You do this: you ride the bumpiest, smallest plane on the planet from San Francisco to Albuquerque. You have white knuckles and the Xanax is taking the edge off the anxiety you feel, but just barely. You wonder if the plane falls out of the sky will it spin or tumble. Maybe it will just dive down nosefirst, and for a beautiful minute everyone will be weightless in the freefall inside the cabin. You decide that if that happens, you will unbuckle your seatbelt, you will enjoy the last few moments of your life like an astronaut.
You take solace in reading people’s faces, they look calm, uninterested. They’re all typing away at their devices, doing whatever they do on them. Maybe they’re all in terror too, we are all typing out last moments in the hope that our cell phone will be the lucky one they find in the charred wreckage, our severed hand still gripping it. We wonder if our phone will be in the museum, this iPhone will be the monument to our lives; our consciousnesses have already been transferred inside the aluminum wafer. Suddenly, a huge drop! The terrified gasp in unison from the passengers is like a penitent whisper in church from the congregation, and you’re sure everyone believes in God right this moment.
You see the Rio Grande river far below, you plan to run to the door if the plane dives down, at least you can fall into the river. You then remember that river is practically a foot deep and you will probably impact hard into the riverbed like the action figures you used to bury in the muddy sandboxes you would play with as a kid, in the backyard of your childhood home near Old Town.
The plane slams into the runway and a collective sigh is exhaled, or maybe it’s just that you personally sigh loud enough to sound collective. You’re glad you’ll get to see your father’s face in a few minutes, and as the desert sun blasts the endless blue sky outside the window, the speaker crackles and the flight attendant says “if this is your final destination, welcome to Albuquerque”.
It’s not your final destination, but welcome to Albuquerque anyway. Welcome home.
Your dad still lives here; the rest of your family left years and years ago. You left too; after college the city pushed you out like a splinter and towards a guy in Chicago for three years. You came back briefly, made some lifelong friends, then headed to the west coast where you’ve lived since then.
You resemble your dad strongly in your features, maybe your demeanor too, although you definitely get your passion from your mom. You catch up with him on what he’s been up to, how his garden is doing, how both your bodies don’t quite seem to keep up with your minds as much as they used to anymore, how this can feel like a betrayal by the skin that you are in.
You hang out with your friends, it feels like you just saw each other yesterday. You have drinks and share meals with your friends Shawn and Amani, Lori and Russell, Esther and Marya; the common denominator that keeps coming up is the wild millennium New Year’s Eve party Amani hosted in 1999 where everything was covered in layers of shiny tinfoil and there were colored party bulbs in every light socket in the house. Overnight, someone left the doors to the indoor swimming pool open, and the moisture came in and formed a cloud layer, under which the sleeping revelers’ bodies were stacked on each other the next morning.
Later, you remember when your family lived 30 miles south of the city, in Belen, and you commuted in to school every day with your dad. The sound of the small Toyota engine, the drone of the tires on the pavement would instantly lull you to sleep. Now the roles are reversed and you take your dad on a driving tour of your childhood memories.
You drive by the Granite Avenue house, where as a child you found a butterfly cocoon, stuck it on the inside of your screened window so you could watch the beautiful creature hatch, and then woke up to a hundred tiny praying mantises. According to firsthand reports, you literally screeched and clapped your hands in glee. Next is the Spur Court house. This is where you learned to tell serialized stories with your toys, maybe the genesis of you being a writer? This is also where you got to third base with a Babar stuffed animal in your confused and fervid adolescence. Sorry, Babar.
You drive by Roma Avenue. The imposing stone house is now a world-class bed-and-breakfast. This is where you had friends over after high school classes, this is the house where you came out to your family, the house where you tried (humiliatingly unsuccessfully) to seduce Joe Jablonski. This is the house that you came home to when your brother died.
You drive by your high school, walk the halls of the theater arts and music departments of the University. That room there is where you sang your first song you performed in front of others, that one there is where you practiced the upright bass for Orchestra. Across the street over there used to be the Denny’s where you almost got gay bashed. It is going to be a Chipotle now. Most things from your childhood are a Chipotle now.
By coincidence, it’s Albuquerque Pride that weekend. You never went when you lived here: you had internalized homophobia as a kid. When your mom would take you to her openly gay friend Bart’s house, you would stay in the car, not even get out to say hello. You played it off like you were just uninterested, but in reality you were terrified that he would see right through your façade, he would point and shriek at you like one of the aliens in the Donald Sutherland remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he would cry out to the world that you were a little homo.
You go to Albuquerque Pride for the first time in your life and it’s bigger than you remember hearing about it. It’s charming and sweet and powerful, all of these people holding space for those who couldn’t before, all these beautiful people being brave in a city that is often difficult to live in as LGBTQ. The only negative is that apparently every queer person in Albuquerque now vapes. Vaping is the hazelnut non-dairy creamer of smoking.
You wake up the next morning to David’s ghost. He sits across your father’s guest room from you, says nothing as usual. You notice for the first time that the ghost has a beard like he did when you first met him. You try to open your mouth to tell him something, you close it. It doesn’t matter. This isn’t him. He silently turns, looks at your phone, as if saying to pick it up. You do, and everything turns black. This is Sunday June 12th, 2016, and the largest mass shooting in U.S. history has occurred in an Orlando gay nightclub.
It’s a dark day, and the details unfold quickly. You and your father watch the news together. It’s darkly funny to hear the local newscasters muddle through the initials “LGBTQ” possibly for their first time. It’s fascinating to hear the filters that the media applies to the tragedy: instead of “hate crime” it’s “terrorist”, even though the act of violence was clearly targeting gay people.
There are no words to express the grief when, a couple days later, you hear the names of the dead spoken. Maybe this time love will win over hate. Maybe this time people will get angry instead of just sad. Maybe this time we will execute real change instead of just sending “thoughts and prayers”. Maybe, and hopefully, this was the last straw.
Before you fly out of Albuquerque, you hug your dad goodbye. He says “I love you, Mike”. He says “I am proud of you”. You know this already; you are your father’s son. You are a writer. You are a coworker. You are a brother. You are a friend. You are perfect, you are flawed. You are heartbroken, you are whole.
You are proud. You are proud. You are proud.
If you liked this, then really? What’s wrong with you? Follow my adventures as I almost get my ass kicked in New York, or when I have a blast getting broken up with. Let’s be horrible people together!