This is the last installment of a four-part series: They Don't Have Tacos In the Suck, which chronicles an afternoon taco truck crawl with my best friend from college, an Air Force EOD sergeant whom I hadn't seen in 10 years. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here.
Ryan and I had been driving for a while, for many blocks since our "palate cleanser" of elotes at Refresqueria Rio Verde. I knew he was wondering why I passed other taco trucks and failed to pull up to them, but I had a plan.
In my mind, I knew this stop would be our last taco truck of the day. I had to pick my cousin up from the airport soon, and Ryan had to get back on the road.
I pulled into our final destination: El Ultimo, a brightly decorated taco truck near Long Point and Wirt. Its parking lot was already busy, a line had already formed outside that was composed entirely of blue collar workers off for lunch, equal parts white, black and Hispanic. I've made no secret of the fact that El Ultimo is my favorite taco truck in town, and have followed it over the years as it moves a few blocks up and down Long Point.
"On the weekends," I told an impressed Ryan, "it has a waitress who takes you order, since the line gets so long."
"So this is your favorite, huh?" he said, eying the simple menu and wondering what exactly made this spot so special.
"Yes. You'll see."
The wait at El Ultimo was the longest of the afternoon, and Ryan and I had run out of polite conversation. He told me about the few phrases he's learned working in Afghanistan, about how Pashto and Dari only sound alike on the surface. Once you get to know them, he said, you can immediately spot the differences when you hear them spoken, intermingled, on the streets.
He tried to teach me a few phrases in Pashto. "Move it, asshole!" was one of them. I couldn't pick it up. I was too busy laughing absurdly, thinking of Ryan in a wholly foreign country, yelling out practiced Pashto phrases like these to his terp in what must now seem like a completely normal occurrence to him.
We commiserated about how rusty our Spanish had gotten over the years, useful these days only for ordering food at taco trucks. Ryan was even more out of practice, blaming it on the sad dearth of taco trucks back home in Florida. "There are only, like, two where I live," he grumbled. And he told me about how his German wife was startled one morning by the realization that she had started to dream in English.
When our tacos came out, Ryan finally saw what I did in El Ultimo: The tacos here are on soft, homemade flour tortillas -- not corn, interestingly -- and come with more than just the standard handful of cilantro and onions. Green slices of avocado and white crumbles of queso fresco fill the tacos, too, along with our chosen meats: fatty shreds of barbacoa and annatto-hued pastor.
Ryan gulped his taco down, pausing only briefly to admire the avocado and cheese on top. Then he ordered three more.
"This is your favorite, huh?" he asked again.
I nodded once more, pleased.
"Well, it's my favorite too." He smiled. And then: "I don't think I can eat any more tacos."
"Neither can I," I laughed back. We went back to the car with his extra tacos, and were nearly ready to go when Ryan said: "Katie, aren't you forgetting something?"
Only a few people call me Katie anymore; I thrilled to the sound of hearing the adolescent version of my name, as if time hadn't passed at all and I was still Katie, still 17-years-old and big-eyed and strong.
I was forgetting something: I hadn't taken his photo in front of the truck, as I'd done with all the others. I dug my camera back out of my purse as Ryan posed, hand out and thumb up, grinning. I snapped one final picture, and we packed it in.
The car ride back to Ryan's truck seemed to last almost as long as the crawl itself had. I listened hard to every last one of Ryan's words, even the awful ones and the cruel ones that involved horror stories of friends killed in battle. I listened as he told me about watching as weeping fathers carried their children into makeshift hospitals, limbs absent and blood reeling out of charred wounds. I listened as he told me about fathers who strapped bombs to their children's thin chests and sent them out to fight the battles their cowardly parents could not. I listened as he told me about watching a young girl's leg blown off by a crudely designed IED that he had not seen, was not able to defuse.
I listened as he told me about being blown up twice himself. He stared forward the entire time as he spoke, and I noticed for the first time what looked to be shrapnel wounds on his head. The curved wounds were barely noticeable except where the hair had stubbornly refused to grow back. I didn't ask about them. My chest burned as he spoke about being lucky enough to survive both times he was attacked. He'd never shot anyone, he assured me. But he'd shot at them.
I thought back to something he'd said earlier that day: "I'm happy to get bad guys and help people," he'd put it, simply and succinctly. This terrifying job makes him happy. This job that could wipe him out of existence in one trembling second makes him happy. Instead of happy thoughts, my mind was filled with horrific visions of Ryan dying in battle. I was ashamed of myself for thinking such a thing.
Before I could get a word out, we were back at his truck. Ryan was unstrapping his seat belt. Here was 10 years, gone in an afternoon.
"You know, I looked for you," he said, suddenly and without warning. Ryan had entered the Air Force on a whim between our junior and senior years of college, finally disillusioned enough with college after three years to make the leap. And although we kept in touch for a while, we never saw each other again. We finally lost contact entirely after his first deployment.
"I looked for you everywhere. I looked on Facebook and even MySpace, back in the day, and Googled you and then one day I found you. It was totally by accident. I was reading an article, and you had written it." He had sent me a message on Facebook later that day. I had been thrilled to hear from him, with no idea of how long he'd searched for me.
I had no idea what to say. Finally, all I could get out was: "I'm glad you did."
And then, because the hour was drawing so near: "I've got to get going." And I tried to follow it up with a casual, "What else are you doing to do in Houston today?"
"Nothing," Ryan said. "I'm driving back today. I really just came to see you."
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So it wasn't just the tacos. And again, all I could manage was a short: "I'm glad you did." A smile. Unblinking eyes, because if I blinked, the tears would spill over and I'd be done for. I couldn't see Ryan's eyes at all; he never removed his sunglasses all day.
And just like that, his door was open. A brief hug and promises of a future visit -- this time with his wife -- and Ryan was gone. Here was 10 years and two hours, gone. I drove out of the parking lot, unable to look back, and drank the last of the apple-sweet tamarind juice until it was gone and I was home once again.