Craving a quick, quality meal after a sunny, tick-laden expedition through the beach dunes behind the Jones Beach U.S. Coast Guard Station, some friends and I stumbled across Gonzo’s Mexican Grill on Merrick Road in Bellmore on the way back home.
Housed in the former storefront of The Grind Coffeehouse, I was a bit apprehensive entering the tiny eatery. Not because I feared its food (on the contrary, my stomach was intrigued to digest something from a place named after a character from The Muppet Show), but because I feared the memories the spot might conjure. You see, dear food lovers, the former coffee shop had been the site of a murder a few years earlier. No, not a Law and Order-type slaying (no Benson or Stabler here, though Goren, I’m sure, would dig this place). Rather, a painful, incendiary massacre wrought from the burning torture of a broken and fragmented heart.
Yes, fellow food anarchists, this was the site of a breakup—actually, more a re-breakup. It was the last place I saw my first true love. The meeting, as the flashbacks over nachos and a fajita reminded me, ended in even more devastation, more pain, more anguish, a lightning storm of anger (a bit misguided?) and yes, much, much more additional heartache.
I kept this all secret from my fellow dune roamers, of course. Why ruin their meals? Besides, time had passed. It had been several years. Surely the ghosts of that afternoon had some better place to haunt. Surely the anguish—which I can only best describe as the feeling of my heart being carved out with a rusty, dull spoon—had dissipated, at least a little.
I was wrong.
As I waited in line beneath the monster menu hanging on the wall of guacamole-slathered tacos and crustacean-stuffed burritos, I turned and caught the two of us sitting there on that fateful afternoon. I ordered a coffee but didn’t drink it. She sat there pleading with me to talk to her. It was brutal, to say the least. A bloodbath. Imagine a mortally wounded, crazed animal that had been caged then prodded out to face its attacker. Emotions ate my words. My tongue was paralyzed.
“What can I get for you today, sir?” smiled the girl behind the counter.
I ordered a Steak Fajita ($7.50) and sat down at a table chosen by my friends—in the exact location of the crucifixion.
One of my buddies tackled the Mt. Everest-high Taco Salad ($6.95). He’s a short, little guy, admittedly, but the thing was bigger than his head. As he forked through the bulky mass of meat and greens cradled within a high-walled tortilla bowl, my mind again slipped past the yellow tape of the phantom crime scene holding back the past.
“Talk to me,” she begged again. “Please just talk to me.”
My eyes were closed and it hurt to look at her, though that’s all I really wanted to do.
“How am I supposed to condense two expletive years of torture into a paragraph?” I asked.
She started crying. My hands were shaking. It was one of the darkest days of my life.
“Steak Fajiata,” the girl behind the counter called out, smiling. “Here you go.”
I sat back down at the table and tried to think about something else: My family, my friends. Kristos Theodouros, my Cypriot blood brother. The bending of a musical note. The ocean. Sitting around a pool in Wantagh wearing a tuxedo laughing, drinking beer with friends and talking about the Illuminate. Everything that has happened since that day.
“So how’s your fajita, Cooke?” asked a taller friend, inhaling a Gonzo Burrito ($6.25) stocked with chicken, rice, tomatoes and cheese.
“Juicy meat, generous portion, decent price,” I said, glancing around at everyone’s plates and finding my eyes drawn again to the little guy’s Taco Salad. “Though they forgot my beans.”
“That thing is huge,” I said to him as he foraged through its massive girth. “Is it good?”
“Yeah it’s pretty good, man,” he replied. “Not bad for seven bucks.”
I lumped several swaths of slivered meat, peppers and onions onto another fajita (there were three) and took a few hefty swallows.
“I’m sorry,” she wept. “I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you.”
My hands were shaking and it felt like I was being stabbed and gutted. I quoted a song and told her that all her friends sucked and really weren’t. I added that she was delusional.
“You were dead to me,” I said lied. “Now you’re alive.”
She didn’t understand.
In a sudden, fluid motion she leapt up from the table and bolted from the coffeehouse, streaming tears. I ran after her. There, on the sidewalk in front of that tiny little java shop on a cold day sometime in January, I roared for her to “never expletive call me again.”
Then I laid down on the curb and died.
When I came to, I called my editor.
“Bro these pictures came out amazing,” said the little guy, flipping through his cell phone pics from the dunes. “Does anybody want a piece of this thing? I’m stuffed, man.”
I broke off a piece of his monstrous bowl, gave it a quick mop in some Pico de Gallo and shoved it in my mouth. My brother polished off the last morsels of his Shrimp Burrito ($7.50). Using leftover nacho chips to shovel the last bits of onions onto the top of my tongue, I glanced around.
I thought about my lost love, my first real, true love. I imagined her smile, her eyes. The way she moved. I remembered the countless breakfasts we spent sipping tea together, laughing. I thought about the beach and England and the way she looked when she stood in front of a mirror fixing her hair.
I thought about Hunter S. Thompson.
Gonzo’s Mexican Grill
2975 Merrick Road