“I bet you’re excited about this, finally getting to San Francisco!” That’s Danny, the driver.
I laugh. “Yeah, I really am!”
We’ve just left Las Cruces. My retirement, my emancipation, took effect a week ago, July 31, 2009. Another car is right behind us, with two other former students. Between us, we’re carrying all that’s left of my possessions, everything I could not trash or give away. It’s early morning, and thankfully overcast this summer day in the desert.
“Are you glad you’re leaving New Mexico?” he asks, seeing me look out at the mountains I’ve come to know so well over the past forty years.
It takes a minute to answer. “There’s a lot here I’ll miss. But I feel like I’ve been liberated, and I want to get on with the next chapter, whatever the hell that is.”
Danny laughs. “What about the students? You must be glad to be….”
“Danny, I’ve had quite a few, like you, that made me happy to be a teacher…”
“And a lot of assholes who didn’t,” he throws in.
“Let’s say a lot of students had no clue why they were in my course or had to take statistics at all.”
We’re quiet again as the caravan pushes north along the Rio Grande valley. This isn’t the fastest way to get to San Francisco, but in the summer it’s the least torture. We’ll go through Flagstaff instead of Phoenix, and then bypass LA entirely. As we go, I silently tick off places I’ve been along the way, tiny towns, abandoned mines, mountains, and volcanic basins.
Danny asks, “What are you looking for in San Francisco, I mean besides the obvious?” He knows I’m gay, as do the other two. They’re straight; I’ve never talked about anything gay, but I’ve been an advocate for gay kids who’ve been beaten up on campus. And everyone knows that.
“‘Besides the obvious.’ Well, there’s a real transit system, for one thing. Just a heck of a lot of things to do. And there’s the ocean. I’ll be five minutes’ walk from the beach.”
“We have plenty of beach here in ‘Cruces,” he jokes.
“Yeah, plenty of sand, but the tide’s been out for a long time now.” We both chuckle at the old joke.
I look back at our following car and Francisco, in the passenger seat, waves just to ‘check in.’
At Los Lunas, I direct Danny and Carlos to turn off the highway north, and instead take state route 6, a well paved two-lane road that winds through remote countryside and ends up getting onto the westbound freeway without going through Albuquerque.
Danny keeps looking at the cold lava-flow malpaís to our left. “That isn’t easy hiking country. Did you hike it?” I nod my head.
He’s quiet for a minute. When he talks again, it’s to ask, “So did you use to drive? I mean, how did you get to all these places?”
“No, I didn’t drive. I made friends way back when I was a grad student, and they drove. Anytime someone wanted to go somewhere, I always went along.”
“Are you still in touch with them?”
I sigh. Not intentionally. “Mostly no. Some are gone for good, you know, and some have disappeared.”
He nods, and the talk stops there. I appreciate the silence because I suddenly picture Joey, the one I did the most adventuring with; it’s been years since I’ve thought of him. It isn’t too long till we get to the I-40 West on-ramp. Danny reads my mind and pulls over. We all get out and talk. By this point it’s almost noon.
Where should we eat? I want my favorite spot in Grants, but the guys want to take as little time as possible, so we go to a Burger King near the freeway offramp. We eat outside, where the sun is deciding whether or not to come out. It’s quiet, a nice rest. I make sure they take all the time they need.
When we’re ready to get back on the road, I ask if anyone wants to change seats in the cars. The two in the other car want to stay together, but will switch driving, and Danny is happy to keep driving the whole time.
As we go farther west now, there are fewer places I’m familiar with. This means that we are now in Joey’s country, an area I know only through him, ‘gone for good.’ I’m glad now that Danny doesn’t want to talk.
We’re pushing pretty hard, and we reach Flagstaff while it is still afternoon. I tell the others that, if they have time on the way back, they should stop at Meteor Crater, or if they really have time Grand Canyon. Danny approves of my suggestions. But right now we have to make Barstow by nightfall; that’s where I made reservations for tonight. And before that we have to come down out of the cool of Flagstaff into the inferno of the Colorado.
We’re already getting tired, but we make the run easily enough, arriving at the motel by nine at night. I share a room with Danny, while Francisco and Carlos take the other.
I don’t wake the guys but they’re up early, so we eat at the hotel and are on the road before the desert sun is too high. Danny is quiet, and my own mind is churning for some reason. And as it turns out, I’m in for a shock. When we get to the US 395 cutoff just after Barstow — an irrelevant intersection for our trip — Joey’s memory washes over me.
I have learned to avoid crying over the years, but I must be showing some emotion. Anyway, Danny notices. “Is something wrong?”
“No. One of my fellow students from way back when, he used to live up that way,” I say, pointing north. He’s the one who drove ….”
Danny says, “and he’s gone, right?”
Joey and I started grad school about the same time in the fall of 1968. I was brand new to the West, so I agreed to any suggestion by anyone to go exploring. Joey was from the high California desert, but was quick to pick up the differences between his own desert and New Mexico. In Las Cruces, for example, any rain we got was during the summer, while in Big Pine it was in winter.
He was the one who most frequently tried to get up an expedition to, say, Kilbourne Hole, or the Three Rivers Petroglyphs. Sometimes, we got a large group, sometimes just the two of us.
One summer break, I was planning on taking the bus to Denver to have a high-end bicycle built for me, my way of solving the transportation problem in a town without buses. Joey drove me up and back, sleeping in the truck on the way up, making it back in one day with the bike in the truck bed.
What I appreciated about Joey was his patience. Say, if the gang was climbing Organ Needle, while I was still a newbie, he made sure I stayed safe, pointing out bad footholds for example. I decided not to do the last hundred feet — a rope climb — and he stayed at the base with me till the others got back.
And if I was the one who wanted to go somewhere, like a rock off state route 6 with the Ten Commandments on it in Hebrew, he was first in line — and in that case the only one in line — to offer to go with me and drive.
Early on, we realized we had major political differences. He was sure, for example, that pollution would be less if everyone used wood stoves, while I couldn’t believe that. I was stolidly opposed to the Vietnam War, and he was not. We quickly called a tacit truce; we just stopped talking about politics.
So what did we talk about? History, philosophy, math, linguistics, almost anything. For someone who came from such a backwoods place, he knew an awful lot. I was to find out where that came from when he took me up to Big Pine.
He was not cute. Strong yes, athletic, yes, agile, lithe, yes. Pretty, no. Still, as we spent time with each other, I began to have feelings for him. One day, in fact, while we were resting during a hike up 12,000-foot Sierra Blanca, he came out with something that sparked me.
“You know, I’m happy to be with just about any of the folks in the department. But you’re really a friend, you know that? The other guys don’t seem interested in anything but math, but you can talk about anything I mention.”
I stumbled around in giving him a reply. Later on, while we were coming down from the mountain, wet from an unexpected hailstorm, I asked, “So, do you want to go further than ‘friend’?”
This time, he was the one who found it hard to answer. “Heck, Jonathan, did you think I was angling for that? I’m sorry. I like having a friend like you, and I don’t want to change anything about it.”
“Cool, Joey, that’s fine,” I said. What Joey and I had was really nice in the craziness of grad school, something worth settling for.
One summer, the year after the bicycle, Joey said he had to go back to Big Pine to make sure the house was okay. Did I want to come along? Well, duh! It was up on the east side of the Sierras, a place I would otherwise likely never get to see.
Joey insisted on an early start, meaning long before sunrise. We took the same route that I’ve already laid out, as far as Barstow, but when we hit the 395 intersection, he turned north into an area even more deserted than much of what I’d seen in New Mexico. We followed the road up the Owens Valley, past one ‘itty-bitty’ town after another (Joey’s word), finally stopping at a gas station on an intersection with an unpaved road.
Joey’s family owned the gas station and also the house beyond it. His parents were dead and his siblings had all moved away, something pretty common in small towns like his. It had fallen on Joey to check on the place every year, to see if the gas-station manager and his wife were doing their job as well as keeping the house clean of dust and mildew while Joey was gone. Their own house was a short way down the unpaved road.
We got to the gas station during the afternoon. The manager was a Latino man about our age, and he welcomed us with a broad smile and a hearty handshake, for both of us. He confirmed that everything was in working order, and that there had been no roof leaks in the house from the previous winter’s snow.
Joey drove the hundred yards or so to the house, and we went in. It wasn’t much different from the small houses I’d seen back in New Mexico, but Joey’s room was a surprise: Wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor bookcases filled with books of all kinds. Trashy, deep, fiction, essay, memoir, just about everything. And every book I saw had clearly seen a lot of use. So this is where Joey’s wisdom came from!
I must have registered surprise, because he asked me what was up. “Nothing,” I said, “except you probably have the best library for a hundred miles in any direction.”
He laughed. “The best? How about the only? You have no idea how far I had to drive to get these books.” But I did have an idea, having already seen how far we were from civilization.
We had stopped on the road to pick up food, so we set about making a meal.
“Don’t eat too much,” he warned. “I have some places I want to show you. You don’t want to be hiking on a full belly, right?”
He had turned on the refrigerator before starting to cook, so after eating a bit, we put the rest of the stew away, and went out to see the neighborhood. As it turned out, he was trying too hard to show me his whole background in one afternoon, because we drove here and there, to this campground and that mountain. It was already dark by the time we got back to the house. We ate, but we were more tired than hungry, and it was Joey who suggested we put everything away till morning.
There was more than one bed, of course, but somehow only one good set of linens and covers. Joey shrugged and apologized, and suggested we share the bed. He slept naked, his usual. I sleep in my underwear, but I felt weird doing that with him not, so I took off everything. There was plenty of room under the comforter, and I fell asleep instantaneously. I have no doubt that Joey did likewise, because he always fell asleep fast.
During the night I woke up to find us spooning, Joey pressed against my back, his arm around me. It was immediately apparent that (1) he was dead asleep, (2) his dick, pressed right against my ass, was not hard, and (3) there was no way I could get out from under his grip without waking him. What I remember even more clearly is that I just fell right back to sleep!
When I finally woke for good, Joey was dressed and making coffee. He had a nasty scowl on his face, and I had to ask him right away what was wrong.
“Something strange happened last night,” he said. “I woke up and we were so tight together you couldn’t get a postcard in between us.” I nodded, so he went on. “That’s not all. I had my arm around you in a bear hug.” I nodded again, which seemed to make him angry. “Why are you just nodding?”
“Well, I woke up during the night, and that’s the way it was.”
“So did you think I was going to fuck you?” he almost shouted. “I’m an honest man, Jonathan. I don’t like to say one thing and do another.”
“Joey, you couldn’t have fucked me. Your dick was soft, period. I don’t know what was happening in your head, but I didn’t feel any threat. I must have been okay with it, because I dropped right back to sleep.”
“Well, I don’t like it. I mean, do I have some unconscious lust for you?”
“Again, man, you were soft. You can get hard in your dreams, right?” He nodded. “So yeah, there’s something not conscious going on, but it’s not sex.”
Joey said, “You’re pretty sure of yourself. So what clever thing do you think I have rattling around in this head?”
I was sitting up by that point, and Joey was standing right in front of me. Again, if he had any desire for me, it didn’t show.
“Joey, here’s just an idea. When I think of you, I think of how careful you always are to take care of me. When we go up a tricky mountainside, you make sure I don’t misstep and sprain my ankle. When I wanted the bicycle, you didn’t let me take the bus up and back. If I wanted to see that Ten Commandments stone, you took me there.”
“Well, yeah, of course. Like I told you before, you’re my friend, remember?”
I put my hands up to say, ‘calm down.’ “Joey, what is there around here that would be unsafe for me?”
“Nothing. This house is the safest place on earth.”
“Right, but I mean in the area.”
He furrowed his brow. “Well, there’s that bar we passed, the Welcome Inn. Remember how you laughed about the name, and you asked me about it?”
“Yeah, you said it was a really rowdy place.”
“More than rowdy, Jonathan. They would beat you to a pulp if you just stepped inside.”
“And I suppose there are some other places like that in the neighborhood?”
He said, “Well, there sure are some people like that.”
“And you wouldn’t want me to get hurt.”
He nodded, and we were quiet. Then he said, “So you think I was trying to protect you.”
“Well, it does explain what you were doing.”
“Okay, that’s innocent enough, but somehow I don’t like it.”
“You don’t like having an unconscious. But your books tell you that you do have one. I’m not sure that’s what it was saying but it pretty clearly wasn’t trying to rape me. If you’ll feel better, I’ll wear underwear tonight. Can we eat now? We’ve eaten so little since ‘Cruces.”
That was the right switch to turn. He got busy, and we were soon scarfing down all the calories we’d missed the day before. I asked him what he wanted to do that day — more hiking? But he had to pay some taxes at the county seat. Did I want to come with him? I almost said something about all the dangers lying in wait for me if I stayed at the house, but he was too upset, so I just nodded ‘yes.’
As it turned out, the bureaucracy stole the whole day. Independence, the county seat, is practically the smallest place in the county, so instead of dinner there, we went all the way up to Bishop. Afterward, we came back to the house.
‘I have half a mind to drive back to New Mexico right now.”
It was almost dark by this point, and we were both exhausted. “Can I talk to the other half, please?”
Fortunately, he laughed. I asked him to show me his favorite books. He brought out an atlas that must have pre-dated us by some decades, and we had a good time talking about how different boundary lines were in 1968. Of course, by now they’ve changed again.
Eventually, though, we had to face bedtime. It was going to be a cold evening in the high desert, so I laughed at his suggestion to sleep on the floor. I got down to my skivvies. Joey was deciding whether to wear his.
“Will you be able to sleep with your underwear on?” I asked.
He took his off. Then he motioned me to do the same. He knew I’d be surprised, so he added, “Unless you’d feel safer with them on.” I must have rolled my eyes, which made him smile. We got into bed, but Joey asked, “You’re sure you feel safe this way?”
“Actually, it really does feel safe with you protecting me.”
I realized that Joey’s unconscious need might have been that he needed someone to hold on to. I didn’t say that; it wouldn’t have helped. In any case, I again fell asleep fast enough, and I think he did too.
This time, I didn’t wake up till it was already well past sun-up. Joey was still asleep, and we were in the same position as before, his dick still as soft as jello, his arm still restraining me.
“Joey, time to get up!”
He stirred, and his dick hardened ever so slightly. But that just got him up and out of bed faster. He went right to the john. When he returned, I was lying on my back.
“Do we need to get started soon?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he replied, more taciturn than usual.
“Are you okay?”
We made breakfast, cleaned up, said goodbye to the gas-station manager, and got back on the road. All without saying anything of consequence. On the road back, Joey was not playing tourist guide as he usually did.
By the time we hit Flagstaff, I needed to say something. “Listen, Joey. Are we still friends?”
“Yes! Yes, we’re still friends. And thanks for giving me the time to chew my cud, huh?”
We said nothing the rest of the way, except for that restaurant in Grants, where the owners knew us and our silence would have been awkward. It was getting dark when we hit Las Cruces and he let me off at my apartment.
“Jonathan, you’re not going to tell anyone about this, are you?”
“Okay. I may stay away for a day or two, but I promise that’s all.”
“No problem. Call me if you need to.”
He nodded and drove off. He did exactly as promised; two days later, he was in my office after my class. He wanted to go up to Cloudcroft the next Saturday; was it okay to invite the others? Yes. None of the others showed up, so we drove up to the solar observatory at Sunspot and had a picnic lunch. We spent a few minutes at the edge of the cliff that looks back towards Las Cruces, and then headed back.
After that, things got back to our usual routine, both between us and with the other students. But Joey quit school a year later to take a job teaching in California. I was not surprised that he couldn’t stand grad school, but I wondered how much of his leaving was wanting to get away from me. We had very limited contact after that, meeting sometimes by chance when he came into town. I would find out that he got into trouble with a school board one place for having insisted that a girl who wanted to play football should be allowed to. Then I heard of the accident, and he was gone.
Danny is asking me if ‘that guy’ and I were lovers.
“Danny, he was straight, as far as I know. We never had sex. At all.”
“Did you see each other naked?”
I laugh. “Really! Danny, think of how many men you’ve seen naked in a shower or a lake, or whatever. Yeah, we saw each other naked.”
“Did you sleep naked with him?”
“Yes! And that’s what we did, we slept.”
“What happened to him?”
“He died. There was a car crash.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Thanks,” I say. “He was a nice guy.”
“And he was ‘just friends’ with you. But you’re crying.”
“Danny!” and he shuts up, which is good because I am really crying by this point. We stay quiet for awhile. Finally, I add a little. “Danny, do I have any other options? I mean, are ”just friends’ and ‘lovers’ all there are?”
That keeps Danny quiet for some time. Then we talk again about our futures, about my place by the ocean, and his desires for a job after he finishes school.
Eventually, he comes back to my crying. “I’ve never seen you cry before. Do you do that…?”
I laugh. “Do I cry all the time? Actually, no. I had to learn to keep a straight face when I was facing the cops or the administration for some kid who had just been beaten up. I mean, crying would have been pretty counterproductive, right? So I kind of learned not to cry. Every so often something happens and I break down, but I never can tell what will do it. When my mother died, I didn’t cry until my father broke down in tears during the funeral, and then I gave in.”
Danny nods, but doesn’t say anything.
Late in the afternoon, as we come in sight of the Great Highway — and the Pacific! — Carlos in the other car demands to check it out. They’ve never seen the ocean before. Danny has, but goes down the hillside with them to the beach, while I guard my goods.
When we’re back on the road, he asks me, “Do you think you’ll ever move back?”
“I’ve lived forty years in the desert, so…” I’m about to say something clever, like, I’ve done my time, but he beats me.
“So San Francisco is like the Promised Land?”
We laugh. “We’ll see, I guess.”
“I hope you get to cry more. I mean, more easily. And maybe that you don’t have as much reason to.”