April 2007 was taking over the calendar, and my 22nd birthday was around the corner. By then, Facebook had been out for two years, and people began to forget about MySpace. Two months later, Steve Jobs surprised the world with the new iPhone and its slogans “This is only the beginning” and “Apple reinvents the phone.” But these two pieces of unnecessary trivia are, well, trivial, because I neither had an iPhone back then nor was I that crazy about social media. Talking to people face to face will always be my favorite thing to do.
And that was what I did that day at the cafeteria while discussing grammar with two friends, Nestor and Jorge. The three of us had a coffee on our hands, trying to brush off the tiredness of our daily, hectic schedules. In all honesty, I wasn’t as tired as they were.
“Have you found another job, Gabriel?” Jorge asked while giving a furtive glance at a girl wearing a revelatory red dress and carrying a tray with a sandwich and a Diet Coke.
“No, I haven’t,” I confessed. “I was barely able to come up with rent money. I’d better find something soon.”
“Have you ever worked graveyard?” Nestor asked, joining the conversation.
I wasn’t familiar with that term yet.
“The night shift,” Jorge said, watching how I was drowning in my own thoughts.
I thought about my days at the Super Cuca’s in Isla Vista. Initially, I’d worked there from 4:00 pm to 4:00 am. I didn’t know then if that qualified as a graveyard shift.
“No. Never,” I said while also looking at the Red-dress Girl, who sat on a table by a window with a group of girls who dressed up in a similar fashion.
“They need someone where I work,” Nestor said. “Shell gas station.”
“There are many Shell gas stations in town.”
“The one on Turnpike,” Nestor said, hoping I knew what he was talking about.
But I was still lost.
“Do you know where the In-N-Out is?” Jorge came to the rescue again.
My eyes flickered. The thought of fast food made me happy. “Yes, I know where that is.”
“It’s right next to it.”
I thought about it while looking at Jorge put two packets of Splenda in his coffee. He then stirred it with a small wooden stick.
“Do you need someone full-time?” I asked Nestor.
“No,” Nestor said. “Only the weekend.”
Jorge took a sip, and the grimace on his face suggested he didn’t like his coffee anymore.
“When can we go check it out?” I asked again.
“We can go tonight.”
And we did. This happened on a Friday, and I had to start working at my new job the following week.
By that time, I had already gone out with The Bicycle Girl (later I learnt her actual name was Celia). We hadn’t kissed, mainly because I was unable to make a move. You never make a move unless you see something in the girl’s eyes. I never saw anything in her eyes.
My future at Staples was still bleak, but Roberto and Juan were happy to know I’d found a second job. And then there was Sergio, the guy who’d helped me pass the test, remember? He even told me about a possible third job, which I was not going to take, by the way.
The weekend before I started working at the gas station, I decided to go to church with Celia and I had this weird feeling I was going to melt, just like a vampire in front of a crucifix at dawn. Like I told Carla earlier that year, I know all about Big Old JC because I’ve been reading The Book ever since I came out of my mom’s privates.
But (and this is a big ‘but’) I really wanted to get to know Celia better. Our conversations were lengthy, laughter was always on the table, and I was almost certain we were going somewhere. Therefore, I left my agnostic flag and a bag of skepticism in a drawer and tried to go with it.
There was nothing particularly thrilling about this church gathering. I saw the same old ladies crying with their hands up, high-fiving God, men were fisting their chests with passion (it looked more like anger, if you ask me), and young teenagers were wondering two things: what demon had just possessed their parents and when were they going home to play video games?
I stood next to Celia, with both hands covering my crotch. I was afraid the angry men were going to hit me if I didn’t praise The Lord. When the service was over, the pastor spotted me. A newcomer in a Christian church is as noticeable as a black hair on top of a bald man’s head.
The pastor approached me. He made his way through the crowd, just like Moses did when crossing the Red Sea. He looked and dressed like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, and I was afraid he was going to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Celia introduced us. He shook my hand firmly, cracking my bones in the process.
“What did you think about the service, son?” he asked. His demeanor was quiet, serene, and his eye contact burnt a whole in my forehead.
I had a subtle but obvious moment of hesitation. “I think it was great,” I said.
The pastor nodded, but the look on his face suggested he didn’t believe a word I said.
Neither did I.
I had lunch with Celia after church at one of the McDonald’s on Hollister Ave. When we got our food, she held both my hands, closed her eyes and prayed. A Christian thing. Catholics don’t do that. They just eat as fast as they can before the beans and tortillas disappear from the table. I didn’t close my eyes completely. I noticed how other people would look at us with surprise, as if we were a pair of aliens who came down to earth to steal the Big Mac recipe to open up an intergalactic McDonald’s a couple of light years from the moon.
When she was done, we ate. After a couple of bites and three sips of soda I told her about my new job. She was happy to hear that, but I had to wait for her to chew her McChicken and wash it down with Dasani water. “That’s great. I am really happy for you,” she said.
“There is only one problem,” I said. “It’s going to be the graveyard shift.”
She looked surprised. “You are going to be tired. Will you quit Staples?”
“No, I need that job, too. I need to make enough money to pay rent.”
She nodded, taking in everything I said. I had a feeling this was not the type of conversation she wanted to have. For the first time in the very brief moment we had known each other, our conversation had a long and awkward moment of silence. Maybe this is not what women want to hear from the men they are trying to get to know better.
And who can blame them?
I knew my job situation wasn’t the only problem on the table. This time there wasn’t laughter and endless conversations. We didn’t speak about it at that moment, but I was sure she saw my reaction at the church, the way I was observing the people around me, just like those who looked at us when we were praying before eating, and that subtle but obvious moment of hesitation when the pastor asked me if I liked the service? That was the cherry on top.
Celia wasn’t stupid. She was devoted. Even though her heart jumped every time she saw me, her eyes sparked every time we talked, and her wet lips trembled every time I dared to get closer, I knew she expected more from me. Any smart woman would’ve done the same thing in her position.
And again, who can blame them?
We said goodbye that day and went our separate ways. For me, the three weeks after that were the longest of 2007. And just when I turned 22, I saw her one last time.
Photo by BarbaraALane.