On New Year’s Day 1995, sometime well into the afternoon, I finally rolled out of bed and got on the road. I’d spent the week between Christmas and the end of the year packing, escaping the family gathering before the wrapping paper had been ritually stuffed into a black trash bag, leaving my cat with my parents, and holing up in my apartment for a week to “bid farewell to Austin.” I’d partied hard for New Year’s Eve but ended up going home alone. All my things were in my car, the beloved 1993 Miata, a college graduation present that had been intended to signal my arrival at full-fledged adulthood.
Instead, starting with that May 1993 graduation ceremony, I’d taken a year off to “find myself.” When Kurt Cobain died in the spring of 1994, I used it as an excuse to extend my sabbatical. In reality, all of my grad school applications had been rejected, but the loss of a seminal generational talent was enough justification for me to avoid moving on with my life. I was engulfed in the wave of self-pity that washed out of Seattle, and by the time it crested in Austin early that summer of ‘94, I was primed for the watered-down versions of Nirvana that propagated in the brackish tide pools along Sixth Street. One particular Cobain wannabe gave me plenty to think about in my idle hours.
The archiving internship I’d been using to avoid getting a real job meant I spent a few days a week reading old news stories and occasionally helping to unearth a relic for an exhibit that rearranged the archive’s holdings in a new, fresh, lucrative way. Mostly, though, I was bored, and the obsession came on slowly, the way you learn about something and start to see it everywhere you look. First, I came across a microfiche of Clara Driscoll’s obituary, the date of death the same as my birthday, though 27 years earlier. A pretentious concierge type at the Driscoll Hotel corrected my drunken assumption that Driscoll and Driskill were part of the same family, the change in spelling just something I assumed happened regularly “back in the olden days.” Then I stumbled across Driscoll’s historical marker during a wedding at a mansion in west campus.
Finally, I helped staff an archivist fundraiser at Laguna Gloria, Clara’s former home, a fact I absorbed sometime before vomiting up everything else while a board member reapplied her lipstick in the mirror. She lingered in her cloud of Chanel No. 5 just long enough after my flush to get a good look at the face exiting the stall of shame, her own visage prim and proper, lips pursed in buttery coral judgment as she disappeared back into the party. The sink was one of those old-timey contraptions with separate faucets for hot and cold, and I turned both on full blast to mix the temperatures as best I could as I spot-cleaned my face. I swished out my mouth, slicked Black Honey onto my lips, and garnished with a stick of gum. The steam from the hot side of the sink clung to the mirror long enough to reveal what had been hidden moments earlier: the word SLUT, written with the tip of a finger and what I would bet my life had been the alcohol-based invisible ink from a bottle of eau de parfum. I went home with a cater waiter that night and within a week had wrapped up my internship for good, with no job offer and a network of contacts that held low to no opinions of me. I’d failed to make an impression.
The day of my birthday and Clara’s death day, July 17, I limped back to the family homeland: San Antonio. I needed funds, and the surest way to replenish them could be found in the annual cache of birthday cards, which would be all mine if I sat through a family meal, lunch this year, as July 17 fell on a Sunday. I’d gotten out of going to church, but the rest of them had been present in the third pew, and they invited Pastor Dan along to eat at the beloved barbecue place. I hated barbecue, especially in the middle of summer, but it wasn’t really about me, so I smiled and nodded along as best I could until the inevitable cake appeared out of thin air. It was Mom’s attempt at a recipe perfected by Grandma, who had died three years earlier. My mom had a hard time coping: “She never got to see you graduate,” she would cry, and I’d feel bad, though not bad enough to hang around for very long.
The cake was not great, but we all made a point of eating at least half a slice. Mercifully, the party broke up soon after, and the cards began depositing in my lap as aunts and uncles made their exits. The mother load dropped when my dad, magnanimous in his farewells and glad-handing with strangers around the indoor-outdoor restaurant, finally joined my mother and rested a hand on her shoulder as she handed me their card.
I got so blackout that night that the Miata went missing for more than a week. I did everything possible to avoid letting my parents find out, so instead of reporting it stolen, I offered a reward to some of the scumbags I knew from the music scene, low lives so dirty even I wouldn’t touch them. Almost a fortnight later, Cherry, as the Miata was affectionately known, turned up in Dallas, in the driveway of a girl from college I’d apparently lent my car to after we ran into each other in a bar and celebrated the momentous occasion of reuniting little more than a year after we had graduated. She’d needed a way to get back to the metroplex, and I had apparently announced my intentions to “veg for a week” before looking for gainful employment. It had been the perfect plan until I had forgotten and panicked the next morning. I paid the scumbag the reward, and he somehow got the car back without either of us having to go to Dallas. Cherry survived her adventure intact, perhaps even running a bit spritelier as we zipped around town, and I began to feel a bit jealous.
Still, the much-needed wake-up call did not occur until Halloween. I’d managed to find a job at the mall, working the floor in a department store and failing to meet my sales quota every single day. Still, the schedule was flexible enough even for my taste, and I did know my label names, so clearing the dressing rooms was a breeze. The job kept me afloat between occasional influxes of cash from my parents, to whom I appealed separately and alternately for help. I think, by this point, even I knew I couldn’t keep it up for much longer, but forces greater than I were at work to make the final push.
I’d swapped for a dreaded morning shift so I could go out for Halloween. Mornings weren’t terribly busy, but the few shoppers that did stalk the sales racks were ruthless. The number of price checks in the first hour alone could be enough to push a subtle hangover into a full-on migraine. And Angela. Good gracious, Angela. Perfectly chipper and optimistic, every blouse the cutest she’d ever seen, every piece of jewelry sublime, every single article of inventory something beautiful and necessary. She was sunshine on a stick. The morning manager after only three months, Angela was going places within the company. She was also a full-time student on track to graduate early. She was four years younger than me and my boss. I wanted to hate her, but her enthusiasm was genuine and infectious.
She was also expanding my musical horizons. Angela listened to music made for dancing in open-air beachside bars; I was more into stuff I could bob my head to in the dark and smoky downtown clubs. This music was lighter and more fun, when it wasn’t weeping over a love gone wrong. I’d heard of the singer in passing, but Angela was an actual fan, gushing over magazine photos and soda commercials that had originally escaped my attention. During the hour before the doors opened, as we swept the tile walkways and sprinkled deodorizing powders into the carpets, Angela would play her favorite CDs over the speakers set into the mall ceiling. The cumbia beat, incessant and fast, could drill a hole right through your brain if you tried to fight it. It would be worse if you attempted to draw on your schoolbook Spanish to understand the words. Better to surrender, shake your hips a little, and float away on lyrics that inspired emotion more than precise translation.
That morning, a perfect storm occurred in ladies’ fashions, and none of us saw it coming—especially me. I was wrestling with a tangled batch of clothes hangers, which had somehow interlocked themselves in a pile wedged behind the register. Angela, I’d later learn, had been distracted by a no-call no-show firing, a gum-smacking joke of a woman who had barely made it through the job interview. Assistant Manager Pam had taken it upon herself to unlock the font doors promptly at 10 a.m. so Angela could take care of business behind the scenes. I was squatting on the floor, muttering curses under my breath, when I heard an incessant tapping on the laminate counter.
An older woman stood in front of me, wrist resting on the signature pad, and as I straightened myself and my blazer, she continued to tap her fingernails next to the register. I’d seen her before, of course; she was one of our early-morning bargain hunters. But this morning, up-close and obviously irritated, she was a haggard old crone under fluorescent bulbs—the good lighting was in the dressing room. Long, talon-like acrylics, bizarrely devoid of color, tapped syncopatively against the beat. I realized too late that no one had switched the store’s sound system to its usual muzak.
“What is this…song?” The way she spat out the word made her distaste clear. It would have been kinder for her to call it “racket”; acknowledging it as music brought the specific nature of her disapproval to the forefront of both our minds. Not that it was much of a conversation. I opened my mouth to invoke the name of the singer, but she silenced me with a glare. “This isn’t our type of music,” she intoned, waving the air around her head as though the musical notes were pestering her like so many mosquitos.
All these years later, when I remember her, I think of the word she used. Our. At the time, I’d inwardly scoffed. My music was much different than her muzak; in terms of mass-appeal bands, I was riding the cusp of a Stone Temple Pilots obsession. That didn’t even touch the boundaries of what I considered to be my well-versed indie rock soul. Our music didn’t exist, I thought. But I was well coached in cloaking my musical tastes from the observation of rich old white ladies, had in fact spent a lifetime carefully crafting that rebellious persona, and all I could think to say in the moment was: “I’m sorry! It must have been the cleaning crew. I’ll get that switched over.”
I turned around to my second scare of the morning. This time, however, it wasn’t the wrinkles from a lifetime of scowling that shocked me. It was the fierce and burning disappointment in Angela’s face as she stared right through to my soul. Angela, who had an 18-hour course load and a full-time job. Angela, who wanted to work within the government to make the world a better place. Angela scared me because, that day, she saw what I was made of, and it wasn’t much. Beautiful, bubbly, unceasingly kind Angela stared me down like a bug: offensive but ultimately insignificant.
“The song is about a love that transcends prejudice,” Angela said in her customer service voice, which, I should note, was also her real voice. She smiled, spun on her heel, and walked away.
“Well, it’s just awful,” the cryptkeeper said, a beat too late to expect to be heard. She smirked at me, but I shamefully stared down at the hangers in my hands. Magically, they loosened, freeing themselves from the retail Rubik’s Cube that had me so preoccupied two minutes earlier, and I was left with nothing to distract me from the awkwardness of my own shame. The cryptkeeper slowly drew out her fingernail taps until I thought I would go insane, then her face victoriously registered the metaphorical record scratch as the speakers switched over to what I quickly recognized as the instrumental version of Dean Martin’s “Sway.” The cryptkeeper nodded, smugly and emphatically, failing to notice that Deano’s mambo rhythm kept the same pattern as the cumbia that caused her to register her complaint.
The cryptkeeper seemed to be so invigorated that she skipped the clearance rack and bought herself a full-priced frock. She actually used the word frock, talking to me nonstop for the next hour and a half about the masked ball she was attending that night. A hospital fundraiser, weren’t doctors the most wonderful people on the planet, her late husband had been a doctor, did I know that? I hadn’t, but I did know that my grandfather had been a cardiologist and a serial philanderer. I said nothing though, remaining mostly silent through the rest of my six-hour shift. No one even noticed. I went home without eating and scooped the overripe litterbox as penance. Normally I would have self-medicated, but Angela’s face haunted me, so I just crawled back into bed and napped the daylight away.
Hours later, I felt revived enough to put on my costume and go out into the dark revelry. A humanities graduate, I had dressed annoyingly and obscurely…as Clara Driscoll. It had seemed like a good idea when I thought of it, but that night, after explaining myself for the tenth time, I regretted my hubris. I’d modeled my costume on the most relatively well-known portrait of Clara, a cameo complete with flower crown and off-the-shoulder neckline. My planned concession, a hint for the hoi polloi, included a pamphlet that cried SAVE THE ALAMO, but that prompted more than one guess of “Davy Crockett’s wife.” At some point between bars, I borrowed the sharpie used for marking Xs on hands, wrote CLARA DRISCOLL on the pamphlet, and flashed it at the next two people who asked who I was. I walked away from a loud conversation about the Driskill Hotel ghost and down on the curb to finish my cigarette.
“Oh my gosh, can I use your lighter?” A girl broke free from the human river flowing down Sixth Street, which had been closed to vehicles for the holiday, and made a U-turn back to me. Her friend eventually noticed they’d lost a body and grabbed the two boys with them. All three came to a stop farther down the sidewalk, posted up near a tree growing out of a metal grate on the street corner. None of them were old enough to drink, but at least one of the boys was severely intoxicated, leaning against the tree as though it were the only steady influence on the spinning planet. The girl was dressed in a bustier and wore bright-red lipstick with exaggerated lipliner. I blinked up at her.
“Bidi Bidi Bom Bom?”
“Yeah, man!” she laughed, leaning down to light her cigarette from the flame I extended. She exhaled into my face. “Sorry! Oh, Clara Driscoll! Cool.” She nodded her approval as she stood up. For a moment, I thought she had understood my costume but then saw she had read the answer off my sharpied pamphlet, which lay face-up on the curb next to me. It was the best I was going to get, I figured, so I smiled. “You know her?”
“Yeah, man, I’m from Corpus. Like La Madonna Mexicana!” She gestured down her own figure and threw a laugh over her shoulder to her friends. They motioned for her to hurry up—at least, the two who weren’t puking did. The girl vaguely pointed at my pamphlet. “She, like, died there. Or, I guess, you died there.” She patted my floral crown and laughed again. “Anyway, thanks a lot, Clara!” She was swept back into the human river, her friends left to catch up as she reached her hands out to them, tragically spanning the distance to that far-off shore of the sidewalk and giggling as they scurried to catch up. I stared until I lost them in the crush of costumes. The ash fell from my cigarette and smoldered a hole into the gauze of my Goodwill dress before I noticed.
It is a terrible idea, normally, to walk from Sixth Street to Hyde Park in the middle of the night, but I was wearing a long white dress and an increasingly disheveled coiffure. I terrified everyone who passed me, watching them cross the street and sometimes several lanes of traffic to get away from me, the approaching specter. When I got home, I easily found the folder, as it was the only paperwork I’d collected in the six months since I’d ceremoniously burned all my grad school application materials. Clara Driscoll died July 17, 1945, in Corpus Christi, Texas. I reread the obituary I’d printed from the archives, as well as a few other bits of research I’d collected. As the vague interest had grown and taken shape, I even came across a research fellowship given to grad students in her name. And though I’d associated Clara with Austin and San Antonio, I had known, on some level, that she was from the coast. It made sense she would have wound up back there.
“She died almost fifty years ago,” I muttered to Buffy, the street cat my roommate and I had adopted together sophomore year. I had won custody of Buffy during our senior year divorce. For good measure, I elaborated: “Half a century.” Would something be done to mark the occasion? Was there was an opportunity for me to do some scholarly research into her life? Could it be that maybe, just maybe, grad school was still a possibility for me? From her perch on the kitchen counter, Buffy yawned audibly. She knew what was really happening: I desperately needed to fling myself out of this self-created hell.
I saw myself, dressed as Clara Driscoll, reflected in the window, a pale and thin sliver in the lamp light of my living room. Then I saw a man’s face pressed against the windowpane. I screamed, and he laughed, though I could tell from the catch in his voice that I had scared him too. He hadn’t expected to come over, peek into my window, and find a 1930s activist staring back at him. When I opened the door, he was not in costume; he was too cool. He didn’t seem to care much about my costume either, and after one joint, it came off anyway, and I forgot about Clara in more ways than one.
I’d wisely taken the next day off work, but I wasn’t terribly hungover, just relieved not to have to face Angela. When he left around noon, I drove myself to the public library to see what I could dig up. I read about the hotel Clara had constructed in Corpus, the city’s tallest building at the time, where she lived and died in the penthouse. I read about the two novels she’d published, as well as the Broadway musical she’d financed. I tried to track down copies of each, but the manuscripts were locked away in academic libraries. A snooty librarian of the old-timey variety informed me that I needed to be a scholar to access those materials. I felt overjoyed at the challenge, the first stirrings of motivation I’d felt in years. Before work the next day, I used my expired student ID to sneak into a library on campus, where I read the entire debut novel.
After Halloween, I was back on afternoon and evening shifts at the store, so I only encountered Angela in passing. She was polite and professional, but I never once asked for another morning shift. I thought I might stay on through the holidays, with lucrative extended hours and the possibilities of overtime and bonuses, but I had also started forming my escape plan. There was only one distraction on the easy slide down the rest of the year, and he used Thanksgiving as an excuse to move back to his hometown. He told everyone his grandmother wasn’t going to be around much longer, but he really meant that he would be living rent-free in her house while she cooked and cleaned for him. I cried more than I should have but pulled myself back together in time to navigate the trickiest part of my own plan: convincing my parents to fund a research trip.
“Do we know anyone in Corpus?” my mom asked, looking around the post-Thanksgiving kitchen as though someone in the family would answer. Everyone else was watching football on TV, including Dad, and I knew she couldn’t be asking me. The royal we, in my mother’s cast of characters, was always she and my father. They were the family; I was just a hanger-on. Besides, we didn’t know anybody in Corpus, which was part of the reason I’d chosen to go. “A girl I went to college with,” I looked her straight in the eye. “Billie Jean.” The Legend of Billie Jean was one of the few things I knew about Corpus, and I highly doubted my mom remembered it. She nodded sagely. “We’ll have to see what your father says. And don’t even mention your idea about selling the car. That would kill him.”
She’d played right into my hands, of course; she knew that if I was willing to part with Cherry to fund my dreams, then I must be serious. Plus, there was no way they’d let me drive the Miata around a strange city without springing for accommodations in a safe, car theft–free neighborhood. I knew money wasn’t the issue, but sometimes they worried aloud that the financial safety net prevented me from building any character. And, to be fair, they had been right up to this point, but I just knew that, if I could get them to support me for another year or so, I could get things back on track.
“Of course, you can request a transfer through the department store.” My mother, the super shopper, knew malls inside and out, and she had taken a special interest in this little career detour of mine. “All the malls in Texas are anchored by your store.” Though I had hoped to avoid this possibility, I knew she was right. No one would dream of challenging her on the ins and outs of shopping malls, and transfers were a great way to move up in the company as well as around the country. I’d met several lifelong employees in my brief time working at the store.
“If you give them enough notice and you work hard over the holidays, I’m sure they’ll help you out with a transfer.” My mom, bless her, earnestly believed I wanted to keep my retail job while jumpstarting my academic career. I smiled and played along; there was still time to worm my way out of this. I was scheduled for a 5 a.m. start the following day, not only my first Black Friday but another shift with Angela as my supervisor, despite my protests. I’d been toying with the idea of no-call no-show, since I didn’t plan to keep the job for much longer anyway.
“And you’re not fooling anyone with that Billie Jean movie,” my mother said, wrecking all my best-laid plans as she saran-wrapped leftover green bean casserole for my father to excavate from the fridge during his late-night snacking hour. “Who do you think drove you to Blockbuster? Your father got so sick of renting the same stupid movie over and over again that we finally just bought it for you. It’s still here—I saw it the other day.” She toweled her hands as she led me to the video cabinet, ignoring the football on the screen and opening a wooden panel to reveal nearly one hundred VHS tapes—mass market sleeves and home movies labeled with her backward-sloping southpaw script. “You wanted to marry Christian Slater,” she threw over her shoulder on her way back to the kitchen, more than a little mockery in her voice. A few cousins giggled from the couch.
I made it through Black Friday after all, and at the Christmas party, Middle Management Nancy announced my transfer to the Corpus Christi store. Everyone congratulated me on my wise decision to stay with the company. I shrugged, but it did feel kind of nice, being a valued employee and making smart decisions about my future. The wholesome feeling carried me through the rest of the holiday season, late nights and last-minute shoppers be damned, and the week between Christmas and New Year’s saw a well-earned return to my hedonistic ways.
I had two weeks between leaving the Austin store and starting in Corpus, and it’s no exaggeration to say I nearly died twice—once behind the wheel of the Miata and again when he returned to town for one final hurrah during which I may have accidentally on-purpose overdosed. When I learned his reaction had been to let me “sleep it off,” I wailed at the indignity and swore to never speak to him again, which suited him just fine, as he’d let me know during a post-coital conversation that he had recently proposed to his high school sweetheart. My one small victory was that I hadn’t told him I was leaving, and when he inevitably washed up again a few months later, he wouldn’t be able find me. I would make sure of it. No one in our shared circus arena cared what happened to me, and he couldn’t track my movements if I left Austin. He didn’t know my parents and probably couldn’t name one of the few real friends I had left. As far as he was concerned, I was a ghost.
All this freedom got me two hours down the road from Austin, screaming tunelessly into the wind with the Miata’s top down and the heater at full blast, my ridiculous knit cap pulled tight against the reality of January First. I’d made it past the suburbs, some quaint small towns, and anything resembling civilization as far as I was concerned when the elation finally died down. Plus, I had to pee. I pulled into a gas station, nondescript in its disgustingness, and left the pump filling the tank while I hovered over an ice-cold toilet seat. I didn’t notice the crow until I stepped back out into the bright, cold sunshine. It hopped on one foot, the injured leg dangling uselessly as it tried to counter its weight with the tips of its wing feathers. I looked around for help, squinting into the sun. Across the street, a fenced-in graveyard with metal letters welded above the gate: LATIN AMERICAN CEMETERY.
With a composure under pressure that pleasantly surprised me, I opened the trunk full of my most valuable worldly possessions, which were packed tightly into cardboard boxes. I’d heard stories of people nursing crows back to health, that sometimes the crows even brought gifts in gratitude, and I figured the bird would be safer riding in my car all the way to the coast than out in the wild. I had almost emptied the box full of kitchenware when a truck pulled into the gas station, paused for a moment, backed up, and ran over the crow. I stood in shock as the truck reversed again and returned to its original trajectory, pulling into the gas pump that backed mine. For fear that I would look at the mess he’d made of the bird, I instead stared down the man who got out of the driver’s side.
When I finally caught his eye, he looked bewildered for a moment, then looked at the bird and shrugged. “Is better this way,” he said in broken English. He quietly started the gas pump and went inside, while his friend in the passenger seat laughed. I slammed the trunk shut and whipped the car around, unfolding my map and ignoring the cemetery that spun past the windshield. I headed back the way I had come, and as soon as I got my bearings, cut toward San Antonio instead of Austin. I navigated ever tinier country roads until the small towns’ names started sounding familiar. I had planned to avoid going through San Antonio on my new year, new me drive, but now I’d changed my mind.
I parked diagonally in my parents’ driveway and left the car unlocked. My mother was reading a magazine on the couch and didn’t seem surprised to see me. She never even got off the couch during the entire time I was in her house: the two minutes it took to go upstairs and find Buffy sleeping on the pillow in my childhood bedroom, plus the three I needed to carry her back downstairs and pack her things. My mother hadn’t moved the litterbox I’d set up in the corner of the laundry room, and the cat carrier and bag of food were still stacked on top. I gently stuffed Buffy into the carrier and quickly decided to buy a new litterbox when I got to Corpus. “That cat inherited your personality,” my mother said, turning a page as I struggled to open the front door.
“Better than your huge thighs,” I yelled as I slammed the front door. I placed the carrier in the passenger seat, then spent ten minutes zipping up the Miata’s convertible top so Buffy would be comfortable on the ride to Corpus. As I was digging around on the passenger side of the car, I found the Secret Santa gift I’d received from the company Christmas party. One of Angela’s favorite staffers had drawn my name and smirked as I tore the wrapping paper off the CD case. Amor Prohibido. Angela wouldn’t have put her up to it, but the message of the gift was that she had repeated the story to at least one of our coworkers. The night of the party, I had dropped the CD case in my passenger seat and willfully forgotten about it, but here it was, stuck between the passenger seat and door.
In my original envisioning of the first great road trip of 1995, I had wanted to avoid the easy route to Corpus, a straight shot from San Antonio down Interstate 37 that drove you practically right into the ocean. However, on my second attempt, this was the route I took, playing Amor Prohibido the whole way. When I finally did stop for gas again, I did so on the outskirts of Corpus Christi. I heard the clerk speaking in Spanish on the phone, so I asked the question I had been practicing for the last thirty miles. “Qué es brindarte?”
He laughed. “It’s a toast to you,” he said, his torso framed by the overhead cigarette display. Then he began rocking back and forth on his little stool, singing the song that had prompted me to ask the question in the first place.
I briefly gagged on the memory of all the toasts I’d taken the night before, but I couldn’t help smiling at him. “Gracias.”
“De nada,” he enunciated, slowly and clearly, before returning to the lyrics, now singing to whoever was on the other end of the phone.
I arrived at Corpus Christi Bay just after sunset on the moonless night. While Buffy waited in the car, I walked across the sand to dip my toes in the Gulf of Mexico.
End of Part I