Riding the bus was beginning to be one of those undesirable things I regularly did. Thankfully, because I was a student at Santa Barbara City College, I didn’t have to pay a thing; my school ID was an acceptable form of currency. That February afternoon, after I’d given up waiting on that counselor I came to see at the E.S.L department, I also walked out of there, just like Margarita Palma had done about twenty minutes earlier.
I walked the short and peaceful distance toward the bus stop, wondering where else I should go this afternoon. I had all the time in the world, I was jobless, and I could do whatever my heart desired.
Ok, that was probably lame.
I sat on the bench, waiting for the bus, and took a quick look at my computer bag. It was funny that I called it a ‘computer bag,’ and I didn’t even have a laptop in those days. I only had the old desktop in the wooden box, and I barely used it.
I had a grammar book and three notebooks inside the bag. The notebook with the blue cover was the one I used for my school notes and homework; the red one was the journal, and the white one had poems I’d written in the past. I frowned when I looked at it as if it were an insect that had suddenly appeared in there.
A young woman sat next to me but at a considerable distance. Her brown, smooth skin tone and shiny complexion were an aesthetically pleasing combination. A pair of Gucci reading glasses protected her small brown and expressionless eyes.
She looked fine if you asked me.
I looked back at my bag, grabbed the poetry notebook, and began browsing through it. I didn’t remember when the last time I wrote a poem was. I was so fixated on English I was afraid my first language would disappear from my brain.
Shit, is that even possible?
I noticed one thing in particular about my poetry: it was sad and depressing. It was all about imaginary muses, lost love, homesickness, and an overwhelming desire to kill myself.
Wow? I thought. Did I write this?
The bus came, pulled over in front of us, and the warm air that came from its rear end felt like an odorless fart on the face. The cute morena gathered her stuff, walked toward the bus, and I took a quick and furtive look at her rear end; you know, the kind of shit men sometimes do without thinking.
I walked behind her and showed the driver my ID, pretty much like a detective. I still didn’t know where I was going, but following this girl didn’t seem like a bad idea. Then, suddenly, a herd of students came out of nowhere and began to fill the bus. I was so focused on my one little world that I didn’t see them. Intentionally, I sat across from the girl with the Gucci glasses. Then, unintentionally, I supposed, she hit my bag with hers as she put it on the floor.
“Sorry,” she said with a straight face, suggesting she wasn’t really sorry.
“It’s ok,” I said.
And that was the extent of my conversation with her at that moment.
The bus stopped at the transit center. People poured out of the buses like water from a faucet. The girl disappeared among the crowd, and I had an impulse to follow her; on second thought, I didn’t feel like that was the right thing to do. It’s better to let things take their own course sometimes.
There was a Starbucks two blocks up the street, on Victoria and State. I decided to go there, sit down at a table against the window, and take another look at the depressing poetry I’d written.
I had to admit. The poetry was sad but good. I almost wanted to go somewhere and publish it. But where? I heard myself thinking. Who would want to publish sad, Spanish poetry from an illegal immigrant who hasn’t gotten laid in about three years?
That was a good question.
I bought myself a small coffee and thought about the situation for another moment. What kind of writer are you? I asked, hoping one of the voices in my head could be so kind as to share some wisdom. Do you want to write poems or stories? English or Spanish? You are not going back to Mexico. You know that! Why don’t you focus on English?
Wow, those were also excellent questions.
The sun was still up when I went back to the transit center to take the bus back to Isla Vista. I didn’t know how long I spent there. To my surprise, I saw the woman again. And this time, she smiled.
When I stepped onto the bus, it almost felt as if I hadn’t gotten out in the first place. Everything was identical. Same driver, same melting pot riding the bus, and same cute brown-skinned girl sitting somewhere in the back. The smile on her face said, here you are again, but her lips remained closed.
As I sat, I intentionally hit her bag. “I’m sorry,” I said, and a timid smirk lifted the right corner of my mouth.
“Now we’re even,” she said.
I didn’t know what that sentence meant at that time, so I kept my mouth shut. Her sixth sense kicked in. “Are you going to school to learn English?” she asked in flawless Spanish.
And now I was able to start a conversation.
She told me her name was Carla. She was a student at UCSB but was also taking classes at CC, which, according to her, was necessary. “I have to take extracurricular classes.”
“Wow,” I said. “And what’s your major?”
“I see. You like to get in people’s heads.”
She smiled. “Yeah, who doesn’t?”
“How about you? What else are you planning to study?”
“For now, I want to take English classes only. I’m hoping to become a writer.”
She squinted. “In English? You want to write in English?”
“Yes, I know it sounds like something impossible, but I’m not really planning to go back to Mexico anymore.”
She thought about it. “If that’s the case, I guess you’re right,” she said in English.
I nodded. “Yes.”
There was a moment of silence. We both looked at the window and how the freeway seemed to move along with the bus. Traffic was heavier going south, but we didn’t have to suffer as much since we were going north.
“I saw how you were looking at your notebook earlier today,” she said. “At the bus stop.”
“Yeah,” I said, “I was looking at my journal and some poems I wrote.”
She was surprised. “You’re serious about being a writer.”
“I think so. I’ve always done it. I’m not sure exactly what to write about. I don’t think you can make money in poetry. Fiction sounds like a better idea.”
“What about your journal? You can publish that in the future.”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
Then, another awkward moment of silence.
“Can I see your poetry?” She asked.
“It’s fine if you don’t want to.”
“No, it’s not that,” I said. “It’s just that it’s too fucking sad.”
She laughed. “Really? Let me be the judge of that.”
I gave her the white notebook. She read, and I could see the expression on her face. It went from utter surprise to disbelief and shock in a matter of seconds. She kept on reading nonetheless. I guess it was like a porn flick, something you know you are not supposed to watch, but you do anyway.
“Wow. This is sad,” she finally said. “But in a good way.”
My eyes flickered. “That’s exactly what I thought!”
“You don’t look this sad and depressed in person,” she said and then asked why I had these gloomy ideas in my head. I told her about my life and how I’ve lived alone in this country for the last three years.
“I see,” she said. “You’re a little bit homesick, that’s all.”
“I guess that’s what it is.”
She seemed to be planning her next sentence carefully. Meanwhile, the bus stopped, and a group of Asian guys stepped out, laughing and speaking in their language. I didn’t know how to differentiate Asian languages, so I thought it was a good idea not to assume.
“I think you need God in your life,” she finally said.
I frowned. “I don’t believe in God.”
“Really? Why is that?”
“I was brought up Catholic, and, ironically, I stopped believing in God as I was doing the Catechism. Do you know what that is?”
“Yes. I used to be a Catholic, too. I’m a Christian now.”
“I see. So, you just changed teams?” I asked sarcastically.
Thankfully, she found that comment funny. “Yeah, pretty much,” she said. “What happened during Catechism? The priest looked at you inappropriately?”
“Actually, no,” I confessed. “I guess he didn’t find me attractive.”
She laughed out loud. People around looked at us, wondering what the joke of the century was.
“No, seriously, what happened?” She asked, the corners of her mouth still up while thinking about the priest who did not find me attractive.
“I did what everyone else didn’t do.”
“I read the Bible. And I didn’t just read it. I asked questions that nobody was able to answer.”
She thought about it. “True, the Bible does have contradictions.”
“But,” she said, “I’d rather just follow Jesus and not worry about Scriptures.”
“That’s a cop-out, don’t you think?”
She thought about it. Again. “Let’s not talk about God then. You’ll want to know about Him when you’re ready.”
“Ok,” I said, thinking it was a good idea to put a lid on that conversation.
“Let’s go back to writing. Do you have your journal with you?”
“I do,” I said while retrieving it from my bag.
I gave it to her, and she browsed through it, realizing it was almost full. “How long have you been writing this?”
“Three years. Since I came to the United States.”
“But you don’t write every day?”
“No. I only write what I think it’s important. I mean, not everything I do daily is worth mentioning.”
“That’s true,” she agreed. She looked at it for a while. Her mind was processing her next thought. “I’m going to help you learn English faster, but I only have one request.”
I frowned. “You want me to believe in God?”
She smiled. “No.”
“I want you to talk about me in your journal,” she said with a negotiating smile.
I didn’t have to think about it. “Deal.”
Before she stepped out of the bus, Carla gave me her number. We promised to meet soon. She also promised to introduce me to her friends to practice more, talking to different people. Even if I was jobless at that moment, I couldn’t stop smiling while thinking about the possibilities of being surrounded by people who would help me practice and learn English faster.
I spent yet another week without work. Meanwhile, I submerged myself in books, reading, studying, writing, and getting ready to put my knowledge into practice. Carla had been busy, so we didn’t see each other again for about three weeks. The only person I saw again was Margarita Palma, and I finally knew what her business was about.
Photo by ColiN00b.