“Continue walking on Copper Avenue,” Google Maps said in my ear. “Two miles to your destination.”
I muttered to myself as I continued to walk. My breaths, as I walked, mirrored the breathing habits I’d developed for running– in, two steps; out, one step; inhale for two steps, exhale for one. Repeat.
It was Halloween evening in Albuquerque. Across the street, I watched a group of kids, dressed up in costumes– multiple Darth Vaders, multiple Katnisses– cavort (underused verb, that) from house to house, their candy bags dangling. The light was becoming a kind of golden reddish orange as the sun sank lower, minute by minute, toward the desert that I could see on the horizon. I tried to focus on just my steps, just my breathing– in, one, two; out. In, one, two; out.
My mind swirled.
I’d just gotten into a fight with my girlfriend. The details of the fight aren’t terribly important; even as I walked back to the hotel from the GoKarting track which had been the site of our clenched jaw argument, the details of the fight itself had become a little hazy. She’d used a tone of voice that had triggered something in me; I’d used a turn of phrase that had reciprocally triggered her (“trigger,” in my world, refers to something that sparks off an internal reaction in someone, that results in the person dealing with the current situation as if it were a traumatic past situation, instead of a handle-able here-and-now thing).
The result had been a tense conversation outside the GoKarting track, which had dragged out to over a half hour. A half hour in which the Maestro had, diplomatically, kept his distance on me and my girlfriend, awkwardly making chitchat with the GoKart staffers between anxious glances our way. I can only imagine his mind trying to wrap itself around the logistics of his best friend and his best friend’s girlfriend breaking up while on a weekend trip to Albuquerque, the main draw of which was the closing performance of the Verdi opera “Aida,” which he was conducting.
In, one, two, out, one. “Trick or treat!” came the singsong call from across the street. I kept my eyes on the sidewalk ahead, as years of running 20-plus miles a week had conditioned me to do.
Fighting with someone you like is painful. Fighting with someone you hate is much, much easier. Fighting with someone you love when you know, for Stone Cold Steve Austin fact, that what you’re fighting about are actually misinterpretations of the others’ words, intentions, and motives– that you’re having a fight that literally doesn’t need to happen– is excruciating.
But acknowledging that fact in the moment– that you’re just talking past each other, that the whole thing could absolutely be resolved by a deep breath, a step back, and an examination of premises– somehow goes against a reptilian impulse in our limbic brains. If letting go of anger and hurt were easy, there would be no couples counselors. Hell, there’d be no fights in relationships. But being caught in that pattern, in the moment– feeling helpless, like a kayaker who hasn’t realized he’s heading toward the waterfall before it was too dangerous to abandon the kayak– that’s the worst part of all.
I took a long, deep breath. The Albuquerque air was surprisingly cool and dry. The desert mountains stood in the distance, ponderous, almost seeming to glow incandescently in the evening twilight.
I’d decided I needed to cool down. I told my girlfriend and the Maestro that I’d walk the three miles back to our hotel. I needed the solitude and rhythm of walking; I needed the air; I needed to breathe. I needed to remember who I was– and who I wasn’t.
So here I was. Walking.
The Maestro’s text tone pinged in my earbuds. “Hope the walk will result in make up and pizza desire,” his message read. Before I’d began walking, I had told him I wasn’t sure I was going to be up for pizza this evening, particularly if my girlfriend and I didn’t find common ground. He had looked crestfallen as I’d turned away and started walking.
I sighed. “Sorry for the drama, man,” I texted back. I was, too. Who the hell flies out to goddamn New Mexico to fight with their girlfriend and basically walk off in a huff? I was embarrassed.
“No worries,” he replied. Then, after a moment, “I think you should try this pizza. Even if it’s just you and me. I can pick you up anytime.”
I smiled wryly. This is what friends do, see. They know when to give you your space; but they draw a line at letting you walk off into the goddamn desert without having pizza.
In, one, two; out, one. The sun had set completely at this point. “Two miles to your destination,” Google Maps cheerfully informed me.
“For goodness sake, let me take you to pizza,” the Maestro texted a few minutes later. “You didn’t come all the way out here to fight with your girlfriend. At least enjoy yourself!”
Again, I smiled, in spite of myself. I was clearly not escaping tonight without having sampled local pizza. I could see the hotel now, perched atop a long, sloping hill. I leaned into the hill, as I would while running.
In, one, two; out. In, one, two, out. Lean into the hill. Let gravity do the work.
I opened the door to my hotel room. My girlfriend was there, her face streaked with tears. Which made tears well up in my eyes. Because– did I mention this earlier?– fighting with someone you love is the fucking worst.
I sat down next to her, and wrapped my arms around her. She pressed into me, and we just sat there, taking deep breaths. In, one, two; out, one, two.
My iPhone pinged. It was the Maestro’s text tone.
“Unless I hear different from you, I’m going to pick up some pizzas and bring them to your hotel. If you guys need to keep fighting that’s cool, but I’m starving and I know you are, too.”
I finally looked down at my girlfriend. “We’re having pizza, you realize.”
“I know,” she said, channeling her best Han Solo. “Hey. I love you.”
“I know,” I replied.
We were kissing when the Maestro knocked on the door of our room.
Farina’s was, surprisingly enough, devoid of overt Halloween cacophony when we arrived. Having been sufficiently beaten up by the day— crying and fighting wears you out, as it turns out, and then heap on top of that the 10K race I’d run that morning, GoKarting, and the three mile walk I’d taken to cool down earlier– I was gingerly anticipating costumed revelry being the order of the evening. Not so. We got a table by the window, and watched costumed characters parade by, but the atmosphere inside Farina’s was fairly chill.
“Wait, what happened with Hulk Hogan? Why can’t you wear your Hulkamania shirt anymore?” the Maestro asked.
“Well, he was making a sex tape with his buddy’s wife, and…”
“Wait, wait, wait.” The Maestro squinted and rubbed his temples. “Hulk Hogan made a sex tape?”
My girlfriend and I glanced at each other. “Yes,” I replied. “And on it, he used the N word…”
“So is he still friends with the guy’s whose wife he was, you know…”
“Well, yeah,” I replied. “It was, like, an open marriage kind of thing. The guy knew about it.”
“Ohh,” the Maestro said. “But wait, he didn’t know he was being filmed? Why would he say the N word?”
“Well, his daughter, Brooke…”
“Hulk Hogan has a daughter?”
Man, I thought. We have some catching up to do if he’s really going to grasp why I can’t wear my Hulkamania shirt anymore. Which was when the appetizers arrived.
One of the appetizers, this sautéed mushroom thing, consisted of a small bowl full of mushroom slices drenched in a rich, salty marinade, and it was delicious. The other appetizer consisted of a pile of olives, pits intact, which I decided wasn’t quite my speed after one taste. But both appetizers came accompanied by big hunks of thick, chewy, delicious bread, the crusts of which were sufficiently sharp that I suspect TSA wouldn’t allow them on an airplane, which were kind of amazing.
Eventually I gave up trying to neatly spoon the mushrooms onto the bread and began double fisting the affair, slurping big bites of sautéed mushrooms and chasing them aggressive bites of bread. It proved to be a winning combination.
Mushrooms were also the star of the mushroom pizza I ordered, which, in my haste to put carbohydrates and lipids down my gaping maw, I hadn’t realized would be an otherwise “white” pizza (i.e., that it would lack tomato sauce). This oversight was my own fault, but it still annoyed me, the fact that the mushroom pizza was perfectly tasty notwithstanding. It’s just that, in my mind, one of the defining characteristics of pizza is tomato sauce. Tomato sauce is what gives you that kinda sweet, sometimes kinda salty, sometimes kinda tangy taste that awakens the Pizza Salivary Glands, which aren’t really a thing but I’ve decided just now that they should be.
Pizza without tomato sauce is, like, cheesy flatbread– which can be delicious when you want cheesy flatbread. And this was delicious cheesy flatbread. With mushrooms, to boot.
But I wanted pizza.
Luckily, I’d been in the mood for excess when I’d ordered, and soon my second pizza arrived, a vegetarian pie slathered in a sharp tomato sauce and adorned with wide slices of eggplant. Typically, I’d whine about the crust of a pizza like the vegetarian pizza at Farina’s; I’d say the crust was too flimsy, too limp, not up to the job of supporting the ingredients on top. But tonight? Screw it. I made the soft, doughy crust into a kind of envelope, and stuffed piece after piece into my mouth, allowing my taste buds to howl in delight at the saturation of flavor. Christ, I love eggplant.
The Maestro had been right to press me on the pizza tonight.
“What’s the Macho Man up to these days?” the Maestro asked as we chomped on our respective pizza slices.
“Dead,” I replied. “Heart attack while driving.”
“Way. Miss Elizabeth is dead, too. Drug overdose.”
“Who’s the wrestler you keep posting on my Facebook wall?”
“Ted DiBiase, the Million Dollar Man. He’s a Christian minister, now.”
“Hm,” the Maestro said, chewing thoughtfully. “You know, you look a lot like George ‘The Animal’ Steele, with your bald head and your back hair.”
“You know he was actually an English teacher, when he wasn’t wrestling?”
I’ll be honest, I was largely on autopilot during our Farina’s outing. I didn’t make enough mental notes to really distinguish its food from a lot of the other places we’d been. But I do know I was there with two of my favorite people in the world– and that made the lack of tomato sauce on the mushroom pizza inconsequential.