Essay, Photography, Visual Art

New Mexico Moments | New Memories of Past Lives

20140718_173906 - cropped We were drowning in darkness on Highway 41 outside Santa Fe, but every five seconds or so, lightning fractured a ganglion of clouds and only those clouds. It was an electrical cage in the sky, and for what prisoner and for what crime, I did not know. I only knew we were not far from the Devil’s Backbone, a ridge off the side of this two-lane road.

Growing up, Matt hadn’t believed in legends of paranormal phenomena around this area, but as an adult he had crossed into the Twilight Zone one night, witnessing massive shadows, some with animal limbs and human heads. They seemed to exist on another plane but their lives intersected with ours in this time and space around the Devil’s Backbone. They did not pay attention to cars until headlights neared them. Then they evaporated.

We didn’t spy anything supernatural this time and we didn’t have to. Other things haunted us more than the possibility of interdimensional beings. For Matt, that meant his upbringing in Moriarty, 60 miles south of Santa Fe, where memories were preserved. He shared some of these during our 800-mile drive from California to New Mexico, but I will not repeat them. I will maintain his privacy. My ghost was a woman whose green eyes breathed blue if I gazed into them long enough. And if she was my ghost, then I was her “katten,” her nickname for me because I would take catnaps next to her in the middle of the day. But I was no longer this invented creature. She stopped dating me and went her own way. I just knew that Allie—who grew up in Albuquerque—would be in New Mexico this weekend for her best friend’s wedding, and I could miss her if I let my heart wander. I could be that tortured poet. So I reminded myself that Allie was not why I crossed two states in 100-degree heat. I was also here for my best friend.

Matt and I traveled this weekend to retrieve his daughters, Zoe and Ysara, who were sojourning with his parents in Moriarty. We would stay a few days and then return to Los Angeles with his daughters and his niece Gianna. I would also return knowing the quotidian qualities of a multigenerational household. I lived by myself in LA. The first night, his parents fed us enchiladas, pinto beans, and watermelon. I befriended three dogs and a cat.

Then we went to the bar Blackie’s where two men outside did not stop staring at us from the moment we exited the car until the moment we entered the place. Inside we found no hostility but uneasiness, when a guy gripped a cue stick and walked behind us, even though the pool tables were on the opposite side of the room. He did not clobber us though. He put the cue stick behind the bar. Some locals asked the bartender to turn up the music. System of a Down screamed even louder.

The second day, I woke up in the living room and heard Ysara crying in another part of the house. Her grandmother was talking to her. I dozed off. Sometime later, I sensed I wasn’t alone like I often was at this hour. A Yorkshire terrier was running across my inflatable bed. I heard the small but high-pitched sound of the television screen but didn’t hear the program. It was muted. I turned and saw 8-year-old Zoe on the armchair. She was holding her 2-year-old sister Ysara in her lap, and they were hypnotized by the Disney Channel’s “The Little Mermaid” TV series. “Good morning,” I murmured.

After I showered, Matt fried an egg, topped an enchilada with it, and served this to me with a cup of coffee. For someone who has to cook for himself, I felt like a rock star at the Ritz-Carlton. Matt’s parents, Carlos and Shari, were also in the kitchen, and their daughter Gabrielle lived upstairs with their granddaughter Gianna. This domestic scene was an everyday occurrence for Carlos and Shari but seasonal for me; once a year, I had breakfast with my parents, brother, and his wife and children.

In the afternoon, Matt and I visited Santa Fe. I had always wanted to walk around the galleries there, but not walk into the galleries because many of them exhibited consumer art—pieces made for homeowners to decorate their walls—rather than experimental art that challenged form, genre, media, and criticism. We wandered in the five o’clock heat, sweating through our shirts, begging the sun to fall faster, but it never broke its commitment to murdering us.


the oldest house in the U.S., built around 1650


Freshly dried red chiles are strung up and called

Freshly dried red chiles are strung up and called “ristras,” and commonly decorate porches in the Southwest.

IMG_4006IMG_4012 The third day, I woke up and the Yorkie was sleeping next to my foot. Without a word, Ysara helped me roll up the inflatable bed. Matt’s sister, Gabby, made everyone breakfast burritos with New Mexico’s famous green chile. Matt and I cleaned the lawn chairs in the backyard to prepare for the six o’clock barbecue. Over the months, the chairs had gathered dust and dirt that could only be removed with a steel scouring pad and a garden hose. Ysara brushed the chairs also, wanting to participate in whatever her father was doing. Later she helped gather mint leaves for the dozen mojitos I would make during the barbecue. IMG-20140719-00192

Matt wanted to visit his oldest uncle and aunt who lived a few blocks away, so I walked over there with him, his father, his other uncle, and his daughters.

This distance between relatives is mostly unheard of in Los Angeles, but Moriarty is less than five square miles with less than 2,000 residents. Many people know one another. Many are related. Change is glacial. That conservatism is seen in some of its religious practices, as a billboard between Moriarty and Albuquerque asks whether you are going to heaven or hell.

The words, “nino” and “nina,” are informal Spanish for godfather and godmother (formally “padrino” and “madrina”), and that was how Matt referred to his oldest uncle and aunt. We sat and chatted with his nino and nina for a bit.

Returning home, Matt’s father told me he used to butcher one cow a year to feed his family. To accomplish this, he required two saws, many knives, and a freezer.

All parts of the cow were used including the tongue, which went into empanadas during Christmas. Organ meats were used in equally creative ways.


A couple hours before the barbecue, I played chess against Zoe and sought advice from Giannna. Ysara knocked over the chess pieces at one point, and we started over, but it didn’t bother me. Games end. That’s their nature. It’s always been that way and there will always be more of them. The players change throughout the years, and they do so every generation, and I met all the players that night at the barbecue. They were all ages and they loved playing with fire, because fire was elemental and primal and shapeless. Fire was the dancer that needed no music. Fire was the impulse behind every behavior—before that behavior was conditioned by parents, peers, and teachers.

That night, I heard the fire in the fireworks, sizzling, popping, shrieking. I heard children cry, laugh, tattle, and get scolded. I had heard all this before. I had once lived in a house with parents and pets and prepared breakfast meals. It was another life in another fabric of this multiverse, one that I might glimpse if I dared to travel the highway that went there.

—Tommy Tung

Note: the photographs I appear in were taken by Matt Anaya.


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