Two: The Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque has long been a sort of totem of my relatively limited affection for the world. The things I like tend to be things I like a lot and the Frontier may be close to my favorite of these things. It has great food, relatively cheap (it used to be unqualifiedly cheap, but now such things have gotten a little less certain), a wide expanse of comfortable, Western-themed rooms, a wide cross-section of Albuquerque’s population, and hundreds of memories (most of them even good) haunting its tiled corridors. Introducing new people to the Frontier has become a hallmark of their visits to New Mexico and a highlight of any trip home for me, for spreading the Gospel of the Frontier is one of my most thoroughly developed skills.
Brandzy had been to the Frontier before we made it in for a crowded Sunday lunch, but he’d been there alone and in a rush and only on my far-flung recommendation while I sat in, I believe, an office at Glide. So while the experience was not entirely untested, his ability to fully embrace the Frontier ethos as one who is being guided and shown around had not been breached. Having discovered a new love of green chile the night before at Garcia’s, it was no problem convincing him to try a cheeseless breakfast burrito and begin the rapid indoctrination process often underway by the time someone sets foot over the Frontier’s well-traversed thresholds.
He arranged a hasty reunion there with a long-estranged friend, leaving us just enough time in the schedule to stop by the old place on Twelfth Street for a glimpse of what my actual upbringing in Albuquerque was like before my parents moved and were able to claim the place they’ve lived since I was ensconced in college. Gone were the chickens and ducks and geese; added were several walls and outcroppings of the structure my Dad had begun to augment before our move. But the echoes of a bygone era, already reverberating through my perspective after nearly a month in New Mexico, began to thunder loudly in my cranium as it perched just visibly over the ditch-side wall to offer a view of stuccoed straw-bales and the wispy visage of a teenager who’ll never walk that yard again.
We didn’t reunite thereafter till it was dark outside, a fire blazing within to offer a bulwark against single-digit temperatures that threatened any stranded without the walls. Brandzy’s picked up guitar lately and he picked up his, encouraging me to literally dust off an instrument I hadn’t touched in over a decade as he began to practice. I almost caught up to him in a couple-hour impromptu jam, relearning “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “This Land is Your Land” and plowing through our recently recounted memories of me at eighteen or thirteen to squint into an even more distant past, one at eleven and twelve, one accompanied by the plucking of strings and the pressing of frets as I failed to practice sufficiently to make good on a musical promise always more hoped for than manifest. “Puff the Magic Dragon” added heart-strings to those already being tugged, but we struggled with B-minor and had to regroup with the two we’d played together as we laughed and celebrated a minor victory in being able to learn, or at least remember, at thirty years old.
Three: A return to the Frontier and a series of near-goodbyes marked this sleepy day, with Brandzy departing for Arizona before tragedy was to strike there coincidental to his more planful journey. We said farewell repeatedly, culminating in a last farewell as he retrieved forgotten sheet music on his way westward once more, promising to listen and talk of future farewells as many times as might be necessary. I spent the day in increasing awareness of my hurtling toward departure from New Mexico, left once again to feel the already waning rhythms of life in a family of three as I lived it for almost two decades, but so little in the past twelve years. Late in the day, after good portions of reading and computer time, I was able to convince my parents to engage in some magical thinking and accompany me to my father’s first (modern) 3D movie, the “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”. And on the third day of the year, the three of us watched a three-dimensional film, the third in the classic Narnian series, nearly having the theater to ourselves before a couple stragglers joined us in late preview. All were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film and the engagement of its contours, convinced once more that sharing a movie outside the bounds of the homestead is not only viable, but vital.
Four: My last full day in Albuquerque was slow and methodical, as I took periodic care to note the passage of time and the significance of a day that, like any at home or in the company of those one rarely sees, could bear unseen and increased significance in certain retrospects. I have learned over much belaborment that it is important not to overemphasize such days, to overload them or overstress them if possible. There is great pressure put on departure, especially when it carries potential portends of long absence and the gaping maw of life unknown and unplanned, of reunions whose dates are unmarked on the calendar. That very pressure that inclines one to enjoy and squeeze the stuffing out of these moments of significance can suffocate same, strangling the throats that would call on memory to the point where all that can be heard are plaintive, even frustrated cries. It is one of those Murphian curses of our existence that an awareness of important days can crush them, that our most beautiful memories are often of days almost unnoticed at the time.
I managed to finish my book, to dine with my family, to make plans to see a friend who’d just made it to town in time to play piano and a last card game with Fish and I before we departed. Eliaii and I rarely overlap for long in Albuquerque, but our conversation made the most of it this time, as early hours of the fifth day of the year were burned in serious contemplation of life and its foibles after he and Fish’s father conquered Fish and I at what Trivial Pursuit recently informed me was the most popular four-player game of all-time (bridge). If it was the last night at what I’ve lovingly called The Tank for a decade and a half, it was one for the ages. Fish and I had sat before the gas fire several times this trip, contemplating New Year’s past and further past, or imagining what future hope could be carved from the newly breached shore my life has been wrecked upon. I had not realized how much of these opportunities to regroup and reminisce had been made possible by Fish himself until that night, until hearing his parents wax wistful about Florida on Christmas and realizing that at age thirty, despite feeling like kids, we are directing more traffic in our lives than we really might imagine.
Five: Village Inn is no Frontier. It’s not even Waffle House. But it is open and relatively close to The Tank, and Eliaii and I finished the last large meal of my time in Nuevo over discussions of where things are heading in a year that if I keep saying it has to be better than last year, it almost certainly won’t be. A cop sat behind Eliaii and looked up occasionally over his strongbox-computer-sourced work, trying not to acknowledge me as I talked about places I might live and jobs I might pursue and avenues I might attempt to sidle down in the coming months and years. I often caught myself wondering what he might think of our cavalier evaluations of Albuquerque, its advantages and disadvantages. It’s easy to assume that almost any well-settled local is a lifelong native, but it’s quite possible he was an import from Texas or California or even possibly Chicago, though there’s something about police in particular that I believe makes them seem provincial. It’s probably halfway between a stereotype and the belief that they take up arms and badges in the defense of a long-held community tradition, or at least in a place where they’re familiar with what neighborhoods require what sort of patrol. In any event, he heard me compare Seattle, Denver, Flagstaff, and Vancouver favorably, though I lamented that Albuquerque’s affordability and climate were not available without the ghosts.
I considered staying up all night, but it was clear by six or so that this would be a poor plan, especially since my departure was later than my traditional bargain-basement dawn voyage. I caught about a hundred minutes of sleep in the steady restlessness of the jittery need to awaken quickly when it is, in fact, time to awaken. How many mornings spent alarmed and ready without necessity, starting alert every five minutes only to discover that the need to leave bed is still many minutes or even quarter-hours hence. And then the final moment of awakening, of sounded emergency startling, it seems anticlimactic and almost sad, wasted in its annoyance on a person already feeling as though he’s been awake and ready for days.
It was in this state that I began to cry, facing the magnitude of the departure that was upon me, feeling the welled and stored pressure of all that had built in days and weeks and a near-month of muddling through in search of resolutions, answers, hope, holiday, restoration. Once unleashed, my final of many floodgates on New Mexican soil knew no stoppage, prompting a contemplation of punting the flight altogether in favor of later times or, perhaps, making a vacation more permanent or at least indefinite. Departures like this, as often tagged in this format itself by my “Pre-Trip Posts” moniker, tend to carry that pre-remembrance feeling even more heavily than last full days in a locale. My family is heavy with premature death, with tragic losses and missed opportunities to say goodbye, adding extra weight to every long preview of extended absence. A deluge of unchecked tears as the last of the packing culminates is hardly a harbinger to ward such misgivings. We bawled and hugged and my parents begged me to reconsider my resolve to fly to Philadelphia. I almost relented. But at some point, amidst the pangs of reconsideration and reformatting of a whole vision of this year, I stood up and said “it’s time.”
Airports are lonelier than any Valentine’s Day, any New Year’s, any holiday spent solo. Many are alone, but nearly all of them are heart-filled with the last kisses of loved ones or the even more soaring anticipation of long reunion. It is too early to declare these experiences forever spoiled, but a thirty-hour jaunt to Liberia resulting in a cold shoulder went a long way toward inhibiting my taste for unaccompanied air travel. After a steadying phone call to Stina to iron out last details of the pending trip to Vermont and New Hampshire, I resolved to sleep as fast as possible, making up for the nervy hundred minutes of half-rest that had preceded my teary farewells to hearth and home. We were airborne, underway, then as Albuquerque receded ‘neath a bank of clouds, I nestled in the very back row against my parka and gave in to merciful unconsciousness.
I was awakened some hours later by a special announcement over the loudspeaker with a surreal-sounding request that all passengers aboard our flight from Albuquerque to Chicago lower our window shades and press our flight attendant call buttons. It was a minute or so before I could be sure I wasn’t dreaming, groggily blinking at the 100% participation with what appeared to be a prelude to an ill-lit ritual of cult or creed. Instead, it proved to be a marriage proposal, inarticulate and choked as it emerged from a pudgy but sincere-seeming guy as introduced by a profoundly polished contrasting stewardess. The view from the back was murky enough to briefly convince me that he was offering a wedding to the stewardess herself, but it proved to be a fellow traveler on the wind to Chicago that was receiving what would long be considered the happiest news of her life. My thoughts went quickly to a mid-inning proposal at a Philadelphia ballgame Emily and I attended shortly before she flew away, our wincing looks to each other reminding both of us that our best proposal story of our lives, the best proposal story either of us have ever heard, has been burned on a needlessly heartbroken marriage whose memory now only brings pain. It is hard to say how particularly cruel life has been lately or whether I merely notice its cruelty more unguardedly in my present state, but I would also venture that none of you have borne witness to an airborne proposal and that things are really going out of their way these days. I tried to fall back asleep as soon as possible, shortly after desperately trying to make myself clap along with the congratulatory crowd.
I didn’t leave the plane in Chicago, instead waiting for all but 9 of the seats to be filled by those who filed on in annoyed single-file, scouting seats and bin space like buzzards on a planet of immortals. Inevitably one of the loudest of the future passengers found his way across the aisle from me, where I was newly placed in good old row seventeen. He’d made a new friend in line and spent almost all of the boarding phase yelling details of his dramatic life across the way to her chosen seat, just behind my head. Turns out he’d flown back to Chicago from Philly to bail his ex-wife out of jail. She’d just burned his house in Chicago down. He was taking the kids, who were coming with their grandparents in the back of the line, back to one of the grandparents’ places in Philadelphia to recover while he contemplated whether to press charges and how to collect on the insurance. The guy looked like the kind of person who would make up a story like this just to pass the time, but by the point when two scared-looking bear-clutching grade-schoolers dutifully boarded between hand-wringing matriarchs trying to look brave, I was convinced. Maybe the only thing special about anyone’s experience is that they think it is special. Maybe suffering is all the same.
I read at length from my Mom’s long-recommended recent favorite, The Shadow of the Wind, while trying to shake the idea that I was getting a portrait of American nuptials presented by Southwest Airlines. I couldn’t sleep a wink all the way down into Philadelphia, a rarity for me on planes. I have long tried to keep myself awake on the large commercial vehicles, often just to see if I can, sometimes because I desperately want to read or converse or otherwise enjoy consciousness. But this was my first flight in ages to offer me such, almost not counting since its first half was spent almost completely asleep. As we eased down toward Philadelphia in one of the most gradual descents of all-time, I was able to peer through cloudless skies at early evening scenes of eastern America. It occurred to me, squinting and sighing, how like constellations the light patterns of winter cities in this country are, how the order/chaos of patterned streets and traffic and buildings, especially in smaller towns, resembles nebulas and swirling galaxies high above in the same dim-lit view. We rotate and revolve around a center, we follow an orbit, and dim glimmers of yellow or white or even purple hints at our existence, winking in the void as we wait to be driven homeward.
All the way back, I’d think how strange it was that I’d never before correlated far-flung star systems to the electric networks that adorn our own civilized groupings. Sitting for long stretches on overlit trains, even longer stretches in even more overlit train stations, hauling my overstuffed bags down the rickety ice-flecked stairs of the New Brunswick depot, hailing a cabbie my parents had insisted I employ to make the last tiny stretch of my journey less exhausting than all that piled on before it, I would wonder. How can we be so close to so much and not see? What am I not seeing before me now that might be my skyward salvation? And what, most of all, might I never see, never connect or correlate, until such time when its knowledge is no longer useful? Are we ever making decisions as though truly informed? Or does the chaos outweigh the order, leaving us as much starstruck or star-crossed as we are illuminated?
I’m not sure about this emergent 2011 pattern of recalling a day or a handful of them in somewhat distant retrospect, but I kind of like the affect it has on my thinking and the way I talk about things. Like these constellation/streetlights themselves, I think I might often be too close to the days I’m writing about, and even a few hours or a week of reflection time can make an enormous difference in how circumspect or thoughtful I can be about them. I can’t imagine sandbagging future thoughts and entries to create this effect, but while I’m still catching up on the early parts of the year, I’m not going to fight it. In other words, this vignette series will continue, at least for another entry or so.