neither hesitation nor reservation, in the steaming hot awkwardness. We made our introductions with all of the grace available to gentlemen of a certain youth who have been intimate with the finest available craft brew. That is to say, we may have been a little loud and we may have lacked our typical coordination and we may just have failed to properly appreciate the strange tailoring of one of our companion’s swimsuits. But, as quickly and certainly as vigilance can be lost to gentlemen of a certain youth, it can return with remarkable haste when presented with the proper circumstances.
There are many of this type of circumstance but fortune was merciful and visually assaulted us with only one. Specifically, this circumstance was the one in which a grown man stands up, boldly, proudly, with neither trepidation nor shame, to reveal publicly that his oddly tailored swimsuit was, in fact, a pair of traditionally tailored and vaguely white but soaking wet Hanes briefs, straight out from under the pleats of his Dockers.
No earthly force could induce me to avert my eyes from the scene before me. The entire hot tub fell silent in reverence for the overwhelmingly macabre spectacle. If awkward were sacred then our Jacuzzi was Jerusalem but suggesting such a metaphor only makes this man’s public nudity all the more inappropriate.
He was Michelangelo’s David as interpreted by Salvador Dalí and he stared us in the eyes with a poignant melancholy before he turned, revealing an equally upsetting sight, and left. That is, he left insofar as anyone can truly leave when his image has indelibly branded our retinas. Nonetheless, our visual assailant was no longer physically present and that provided some measure of relief.
This may have been just our first night and awkward may have peaked early but it was far from departed. The weekend proceeded as predictably as possible with unending opportunities for me to stand in a corner and conjure completely transparent pretexts for not speaking with any of the nearby strangers. The stakes were high because failure of my artifice was followed immediately by a limp, professorial handshake coupled with the ceremonial shoe gazing. A fate as miserable as it was interminable.
It was at times torturous and at times hilarious and I felt sympathy as often as I did discomfort. I learned to sit and watch and to wait and hope that a situation arose to mitigate the awkwardness but, ultimately, I learned to surrender to the truth that awkward might be your only souvenir and forgetting it can be every bit as traumatic as remembering it.