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  • Writer's pictureAmy Stephenson

On Sturgis, sort of

In early 2007 I got very drunk with an old friend, let’s call him Mark, and told him a recent story about my life, a true story of how I’d gotten married last fall in a secret elopement in Alaska to a boy I’d known from when I worked at a McDonald’s at age 15 who was now deployed in Iraq. It was an unbelievable story and I loved telling it, and he loved hearing it and declared me a Hemingway Character right there at the table at John Harvard’s, waving his pint above his head.

We then got into some navel-gazey discussion about how my husband was off fighting for a country neither of us had ever really seen. We’d been to California, loved LA, but what about all that gorgeous country in the middle, all that America we’d heard so much about?

Mark and I had been friends for years, stayed in touch while I was living in other cities, and it felt really good to hang out again. He had recently been uninvited to return teaching high school english for the upcoming year and would have a free summer. He seemed serious about a road trip, and I was just killing time until the end of my husband’s deployment, so we started planning one. We bought one of those old GPSs that look like tiny televisions you stick on your dashboard and we named her Sacagawea because she was leading our expedition west. In June, we climbed into his black Honda Civic ready to see the world.

A week or so into the trip, outside Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on the way to see Mount Rushmore and Deadwood, I sat in the passenger seat, a little dazed from the baking sun and the ambient car sounds, and I began to notice that there seemed to be an awful lot of motorcycles on the road around us. I was counting them to myself, watching the ratio morph until there were easily three bikes for every car around us, maybe more.

The longer we drove, the more bikes there were, the more I was thinking about how there were more bikes, the more I felt like the bikes were closing in like a swarm of hornets, like the road was made of motorcycles, a loud and confusing escort. I absently asked if “”Being a Biker”” was considered a profession in the west because how else could so many people be doing it on a Tuesday morning. He laughed, shrugged. The temperature kept climbing, we kept driving, the motorcycles kept coming, the black hills swallowed all of it.

Standing here today I could not describe Mount Rushmore to you, though I did spend that morning on its viewing platform. What I can describe to you is the hundreds of people clad in leather and spitting, smoking, and talking loudly about what a fucking letdown the monument was, not even worth the fucking parking fee, which meant that instead of talking shit about the monument when we got back to the car, I got to talk shit about the people talking shit about the monument, which made me feel like a better person, even though I thought it was a letdown too.

When we got to Deadwood there was an enormous banner hanging above main street that said WELCOME STURGIS MOTORCYCLE RALLY in all caps, which both explained the bikes but did nothing to explain the bikes, because we didn’t know what that meant at the time. Sturgis, I would later learn, is a yearly event wherein roughly half a million motorcycle enthusiasts descend on Sturgis, South Dakota and its surrounding small towns for a week in the summer to drink and fight and cosplay as the leather-clad badasses they once thought they’d grow up to be. But at the time, all that was clear from the banner was that we had accidentally wandered into an event to which we—20-something New Yorkers in Converse All-Stars, one of whom was Jewish—had very much not been invited.

And so we parked his Honda Civic with its New York license plate somewhere in downtown Deadwood, South Dakota, the only car you could find in any direction you looked. There wasn’t much happening yet, it was late afternoon, so we walked to a tourist trap where they handed us musty cowboy and sex worker costumes and positioned us on the set of an old-timey bar, me splayed saucily on top holding a bottle and him sitting backwards in a chair holding a fake gun, which pretty much meant we were taking a sepia toned photo of the only thing we ever did—sit at bars—with the addition of a fake gun.

Then it was dusk, and when we emerged, the sleepy downtown had transformed into a sea of mostly couples in leather. So we went to a bar, a biker bar—which I guess they all were that night. We sat on stools and listened to leather mommies complain about their kids’ social studies teachers and overheard balding dudes loudly chewing dip and discussing various ways to rid their lawns of weeds. We watched hundreds of bikers dump their money into slot machines and drink pink blended rum sludge with crazy straws and began to suspect that bikers are mostly just middle aged married people with disposable income to spend on studded chaps and wallet chains enjoying a weird retiree motorcycle themed rush week. The scene became grotesque as the yelling and fighting began. We left, headed west.

This was our first true moment of disillusionment during the trip, the first time something dangerous-seeming had turned out to be deeply boring, if in a surreal way, and suddenly we couldn’t wait for California, which would at least have good Mexican food. But I loved this story, how alien we felt and how exciting that was, being so far out of our element and not knowing how to seem cool about it, for once. I love telling this story to people, how bizarre a coincidence, how if we’d left a few days earlier or later we might’ve missed it entirely. I loved the feeling of shrugging our shoulders and heading straight for the leather morass, straight into what was so foreign to us. I told it for years afterwards, it was one of the highlights in a summer of highlights.

The dude I was with on this trip, who we’re calling Mark. Later, after my husband came home and after we went to new cities to start new lives and after better than ten years of staying in touch and maintaining a close friendship, after Mark visited me in San Francisco, where I lived at the time, after he waited until we closed down the bar, until my husband and my other friends had gone home, after he convinced me to order one last beer at last call despite my slurring words, after he suggested we walk the back way home, on the dark street, after he threw me up against a house and stuck his tongue down my throat and his hands up my dress and after I tried to gently explain that this was not what I thought should be happening between us at which point he doubled down and moved his hand into my underwear, after whining something about love until I finally threw him off me and went home, after all of that, we woke up the next morning and my husband asked him to please leave our home while I sat in the corner shaking. He looked my husband in the eyes and apologized for damaging THEIR friendship, for things quote getting out of hand, as though we had just been drunk and fooling around. Then, and only then, as he apologized to a man he never touched, did I realize he was an asshole, and had probably been one the whole time.

Sidenote: that is how you REALLY become a Hemingway character.

Despite being in his thirties when this happened, I think Mark thought we were living out some kind of Young Adult novel fantasy: the two friends who everyone whispered must definitely be boning, giving in after years of keeping it hidden right there on the corner under the streetlight, finally realizing a desire bigger than the two of us could ever control. I suspect this because I knew him for more than ten years, knew how he thought about women, how Alkaline Trio lyrics had convinced him he was owed being saved by one.

But a more accurate description of what happened is that I didn’t want to bone him, had never considered boning him, had done nothing different that night than I had done on any other night we’d closed down any other bar. For months afterward I would start crying and shaking out of nowhere, and when the reading series I ran at the time did an event in Los Angeles, where he lived, I spent the night before sobbing on a barstool because I was terrified he might show up to it. I stood in front of 300 people with a microphone in my hand and emceed a comedy show for two hours, and I don’t remember a second of it because all I thought about was whether he was there somewhere, invisible to me behind the glare of the stage lights. We didn’t happen to each other; he happened to me.

I feel now, in trying to recall that summer, absolutely inundated by possible versions of Mark. In one, his feelings are genuine and his execution was poor; in another he’s a sociopath; in yet another, he was blackout drunk and doesn’t even remember which is extremely likely. In some versions he misses me terribly, misses the laughs and the adventures; in others he hates me and blames me for our not speaking, a version which haunts me greatly in spite of myself because in it, I am the villain. These visions come fast and unbidden upon recall of any good memory of him, like suddenly opening my eyes in a honda civic and realizing every car on the road has turned into something dark and small and armored buzzing around me, leading me somewhere I didn’t realize I was going. The next thing I know I’m writing about this piece of shit again instead of telling the stories I want to tell, the stories I lived.

I’ve been waiting for years to see what was at the end of all my grief about that night. And when I tried, finally, to write about Sturgis, when I tried to make a jokey essay about weird bikers, I found it: a dull and disappointing lack. The stories are gone, or else they are devoid of meaning or context. In a sense it was all real, the miles, the CDs, the hangovers, the bar I danced on in Nashville, the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico, the rattlesnake I ate in Texas, the flat tire. But in another sense it’s like none of it ever really happened because a central character is now missing, a ghost, a man who I spent years fleshing out in retellings who then vanished between my fingers during one ill-advised and clumsy attempt at intimacy.

What happens when a person disappears is that an entire summer of stories flattens into one story, one story that I have to tell every time I try to tell any of them, the One Where He Disappears. He is now the only story, the one thing I’ll never be able to fix in edits. It seemed dangerous at first, this new version, then slightly grotesque, but now it is just deeply and profoundly boring, and after trying to get my head around it there’s only one thing I’m sure of: I want my fucking stories back.

me, 2007, all the way west

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