Big-breasted women, five steins a hand, and charming men in green, short-short overalls stuffed each other’s mouths with bratwurst and beer till they couldn’t rock no more. Bavaria. Its capital: München. Things played out a little differently there for the boys and me, who had gotten used to the exaggerations of Italy and indulgences of France. Bavaria. We should have snagged some zzz’s before happy hour, but the smell of freshly poured brew kept us stirring. Underway was a Hefeweizen special at the hostel we rolled into—Hirsch’s, it was called, which means deer. Trot, trot, caught in the headlights of oncoming traffic, why did we cross the Alps? To drink on the other side!
Rick checked us in. Soon as his plastic got swiped behind the counter, out from under it came a tray of pre-poured liquors—silky, black, green, the blood of the Hirsch itself. “Please, have a complimentary shot,” the tender of the bar offered us. “Yes, ma’am.” I slapped my tongue with the liquid, didn’t wait for the boys, who instead of taking the gesture in kind had been staring at the thumbprints on their one-ounce glasses.
“Y’all ain’t gunna take ‘em?” I asked. Rick tagged his lower lip with a drop, said it tasted like a gremlin’s booty. Alex didn’t even bother to look at what he knew he wasn’t going to try. So I snagged their shot glasses and downed them myself. If you don’t drink in München, then what’s the point? We had gotten off to a bad start. I would make up my own fun.
The dorms brought no solace either. As Rick swung open the dorm door, a boy’s head inconveniently placed flat on the ground served as a stopper between the corner of the iron and the drywall. That kid didn’t mind though, for a jar of Henny had done him the favor of reading him a bedtime story, and so he was rightly knocked out long before Rick had tapped him on the head. None of us felt bad. And there wasn’t even time! We had to find our beds, which were numbered thirty-six, thirty-eight, and forty—the very last ones in the dorm, around corners, twists and turns. Everywhere piles of dirty laundry dotted the floor, empty wine bottles shattered here and there, and in the corner next to our beds: a jungle of wet heavy bras sagging from the ceiling, jeans ripped inside-out like rugs across the diagonally cut dorm, and a yellow towel under a bunk bed—which I borrowed—while old cell phone cables from the last decade, still plugged in, left this room date marked past expiration. Lucky for us no one had been camped out in the room who didn’t belong there, so we felt some sense of security, though to be honest the window to the outside played a video of shoes and puppy feet. Yes, we were in a basement, windows unlocked—anyone could have dived in. A basement, a random, forty-bed dorm in the middle of a heartland whose middle history we blacked out on. We looped back around after dropping off our bags, past the rickety floorboards, wrecked curtain rods and piles of dirty laundry, back up to the bar on the ground floor. There we needn’t worry. There things could make sense. At least to me. We just needed some more drinks.
Rick and Alex looked for a table while I ordered us a round of Hefeweizens. When I brought the glasses to the boys, Rick looked at me and shook his head. “I’ve had too much blanche this whole trip,” Rick said. “I’m ready to move on to something else.” I saw Alex, who also expressed his doubts, put his hands in his pockets. “After Bern I don’t think I can ever look at wheat beer again,” he said. “Swear I’m celiac now.” I plopped the beers down anyway and enjoyed mine on my own, knocking it back between sighs. Then Rick got up and ordered us a round of ruby-colored ales. Once those were done, Alex ordered himself a porter and nursed it while Rick and I stared.
Things had definitely stopped making sense. Rick had booked this place on a drunken whim at least one day before arriving to München, or probably the morning we had rushed to Bern, or the night we had been in Brussels and met the Czech pool players—we weren’t really sure. Rick had just gotten an email that morning reminding him of his booking. So whoopee for us. We were in the cheapest room of the deepest heartland of the… and at least Rick and Alex had maintained some sort of friendship the last couple of days, but even then they realized they couldn’t stand one another without having me around to poke fun at. Serves them right for going out, without me, the last couple nights. Must have been a blast for them. Yeah, I was resentful. Yeah, I was bitter. But the least Alex could have done was buy us a damn round in keeping with our unspoken rules. And Rick… Rick… I couldn’t stand the kid. I couldn’t stand looking at his twisted-up, red mane of a beard. I couldn’t stand sitting next to the kid at a bar ‘less I took three pulls of an alcoholic spirit, and even then I knew deep down I was only playing voodoo with my liver as his face. Goddamn it Rick, I thought, seeing him go up to the bar and ordering us a couple of emerald, sour brews, bringing them back, and leaning in to whisper: “Those freaks are talking about you.”
I grabbed the beer he’d bought me, not without some shame of course, knocked back a good hit of it, then looked over. Across the bar I spotted a petite blonde, her nose dipped in a cocktail glass, wearing a Cinderella-gown-looking outfit. It wasn’t until I saw her take a second, third, and fourth sip of the clear drink that I figured she wasn’t some promo-girl or a hostel employee. That outfit set her madly apart from the rest of us who had on the proper hostel attire: cutoff jeans, smelly shirts. The way she leaned against the bar counter towards her empty glass had not a drop of sloppiness, not an ounce of vulgarity. She was a ray of light, a cloud, a silver lining around a nimbus, a metaphor, a central figure. Boys tried to pick her up, buy her shots, and when they couldn’t, in surrender, they’d kneel before her to receive a dash of blessing upon their shoulder from the liquor bottle she held like a sword, knighting them in what could only be described as Arthurian legend. I knew immediately Rick meant her when he said what he said, for all the other girls in the bar had gotten the same homing-pigeon’s message and were eyeing the same ceremony as us, the same knighting, the same Queen of the Hirsch. And then she giggled. And then she looked at me.
The Queen wasn’t without her retinue. On her right stood a Robin Hood character of slim features and a clean-cut gaze; a dagger in his pants and a quiver of bills in his back pocket. His archer’s elbow rested against the counter as he monitored the waves of sloshed men approaching the Queen and having their dance of words and alcohol with her. The hunter knew—O he knew as I knew—that the Queen was in no need of assistance. She was too relaxed having a grand ole time, looked like she was posing for pictures every time a challenger approached her, offering her the same pick-up line as the drunkard before and expecting a different result. “But of course!” she would yell, loud enough for all the bar’s townspeople and backpackers to hear. “I would love it if you bought me a drink!” The Queen lowered a faced up palm behind her back, to the hunter character, and received a hidden high-five to celebrate another lured unsuspecting creature. “Make it a round!” she added, turning to her other friend—Woah, how could I have missed him, I thought—the Wizard! Straight up, no lie: he was a Gandalf-looking chap in a gray robe and a large, deep-dish-sized enchantment of a hat over his head. This particular Gandalf didn’t have a staff (didn’t need one, for he was a young Gandalf, a twentysomething mage, before the war and before the age of dragons). The mage tiptoed around the Queen and the hunter to cast a powerful anti-hangover spell over the group. He cast it with broken wrists and rolling eyes.
When Rick and I finished our beers, Alex still nursing his, naturally, I got up to pick up next round and headed straight for the draught, which happened, just happened, to be behind these three most strange and enchanting Peter Jackson characters.
“Is there a Hobbit screening tonight?” I asked the Queen.
“Pardon me?” She turned and, as if reciting lines of dialogue, retorted. “I dare say, Mr. Stranger, my esteemed colleagues and I are not fans of the Jackson films. No, we are on a journey, yes, not quite a screening, but we have popped out of a Tolkien book, you see, maybe you recall the scene where… anyway, hi, excuse me, where are my manners, allow me to introduce myself.” She tapped her feet together, twirled her hand and tucked it under her belly. “My name is Emily of Oxford.”
The hunter stepped forward and laid his hand on her shoulder. “The one and only, might I add.” Then, with a smirk: “My name is Paul. This is our friend John.”
John, the Gandalf-looking character, had been staring at me dumbfounded. He was the one Rick had overheard talking about me. But who the hell were these people? ¿Cómo mierda hacen para no pasar vergüenza? Los ingleses son rarísimos. Their eccentricity gave me permission to play along. I stood up a little taller, grabbed my belt with one hand and with the other tipped up an imaginary cowboy hat.
“It is a high honor to make your acquaintance.”
John replied, “Yes, quite, quite. Would you enjoy a shot with us?”
“Hell yes, I would.”
John searched his wizard garbs for more of the pixie dust he needed to cast another anti-hangover spell, but before he did, Paul squeezed his shoulder.
“Hold on a minute,” Paul said, pointing an index finger at me through his leather glove. “First, state your name and what banner you fight for.”
Emily tapped the back of her knight’s head. “Paul, please, cut the hullaballoo. We have a friend here, now. And can’t you tell? Have we learned nothing of accents and dress in our handful of weeks abroad? He is obviously American.”
“Yeah,” I said. “And my name’s Mikaíl.”
“Mikaíl!” John exclaimed, tickling the whiskers of his magician’s beard. “A Russian-American? Most intriguing!”
“Nah,” I said. “That’s got nothing to do with it.”
Emily nuzzled up close to my chest, squinted her eyes and pointed her nose up at me. “Where abouts in the States are you from?”
“I’m from Texas.”
“Oh my!” Emily shouted, stepping back and turning to her boys. “I love Texas!”
“Me too,” I said. “Me too.”
The three of them grabbed their brews and dropped the Globe act a bit, which was great because I didn’t know how much longer I could mirror that British fanfare. We walked over to where the boys had been gawking at us from a distance. I explained the Brits’ attire, and by that I mean I introduced them as if they were the make-believe characters they were making themselves out to be. It worked. Gallantly, the six of us fit snuggly and chatted for hours on end. Emily expounded on what it means to be proper and posh and correct. She was all of those things. Then, from gentlemen to backpacker to traveling jester, Emily explained who at the bar had prepared for the evening. “Peacocking,” she explained, “is when you dress up so as to start a conversation,” flicking her mage’s earlobe as they giggled. John, all the while, tried to rub his legs against mine, later fidgeted around with his bag of crystals under the table, getting up plenty of times to use the restroom, and switching seats—after me next to Rick, after Rick next to Alex. By then he had turned into the two-legged fly; just one of his many spells of metamorphosis. Paul, on the other hand, was more down to Earth, a lot more manly. Of course, that came with being a Queen’s guardian and protector by sworn “oath,” as he later told us. “Have you three come up with any drinking games on your travels?”
Rick knocked back his beer. “Like what?”
John the bearded wizard lifted his head after having fallen asleep inside a stein swashed in cigarette smoke.
“Drinking games!” he yelled, blinking. “Like ‘Said It.’ Have you played it before?”
“Does it get you wasted?” Alex asked, as if he didn’t want to.
“Well, it is more of a game you play while you’re wasted. But it’s quite simple nonetheless: for example, you see that bartender over there?”
We Texans turned around and caught sight of a tired, German punk in a black, low-cut shirt, pouring draughts for the dozens at the bar and breastfeeding their thirsty eyes.
“Yeah, we see her.”
“Indeed,” John said. “In this case were I or any of you to mention her breasts, and someone else call ‘Said it!’ then you would have to go up and tell her what you said. Quite simple.”
Paul closed his eyes as he put his brew up to his nose and took a deep inhale of the carbonated fumes. Then he opened his eyes toward his magician friend. “Lay the incantation on me, John.”
“You must first regard the lady,” he said.
Paul turned around, looked at the bartender, and stared at her with such intensity that one of her buttons popped off. Then he turned back to Emily, John, and us, and said: “That bartender yonder has the shapeliest melons mines eyes would ever, ever have the pleasure to chew upon.”
Rick and Alex almost threw up laughing, while John yelled, “SAID IT!”
Emily covered her gasp with both hands. “Paul, you devil!”
It was too late. He hadn’t heard Emily’s order to come back and was walking up to the bartender who, at first sight of a man dressed in a Robin Hood get-up, couldn’t help but smile. Paul threw his elbows on the counter and leaned in to whisper in her ear what we assumed he had told us. The bartender, punk as she was, ran a locket of her purple and red hair as if to hear. And she heard something. For she leaned back with both hands still on the counter and laughed to high heaven. Paul took his chance and put both of his hands on top of the bartender’s and laughed with her in echo. Then he came back with a round of free beers.
Emily, who had taken the joke lightly at first, but then acted sassy for a minute after, later told me Paul had a tab open and the beers weren’t really free. But they were free to Rick and Alex and me. We had a blast with the Brits. There’s nothing like some fresh blood in your group to make you forget the bad. These cats were going to save us. And we were going to go out too. But before that we were going to get plastered, as one in a hostel bar should, as more and more men flooded the space and tried to hit on the handful of women at the bar.
It was packed now, shoulder to shoulder. It smelled like hard apple cider. The lighting was dim, conducive too, and everyone was vibing out. For the first time in my life I felt young and knew I was young at the same time. It was comforting in a way, as if I knew I was neither a kid, nor too old just yet. The twentysomethings I’d seen growing up had been indistinguishable from the actual “grownups”—to me they were all equal—and later as a teen I detested them and rebelled until I learned to accept what was around me, in me. But not yet. Not at this bar, seeing all these backpackers my age, seeing all these twentysomethings hook up with one another, seeing all of them expose the best and worst sides of themselves, all of them knowingly or unknowingly in the market for a date with destiny, all of them for sale, or on sale, or resale, all of them waiting for the story to be told that would capture the magic of their youths, all of them, these birds, peacocking in one way or another—just as Emily had explained. There I felt at home. I felt as if time would never again tick for me. I could stay here forever. Maybe life could be this fairy tale the Brits were living: just dress up and make a mess, cause a riot, pretend you’re somebody else, or, hell, be yourself masterfully, dutifully, exuberantly, ecstatically, but just be yourself. Lo, but then my gaze fell upon my watch. That thing was ticking, myself along with it. And I began to feel old. Really, really old. I wasn’t the child looking up at his parent or wondering where his older cousins were. I was gone, too far gone, and any step back was settling down, accepting things would never be the same again. ¿Qué hago yo aquí? I lamented, sad too I would never learn German. I barely knew what “Zeitgeist” meant, let alone how to translate “Dasein.” Only “Angst” had introduced itself to me in all of its tongues. It never said goodbye. Germans, with their capital Letters. Pelotas.
Only the clamor of the bar and a narrow sense of place brought me out from my spinning watching, back down to an orbiting Earth, to our table soaked in cheap beer and premature nostalgia. Emily shouted, “We must dance tonight,” and all this about feeling old and how nothing lasts forever popped like the effervescent bubbles of a brew.
Venturing off in random zigzags, we came to the door of the most convincing nightclub crowd of entrepreneur-types, sugar-daddy types, angel types, and gold-mining types. We made the line, waited till it was our troupe’s turn to enter, reached the door, and were halted by a doorman who only cracked the door enough for Emily to snuggle in with her blue shimmer of a royal gown. “And my friends?” she asked, very casual, very friendly.
The man shook his frown at Emily, who soon proved why she was the Queen.
“Listen to me, now,” she said, wiggling her nose up at the bouncer. Something in him broke. Glass shattered.
“You see these fine gentlemen?”
“I see these fine gentlemen.”
“They are my friends.”
“They are your friends.”
“They have lots of money.”
“They have lots of money.”
“You will let them in.”
“I will let them in.”
“So step aside and stick your thumb in your mouth!”
The man did as he was told. We got inside.