On 24 October 1997, I flew to Phoenix to vacation at the home of a sometime girlfriend and her beau.  I had known the girl when she was married to another man, and was seeing the current beau on the side.  Because the beau had been married when they hooked up, and Girlfriend moved in with the couple as a way to leave her own (open) marriage, we rarely discussed the unpretty origins of their relationship.  But they had been together for some time when I visited them in Dallas the year before, and I thought Phoenix would be just as mundane.

Flying to Phoenix took a few hours, but it was a scary flight that felt a year and a half long.  The turbulence was bad enough to cause cracked heads and whiplash, and there were grown ups crying in the cabin.  I sat next to a large and perfectly grizzled older man who looked like a Forty-Niner, but said he had been the pilot at the Panama Canal before retiring.  He could tell I was nervous, and kept talking to me about random things, slow and low, like gentling a horse.  Seeing the Grand Canyon under a full moon helped, too.  It was stark and lovely and took me out of myself.  But the plane was jumping and dropping and wagging and impossible to ignore.  When we landed, I was frazzled, raw, and unsettled — but I felt this enormous sense of reprieve.  Cheating death had given me a wild feeling.  My awareness that I was alive was stinging my blood.  I felt a deep connection with life and the living of it, a true obligation.

Girlfriend met me there, with hugs and squeals and a blond giant who carried my bags.  She had a million ideas about places to go or things to do that night.  I asked if we could just go home and drink.  She seemed surprised.  “You?  Like to house-party?”  Oh yes; of a certainty.  Can’t take off my shoes and howl at the moon in some Irish pub or frat-boy disco.

So we stopped at a grocery store and bought booze.  This was a first for me, and I bogged down the process by roaming every aisle, looking in disbelief not only at the booze, but at the variety and cheapness of it all.  Growing up in a liquor-monopoly state had warped my mind.  I wanted to buy one of everything and take it back with me.  But eventually they herded me through checkout and took me to the house Girlfriend shared with her beau.

Her unsuspecting beau, as it turned out.  He crashed early and snored through the long night of music, drinking, making out, and talking that ended at dawn.  The making out had been a small part of it, but significant for reasons that weren’t clear for a few more days.  I thought that I had been the catalyst, but apparently I was joining an action in progress, at which point it was hands-off with the giant, and just-friends.  Which was fine with me.  My marriage was open, but deteriorating for unrelated reasons.  Drinking a lot and dancing a lot was my only plan.  I eventually hooked up with a spare tomcat that ran with their crowd, and he kept me pleasantly amused when Girlfriend and the Giant would go off by themselves.  Having my period that week kept me off the workbench, and saved me from myself.  But again, that came later.

My flight arrived at 9 pm, and we partied until sun up and crashed.  Sleep was cut short by Girlfriend, who shook me awake and said we had to go to the mall.  Must we?  Really?  At this hour?  — Yes, for we are meeting a friend to shop for “hair bobs” for the anticipated group excursion to a dance club that night.  We met the new friend, who looked like Oktoberfest without the dirndl.  She had the thickest yellow hair down to her waist, and odd clothes:  a big broomstick skirt, what looked like chunky Mary Janes, and a jersey top of some tightness.  They gossiped and I tried to stay vertical as we roamed.  We went to see The Full Monty at the mall theatre — I laughed, I cried, I managed to stay awake for most of it.  And then we went home.

Thank god for naps.  Getting ready later that evening, I was wide awake and ready to rassle gators.  Blond Giant showed up to ride with us, and we met their whole crew in the parking lot of an excellent club — or so I’m told.  It was closed.  The crew convened a committee to determine our new course.  I met a lot of hand-kissing men with wicked smiles, including the aforementioned Tomcat, and a few very friendly carnivorous females.  I didn’t care where we went so long as these new folks came along, but we ended up at an enormous joint filled with shady types, including the sort of girls who wear the sort of clothes that had always made me ask, “Who wears a dress like this?”  Now I know.  It was the kind of place where the lights are kept high all night and Security works every inch of the dance floor, unsmiling.  It was an unqualified blast.  We all fit right in.  It felt dangerous, in the fun way.  Everyone was flirting, to the point of pushing the line, but never crossing it.  I danced like a happy fool, with others and by myself.  I felt I belonged in this big school of strange fish.

But there was drama.  After a while, I realized I was actually surrounded by strangers (new friends, technically, but what was your name again?) and Girlfriend was gone, New Friend was gone, and I went to go find them.  Not at the bar, not in the loo, uh-oh, not again!  A few years back, Girlfriend had abandoned me for hours one night in a strange town so she could get with her fling du jour, and apparently my telling her never to do that to me again meant nothing — a familiar pattern of her being impervious to anything that didn’t suit her.  I found New Friend surrounded by girls in a different room of the bar, crying.  She and Blond Giant had broken up a few months earlier and their continued post-relationship sex had been put to a stop recently.  She was sad.  I thought it a bit disingenuous that Girlfriend was consoling her, since she was the reason the well had run dry, but so it goes.  We all regrouped and kept dancing and shut down the joint.

As everyone was slowly moving toward the parking lot, the mingling and milling continued outside, in the dark.  I noticed New Friend, off by herself, weeping again.  I walked over, took her by the shoulders, and said Hey, don’t cry.  She put her hands on my hips and we swayed for a while, the way people dance in high school.  There wasn’t much conversation, just my genius offerings of He’s not worth it, Plenty of fish in the sea, Any guy would be lucky, and other classic hits.  No more tears, though.  She touched a hickey on the right side of my neck and said, “Where did you get that?”  Since I didn’t know if I’d gotten it from her ex-lover, the blond giant, or the giant’s secret girlfriend, who was my own secret girlfriend, I just shrugged.

We were dancing very close by then, and she didn’t have to pull me to her.  She put her lips around the mark and left a lipstick “O” on me, and smiled.  “Now you have something from me, too.”  I fell in love with her a little bit.  We walked back to the car.

She died yesterday.  All I know is that she was at work and that it happened early in the afternoon.  Lots of water under the bridge for us both, and too much to describe right now.  But I never want to forget that Saturday night, the day I met her.