We began our journey on November eighth, Election Day. If this is not one of the most stressful days to travel, it may only be because it does not come as often as Christmas. When we land in Detroit, I switch on my phone to see who has which electoral votes. Bearing in mind that I dislike both Trump and Clinton in uneven quantities, it is merely a question of how painful the next four years will be, on social media if not in life. The news sites report a shooting outside a polling station, but we cannot find the details fast enough. We barely get a heartening whisper before we are on another flight that technically offers WiFi, but at such a premium that we would rather be surprised on the ground.
The flight is like the opposite of astronomy, the city lights forming neural networks as we begin our flight to Texas.
To my way of thinking, taking a week off in November is close to madness. The insanity abates when I am permitted to flex seven hours for a day sacrificed driving to a meeting and then realize the Friday I would be taking off is Veteran's Day, reducing the sin from five days off to three. Amber waited until only weeks ago to tell her professors that she would be vanishing for a week and they could say nothing now to stop her, which I marked a stressful dare, ameliorated by their saying she is too good a student for them to be concerned.
We arrive in the Austin airport and immediately check the election results, despairing when they favor Trump despite every poll and projection we read in the weeks prior. (It isn't that we liked Hillary Clinton as much as could not fathom America backing a reality TV show host.) We stand at the terminal, stunned.
Well, I am stunned. Amber is bubbly. I ask her how she can manage this emotion in such dire times as these.
"Denial," she says immediately.
I can't argue that.
Rebecca, my sister-in-law whom we are visiting in Texas, feels closer to how I do. She wants to stop on the drive back to San Antonio to get whatever alcohol is available after midnight, though we somehow dissuade her. We will feel hung over tomorrow, no matter what happens tonight.
Instead, we stop at some fast food restaurant. I don't want anything, but there is a momentum to this evening, so I end up eating some of Amber's burger and fries in a kind of fugue state, jet lagged and politically vexed. When I bring up how confused I am by this election, Rebecca gives a side-eye to the young staff and suggests I hush. I am, after all, in Texas and I wouldn't care to be strung up.
We get to Rebecca's apartment around two or three. Given how long I've been up and the lateness of the hour, to say nothing of the basic arithmetic of the new time zone, I can't be sure. Since I am allergic to pet dander and Rebecca has two scampering cats, she offered Amber and me her expensive and therapeutic bed for the week. I am barely in it before I am unconscious.
We do little the first day, which may be recovery for the day of travel. Amber naps or does school work. I watch my friends on social media collapsing under the weight of this new electoral burden. I want to see this new city, if just not to be in an apartment with two cats, but I cannot bring up the collective energy to bring us back into the world.
It is difficult to figure out where I fit in this cemented family dynamic. They have had decades to establish a rhythm and I am perpetually out of step. This is aggravated by the fact that Rebecca's apartment is perfect for one person (and two cats), but less than ideal for four people. I feel constantly underfoot, made worse by the fact that their family rhythm is a wavering one. In the last few years, having dealt with my ambivalent friends, I have learned the magic of picking something and sticking to it. You cannot do everything, so you might as well throw your weight behind what you can do. However, a hierarchy and etiquette here complicates matters. Technically, since we are intruding on Rebecca's hospitality, what she says goes. It is her city to show us, but she is working by her family's entrenched script and I am improvising to avoid being too much of a pest. Though I am family now, and isn't family supposed to get on one another's nerves, especially when forced together for a week?
It is strange to spend a week beside the version of Amber that she has grown to be in their presence. I am used to the facet that I have observed for five years. Exposed to her family for more than a few hours, she is more childlike and intentionally pesky. While she always makes a sport of cuddling in my lap when occasion presents itself, she clings avidly now. She becomes less decisive, trying to obviate the irritation of a solid choice. This is Amber, no doubt, and a version I recognize, just not one around which I feel totally in harmony. With anyone else on earth, she is a fixed, spunky point, but she shifts to the left in their gravity - younger, with a different confidence.
Well over a decade ago, I went on two trips with my then-girlfriend, Kate, and her family. In retrospect, her family should get credit toward their canonization for putting up with my late adolescent moodiness on long car trips. They were saintly for even inviting me along with the daughter whose virtue they were too late in preserving from me. When we exiting the car after the latter trip, Kate's mother hugged me and told me she now felt I was a part of their family. I do not think this was a sentiment to which Kate's father would have agreed, but I was flattered she would draw this conclusion.
I have long been a member of Amber's family, even before the two and a half years when I made her an honest woman. I can't pick an exact moment when I made the transition, though I'd warrant it happened a few months after we moved in together and didn't come to throw crockery and epithets.
If it had not been then, surviving this trip together should make me family. Outside a professional context, dealing with multiple people is a paradigm with which I am out of practice. In my daily life, I spend a lot of time in quiet and introspection, which is impossible in close quarters with three other adults and two cats. I retreat to my computer for a few minutes of writing, but I am almost immediately aware that I am being antisocial and need to reconnect with the people outside this borrowed bedroom.
I rarely want to be on trips are while they are happening, but I usually come to my senses in retrospect, so I remind myself to just radically accept what is happening and try to remain in the moment. A great lot of what is going on it fun, even if I am too sleep deprived and jetlagged at the moment to feel that way as it is happening. I don't want to be ungrateful for a new experience I will cherish when I get back, particularly when Rebecca is sacrificing her home and a week of her work for us.
In part, I think we are there to make San Antonio new to Rebecca. She doesn't feel at home in Texas and she hasn't had an excuse to do all the things that entertain the tourists. She is here for her job, at which she excels and which pays her closer to what she is worth. Her job is easy to get sucked into, as it offers perks by the truckload to attract and keep talent. Still, she does not want to spend her life in Texas, though I doubt she'd want to spend it in New York either. She is meant for greater horizons.
We watched several movies during the week, both in the theaters (Doctor Strange with worth the extra money to see in 3D, ideally in IMAX) and at Rebecca's home, which is interaction where I think we all work best. One night, Rebecca tries to take us to the Alamo Draft House - which promises actual food in addition to our theatrical experience - however we arrive too late to be either together or not in the front row. It is more important that we be together or what is the point of this week?
Rebecca forbids certain activities, which is to say that she will drop us off in front of them but will not enter with us. Chief among these is the local SeaWorld, as they are implicitly cruel. We assure her that, though we do like the idea of aquariums in concept, we understand her dislike for SeaWorld and we would rather stick together. Even when we visit a massive outlet, we hang around one another as we try on boots and shirts rather than wandering on our own.
We go to the local Six Flags another day. I try to be a good sport about the rollercoasters and, once I am sufficiently nauseated and have wrenched my neck on the Superman ride, make myself useful by taking pictures of the three of them enjoying further rides. The park is built beside a sheer cliff face, almost too perfect to have naturally occurred except its matches can be found throughout San Antonio. Rebecca has a season pass, which grants us a host of privileges: free or discounted food, free admission for her mother. I mostly take advantage of the free refills of soda, as the caffeine and bubbles relieve my nausea.
Rebecca worries that I am not having fun, that she should not have suggested this when I am not delighted by the rides, but that doesn't matter to me. I can enjoy the park without wanting to go on every ride, particularly the ones that make me sick from the ground. I apply to theme park rides the same rule I have for most candy: I would rather leave it for people who are really going to enjoy it, rather than my consuming it without much pleasure. I am content chatting with them while they wait to ride monstrosities that would ruin my stomach for the next hour.
When we go to a botanical garden, Amber and Rebecca walk ahead for a moment to talk agriculture, leaving Julie and me behind.
"Oh look," I note wryly, "They are getting along."
"They used to be really good friend," she says.
This is news to me. "What changed?"
"Rebecca got judgmental and Amber got weird," their mother says. "Well, weirder. She was always weird."
I indulge a quick fantasy of what they were like as children. I've seen the pictures on Julie's walls, this time lapse progression of near babies into women. They seem as warm to one another in these posed shots as could be expected, but it somehow didn't fully occur to me that they had genuinely once been friendly. Like in most families, I know that Rebecca loves Amber, but I think she has a hard time liking her. That I adore Amber beyond all else marks me as having a serious character flaw.
One day, Rebecca takes us to visit her job. She warns us as to the high security nature of the compound - there really isn't a better word than that - going so far as to order from us our IDs and issue a strict prohibition on Amber and me showing affection. I think this is perhaps overkill, but no. As this is a government installation that serves the military, there are multiple levels of security to enter this - no kidding - mile long building. Within the compound are a mall's worth of restaurants and shops to serve the employees. The building contains both an energizing room and a relaxation room on different floors to foster the proper mindset of the employees. It would be easy to spend the entirety of one's day just wandering here. With the nap rooms and accommodating bathrooms, I'm not sure an employee would ever have to go home.
We visit the Alamo, though I have forgotten most of the history of it, beyond the fact that Peewee Herman's bike is not in the basement because the Alamo has no basement. I know the basics. There was a battle. I believed the United States lost, then rallied and assaulted Mexico. While it was technically covered one afternoon in ninth grade, it certainly didn't get the emphasis I am certain it is paid in San Antonio schools.
Wandering around the missions the next day, it feels more like the sort of trip Amber would pick for us: historical, sedate, scenic. I suggest walking between missions, because I am clearly insane and miles of distance seems like a fine challenge in t-shirt weather. Julie nixes this, as she wants to walk no further than a bench or Rebecca's car. It is best that I am overruled because the neighborhood between the missions does not seem like the sort of place passing pedestrians would be welcome. (We still stop between the first two because Rebecca sees a dog out of place and Amber squeezes under a fence to try to rescue it.) There is apparently a reason that the missions are more insistent that tourists keep all their valuables hidden than they are about promoting their hours.
We get to the second to last mission just as the sun is setting and I feel accomplished.
Rebecca drives us to the very last mission via a meandering detour, but it had closed before we could get there. We sit in the parking lot and try to plan our dinner for the night, our last night in San Antonio. We'll be leaving around four in the morning. I think the night takes on an increased importance as they argue dining options, but we end up back at Rebecca's apartment, finishing off the chicken stew she made early in our trip. When I exit the bedroom, she is gone.
"Where'd she go?" I ask Julie.
"She realized we had never gone to Krispy Kreme, so she went out to get us a box."
Even though I am satisfied by the stew, I cannot turn down a fresh baked glazed donut from Rebecca's curious kindness.
They are almost better at three thirty in the morning, when we pile into Rebecca's car for the drive back to Austin. I am bleary with interrupted sleep, something that will not resolve itself for days. Once it does, I will eagerly unpack this experience as I will my suitcase, seeing what treasures I've brought back with me.
Soon in Xenology: Faces. Lumps. Engagement.