Preview of Bubbles and Oysters
What follows is the first day of a trip. There are many more days. Not a one is like the first. But that first one sure had its surprises. It didn’t go like it should have. It went a different way but got somewhere it needed to be. That journey is recounted in the book Bubbles and Oysters. You should buy that book. It’s ___________.
January 10, 2009
I tried to leave without waking anybody, counting on everyone’s lingering drunkenness to allow me my solitary exit. I had gathered my few things and filled my lungs twice over before splashing water on my face. I whispered “okay” to my reflection in the mirror when I really wasn’t.
My knit cap pulled low and my bag on my shoulder, I got to the front door and saw the predawn dark before a figure on the couch moved and in a sleep choked voice asked for a lift home. “Yeah,” I said, my mouth translating the expletive my brain was thinking.
It is not easy to maintain a contemplative silence in the company of the talkative. We hadn’t seen each other in a while and hadn’t chatted the night before, so I could wait. We traded complimentary comments on the party last: of the makeshift photo booth, of the crush of people, of the hot wings and the cheese plates, of the mountain of wine bottles by the front door.
“Hey, thanks for the old porn,” he said.
“It’s always a pleasure giving you pornography,” I replied.
“Ha… There didn’t seem that much this time.”
“That was the last of it.”
“And you gave it to me?” he said all pride and surprise.
I nodded and said, “You’re the dirtiest old man I know.”
He laughed and said, “Hey, don’t tell my fiancé that.”
“Oh, I think she knows by now.”
He smiled and nodded. “So where you headed?”
“Through New Mexico to Arizona, then on to California.” My mind thought these answers insufficient, but my mouth knew better than to voice where I was really headed.
“Sounds like a good trip.”
“It’d be a shame to waste a perfectly good tragedy.” I said in the same short tone as before.
“It’s good you’re still keeping your humor… Take a right at the stop sign… Do you know anybody out there?”
“Yeah, I’ll catch up with my folks first then see some friends on the coast.”
“That’s it, the blue one.”
“Mighty respectable of you, sir. And, here we are.” I said as I stopped in front of his new place with its well-kept mature landscaping.
“Thank you, thank you.” He unbuckled and we awkward bro hugged over the stick shift and console.
He got out and, as he held the door open, said as though he’d given it some thought, “Sorry about what happened man… If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call.”
I nodded and whispered “Thanks.”
“Safe travels,” he said before closing the door.
I drove off as he held his hand up in an unmoving wave. While getting back towards where I was going, I mulled over his consolation. He’d done better than most, vague and generic, a bit of sympathy but no trace of platitude. The open invitation was a nice touch.
The first light of the rising sun hit the tops of the Denver skyline by the time I reached the freeway. The mountains to the west took on the purple hue of dawn as the miles ticked by. The low hum of my tires on the road and the whirr of the engine were all I heard as my mind caught up with the thoughts delayed. I appreciated more the social start to the morning.
Lost as I was, the exit I needed to take snuck up on me an hour down the road. A three lane merge later and a bit down the way, a pink building on the left was just where the professor said it would be, where he said I had to go since I was coming this way. I made sure to wipe the dried trail running down the side of my nose before going inside to have some of Colorado Springs’ better Mexican.
I ordered two chicken tacos and an horchata, topping one taco with pico de gallo, the other with salsa verde, and grabbed two of the pickled jalapenos. The peppers cured me of the last of the night’s liquors, and the chili braised chicken in the fresh flour tortilla lived up to the professor’s hype. Trying to figure out the preparation and spice blend during the chewing proved inspiring and potentially replicable. This was good comida Norteña and a fine first meal for the trip. I’d tell him so at a more reasonable hour.
I licked the last of it from my fingers before leaving and made my way back to the car to start again. A fresh thought came and brought a smile with it. When head is heavy and heart is broken, it is best to spoil one’s remaining organs.
The smile stayed as I reached into the trunk and grabbed an open bag of salt and vinegar potato chips and a ceramic crock of mustard. Both went into the passenger seat before I headed back to the interstate and pointed south again.
Traveling a steady 84 miles an hour down the highway, the smile faded and I once again started with the laps in my head. A quarter tank left and a green black high sign let me know when to exit again and I pulled into the drive-thru to caffeinate after topping off the tank. The cheery barista passed me my cappuccino and said the chips next to me were her favorite. I waved off the change and she wished me a nice trip.
The coffee was gone before I made it through Pueblo. I grew discontent with the clarity it provided. With the high plains and endless road before me, I reached into the bag of chips and removed a glass tube containing two cigar wrapped cones. I removed one, bit the twist off the end and slowly rotated the end over the flame of my lighter. Content it would burn easily, I sipped slowly and inhaled the vanilla flavor from the wrap and the berry notes of this highest quality marijuana. Half finished, but with clarity gone, I tamped out the glow and returned what was left to the tube and the tube to the bag. Open windows and sunroof for a spell let the crisp winter air rush in to erase my transgression.
A light snow started falling, but not enough to stick or slow down for. The sun was up and bright and the mountains to the right had their tops obscured by clouds. The laps in my head continued, but lost their linearity. It was a random bounce around memory by the time I approached Trinidad.
I got sadder as I got closer, remembering his time here. He told me he walked both sides of the freeway when the dog disappeared looking through the grass in the ditches for her body. This came only after the signs were posted and a few days after she disappeared from the backyard leaving her collar and chain behind.
I hated this place where people go to change, where he changed. Unlike most his change was internal, and it would have happened wherever he was. It’s not like he needed to be here to complete his gender reassignment, twist the in out or out in depending. But here his transformation got its start, and what he became…
I gripped the steering wheel until my knuckles turned white and clenched my teeth so as not to wail. My eyes welled up, blurring my vision of the truck ahead of me. Its lights were on so I followed the glow through the construction zone. A punch of the arm rest and a few deep breaths brought my composure back and the town disappeared in the rearview. I grabbed the first CD I could find in the console and put it in in hopes of hastening my recovery.
By the time I reached New Mexico, I was better. A song that played was on the mix last night, a bouyant song, and I thought again of the party. It was a good one, a wonderful affair for one of the loveliest. It was our annual double birthday winter time extravaganza and bacchanal but this time with a cloud. People did their best to leave their sadness at the door, as did I. There were lots of pats on the back and hugs held longer than usual, but the words, no one could find. There weren’t any, but the squeezes spoke volumes. It was her year anyway, planned before it all. Was her time to shine, and mine to hopefully not tarnish.
Down the hill, I went past Raton. I thought the name of the place apt. That was where that scum was from. I thought that rat bastard would be lucky if he never saw me again. I’d be too, because I never wanted to know how I’d handle that reunion with his piece of shit ex-roommate.
The town passed by as did the bile in the back of my throat. The Llano Estacado, a wide plain of golden grass, was a blur up close, but on the horizon made a clear, flat line where the empty of the land met the empty of the sky. If only my head were so empty as these staked plains in this Land of Enchantment. Another round from the tube in the chip bag helped make it so.
It was hours of thoughts incomplete by the time I reached the outskirts of Albuquerque. I pulled off the freeway again and found my way to a warehouse pretending to be a chateau on a frontage road. Eye-drops and a tear wipe later, I went inside the tasting room.
The young lady with dark hair behind the bar offered me a list and asked me what I wanted to try.
“I’m here for the bubbles.” I said and leaned into the bar smiling through the numb.
“Excellent,” she said and pulled out a flute when I pointed at a flight. “This is our Brut.” She poured a splash into the glass, passed it to me and asked, “Are you familiar with our wines?”
I nodded with my nose still in the glass, smiled to meet hers and took a sip. “Why, yes I am.”
She was already prepping the Blanc de Noir. It was a bigger splash than before that she pushed toward me while extolling its virtues. When I picked it up, she asked, “So, what brings you in today?”
A few exaggerated tasting movements and a contented exhale later I replied, “Just driving through.”
“Where you headed?” She asked while pouring a still bigger splash of the next wine.
“Las Cruces tonight,” I said and passed back the finished flute.
Her look was quizzical as she passed me the Rosé. “What takes you down there?”
I lied and said only, “Cousin’s funeral.”
The lie was close enough to true but explained away the heavy eyes and road weariness and clipped responses and midday solo drinking. She made a look of condolence and poured a nearly full glass of the next as though apologizing for her initial conviviality. She said softly, “This is our Demi-Sec.”
“Oh, I know,” I said smiling slyly. I lifted the glass to my nose and inhaled the aroma. “This is my date night bottle.” She smiled. I raised the glass out and higher then tilted it slightly forward. “To the places your vintner has taken me.”
My eyes closed on the sip and the dance on my tongue took me to a different time and place. It was the chime of the front bell announcing new customers that brought me back, and I moved slightly to make room at the bar.
I nursed the Demi-Sec as the young lady repeated her spiel. A highlight reel ran through my head of fires and baths and dinners and all sorts of skin while the couple next to me sipped their short pours. Niceties were exchanged and once they had caught up to the Demi-Sec the pours started coming in threes. It was unexpected when she passed me the third, as my chosen flight had come to an end. She smiled sweetly.
“And this is our ’02 Grand Rosé. You can see when you look at the bubbles they are fine and tighter than the non-vintage. They really dance on the tongue.” We all tasted. “The flavors of this one are more polished and mature. It’s one we’re really proud of.”
I nodded in agreement but remained silent as the couple discussed whether they wanted to buy any bottles. I perused the walls of the tasting room with its framed pictures of traditional winemaking and shelves of branded flutes while finishing the last of my Rosé. I savored the sips, letting the pops on the palate linger. I returned to the bar when the couple had left and my flute was dry.
“I’d like to get a bottle of that last one,” I said, thinking I’d toast the completion of my night’s task.
“I thought you might,” she said and went to the back room to get one with a box. She returned and rang up the charge.
I gave her my credit card and she gave me the receipt to sign. “You’re too kind,” I said when I noticed the discount.
She smiled and said, “I hope your trip goes well.”
“It’s off to a good start,” I smiled back. “Thanks.”
I walked out in a bubbled fog, squinting into the bright light of noon.
It proved easier to drive straight than walk so, but filling the car with gas was not without difficulty. I needed food, but not just any. Back to the freeway I went and down the way until seeing my exit. It wasn’t far from there to that restaurant by the university with the legendary tortillas. This was another recommendation from the professor and it took less than a minute after ordering before I had two bowls in front of me on a plastic tray and a stack of warm tortillas.
The pozole was excellent with big bright flavors of red chiles and tender hominy. The green chile was even better. What really set them both apart from others I’d had before were the tortillas all fresh and warm and chewy. I used those brilliant torts to clean every drop of those flavorful broths and could feel the drunk leave, replaced by a different sort of radiant warmth. I couldn’t help but pick up a dozen more tortillas for the road, content as I left that, though it may not be the finest, my lunch was one of the best New Mexico had to offer.
Back on the road, the bubbles from before faded as the miles went by and the sun moved to the right. Far removed from the city, I reached back into the chip bag and finished what I started that morning. My head stayed blissfully empty of memory, concerned instead with wine and food. Passing Truth or Consequences, I was reminded where the grapes were grown, but the name brought me back to my spinning sadness. Of truth I was aware, but consequences were yet unknown. Time would tell, but the pondering of those is the sort of thing that takes the light out of a highway afternoon.
It was near dusk when, on the other side of the freeway, I saw the lights of a security checkpoint. I slowed slightly and opened the sunroof out of caution after clearing my eyes with drops. There wasn’t one in my path, but I resolved to be more cautious.
The lights of Las Cruces showed up ahead, and when my exit came on the far side of town, I went toward the tall sign of my hotel for the night. I checked in to a double occupancy room whose front door glowed haunted hallway orange on the top, bottom, and sides.
This is where horror movies happen, I thought as I dropped my bag on one of the floral comforted beds. I undressed and stepped into the shower to wash the road away. I exhaled clouds as the water hit my back. I tried to get ready for what I came to here to do, to get my head where it needed to be.
My fingers were wrinkled by the time I toweled off and laid on the polyester bed spread. I tried to rest in the two hours before the time would be right to leave. Rest didn’t come in the silent, sports highlights illuminated dark.
After an hour and a half, I rose and dressed in the darkness. Black briefs and socks, black synthetic pants and polypropelyne long sleeved, hooded zip up with hat and gloves in the pockets, black softshell jacket and mountaineering boots. In the black daypack went a water bottle, a flashlight, the cigar tube and a lighter. I looked in the mirror again steeled for what was to come and departed through the glowing door.
I stopped for gas and picked up a pint of bourbon before heading out to the desert. Outside of town and at the crest of the mountain pass, I smoked a loaded bowl and looked into the cloudless night where the moon shined full. Johnny Cash sang to me except for the one song skipped over.
Foolishly, I had forgotten about the checkpoint seen earlier in the evening. Seeing similar lights in the distance stopped my thoughts. I opened every window and went back to that song skipped.
Tears I couldn’t help welled up in my eyes as I joined the queue of searchable cars. I kicked myself for not removing my stash from the trunk and was sure I wouldn’t be able to pass any roadside tests.
I got to the front of the line and the uniformed agent shone a flashlight in my cloudy eyes and said coldly, “Where you headed this evening?”
“White Sands,” I choked out.
“Is everything alright, sir?”
“No,” I wailed and followed in clipped words. “The white powder… in the passenger seat… is the ashes of my younger brother… I’m here to scatter them in a place… a place we talked about going together.”
Not knowing what to say, he signaled to the other uniforms. “Drive safe,” he said and waved me through.
I pulled away slowly; glad to be through, but sad I wasn’t lying.
Not a quarter mile past the checkpoint was the entrance to White Sands. I pulled in and was forced to come to a stop. A locked gate barred the way. I tuned the radio to the frequency on the sign and sat there in shock as it repeated over and over the parks hours of operation from 7 am to sunset. I stepped out of the car to see the full moon perfectly placed at the top of the sky. The place I had driven a thousand miles to see was just out of reach. The radio told me so over and over and over again.
Crestfallen, I returned to my car and drove back the way I came, present until shifted up to speed and then just not.
Ten minutes of empty freeway passed before I pulled off onto the shoulder and stepped out of the car acknowledging what had been building. I wailed at the top of my lungs before screaming fuck a dozen times, each time meaning something different.
For want of knowing what else to do, I headed back to the motel.
When I arrived, I walked across the way to an office park with the mustard jar in my hand and whiskey in my pocket. I wandered until finding a pebbled incline obscured by bushes and lay down with the jar at my side.
Slugs of whiskey failed to drown the repetition of that song in my head and I gave in to whispering it aloud.
“… is a hope that somehow you, can save me from this darkness.”
To shut myself up, I lit the last cone from the cigar tube and threw clouds at the moon while lamenting a plan so nearly realized.
It was such a romantic ideal for a send off. Silhouetted against the purest of gypsum sands with a cloudless night sky and the fullest of moons, covered in black but for my eyes, I was going to say goodbye to my only sibling.
To send him off in a black and white world devoid of any gradient, I would cover my grayness and force upon myself an environment that showed the way I thought he saw things. I would accept the way of his unilateral worldview and leave him in it, so I could return to my world of ambiguity and uncertainty, so I could deal with all of those things that require consideration beyond cursory.
But, that didn’t happen; couldn’t happen. So on that bed of rocks I accepted that it would be more difficult than I thought to say goodbye.
After stumbling back to the room with the glowing door, I took the pink bottle from the ice bath in the sink and placed it next to the mustard jar, removed every layer and proceeded to wet the pillow until sleep came.
Thank you for reading. Should you wish to continue on this trip with me, please purchase Bubbles and Oysters. I’d recommend it. This first day was good, but the day with the grapefruit was another day and the one with the bonefish another still. All the days had their moments and it took all the days to make that great adventure. That adventure was ___________.