Talen was living with his sister-in-law in a rented house in Englewood. When Derek and I went to pick him up he wasn’t ready, so we waited inside.
On the living room floor slept a toddler, lulled to sleep by the antics of SpongeBob and Patrick Star. I followed Derek into the kitchen, where I skirted around a gradually expanding orange-brown spill that, if left unattended much longer would surely evaporate and be forgotten altogether. Next to the sink and amidst scattered pot ashes and produce peelings, the sullen eyes of Hansel and Gretel peered out from the cover of a Little Golden Book—their faces distorted by the flaked ashes as though in homage to their cremated witch. I wondered if the book had ever been read to the boy in the living room, or if this children’s horror story stayed shut up in its cardboard house.
Talen emerged from his bedroom, and as I looked around I saw a stuffed Broncos mascot and a stubby, bubblegum pink penis sucker taped to the wall. Surrounding the sucker, in a nook meant for a landline phone, was a shrine-like display venerating the Playboy Bunny.
I knew one thing for sure: I had nothing in common with the owner of this house.
Later that night, half-consciously scanning my apartment, I noticed my own book-laden countertops and brightly decorated walls, and thought, Maybe we’re not so different.
It was midnight when we decided to go bowling. The only open alley was over thirty miles away but Scott, Andy, and I were bored enough to make the drive, with or without the guarantee of a lane.
As we pulled into the Zodo’s parking lot, I saw a jagged neon sign, glowing purple and gold with promises of late-night good times. The place was packed. Andy grumbled under his breath, parked the car, and then led the way into the night club-style bowling alley.
Inside, the hip-hop was loud, intoxicating. College students swarmed the bar and tables like flies to fresh road kill. Top-heavy girls wore slinky blouses and short jean skirts. Heels added height. Bracelets: a touch of glam. One twenty-something in a low-cut tank bent in the direction of a tan blonde boy. Everyone was carefree and reckless. These were the best times of their lives.
Scott ordered a drink and slid in between two girls too young to yet understand his game. Andy and I changed our shoes and alternated playing Scott’s turn. Scott won.
More bored than before we arrived, Andy and I peeled Scott off a spray-tanned brunette–him swearing he’d find a ride if only we’d leave him there. He relented after a smoke, and we drove home in silence with our windows open to the arid summer night, each of us defeated by our respective weekend expectations.
It’s January and I’m sleeping in my jeans on a stranger’s floor. Well, not so much sleeping as scanning. Scanning my fiancee beside me. Scanning the floors, the walls, the furniture. By the room’s primary decor, I see that at least one member of this household is more than a fair-weather NASCAR fan.
My first trip to another hemisphere starts with a pre-flight night at a classmates’ mom’s house in Lincoln, Nebraska. My fiancee, Derek, and I are taking advantage of our university’s New Zealand trip, and since we’re from a town with no shopping mall, let alone an airport, arrangements like this are a necessity.
Beside me, Derek breathes steadily from inside his sleeping bag. Apparently he was able to ignore the musty scent of cat hair and stale cigarette smoke mingling in the carpet under our heads. The noxious smell mixes in my travel-anxious stomach with my last meal. Breakfast may not happen. And with a 12-hour trans-Pacific flight looming in the near future, I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’ll be a couple days before I get any significant sleep.
Looking up at the shadowy TV stand before me, I wonder at the variety of huddled NASCAR coffee mugs. Were they ever meant to be out of the cupboard and on display as a room’s focal point?
I turn to look at Derek, who’s separated from me only by the closed zippers of our sleeping bags. His face is relaxed and I think, This is going to be okay. This will be a trip I won’t ever forget.