I can’t recall whether it was late 2002 or early 2003, but the Texas air was still chilly and the days were short.
In those Web 1.0 days PC messaging apps were in diverse bloom. When my ICQ client chimed its “uh oh!” notification one day, I was surprised to see a message from… we’ll call her Amanda. She was a friend from high school who dated one of my droogs in those far gone days, and wondered if I’d be around Houston any time soon. After some chatter I agreed to dart down there in a few weeks, and I began sketching the outlines of a fun trip. I really should have known better…
That auspicious Friday did not get off to a good start. I’d studied until 1 a.m. the night before, slogged through a midterm early in the morning, and had errands to run afterward, so I didn’t get on the road until after noon. It’s a long, monotonous drive on I-45 from Dallas to Houston, only livened up by a few towns and businesses (hi, Woody’s Smokehouse in Centerville!) and a multidisc CD changer stuffed full of music, but showing signs of brain damage from too many Texas summers. There was traffic. There was more traffic. Eventually, damn it all, I hit the traffic time warp Houston secretes into the ether as some quirk of its urban biology. What’s normally a four and a half hour trip dragged on to five hours, then six… By the time I got near Pearland, Realm of Amanda, I was tired and hungry.
Somewhere near Pasadena I gave her a call, and she gave me directions to a Walmart Supercenter. I pulled up, bedraggled but happy, greeted her, and asked what the plan was. She suggested we head to her parents’ place and figure it out from there. That is a little less directed than I’d hoped for, but I was not in a position to argue. After all, I was a guest. A little benefit of the doubt should be in order.
So I followed her car, and pulled up to a totally normal apartment complex. I hopped out, we dashed inside, and the apartment was… fine. Cozy, clean, and cool: a fine place to crash before greeting the next day. 30 minutes after arriving, around the time my stomach reminded me that all I’d crammed into it in the past eight hours was pepper jerky and Dr. Pepper, she told me that I can’t sleep there and we need to go somewhere else.
That stung a little – it’s never good to meet someone, then implicitly learn that they don’t trust you – but I agreed to her suggestion. We drove further from the highway, deeper into suburbs. I lost any kind of bearings on my surroundings. But before long, we found our next destination.
Enter home number two. It wasn’t fancy, but it was clean and welcoming. Four sisters and their parents, all friendly and charming… and within a half hour of me staring glassy-eyed at a Dreamcast game, Amanda says I can’t sleep there either. By this point my stomach’s evolving clawed hands to capture unwary house pets and I’m trying not to sink into the pocket dimension of an over-loved bean bag chair. “Amanda, do I need to get a hotel room?”
“Look, I’m sorry. But don’t worry! The last place is only a block away, and I promise you’ll be able to sleep there. And get some food.” So we journeyed on just a bit further.
We found ourselves before an orange house with sagging awnings, a yard with knee-high grass, and a driveway crisscrossed by cracks bearing pioneer plants. The baked-in warnings of countless horror movies blared in my mind. And I knew this was going to be trouble when the front door opened, and the only things I smelled were cats and marijuana.
Amanda’s friends greeted us warmly from the hovel. Old shag carpet crunched under my shoes as I stepped inside. The living room was lit by a single lamp and a CRT TV asquat a pockmarked entertainment center. I sat on a couch, resigned to the knowledge that I’d be sleeping in this place. To the right, a homemade computer desk setup gracelessly formed a dividing wall in the room, with a window open so whoever’s using the computer could also see the TV. The smell began to make my nose itch.
This little reverie was broken by a kitten! An adorable little kitten – infested with ear mites. “Oh, you don’t wanna touch ’em. They’ve all got ear mites bad. We’ve got cream we put on ’em multiple times a day…” The girl continued, mistaking my alert unhappiness for interest. Someone announced that they’d be hitting up a Jack in the Box; I threw a tenner at them, begged for a chicken sandwich with curly fries, and told them to keep the change for gas money. They left. My stomach emitted a gurgle in fervent prayer.
Some kid – early teenage years – started conversation with me. We fumblingly talked about computers, and I was glad for my attention to drift from the surroundings. “Hey! Some guy just threw out some computer stuff, you wanna see?” Sure thing. Yes. Absolutely. He brought in an ISA modem – 2400 baud, if I remember right – and an 80 MB hard drive. I mused that he’d found interesting paper weights. The television continued to play. Amanda joined a progressively more heated argument over whether pop punk sucked. What the hell did I expect? I was too tired to safely leave. Remember, this was in those misty days before GPS in phones, and my Houston area MAPSCO book didn’t extend down this far.
The food arrived! I ate it greedily, like a caveman devouring a squirrel. The foetor of the place was remarkable: no matter where you went, the smell was an unbroken line. I needed to piss and discovered that the bathroom was a playground for filthy kittens. The shower and tub didn’t appear to have been cleaned… ever. The soap scum discolored the wall in thick patches. I urinated, didn’t wash my hands – what difference could it possibly make here? – and stepped out. To my left I saw a door with a visible hole in it. It was the computer kid’s room, pitch black inside, and in my sleepy delusion my brain screamed “WEREWOLF DOOR, IF YOU OPEN THAT THERE WILL BE A WEREWOLF.” That irrational adrenal response woke me up a little.
More chatter. A newscaster warbled on TV. The group retreated to a bedroom to begin preparing for sleep. I told them I’d be with them soon. As I began mentally preparing myself for whatever awaited me, it happened.
There was a muffled whump in the hallway. Then another. And the sound of labored, almost tuberculitic breathing. Something ponderous and massive moved in the direction of the living room. I felt real atavistic fear, like a little mammal realizing a Velociraptor was coming near its stump. But I stared impassively at the TV. I wasn’t living in a horror film. The evening already felt like a downscale John Waters movie come to life. How bad could this be?
The fattest woman I have ever seen sloughed into view, crammed into a formless muumuu. I looked up, made eye contact, and nodded. She returned the gesture, briefly eclipsed the television, squeezed behind the computer desk, lit a fatassed blunt, sat down, and farted. Well, that’s enough excitement for me! Time to sleep.
I had a pallet on the floor with a warm blanket, and it appeared to be clean. Truly, this was all I needed. I slept in all of my clothes but my shoes. Eventually – once I was certain everyone else was asleep – I gave in and passed out.
The late morning haze greeted me with all the smells of the night before, with a bonus addition of the oily smell of bacon. I made small talk to mask how my skin itched. With hesitation I revisited the bathroom and very quickly sprayed urine into the toilet and flushed. It was no prettier in daylight. As it was nearly noon I suggested lunch. We drove in separate cars to a Chinese place, I ordered something food-shaped, and bade Amanda farewell.
The weekend was a loss. All I wanted to do was go home… but I couldn’t spend another five hours in an enclosed space smelling like this. Then I remembered that an ex-girlfriend of mine lived just a half hour away. I called her, caught up for a few minutes, then gave the quickest possible explanation of the prior night and begged to use her shower.
I apologized profusely when I got there, brought in a change of clothes, and deliberately used all of her prettiest-smelling bath soaps and shampoos. Once I was clean and dry and smelled like flowers, I told her the full story. We chatted for a few hours afterward, and feeling like the weekend was a little rosier, left to fill up my car. I didn’t stop once on the drive back, and watched football with my dad that Sunday.
I’d like to say time heals all wounds. But I’ve never spoken to Amanda since.