Our relationship is marked by beer. Like a long line of bottles in varying shades of brown, green, and amber, the seasons of our love correspond with the tastes and textures and names of beers.

Together, over 14 years, my husband Doug and I have run the gamut—from obscure, handcrafted beers to expensive English delicacies to gourmet homebrew to cheap domestics, and now, finally, to our favorites—the comfort beers we’ve settled on, the brands and varieties we always know we can bring home and the other person will appreciate.

At first, there was barley wine. Intoxicating, rich with perfume, it was a new taste for me, one I hadn’t even known I was ready for. On our first date, at the very outset of what would be a steady, satisfying, several-years-long courtship, Doug and I sat on stools in a restaurant called The Meeting Place and chose from a menu of hundreds of beers.

I scanned the long lists of bottles and drafts, imports and domestics, and felt nearly overwhelmed by all the choices in front of me. Would I pick correctly? Would I, first of all, enjoy what I chose? Would I impress Doug with my selection, or would I feel stupid and regret this?

Flustered, I went for what sounded both quaint and exotic: barley wine. Two small, potent bottles later, I was weak in the knees. (Photo: Dogfish Head Brewery’s Olde School Barley Wine)

We moved on, together, to double bock, the perfect tonic for the stirrings of early spring lust. The rest, as they say, can be left to the imagination.

That first spring and summer, our love blossomed like lilacs, refreshingly sweet, and we spent every weekend together. I’d take the train out from New York City to meet him in what now seemed to be the country—suburban New Jersey—where Doug lived and worked as a carpenter.

Friday night always began with a careful selection of beer. If we were going out for Mexican food, the choice was obvious: Dos Equis with fresh-cut wedges of lime. Otherwise, I left it up to Doug. He knew his beers.

Having just moved back east from the Pacific Northwest, he introduced me first to all his Seattle and Portland-area favorites: Red Hook ESB, a sweetish, yet astringent amber; and the Rogue Ales—especially Dead Guy Ale, a German-style Maibock, malty and rich.

From there, we moved down the coast to Northern California, finding a new favorite: Red Seal, a copper-red pale ale, generously hopped. (Pint glass here filled with–you guessed it–Red Seal Ale)

 

We discovered wheat beers together, which to me are especially delicious with their light-as-air foam, their fruity (yet buttery) tingle on the tongue. I developed a special fondness for the delicate, coriander-tinged flavor of Texas’ Celis White (it is, sadly, no longer brewed).

Dinners out in the city usually meant Indian food and—for me—a nice bottle of Belgian raspberry lambic bought at the little bodega on the corner of First Avenue and East Sixth Street.

Doug gamely tried the lambic, but he prefers bitter brews with bite and soon dismissed my newfound confection as “a girl drink,” or “champagne.” He opted, instead, to go native, drinking Indian beer such as Kingfishers with Indian food; and Sing Ha with Thai dishes; or else he stuck with his perennial favorite: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

A trip to Colorado meant an opportunity to eat and drink at the distinctive Boulder breweries—the Walnut Brewery and Oasis, among them. We sampled the goods everywhere we went, trying little glasses of perhaps 10 different beers, and we left the brewpubs carrying 12-packs of our favorites, seasonal specialties such as apricot ale, things we couldn’t buy at home. We drank some of the beer while camping in the Tetons and lugged the rest back East with us on the plane.

The next step in our relationship was living together, and as soon as we’d found an apartment with huge windows, glossy wood floors and an adequate kitchen, we bought a homebrew kit.

Doug and I started out nervously, like new parents, carefully sterilizing everything, conscientiously stirring a bubbling cauldron that contained the makings of a batch of honey-colored, wheaty lager.

We bought new bottles for this baby—lavishly thick, 22-ounce green ones with hip, metal swing tops. In our eagerness to sample our creation, however, we didn’t leave this beer to age quite long enough.

Our first homebrew we declared a disaster—too sweet and flat. We forgot about a case of it, and moved on to something more ambitious (my idea, I admit): a double-chocolate porter.

This beer we did not touch for required months of fermentation. When we did taste it, the beer was rich and thick, bittersweet, and it poured with an impressive head.

We (dumbly) shared the porter with our friends and our stock was soon depleted. Oh, well, we thought. We still had the corner store on Indian Row, and our local beer emporium, which was finding new beers all the time—continually challenging our tastes—to sustain us.

At this beer emporium, Doug discovered an English beer—available only around the holidays—called Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome. It comes in large, clear pint bottles, the copper-brown ale just beckoning to be quaffed. (Photo: the big, bad WW–not sure what year this bottle is from.)


The taste of Winter Welcome is both rich and clean, nutty-sweet yet dry. Doug also likes the labels; each year the painted illustration changes (think goose or chalet, horse-drawn carriage and so on), giving him good enough reason to not recycle the bottles. Winter Welcome is Doug’s favorite beer of all. He told his best friend, Mike, about it, sharing a bottle to explain its magical taste.

This could have been a mistake. Now Mike buys out the beer store’s supply of Winter Welcome each Christmas, and the only way Doug can even get any of his favorite beer is to stop by Mike’s house.

***

As the years went by, our relationship strengthened, and the beer drinking picked up speed, as well. I bought Doug books on beer. He read them carefully, dog-earing pages, scribbling notes in the margins, determined to seek out the few gourmet beers he hadn’t yet tasted (ones from small craft breweries housed in defunct Midwestern fire stations, or remote corners of Alsace-Lorraine).

But then, suddenly (the change shocked me), Doug was no longer very interested in microbrews. He wanted reliability, he said—and a more palatable price tag. At this point, we were engaged and living out in the wilds of Eastern Long Island, in a small cottage near the beach.

We were far from a decent grocery store, let alone one with any impressive selection of beer. Doug reverted to drinking Rolling Rock and Bud, and occasionally (when he felt like splurging) his old standby: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

When I asked him what was going on, Doug said it was simply a new phase of his life: he was settling down. At first I worried, but then I came to see his point. Doug had played the field and now he knew what he liked, so what was the point of continuing the game?

Doug and I got married and took a very long honeymoon in Belize. While there, we savored the crisp, new taste of Belize’s own beer: Belikin. This is a beer we still haven’t been able to find in the states (though I think it may be available somewhere in Texas).

A by-product of our honeymoon, we soon discovered, was a baby. I, of course, drank no more beer as soon as I realized I was pregnant. We packed up house and moved to Iowa so I could attend grad school after the baby’s birth.

Away from family and friends and plowing through our savings to furnish our apartment and stock up for our child, Doug stuck to drinking inexpensive, domestic beers. When the time came for our daughter’s birth, I reminded Doug to pack a special bottle of champagne that my cousin’s husband—a wine dealer—had given us. He did so, and for his own nerves, tucked into a cooler two cans of beer.

I was appalled to find, the next day in the hospital, two (untouched) cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Why on earth had Doug chosen such a pedestrian beer?

He said he didn’t know why, or it was simply a strange combination of desperation, flightiness, and worry. Doug had reportedly reached for the first beer he saw in the supermarket. He was very nervous about becoming a father, and he hesitated to celebrate just in case (he’s a pessimist) something should go terribly wrong.

But everything had gone fine. We had a beautiful, nine-pound daughter.

Doug toasted her with Pabst (I am still appalled), and promised we’d drink the champagne at home.

All these years later, we still, of course, find ourselves going through phases of life, as well as phases of beer. We appreciate beer, and just as people enjoy different music on different occasions, so it goes with beer.

We need to get another beer-making kit and try that again (now that our kids are big enough to keep themselves occupied for a few hours). This past Christmas, I intended to brew beer as gifts, but I just got too busy.

Think we’ll try it again this year, though. Boiling up a batch of beer during what is sure to be a hot summer will nevertheless be worth it in the winter. (Especially since walking down to the basement for more beer is much easier than visiting the annoying Pennsylvania state liquor stores…the beer drinking lately has waned just because it’s such a pain to buy beer where we live now. You can’t even leave a PA store with three six-packs. No, you have to leave the third and come back for it separately…. I can’t even imagine the purpose of such an insipid law.)

The hardest part of homebrewing this time will be agreeing on what type of beer to make. We’ve done it all, had them all. But we still recall the taste of that forgotten first batch of homebrew—the one we opened too early, dismissed too quickly.

When Doug and I stumbled upon some dusty, untouched bottles a couple of years later, we ventured to try that first beer again. Its taste was now mellow, delicious—redolent, somehow, of fresh-mown hay and clover.

Like our love, it had only grown richer with age.

 



Fires

By Matthew Gavin Frank

Travel

The fire-eaters, fire-dancers, and fire-spitters decorate the street corners. Beneath each traffic light: hordes of vendors peddling scratch-off lottery tickets, caramel candies, paper flowers. Louisa and I watch from the taxicab windows as the heart of Mexico City, even at midnight, beats as if riddled with morning coffee. Pockets of deafening horn-driven music ignite then die as we push slowly through the crowd toward Hotel Rioja. The city seems to glow as if with silver foil, peeled back just enough to reveal this contained and somehow irreverent human vitality, left to thrive on its own beneath Mexico City’s infamous ceiling of pollution. When we are hidden from the stars, we’re safe to engage what obsesses us, and here, shooting from a side street into the ballooning Zócalo square, what obsesses us seems to be essentially good.

After confronting my mother’s mortality head-on in Chicago, Louisa and I are more receptive to things like caramels and paper flowers—the small beauties that allow us our small joys, which are, after all, the stitches that hold us together, keep our blood inside us. We’re receptive to things like the Christmas light sculptures and façades that decorate the Zócalo’s Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María cathedral, the Aztec Templo Mayor, the National Palace with it’s mansion-sized Mexican flag. The flag’s emblem, as dictated by Aztec legend, was a gift from the gods. The gods told the Aztecs to found their city on the land where they were to spot a chimerical eagle, clinging to a prickly pear tree, gorging itself on a snake. It was here, in this same square where a skinny mother and her toddler son now peddle oranges from a green blanket to the midnight citrus snackers, that the Aztecs fulfilled the vision. This is the square where Moctezuma II had his houses, and in these garish light decorations, we can sense the ancient Aztec belief that this was, indeed the center of the universe. I reach for Louisa’s hand, wondering, in the Aztec scheme of things, which animal we are; which one my mom is.

And steering us through it, as celestial as the night scene itself, is an old bald man pointing with cigar-stub fingers to each building, each lamppost, each greening sculpture and muttering explanations as mysterious as wormholes in lisping Spanish, spittle adorning his words like gold tinsel. I lean forward to hear him, a series of pathetic fireworks explode their white light as benign as camera flashes to our left, and can only make out the muffled, but reverently spoken word, “Zócalo.” His mouth squashes the word like a cucaracha and it sounds, in this tiny cab as if pressed through the static of a shortwave radio.

Louisa touches the window as if attempting to get closer to the action. Tiny women in impossibly blue kerchiefs carry obese bundles of rolled bathmats on their backs. Children swordfight with pink glowsticks. The old man circles the square twice for us, making sure we take it all in, which, of course, is hopeless. We’re weary and hungry, and sinking into that wonderful hot-tub of travel, snapped out of our comfort zones, and light-headed. It’s unwise to keep our hearts beneath the surface of the water for too long. We might just die dazed and elated.

We turn onto one of the many dendritic side streets that extend like cephalopod arms into the roaring night-ocean of Ciudad de México. Hernán Cortés once described these roads as having the width of jousting lances. Surely, just by driving it, we cave in the chest armor of some benevolent ghost. Soon, we are parked in front of the Hotel Rioja—an old whore of a place, skin peeling, watermarked, skeleton pressing from beneath, but bearing a defunct regality, operating from the tender misconception that lipstick masks all age. I want to hug this hotel, deserving of both our generosity and respect.

Around its hip-corner, I will soon buy my Leon Cervesa Negra for about thirty cents. But first: dinner. And before that: shaking hands with the cabbie who sandwiches my fingers in his palms, stands on his tiptoes to kiss my wife on her cheek. We roll our suitcases over marble and step into the scarred belly of the whore, where even our breath echoes, and another short old man in a white dress shirt steps from behind the front desk, beaming like some reincarnated eagle.

I was seven months old when I attended my first Mardi Gras parade. It was cold by New Orleans standards, so I was bundled up like a teeny tiny Michelin Man. From what I can tell from the photos, I couldn’t bend my arms, much less catch beads. I’m sure my grandmother took care of that for me anyway.

Mardi Gras nuts run in my family. My grandfather and great grandfather both rode in multiple parades each year. My grandmother’s house was right on the parade route, and her porch was THE place to be. She’d cook tons of delicious food throughout the Carnival season. She dove for beads and dabloons like a woman half her age and kept an ice chest of cold beer at her side to trade for the most prized throws.

I definitely got the Mardi Gras genes. At the height of my participation in Mardi Gras, I was in four parades and made nine costumes, including one for the dog. I bought my house in 2001 partly because of its proximity to a particularly choice portion of the parade route. When I decided to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I set the closing date for the sale of my house after Mardi Gras so I wouldn’t have to find another place to stay.

I’ve been a NOLA expat for nearly four years now, and I’ve only been back for Mardi Gras once, the first year. I met other expat friends down there, and we had a ball. I did all my usual things, but it was different.

Since then, I’ve had really good reasons not to go back. In 2008, I had just started a new job. Finances were tight as I was still paying for the adoption of my daughter who would be coming home later that year. I teared up a bit in my cube that day. Last year, I was a new mom and not ready to take on the Mardi Gras crowds with my baby. We went home for St. Patrick’s Day instead. As I boarded the plane to return to North Carolina, I swore that I would be back for Mardi Gras this year.

The economy has caused me to tighten my belt quite a bit, but in all honesty, I could have afforded to go home this year if I really wanted to be there. Fact is, it just didn’t seem that important. As the time grew near and I knew I wasn’t going to be there, I waited for the homesickness to rear its ugly head but all I felt was, meh…

Mardi Gras is a magical time, but it’s more magical when you live there. Waking up in your own bed, wading through the glitter and feathers covering your house to find your costume, and making your way past neighbors who are dressed as butterflies, giant crawfish, or demon George Bushes is what makes that magic. Once you’ve had that experience and you go back as a tourist, it just doesn’t measure up to the memories of having Mardi Gras happen in the middle of your regular life. 

I don’t feel sad that we aren’t down on Frenchman Street this afternoon. I grieve that my daughter will never know what it’s like to run into her teacher dressed as a cancan dancer in the French Quarter. And beyond Mardi Gras, she’ll never be playing in the back yard on a regular Saturday afternoon in the spring, hear a brass band leading a Second Line parade in the distance, and run through the house to the front door to join the folks dancing behind the musicians. She won’t go around the corner to a neighbor’s house to get a lucky bean or delicious Italian cookie from their food-covered St. Joseph’s Day altar. Even though those things are really wonderful, New Orleans lacks many of the other things our multiracial family needs. Despite all the magic of the City, I’m not willing risk my daughter’s future on a place as fragile as New Orleans.

So it’s two o’clock in the afternoon on Mardi Gras, and I’m in a coffee shop nowhere near New Orleans working and writing an essay. I’m okay with that.

Sometime in the 1970s before my father became a voluntary mute, before my mother started going to the nude beach and growing marijuana, before my sister, Becca, was anorexic and before my brother, Josh, created a second home for himself on a platform three-stories high up a eucalyptus tree, we were a contained, orderly little family. I was six, quiet, and afraid of chaos and loud noises when Becca became friends with Alice Richter who lived in what was then the wildest house in the neighborhood.

Alice Richter, one of five kids, was Becca’s age, nine, but about a foot taller with white hair, eyebrows and lashes. She had hipbones that jutted out like boomerangs from below her flat belly. Her mother reminded me of Lucille Ball with her curly “done” hair and a voice that sounded like it had been born off the tip of a cigarette, which it had in fact. However, unlike my mother who suckled her cigarettes with a cup of coffee, Mrs. Richter puffed her two packs while sipping from a plaid, wool-lined canteen that hung on a shoulder strap, and which she carried with her continuously. Like the other women in the neighborhood, Mrs. Richter stayed home, cleaned her house and did laundry. So the “mess” in the Richter house was psychological—like a perfectly polished labyrinth set up for an anxious mouse.

When it was time for my sister to come home for dinner, it was up to me to summon her. The Richter phone was always busy when I called. I would hang up the yellow wall receiver, pick it up once more and redial over and over again while sitting on a stool at the counter in the family room looking into the kitchen at my mother cooking dinner. Eventually my mother would tire of my efforts and insist that I run down to their house, saying something like, “For crissakes! They’re not going to kill you! You’ll survive, go get her!”

I’d hop off the stool and often pick up Josh, if he was playing nearby on the family room floor. He liked to grasp onto me face-forward as I carried him toward the front door with all intentions of bringing him with me—a turtle shell against my vulnerable belly. But more often than not, Josh squirmed out of my arms and ran off before I could get him outside.

There were Five Stages of Terror at the Richter house. Stage One was the garage where the oldest son, Roger, hung out with his friends. Roger worked at an auto body shop painting mod designs on hot rod cars: sunsets, unicorns, blond ladies in red bathing suits. The garage door was always open, a car or two parked inside. Roger and his friends, who were the height of my father, or larger, huddled near the coffin-sized freezer in the back of the garage, drinking beer and smoking what I, at six-years old, could identify as marijuana (my mother’s pot habit, which at the time was only occasional, had been clearly explained to me so I that I would know to keep it a secret).

“Who you looking for little girl?” someone would invariably shout, and whatever I answered (“my sister” or “Becca”) they pretended not to hear for someone would walk out of the garage to interrogate me, asking questions like, “You looking for beer? You want a smoke?”

Once I’d made it past the garage, I’d knock on the front door that no one opened. (Honestly, there never was a day when I knocked and the door was opened.) I could hear top-forty radio playing inside, I could hear Mrs. Richter whistling so perfectly and purely that she could have done the opening tune for The Andy Griffith Show. I could hear the fluffy, dust ball-looking dog, Frank, yipping. And there, on the porch, I was faced with the Second Stage of Terror: the decision of how to proceed. Should I just open the door and go in, or go back to the garage and ask Roger if I could go in through the garage door? On the odd occasion that the front door was locked, I had to face the boys in the garage again. But usually the front door was unlocked, so I would eventually open it, stick my head in, and then step inside.

The yapping dog’s noise would build to a frantic crescendo. I was not afraid of dogs, but this one made enough racket that I didn’t bend down to pet it or do anything else that might calm his hysteria. I just waited for someone to come see what all the ruckus was about and find me.

If it was the youngest of the three brothers, Thad, who found me, he would look at me, say nothing, then walk away. If it was the middle of the three brothers, Marcus, or if it was Marcus and Thad together, the Third Stage of Terror, The Taunt, would begin.

The Taunt was something I had never encountered before and it was something that was, during my childhood in California, unique to the Richter household. Marcus Richter was, I believe, the composer of the taunt and the one who seemed to take the most joy in doing it. With a clear, high-pitched voice, a blond shaved head that looked like velvet, and sharp blue eyes, Marcus would lean in toward me, his shoulders weaving like a boxer’s, as he screeched, “Hee hee Jessica. Heeeee Heeee Jessica. Heeeeeee Heeeee. . . .” The Hee part of the taunt would grow louder and more maniacal the longer Marcus went on. He’d circle me, his lean, snaky body bending and twisting as he chanted, “Heeeeeee heeee Jessica . . . .” Eventually the taunt would grow to a rhythmical “Hee hee, ho ho, hi hi, hee hee, ho ho hi hi . . . .” And if that went on long enough it merged into a song that was shouted in my face and went like this, “Viva la viva la viva la WAH, viva la viva la WO, viva la viva la viva la WAH, viva la viva la WO . . . .” The coda was the most musical part of The Taunt. Marcus often got down on his knees and looked up at me as if he were pleading while he sang, “Cry for you, I’m going to cry cry cry for you, I’m going to cry for you . . . . ” When Thad joined in he was just another voice, as he never became fully immersed in the choreography the way Marcus did. According to Becca, this chanting taunt went on all day long, indiscriminately, to anyone who entered the house and it didn’t bother her in the least. (I must point out here that Marcus Richter grew up to be a Hari Krishna. Yes, a chanting Hari Krishna.)

If Marcus or Thad were not the ones to find me on the entrance hall landing, then it was usually Mrs. Richter. She spoke so rapidly, I never quite understood what she said and was always unsure if she was even speaking to me. She’d touch my elbow at some point and direct me to sit on the blue wing chair besides Mr. Richter in his blue wing chair while someone fetched Becca. Mr. Richter read the newspaper without speaking or looking at me, thus creating Terror Number Four as I uncomfortably tried to figure out where to look, or how to sit, while I waited for my sister to appear. And since Mrs. Richter usually sent Marcus or Thad Richter upstairs to get Becca and they never seemed to follow her orders, if often seemed as if I had to endure the Fourth Stage of Terror for as long as twenty minutes until Mrs. Richter entered the room again to refill Mr. Richter’s glass and was reminded that I was there waiting. Of course it always occurred to me during this waiting period that terrors two through four could be avoided if Mr. Richter, whose chair faced the front door, simply got up, opened the door when I knocked, then walked upstairs and retrieved my sister, or bellowed from the bottom of the stairs (the way my own father would) for her to come down immediately.

The Fifth Stage of Terror occurred when I had had enough of either waiting in the blue wing chair, or when I had gathered up the courage to walk away from Marcus in the middle of The Taunt (in which case the Fifth Stage of Terror would be the Fourth as we’d skip the other Fourth Stage of Terror: sitting in the living room with Mr. Richter) and took the unnerving walk upstairs to find Becca on my own.

Alice Richter’s bedroom was the last room down a long a hallway of Richter children bedrooms. Just before her room was her sister Mary Jane’s room. Mary Jane was a year younger than I and had the energy and spastic movements of the Richter boys. She was as skinny as a rope, as blond as the sun, with big gaping teeth that were too big for her face. If she spotted me, she would run and leap on top of me like a crazed tree frog, her stringy arms and legs all over my body. Once, she even bit me on the shoulder to try and convince me to stay and play with her. She was feral in a way that Josh wasn’t as there didn’t seem to be even a glint of prudence behind her wild blue eyes. (By the time we were teenagers Mary Jane was freakishly beautiful with her sun-browned skin and silky white hair. But people found her disturbing as she seemed to have an old person’s aphasia and could never find the words for what she wanted to say, often grunting and using hand signals for a simple sentence like, “I burned my arm on the iron.” By this time I had a great affection for her and would often speak for her at parties and dances at school.)

Once I had fended Mary Jane off my back I would run to Alice Richter’s room where the suspender-wearing James Taylor poster covered the door. I’d knock and then open the door it if it wasn’t opened for me within seconds.

“Becca,” I’d say, my voice in line with my pumping heart, “Mom said you have to come home for dinner NOW.” I’d turn and rush down the hall, past Mary Jane leapfrogging off the end of her bed, down the stairs, past Mr. Richter in his chair, past the sounds of Mrs. Richter in the kitchen and the rumbling sounds of Thad and Marcus riding a bare mattress down the rumpus room steps, out the door, and past the men-sized boys drinking beer and smoking pot in the garage and up the street to our cul de sac where everything seemed peaceful, calm, orderly.

When I entered our house with my mother quietly cooking dinner, a camel cigarette bobbing around her mouth, the sunlight streaming in and highlighting the mown-grass pattern in the green shag family room carpet, the sliding glass door looking out to the perfectly patterned, precisely geometric lemon orchard, I felt so happy that this was my family, this was my life. I was not a Richter child.

Of course I had no idea how quickly things would soon change in my own house.

[This story is broken up into two parts. Part II will appear nearing January’s end. A couple of names were changed to conceal identities.]

An unclad young woman stared at me from across the room. A straight line ran from her pointed breasts to my line of vision. I took a sip from my beer. Topless, unabashed, she positioned herself against the wall in a rather somber pose, half sobering considering the atmosphere. I took a drag from my cigarette, another sip from my beer. I wiped the froth from my lip. She had yet to blink, kept looking in my direction. Some specimen she was, I thought silently.

I exhaled a cloud of smoke and it hung heavy overhead like empty time. I walked her way. As I approached, she titled forward falling. I caught her, stood her back on the wall, and secured the loose piece of scotch tape that kept her shoulders square, her posture in perfect alignment.

Her name was Amanda. She was a sucker for the shy type. She was a late bloomer, she said.

She straddled a Harley Davidson motorcycle and wore a pair of black leather assless chaps. Amanda was one of various nude women, which served as wallpaper in my cousin Gary’s home.

He was a bachelor.

He drank whiskey.

He wore a leather beret.

He listened to Willie Nelson.

He once traded hats with Willie Nelson after a Willie Nelson concert.

They didn’t smoke marijuana together afterward.


It was getting late. The wee hours of the night tugged at my eyelids. My nostrils widened. Blood shot and dry, irritated by the cigarette smoke lingering in the air, my burning eyes did their best to water. I brought my hand to my mouth and let out a deep yawn. Jeremiah looked my way. His eyes closed. His nostrils widened. His mouth opened and springing from the pit of his stomach a deep yawn arose.

“I guess…. it’s like…. they say—” I said to him, finishing my yawn.

“Contagious is right,” he responded.

I dropped my hands to my side.

Wu Tang entered the speakers. The RZA, the GZA, Raekwon, and the rest of the Clan verbally assaulted us spitting more heat than a woodstove in winter….

You can’t party your life away
Drink your life away
Smoke your life away…

One by one, drunken teenagers and young twenty-somethings saturated in wildly wandering hormonal distress stood in a single file line down the hallway guzzling cheap American beer. With all their shouting, grunting, and vocal might they attempted to revive the once vibrant game of Waterfall that had so consumed them an hour earlier.

Their calls were moot at this conjecture in the night. Cal Adams stood tipsy on the tips of his toes, chugging a beer.

One cold can after the next, participants dropped like flies—beer foam all the while dripping from their lips and chins, giving them the impression of rabid raccoons rocking steady to the beat across the room.

I looked in Jeremiah’s direction and noticed him wobbling. His head bobbed from side to side. His hips swayed. His bones danced a jiggly, gelatinous dance. His body swayed like a drunken vessel….

He belched.

He opened the front door. We both trailed out, lit our respective cigarettes, and surveyed the scene.

Numerous friends of ours lay before us in Gary’s front yard. Some were curled up in the fetal position. Others were slumped over the rail on the stoop blowing chunks of Natty Light and Pabst Blue Ribbon from their jowls.

In spit-filled slurs slung sideways, they promised empty promises: “I’ll never drink this much again,” only to drink that much and more the following Friday down in the boonies of southern Virginia.

Phenix.

Drakes Branch.

Red Oak.

Red House.

Aspen.

Keysville.

Charlotte Court House.

We all were born and raised in a county without a single stoplight. We celebrated our boredom the same way every weekend. We had no music venues. We had no bars. No clubs. No movie theater save the drive-in.

We celebrated our existence, our invincibility at Gary’s on Scott Rd.

“This is the famous Budweiser beer,” I said flicking my cigarette, walking back into the house. “We know of no brand produced by any other brewer which costs so much to brew and age. Our exclusive beechwood aging produces a taste, smoothness, and a drinkability you will find in no other beer at any price.”

“Get this bumbling idiot some water,” Gary said.

“Who me?”

“Yes, you. And tell your buddy, what’s his name—” He pointed in the direction of my friend Derek who was passed out on the couch with a cigarette still in his mouth. It had burned its way down to the filter.

“Derek?”

“Yes, Derek. Derek Smith. Tell him not to come over to my house again unless he’s wearing a shirt. Do I need to post a sign on my front door that reads, ‘No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service;’ huh, do I?”


Derek rarely wore a shirt anywhere. He wasn’t some macho asshole. He just didn’t like to wear a shirt. Half the time he didn’t wear pants. That night at Gary’s he had on pants: camouflage cargo pants. Derek had signed up for the National Guard. He was due to leave for boot camp in a few weeks.

Derek used to sit in the parking lot at B&D Mart in our hometown of Phenix, Virginia, in the broad daylight in his tighty-whitey boxer-briefs with a Camel unfiltered hanging off his bottom lip, shaving his face with the Norelco electric razor his parents had given him. He shaved his face everyday with that razor. He kept it charged in the A/C adapter, this all despite having minimal facial hair at the time. The type of facial hair you have when you’re in high-school.

Unless you were Dwayne Davis.

Or Jimmy Lovelace. Also known as Paco. Or Mustapha. Whether he looked Mexican or Arab depended on the season.

If it was summer or fall, Jimmy looked Arab. If it was winter or spring then Mexican.


Jimmy got the nickname Paco when the two of us enrolled in summer school after 9th grade. We both had flunked Algebra II.

There was a kid named Deron that used to always ask him for lunch money. He hassled Jimmy a lot. Gave him a lot of shit.

Then one day Deron walks up to Jimmy, sort of nudges him. They were serving tacos that day.

“Yo Paco. Let me hold a dollar. I need a Taco, Paco.”

It’s been fifteen years. I still call Jimmy, Paco. He passed Algebra II that summer. I didn’t. I took it once again in 10th grade. Third time’s a charm.

The year before, we pleaded with Jimmy for nearly an entire semester in 8th grade to shave the Superman logo in his chest hair.

“My mom would kill me.”

“How the fuck is your mom going to know,” I asked him. I was pissed. Jimmy used to do anything I’d tell him like bark for a piece of chewing gum in 7th grade. Now he protested.

“Bark for a piece of gum and I’ll give you a piece. It’s Teaberry. Teaberry is fucking awesome,” I said chewing. “Man, this is some good ass gum.”

“I’m not barking for a piece of gum,” Jimmy whispered back. Our teacher had her back to us.

“Guess you won’t be getting any gum then. By the way, your breath smells like dog shit. Did you eat a turd for lunch?”

A few minutes passed. I had swallowed my gum by that point. I used to always swallow my gum despite my mom telling me it would take seven years to come out the other end.

That was bullshit. I remember seeing chewing gum in my shit when I was six years old.

“Ruff!”

“What was that,” Mrs. Clark said.

When Jimmy barked, I had switched over to Sugar Babies and had crammed my mouth with a handful of the caramel and chocolate treats developed in 1935 by the James O. Welch Co.

I began choking on my own saliva.

The saliva was thick and sugary.

It tickled my throat.

“Who just barked,” Mrs. Clark demanded.

I started to laugh. My eyes watered. I had too many Sugar Babies in my mouth.

Jimmy was shaking with laughter. I was shaking with laughter.

Old, fat women in bikinis, I thought to myself. I was trying to think of something not funny. It wasn’t working. I could hear Jimmy barking over and over in my head.

I started to cough. I thought my eyes were going to burst out my head.

Then I threw up on my desk. It looked like cat shit, kind of. I thought Jimmy was going to throw up too. Jimmy used to always throw up when other people threw up. I used to always throw up when other people threw up too. I remember once in 1st grade when Larry Wade poured milk over his tuna ball that sat on top a piece of lettuce in his lunch tray. Someone had dared Larry an orange push-up he wouldn’t eat the milk, lettuce, and tuna mixture.

Larry did.

This overweight kid I used to call Skipper threw up watching Larry eat. He called me Little Buddy. His mom worked at a chocolate factory. Every Valentine’s Day she would come to our class for Show and Tell. The Skipper’s real name was Chad.

When Chad threw up, I threw up. Then other kids started throwing up all the way down the table. My cousin Brandon threw up. He was in the middle of an argument telling all the other kids that Santa Claus didn’t exist when he stopped to throw up. He had a rat-tail. So did Erik Ragsdale. I’m not sure if Erik threw up.


Jimmy’s mom knew everything her children did. He was terrified to go against her or do anything he thought would upset her in the slightest. His older sister would later become pregnant out-of-wedlock, carry the baby the entire length of the pregnancy having never been to the doctor for a single check-up, and go into labor one day at the high school. She was a teacher.

She had graduated college, had a salary job, and was still terrified of her mother.

Jimmy would later tell me about the situation. He prefaced it by saying, “Man you aren’t going to believe this shit.” The conversation went sort of like this.

JIMMY: By the time I get off work, get to my locker, and check my phone I have like ten missed calls from my mom. One missed call after the next. One new voicemail.

“Jimmy,” my mom said. “Please call me when you get this. Call me as soon as you get this.”

She was extremely upset.

Crying. Fucking delirious sounding, man.

Naturally, I’m thinking someone has died. Somebody has definitely died. I start to panic a little. I’m almost scared to call her back. What if something happened to my dad or sister? I’m a little fidgety, antsy about returning the call. I’m going to do it. I just need to calm down first. I light a cigarette. I’m shaking. I’m hot-boxing that bitch. Then my phone rings. I look down at caller ID. It’s my mom.

She’s sucking back snot.

“What’s the matter I ask her? Mom, what’s the matter?”

“Melissa had a baby,” she says.

(Jimmy pauses, looks at me, eyes big as saucers, and laughs)

ME: Yeah man, that shit came through the grapevine. I heard about it all the way in Charlottesville. I didn’t even know she was pregnant.

JIMMY: Neither did I.

ME: What did you say?

JIMMY: The first thing that came to mind: “Are you fucking kidding me?”

That triggers my mom to bawl more.

“When the hell did she get pregnant,” I asked her.

I was floored. Dude I was fucking floored. My sister had a baby. Do you believe that shit? She was fucking pregnant for nine months and never told anybody. I mean shit. How do you pull that shit off? Thing is, you couldn’t even tell she was pregnant. You know my sister. She doesn’t exactly win the gold medal for most physically fit but still—pregnant? Nine months? Had a baby? Fuck!

(laughs)

Suddenly me dating a black chick isn’t the worst thing in the world for my parents.

(laughs)

ME: How’s that situation going?

JIMMY: Same ole, same ole. Don’t come home unless you’re single or got a white girl on your arm.

(He pulls on a cigarette)

ME: Your folks need to be more understanding. Do they realize you don’t even look white? You look like you’re from the United Arab Emirates. And you’re balding prematurely.

JIMMMY: Hey, fuck you.


Finally, the owner of B&D confronted Derek about his lack of outerwear. He was shirtless and had on no pants. He wore army boots and white boxer briefs. He had been polishing his boots since we got off from school.

He was standing at the Coca-Cola machine, trying to straighten a dollar bill on the side of the machine. I sat at the picnic table with some other friends: Rick, Ricky, and Brian.

Brian had a stuttering problem. If we were all having a down day, we used to get Brian to sing “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive for kicks.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet
B-B-B-Baby, you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet
Here’s something that you never gonna forget
B-B-B-Baby, you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet

Brenda, the co-owner of B&D Mart (the “B” stood for “Brenda”), knocked hard with her knuckles against the drive-up window that was duct-taped shut. Derek looked her way. I looked her way. She had a mean snarl on her face and pointed at Derek.

“You stay right there,” she said. You couldn’t hear her but you could read her lips. She was fuming. Then she proceeded out the front door and began berating Derek.

She finished, turned around, walked back inside. She stood at the window looking outside at us.

Derek looked at me and said, “Shit. What’s her problem?”

“You don’t have on pants,” I said.


Gary turned his attention back to the fizzled out game of Waterfall. Then Jeremiah stumbled back into the picture, wobbling across the carpet like a pregnant woman, her water about to burst.

He squinted.

“Are you alright,” I asked Jeremiah.

No response.

He narrowed his eyes even more trying to fix his pupils on one of the three of me he saw. Assuming he was staring into the image of me located in the middle of the other two blurred images of my form, he asked if I was ready to leave.

“Are you ready to leave,” he asked.

I was.


To read Part II, please click here

As we loaf near midnight in our first bed in Mexico City, Louisa’s kiss cooling on my lips, the red scrolled metal of the bed frame screeching like so many rodents each time we move to scratch, drink, caress, I hear through the skinny walls the laughter of the nighttime desk crew. It’s not a laughter I’m used to, not one I’d typically hear from the many nighttime desk crews I’ve encountered on my many car-bound U.S. crossings. It’s not a laughter that gels with the Motel 6s and sub-Motel 6s that have borne witness to much of my sleep.

This room has no TV, but has beautiful wooden nightstands. Over mine, the sole wall decoration hangs—a calendar boasting Diciembre, the Virgen de Guadalupe looking down upon the meager squares, doing their best (and failing) to represent our days here, her eyes deflating as gold rays shoot from behind her like the kitschiest sun in the galaxy. She must know what it takes to laugh like this. She must have the ability to describe it in a way that doesn’t point from a distance and exoticize. But I don’t. I am an otherer. And this laughter is other, and exotic as hell. It’s as simple as a pink balloon. This laughter is the toddler joy of dragging one’s fingers over balloon skin, eliciting from the thin rubber, that dribbling, speed-bump frictive joy. Simple as a light-stick. A set of iridescent jacks.

I try to commune with it, stick my tongue between my lips and blow. I haven’t done this in years, and the vibration is exhilarating. Louisa looks up from her book, Obama’s “Dreams from My Father,” and smacks me on the shoulder. This is the first time my South African wife is traveling as a U.S. citizen, a status we jointly pursued throughout seven years of marriage and thousands of dollars and now, here, in this cheap, ornate, cavernous Hotel Rioja just off the main Zócalo square in the Centro Histórico, each laugh-echo from the courtyard serves as our payoff.

Beneath the orange and green wool blanket, she brings her knees to her chest and asks, “Are you spitting at me?”

How do I begin to answer this? I’m exhausted from traveling all day, too exhausted to sleep. How to I go about telling Louisa of my stupid attempt to commune with this new laughter? That spitting like a toddler at a teacher is my only touchstone. The only way I know how…

“I’m must be tired,” I say, and I’m happy I do because she leans in and kisses me warm again. Behind us, on the wall, the Virgen doubtlessly gives us her garish blessing. Louisa goes back to Barack, I go back to jotting a few innocuous lines into my notebook, cracking, with a low hiss the can of Leon Cervesa Negra I picked up for about thirty cents at the convenience store on Avenida Cinco de Mayo. The beer is lukewarm, tinny and just what the doctor ordered. To be sure, it’s my only hope for sleep. Soon, the laughter dissipates, but the construction of Hotel Rioja amplifies the most meager of actions. I can hear the old hunched desk clerk click his pen open three floors beneath us. Our room is on the indoor courtyard; if we dared step from our cracked wooden door, we could peer over the railing down to the nucleus of the place, meditate on the smooth bald head of the desk clerk whose small coughs sound in this place like the roars of Armageddon. The traffic outside could be under our bed.

Louisa and I need this—our first time overseas after spending a year in Chicago nursing my mother back from cancer, a year confronting the demons of my childhood bedroom, a room I hadn’t regularly slept in for fourteen years; a room bearing the obsessions of my youth, a past I only thought I had moved beyond; a room far more forbidding than any Motel 6; a room that signified, in it’s Alyssa Milano-circa-Who’s the Boss pin-ups and autographed pictures of Walter Payton, the loss of our marital sanctuary.

We need this. A room with walls that lets Mexico in, that allow our remembered lives, remembered selves to seep through its pores, where we can collect them into this bed, this can of beer, these quiet swallows between kisses. Above us, another couple, having found sleep, snore a telenovela through our ceiling.

It’s always nice to have visitors visiting when you’re living abroad. They bring reminders that no matter how much you miss the States, the States stay pretty much the same. This is like everywhere, though. Our first visitor, the daughter of our roommate Deanne’s hairdresser, had won a contest. She mailed in the back of some cat food and got a 7-day, 6-night setup around the Iberian Peninsula. Her father, Deanne told us, was a deeply religious and protective man and mandated that his daughter’s trip would only extend as far as Madrid, where she would stay with Deanne (and us) away from the vicissitudes of foreignness, an isolated beaker of propriety. Her name was Carla and she was anorexic, a gargantuan alcoholic and just shy of being an “imbecile,” defined like the antiquated English usage.

Carla arrived into Barajas airport in Madrid. The four of us, my roommates, James, myself, Deanne and Caron, bought her a drink at Barajas airport and left in a taxi, a real treat. Carla later assured us that she wouldn’t burden us with having to take her on as a house-guest for a week and was excited to be out on her own in “Mexico.” Yes, Mexico. She’d only stay a night. “Totally!” Spain beat Mexico. This once.

As a guest, we felt obliged to give Carla a night on the town. We’d been living cheaply, but all of us had credit cards, so we ventured out to a German bar called the “Rats Keller.” Every city has one of these, just like every city has an Irish bar called “The Blarney Stone.” I don’t know why we always went to the Rats Keller with our out-of-country guests. Oh, sure I do.

We’d inevitably order a three-liter concoction known as “Der Vulkan,” which consisted of a liter of vodka, a liter of rum, a liter of gin and a then some Jagermeister and orange juice. The straws they gave us were Crazy Straws and the drink had a bunch of umbrellas scattered about it, drowned or drowning in the alcoholic filth. It was a real horror of drink-making, but we always ordered it. The problem is, you just can’t drink that much without ensuring some form of disaster. Especially if you’re a 90-pound anorexic imbecile with a death wish.

Carla attacked Der Vulkan with Bibilical enthusiasm. By seizing all five straws and inhaling a solid third of the drink, my roommates and I looked around at each other, rolling our eyes, knowing, or thinking we knew, what would come next.

What came next was a true tour-de-force of blacked-out endurance. After finishing Der Vulkan (My roommates and I commandeered it and drank the beast in tag-teamed flurries), we had to put some food in this creature.  The rest of us sat at a tapas bar and ate chorizo and olives while Carla went around the bar, grabbing the penises of the bar’s patrons. This is no way to operate, so James and I tried to spirit her away from these men who, at a point, were convinced (perhaps rightly so) that this drooling trollop was a sure bet. It would also be ludicrous to deny that James and I both had selfish interests in mind. I think James would admit that.I miss him.

Something kicked in Carla, though, something that I can only describe as a sort of Las Vegas adrenaline that keeps you on your heater even after you’ve had seventeen scotches. And Carla went on a heater. Through a gauntlet of dance clubs, pubs, bars and bistros, Carla tore through the night like an ethylene comet. She spoke no Spanish, so her tirades against “Mexico” were even more offensive. There is nothing so excruciating, I imagine, than to be yelled at by an American ghoul in its native tongue. We broke up fights with hookers, withdrew her from a dumpster, ceased her insistence on removing her clothes in the Plaza Mayor and then retreated back to our apartment seven hours later, James and I, quite drunk ourselves, trying to reinvigorate Carla’s insistence on removing her clothes.

“You guys are pigs,” said Carla, as James and I both went in for a pre-coital neckrub (Carla had collapsed in front of our couch, sitting upright, held in this fashion only by virtue of the durability of our couch, and sundry theories postulateed by Sir Isaac). “Why don’t you let me see your pigs,” she blathered, somewhat seductively. James and I both looked at each other. Convinced this travesty of nature on loan from San Pedro, California was in the middle of a blackout, James asked me, in a normal voice, “Does she mean our penises, I wonder?”

“I was just thinking that,” I said. James took the reins. “Carla, when you say you want to see our pigs, is that a synonym for dick and balls or does that mean something else?”

“Synonome. Syndrome. Synful. Syn,” she hissed. “I want cock.” ‘I want cock’ is a sort of desperate thing to say. It works out okay in pornographic movies because the scenarios are always so outrageous to begin with. But, if you’re standing around your apartment with your best friend, your two female roommates watching the exchange take place and laughing, it’s a desperate line, not a sexy line. It’s amazing how an orgy is the end result of most male thinking when surrounded by drunk women, but what’s really amazing is that we’ll say things like ‘to say I want cock is desperate and pathetic.’ How not desperate and pathetic of us. Synecdoche not metonymy. A teacher taught me that. There is a difference. Wake up, Smith!

James, Deanne, Caron and I all had a prodigious laugh at Carla’s expense and moved her on top of the couch, where she could find some Sandman after a long day and night. Sometime before dawn, James and I both emerged (I slept in the girl’s bedroom, on the floor this night) and bumped into each other trying to coerce Carla into wakeful, naughty ill-advised sexuality. Drunk. We laughed at our mutual desperate night moves and finally retired to our sleep spaces, this time for good.

Morning. I am hit across the face with a mop. “Tyler, goddamnit what the FUCK have you done?” This scene is repeated next door, to James. Caron and Deanne wanted their bases covered. Caron hit me, Deanne hit James, and we both woke up supremely nuisanced and confused by the crowing. I hit James, because why not?

“There is SHIT everywhere!” the girls wheezed in unison.

“Like what kind of shit, Caron?”

“Like what kind of shit, Deanne?

“PEOPLE SHIT!”

James and I were then forced from our beds to examine people shit. Sure enough, there was people shit everywhere. Rather, person shit. At this point, it’s all Murders in the Poo Morgue speculation, as nobody can prove anything. However, rubbing feces on things, I imagine, is something you either do once—then stop drinking forever—or you do it with some regularity and thus have few friends. The shit is analyzed through perfunctory examination, through gags. It’s on the living room wall, the doorknob of James’s room, and the point of origin—the bathroom—as a grotesque triptych of fecal matter, vomit and other post-apocalyptic fluid. This is nobody’s filth we know. You live with some people long enough, you know things. Why the ladies hadn’t pinned the crime on Carla earlier, we felt was sexist.

“Oh, like only a guy would shit on a wall, Caron.”

“A woman wouldn’t do that kind of thing, you idiots. Even as we sleep, we have an internal governor that won’t allow baboon shit-throwing. Even crazy women, like really crazy, I’ll bet they don’t go throwing shit around.” This sounded convincing.  James piped up,

“It must have been Tyler.”

“Dickface! Look at that shit. Those are the bowel contents of a woman.”

“Where’s Carla,” asked Deanne through a wine-soaked handkerchief. All we had was wine. It’s all we ever had. So to combat the stench of last night’s disaster, we all took a cue from Deanne and drank a large swallow of Don Simon boxed wine, wet a rag or handkerchief with some more wine, then continued on our investigation.

“She’s not here,” said James. “By the way, weren’t we supposed to not let her get away? Deanne you promised her father, who seems kind of Croatian and deadly.”

“He is,” Deanne clarified. “We should find her, then make her clean up this shit.”

“Where should we look?”

“I don’t know. Let’s just get the hell out of here.”

Where, pumpkin? WHERE?

It was for moments like these that I have an undying nostalgia. When people disappear now, there is no adventure, only panic. When people disappear now, it either ends badly or ends boringly. But in Madrid, fortified by our fortified wine and a cool morning March air, we all trundled out of the apartment to try and track down our AWOL in a kind of renewed optimistic charge.

There is nothing more invigorating for the stultified, frictionally unemployed American abroad than a project. Hell, a mystery. Caron remembered that, had her father not demanded she be incarcerated in our apartment, the itinerary of the cat food grand prize called for a trip down to the south of Spain, in Granada. The four of us hopped on the subway toward the bus station whose routes ran to the south. We arrived at the ticket counter and asked the vendor if there had been any Americans that looked like they were in pretty bad shape who had earlier boarded the train to Granada.

“All the Americans look like they’re in bad shape.”

“Yeah, but this one was particularly bad. A woman, possibly covered in mierda,” James added.

“No, not today. I haven’t seen anyone like that today,” replied the ticket vendor, sucking impatiently from a black tobacco cigarette.

“Alright,” said Deanne. “What are we doing here?”

“Yeah, what are we doing here,” asked Caron.

“How mean is this barber, by the way?” asked James.

“That bad,” said Deanne.

“This wasn’t my idea,” I defensed. They say that the first 48 hours is the crucial time after a disappearance. After that, your odds of survival go down e to the x and so do those of your rescuers, assuming this Croatian barber is as murderous as he looms in our heads, our lives. It had been around ten hours since anyone laid eyes on our guest. We called the airport. No good there. Carla is still in the country, a good thing, we agree. But where?

“Deanne, if you were Carla where would you go?”

“How the hell would I know?”

“You’re both from San Pedro and you have Croatian ties.”

“Just because I’m part Croatian doesn’t mean I’m in the fucking mafia.” Deanne would always insist that we knew her family was only partly affiliated with organized crime.

“I’d probably go shopping,” Deanne said, finally. James, Caron and I all laughed at Deanne’s preposterous reply until it was clear that this is what, according to Deanne, someone from San Pedro would in fact do after smearing their own shit around a veritable stranger’s apartment: They would go shopping. Isn’t that beautiful, in its way?

We went to The Corte Ingles, where we would later buy a turkey, but now, we were looking for a diseased humanoid in cosmetics. We cased the entire mall searching for Carla, ogling the ranch dressing and basketballs inside this ersatz America. The English Court. They’re too embarrassed to plea in front of The Corte Estadounidense. We window shopped for an hour or two, eventually realizing that Carla would have to come to us. She’s had too long to move. There is nothing we can do. We will wait until twenty-four hours from now, then we will call Carla’s father. We’ve started to call him “The Bavarian Butcher,” even though none of us are certain where Bavaria is, only that it vaguely sounds like somewhere where Croatia could be. We stop in to The Quiet Man, the pub directly below our apartment and order four calimochos (Molarity=1.5 parts wine, i part Coca-Cola, one part cocaina from Jayne, our bartender. Jayne is from London. She moved to Madrid for a man ten years ago and “here I still fuckin’ am, pouring pints for these cunts and cunts like you Yanks and just can’t find my way out. If I find him, I’ll Micky Finn’em, freeze his dick, snap it off and fuck him to death with it. For starters.”

“Jayne, have you seen an American girl, possibly covered in shit, anywhere around the neighborhood?”

“No, ‘fraid not. Not lately.” This is one reason to love Jayne. She never asked “Why,” something I think is both tragic and great. With Jayne, things were just because. There is a shit-covered American walking around this neighborhood because…The man I followed to this cunty shithole left me because…The girl last week was hit by a car in front of here because…Life is because.

We smoked cigarettes (except for James, who would only endure tobacco when mixed with hashish, thus only smoking the equivalent of a pack a day) and tried to retrace the night’s steps.

“It makes no fucking sense to retrace the night, you assholes. We were all there until we all weren’t and then we went to sleep,” Caron pointed out. We know what happened. We just don’t know how happened. It sounded like something Jayne would say, which attracted me to Caron immensely. “Let’s just set up shop at the apartment. She’s probably been banging on the fucking door all day and we’ve been out trying to find her—things always happen like that.”

“She’s right,” said James. “It’s the jinx. We should wait upstairs for her.”

“If I did what she did I wouldn’t come back,” I offered.

“Sure you would, Tyler. But you’d deny it. You’d be terrible at denying it, but you’d be convinced you were selling the hell out of your performance, your amateur gig, that everybody would feel so bad for you, I, or someone else would manage to admit to ourselves—even though we were lying to ourselves and knew it—that we had done it and this would convince you that we were convinced you’d taken yourself off the hook—that’s why I knew it wasn’t you. If it were you, we’d be pointing the finger at Deanne. She’s a softy and doesn’t want to upset you,” said Caron.

“If you weren’t so careful not to overdo it, I’d say that was almost like an angry rant,” I said to Caron, in that way people begin to flirt. She looked at me.

“I am so not a fucking softy, Caron. My family’s in the fucking mafia. San Pedro, bitch.”

“Yeah, well let’s go back up and find your girl from the Pedro.”

“She’s not my girl,” snorted Deanne. We finished our drinks and James and I took the elevator while Caron and Deanne took the stairs. James and I arrived at the door to our apartment, hearing only screams, then Caron opening the door and pleading we make ourselves scarce for a few minutes.

“Is everything okay,” we asked.

“No,” said Caron. And closed the door.

“Is she in there?” I screamed through the door.

“Yes,” said Caron.

“Why can’t we come in? Is she nude?” asked James, continuing, “because if she’s nude this is bullshit. If there were a nude guy in there we’d let you come in.”

“She’s not nude,” said Caron. “She’s having a nervous breakdown.”

“Well let us in, damnit,” I replied, eager to see what a nervous breakdown looked like. Everybody always talks about them, but you only see the anesthetized aftermath. Like Brian Wilson. I don’t care about him on his medication—I want to see what happens when he snaps. I want to see Clara snap. I want to see Clara in a sandbox, tobillo up to cat fluid, cat solid. But Caron and Deanne decided to be selfish and watch the thing for themselves. I would have probably done the same, but I still felt ripped off.

“No. You guys go down to the Lab or something. The Lab was our bar. It’s full name was “El Laboratorio.” Come back in an hour or two.” The Lab was a heavy metal/transvestite bar around the corner from our apartment. That’s right, it was called El Laboratorio. It was one of the deadliest bars in Madrid, but we endeared ourselves to the management early on. Going to “The Lab” was always a good idea, nothing bad happened there. And that’s not something I’d say because I’m trying to be ironic. That’s something I’d say because it’s true—nothing bad happened at El Laboratorio. At least for me. James and I agreed to go down to the Lab, but we threatened violence if, in an hour or two, we weren’t let back in to our flat. Our flat. Our flat—reason enough to geograph—our flat. Who can say that?

“Go fuck yourselves,” said Caron. You could always tell when she was smiling—you just had to hear her.
The Lab was situated at the end of Calle Valverde, our street. Calle Valverde is only one block long, but it’s one hell of a block. Valverde juts off from Gran Via, that main artery, pulsing blood and life for one little block, then splash…into a vomit of heavy metal/transvestite gore at the entrance to El Laboratorio. You turn off of life and roar toward frozen death, turning off Gran Via, down Valverde, open the door to the Lab (if the rest of the Valverde gauntlet hasn’t got you yet). There’s Manuel, as he always is. Nothing bad ever happens in the Lab.

Manuel is Moroccan with some French in him, he says. This isn’t at all important because he’s consistently garbed in assless leather chaps, a Houston Astros 1980s throwback jersey and smoking a “baseball bat,” his name for the enormous hash joints he’d roll and smoke and roll and smoke.

“Fucking pooosies,” he’d snarl, in what I’d think he thought was a coy way. “You need anything, I get for you. Teresa, for the American Texans two whiskey dicks, pero echalas con fuerza, eh?” Teresa knew what we drank. DYC is a Spanish whiskey.

When you say “Whiskey DYC” it sounds like “Whiskey Dick,” which everybody thinks is funny. We certainly did. That’s why we explained what “whiskey dick” was to Manuel in the first place. This way, your sympathies won’t be compromised (or they will) and you can either dilute your feelings or let them howl until they hit a wall. But nobody’s dead, not dead yet.

We sat with our whisky dicks and laughed in an awkward way about the Carla situation.

“You tried to hook up with her and she makes mierda on the walls. Does that make you angry,” I asked.

“You tried to hook up with her, too!” James barked.

“I was only watching to make sure you stayed out of her pants, out of trouble.”

“They don’t play as much AC/DC in this bar as they used to,” James changed the subject.

“I could request some. I haven’t DJ’ed here in a while. Maybe they’d let me spin a few records.”

“They never let you DJ, Tyler. You just jump behind the turntable when the DJ goes to the bathroom,” corrected James.

“Really?”

“Really.” Conversation with James had recently taken on an odd, disjointed characteristic. He was having a tough time of it in Spain. First of all, he was 6’6” and Spain does not accommodate those kinds of dimensions. He suffered repeated blows to the skull from low-hanging signs, flags, bars, trees, monuments, and just about anything else along the way. Secondly, there’s always a woman. Oh, smash. That’s later.

“It’s probably been an hour,” I finally said.

“Yeah, let’s go up.”

We took the elevator up to our 2nd floor apartment and knocked. Caron and Deanne stood at the doorway, making a “shh” gesture with their fingers to their lips.

“C’mon,” Caron said. “She’s asleep. Let’s go down to the Lab.” This was always happening. Just when you think you’ve made it home, the tractor beam of El Laboratorio pulsed on and led you back for one more drink, one more episode.

“So what the hell happened,” I asked. The girls took long draws off their whiskey dicks and began. They told how Carla said she had “never had so much to drink, that this isn’t who she usually is.”

“That wasn’t me,” they would say, but it was. People behave the way they are. There are no missteps or out-of-character episodes; it is all tied together somehow. Why demure? Wail, if you will, with all ancestry in your corner, the primordial crack. What is this nonsense about “things I don’t normally do?” You did them last night. You may do them again today. Unload and submit.

“I hope not, “said James. “Did she admit to smearing shit all over our house?”

“No,” said Deanne, “but we’re sure it’s her. She smells like shit even though she was in the washer.”

“What do you mean—in the washer.”

“That’s where she spent most of today. She crammed herself into the washing machine, because she was scared.” Deanne went on to explain that, according to Carla, she’d woken up nude on the roof, covered in filth. “She was so confused and freaked out she decided to hide in our washing machine.”
The girls found Carla this way, wedged into our washing machine that barely fit three pairs of jeans. I can’t imagine what this species of cramped solitude must be like.

“So who cleans up the shit,” asked James.

“Deanne propped a mop up on her head and lay a bucket of soapy water down at the edge of the bed. That should give her a clue,” said Caron.

“I’m not going in there until she cleans it up,” said Deanne.

“Me neither. It smells like a zoo,” agreed Caron.

“Well, I’m fine here,” I said. James opted to go back to the apartment and sleep in his bed, no matter the stench. We never knew if Carla and James talked that evening, as Caron, Deanne and I sat in the darkened bladder of the Lab and drank another night away. Maybe he didn’t say anything.

The next morning, as we stumbled in to a pristine apartment, I noticed something: Carla began to eat. She sat quietly in the corner and ate. Plate after plate of spaghetti and tomate frito sauce. She looked invigorated, plausible. Besides, she had to eat. Or talk. She couldn’t talk. Because to talk would mean to explain and to explain would mean spiritual death. There are no explanations. There is no way you usually are. The rent is late. The war is never over by Christmas. Shit happens. Shit unhappens. Did something click? Did someone say something? Whatever it was, it cured her anorexia, at least for the time being.
Caron and Deanne woke up early and accompanied Carla to the airport the next day.

Carla went home to San Pedro, to her unreasonable barber father, and to her cat, who she was missing anyway.

The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

From "One Art" by Elizabeth Bishop


So, I had this toothache. It was in a tooth that I knew had a cavity. I knew there was a cavity because the last time I went to a dentist, which was about eight years ago, I had noticed a dark spot on my lower right molar. I noticed it because I am the type of person who compulsively looks in mirrors and inspects everything. Everything. I opened my mouth wide to check out the fillings in the back teeth, and I noticed a spot on one tooth, and I mentioned it to the dentist and he goes, “What, this?”* And at the time, it wasn’t even enough of a spot to call it a cavity, so he just said be sure you brush good, and it’ll be fine, and he suggested that perhaps I should tone down the self-inspections.

Which would’ve been fine, right? Except that this was my last dental checkup before going off to college, and though I’m ashamed to admit it, there were many nights when I drunkenly went to bed without brushing, and many mornings when I stumbled out of bed just barely in time to make it to class, and several other times when I mostly just failed to care because I was 18 or 19 and figured my teeth weren’t going anywhere. And for a while, they weren’t, until I was long past my college partying days, making a sincere effort to brush at least once a day, and getting regular medical checkups. The little spot on that back tooth had grown. I was still in the habit of checking out those back teeth. It had developed into the habit of looking mournfully in the mirror, knowing that eventually I’d have to make a dental appointment to get that filled, and wondering how complicated the insurance was going to be. Foolishly, I waited. It didn’t hurt. No need to go to a doctor for something that doesn’t hurt, right?

But then, one day it did hurt. Something was stuck in it. I gave it a good brushing, rinsed with salt water, and it stopped hurting for a couple days, but it started again. I went through this cycle for a few days until it became clear that I would need to see a dentist.

Appointment One:

After calling my insurance company to verify that I did indeed have dental coverage with a $5 copay for office visits, I had the company fax my insurance information over to the only dental office in town that (a) had openings and (b) accepted the particular insurance plan I had. Obviously, when everyone else in town is telling you they can’t get you an appointment until the end of next month and this office says, “Well, I have several openings this week,” you should consider whether you could stand to wait a month. But when there’s a crater in your molar and you find yourself compulsively picking things out of it with the aid of various improvised tools (tooth pick, paper clip, safety pin, earring hook), waiting a solid month just doesn’t feel like an option.

But when I arrived for my appointment, it wasn’t to get a filling or even have a tooth pulled. Since the tooth was not actively hurting at that moment (I had successfully rinsed all the food bits out of it for several days in a row), they gave me a cleaning. A good, 45 minute scrubbing, a painful scrubbing, too. And when I told the hygienist I hadn’t seen a dentist in eight years, she said she’d have to split my cleaning into two visits because there was “so much tartar build up that we won’t be able to get it all in one visit.” Oh, but your insurance will only pay for this type of visit once every six months, and we really can’t wait six months for this, so lets try and get you back in a couple weeks. That’ll be $75 today (you get the discounted rate), and you just pay your $5 copay next time. Oh, yes, I know it’s an unexpected expense and everyone is under pressure in this economy, but this is an investment in your health. You really need this, and you’ll be glad once you’re done. Granted, it’s completely your call. We could just do everything we can for now and then see you back for another regular cleaning in six months, but you will look sortof pathetic if you admit to being bothered by this unexpected yet entirely manageable expense. No pressure, of course.

All this was explained to me as I sat in the dentist’s chair, feet in the air, with what amounted to a small, sharp-edged, dual-action, vibrator-sprinkler jammed into the crevices between my teeth. This went on for 30 minutes before I found myself very briefly the object of attention of one Dr. B, who looked and sounded frighteningly like Ben Stein but with whiter hair and an eerily younger face. He glanced at me, then at my x-ray, made scraping noises with metal objects in my mouth, and told me I would need a root canal. Oh, and those wisdom teeth? They’ll probably need to come out (even though your dentist back home said to leave them alone as long as they’re not bothering you, and they aren’t). But we can talk about that later. After the root canal. For now, give her a treatment plan and schedule a root canal, and I’m out of here because I am a busy man, and it’s not my fault you didn’t brush your teeth enough in college, ya floozy.

Appointment Two:

My tooth started to hurt again, even when I brushed, and using my improvised cleaning tools didn’t help, either. I was rinsing with Listerine several times a day. When the small bottle I carried in my purse ran out, I stopped by Walgreens on the way home from work one day and couldn’t stop myself from taking a swig in the parking lot. Immediately I was confronted with the problem: Where to spit? I couldn’t just lean out the window in rush hour traffic and spit on a neighboring vehicle. I couldn’t open the door and spit on the ground and risk looking like a drunk or a tobacco chewer or both. So, I wedged the full Listerine bottle between my thighs, removed the cup/cap, and spit into it. I drove very carefully the rest of the way home, breaking gently, slowing to a crawl to go over the speed bumps, and merging ever-so-politely in order to avoid upsetting the shot glass of spit and mouthwash that was threatening to ruin my pride and the upholstery of my car.

I called the dentist the next day.

“I have an appointment for a root canal, but I want to know if I can come in sooner. My tooth is really hurting.”

“You don’t have an appointment for a root canal. Your appointment is for a cleaning. You have to go to the other side of the office to make an appointment with the doctor.”

“No one told me that. I thought I was making an appointment for my root canal.”

“Nope. But I can get you in for a root canal … next week?”

“Well, no one told me that was an option. I really need to think about this, but let me make the appointment now, and I’ll at least get to talk to the doctor when I go in.”

I made a lunch time appointment because I don’t like to take time off work when I can avoid it, and they didn’t have any evening appointments available soon enough. In the interim, I sought advice from people I knew who’d had root canals. Everyone seemed to think it’s best to save the tooth if you can, I chose to proceed with the root canal rather than extract the tooth. I arrived early for my 11 a.m. appointment but sat in the waiting room until 11:15 anyway. By the time I reached the dentist’s chair,  I had made up my mind that I was there to have a root canal. I told Dr. B as much, he administered anesthesia, and began drilling away. The procedure was painless, Dr. B put a temporary filling in my tooth and told me to schedule the second half of the root canal at the front desk.

At the front desk, the receptionist told me I didn’t owe anything since the procedure wasn’t finished yet, however the total cost would be $580 at the end of the next appointment. What happened to the $5 copay? my inner voice screamed, but all I could say was, “They didn’t tell me that.” Then the tears began to flow. An old man who had been sitting the waiting room across from me earlier appeared to smirk at my tears as the receptionist said something about a treatment plan — the treatment plan, yes, that was supposed to explain what was involved in this root canal business. That was supposed to explain all the costs. What happened to the treatment plan? I never got a copy.

I put down $50 that day, left the office sobbing, and left my husband a voice mail in which I could only choke out the words, “Hey, it’s me. I need you to call me, okay?” He called me 30 minutes later, afraid I’d been too drugged to drive back to the office. I did drive, though. I stopped off at Smoothie King to get a liquid lunch, and as I sat in my car, in the rain, in the parking lot,  I struggled to get it together enough to go inside and order a medium Angel Food. I stopped crying and heaving hysterical sighs long enough to get inside, but before I could order, I realized my wallet was missing. I ran out to the car, got the wallet, and came back. The other customers applauded, but one woman looked at me and saw how distressed I was.

“You have too much going on,” she said. “You just need to slow down.” I took a deep breath, nodded, and tried not to cry.

“Are you ok?” She said.

I nodded.

“Do you want a hug?”

I nodded again.

She walked right up and hugged me.

“Ah jeeze,” I said. “I’m really going crazy. I’m hugging a complete stranger … but that’s OK.”

“I’m not a stranger. My name is Tanya.”

Tanya was amazing. She gave me hope. She told me to take care of myself. Don’t make myself sick. She had been a victim of sickness, she said. She was diagnosed with breast cancer just a few months before losing her job. She was living off savings, and she would have her last radiation treatment in a few more days.

“You’re amazing,” I sobbed. “I want you to get better.”

“I am better,” she said. “I have claimed my healing.”

I couldn’t believe I was crying over a root canal. I didn’t tell her. I thanked her profusely and went back to work with a sinus headache (the inevitable result of crying). I tried to tough it out through the day but ended up going home at 4 p.m., at which point I slept, whined, and apologized to my husband for being a burden. The only food I managed to stomach that evening was about four spoonfulls of some kind of mediocre soup and a slice of a baguette.

Appointments Three and Four:

At appointment three, I received the second half of my cleaning, which was far less painful than the first. It was unremarkable.

By appointment four, I had figured out that my extreme emotional reaction was more likely due to the anesthesia than being told the cost of the root canal. I knew I could afford the procedure, even though it was an unexpected an inconvenient expense, so it had to be the drugs. Not to mention that loss of appetite is not at all how I normally cope with bad news. I asked to be treated with a different type of anesthesia if possible. The doctor’s assistant explained that the usual anesthesia actually contains adrenaline, which causes some people to have nervous reactions. Only then did I realize exactly how bad for me that particular anesthesia had been — we’re talking about someone with an anxiety problem, panic attacks, and trouble spending extended periods in groups of people — even if those people are close friends and family. Giving me an extra dose of adrenaline before telling me I owe nearly $600 just doesn’t go over well.

As I sat in the chair pondering all this, the doctor and his assistant prepared and administered a different kind of anesthesia, one which they said was slightly less potent and might wear off more quickly (not a problem, I figured, since the last one had left me numb for much of the day). I few needles to the jaw later, I was numb and just waiting to get the drilling done. Perhaps they didn’t realize how quickly the drugs took effect because Dr. B walked away for a good ten minutes, and in the mean time, my face got droopy, and his assistant remembered something.

“Oh, has anyone given you one of these yet? She said, handing me a form.”

“No, what’s this?”

“This is just a release form giving us permission to do the root canal.”

Should I have stopped her at this point? Should I have protested? Should I have said, “What the hell? You already started the root canal last time I was here. You didn’t give me a treatment plan, didn’t tell me what was involved, didn’t tell me how much it would cost, gave me drugs I wasn’t prepared to cope with, drilled the center out of my tooth and suckered me into a long, drawn-out, multi-visit process, and NOW you’re giving me a release form?” Yeah. I probably should’ve said that. But I didn’t. I signed the form and let them drill into my tooth again because realistically, what dentist would take a patient who was half way through a root canal someone else started? Then they strapped a humiliating device on my mouth. It involved a rubber sheet and something like an old-fashioned head-gear, and I couldn’t stop the mental images of disturbing pseudo-medical porn from flooding my brain. I stared into the blindingly bright light overhead, and decided I would need to see a different dentist as soon as humanly possible.

As the anesthesia wore off, I began to twitch and squirm, and eventually even to moan and jerk away from Dr. B, who administered more anesthesia and soldiered on. Still, he was unable to finish the root canal. I learned later that it was at least in part due to the fact that the root of my tooth formed a 90 degree angle at the bottom, which made it particularly hard to drill. Had I known this earlier, I might have chosen to save myself the pain and extract the tooth right off the bat. But there I was: tooth drilled, root canal nearly finished, thinking if I could just finish this mess, I would reward myself at the end by finding a better dentist. Knowing that at least another $700 in dental fees lay ahead, I paid what was left of my nearly $600 root canal bill although the procedure wasn’t finished. This would allow me to space out the payments and make the $700 seem slightly less painful when it came due.

Appointment Five:

I made my appointment to finish the root canal and to start to post-core and crown process, and in the mean time, I sought out recommendations of dentists. I explored every possible option, and I even considered flying home to Louisiana to see a dentist I trust so I could end this charade with the local dental office once and for all. But within a week, the tooth broke. I swear to God, I was following all the rules, but there you go. The side chipped right off while I was eating French fries, and I must’ve swallowed it by accident. It left the temporary filling exposed. I called the dental office, which was closed. The answering service woman explained that the dentist on call doesn’t respond to anything after 11 p.m., and as it was 11:15, I could choose to either go to the emergency room or just wait until the following morning. I wasn’t bleeding out, so I chose to wait. As I lay in bed that night, I coached myself on what to say the next day. I would tell them to pull the tooth. I would never go back. I would find a new dentist. And if anyone tried to make me feel bad about removing the tooth, I would tell them, “I’ve lost more important things than this tooth.” Silently, I enumerated the many things I’ve lost.

It was the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, and I got a 9:15 appointment with a Dr. M. I was expecting another Ben Stein look alike but was surprised to meet a young female dentist not much older than myself. She had a brunette bob with near-blond highlights. It was apparent that she put some effort into her make up that morning. She looked like someone my age who I wouldn’t be likely to be friends with because we had nothing in common even though she was, by all accounts, a really nice person. She didn’t look like a dentist. She didn’t look like Ben Stein. I had a brief feminist experience in which I came face-to-face with my own ingrained sexism as I realized I wasn’t 100% confident in this young, attractive, friendly and well made-up female dentist. I made a conscious decision to trust her because (a) at least she was nicer than Dr. B, (b) she was my only hope to get rid of this damned tooth, and (c) I needed to get over that sexist bullshit because I wouldn’t have let anyone else get away with saying the same things I was thinking. Be the change you want to see and all that.

Dr. M took a look at my tooth and noted that the break looked rather superficial and she could probably still cap it, and I’d be able to go ahead with the post-core and crown. She took an x ray to make sure the break wasn’t worse than it appeared. She offered to cap the tooth for me, but — and this was my moment of triumph, strange as it may seem — I looked her in the eye, willing my tears back into their ducts, and said, “I really just want to pull the tooth. I want to be done with this. I’ve been round and round with this tooth. I can’t keep taking time off work for this, and I honestly can’t afford it, and I just want you to pull it.” She patted my cheek and said she would do it. She conferred with another doctor about that 90 degree root. She numbed me up with my preferred anesthesia. She worked quickly with her assistant, who happened to be the same person who dealt with me sobbing embarrassingly at the receptionists’ desk a few weeks before. She warned me before doing things that might hurt, “You’re going to feel a lot of pressure here.” And she stopped when I raised my hand to ask for a break. he was everything I wished my first boyfriend would be. It crossed my mind to stay at that dental office as long as I could only make appointments with her. I was in love with Dr. M.

After much pushing, prodding and pulling, I heard and felt a crack somewhere beneath my gum line, and Dr. M produced a tooth.

“Cah ah heee?”

“Huh? Oh, sure, just let me get this cleaned up quick. Once we get the root tips out, you can get a look at this.”

There was more digging around in my mouth, then the application of a suction tube to remove the blood, then Dr. M and her assistant left my side briefly. They wanted to take an x ray to be sure all the bits of root had been removed. While they were gone, I lifted my head just enough to see the paper napkin on my chest. It was stained with blood. I felt a little sick and a little proud. Dr. M came back with good news. The x ray showed no pieces of the tooth remained. Dr. M put stitches in my gum; told me how well I’d done; gave me instructions for caring for the wound, 800 mg of Ibuprofen and a prescription for Percoset, which I ended up never taking. She sent me off with a firm warning to eat something before taking any medications. I didn’t get to look at the tooth. I really wanted to see that 90 degree root.

Through the next few days, I poured over the instructions for caring for the extraction site. I meticulously avoided acidic foods and beverages. I did not eat turkey or cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving but stuck to stuffing and other foods soft enough to be mashed with my tongue or chewed on one side. I texted a friend in a tizzy when I found a piece of noodle slouched in the hole where my tooth once was. The noodle did not respond to the “gentle rinsing” described by the dental assistant. My friend texted her mother, who was also a dental assistant. Word came back: I could rinse, but no spitting, sucking, or sneezing was allowed. The noodle was defeated. On Friday, I sneezed. By Saturday night, I allowed myself beer, the effects of which were heightened by several days of a mostly liquid diet. We had a party, and at 1 a.m., we went to the Double T Diner, where I had baklava.

Nearly a week after the extraction, I sat dully tonguing the stitches in my gums, trying not to interfere with the healing yet unable to resist my compulsion to fidget. I suckled my beer gently. The stitches were coming loose, and the thread dangled in the back of my mouth like the lose yarn on an of an old sweater. I ached to pull on that thread, to unravel it just to see what would happen. In two days, I would have an appointment to get the stitches removed, but I worried about the loose thread. I simply couldn’t cope with the prospect of complications — infection, abscess, dry socket, which I nearly had panic attacks avoiding — I had been cautious for a week, and I didn’t need a reason to spend even more time and money on my floozy teeth. But that night,  I pictured all the beer I’d had over the weekend, how I’d heard the effervescence from soda could dissolve or dislodge the blood clot and cause dry socket — how much worse could beer be? I lay in bed imagining my stitches coming undone and my precious blood clot washing away in rivers of beer until I fell asleep. In the morning, I worried that the final checkup would result in the doctor conjuring up some other issue for which I would require some other expensive treatment. I considered cutting the last remaining stitch with nail scissors and skipping bail.

Appointment Six:

On the day my stitches were to be removed, the husband and I had to carpool because his car was in the shop. Despite a frantic day at the office, I spent much of the day imagining finally being free of my unraveling stitches. I tried not to fidget, and while standing in line at the Indian buffet where I went to lunch with my coworkers, I had just enough self-control not to say, “Today,  I’m getting the stitches out of my gums from that tooth extraction I had last week.” After work, my husband dropped me off at the dentist’s office and went across the street to get himself a cup of coffee. I warned him: They always run at least 15 minutes late, so even if we get there on time, they won’t see me till 5:30. He planned to be back by six. I walked up stairs, signed in at the front desk, and by the time I finished hanging my jacket, a dental assistant was there to call me back. She sat me down, snipped the one remaining stitch from my gum, and rinsed the wound with salt water. It didn’t hurt at all. It felt instantly better, in fact, as the temptation to fidget was removed. When she went to get the dentist, she left the little wad of thread on the tray beside me. It looked like a small dead bug with a bit of mush (probably rice pudding) caked on the wings. Or like something you might find in the bathtub drain.

Then my Dr. M returned.

“How are you?” She said cheerfully.

“A thousand times better than I was last time!”

“How about the day of the extraction? That was one hell of an extraction, huh? Did you have a lot of pain?”

“Not really. I turned in the prescription you gave me but I never ended up taking it. I just took Ibuprofen for a couple days.”

She was enthusiastic about this news. I gazed into her green eyes (enhanced by colored contacts, but beautiful nonetheless) and noticed how much she resembled one of my heroes, Carlin Ross.

Dr. M leaned me back in the chair one last time. She swiped her finger along my gum line, looking for swelling and irritation, commenting that the healing seemed to be coming along fine. She said it would heal even faster now that the sutures were out of the way. Sutures, I thought. Yes. I had forgotten that word. She reviewed my chart, saw that I had no need to come in for any appointments any time soon, and encouraged me to take a break, rest up, and enjoy the holidays. And that was that. On the way out the door, I checked in with the receptionist about my refund for the root canal. In the car on the drive home, I took a photo for posterity. I wondered if I would ever see Dr. M again. Then we went out for hamburgers.



*Please note that all dialogue in this piece is paraphrased. I wasn’t taking notes in the dentists’ chair as I was hoping all along that this would not be the type of medical experience that merited an essay, especially one of this length. If I had known it was going to be so dramatic, I would’ve brought a tape recorder.


I sit down at the bar, next to a friend.

He says, “Hey, what’s been going on?”

I take off my jacket. He waits. I take a moment.

Then I say, “Tell me: why do people always have to have stuff going on?”

Part One: The archipelago.

I’ve decided I wanna come back as a Galapagos sea lion. Seriously. They’re livin’ the dream. Bountiful food, no predators, plenty of companionship. They loll around in the sand most of the day lounging all over each other, waddle around looking for shade, or a good meaty ass to rest their head on, do a little fishing now and again, take an occasional dip just for the hell of it—seriously, they’ve got it dialed in. They are truly joyful creatures to watch. The bulls are a little surly at times, and downright scary when you get too close to them in the water,  but the mothers and the babies are nothing less than playful when you swim with them—and they’re amazing swimmers, too, totally graceful and athletic. The penguins are amazing swimmers, too,  kinda sprite-like in their quickness, now-you-see-them-now-you don’t. Manta Rays freak my ass out. It’s like somebody ran over a shark with a steamroller then mated it with a flying saucer.

Talk about stealthy. Tiger sharks are lazy fuckers from what I observed. They just kinda hang out under rocks floating there in the shadows like turds. Not exactly man-eaters —though, to be sure, you won’t find me swimming around down there in the shadows. I’m no fishologist, but damn there’s some garish colored fish down there. Bright orange and hot purple and bright blue. Some skinny fuckers, too. They’ll be swimming right at you like a sheet of paper, then bingo-bango , they turn a corner and your looking at an Italian flag with lips. There were these other schools of fish I’d swim through that were almost transparent. You could swim right through the middle of them and they’d swish aside like silk curtains. Fuck if I know what they were called. You’ll just have to believe me. I thought I saw Nessie, too. But it was just a penguin head.

It was pretty cool to see a pink flamingo without a mobile home behind it.

I saw A LOT of giant sea-turtles humping. A LOT. Not all that sexy, really. The dude just sort of hitches a ride on the female as far as I can tell. And they hump for a long time. Longer than I’ve ever humped. Which isn’t saying much. Saw giant land tortoises humping, too. What can I say, there was romance in the air. Not that I got humped. Okay, maybe once. The cabins on our boat weren’t exactly conducive to humping. Or sleeping, for that matter. The food wasn’t exactly conducive to shitting, either. But I loved the cook, Victor, anyway. He was a sweetheart. He had a genius for dry meat. He cooked me a t-bone that would have made a pretty decent catchers mitt. And for the record, hot dogs are the breakfast sausage of choice on the equator. Victor slathered them in an orange sauce reminiscent of Spaghettios. Nobody ate them. But old Victor never got the hint. Can’t fault him for that.



Yadida the bartender was my buddy. Go figure. She had a way of tying a napkin around a beer that was inspiring. By the way, if you’re a beer aficionado, go ahead and skip Ecuador on your brew tour. The local swills are nothing to write home about, but they’re pretty tasty on the deck of a boat after you’ve been snorkeling and hiking all day. And did I mention Yadida’s superlative napkin work? Every beer looked like it was wearing a prom dress. The second mate Pedro was in love with my wife. Poor guy. Speaking of my wife, she was a pleasure the whole trip. Even if she didn’t hump me all the time. I’ll bet you old Pedro got something for the spank bank. Don’t worry, my wife never reads my blogs.

I love my in-laws to death. We spent eighteen inseparable days with Lauren’s folks and it was a joy every minute of the way, seriously. They’re the best. Not too many people I could get along with for that length of time under those conditions.

Other cool animals I saw in the wild: frigate birds, pelicans, albatross, blue-footed boobies, masked boobies, marine iguanas by the hundreds, lava lizards, fur seals, sting rays, eagle rays, and my favorite animal of all, fat ladies from Texas. Can you believe they have fat ladies from Texas with hair like Bill Parcels in the Galapagos? When you think about it, that’s way weirder than lava lizards.

 


One of my favorite moments in the Galapagos involved a fat lady from Texas. She had hair like Bill Parcels. Positioning herself behind a baby sea lion for a photo op on Isla Santa Fe (okay, I admit it, I don’t remember which damn island it was—its all a blur of colorful fish and napkined beers), this fat lady from Texas was standing on the beach with a big shit-eating grin, looking like Bill Parcels after a third down conversion, totally unaware that the mother had waddled up behind her. She took a step backward and tripped over the mother sea lion and fell flat on her big Texas ass. I know it’s wrong, but I almost pissed myself. You should have seen it! The sea lions were laughing.



My own crowning moment as a gringo involved six margaritas and a hollowed out tortoise shell in a bar on Isla Santa Cruz (and I know what island it was, cause it was the first night). This particular scenario pretty much sums up all of my ambivalence about human impact on the Galapagos. Let’s face it, that’s fucked up. But wouldn’t you wanna get inside a hollowed out giant tortoise shell after six two-dollar margaritas and walk around a bar like that if you had the chance?


Author’s Note: In Part 1 of this post I discussed my tumultuous relationship with my father, and how we finally began to bond once he saw my band perform. He became so hooked on the band, in fact, that he toured with us for a brief period of time and ended up at a show in New London, Connecticut. That night the club was paying my band twenty-five bucks and a case of beer to perform three sets. And since we were all sick it was our mission to get rid of the beer, as we’d already had problems with the cops and didn’t want to compound those problems by driving around in a NyQuil haze with a case of beer in tow.

And so we started our first set…


Part 2:

Sure we were sick as dogs. Sure we were strung out on NyQuil, codeine, Sudafed, and God knows what else. But you know what? My band tore it up that night in New London. The crowd was loving us. My dad was loving us.

Between most every song the band asked beer questions. They were easy questions. Questions like “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” questions. Those beers grew wings. They flew away left and right. By the end of the first set we’d already given away nine of them.


During our break, my dad rushed up to me. He was still sporting those huge anime eyes.

 

“This is the best show I’ve seen yet!” he said. “Can I ask a beer question next set?!”

I was already so grateful for his interest in my music, and how that had translated into a happier, healthier relationship between the two of us. But this was the absolute best.

“Sure, dad. No problem. I’d love for you to ask a beer question.”

Just before the band began their second set, I racked my brain, trying to devise a way to get the audience all worked up for my dad. I wanted them rabid and frothing at the mouth when he hit the stage.

Then I got an idea. Once the second set rolled around, I got on the mic, and said:

“Being in a band is pretty cool. Sometimes you get to meet people you’d never get a chance to meet otherwise. For example, we recently played New York City. While there, we got a chance to meet one of our all-time favorite idols. In fact, we hit it off so well that he decided to come on the road with us. Well, without any further adieu I’d like to introduce you to WILLIAMSBURROUGHS!!!

 

Being a college crowd, the place went absolute apeshit. And seeing as the place was packed, it was balls-to-the-wall, quadraphonic, cranked-to-ten apeshit.

I glanced over at my bandmates. They were howling hysterically. In fact, it was all I could do to contain my own laughter. Sure my plan was a bit coyote tricksterish. But at the time it seemed the best way to get the crowd all rowled up. I wanted my dad to receive nothing less than a roaring standing ovation.

As for my tipsy dad, he’d been standing in the wings, oblivious to what I’d said on the mic. But he definitely heard the applause. As the crowd roared, a smile split his face wide open. He looked at me. Those eyes of his had gone triple anime. He’d never heard so much applause in all his life.

And it was all for him. Well, for William S. Burroughs really.

I motioned my dad toward center stage. “C’mon. They’re waiting for you.”

Still sporting that huge grin, he strolled out.

Mind you, my dad has never read William S. Burroughs. And he looks nothing like him either. So as he neared the mic, the massive, wall shaking, bottle-rattling applause diminished to just one person still clapping and cheering.

Besides my dad, I figured that that was the only other person in the club that had never read Naked Lunch.

Once I let my dad and the crowd in on the joke they were all very forgiving. In fact, they were all quite amused. As for the good people of New London, they welcomed my dad with wide-open hearts. And once my dad asked his beer question and left the stage, that fine crowd gave him the same roaring round of applause.

As if my dad had been William S. Burroughs in the flesh.


It was me on drums. Jim on bass. David on guitar. We were three ragtag guys from San Francisco, collectively known as Blue Movie. Our sound was like The Violent Femmes and Husker Du engaged in a threesome with R.E.M.

It was February, the dead of winter. We’d already been touring for two months. We were sick as dogs. We’d chugged so much NyQuil, and had downed so many over-the-counter cold remedies that our stomachs had turned into drug stores.

 

That night we were set to play a small college bar in New London, Connecticut. For three sets of music, the bar was paying us twenty-five bucks and a case of beer.

Seeing as we were all out-of-our minds sick, the band needed to stay sober. One sip of beer added to our already dazed and confused NyQuil haze, and we wouldn’t have been able to pick up our instruments.

So we came up with a plan. We’d simply give away the beer.

But before I tell you about that, I should tell you about my dad.

He and my mom married young. Shortly thereafter, they had my brother and me to take care of. That forced my dad to get very responsible very fast. As I grew older, and became more and more a daydreamer, my personality did not mix well with my father’s ultra-responsible 9-to-5 mentality. For years we simply didn’t get along. Yet when I graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in Advertising & Public Relations, that’s when my father saw the perfect opportunity for me to finally redeem myself.

The day after graduation, he told me: “Let’s go to J.C. Penney and get you that interview suit so you can get a job in New York City.”

That wasn’t happening. All I wanted to do was to move out to California and play music.

And so I did. And so for a good couple years my father and I rarely spoke. And when we did, our conversations always ended with him saying: “When are you gonna move back east and get serious about life?”

Each and every time, I’d respond: “I am serious about life. I’m in a band. We work hard. And people like us.”

Fast forward to my band recording and going out on tour.

 

My father saw us at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. From the very first song, he couldn’t stop dancing and cheering. Maybe his excitement was due to seeing me on stage for the very first time, or that his own dad had been a musician. Whatever the case, he was hooked. That night my dad became my #1 fan. And the band’s #1 fan, too. He even rearranged his work schedule so that he could follow us as we toured the Northeast. He cheered for us in New York City, Boston, and Providence. Show after show, he’d use his work credit card to buy us meals and hotel rooms.

Now back to that case of beer give away…

My father was at that New London, Connecticut show that night. It was the last show he’d be able to see before having to head back to Jersey.

Just before the band started playing, I got my dad wasted. That wasn’t difficult. He wasn’t a big drinker. Just two beers and he was loopier than a troop of diabetic Girl Scouts in a taffy factory.

After polishing off those beers, my dad looked at me with big shiny anime eyes. “What are you gonna do with the rest of the beer?” he said.

That was a no-brainer. My bandmates and I had already decided to ask the audience beer questions. It was our mission to get rid of the case before we left the club. We’d already had enough problems with cops during our two months on the road. No way did we want to make matters worse by driving around in a NyQuil haze with a bunch of Budweisers in tow.

And so we began our first set…

 

Stay tuned for Part Two:

Just Three Guys On The Road, Playing Music, Chugging NyQuil, and Giving Away Beer (aka: How I Finally Made Peace With My Dad)

Bachelor Party

By Rob Bloom

Humor

I haven’t showered in three, maybe four, days. Not that I have anything against showering. It happens to be an activity I engage in regularly and one I encourage others to do as well (hear that, NYC taxi drivers? Yeah, YOU, the ones whose cabs smell like a combination of feet, spoiled cheese, and the dirty water left in the vase four days after the flowers have died).

Anyway, there’s a perfectly good explanation for my shower hiatus: I’m a bachelor again. See, my wife Julie has gone on vacation with her friend Allison to Sarasota, Florida. The reason for this (the vacation, not Allison who, from what I understand, is quite lovely this time of year) is that Julie’s job provides her with ample vacation days and by “ample” I mean “enough for her to accomplish something great, like building a spaceship or acquiring a taste for caviar.” My job, on the other hand, provides substantially less vacation time, as well as strict criteria regarding said time, namely “vacation cannot occur over consecutive days.”

So Julie took off for Sarasota while I stayed behind to assume various bachelor duties, such as ensuring the survival of the Trans Fat economy. It’s not as easy as you’d think. With the health kick our country’s on, the supermarket is filled with products that say things like “Fat schmat!” and “Made from cardboard!” (WARNING: May cause anal leakage). The whole ordeal makes it very difficult for a guy like me to find bachelor-appropriate foods, such as:

* Wings
* Beer
* Beer-flavored Wings
* Neon-orange crunchy things
* Any product with artificial coloring, ingredients that have been processed a minimum of twelve times, and that when consumed, I actually feel myself getting fatter.

In other words, I’m looking for the foods from my first bachelor run. Back then, I was living in a Georgia town called Smyrna with my buddy Steve. Now that was a bachelor’s apartment! Steve and I had it all, starting with the two essential bachelor food groups: beer and Doritos. For additional sustenance, we’d frequent the neighborhood restaurants that met our strict dietary requirements of a dollar menu and drive-thru window.

Our philosophy towards food (“Who needs utensils?”) was complimented by our philosophy towards cleaning (“What’s that?”). Cleaning was something we just didn’t do. Instead, we adopted the bachelor-tested philosophy of letting our dirt work for us. For example, what’s the point of folding and putting away laundry when you can just as easily let it pile up in the corner of your bedroom, where it can flourish and grow, eventually morphing into a surprisingly comfortable chair where a bachelor can sit and engage in a number of activities involving beer, Doritos, and the scratching of a certain body part exclusive to bachelors. Naturally, this cleaning philosophy was also applied to the bathroom or, as we referred to it, “The Experiment.” This room, particularly the “sink,” “shower,” and “toilet” regions, was home to several different species of insects, mold, and other live cultures, all of whom were far more active than we were. Though in all fairness to Steve and me, these creatures had way more legs than us.

Now mind you, we didn’t not do these things because we were lazy. On the contrary, laziness only had, like, 10% to do with it. The other 95% was simply because we didn’t have the time or math skills. Truth is, the life of a bachelor is complicated. It’s also pretty darn hectic (what with foosball tournaments and Twilight Zone marathons) and therefore requires some heavy-duty time-management skills. Besides, you’d be amazed how productive a bachelor can be when he doesn’t waste time engaging in trivial activities like cleaning or looking for a job.

Speaking of productive, I’ve been mighty busy myself the past few days. Take Saturday, for example.

8:30 AM. Wake up. Eat a slice of cold pizza. Go back to bed. 

11:45 AM. Shuffle to couch. Fall asleep 20 minutes into Will Ferrell movie. 

3:05 PM. Can’t decide between Mild and BBQ wings. Weigh the pros and cons of both while drinking a beer.
5:40 PM. Wake up surrounded by several empty beer cans. Detect foul smell in the house. Embark on detailed search of the premises to find the source.

5:41 PM. Doritos break. 

6:01 PM. Remember I never decided on flavor of wings. Take a break to figure it out.
8:25 PM. Finish wings (why choose one flavor when you can get both?). Notice smell has gotten closer. 

9:10 PM. Suspect the smell might be me. 

9:39 PM. Think about showering.
10:18 PM. While flipping through the channels, find documentary about the Nathan’s hot dog eating competition. Decide showering can wait.

As you can see, I’ve been involved in some very important activities! Unlike Julie who, every time we talk, tells me she and Allison are doing “girl stuff,” which I can only assume means shoe shopping, painting each other’s toenails, and watching Lifetime.

Anyway, it’s been a lot of fun reconnecting with my bachelor self, but between us, I’m looking forward to my wife coming home. I might even shower for the occasion. If I have time, of course.