June took over the calendar and half of the year 2007 had faded away into oblivion. It was on a Thursday, at 10:34 in the morning, when I sat in front of my desk, inside the box, staring at the blank page, hoping I could write something down. I hadn’t written a word on my journal in a while. I spent five minutes threatening the blank page with my pen, pointing at it like a bank robber who is yelling at a deaf clerk who can’t move a finger because he’s afraid he’s going to lose his life. Is that how the blank page feels?
In the year when smartphones were beginning to be popular, I still had a stupid phone, which was on the desk, between the computer keyboard and the notebook. I looked at it, praying to a God I didn’t like, hoping He could send a distraction my way, or something that would allow me to say or write down a paragraph worth reading.
And He did.
Praise the Lord.
The phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize. A stranger on the other side of the cord had something to tell me. Maybe he wanted to sell me heaven in a bottle, Viagra pills, or the promise of a better and brighter future. I let the phone ring three times, looking at it attentively, just like the hungry cat looks at the hopeless mouse that runs inside the trap, doing nothing more than tiring itself to death.
Was I tiring myself to death, too?
I decided to answer. The mouse is ok now. Curiosity just killed the cat.
“Bueno,” I said in Spanish, after promising myself I’d never do that again.
“Hey! Como estas, Gabriel?” a rather unknown and way too cheerful voice on the other end wanted to know how I was. I was skeptical, confused, flabbergasted, dumbfounded and sleepy. To top it off, I had neither time nor energy to know who this person was.
I’d make sure I don’t ask God for help anymore.
“Who’s this?” I asked, now in English, in a devious attempt to make this caller uneasy and unable to keep talking.
“Hey! We haven’t met in person,” he said. His English was ok, but he’d already used the word ‘hey’ twice. Was that necessary?
“I’m sure we haven’t,” I said, noticing how arid and dry and blasé my words were. Put simply, I was acting like a total asshole. Was it because of the lack of sleep?
“My name is Juan Carlos,” he said, “I’m Margarita Palma’s business partner.”
I had what I like to call ‘a puzzle effect,’ in which all the pieces fell together into place, making the picture clear, keeping me away from trying to guess whom this man was and how he got my number.
“Margarita Palma,” I thought out loud.
“Do you remember her?”
I nodded, forgetting for one second I was on the phone.
“Yes,” I finally said. “From Altamirano’s, right?”
“That’s right!” the excitement in his tone of voice was a bit too much. I think I’d said it before, I don’t trust people who seem obscenely happy. “Listen, there is a really important person I want you to meet. He is a successful business owner who is going to be in Santa Barbara today only! You have to come and meet him!”
He was using all the right words, adding elation, luring me in, playing me, moving me around like a lifeless piece on a chessboard. But I heeded Rick Springfield’s advice and decided not to talk to strangers.
I hung up.
Hey! But he wasn’t going to give up that easy. He called again. I ignored the call. He called one more time. I let the phone ring while a part of me admired this guy’s tenacity. Was I being stupid at that moment? Maybe he did have something important to say. But I was tired. Sleepy.
“Hey!” I decided to answer, trying to use his words and level of enthusiasm. “You hung up, man!” I said, shifting the blame away from me.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he apologized, “there must be a problem with the reception.”
“That’s right, man!” I said, feigning surprise and interest.
Then he went on, talking about the business Margarita had filled me in early that year. Juan Carlos sounded really enthusiastic about it. He told me more about this really important and successful business owner, a guy named Felizardo Quiroz.
“What are you doing today?” he finally asked.
I was looking for an excuse. I was still sitting down, staring at the blank page. “I’m writing,” I said.
Silence on the other end. Didn’t he know the meaning of the word ‘writing’?
“You mean homework?” he asked.
Well, being a writer feels like having homework for the rest of your life. “Not exactly,” I said. “I like to write for fun.”
A little bit more silence on the other end. “That’s great!” he said. “there are many fantastic writers in the business!”
Are there, now? I thought, rolling my eyes.
“So tell me where you live. I can go pick you up right away!”
Didn’t he hear when I told him I was busy?
“Juan Carlos, I’m telling you I’m busy. Besides, I’ve been working a lot lately. I want to rest.”
I heard footsteps on the other end. He was walking. “Man! This is the opportunity of a lifetime! If you come with me, I assure you that you are not going to work like you are working right now.”
I thought about it. Meanwhile, I heard him opening a door –his car?- and slammed it close. “I don’t think you’re gonna find the place,” I said, looking for another excuse. “It’s not that easy to find.”
I told him. He said he knew the area.
I’m sorry Rick Springfield. I ended up talking to strangers.
Juan Carlos looked like the younger version of Vicente Fox; a tall, skinny man with a mustache and black short hair who had been the Mexican president until November of last year. He had on a black suit, white shirt and red tie, and an unmistakable delusion of grandeur coming out of his ass. He stepped out of a green old and unreliable two-door Honda Civic. The polished and lustrous shine of his shoes blinded me for a second.
I, on the other hand, was wearing my usual black Dickies, Converse shoes, white t-shirt underneath and a black jacket on top. My black long hair hid under a black nondescript hat, my hands in my pockets, and my willingness to stand out the front door was nowhere to be seen.
He inched toward me, shook my hand in a business-like manner, touching my elbow with his left hand in the process. Was that necessary? He didn’t even ask if I was the person he was looking for. Somehow he just knew.
Shit, why didn’t I say I was just the neighbor?
I hopped into the car. His happiness and enthusiasm were even more unbearable in person. He said we were going to Altamirano’s, where Mr. Big Shot Quiroz would be excited to wait for me. Juan Carlos assured me –again?- I was making the right decision. I let him go on and on, nattering about the business like a sixteen-year-old girl who is going out on her first date ever.
“So,” he said, “tell me more about yourself, Gabriel.”
More? I haven’t been able to tell you shit!
“What do you want to know?” I said, trying to smile and look like I loved it here. I mean, I knew what he was trying to do, but I was just not in the mood to be friendly at that moment. I wish I had just said no when he said he wanted to come. Why didn’t I say no?
“Where are you from?” he asked.
He took his eyes away from the road for a second and looked at me as if I told him I was from Mars. “Oh, we can speak Spanish. I’m from Mexico too.” He said all these quietly, like he was talking to a toddler; what a condescending and patronizing jackass.
“Seriously?” I asked, looking at him in a murderous way, while images of me stabbing him on the neck as he tried to maneuver the steering wheel were so clear and vivid I could feel the blood splattering all over my face. God, I really needed some sleep.
He understood my frustration. “I- I don’t mean any offense_”
“Does it look like I’m not making myself clear?”
“No, it’s not that. I thought you prefer to talk in Spanish like everyone else.”
I kept staring at him, he had to go back and look at the road. A question began to form in my head. “Let me ask you something, Juan Carlos.”
He nodded, slowly.
“Are you doing this Amway business because you are like everyone else, or because you want to be better?”
He smiled in resignation. “You have a point.”