“Una quesadilla con carne asada, mi hermano. ¡Con todo! Pero no… no… quiero caballo.”
The vendor smiled politely, amused at the swaying mass of inebriated college student on the other side of the counter who just told him he “didn’t want horse.”
“¿No quieres… cebolla?”
“Sí. Sí, amigo. No cebolla. Lo siento para la…” I waved my hands in the air searching for words. “La… confusion.”
He nodded and set to work on crafting one of his famous $2 quesadillas, one which could easily sell for upwards of $7 or $8 on the American side of the border. But he seemed utterly satisfied to get by on the wide-eyed drunk young adults that stumbled by his stall during Spring Break.
I turned to Reid who was also in the process of ordering a quesadilla.
“I told him I didn’t want a horse.”
Reid laughed and placed his order. He ordered in English. Of course he did. The vendor knew English perfectly. He had to know it in order to make money off the American tourists. Had I been sober, I would have also ordered in English. I wouldn’t have wanted to accidentally insult the man and sully decades of beautiful culture by showing off my proficiency as dictated by my limited exposure to the language through Spanish 130.
But sober decisions like discretion had disappeared hours before with dinner margaritas, shots at the hotel, and open bar at Señor Frog’s. All bets were off and I was slurring Spanish while attempting to wax poetic about my frustrations with my love life.
“…pero no quire dormir con ella. Solo quiero tener su mano en mio, y a veces besarla.” I had said as we had reached the hotel room with our savory bounty.
“I’ve gotta be honest with you, Joey. I have no idea what you’ve been saying for the past 10 minutes. All I hear is ‘taquito taquito, extra ranchero salsa.'”
I stared at him in disbelief.
“Have I been speaking Spanish this entire time?”
“Yeah, pretty much the entire time after we got our food.”
“Shit, man. I’m sorry.”
Reid laughed. “Don’t worry about it, man. This has all been really funny. Here, eat something.”
I didn’t remember eating my food, but I damn well remember it spewing out of my stomach amid a bittersweet swill of alcohol and bile. After an indeterminate period of kneeling over and spitting into the toilet, I vaguely remember three blurry shapes lifting me up to carry me into the next room.
I woke the next morning with a horrible cramp in my neck. The culprit responsible was the bag of cottonballs that dared to identify itself as a pillow, and a military-style cot stretched so tight it could have doubled as a cutting board. I glanced around at the dark room to see all six of my friends cuddled up cozily on two queen-sized beds.
Under the influence of the previous night’s debauchery and the solid block of muscle and nerves at the base of my skull, I reacted to my exclusion from their hospitable sleeping conditions sourly.
“You guys are assholes” I said under my breath. Or at least I meant to say it. What came out of my mouth was a gargle of equal parts gutteral pop and acidic croak.
A moment later, I was out walking the streets and alleys of Rosarito, Mexico. I hadn’t bothered to let anyone know I had gone. I was mad. I was also not of sound mind, honestly. I had some cash in my pocket from the night before so I figured I would find a place to get breakfast.
I turned a blind corner and looked down the alley to find the ocean staring back at me. I dropped the idea of breakfast and wandered across the sand. Unlike the California beaches I had known my whole life, the slope of the sand was minuscule, virtually nonexistent. You could wander 50 feet from the edge of dry land and only stand in inches of water.
I walked along the water, hypnotized by its ebb and flow. I had been walking a few minutes when the whine of some animal made me jump. I stood still, listening, hoping to find a directional clue to the sound’s origin. When no sound came, I shrugged off the occurrence as a figment of wishful thinking and started walking back to the hotel.
As I headed down a random alleyway, I heard the whinny again. It was right in front of me.
Deep in a nook between two night clubs was a corral of horses. There had to have been about 24 of them, all hitched to wooden posts. I approached one cautiously, unable to tell if they were tame or in some process of being broken in. The horse had a beautiful blond mane and remained completely still as I reached out to touch its face. I sensed no hostility from him and so moved in closer to continue petting him.
“Good boy, good boy,” I said, gently.
At that moment, a local man came running up the beach. Worried that I may be perceived as a thief, I stepped away, though as he neared, I saw that he was smiling.
“Quieres caballo?” he asked.
Holy crap, I thought. He wants to sell me a horse.
I had a choice to make. I could have told the man that I was only admiring the beast before walking away awkwardly. Or I could engage with this man and humor him into thinking that I was willing and able to buy a horse, despite the fact that I had neither the facility or means of keeping it.
You can bet I chose the latter.
“Quanto cuesta?” I asked, putting on the airs of a Western entrepreneur. My masquerade had apparently failed on opening my mouth. Gone was the silver-tongued bilingual I was hours before in my drunken stupor. He could tell I was just a gringo tourist.
“Seven dollars. Half hour,” he said. Rental hadn’t even crossed my mind until that point.
I must have been smiling like a damn fool while I fished into my pockets for the cash. He took my money and pointed to all the horses in a sweeping gesture, non-verbally handing me carte blanche to chose my worthy mount.
At that point I had already established a connection to my blond companion. Heck, he was the inciting means by which I came privy to such a deal. I placed my hand on his back to indicate my selection and the caballero placed a footstool at my feet.
“You ride before?” he asked.
“Yeah, a little. Un poco. Anos pasado.”
He pushed me up on the horse and handed me two lengths of leather rope. He indicated the rope that led to the horse’s mouthpiece.
“This… steer” he demonstrated. He held up the other piece. “This…” he mimed striking the horse’s backside, “faster.”
As the sun crested the town and began to warm the crisp morning air, I rode along, drinking in every detail.
“What the hell is going on?” I chuckled to myself. I was in Mexico, beating a hangover by way of riding a horse, barebacked, down the beach at sunrise. What the hell, indeed. “I’ve got to remember this one.”
Though everything was so clear and alive in that moment, I must have shorted out all of my senses, for words alone can no longer suffice to describe the feelings I was experiencing.
I’ve told the story many times: to my panicked travel companions back at the hotel; to the friends back in my suburban home town; to my family, always enthusiastic to hear about my latest adventure. But each time I tell the story, I always stop at this point and feel a twinge of pity that my audience can hardly feel the mixture of completeness, utter joy, and panic at that this wonderful elation had a time limit.
It was, in a tremendously poor excuse for words, the reason for living.