Road Trip! Just like they did at the beginning of every summer road trip to New Orleans, they pulled the front tires of the 1981 Honda Civic flush with the no parking sign, just outside the Monterey Park police station. The car didn’t have power windows, so they raced each other with the hand cranks. Sophina won, and Johnny, despite the strength in his left hand from lots of alone-time, got his window stuck half way. It wasn’t the Honda’s fault. The poor buggy was “seasoned” and this would be it’s sixth year making the nearly 2,000 mile journey across the vast expanse of God’s country. Budge sat in the back seat, and true to his moniker, he didn’t budge a lick.
Once the windows were down, next came the ballsy part. They cranked the barely-together speakers to 11 and slide the “Old Road Songs” cassette tape into the aging deck. Like the car itself, it was questionable how many more times they could achieve this, before it would simply give up altogether. The first song on the playlist, like the rest of their rituals, was tradition. CB jargon relayed across the sound waves with a filtered radio effect. C.W. McCall’s gravely voice began… “Was the dark of the moon on the sixth of June, in a Kenworth pullin' logs”. A few officers, walking into the precinct, gave the youths a mad-dog side eye, but nothing else came of it. By the time they got to the “Convoy” chorus they were nearly screaming the lyrics, as their heads bopped back and forth in unison. Even Budge was getting into it. This was always the risky part, because unlike the rest of Los Angeles, Monterey Park was a sleepy little town on the outskirts, filled mostly with docile Chinese immigrant retirees. A disturbance of the peace wouldn’t have been that much of a stretch. But alas, the cops weren’t interested. Johnny put the car in gear. The fan belt screeched, it belched some black smoke, and the wheels lurched forward. The 6th annual road trip had begun.
Budge had been relegated to the back seat. There was no real reason why. In fact, he had known the two individually longer than they had known each other. But like “The Dude” in “The Big Lebowski”, he was mostly relaxed and quiet except when he got on a tangent. It’s hard to say where he got any income, as he never seemed to have any discernible job. He was a lovable guy, though, and everyone seemed always more than happy to buy him a drink, or pay for his meal. He seemed to be a professional couch surfer, and had it not such a negative connotation, would be known as a world class moocher.
Sophina wanted to be an actress, and she had all the assets for the job. It was hard to ignore her feminine curves and million dollar smile; things both Budge and Johnny had immediately been drawn to. Even though Budge was a loaf, his libido was as strong, if not stringer, than the next guy's. And whatever he was lacking in athleticism, he more than made up for with charisma and his flashy ice blue eyes. Sophina didn’t even have to try. She lit up a room, and her simple summer dress and sandals showed off her calves to make more then one trucker nearly crash their rig. But the best part about her wasn’t even her body. It was the uncanny way with which she asked the simplest questions, that had the most complex answers. It was her willingness to wear her heart on her sleeve, as she pondered life’s cosmic wonders and tried to decipher them in real time. It was adorable and infectious.
Johnny was the most accomplished of the three; A certified over-acheiver. Handsome, smart and athletic. His only vice being that his mind far surpassed any mundane joys he might have experienced in life. As a result, he often lacked self-confidence, although of the three he should have been entitled to much more than the other two. He was a born leader, though, and it showed, except when he purposely would try to find the bottom of a bottle. It was fine though. They were all young, and these things didn’t matter as much as they might some day in the future.
As the miles rolled by they made their way east on I-10, and would eventually meet up with I-40, once they had traveled north up through Victorville on the 15. They had decided to take the northern route this time, as they weren’t in any hurry and there would be no snow in Flagstaff this time of year. Plus Johnny wanted to avoid El Paso, as any time that Budge got within 10 miles of Juarez, he would go on a rant about how the streets there were named after him, and that Juarez was Spanish for “whore”. Budge seemed to always get away with things that would be deemed offensive to most people, due to the extra helping of charisma God had doled out to him.
Their first stop was at the Bronco Burger. This place was insane. They joked that the portions there were so large, that if you ordered the quesadilla, you would need a flatbed truck to transport it out of the drive-thru. On one of the trips Budge had proposed to their cashier. He was prone to get smitten over every girl he met, and he rambled on for nearly an hour how that woman should have gone to LA to be an actress and model. It was a common routine for him. Unbeknownst to the other two, and perhaps even to Budge himself, he had already started to develop feelings for Sophina. Sure it had been the visceral qualities of things like her ample cleavage and flowing locks that had allured him, but her wanderlust and passion for life had hooked him. Once back in the car, he had even briefly forgot about the cashier. This would prove to be a long trip for him.
Sophina, who had met the hard working Johnny, thanks to Budge’s introductions at an industry party, started to have eyes for him. Being a superior athlete, he was more of a match physically. God they could make beautiful kids, if they had wanted to. But something about Budge was also irresistibly intriguing. He was a tad older, and seemed wise beyond his years. No need for her to choose, though. Flirtation had always been part of their road trips, and this year would be no exception. Plus Sophina was, arguably, the most intelligent of the three. Her mind always raced with endless possibilities of alternate universes, loopholes in the space-time continuum and the probability of life on other planets. It was as if someone had planted Neil deGrasse Tyson’s mind into Sofía Vergara’s body. That’s not even to mention her holistic spirituality and interests in the precepts of Buddhism. Boys could wait.
After wailing 80s classics, discussing the origin of the Jackaloupe, and eating everything ranging from Monster drinks and circus peanuts, to mineral water and trail mix, the trio decided they were actually getting hungry for real food. Budge had decided to opt out of the “Eat it and get it free” 70 ounce steak contest at The Big Texan in Grants this time, and instead they tarried at the Historic El Rancho Hotel, just down the road in Gallup, New Mexico. The hotel had been built by D.W. Griffith’s brother, utilizing the rock formations and desert as a Hollywood backlot for the giant Western film craze of the silver screen. Everyone from Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Stewart to John Wayne and Kirk Douglas had stayed there. Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn had favorite bedrooms there, and items named after them on the menu. Oh, if those walls could talk. They also had the best coffee west of the Mississippi, a proven fact, and the three always had a cup or two despite the time of day, or scheduled of events on the horizon.
It was here over a plate of Huevos Rancheros that after six long years of being friends, that Johnny realized, he too, was developing feelings for Sophina. Budge had been off trying to convince an older Navajo staff member he crudely referred to as an “Indian-ilf” that if she opened the 49ER bar for him, he would buy her a round of drinks. Somehow, she had fallen for it. Johnny and Sophina’s conversation had started innocently enough. Topics like Route 66, absinthe bars, and their favorite jazz clubs in New Orleans were par for the course, but soon enough their eyes meet like never before. She had mentioned how all the Hollywood stars that had stayed at the very place, in that very spot, were dead now. And even though they were everything she had professionally wished to achieve in life, their stories were riddled with sex scandals, drug abuse, suicide and tragedy. “Was Hollywood all it was really cracked up to be?”, she mused. And that was when Johnny had seen inside the windows of her soul. He saw past the pheromones and sweat of her bosom, through the lace of her bra and the airbrush-like perfection of her caramel skin, and straight into her big beautiful heart. When their eyes had met across the table, something unspoken had clicked. Years of friendship was suddenly turning into a budding romance, Budge be damned.
The trio continued on. They drank ice cold Lone Star beers in a parking lot in Amarillo, where they incredulously bought an entire six back of bottles for under three dollars. Sophina opted only to have a sip of Johnny’s, a minuscule, but telling, choice. Their formula had always worked perfectly. With three of them they could take turns driving and sleeping and make it all the way to New Orleans in just a little over a full day. Once there, they could catch up on sleep, showers and begin their endless week of drunkenness, gambling, partying and debauchery. Having California plates meant they would always get pulled over for “swerving within their lane”. It was only a matter of who it would be, and they placed bets as such. It usually happened in Texas, so Sophina unloosened a few buttons to “let the girls air out” in preparation to getting her way out of any minor traffic infractions which dutiful peace officers might try and impose. Needless to say, this sent both boys in a tizzy akin to Pavlov’s dogs, and neither could find time to sleep or avert their eyes, while searching for the errant nip-slip, which strategically never came.
In Dallas, they unceremoniously reenacted the JFK assassination in front of the old book depository. Budge ambled along the road until he got to the white X, where he even mimicked a backwards head lunge. Johnny played the part of the sniper behind the wooden fence on the grassy knoll, while Sophina shot the whole thing like Abraham Zapruder, using only her smart phone. It was irreverent and all in good fun, and at that time of night, there was no one around to witness their tomfoolery. They were on the home stretch now, with under one-third of the trip to go until they would reach their final destination amid the French Quarter.
It was Budge’s turn to drive, and Johnny and Sophina snuggled under a blanket, in the cramped back seat. There was no written rules between the friends. None of them were in serious relationships, and although they had never had sex with each other, all forms of flirtation and innuendo were on the table. Sophina loved the attention “her boys” gave her and played them both like well-tuned fiddles. Nothing had ever been malicious among them, and all three enjoyed the unspoken chance of getting laid at any time. Some may have seen it as a six year blue-balled friend zone, but honestly none of the parties saw it that way. It was simultaneously innocent, yet sexually charged, making it quite fun, with no real intent or risk of getting anyone’s feelings hurt. It was as close to free love as any of them would ever get, or ever experience again.
Summer was in full swing in New Orleans. Cops mounted on horseback laughed as drunken tourists stumbled back to their hotels, and vomited in gutters while using cast iron posts, in the shapes of horse’s heads, to steady their legs. Despite ample warnings from Budge, Johnny drank Hurricanes — which Budge nicknamed “HURLicannes”— like Kool-aid. He puked enough pink froth over their balcony, and in their hotel room, that Budge irreverently joked that it looked like “Sharon Tate’s apartment”. This left Johnny bedridden for a good twelve hours, giving Sophina and Budge ample opportunity to have some quality alone time. They shared many a beignet and story, alternating between grog tap in the world’s oldest bar, and mimosas in five star restaurants. They engaged many a street musician, and soaked in the flavor of local culture, in an unbreakable bond. It was then that Sophina reaffirmed her feelings for Budge.
The three friends, spent the night roaming the bars, listening from one live musical act to the next. The venues ranged as wide as the music choice. Rock and Roll, Country and the Jimmy Buffet classics. There was something for everyone. They, inevitably, always found themselves returning back to the world famous Preservation Hall. It was here, where every night they would listen to a medium sized jazz combo, headlined by a fabled trumpeter, belt out the classics like “Tiger Roll”. There was something infectious and magical about the venue, the music, and most of all, the company. They didn’t allow photos there, either, and this added to the sense of mystery. Any fantastical and extraordinary moments would have to be indelible enough to burn into your memory, as there would be no photographic evidence emblazoned upon celluloid or enlaced in a myriad of ones and zeros.
Sophina, Budge, and Johnny spent eight nights and seven days in the Big Easy before heading back to the City of Angels, just off the other coast. There were moments of intense closeness and intimacy, but none had culminated into actual fornication. Sometimes Budge snuggled with Sophina and gave her back massages while trying to hide anything resembling the beginnings of an erection. Sometimes Johnny and Sophina spoke close enough that they could have kissed. And sometimes Sophina stayed by herself, or even flirted with other men in the clubs. All was fair. Johnny and Budge, too, often danced with women in drunken trances, and somehow, still, everything seemed kosher and hunky-dory.
The last night there, they walked along the high dyke meant to prevent the mighty Mississippi from flooding the Quarter, like it had once done before, during Katrina. As the Basilica of St. Louis chimed out the time from Jackson Square, a fast and peaceful fog washed over the three friends like a warm blanket. It encircled them, wrapped them up, and made them feel as if they were floating inside of a cloud. Somewhere off in the distance, some street performers adeptly played “When The Saints Come Marching Home”. And they danced…. The three friends danced with a love that transcended carnal love, time, or even desire, itself. It was something bigger than them. It was connected from them by an umbilical cord from deep within their souls, and bound them together in an unbreakable bond.
They returned to Los Angeles, not soon after. Budge did end up getting that speeding ticket after all. But they also laughed and loved. They painted their names on the backs of Cadillacs in Amarillo and looked for aliens over the deep desert skies. They watched shooting stars cascade through the night, and wore out their “Convoy” tape on the way back home. That should have been a premonition, as this would be the last time they would ever make that trip together.
Back at home their jobs turned into careers, and each of them found significant others in due time. Their respective trees eventually branched off, and they developed separate lives of their own.
But that summer they had laughed, and they had loved. The road trip may be but a fleeting memory now, just out of reach, but the impression of that particular summer would be permanently etched deep within their hearts, forever.