I woke up thinking of cigarettes and coffee. People were already up and walking around the house. There was a little girl –I knew this only because of her pierced earlobes- walking about, wearing only white Pampers. She stood in front of me, gave me a distrustful glance, and headed for the kitchen.
She’s gonna ask who the hell am I, I thought, assuming that was what the little girl had in mind.
“Whoose the man on the couch, mommy?” She asked.
I knew it.
“He’s a friend of the family,” Mommy said, satisfying her daughter’s curiosity.
I sat, stretched my feet, and yawned. I blinked rapidly, trying to scare away whatever ounce of tiredness I had left. The woman came from the kitchen while the little girl held her mother’s leg like a castaway would embrace a piece of lumber in the middle of the ocean.
“Do you want coffee?” The woman offered.
And cigarettes, I thought but didn’t say. “Yes, please.”
A man came from one of the rooms. He bore some resemblance to Manuel, the man I met in Phoenix. “You must be Gabriel,” he said, and his voice was deep, unlike Manuel’s.
I stood up to shake hands.
“My name is David,” he said. “Your cousin Juan and I are good friends.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said.
The smell of coffee hooked us, and we both looked toward the kitchen in unison. The woman had already set a couple of mugs on the table. We hurried, fearing the black gold would go cold during the brief walk we would take from the living room to the kitchen.
We sat, drank, and got to know each other. We talked about the weather, soccer, and the reasons why the Mexican government was so fucked up. In a way, the latter was the main reason why we both had decided to start a new life in a foreign country, a foreign world. And to introduce me more to the American way of life, David told me about Thanksgiving.
“Today is Thursday, November 25,” he said, “the time when los gueros celebrate Thanksgiving.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
David stayed quiet for a second, which meant he didn’t know the real answer and would come up with something else. “It’s like Christmas,” he said.
I had a feeling that wasn’t a good answer but decided not to elaborate on it. “Ok.”
When we finished, David announced he’d take me to Santa Barbara. We walked out of the house and hopped into the white Impala.
“Where is the guy who was driving this car last night?” I asked.
“Still in bed. When I come back, he is going to take the car back to Arizona.”
Driving away, David gave me the cigarette I was craving. I lit it up and looked around while the Impala took us onto the 101 north, disappearing among the morning traffic. I didn’t know when I fell asleep or what exactly was my dream about. And that was ok because the only thing I needed to do at that moment was to focus on the present moment and start enjoying my new life, my new destiny.
When I opened my eyes, David told me we would be in Santa Barbara in less than twenty minutes. I looked to the left, toward the horizon, where the blue ocean blended with the sky. The scenery was breathtaking, and the urge to arrive at my next and final destination almost ate me alive. I thought briefly about the ordeal I underwent to be here, near the blue and majestic ocean.
”How big is Santa Barbara,” I asked while looking at the signs along the freeway. One of them read ‘Carpinteria,’ and I thought that was an interesting name.
David stayed quiet for a second (again).
Anyway, I thought, he doesn’t need to have all the answers for every damned question I have.
“I don’t really know, to be honest,” he finally said, and it sounded honest, indeed.
I wanted to ask more questions but just thinking about ‘asking’ made my head hurt. It was as if I was getting tired of listening to the endless questions coming out of my mouth like a waterfall. Instead, I decided to light up another cigarette and take another look around.
Unlike Phoenix and LA, Santa Barbara only had one freeway, which parts the city in half. It was either a divine joke, or it was purposely built that way to divide the east and west. I gave another glance to the left, toward the water. I smiled, knowing for a fact that I would never get tired of such a sight. I then looked to the right, toward the mountains, and was equally mesmerized by the green blanket of grass and trees covering the area.
“Summerland,” I said, reading out loud one of the signs along the freeway.
“Carpinteria and Summerland are part of the Santa Barbara County,” David said. “The next sign you are going to see is Montecito and then Santa Barbara.” He stopped for a moment, but a flicker in his eyes suggested there was another thought ready to surface. “Oh, and Goleta is on the other side of the city.”
I tried to process the wave of information he suddenly threw on my face. “I get it,” I lied. I had no idea what a ‘county’ was or what difference it made.
“Montecito is over there,” David said, pointing to the right.
“The houses are nice,” I noticed.
“Summerland and Montecito are the cities where the rich people live.”
“What about the poor people?”
“Everywhere else,” he said. “Mainly on the east and west. But if you actually own a house anywhere, that means you are not that bad, financially speaking.”
I had the urge to ask more questions. And I did.
“Where does my cousin live?”
“The Westside. But you have more family all over the city.”
Satisfied, I looked at the freeway and read the next sign: Santa Barbara, population… I couldn’t read the last part because David was driving too fast.
“Looks like we are here,” I said.
“Yes, we are.”
Santa Barbara’s Westside looked too much like a Mexican neighborhood, except for some businesses where the signs were written in English. On the corner of Micheltorena and San Andres sat a big supermarket painted white. The sign said ‘Foodland’ on top of the building. There were people like me, with brown skin, walking up and down the street, taking care of their daily chores. I noticed a look of apprehension in their eyes as if they were always expecting something wrong to happen. I asked David about la migra and how likely could it be for them to come and sweep people off the streets, like leaves that fell on the ground on an autumn day.
“Not likely,” David confessed. “Santa Barbara is like four hours away from the border. La migra doesn’t come around here unless they are looking for someone in particular.”
I was happy to hear that. Maybe the people I saw walking on the street knew this, but they still felt it was a good idea to be cautious, just in case their luck ran out.
Shit happens every day. That’s just another fact of life.
David drove onto San Andres, where trees gave a nice and welcoming shade, giving the illusion of big umbrellas placed on every corner of the street. He made a left on Pedregosa, and the area looked quiet, peaceful, and the houses painted in different colors. People were mowing the lawn, saying howdy to the conspicuous white Impala that was passing by.
“People are friendly around here,” I observed.
“Some of them,” David confessed. “Some others don’t really care.”
He made a final right on Robbins and pulled over in front of a blue, one-story house. That was the first house where I lived. Here, I learned how to wash my own clothes, cook my own food (sometimes), and pay my own rent. Here, the story of my new life started, and the hopes for a better and brighter future began to take form in my mind. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but the wise words I heard from Esmeralda back in Tucson were still the best idea I could think of.
I know. I always had a flair for the dramatic.
Juan, my cousin, came out of the house and welcomed me with open arms. That same afternoon, Juan took me to a K-mart store in Goleta, where he bought new clothes for me. That night, I took a well-deserved shower. The dirt and sweat I brought from the border disappeared down the drain. It was finally time to start fresh. Juan took me to celebrate Thanksgiving at Rodolfo’s house, Juan’s older brother; I hadn’t seen him in years. Eventually, I met the whole family; Ambrocio and Jenaro, Juan’s younger brothers, Amparo and Alicia, the only two sisters who lived in Santa Barbara, and many more relatives I never knew about.
Little by little, I started making friends.