I discovered country music in high school, when I started dating Travis, an honest-to-God, tried and true Texan. My parents came to the area by way of northern Indiana and France, following the promise of a tenure-track job, so it’s not their fault that they didn’t have any cultural relevance for this strange, sunburned, gently rolling part of the country. Travis, on the other hand, came from a long line of Texans, people who had blurred the border between Texas and Mexico and traded DNA back and forth for generations. He had a Hispanic last name but blond hair, no drawl but a penchant for guayaberas. We would drive around in his big red truck with the windows down and listen to his extensive music collection, culled over the years from his father’s vinyl, big floppy records with pictures of old white men in ten-gallon hats and soft, faded pearl-snap shirts. There wasn’t much to do in our small hometown when you were old enough to drive but too young to drink, so we’d ride around for hours, up and down the old country roads that he knew like the back of his hand from years of cutting and hauling hay for neighboring farmers. This was back when gas was just over a dollar a gallon and we didn’t have cell phones, jobs, or anywhere special to be. He’d put in a good CD and I’d scoot over to the middle of that big, long, bench-style front seat to cuddle under his arm, listen, and learn about the greats. He introduced me to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, and countless others. By the end of our last summer together I could belt out “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” with the best of them.
Travis taught me how to dance, and I taught him how to love. That may seem like a trite comparison but I think it’s a fair description, and that he would agree. He gave me a beautiful, tiny, sterling silver pocketknife and showed me how to use it in any number of useful ways. I still have it, and remember that when he presented it to me, he insisted I give him a penny. “If you’re going to give someone a knife as a gift, Marisa, you have to get a penny from them in return” he explained. Otherwise, the knife will cut the friendship. He showed me what a ball hitch was and how to bait a hook with a live worm, shoot a gun, and drive a boat. We had our fair share of ferocious, dramatic, drawn-out fights that ended in tears and kisses and promises of eternal love. He was stubborn, but I was more stubborn. I insisted on being his girlfriend, meeting his family, hanging out with his two younger sisters. He had to take me with him when he went out with his friends and their girlfriends. I didn’t really fit in, didn’t have an accent or a father who was a farmer, didn’t drive a truck or wear Western-style jeans. Though I didn’t have much in common with the other girlfriends, we all got along surprisingly well. To their credit, they all welcomed me into the fold with arms outstretched, this outsider who drove a compact car and didn’t know that Bob Wills was still the king.
We would go dancing in Gruene every Tuesday night when Two Tons of Steel played and the entrance fee was only two dollars. Gruene Hall, which holds the distinction of being the oldest dancehall in Texas, didn’t have air conditioning. This was Texas in the summertime, back before we were old enough to drink, and we still loved every minute of it. I’d wear the shortest skirt I could get away with and barely more than a tank top. Travis, ever the traditionalist, would wear long jeans, boots, and a pearl snap-shirt, his cowboy hat fixed securely on his head. We’d dance until we couldn’t breathe and sweat dripped into our eyes, and then seek solace in front of the huge fans with two cup of ice water each, downed in seconds. We’d drive home at the end of the night in that big red truck, the windows down and the wind whipping our hair and drying our sweat-drenched clothes while we sang all our favorites from the night at the top of our lungs.
Travis had a full engineering scholarship to a fairly prestigious Midwest school, and I had happily matriculated to the liberal enclave that was the University of Texas at Austin. He insisted that we could make long-distance work, and that we were supposed to be together forever. I knew this wasn’t how things were meant to be, but buried that thought deep in the back of my mind as I waved him goodbye from his long, dusty driveway.
I only visited him once at school, before things fell apart completely. When we got to the airport for my flight home he handed me a burned cd and told me to listen to it on the plane. I put it in my discman and skipped through several familiar songs before settling on one that I hadn’t heard in a long time. As I listened to Merle Haggard croon about silver wings, I knew I had to end it. Our perfect summer, our relationship, everything we had in common was slowly fading out of sight.