She held the t-shirt by the shoulder seams, flipping it back and forth to display both sides. That’s a medium? I wondered. That’s-going-to-be-tiiiiight. I paused before answering, still holding onto my fork loaded with chicken burrito, resting against the plate. She must have sensed my apprehension.
Jiggling the shirt, she leaned in conspiratorially, “Whatever you do, don’t dry it. Trust me on that. Cold water, and don’t dry. Promise?”
I bought the shirt from our waitress at Orlando’s in Taos. I never intended to be a collector of shirts with the names of Mexican joints spray-painted across the chest, but this shirt now made three. At this point, I am compelled to retrace my steps back to the original spot, the one that stoked my appreciation for fine Mexican cuisine in the first place: Ninfa’s on Navigation, in downtown Houston. Sometimes you have to leave your backyard to know the value of what has always been there. Ninfa’s has been in existence one year less than I have. It’s a stalwart of the community and the location of many happy times spent there in my childhood.
I rate Mexican cuisine as ‘fine’ when the ingredients are noticeably fresh; there is a generous smattering of peppers for both spice and heat; and the Margaritas arrive to the table crisp with citrus and a slightness of sweet. A good margarita is catnip, mine with Patron, and Herradura for Russ. These days, ‘Modern Mexican’ is served almost tapas-style, with beautiful presentation on every small plate. But I prefer my ‘fine’ Mexican dining, including the stated qualities above, served ‘Waffle House style’—scattered, smothered, covered and chunked—on a large dinner plate.
When we ordered at Orlando’s, she asked, ‘Do you want red, green, or Christmas?’ Automatically I said, ‘Christmas!’ Russ had the foresight to question what those signified before answering. Burritos were smothered with red or green chili or both. Russ chose red. Every dish was served with a side of pinto beans and stewed hominy called posole. I washed my lunch down with a frosted mug of Tecate, drunk at a clip due to the surprising burn of the posole. I couldn’t stop blowing my nose.
I considered upgrading my new t-shirt to a size large, but embraced the challenge ahead instead. This t-shirt would double as a truth stick. I am aware this strategy is not unlike buying a little black cocktail dress, with the goal of fitting into it, before the occasion arrives on the calendar. The shirt has one of two outcomes possible. I will either appear as an adult wearing a child’s tube sock as a shirt, my pasty-white muffin top squeezed between the compression of that and the fitted waistband of my jeans, or, it will just be a tight t-shirt, slightly inappropriate, a token emblem of an old woman, desperately clinging to her youth vanished, but not yet crossing into obscenity. Neither outcome is worthy of celebrating, but I’ve decided both are okay, and even more than that, they are acceptable. I’m not sure if this ‘letting go of the outcome’ constitutes maturity or wisdom, or whether I’ve dipped my big toe straight into the undertow of apathy. I’m straddling the roundabout of knowing better, but not caring either.
This is what I rationalised finishing my burrito at Orlando’s. I thought of my father who recently told me, ‘I just walk down the driveway in my pajamas to grab the paper. No one is ever around. I never see anyone, so who cares?!” I thought to myself, but didn’t say it, ‘Just because you can’t see them, Dad, doesn’t mean they can’t see you.’ I pictured him, hobbling to the curb, wearing pajamas with the sleeves and pant-legs haphazardly hacked away, the only kind he owns. My tight shirt marks the halfway point between this and leaving the house in ratty pajamas and not caring what anyone thinks.
We flew to Santa Fe and drove the rental car the ninety minutes to Taos. We took the scenic route known as ‘The High Road.’ We arrived in the dark, hangry, stopping at Albertson’s and loading the car with groceries and supplies: instant oatmeal, Ramen noodles, canned soup, a loaf of bread and lunchmeat for Russ, and a bag of chips and salsa for me. I threw a bottle of Dr. Teal’s bubble-bath into the cart.
‘What’s that for?’ Russ asked.
‘Bubble baths, duh.’
‘You’ve never taken a bath since I’ve known you.’
‘That’s because there’s never been a big enough tub.’
He rolled his eyes.
‘Hey!’ I said. ‘Almost everything in this cart just needs water to work. We are killing this off-the-grid-living-the-simple-life-glamping-thing!
We lodged in a vintage camper among the almost two dozen others there. The space felt and looked like a private campground, but they called it a hotel: The Hotel Luna Mystica. I reserved one of the bigger campers for us called The Spartacus. It came installed with a double bed; a sitting area with a pristine velvet couch the color of Columbian emeralds; and a full bathroom with a deep tub. But it was ‘the little things’ that clinched our feeling of satisfaction: the nice sheets on the bed; the bar of soap sourced locally, tied with ribbon; the aromatic coffee grounds stored in a glass jar; and a French press to steep every cup to perfection. What was missing was equally important. To start with, there was no television. Nor could we find a speck of dirt or dust, mildew or mold. In all our travels, we’ve learned the important lesson where we bunk can enhance our visit, or diminish it. I had rolled the dice, but struck gold in Taos.
And the view outside our windows? Well … it was spectacular. Every morning we watched the sun breach the mountains, like a Flamenco dancer in a ruffled red dress. She floated above the peaks with grace, the red softening to pink as she rose, until her halo finally cracked open, a million jewelled beams of light pouring over our heads, blinding us to the electric grid of the surrounding plain, until she flamencoed her way back to the ridge-tops of the mountains at the end of each day. It was like having center seats in the front row at Broadway, only it was on the world stage.
We explored the area, as far as a single day would allow, there and back. We made the loop to Angel Fire and Eagle Nest, onward to Red River, and back to Taos, passing D.H. Lawrence’s Ranch in San Cristobal, now the property of UNM. Red River is where we encountered the herd of Bighorn sheep crossing the road, their horns thick, curled like handlebar moustaches, with eyes the color of khaki pants, beneath a polished glaze. It was unusual to find them so low in their territory, especially in early afternoon, but we saw another herd later that day as well, when we left the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. It was a cold day, and one of the locals said the sheep came down from the mountains, to seek the warmth from the asphalt road.
We checked out every ski valley we passed, and visited Santa Fe twice. Once for a day trip, and then again the day we flew home, with several free hours before our departure time that evening. We also visited the Bandelier National Monument, home to cliff dwellings over 11,000 years old, and the Valles Caldera National Preserve, the site of a collapsed volcano over one million years old. I could go on and on, but honestly, my words fail me. I can only attest their moniker, ‘The Land of Enchantment,’ is a hint of what one will discover when visiting New Mexico.
This trip was our anniversary celebration. Year three logged in the book of record. We exchanged cards while there. Russ’ card was three dimensional with pop-ups, showcasing a couple paddling a canoe down the river, the mountains behind them, and a blue sky overhead. It read, ‘Everything is simpler, happier, and better…with you by my side.’ The card was perfect. Russ holds the key to hugging my insides, without so much as a word spoken, until they crumble and seep with gratitude.
My card, on the other hand, pictured two squirrels pressed together side by side, holding a single stick impaled with two marshmallows, skins charring with each lick of the campfire flames. Inside, it said, ‘Love you s’more!’ Russ hates smores. I knew this, but the furry squirrels, with their kitschy sentiment, won in the end. I told Russ we would be two squirrels roasting hotdogs over our fire pit instead.
The day before we left, Russ stuffed a bag and took it to the laundromat to wash and dry.
‘Got anything?’ he asked.
‘We’re going home tomorrow…so umm no.’
Russ rolled his eyes.
I sat in the car parked in the lot, waiting with a cup of coffee, and writing on my laptop.
We chose to move our connecting flight back, so we could sleep in a hotel room Saturday night, instead of waiting in the airport for seven hours for the red eye. It made for a long trip home, but we still had most of Sunday to get organised. That’s when I did my laundry. This made more sense to me, because Russ still had a lot of other laundry to do, even after using the laundromat two days before. As we finished up, I ran across the street to grab my favorite sandwich from the bakery. It’s a salad between wholegrain bread, with a smear of hummus on one slice, and a smear of pesto cream cheese on the other. Opening our door, I found Russ straddled above his suitcase vacuuming it with the extendable hose and brush.
I didn’t say a word. I didn’t shake my head in wonder (bewilderment) at the marvellous sight of a man happily immersed in his work. Besides, twelve hours later, I would be destroying the bathroom with food poisoning. Vacation was officially over. There wasn’t much I could do, but wait. That, and just add water.