It was a Saturday in November, at six in the afternoon, when I decided to ride a bicycle I’d bought from Lazaro, one of the friends I used to hang out with last summer when I didn’t have school. I went to Goleta, the nearest city, and decided to stop at Altamirano’s restaurant on Hollister Street.
The light was red, so I had to stop for a spell.
The 7-Eleven store on the other side of the street was closed, which was a strange occurrence, and a couple of white, angry men were righteously cursing, yelling, and knocking on the door, thinking that maybe, just maybe, a fairy-clerk would come flying and open the doors just for them.
When the light turned green, I crossed the street.
The two angry men gave up and walked toward the bus stop.
Altamirano’s was located next door. It was there, where I met a woman who played an important role in my life. No, I didn’t sleep with her. I didn’t have sexual intercourse for another year, but that’s a story for another day.
She was a short, Mexican woman. Her dark skin, expressionless eyes, and short, black hair gave her a serene, almost hypnotizing look. And then there was her gait, confident and authoritarian. She didn’t have any makeup on but didn’t seem to need it, anyway. You could think she was the owner. She clearly had that allure.
But she was just the waitress. Later I learned why she looked like she ran the place.
I was the only customer at that moment. Apparently, nobody was hungry at that time in the afternoon. I sat outside to keep an eye on my bicycle. She approached me. A notepad rested firmly on her left hand, and there was a blue pen in her right, ready to spread its ink on the piece of paper.
She didn’t have a name tag, which meant she hated to follow the rules, just like me.
“Would you like something to drink?” She asked in English, which I found appropriate, given the obvious fact that we were on American Soil.
The last time I had a beer was seven months ago, when I turned twenty-one, and I felt like I wanted to have a beer at that moment. “A Corona, please,” I said.
She gave me a look, somewhere between surprise and annoyance. “A beer?” She asked.
“Yes,” I said, leaning against my chair with confidence, trying to look older, but my long curly hair and shaven face didn’t help much.
“How old are you?” She asked, resting her left hand on her hip for a second.
“Just turned 21.”
“Seven months ago.”
She smirked. “That doesn’t sound like ‘just’ to me. It’s almost a whole other year.”
She was right about that. “Do you want to see my ID,” I asked calmly.
She glanced inside. The cook was nowhere to be seen. By law, she was supposed to ask for an ID, but I guess she would also not follow that rule. “If you keep your mouth shut, I’ll pretend I already saw it.”
I smiled. “Thanks.”
I was also ready to order my food. A small menu pamphlet was on the table, which made me think of those pamphlets I saw on the plane when I started my journey. My food was ready in less than ten minutes. I ate it, left the money on the table, and didn’t see her until the next year.
I started the New Year with my left foot. Ambrocio, my cousin, fired me on February the first. The reason was stupid, to say the least. Since I was serious about learning English, I demanded that I work at the register to practice with the obvious majority of white people who came to the restaurant. My cousin Jenaro was ok with that, but Ambrocio wasn’t.
“I need you in the kitchen right now!” he said. “Jenaro can work at the register.”
“But you have Jesus in the kitchen! Why do you need me here?”
The argument was big. We exchanged insults in the kitchen while Jenaro and Jesus tried to run the business, helping the few customers in the restaurant.
“Look, I’m gonna make it easy for you. Why don’t you leave? If you’re not gonna do what you’re told, I don’t want you here!”
So I left. It was the right thing to do.
I never hated him for firing me. I wished it hadn’t happened that way, but he did me a favor. He witnessed how unhappy I was and perhaps thought I could change my ways if I were alone. This happened on a Thursday. I told myself I’d start looking for a job on Monday. I wanted to take the weekend off. The only thing I wanted to worry about at that moment was going to school the next day.
And that’s where I saw the girl from Altamirano’s for the second time.
I entered the E.S.L. office, looking for a counselor. I carried a black computer bag across my shoulders and an overwhelming lassitude. I didn’t want to be there. Apparently, one of my teachers wanted us to have someone talk to us if we didn’t understand something in class. I always assured him I knew what to do, and if I didn’t, I could always go online and talk to my buddy Google.
Unfortunately, it was mandatory. I must go. And I wouldn’t say I liked it. Biting my tongue and doing as he pleased was appalling.
The counselor, a girl who was probably my age but a bit smarter, talked to a group of three clueless men who didn’t understand what a gerund was. I didn’t know it myself but studying every day seemed to have helped me a lot.
In the waiting area, a young woman was wearing blue jeans and a red blouse. A Grammar book covered her face. I sat in front of her, wondering if she’d lost her mind. Why else would a human being put a book that close to her face?
She put the book down quickly and attempted to scare me with a loud boo!
I blinked, obviously, but not because I was afraid.
“I knew it was you,” she said with a smile.
It took me three seconds to recognize her. The fine line under her eyes and red lips gave her a different, more attractive look. “Are you the girl from Altamirano’s?” I asked.
She was surprised. “Wow! You remember.”
“Yeah, I also remember you didn’t smile much.”
Her expression showed fake boredom. “I don’t like my job.”
“Who does?” I concurred.
There was a brief moment of silence.
“So,” I said. “I guess it’d be stupid to ask what you’re doing here.”
She laughed. “Yes, pretty much.”
The young counselor in the room was still trying to hammer into the clueless men what a fucking gerund was.
“I’m Margarita, by the way,” she said.
“Gabriel,” I said and stood briefly to shake her hand.
“What do you do for a living, Gabriel?” She asked, and I saw again that confident expression I’d seen before.
“Nothing. I got fired yesterday,” I said calmly.
“Your fault or theirs?”
She was surprised again, now by my honesty. “Most people normally blame the other party.”
“I’m not most people,” I said and remembered I’d said that before when I was at the motel in Nogales three years earlier. “I’m too honest, I guess.”
“I’m impressed,” she said. “Are you looking for another job?”
“On Monday. I want to take the weekend off.”
“God! You’re shameless!”
I smiled. “I guess.”
There was another awkward moment of silence. She took a card out of her purse and handed it to me. It was a white, glossy card with a blue line in the middle and her name on it: Margarita Palma; Independent Business Owner.
“When you have a moment,” she said. “I want you to call me. I want to talk business with you.”
I frowned. “Business?”
She stood up, gathered her stuff, and said. “Yes, you look like an open-minded type of person. You’re going to like what I have to offer. Call me when you’re ready.”
As she was ready to leave, I asked, “Aren’t you gonna see the counselor?”
“I was,” she said. “But I’m tired of waiting.”
Everything was mysterious about this woman, and it even looked as if she were intentionally doing this, so I was thinking about her all the time. It didn’t take me long to know what her business was about, and I also wondered if there was some connection here; was I supposed to lose my job to meet this woman? I saw her again the next week, but there was another important event in my life, which happened right after seeing Margarita that afternoon.
Photo by Qimono.