As part of the weekly excerpt from the novel LIVING THE DREAM:
DECEMBER: THE DRIVE NORTH
The interstate was passable but busy with the evening commuters heading home. I followed Officer Jaime at a steady pace, passing when he did, changing lanes and slowing, whatever he did, so did we. Nelson finally left my lap and curled up on the passenger seat with my hand on his head. He snored. My eyes didn’t blink; too much caffeine in one day. The night drew closer and I craved a warm bath and bed. Instead, I’d have to make polite conversation with another stranger and eat her food at her table and listen to her questions and and and…
The state police truck slowed and pulled off just south of Albuquerque. I followed down side roads and through old neighborhoods that made me think of Mexico, not that I’d ever been. The traffic and the lights woke me. Nelson slept on however.
We pulled up in front of a low adobe home with farolitas and a Christmas tree in the front yard. I turned off the engine as Nelson sat up. The front door opened.
“Our daughter used to live with us, she converted the garage into a separate studio. I turned on the heat and the bed’s made. There’s a plate of food on the table and the bathroom is on the left. Go on, Jennifer, go on, and make yourself at home. Come on through the kitchen when you want company. And don’t worry about Nelson; we usually have the kids bring their dogs when they come visit. Go on, go eat and warm up. Oh, and my name’s Gloria. Go on, girl.”
She shuffled Nelson and I through a side door and closed it softly behind herself. I was alone.
I woke to sunlight and a snoring dog. The central heating blew warm air across the bedroom and I nestled back under the covers. So much for heading back to the bus last night, Gloria wouldn’t let us. She’d insisted it was too dangerous in the snow and if her husband had taken the time off work then they were going to have a nice night at home together. I didn’t force the issue. I was too tired and Nelson was exhausted by his own adventures. I’d shuffled back to the studio and half heard muffled conversations in the kitchen as I fell deeply asleep with Nelson stretched out against my back.
The smell of coffee woke me a second time, that and a knock at the door. Jaime popped his head around and grinned.
“Coffee’s ready and its time to get up. Ten o’clock, young lady. Hey, Nelson, are you hungry? Bacon, my boy?”
Nelson jumped off the bed, trotted over but stopped suddenly to look back at me. I smiled and told him to go play, that it’d be okay.
“I’ll leave the door open for him, don’t worry. Do you take cream? Okay, see you in a minute. We have a full day ahead of us,” and he laughed at Nelson’s eager snout pushing in his hand.
I dressed, washed quickly, and caught up with them all sitting at the kitchen table. Gloria had on her reading glasses and she pushed them up to look me over. “Well, I knew it. You look so much better after a good sleep. You didn’t look your best yesterday, that’s the truth. All pale and baggy eyes, but now, why. You’re quite a beauty. Maybe we should introduce her to Pete, our son that is?” She happily teased me, chatting away as she poured out a mug of nectar. In front of them both lay a detailed map of Santa Fe County and the back roads of Northern New Mexico. “We started looking up the roads around Oliver, trying to guess where exactly you might live from your stories, but I doubt we got it right. I thought you might be out here,” and she pointed to Gringo Gulch area. I nodded but showed the last little stretch that took her to my property.
“You must have amazing views of the mountains out there. I can’t wait to see what you’ve done. We made a picnic and Jaime has the day off so as soon as you’re ready, we’ll head out, all right?”
“You don’t have to do that; I can make it from here. You honestly don’t have to drive up there.”
“But we do. I promised your mom.”
I almost dropped my mug. “My mom? You spoke to my mom? When? How did that happen?”
Gloria blushed and explained how my phone had kept ringing during the night, so much so that when it woke them the third time, Jaime had picked it up and seen the screen flashing “Mom”. Gloria had taken it from him and ended up having a nice long chat with Martha at two in the morning. I cringed like a teenager and poured out more coffee and cream.
“Anyway, we have to drive you back and make sure you settle in okay. No more accidents or cold nights for you, Jenny. Your mom made us promise to keep an eye on you both. You’d better call her before we hit the road though. And don’t tell her that the pass through Cedar Crest is snowed in. Anyway, we’ll just take it slow and steady in Jaime’s SUV since my Honda is useless in weather like this. Well, hurry along. Go call your mom, take Nelson with you outside, the porch will be warm enough, go on girl.”
She’s a force to be reckoned with, is Gloria. We did as told and I stood outside, huddled against a wall out of the wind as I called Mom. She picked up immediately.
NOVEMBER: CAFÉ CHAT
I pulled into the parking lot a few minutes late. Mark waved from a window in one of the busiest cafes on the south side of town. I grabbed backpack and phone, opened the car windows a crack for Nelson and pulled myself together. A good night’s sleep had helped.
I ordered breakfast and a large latte before joining my boyfriend in the booth at the back. He stood up awkwardly but didn’t reach for me. We were there to talk.
“So what is it you want, Mark?”
I lay my coat across the seat next to me and sat down with my back to the crowded café. Mom was right; this was a good place to meet him. I waited a moment but he didn’t say anything, just looked shy for once.
“What is it you want to do? Leave New Mexico? Or just take a vacation? You need to talk to me, Mark, because I feel like you’ve taken me by surprise and it feels like shit, you know? I…no, Mom said I should just listen to you. You. So you need to talk.”
I added honey to the latte and sat back to study him. He had shaved off the goatee and wore his all black uniform, as I used to tease him, the musician in mourning look from the city days.
“I’d like us to be friends.”
Pause. I sipped my coffee and didn’t throw it over him.
“You what? Want us to be friends? Like not be your girlfriend, is that it?”
He nodded as he fiddled with his smokes but then he looked up, sad and tired and something else I didn’t recognize, not immediately. “I need to go back to the city, for a while at least. I need to play music, you know that. That’s who you fell in love with, Jen, a working musician, not a hippy living off the land. Music is my life. I don’t have music here. I don’t have – ”
He nodded again, more sure of himself. He knew I didn’t like scenes of any kind. “Well, yeah. You want to live like this and I don’t so I reckon we need to separate, you know? Like be friends while I’m in LA and when you come then we can get together again. You seen, I’m heading to Venice Beach tomorrow, in the Ford, I’ll leave you the Subaru. It’ll be slow going but,” and he grinned at the thought of the drive before he noticed my expression. “It’ll be okay, I’m taking all back roads, head south, and all of that, get to the warmer routes. I’ll be safe, don’t worry.”
A waitress dropped off my plate of eggs and toast. I pushed it aside. Mark reached over and claimed a piece of toast. I slapped it out of his hand, surprising us both.
“Oh, sorry.” He leaned back in his chair and stared out the window. “Well, I need to go, to try again, see if I can get into a band that appreciates me, you know? Make music, make a CD, do that stuff that I can’t do here. I’ll come back to visit, you know? I will, if that’s what you want? I like it here; it’s a great place for vacations. We could live in LA or Seattle or something and come here in summer for a few weeks. It’s not like you have a mortgage or anything. Your grandpa set you up nicely, right? The inheritance set us up, didn’t it? I mean, we could sell up and come back to visit and just stay in the B and B? Then we’d really be good to go and I could fund my own CD, my own band, right? Yeah, there’s so much we could do together, Jen, if only we get out of this place.”
I picked at my food. Mom had told me to listen, really listen. But I didn’t like what he was saying. Could I leave yet? I’d talked to Mom for hours the night before. She’d persuaded me to stay in a motel in town and she’d even paid. But I’d had to promise to hear him out. Was this out? I shook my head and realized he was waiting for me to say something, to agree to sell out, to leave my dream behind, and follow his. I couldn’t do it, not completely, not yet, so I changed the conversation.
“Were you warm enough in the bus last night? At least it’s meant to stay sunny for a few more days, that’s what I saw on TV this morning.”
“At the motel?”
“Yep, the forecast is snow on Monday and to stay below freezing after that.”
“I’d better hit the road tomorrow then, huh?” He was thinking out loud, tapping the cigarette pack on the table in time with the music. “Well, if I go back to the bus now, I’ll have time to pack those last few clothes I’ll need for a few weeks, and then there’s Frida’s stuff. I’ll have to keep the guitars inside overnight, though.”
“Frida’s not going with you.”
Mark looked up in surprise. “Of course she is. She’s my girl. She’s coming to LA. It’s too cold here for her, you know that.”
I shook my head, deeply calm and cold myself. “I rescued her. She stays with me.”
He shook his head too. “Nope, she comes with me, you get the nervous Nellie you adore so much that you cuddle him and not your boyfriend.”
The waitress took my half-eaten plate away as we stared silently at each other. I thanked her but didn’t look up. In the parking lot, a dog barked. Nelson sat up in the driver’s seat and growled at a young man squeezing between the vehicles.
“I have to go.” I stood up and gathered my things.
“Back to the bus with me?” he asked and I shook my head. “You’re going back to the motel?”
“Yes, to the motel. I can’t watch you take Frida away from me.” I wiped at my face and pushed my hair out of the way. “But you’ll be back? After Thanksgiving? We can talk about it, then?”
He stood and nodded. “Yeah, but we’ll just have to play it by ear. I can’t live here any more, not full time. Would you think about moving out west for a while, please Jen? Split your time between the two places?” He struggled into his leather jacket. “It could be the best of both worlds, if you did?”
At the door, we both suddenly got shy, neither leaving nor wanting to stay. Finally, I looked up at him and nodded. “I’ll think about it, I’ll try Mark. In the New Year, maybe I can go with you, but not yet.”
Mark smiled briefly and walked off towards his truck.
I shouted after him as he started the engine and drove off. “Were you warm enough last night? You never said.”
The truck pulled up near me. Mark looked awkward for a second and then nodded. “I was. I stayed at Anne’s.”