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Roberto was the first person to know about my first unsuccessful attempt at romance. As a choirboy goes to a priest, I went to him while he stocked a shelf with pencils, erasers, and a wide assortment of white-outs. By the obvious look of exhaustion on my face, he could determine I was both tired and slightly heartbroken. It was 10:30 am, and although I’d already worked a month at the gas station, I couldn’t get used to the schedule. Having two jobs was sucking the life out of me.

That day, Sunday morning, Roberto told me why. “It’s because you only work the graveyard shift during the weekend. Therefore, by sleeping your regular schedule on the weekdays and rapidly changing it every week, you are not giving your body a chance to adapt.”

That made absolute sense. “So, I’m pretty much killing myself one weekend at a time?”

He laughed, showing off his lack of teeth; I always wondered if he did that on purpose.

“But that’s not the only thing that’s bothering you, is it?” he asked.

I told him what happened with Celia.

“So, nothing happened?” he observed.

“Maybe in theory, but not in practice.”

He laughed, took off his glasses, and cleaned the sweat on the arc of his nose with the tip of his fingers. “Don’t worry. She is not going to get pregnant with a kiss.”

I smiled.

“Do you ever check the word of the day?” he asked, changing the subject without mercy or at least a warning.

Maybe that was a good thing.

I said no, unsure what he was talking about. “What is that? A movie?”

The look on his face told me just how stupid that question was. “You’re taking English classes, and you don’t know what the word of the day is?”

I shook my head slowly.

“How are you learning English, then?”

“I read the books at school.”

He smirked, “I see why your English is so limited.”

I didn’t like that, but it looked like he was right. “I read the dictionary,” I argued.

A flicker in his eyes announced the presence of an idea, the light bulb inside his head going up as I said the word ‘dictionary.’ “I just found out about this new online dictionary you can read,” he said. “It’s called TheFreeDictionary.com. There, you can find the word of the day, synonyms, antonyms, and even idioms. It’s fantastic!”

I said thank you, and even if he never told me, I had the feeling he intentionally changed the subject of our conversation, so I could go back and focus on what really mattered to me.

As I was making a mental note in my head to remember the website Roberto talked about, a tall man wearing the grey manager shirt walked past us in a hurry. His heavy, black boots shook the ground, or maybe it was just my imagination. I had to look up because he was tall. I didn’t know how tall, but seven feet didn’t seem like an exaggeration. Again, my imagination was playing tricks on me.

“He’s Arturo,” Roberto said while handing me a box with Bic pens in it. “Go put these pens away. He doesn’t like it when we are goofing off.”

“Ok,” I said, wondering who Arturo was. I hadn’t seen him before. As I ambled forward, looking for the spot where I needed to hang the pens, Juan passed by, talking to a customer about the difference between matte and glossy paper; I didn’t know the differences myself.

I went back to the middle of the store, where we kept the boxes we were putting away, and walked right back, carrying a small, colorful box that said ‘Post-it’ on it. I put it on the floor, next to its assigned location. I had a yellow box cutter I used for work in my back pocket. I retrieved it and slid it through the clear tape in the middle of the box. It peeled wide open, offering zero resistance, but I used excessive force and cut in half all the purple, yellow, pink, and blue post-it notes that were on top.

They were useless now.

Fuck me, I whispered to myself.

“What’s wrong?” Juan said, appearing right next to me as if he had smelled trouble a mile away.

“I cut these,” I said. “By accident.”

He gave me an angry look. His bald head made him look quite intimidating. “You’re in serious trouble, ese,” he said, speaking in a shadowy, almost clandestine way, making me feel like we were in a dark and empty alley somewhere in the city, rather than the lit and crowded office supplies store.

“But,” I said, afraid he was going to fire me right on the spot.

“I’m fucking with you!” He said, laughing and pulling me out of the deep abyss of my imagination.

Puto, I thought but didn’t say it.

He leaned down and grabbed the damaged post-its. “Follow me,” he said.

As we walked to the back of the store, where we kept all the merchandise, I saw the petite girl and Arturo again. He was carrying the easel box on his right shoulder as the girl nattered on about how pleased and delighted she was with the service.

When Juan opened the back door, he asked me, “have you met Arturo?”

I shook my head. “No. Who is he?”

“He used to work at the Staples in Santa Barbara.”

I was slightly confused. “I thought this was the Staples in Santa Barbara.”

“This is the Staples in Goleta. Santa Barbara is fifteen minutes south. Same county, different city. Know what I mean?”

No, I don’t, I thought.

“Whatever,” he said, walking to the left, where a mountain of damaged office supplies lay on a shelf, dusted and forgotten. Many of the packages were cut in half, and I felt strangely relieved, happy to see I wasn’t the only one who got excited with the blade. He tossed the damaged post-its on the shelf. “Anytime you open anything like these, bring ’em back and put ’em back here. Got it?”

I nodded.

“Can I keep one?” I asked. “In case I need to make a quick note.”

“Open another one.”

I didn’t get it. “A new one?”

“Yeah. Don’t worry about it. As long as you use ’em here, you’re cool.”

As he walked away, I asked, “what about this Arturo guy? Is he gonna work here now?”

“That’s right,” he said, disappearing behind the back door.

Later that day, I made a note using a brand new Post-it. Remember to check the dictionary Roberto talked about. I wrote on it and put it in my back pocket. By that moment, I was working alone. Roberto and Juan left because they weren’t making labor; I didn’t know what ‘making labor’ meant but didn’t want to ask either.

I was alone in the office supplies store, buried in a mountain of pens and pencils, copy paper and notebooks, ready to practice my English with the customers that came in the store. And yes, compared with that time I went out with the Japanese girl to try and practice my English, I was doing way better. The words and complete sentences began to roll out of my tongue a lot easier, but (and there’s always a but) I felt like working the night shift was slowing me down a little bit.

Was it because of the constant and weekly changes in my schedule? Maybe Roberto was right, and I needed to settle for one sleep schedule only. But I couldn’t. I needed both jobs to survive. Staples only gave me three six-hour days per week, plus the three nights at the gas station. I was barely able to make it.

But I wanted to come to America, right?

A voice out of the intercom dragged me away from my thoughts. “Customer assistance in aisle five, please!” it was an automated, female voice of a person who sounded as bored and sleepy as me. So I hurried toward aisle five, and Arturo was there, waiting for me.

I’m not joking when I say this guy was a giant abnormality. He was neither fat nor skinny, and all of his body parts were thick, well proportioned. His fingers were bigger than my entire hand, and his serious, stone-cold stare could extinguish me if I dare say the wrong thing. I was already nervous even though I hadn’t come that close to him.

He had a packet of red sheets of paper on his hand, the sort of paper you use for decoration. I think they call it tracing paper. He was looking at it, and at the same time, he was trying to find the place on the shelf where said paper needed to be.

“Need any help?” I asked, hoping he wasn’t going to give me a hard time because I didn’t greet him properly like I was supposed to, with the annoying phrase: “Hi! Welcome to Staples! How can I help you today?”

Since he worked here, I didn’t think it mattered. And I was right. He wasn’t paying much attention to me, anyway.

“There’s a red binder that is supposed to be on top of the shelves, to indicate where the items go, so I don’t have to waste half my lunch looking for their location,” he said all that while looking at me in a fugacious way, thinking I may be able to answer his question, but not quite giving a fuck who I was, as long as he got what he wanted from me.

I felt slightly used.

I could detect an accent. Hispanic? Most definitely, since his name was Arturo. Like me, he also had olive skin. His black hair was short and combed to the front, covering a rather conspicuous loss of hair he was trying to ignore, just like me. He was probably in his early forties, and his voice was so deep I thought I was listening to Christian Bale in that Batman movie.

“Do you know where it is?” He asked again, noticing how I seemed to have gotten lost while hopelessly looking at the shelves, just like he was.

Then I looked up, to my left, at the very top, where we kept even more boxed merchandise, in case we felt like walking to the back and leaving them there was an arduous journey.

“On that corner,” I said, outstretching my hand.

He looked up, saw the red and dusty binder on the corner, as forgotten as the damaged items in the back room. Small, red dots of anger tinted his cheeks.

He looked at me and said, “Thank you. You can leave now.” As I left, he said. “Actually, I want you to find all the binders and bring them to my office. I need to see if they are all up to date.”

And I did. In fact, little by little, I was becoming Arturo’s bitch, running errands for him, doing shit someone else didn’t do and happily getting paid for it.

What an American Dream.

As the hours, the days, and the weeks went by, I was beginning to drink too many of those sugar-loaded energy drinks (Rockstar was my favorite) that promised you extra power to accomplish anything you want in a day.¬†Bullshit.¬†I’ve never been fond of the word ‘addiction.’ I smoked, I know, but sometimes I’d go days without buying cigarettes and I would ask myself, “didn’t I used to smoke?”

One of those days of May, I sat on that wooded bench outside the store, smoking and drinking a Rockstar. I was skinnier than ever, and a persistent twitch in my right eye was beginning to annoy me.

“It’s because you don’t sleep,” Roberto had said.

I was thinking about these things when Arturo came and sat next to me. Even sitting down, I had to look up. God, this guy was huge. He had in his left hand a Red Bull, another one of those energy drinks.

“You look like shit,” he said. Maybe that was his version of a pleasantry. Then, he burped, and even if he turned to the other side, I caught an unwanted whiff of his breath.

“Can’t argue with that,” I said. “You look taller than ever.”

He frowned. “I’m only six-two,” he said. “It’s only because you’re a dwarf you think everyone is a giant.”

Was he reading my mind? I thought while throwing away the cigarette butt into a trashcan that was behind the bench.

He stood quiet for a second, gazing at the parking lot. He also looked tired, so I said, “you look like shit, too.”

At first, he gave me one of his serious stares, which made me think I would get fired, but then smirked, giving me the green light, letting me know it was cool to disrespect him once in a while, too. “You’re right,” he said, “I do everything in this shithole.”

“What about the store manager? Haven’t seen him in a while.”

“That fucker? He’s probably dead by now.”

Another moment of silence. I had the feeling he came all the way out here to tell me something but maybe forgot about it after he saw the lassitude and lethargy coming out of my face.

“Juan told me about you?” he finally said.

That was vague. “What did he tell you?”

“That you went to The Bacara Hotel and told the receptionist you were an illegal immigrant,” he said.

I almost forgot I had that conversation with Juan. Even after I was told not to say anything about my legal status, I still felt I should tell Juan about it. Fortunately, Juan had said it was cool, but I should shut my mouth from now on.

Apparently, he kept his mouth wide open.

“Yeah,” I said, lowering my head. “Do I still have the job?” I asked, thinking he was probably going to fire me, anyway.

“No, you’re fired,” he said, took another sip of his drink, and spat, unable to control the laugh that was coming out of his throat.

Pendejo, I thought but didn’t say it.

“No, I didn’t come out here to fire you,” he finally said, trying to be serious for once. “I also talked to Roberto. He said you have another job at a gas station. Graveyard shift?”

I nodded.

“You like it?” he asked.

I sneered. “I hate it.”

He took another sip. “Ok. I want you to do three things for me?”

I was intrigued. “I’m listening.”

He stood up, getting ready to leave, and said, “First, I want you to give me some time. I need to fix some things around here, fire some people, so you can have more hours here and stop working at the gas station.”

That was interesting. “Thank you,” I said, realizing that there was a good side of him, other than the one who liked to make jokes and nickname people. “What are the other two things you want me to do?”

“I want you to stop telling the truth once in a while. Seriously, nobody cares if you came to this country flying, swimming, or jumping walls. We were all illegal immigrants once, that doesn’t mean you have to be one for the rest of your life. You don’t look that stupid.”

That was moving, in a weird sort of way. I wanted to say thank you one more time but decided not to. “Ok, I won’t do that again.” Then I remembered he said he wanted me to do three things for him. “What’s the last thing you want me to do?”

He smiled mischievously while looking at the trashcan behind the wooden bench. He handed me his empty can and said, “Throw this away for me. I’m late.”

And so I did.

I spent five more minutes there, thinking about this conversation. The possibility of getting more hours here and stop working at the gas station gave me more energy than any amount of sugar-loaded drinks. It was a good idea. Brilliant even. Working at Staples meant I would be able to talk to more people, learn faster, and probably get a better position in the future.

The future was always on my mind. It was inevitable. I came all the way out here looking for it, unsure how exactly it would look like, but ready to face it nonetheless. And it did bring a lot more experiences (good and bad) my way. I would meet new people every day, some of them would disappear, and others would keep showing up now and then, unannounced.

Like Margarita Palma, for example. She came back to my life the next month.

 

Photo by Ligielis.

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