I grin, and look over at my forever-wife. Elizabeth is fanning her denimed butt over the flames of a gas fireplace. She shakes her head in dismissal of our conversation about love, life without passion, and NORAD. The mock dismissal is forgiven when she smiles wide at us.
Us: Alex Dezen, lead singer of The Damnwells, and me, author of "West of Independence," standing together on the back patio of a stranger's house.
"I'm singing in my sleep, driving across Texas with you..."
Surreal doesn't cut it, while epic is just stupid and exhausted.
Comfortable; that's what this is.
Ryan steps through the sliding glass door, a red cup of warmth in one hand, two pieces of pizza in the other. Nazi-hunting-war-corresponding-tour-managing-sidekicking buddy to Alex, Ryan is more than a character. This self professed "bon vivant" carries knowledge and experience on constant offer, and he underlines all of it with a humor-colored highlighter.
"What are we talking-whoa, drop it like it's hot!" Ryan interrupts his own question when he notices Elizabeth waving her tush over the fire.
"You look so good..."
My head feels light, but it isn't the altitude.
To say that this is a moment long in coming would be a lie. I had never bothered to imagine the chance to personally thank Alex for keeping me company on my drive across Texas in 2009, my little brother's ashes resting in the back seat.
Ryan is arguing with Elizabeth; he thinks she has long legs.
Alex has just played a private show for us. Every song had spread a new layer of goosebumps over the tiny crowd. Emotion arced across the room, interrupted only by the banter, praise, and laughter shared in between songs.
And then he sang "Texas."
A sleepy poem about love and distance, put to music made for counting highway mile markers, "Texas" is a song that sneaks up on me and puts a comfortable pressure on my chest. By its end I am miles from home, the one that I love most in the world sleeping in the passenger seat as we drive through the night across the flat, wide, thought-provoking expanse of the southwest.
"I could stay another day with you, stall the winter's pain 'til June..."
The song is as much a part of "West of Independence" as the paper (or pixels) upon which it is printed. It not only journeyed with me across Texas, but across page after page of the writing process as well. As Alex began to play it, I held my phone up to record the moment. A few lyrics in, and I couldn't hold the phone steady; my arm shook and my eyes clouded. As a lump filled my throat, I turned off the phone, choosing to live the moment rather than record it.
And to drive across Texas one more time.