Thanksgiving Special

The Nineteenth Noble Grape

Given that today is Turkey Day here in the U.S. and your appetite for our beautiful, brutal cyberpunk now is likely at a low ebb, I thought I’d pass along a story I wrote. (Erin’s edits were a huge help with this piece.) Look out for another [much cyber-ier] missive next week about charter cities and the great reset.

Thanks again for all of your support, especially to my subscribers! I’m touched you read my work and have made this Substack adventure a very positive experience. We got 3,800 views last time!

The Nineteenth Noble Grape

James McGirk

(For Erin)

The Assistant Curator at the Museo del Vino hoisted his glass into an illuminated stream of swirling motes falling from the ceiling, and pointed to the ripple of ruby red dancing across the polished countertop. 

Jamie swiveled her stool to pantomime looking closer. 

“Clear,” the curator told her. “And color bright. When two or more grapes combine in wine, the color viewed becomes...” He took the glass and circled it beneath his nostrils and inhaled, lifting his head backwards as he did so to open his sinuses. “More cloudy. Now: a deep sniff in... and to let this intriguing bouquet wash your…” He paused to look at his notes, “your soft intranasal cavity?”

No, se dice ‘palate’ en Inglés,” replied Jamie.

He nodded discreetly. She didn’t mind indulging this fellow. He’d won her over by detecting the Madrileña lisp in the Spanish she’d acquired during a semester abroad a decade earlier, and she liked the snide intelligence she felt lurking beneath the role he was inhabiting for her and the Museo. The fumes tickled her nostrils. 

She traced the contours of it first: It was a young rosé. Blancs de noirs. Pinot complicated by Mexican clay and something salty. She had it.

“I smell the ocean in my glass,” she said. “Definitely notes of brine.”

She searched for his gaze over the glass lip but he was noting something down behind the counter. Perhaps the correct translation? She sampled another whiff. A sharp, sour smell unravelled. Unfasten was maybe a better description: soily crisp almost vinegary pong suddenly softened with brine to an ever so slightly unripe strawberry and dusty quartz, which made her think of a berry mashed beneath a rubber boot, and she had to squash a most unprofessional smirk before it crawled across her face and spoiled the camaraderie she was trying to build. 

“Now take a moment to consider this smell,” the curator continued. “Ponder this smell and ponder your surroundings… Feel how cool this cellar is. How the light from the sun streams into the old cellar… Feel the glass in your hand... Close your eyes.... Think of the years of creation and the work it took to craft come together for this very moment… and now, slowly, slowly you may bring this to your lips and sup this wine.”

“Whoa that one was way too sour!” came a voice from the far side of the room. Her accent was American. Southern Californian, huskier-voiced than you’d think to look at her. Big eyes with long lashes. Slender and tall. An all-white Anthropologie ensemble clinking with costume jewelry but no bra. “You should try the dessert blend after,” she said. Lithe on her feet: she was perched on the stool beside Jamie in a second. “Hola! I’m Sam! Remember me?” 

“I’m sorry Sam, I don’t remember you,” Jamie replied.

This Sam smelled of Jolly Ranchers. Some kind of intense flowery perfume with vanilla in it. The Assistant Curator fumbled for her and grinned like an oaf. He poured an entire glass of wine for her and did not run her card. Sam’s hair was gathered in a simple clasp but fell all over the place. Her very long, very pampered, and admittedly very shiny hair. 

Gracias, Jorge!” Sam swiveled around to face Jamie. “I didn’t mean you, I meant Jorge. The wine guy. He is so great. I’m Sam.” Her hand was smooth and cool. “Sam from Instagram!”

“Jamie,” she said. 

Jorge stood and hung his apron. “Ladies, I shall return in one moment.”

Jamie caught Sam looking at her and for a strange second they held each other’s gaze. Jamie shook it off. But it reminded her of something intense. She looked at me the way Anna used to.

“Your romper is too cute,” Sam said.

“I got it at ElCorte Inglés,” Jamie said. “In Madrid.” The phrase hung in the air. Sam wanted Jamie to say more. She could tell. Sam was a stranger but her face seemed so familiar. Something about her shape and her mannerisms slipped past Jamie’s stranger-danger standoffishness and a part of her was desperate to please Sam. But what was there to say? Sam turned from her and pulled an enormous slab of phone from her tiny purse. Was she upset by her reply? What a vulnerable and chaotic presence. Who was she traveling with? Jamie felt compelled to soothe her although she wasn’t sure why. 

“Your hair looks so pretty up and back like that. Like a film star.” Was that too much? She was striking with her nape exposed. 

Sam began arranging herself in the beam of light and looking at the results in her phone. Jamie’s heart was beating too fast. 

“Yeah! You’re right...” After a moment of struggling to hold the phone up at a very peculiar angle, Sam searched for her gaze again. “Please?” Sam asked. She offered her phone. “I want it with the sun going through my glass and lighting up my hair at the same time and I just can’t hold it the right way.”

“This is a really nice shot,” said Jamie. “Make it black and white you’d be Lauren Becall in The Big Sleep.”

“Who’s that?”

“The film noir actress.” Jamie’s heart began to bounce again. “She has your pout,” she said.

“I’ll look her up.” Sam took a belt of wine and daubed her lips and tapped at her phone. Jorge returned, holding a cube filled with purple liquid and a translucent tube of plastic cups.

“Check out our collab! Sam from Instagram featuring Super Cool Wine Lady.” 

Animated grinning grapes a nd hearts throbbed all over what had been an elegant composition. Bogie and Becall this was not. The glow had Jamie felt a moment before was suddenly a ghostly trace. Super Cool? No. Wine, okay. Lady? Lady! She was only thirty-five years old. 

Sam was looking at her for approval and caught the frown lines and knit brow. “Let’s do a taste together!” she cried.

Jamie recovered her manners. “You want the rosé?” she said. “I was about to try it when you came in.”

“No, that one is super la nast’. Jorge, give us two of that thing you gave me before.”

Jorge poured them two plastic cups of purple fluid from the sweating Pyrex cube which was brimming with ice cubes and sliced fruit. And stuck in a straw! Why would they even have sangria here? The three sour tastings Jamie had spent garnering trust with the curator evaporated. Of course Jorge was doting over this flowery explosion of strange femininity who’d swanned in and ruined her palette for hours if not days with this sugar fruit booze bomb.

Sam smiled at Jamie. “So like, would you consider sangria a soup? Or a cocktail? Whatever. It’s delicious.” 

Purple fluid sluiced through a straw between two well-formed, plump lips.

“It’s plonk poisoned with sugar for teenagers to drink out of punch bowls,” Jamie said. It tasted almost exactly like Boots purple cough syrup: purple bubblegum grape KoolAid only rounder—

Sam’s touch broke Jamie’s fugue. She’d reached out and brushed a wisp of hair from Jamie’s forehead. “Wish my hair looked as good short as yours does.” There was a deeper, muskier, more sophisticated smell beneath her perfume, something subtle, adult, and intense. Jamie yanked herself back. Sam was still looking at her with those big eyes of hers, oblivious to Jamie’s irritation. Jamie couldn’t tell what color they were.

“Aren’t you glad you had the fruit soup?”

Jorge smirked.

“They’d call it gazpacho around here,” Jamie said as she knocked the last of it back. She crumpled her cup and tossed it in the bin, feeling flushed. 

A walking waste of time.

There was a reason Jamie came to the Valle. It wasn’t to slug sangria with some spunky little thing from Calabasas or some grotesque place like that. Her feet felt heavy. She was feeling the wine. The Sangria! Feeling like an ‘Enotourista’ instead of the connoisseur she really was. Three tastings attempting to establish a rapport with—thank you, Sam, his name was Jorge—all so she could ask about the non-noble grapes growing in the region. This was her quest. 

Jamie wanted fame and fortune and invitations to private tastings of grandes crues at fabulous chateaux, wanted her face featured on the cover of Wine Spectator for finding El Gusano, a perhaps mythical variety of Spanish grape believed to have been discovered in the new world, cultivated by conquistadors and friars and carried over for the Spanish court and lost in a terrible shipwreck. It was said to contain entirely new dimensions of taste and smell and mouthfeel. Something heretofore never imagined. Maybe one with narcoticizing effects (other than alcohol?); hallucinogens? Crossed with ayahuasca? An ice wine desiccated with psilocybin into a somatic syrup?

Maybe she’d trigger a counterculture, maybe an artistic movement, maybe a dionysian cult, one that fit her, one that would recast the world in her sophisticated imagination. Deference for beautiful things. Jamie remembered her first glass of wine. And let’s be honest, it was a sweet sherry, not quite as louche as sangria in a wine museum (what was she even thinking coming here?) but nothing intense, and sweet enough for a teenager practically weaned on pop and just feeling those flavors, that gold and ruby red flooding her. People used to joke about liquid adulthood but that was what wine was. And Anna filling her teacup back with acrid table wine in her tiny apartment afterwards but suddenly it had character Jamie could identify! Maybe that’s where Sam was: at the very beginning, waiting for a guide, waiting for her Anna to pry open the doors

Jamie paused to consider an exhibit and come down a bit but there it was again: Inspiration. A poster of all the tastes and smells a grape could make: grasses and tobaccos and steel and minerals and leather and soil and chocolate and cherries and wet wool (not her favorite). But El Gusano was supposed to add even more—another dimension—textures and flavors and layers that had never existed before. Why, it would be viniticulter’s equivalent of finding the Valley of the Kings in the 19th Century, a culinary King Tut’s tomb of new tastes and sensations. Like opening an alien lunch pail! But better because you knew you could drink it up and it wouldn’t turn you into a martian sex slave. Perhaps this terroir was indeed a tiny bit hallucinogenic! Or laced with exotic poisons... The museum wasn’t bad though, she thought as she almost stepped through a wax sealed Georgian wine amphora they’d sunk into the marble floor.Muy autentico.

Jamie didn’t expect to find her quarry in the Museo itself but figured it was as good a place as any to begin looking. Well, that’s not true, she hoped she would find it and figured it was a promising location. The Valle de Guadalupe was the center of Mexico’s industry. Cultivation had begun in the 16th Century and had remained fairly independent of French, Italian and New World influences until the late 20th century. It was possible there were some grapes being grown that hadn’t fallen afoul of the “noble eighteen” classic grape varietals. 

The problem was the noble eighteen tasted good and made excellent wine and the modern electronically informed consumer recognized them easily. So it was hard (unless you were French or Italian) to export a blend and command a premium for it, so all the little farms and wine regions tended to fall under the sway of international monoculture. Pinot, Merlot, Cabernet… Jamie loved them all but knew there were so many more stunning examples of delicious wine grapes: caricantes, frappettes, Blauer Portugieser and Tannats or the potent brew of oddities that went into Hungarian boar’s blood that deserved bottling and love too... what if she could find something that turned out to be a 19th noble? Pinot Jamie? Perhaps an effervescent flowery red with smooth mouthfeel and sophisticated undernotes of nourishing musk like a red muscat? Sounded more like a Sam grape, although Sam would be a white grape. Or a can of pop! Alco-pop, she concluded, given how swoony she felt after the encounter.

She liked meeting Sam. It confused her. Silly as Sam was, she was fun and young and exciting and seeing it all through her eyes was a treat. It was a small town. Maybe she’d find Sam again. 

Jamie wheeled past ancient amphoras and the generations of barrel scrubbing apparatus mounted on the walls and past the glowering portraits of the grim Francisican friars who’d brought the vines over, and the atrocious wine-influenced artwork (oh how she hated Miró) and the vacationing San Diegans and sleek Mexico City-ites and even the framed photo of Robert Parker for sale, none of it really registered with her, as she felt light on her feet and too too giddy. The wine, it ought to have worn off by now, it’s the quest, the hunt for the missing grape beginning to quicken.

A large Mercedes air-conditioned tour bus pulled up outside and disgorged a lurching cargo of Panama-hatted men and their chubby brood: A horde of Sams. There was an excellent restaurant nearby at a farm vineyard up the road. She’d made a reservation for one. Her little white rented Chevy chirped and Jamie motored off, still giddy and much more hopeful than she ought to have been. 

And then there she was: Sam waved from across the restaurant and pushed her way through the throng of waiting gastornauts to greet Jamie.

“Two hundred and fifty likes so far!” Sam said as she waggled her phone at Jamie. “Thanks to you!”

What was she doing at this much feted outdoor restaurant with a Michelen-starred chef? How had she found time to change? And change she had: Sam wore an almost feral pattern of reds and purples and black that outlined her sleek silhouette. Part of Jamie wanted to bolt, but instead she stepped closer to Sam and said, “What are you talking about?”

“The picture of you took of me is doing really really well,” Sam said. “Why are you standing here? Were you looking for me?” 

Something about the way Sam said it and the way she stood leaning toward her struck Jamie as very girlish. Her Lauren Becall confidence was gone. Jamie suddenly felt protective of this wild orchid blooming in the billowing meat smoke and then—oh, was that why she was so dressed up: was she here with a date?

“They bungled my reservations,” Jamie told Sam. “What are you doing here?”

“Yelp said ‘Five star sunsets in rustic splendor with street art splashes’ so I was like that’s basically my brand,” Sam said. “Smells like the food truck that serves BBQ by my house in Downtown LA.”

A tall gent in a chef’s hat materialized with an amuse bouche on a tiny china plate; a fleck of pastry spilling foam. He must recognise me, thought Jamie. But no, he placed it in front of Sam and Sam slid it between her plump lips and chewed indifferently and said, “gracias.” 

Jamie felt as if she’d swallowed an ice cube. As if someone took a brush loaded with grey watercolor and slathered it all over the lovely restaurant Jamie’s colleagues promised was undiscovered. At least she got me a table. And Jamie had to admit she was grateful for the company. An eno-Athena she may have been, but the life of a huntress was a lonely one. And wine is communion and its effects are amplified in good company.

“Did you have to wait long?” Jamie said, hoping.

“They had a table ready.”

“You waltzed in and they gave you a table?” 

“Yeah.” She fingered a buttonhole. “I had to flirt for it.” 

Jamie wondered if it were her table she’d taken. 

Sam took her hand, which Jamie didn’t have a chance to protest, and walked them back to a cozy corner overlooking the Mexican countryside. It was a nice table. An outdoor restaurant like you’d never find in the states. You could almost see the ocean gleaming beyond the vineyards which were just beginning to turn gold in the late afternoon. Sam pulled the chair next to hers out and patted her seat. Her acrylic nails sloughed a tiny sparkling Swarovski crystal. Jamie plucked it up and offered it to Sam, who blew it from her finger tip and the little meteor tumbled through the air and vanished. Then they sat. Sam insisted on the chair beside her, which struck Jamie as both being intimate and feeling like they were on a TV set. 

The waiter did his spiel in English for Sam’s benefit. Not the chef this time. A churlish underling who clearly resented speaking English and Sam’s uncouth sparkle. 

Jamie thought of her first dinner with Anna. She was 21 and Anna was much older—she never did get her age—a dank Spanish restaurant, an ancient upstairs place, centuries old, filthy tin hammered on the ceiling, low lit, never beholden to health codes or safety, no doubt long gone, the two of them occupying two corners of a tiny table, sitting so close they were forced to huddle, knees glancing, thighs grazing and testing, as Anna encouraged her to try the things she never would have had on her own, the spirals of octopi, mini omelettes and deep, interesting draughts of salt and fishiness and her deep deep eyes the color of olives and lips painted with the Revlon Cherries in the Snow that Anna had fished from her Jamie’s purse and never returned.

Jamie felt a stab of sadness and panic when she couldn’t fill Anna’s role sitting beside Sam; that she wouldn’t be able to stare across the table until she was mesmerized, that she could never implore and cajole her the way Anna had, but she quickly realized how much she enjoyed the feeling of Sam’s perky little presence radiating beside her instead. 

“You order the wine, Jamie,” Sam said, setting down the list.

Jamie never would have let her order. This vineyard restaurant was a discrete cathedral to the grape. The wines in their cellar were all biodynamic, all grown on the property and seemed an excellent balance of quirky but not too precious. Jamie ordered an unusual red: Besos y Naranjas. Sam snapped her sniffing the cork for spoilage.

“Was that for your Instagram too?” Jamie said.

“For me.” Sam looked down for a second. “It was cute. A very ‘you’ moment.”

“Who am ‘I’, Sam?”

“You’re… like... look at your cute little khaki shorts and your hat and the notebook, you’re like this Indiana Jones wine MILF.”

“Not sure I appreciate being categorized as a porn varietal.”

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to.” She took a deep slurp of wine and smiled. “But it’s totally true.”

Jamie tried a different tack. “Do you remember any of Jorge’s suggestions?”

“No, he mostly told me about his new car.”

“Okay, so to really appreciate wine you have to be mindful, you have to let yourself experience every infinitesimal moment of the sensory experience. When you do it right you can really fall into it and the experience can be transcendent.” A tired line but Sam seemed suggestible. Jamie could get to her if she could nudge her across the threshold. 

“So show me.” Sam said, as she playfully rotated the base of Jamie’s wine glass with her sparkling fingernail.

Jamie lifted her glass, swirled, sniffed, and sipped. At first she could feel Sam watching but as she went through her ritual, Sam, the restaurant and everything else fell away until all there was was the hard glass in Jamie’s hand and a twirling little maelstrom of liquid, the moment extending and the details unraveling for her... chocolate cherry petrol leather curry chalk… so it was mostly zinfandel. 

She brushed way an intrusive thought that occasionally mared those moments: What if good wine were no different than bad? What if it were all in the patter and the packaging that she and the Jorges of the world churned out, and all they were doing was bidding up the prices of what were really just spoiled grapes? This used to bother her but she recognized it now as a part of the ritual; a selfish clutch to the quotidian, a cowardly refusal of the call when the beyond was beckoning, calling for her cross the threshold to lean over her glass and plunge her soul in. 

She caught a glimpse of Sam following along and she went deeper inside herself, churning up the first time she’d ever quaffed: after dinner it was a Spanish tinto in a cafe just beyond the Plaza Major, and Anna was smiling and gently goading her still, and she remembered her big big olive eyes pinned to hers imploring her to take her first sip, and she enjoyed her first sip and succumbing to her will as much as she did the sweet nectar she sipped

This was a sweeter wine too, not quite a sherry, it wasn’t fortified, and the attack was rough, much like the museo rosé, and also not as great billed but the mid-palate was pleasing, interesting, sweeter than you’d think, no new grapes to be found, just a jangle of Italian and Spanish oddities ping-ponging around a goopy purple zinfandel and it all going down refreshingly quick. A surprisingly sweet after-taste; there was an instant when she felt a swirl of silk and Asian spice and grasped for it, but it was gone, and all that was left was a little grit of sediment on her lips, and Sam saying, “Have you come back to me now? Where oh where did my little wine MILF go?”

“The first time I ever tried wine was with someone a lot like you,” Jamie said. “Her name was Anna. And when you go into the wine like I do it’s like a runner’s high... you lose yourself in the glass… and… I dunno it deepens you.”

The sun was lower now. They put on fairy lights but most of the illumination came from the great cooking fire in the back which made the shadows romp and the candles on the table flicker and she watched Sam tuck her nose, her shapely, strong and rather masculine nose into her glass and her curls cascaded around the cup and suddenly frizzled in the candle flame! An ill-tempered orange ember streaked its way toward Sam’s head—Jamie pinched the flame dead: The stink of singed hair filled the air. Sam’s eyes so close to hers were engrossing. Jamie held for a moment longer than she needed to, tilting toward her, which felt like falling, but just as she felt strange sparks of warmth flicker between them, she let go, because it was too much, and besides there was a confusing dinner to navigate: six courses to be selected from a list. Both hands required. Cold country air filled the gap.

“Did you like it?” Jamie asked her.

“Yah. You were nice and warm,” Sam replied. 

Jamie realized it might have been the first time she’d ever reached out and touched her.

“The wine!” Jamie said.

“Okay, so I skipped the light wobbling on the table part and took a sniff and sat with it and then took a sip and it still doesn’t seem that different than eight dollar Trader Joes stuff… well okay maybe a little better than that, it did have a complicated fancy taste.” She swished a mouthful around and swallowed. “I get that there’s a lot going on but it’s too sour.  Everything here is.”

“That’s fair.” Jamie said. “Most of it’s really young.”

Sam reached for her Coke. “Do you think I could get a—“

“Don’t you dare say sangria or they’ll throw us out!”

“A shot of tequila to pour in here?” Sam said.

“Sure.” Jamie felt herself smiling.

“Where’s the menu?” Sam said.

“Okay so there is no menu,” Jamie said. “Menu here in a fancy restaurant means a preset list of things, Sam. Didn’t you read the review?” And how the hell was she paying for any of this? This was a hundred dollar per person menu. Plus the wine. Was she grifting thirtysomethings for gastropub delights?

“I honestly just came because I liked the sugar skull on the wall,” Sam said. 

Indeed, sure enough, across the room a neon-pink and acid green street-art styled skull leered at the diners and Jamie could tell it would make a great picture. She could picture Sam doing an angular pose in front of it, which of course would be an appalling appropriation of local culture only this wasn’t authentic culture either, just a reference to a reference and Sam would just be a squiggle of girl in front of it. Jamie decided she wouldn’t hate her if Sam took a picture in front of it.

The first dish was presented. The food was just short of exquisite. Salads and appetizers were better than the mains, those likely hampered by the machismo of insisting on an outdoor flame. Course after course was quite good: tiny little daubs of veggies and foamed beets; meats and fishes; tiny soups and foams. Sam was bored. She was acting up. Doing voices to shift the attention onto herself.

“This one’s smelly but tastes real good,” Sam said of a fine farmhouse cheese slathered on a kind of complex gratin nugget, and then she nibbled around the fat on the ribeye and discreetly spat the lamb kebab into her napkin, while refusing to divulge anything of her life in conversation. “I’m Sam from Instagram,” she would reply. “Queen of all things past and present as embodied within a square frame.” 

And this well-rehearsed thot philosophy (the phrase yet another millennial irreverence Sam taught her) wore thin fast, especially as Sam, slurring now, waved the fish away completely and when the waiter ceremoniously presented her with a silver cloche and cried “La Pièce de résistance” and revealed a bright red lobster on a bed of wine corks she seized the thing and snapped a selfie menacing the proud chubby waiter with it!

Sam’s behavior degenerated further as the evening wore on, as she traded sips between the admittedly foul wine and her spiked Cola. Soon it was time for another picture and to Jamie’s horror, Sam grasped the same waiter by the shoulder (in her heels Sam was a head taller than he was) and led him to the skull. Sam made the poor man take photos of her and even across the room she could tell how demanding she was: a dozen poses, Sam carefully examining her phone after each shot, and Jamie could feel the tension of the place rise and and all the eyes pressing in on them… Sam pranced back. Pleased with herself. Knobbly knees rising from her dress. In a lesser restaurant Jamie would worry they would contaminate their food with phlegm for such an offense but here… oh, it could be so much worse... Once at a party in Monaco Jamie witnessed a cut direct: two freckled American sisters said something unforgivable and the hostess began to ignore them, ignore them with such intensity everyone else joined in too, looking past them, passing them by as if they didn’t exist, even when they climbed a table and screeched and stomped for attention, the hostess and her guests kept moving along, ignoring their cries and poundings until finally the pair had no choice but to slink from the restaurant in shame, their social lives obliterated, it was as ghastly as seeing the Hiroshima victims’ shadows etched into stone: it was Jamie’s greatest fear.

Sam put her hand on Jamie’s shoulder as she sat down beside her. “Miss me?” Sam asked.

A breeze was blowing in from the ocean. The stars were suddenly visible above them very clearly and Jamie could feel her skin pucker into goosebumps.

“You keep inching away from me,” Sam said. “No, no, no, no, no, I need you! Where’s my warmth?”

Jamie couldn’t bear this. 

The service stretched further and further and the night breeze picked up, stirring leaves and farm smells and Jamie felt very alone and yet somehow left with the care of this brat. And then Sam ordered dessert! Popcorn Ice cream? What was next? A cigar? And how dare she take another picture without even consulting her after the first one had done so well? Weren’t they a team?

A new waiter appeared. Younger. Smitten with Sam. He carried blankets and draped them over the two women. Jamie heard herself order two sherries. She felt a soft something search for her hand, and Sam’s warm fingers were suddenly laced through hers and Jamie could feel blood heating up her ears and her heart thudding but she no longer felt cold nor alone. And Sam was still and quiet beside her, and as they sat steeping in one another’s warmth and sipping their nightcaps Jamie wondered if this was what it felt like for Anna when they held hands in the Plaza after dinner. 

It was dark now. The vineyard was an oasis of warm light surrounded by soft dark countryside and the stars were generously sprinkled and she could even see the smear of the Milky Way wending its way through the sky like a forever river and Sam was so warm and quiet and in the corner of her eye she watched a dot of light, a shooting star, tumble greenish from the sky and and disappear.

The rest of the world assumes American women are impossibly spoiled. Not Jamie; her parents never indulged her. Jamie was a studious child, too shy for hamburger work or cashiering duties. During her semester abroad she siphoned off a bit of travel money which she blew at Heathrow before her connection to Madrid; it was a worthy purchase, part of her new European persona to wear the very lipstick worn by Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s: come to think of it, her black and gold tube of Cherries in the Snow was her first foray into adult indulgence; even before the wine! Anna had plucked it from her bag and smeared it all over her lips like it was nothing to her. And even that would have been okay, only Anna never gave it back. And Jamie was too shy to ask her for it. 

Maybe one tube of lipstick was a small price to pay for entry into adulthood and learning her life’s devotion, but it was a nasty little discordant note in an otherwise delightful memory. 

Jamie still wore Revlon but preferred Wine with Everything these days, which she recognized was aesthetically overdetermined but it worked if she wore earth tones. She took her time that morning, shaving her legs, even her thighs, brushing Argan oil into her hair, pressing her shirt, choosing between bands for her sensible traveler’s watch—any excuse to delay.

Was Sam using me for dinner and rides?Would Sam demand to be wined and dined as they navigated new terrain together? She recognized Sam’s “glamp ground” from TripAdvisor. A contemporary cool spot that gave her a full minute of grumpy twitches when it was suggested to her by Tripadvisor. Photogenic!Social! read the tags. What strange pests and parasites lurked its grounds? 

The guard waved her in. She pulled into the parking lot, got out and followed a faux naif sign pointing the way to Comida y Bebida y Vinos. Bearded youngsters in gingham check tapped their watches and gestured for their glamorpuss girlfriends to hurry up. Nobody noticed Jamie. 

Her phone buzzed. “Come on up!” read Sam’s text.

Admittedly it was fun seeing what the fuss was about in the Valle. The tents were more like geodesic domes than tents: bubbles of bleached khaki and what looked like glass but had to have been plastic with Balinisian-style bathrooms attached behind them (al fresco—not a great choice for parched, rattlesnake-filled chaparral but likely few people stayed sober long enough to notice the local creepy-crawlies). Jamie wondered how many sunset pictures Sam had taken and then spotted Sam in the distance tilting a phone high above her head, no doubt taking a photo of herself. She was wearing a khaki romper almost identical to the one Jamie wore the day before. Looked far better on lanky splendid Sam. Like she’d sauntered over from Louis Vuitton’s “Heart of Africa” campaign.

“Jamie!” Sam squealed as she scampered down the dusty trail. “Jamie, Jamie, Jamie, you have to let me buy you breakfast.” 

Should she mention the romper? Sam had ‘stolen’ her haircut as well; pinning it up in a ponytail to mimic hers but she’d added girly flourishes to it. Again, she wore it better.

Breakfast was served outdoors on a sturdy wooden table. The other breakfasters (all couples) were arranged to maximize the space between them, despite the pretense of communal dining. Sam wanted a breakfast sandwich. Jamie translated and sipped a cinnamon and sugar ‘Mexican’ coffee. Not the best for her taste buds but it fit the mood.

“So you want to look for grapes with me?” Jamie asked Sam between sups. “You really do? You won’t think it’s boring?”

“I get it,” Sam said. “You’re looking for a super secret missing grape, one that’s not really missing because someone else turned it into wine, but your grape—which is called El Gusano—doesn’t have any publicity yet and you wanna be the one to discover it for the rest of the world.”

“It’s more than that,” Jamie said. “Finding another grape would be like finding a new color. The first time I drank wine I felt all of the history and countryside and even the Spanish weather crammed into one sip. It was the most intense instant of my life! Even though the girl who gave it to me laughed when I told her all this.” 

“There was a girl?” Sam asked. “And she laughed at you?”

“She laughed when I told her how amazing I felt,” Jamie replied. “I must have seemed ridiculous.”

“She laughed? I’m so sorry,” said Sam. 

“No, no, Sam. She must have thought I’d said the most ridiculous thing in the world,” Jamie said. “You don’t understand: Anna was older, very posh, very cultured, she was a Spaniard and I must have seemed so unrefined to her. I probably said something terrible.”

“No, no, no, no. You’re not. That’s kind of what I’m doing out here too… I want to launch my brand but LA has been branded to bits, so I came out here.”

“And this is glamorous?”

“Yeah?” Sam slid her phone over. “Look!”

Jamie thought Sam’s phone was glitching at first because there were so many notifications: slowly she realized the frenetic buzz garbling the screen came from dozens of messages. Sam flicked them all away with a few deft motions and passed the phone back to Jamie. There was Sam from Instagram in the digital flesh… and she was elegant, the effect was a little amateur, but her carefully-curated aesthetic worked, Sam was resplendent in the disco, an adrogynous disco queen and a dreamy glamorous film star in the beam of light at the museo. Her most recent photo was more personal: she tucked in her sleeping module. Was she alone when she took that bedroom photo? It would have been impossible to take that shot alone... and when did she go the disco? 

“I think you’re amazing,” Jamie said. She felt guilty at the spike of jealousy over what should have been a moment of shared vulnerability. “Your Instagram is amazing, Sam. Really colorful and... on fleek?”

“Don’t say that please around me but thanks!” Sam reached out and hugged her. Jamie wasn’t sure why but she appreciated it.

“So I’ve picked out a couple of places for us,” Jamie said. “We’ll go to the one I think you’ll like best first. Then if you still want to come, we’ll go to some of the more obscure ones. And if you don’t, I’m happy to drop you at the glamp ground. But with me you could get some good wine and grape pictures and the buildings are very aesthetic.”

Jamie reeled off the names. 

“Montezuma?” Sam said, interrupting.

“You’ve heard of Montezuma?”Jamie asked her. Sam nodded. 

She wouldn’t say more about it as they walked to the car. Jamie couldn’t quite read her mood either. Some of the enthusiasm and sparkle of a moment ago had drained away. She wanted to tap Sam’s shoulder and say ‘come back to me.’

The sky above was beige with haze.

They limped and dipped over the rutted Mexican roads, and inched past rusting trucks in narrow corners, along single lane roads, leaving a ruddy puff trail of dust behind them and slowed to crawl for a crowded weekend mercado that was spilling into the streets. Loudspeakers babbled deals with an auctioneer’s cant. Pennants and ribbons in Mexico’s green, white and red hung over the road and hawked el hyper-mercado ANNA. The smell of baking bread wafted through the car vents. Sam rolled her window down and snapped photos. She focused on the boys playing football and pressed an occasional coin into a grasping. Jamie knew better than to give alms but opted not to say anything, and instead studied the wares on sale: olive oils and jams and loose pyramids of farmer’s bread piled high and glistening red meat that hung from hooks and blocks of white queso fresco curds and bottle after glinting bottle of reds and whites and pinks for sale. It was good to scan what other local flavors grew because she’d be able to find them in the wine. Finally they crowd dispersed and they hit the open road, and rumbled off into the countryside toward their first port of call, Vina Corazones. 

“Love this,” Sam said, and before they were even out of the car she had her phone out. They trudged up the steep trail, avoiding the tipsy Americans weaving along the paths. Safer drivers but far worse pedestrians, Jamie decided. Sam was a bad walker too. She wheeled and ricocheted and stopped abruptly to peer in barrels and pout for her camera. 

The vineyard was run by American emigres. They hauled two old fishing boats into the mountains and flipped them over and dug a wine cave beneath. They’d built an elaborate theme around this two-lobed structure: everything was named after the human heart, and Jamie figured it was the “youngest” place in the Valle, reminiscent of “Terranos Glamping,” and the brine in the wine and the blood-red reds, and thus was an inspired choice of portal for Sam to step into the world of well-made wines. 

Wait, was this her agenda with Sam? To turn her on to fine wine? To mentor a wine connoisseur? To someday start a fresh young blend? “Frolicking Faerie”, a bright wine that unraveled into an explosion of fruit and flowers—Subliminal Sangria! Youthful, almost crisp beaujolais mated with ripe sweet old-vine zin. Thirty-five wasn’t old though.

“Hear me out,” Sam said, all of a sudden. “I know you’re probably freaked at the thought of this but you have this total awesome authentic wine thing going on, and we could go from place to place—you could pick the places that would be fine—and we could call it, listen: Grape Travels featuring Sam from Instagram, and you could have your own podcast too: Jamie’s W(h)ining where you could tell the world about secret grapes and network with top people by interviewing them and then we could like romp around stuffy old places being kind of crazy, and eating nice food and clinking our glasses together for free?”

“What are you asking me?” Jamie said. 

“Whether we should start a YouTube channel.” 

Anna would have hated the idea and torn her throat out for suggesting it.

“Hasn’t it been done?” Jamie said, falling into the role.

“A YouTube channel?”

“People traveling and YouTubing, especially to wine regions. I watched a couple before I came down. Hence the reason why I chose to stay in Ensenada.”

“Didn’t they invent the margarita in Ensenda? How come you aren’t a margarita expert?”

“You told me you need original content. Wouldn’t a YouTube channel be old and stale?” Am I old and stale? Jamie wondered. 

“I saw them too,” Sam said. “but everyone single one is some basic B and her boring boyfriend she drags around and he shoots and all she does is giggle and flounce and make sex sounds when she eats.”  It was the first flash of anger she’d ever seen from Sam.

A drone buzzed by overhead. Jamie felt a little self-conscious with this human ping-pong ball twanging around and scheming beside her but she was no worse than the bridal party tossing garters about, let alone the gaggle of deeply cleavaged, sunburned San Diegans with purple lips and stained tank-tops who walked them off the path. Sam stopped for a picture. A slender brunette in uncomfortable-looking shoes glared at her bearded boyfriend as he stepped out of Sam’s path and into hers. They were carrying a bottle of champagne and teetering from drink. 

Jamie could just make out the sound of a heavy bass in the background. She didn’t mind the idea of a podcast and entertained a fantasy of her own: the two of them flitting around vineland, beginning at the very beginning of winemaking in Tbilisi, Georgia, where wine was invented 6000 years ago, and the two of them sipping and laughing together beside Stalin’s birthplace and all the pre-Roman ruins and gradually they would work their way around the world. Would they end here, in Mexico? There were new places opening in China and Vietnam... But what about Spain, would she be able to face bringing Sam to the Plaza Major and sharing sherry together? 

Anna, Anna, Anna, how weird to think of the name she once murmured like an incantation; to run her mental needle through those grooves once more; and she wondered if Sam had Anna’s cruelty, if Sam could sense her power, and if she did, what she would do with it. Or was Jamie supposed to become Sam’s Anna? The idea was thrilling and disturbing and so Jamie squashed it like a cartoonish wine observation.

Their pilgrimage through the cacti over: they had arrived. The two ships did indeed look like a double chambered heart, and there was a jaunty food truck parked in front and a dining and dancing space shaded by one of those filigreed tops (thank goodness it wasn’t umbrellas) and there was a DJ spinning throbbing beats but the couples and bridal parties were giggling at a duck waddling out of a pond. 

Jamie could feel Sam’s attention pluck at her surroundings and was willing to let her escape into the crowds of people her own age, but no, Sam led her toward the dark crevice between the two hulls.

The temperature plunged was they stepped into the cave mouth and the thick mud walls absorbed the sounds and light from above ground. Sam brushed against Jamie, startling her, but she let herself relax. 

Above them they could see the boats’ rib-cages, and there was a long narrow oak table surrounded by bottles and bottles and great oak circles of barrels. A spread of cheeses and meats and jams and fine breads were waiting. Sam had insisted on tasting the highest, most premium grade. (She even paid.) Jamie liked bubbly, and the high-end tasting suited her just fine, because it meant an audience with the vintners and tastings of their most special blends. But when those blends appeared and the vinter presented the glasses and the bottles and little notepads with tick boxes of tastes to identify, Jamie instead wondered whether Sam was enjoying herself at all, and she thought of the thudding music and writhing drunks in front and wondered whether it was even worth taking an academic approach to the wine tasting. 

The vintner was a quiet American in his fifties. Jamie realized there was no chance El Gusano was lurking in any of his bottles. They knew the history here, and they knew the noble grapes, which all but guaranteed they hadn’t found any secret ones or they’d be penning their own Wine Spectator columns. 

First up were the murky delicacies of their hand-signed grand vintage Catorce (a 2014, which was too bad because Jamie was hoping for a 2008). Then came the strange promise of their first bottling: a blend called Syzygy (three grapes!) and then the one Jamie was most excited for: La Tijuanera, the connoisseur’s blend of local grapes, which gave Jamie an opportunity to query the don, who smiled and shrugged and said that the real secret of the Valle’s wine (at least the one he could tell her) was the unique terroir, the red clays and the layers of sand, and the proximity of the ocean, and it wasn’t the grapes at all. He agreed that finding El Gusano would be a coup indeed. They had a satisfying snobbish laugh together at how the area was billing itself as Mexico’s Napa Valley when it was a Maritime region—not Mediterranean at all—yet far more arid than something like you’d normally find, closer to an Argentine or Abkhazian region!

Sam was sweet, not once did she utter the word “sour” and instead wrinkled her nose and slathered jam on her bread after each sip of admittedly very sour wine. They enjoyed the bubbly grand finale. 

Jamie bought her sangria from the food truck. Sam concealed her straw, aligned herself so the shadows fell on her face and across the tasting sheets she’d purloined from the cellar and bottle of wine Jamie bought. She made a triangle shape with her fingers and had Jamie take the shot. She tagged it Syzygy and apparently the vineyard liked it right away, and left an encouraging comment. They listened to the not-too-terrible music as they sipped sweet sangria, and watched the notifications float across Sam’s phone while convoys of yellow ducklings trailed their mothers in the pond.

Jamie bought a bottle of La Tijuanera for her cellar (which was a few wine racks under her bed at home) and put her hand on Sam’s shoulder. She looked up and smiled.

“Are you ready for Montezuma?”

Sam was still and quiet. Jamie let go.

They walked to the car. There was no wind and sky above them had lost its blue color and was a color that wasn’t a color at all. 

Their little white Chevy Malibu lumbered over the deeply rutted roads and crunched gravel. The windshield was pink with dust. Roadrunners nipped past them. Buzzards drifted and soared in the thermals above. Sam remained silent for this leg of their journey, perhaps suffering the combined effects of wine at eleven a.m. and the bright Mexican sunshine. 

Jamie made a few attempts at conversation as they entered the village of Guadalupe, even attempting some self-abasing humor, pointing out how she’d thought bierria sold beer instead of Jalisco’s version of tapas even though she knew the word cerveza. For her efforts she got a tight, fake smile. 

Anna would have torn her throat out for that. She would have bitten hard and never let go. Sam didn’t want to hurt Jamie. Not even when Jamie dropped chum-like bits of vulnerability for her.

Montenzuma was intended for an entirely different clientele than their first port of call, Vina Corazones. The gates swung open and they drove up a long curving road. Pistoleros with heavily weighted belts and walkie talkies ushered them through a labyrinth of identical parking lots. They parked next to a “Beware Rattlesnakes” sign. The pistolero—Jamie’s height—opened the door and barked into his microphone and led them across through another maze of smooth stone and concrete that again reminded Jamie of a fortress, and Sam, Sam was still silent, but her silence hardened into something steelier. It wasn’t unfriendly, more resolute, as if she were girding herself for battle. 

Jamie engineered a gentle collision and bumped her thigh into hers and Sam suddenly turned and for a second Jamie thought they would kiss but Sam turned from her and pretended to pluck lint off her dress instead. Jamie realized she craved her neediness.

The pistolero led them between two swooping rock faces and they entered a courtyard where a gigantic dead tree protruded from what looked like a dead lake but on closer inspection was clouded glass. The walkway around it curved and submerged into the ground into a passageway screened with copper. A cave. Cold air was billowed out. Sam suddenly slid her arm around Jamie’s and held her tight. 

Vina Corazones had been muy hipster, targeted at upper-middle brow Entouristas while Montezuma was all about appealing the uppermost echelons of wine tourism: muy elegante, the architecture looked almost as alien as the glamp ground, the same aliens, but if the glamp ground were a martian encampment this was their capital ship, elegant swoops and unexpected coppers and custom textures suddenly appearing in the parched landscape. 

Two uniformed staffers, a man and a woman around Sam’s age, manned an elegant desk made of what looked like petrified wood and was probably illegal in the United States. The woman, slender as Sam, with close cropped black hair and a hard jaw, was staring as the bored man rattled off the tasting options. She wore a bright silver septum piercing.

“Herman, give me this one,” said Danica (according to her pin) in Spanish. Jamie felt Sam’s arm tense. The man nodded and went back to his paperwork. “And how are you both today?” Her voice was like an Hermès scarf wrapped around a revolver.

“Really good,” Sam said. “One of the best most beautiful days of my entire life.” 

“You have come to see the tree again?” Danica’s voice had a curious lilt. “Or for something more specific?”

Sam had clearly been before. She seemed to be churning over something in her head and then said, “To taste the wines and take some pretty pictures and see the pretty artwork.” 

Danica pushed open an enormous plate glass door protecting the cellar’s inner sanctum. Jamie suddenly noticed the air-conditioning was so cold. “Come please,” she said, smiling at Sam as she passed, smiling in a way that surfaced a venomous dimple on one side of her cheek. 

Jamie expected her to let the door close on her but she held it open for her too and ushered them into a dark, enormous chamber filled with machinery: gleaming state-of-the-art fermentation vats and bottling equipment. Only two were working. For the white wines. A barrel had been set up with a bottle of greenish wine and a couple of glasses. Danica stationed herself behind it. The barrel was dwarfed by the size of the cavern yet somehow Danica who couldn’t have stood more than five-foot-seven standing behind it, silently twisting her copper corkscrew and yanking loose the cork seemed to fill the space entirely with her tough, smirking presence. Sam was focused on Danica, straining against her arm.

“Fresh from the cask, please taste,” said Danica. She poured them a flight. There wasn’t much of a nose on such a young sauvignon blanc (to Jamie it smelled of fresh grape juice and little more). But the taste: brisk, startling acrid, nearly painful, so biting it made Jamie want to wince. Unripe green apple. It hurt!

Sam knocked it back like it was nothing. 

Danica poured from a second bottle and gestured for them to drink. This one was mellower; the mean edge tempered with age, the green apple riper with salty sweet toffee and apple kiwi notes creeping in.

“Far better,” Jamie said. She meant it. This was a promising bottling but that admiration was suddenly stabbed by an intense stare from Sam. She must think I’m taking her side.

Danica gestured toward the enormous stainless steel fermentation chamber. “First was fresh from this barrel. That wine you sampled will be aged 18 months before sale. The second one you tasted was the sale version. Best with mariscos, as a refreshing lunch wine or all alone on hot days like today.” 

“We should buy a case,” Sam said.

“Are you staying in the Valle for long?” Danica asked Jamie.

“Maybe next time we’ll stay in one of the rooms here,” Sam said, clutching Jamie tighter as if for strength.

“Unfortunately is not possible to stay. These rooms are booked every day for this year.” 

Danica led them down a walkway that spiralled through deeper into the ground, past verdigris copper paintings and sculptures and into an even larger open area around the tree. They sampled a red: this one was remarkable, a strange silken taste Jamie had never tried before. This one was good. Better than good. Even Sam seemed a little impressed. Danica watched them sipping and uncorked the second with her unquiet quiet.

Jamie felt her anticipation growing. She felt as if she were falling into herself. A shaft of light was falling around the gigantic tree. The inner chamber was made of glass and the light streaming in caught an edge and bounced around and looking up the entire thing looked as if it were an enormous wine glass seem from above the golden light some kind of Sauternes-like nectar. 

“This one,” Danica said, pouring from a second wine, “Is special: there is no name yet. Though I think it will be called El Bicho.” Danica seemed to be smiling at cruel inside joke. 

Jamie held the wine to the light. This was definitely a blend of something strange and intoxicating. Could it be filled with El Gusano? She took a last glance at Sam. Poor diminished Sam, sapped by the presence of this Danica; she figured she knew what was eating her—the photographer who took her picture at the glamp ground, the nuggets of knowledge that could only have been gleaned from a true insider. Danica was older than Sam too; older and wiser and wearing lipstick that was too red to be her shade, she’d clearly introduced Sam to something the way Anna had with her. But there was no time to worry about that anymore, the wine was warm enough to drink now and the fumes were plucking at her nostrils and even those little vapor traces were weird and wonderful and there was something ineffable about them too, something as vaporous as the mulberry tinted haze outside only here was concentrated into a silken strand rising out of her glass.

“What is this?” Jamie said and gazed down into the twinkling reddish purple current. She lifted the liquid to her lips, and let a trickle of it in: she tasted cabernet grapes, merlot, and something unusual—the texture was unlike anything she’d ever had. Sam was startled by her sudden interest but remained dug into her arm. Could this be it? She had plenty of false starts and occluded signals before but this was intense, this was new, suddenly the lost grape was close at hand and everything in the world, even Sam’s soft grip on her arm was meaningless, everything hinged on what was about to come out of Danica’s mouth:

“This was a collaboration between us and another, ah, vineyard.”

“Which one?” Jamie asked. “Which grapes did you use?”

“These are trade secrets I cannot tell,” Danica said, a glimmer of cruelty and mirth betrayed by the little second sliver of dimple appearing on her cheek.

“Why do you want call it El Bicho?” Jamie asked.

Danica shrugged.

“She wants cash,” Sam said. “She seems sophisticated but she’s just another leech.”

Jamie slid her hand into her pocket. Sam grabbed her and pulled it out. 

“You both can give,” Danica said, “It’s okay!”

Sam dug in her pocket for her purse and shoved a green American bill into Danica’s hands. Danica chuckled, and unfurled it, holding it above her head as if looking for a watermark. It was a twenty.

“One more, I think.” Danica said. “Once more and I think it is good.”

“I’m out,” Sam said.

Jamie pulled out her wallet and removed the rest of her change and spread it out on the barrel before Danica, who kept gesturing for more, more, more until every bit of Jamie’s seventeen dollars and twenty five cents were spread out on the barrel.

“Is this okay?” Jamie said.

Se llaman Anna.” Danica said, smiling at them both. “Y el bicho está al dentro del botella!

Jamie felt the blood drain out of her head and her joints buckle. Her vision fell apart into flickering silversparks. It all collided: alluding to Hyper Mercado Anna was Danica’s way of implying they were adding flavoring to their bottles and the name—El Bicho—wasn’t another wild coincidence so much as a deliberate nod to something all savvy wine connoisseurs ought to have known. Her quest was the vineyard equivalent of fan fiction; she felt a humiliation so deep it seemed to hollow her to her core but as she plummeted into the abyss inside herself—an eternity of Anna’s withering dismay—she felt Sam squeeze her hand and whisper, “come back to me, come back to me...” and Jamie found herself back in the bottom of the giant glass looking up and felt… relaxed for once in her life, as if she’d sailed through an enormous storm and the trouble was over.

Sam refused to look at Danica again. She looked dead ahead, kept tightly connected to Jamie, holding her close. Sam took the lead and marched them back up the spiraling walkway, which Jamie realized was meant to recall a gigantic corkscrew tearing through a cork (of concrete). 

For once Jamie had no desire to pause and purchase the bottles they’d tasted even though the last, secret one compelled her. Was wine appreciation entirely fraudulent? What about communion?

Outside the sun was beginning to dip behind the hills and everything was turning gold again and the birds were out and the heat in the air was fragile, about to break.

***

Sam knew a place, didn’t even need the nav to get there, and “it [wasn’t] as fancy as Montezuma, or even Corazones,” she insisted, but it was her kind of place, and she’d be proud if someone as wine savvy as Jamie could come check it out. Jamie was curious.

“I came here once before,” Sam said, but didn’t elaborate further or say with whom. 

Jamie wanted to know. The bright hard-edged quickness in her longed to snap its steel fangs shut on the mystery but she let it ebb and enjoyed Sam’s determined look and how much calmer she felt.

The car rumbled along another bright pink dusty road and Jamie was thankful that there were no little children running beside the car offering fruit or pens like there were at the border. They came upon a simple gate that opened up to what could almost be a family vineyard. Jamie expected tour buses and the meaty throb of electronic bass and boiled-lobster red sun bathers groping and spilling wine but it was calm, a few multi-generational families milling about, a sign touting vino spa massage, and the staff on break were milling about with the wine tasters. Even Jamie could tell this wasn’t an Instagram worthy place, there was nothing with sheen to it, nothing expensive looking about it. It looked wholesome.

They walked into a kind of clubroom with a few bottles of wine and many more of jams with unappetizing but not disgusting flavor, usually fruit or food mixed with slightly offbeat alcohol—chocolates and beer or Malbec and pear.

“Later we can get a massage together,” Sam said. “We’ll lie side by side and get scrubbed with grapeseed oil, spill our sauciest secrets.”

“I don’t like being touched by strangers,” Jamie said. There had been too many different emotions ping-ponging inside of her, she had to slow things down. And slow they did.  

“I didn’t know you had a tattoo,” said Sam, sliding her finger over Jamie’s skin. She pushed the fabric of Jamie’s shirt up and exposed Anna’s mark, the Viva España Miró squiggle she promised they would each have inscribed on their inner arms. “It’s lowkey kind of a bad one,” Sam said softly. 

Anna never got hers. She snapped the photo and fled. Sam’s thigh was pressed into hers and a deeper, richer vein of warmth was flowing between them. She felt Sam’s breath falling on her neck in little fast sips. She could hear mirthful laughter in another room. Sam’s perfume had faded and now it was just her.

“I think we need some wine,” Jamie said.

“I’ll get it.” Sam standing felt like tearing off a bandage. Jamie was ravenous for more contact. But she wasn’t sure if Sam was sending her a message—maybe she was just being friendly, or just trying to hold this poor pathetic specimen together. Her eyes felt hot and heavy again, but Jamie was strong for Sam, suspended above the muddled stew of emotions she felt. And Sam returned with a bottle of rose and two glasses. It was a crude label, nearly handmade. Sam took Jamie’s fingers and pressed an empty glass into her hand. It was warm from being washed—she could feel Sam staring at her, searching for her gaze and she kept her eyes closed, and just felt the weight of the glass change and listened to the wine fall into her glass.

“Don’t drink it yet,” Sam said, and took her hand again, and pulled her gently outside. She felt as though she were in one of the cheezy photo albums that appeared on her computer sometimes with a beautiful woman reaching back to the camera to tug her lover’s arm through some exotic location—this qualified, didn’t it? She wasn’t taking pictures.

Sam took her to a steep staircase and they climbed up onto the roof. There was a bench and an arch framing the view.

Sam was gentle with her, taking care not to pull her hand too hard and even though the earth seemed to be in motion and Jamie was unsteady climbing the stairs neither of them spilled a drop, though Sam had time to sip from her rosé at the top and for a moment Sam could see her in a little archway, silhouetted against a sunset, her pink wine in her glass, droplets shimmering on her lips, the hint of her shape just visible and rows of vineyards and hills vanishing into the foggy horizon behind her.

“You’ve stepped out of your film noir and into a Renaissance painting,” Jamie said, instantly feeling absurd again. She hoped she wouldn’t get the reference. But Sam did and tilted herself into what could have been an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile, though to Jamie she was something more splendid: a renegade nun in a prince’s robes, her sex an open secret in some splendid Italian citadel and the subject of duels.

“Sit down,” Sam said. Jamie folded beside her, and Sam seemed to read her mind and pressed her thigh and wrapped an arm around her, and soon the wind was licking her hair and it was tickling her nose and Sam was grazing her thigh with her fingertips. “Try the wine,” she said.

For a moment she hoped to taste the hidden grape but of course it was just a sweet, pleasant rosé with a delicate salt flavor from the region. Sam was watching her response. “It’s good,” she said. “I think you’re right about most of it being too sour.” She was looking at Sam’s soft, thick wine-wet lips, and she could feel Sam touching the smoothness of her skin, examining the little details, and she wished she could know what Sam was thinking at that very moment, wished that final membrane of difference between them could fall.

“Were you crying about someone?” Sam said. “At the tree vineyard.”

“Yes,” Jamie said. “Other things too.”

“Same for me,” Sam said. “I was here once before.”

“What can I do for you?” Jamie asked her, whispering in her ear. She watched their two little pink wobbles of light intermingling on the ground between them. 

“I just want you to hold me while the sun goes down,” Sam said. 

And that’s what they did, unencumbered by anyone else.