On Smashed Bottles and Other Oenological Accidents in Downtown San Diego
Barbara had just stepped outside the store, on the way back to her motel, when one of the plastic bag’s handles broke unexpectedly. The bottle of Merlot she had just purchased shattered into one thousand pieces upon contact with the curb. The ruby-brick explosion on the grey cement was followed by Pollock-like dripping as Barbara carried to the closest trashcan the rest of the unfortunate bottle wrapped in the bag, like a bloody murder weapon. At least she saved the frozen pizza, she thought.
Barbara was hardly a wine connoisseur. However, she remembered from that wine appreciation class she took with her ex-husband that Merlot is one of the rare wines that pairs well with tomato sauce. So, with pizza. And pizza had been her comfort food since she was a little girl. Good or bad, her mom –– may she rest in peace –– would buy her pizza from that small Italian pizzeria on the corner, back home, in Cincinnati, every time she would feel frustrated or sad. A bad score, a fight with the other kids… Pizza was always there, with its fragrant crust and melted mozzarella cheese, ready to cheer her up.
The sun was going down and the coastal breeze was getting chilly in San Diego. To hell with the wine. Barbara did not feel like reentering the store after the bag accident, that would make her feel even more ashamed. She just wanted to reach her motel, get cozy, and have her pizza. She was exhausted after that excruciatingly long flight from Ohio. It was her first trip to California in her entire life. Thirty-seven years, twenty of them spent at the side of the same man, who did not like the beach, and even less the West Coast. The legal fees from the divorce had been brutally expensive to say the least, but Barbara had promised herself a trip to San Diego as soon as she was officially divorced. Since she had to start working on her own, after her divorce, she could not afford a fancy hotel on the beach, only a pretty decent motel not too far from Downtown. But at least there she was, in that city she had seen only on TV. Sitting on her single bed and wrapped up in a pale-pink flannel pajamas, Barbara eagerly bit into a large slice of microwave-reheated pizza.
Meanwhile, a bunch of miles away, on the patio of a luxurious villa in Rancho Santa Fe, Ramón equally eagerly bit into a churro caliente while staring at the color-changing lights of the pool. Luis, his big brother, had always fed him with churros calientes during the days preceding races since he was a toddler competing at go-karts in order to fuel his brain with glucose, to enhance his attention and reflexes. After another entire day of practice in his black Godzilla, Ramón definitely needed glucose to restore his cognitive functions. The day of the drifting race was inexorably approaching, and he had to get to know the area by heart, if he wanted to win. He closed his eyes, and he started picturing the route in his head. From Escondido, as the elevation increased heading west of Valley Parkway, the road changed name to “Del Dios Highway.” The starting point of the drifting race coincided with the opening of the gorge. The limited width of mountainous roads like that one imposes races in a chase format: drivers race against themselves, the clock, and other drivers a few seconds either in front or behind them. Pure adrenaline. “Sí, yo voy a ganar,” he kept repeating as a mantra.
Luis had tuned Ramón’s Godzilla up to an insane amount of horsepower. He was known in Tijuana for his mechanic taller, one of the best when it came to tuning cars for illegal street races. Not all of the pieces sold or bought in the back of his garage had a clear origin, but who cared, the important thing was the result. Thanks to the profits of the taller and Ramón’s incredible string of victories, the two brothers were rising stars of the business in Baja California, and they were eager to shine also on the other side of the border. The drifting race of Del Dios Highway was the perfect occasion. Ramón was focused on the victory, but contrarily to his brother, who was already snoring on the couch, in line with his twenty-five years of age, he was still full of energy. He definitely needed diversion, so he threw some clean clothes on and left the villa in his car.
Barbara found herself unexpectedly sitting at a rooftop table of a trendy bar in Downtown San Diego. Despite the long flight and the disappointing wine experience, pizza gave her the energy to get out of her room. Perhaps, pretending to give off that independent-woman-enjoying-her-own-drink-by-herself vibe was less pathetic than laying in bed in a pale-pink flannel pajamas watching unrealistic rom-coms. She was distractedly checking out the menu when something caught her eye: the white glimpse of an open shirt, boldly contrasting with a tanned chest, immediately followed by the brightest smile. The most attractive young man she had ever seen in her life was standing in the crowd just a few feet from her. Indeed, Ramón was at the bar, surrounded by a group of uptown chirpy college girls. It was always so easy to find companionship for him, even on an ordinary weekday like that one. Barbara was observing from afar. Her eyes were misty with sadness while contemplating that display of carefree youth that she had never lived.
One of the girls surrounding Ramón spotted Barbara, sitting alone at her table, looking at them. She started making signs to her fellow girls, evidently mocking her. What could a lady in her mid-thirties possibly be doing by herself at a fancy rooftop bar like that? And why was she staring at them? Ew, so creepy! Barbara could physically feel the weight of those judging looks on her body and flushed behind her menu, trying to make herself as small as possible. She was feeling so embarrassed. What a stupid idea, going out by herself like that! Her plan was to chug her glass of Merlot as fast as possible, so she could safely run back to her motel and snuggle in her bed, far from the merciless eyes of San Diego’s gilded youth. But where did the waiter go? It looked like that order would take forever. Nevertheless, since the image of her bottle of wine smashed on the curb was still stuck in her head, she was determined to get at least a glass of Merlot to pair the pizza in her stomach. “Finally, sir, I thought I would never get my wine”, she said to the person she expected to be the waiter. When she realized that it was not the waiter, but the stunning young man previously spotted in the crowd, Barbara couldn’t believe her eyes. She began to shake.
“May I join you?”
“Are you sure?!”
“Yes, I would be honored to be your date.”
Ramón was used to dating older women. Actually, women of all ages. He definitely knew his ways around ladies. He had noticed Barbara because of the ruthless commentaries of the girls that approached him. Although he had decided to join her only to escape from the clutches of those spoiled brats in the first place, he started genuinely liking her as soon as he started getting to know her. There was buena onda between them. Barbara’s dark blond curly hair softly caressing her pink fluffy turtleneck reminded him of a doll. There was something childlike in her big green eyes, and a lot of sadness. Sure, he was an illegal racer and he was somehow involved in the shady business of his brother’s taller in Tijuana, but mostly and foremost he was a gentleman, and was determined to make that charming, solitary lady smile, that night.
“Madam, I regret to inform you that Merlot is no longer available. May I provide you with other wine suggestions?”
“It’s definitely not my lucky day!”
“Of course it’s your lucky day, muñeca linda! Carnal, dale, aqui vamos de fiesta, que traiga dos margaritas!”
While conversing with Ramón, Barbara could not avoid thinking that his Mexican accent in English was really cute. And he would call her “muñeca linda” all the time! Whatever that meant, it was lovely. Barbara was well aware that it was just Ramón’s modus operandi in connection with the proverbial Hispanic warmth. She had seen that only in movies starring her favorite actor, Antonio Banderas, and she could not believe that she was actually experiencing that in real life. She could not avoid recalling that in twenty years of marriage she never had the right to a sweet nickname. Her ex-husband thought nicknames were superfluous and cloying, like all physical contact outside the bedroom. He was so cold that, when she asked him to file for divorce, he did not even raise an eyebrow. At that point of her life, Barbara was basically starving for affection.
“Would you like to dance with me, muñeca linda?”
“But I can’t dance!”
“Just follow my lead, muñeca linda… Que te sueltes… You’ll have fun!”
Ramón’s lead was gentle, but firm, and he was a good dancer. He did not expect Barbara to be so tall, while she was sitting at the table, but he liked that. It made teaching her how to dance salsa a bit more challenging, and that enflamed his competitive spirit. On her side, Barbara was enjoying every single second of that impromptu dance class, under the astonished eyes of the young ladies who were previously making fun of her. More than salsa itself, though, she was savoring the touch of Ramon’s hands on her back, on her shoulders, on her waist, and his way of leading her. So confident, and at the same time so sweet. Barbara had never danced with another man, except for her ex-husband, on the day of their wedding. A slow dance, which didn’t require much technique. She was so young. When her mother died, her only support was church. There, she met that attractive promising young executive at a pharmaceutical company, who had just relocated to Cincinnati from Boston. He was new in the area, she was alone and pretty. They started dating, and before she could even notice, they were engaged. After her high school graduation, they were married. It was the perfect wedding on paper: he was loyal, and a good provider. However, the more she grew up, the more she realized that she was not in love with that strict, conservative, cold offspring of a decorated military father and an old-fashioned bigot mother. He embodied the worst qualities of both of them. And, of course, he did not like to dance.
“So, you are a pilot… Would you take me for a ride? Like, a real ride, as if you were racing?”
“Barbara, carajo! I will not race with someone in my car! Never! I know what I am doing is totally stupid, and I should be the only one to pay if something happens.”
“I have nothing to lose if something happens! Please, Ramón! I need to know how it feels!”
“How what feels?”
Barbara’s wide open eyes were so honest. Ramón could see inside them the emptiness that oppressed her life, in all its unbearable weight. But that night, he wanted to lift that weight up. His goal was to make that sad doll smile. So, he surrendered: “Let’s go to Del Dios Highway, muñeca linda.”
As soon as Ramón exited Valley Parkway in Escondido towards Del Dios Highway, the night sky got darker and the stars brighter. After a few miles crossing residential neighborhoods and trailer parks, the road abruptly turned into a twisting route through steep canyons with impressive narrow ridges and stunning bluffs. Barbara had never seen such an incredible ribbon of asphalt climbing in altitude. Nothing even fairly comparable existed in Ohio. Then, Ramón, noticeably focused, started to accelerate. Barbara could hear the high revving engine of the GT-R screaming as he slammed the gas pedal to the floor, sending up clouds of dust. The sound of the motor roaring and the tires screeching echoed off the canyon walls, while Barbara’s heart raced even faster than the car that Ramón was masterfully pushing to its limit. The road arched to the right, then to the left, in long sweepers, before narrowing into swift twists, until it stretched out over the desert in the Santa Fe valley. Ramón and Barbara were breathing in unison when the black Godzilla entered the last stretch of straight road at full speed. Filled with adrenaline, at the end of the straight, Barbara exploded in a shout of liberation. That was it. She smiled. For the first time in her life, she felt alive. And free.