My childhood ended the summer I was seventeen and working the counter at the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe at Walt Disney World’s Frontierland. I wore black garters on the sleeves of the candy-striped, button-down shirt that served as a uniform, but otherwise this was just a glorified fast-food gig no different from working at Whataburger. Over the clatter of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad—and the screams of all the thrill-seeking riders—I filled drink orders and got yelled at by moms from Buffalo who’d asked for no beans in their taco salads.
I’d never seen a taco salad in my life. I was from Mission, the birthplace of legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, where the only cafe I knew was called Pepe’s. I’d spent previous summers working at a photography studio, washing the large windows at the downtown chamber of commerce, and cleaning out mobile home trailers for $50 each. That summer in 1987, I’d gone to Florida to live with second cousins and gotten hired at Disney. I think they stuck me in the Pecos Bill simply because I was from Texas. The Disney laundry service provided crisp Western shirts at the start of each shift, but I wasn’t much into playing “cowboys.” My mom had tried, dressing me up in country-western “kicker” drag from Mission Dry Goods, but I always felt as ridiculous as a member of the Village People.
Among my high school classmates, the trend was Roper boots, but I was a loner geek who continued wearing his penny loafers. My sister, Michelle, a cheerleader, school paper staffer, and homecoming queen also-ran, had big hair, a huge smile, and impossible dreams of getting out. Our overprotective parents made it hard for her to go anywhere other than chaperoned school trips, and none of us were allowed to stay out later than ten o’clock. She hollered for most of her life that she couldn’t wait to finish high school and leave. But until then, she would make efforts to fit in. She joined the Future Farmers of America and raised a sheep for the livestock show in Mercedes that sold to a local slaughterhouse. She slipped in and out of her school-club jackets and sequined gowns with all the ease of the professional model and actress she hoped to become one day.
I had no real ambitions of my own—at least I never announced them like she did—and blindly followed when she signed up for drama class, thinking it’d be an easy A. I also thought it would be a way of getting her approval. I landed every male lead and placed at speech tournaments, finally outshining my sister, but only onstage. On campus, I was still a bit of a loser, with just a friend or two, while she maintained an almost oppressive popularity.
I can’t say going to Florida was my conscious attempt to set myself free, but maybe my sister’s ceaseless rebel call to “get out” had stirred me to run off ahead as she continued the battle at home.
Michelle had graduated that summer and had fought to go upstate for college, but because she was a girl, my parents felt she’d be safer in the Valley, where she could attend the local commuter college that everyone derided as Taco Tech or Harvard on the Rio. For the first time I felt sorry for her, guilty that I had more freedom because I was a boy.
But mostly I missed her, and my little brother, Marco. This was the first time I’d been away from both of them, the first time I’d ever left Texas. I was reminded of it each time I turned on the radio. The rock ballad “Alone,” by Heart, was a huge hit that summer, and everywhere I went the Wilson sisters wailed, pounded the keyboards, and pulled the strings of their electric guitars as if they were my own veins. I grew increasingly homesick, recalling the grumbling crop dusters that banked low over our colonia as they made repeated sweeps of the nearby fields, hot afternoons spent making backyard “swimming pools” out of heavy garbage bags, and trying to finish rainbow-colored raspas before they melted into a brown puddle.