The Shell Gas Station is a thing from the past, a rather unmemorable memory. Eating lunch at my favorite McD’s, I pondered my life, thinking about my past and present mentors. Esmeralda was undoubtedly the first on this side of the wall, for she made sure I didn’t leave my dreams and aspirations hanging on the border as I jumped into The Red, White, and Blue. Now that I didn’t have to worry about the gas station, I was paying more attention to my education. I had developed this routine of coming to McD’s to read, do homework, or even write something in my journal. I had become a regular customer.
Soon, I was going to become more than just a customer.
July was still in charge that Tuesday afternoon, dying every day, giving August the chance to get ready and take over the calendar soon. There was a meeting of sorts in the lobby, near the table where I sat. A group of managers sat together, wearing blue shirts, red ties, and black pants. They all surrounded a man whose face resembled a mouse; later, I learned his actual nickname was Raton, the Spanish equivalent of mouse.
Blanca was there, as well as a girl named Brenda, a skinny and scrawny kid named Cesar, another girl named Lidia, a very dark-skin fellow named Celestino, and a good-looking girl named Marlen; pardon my bias, but, since I had a thing for Marlen, I couldn’t find anything wrong with her.
Oh, and before I forget, Raton’s actual name was Omar.
I tried to be discreet as I was looking at them. I tend to stare too much sometimes, perhaps because I want to be able to capture the perfect Polaroid of time and stick it somewhere in the drawers of my memory for future reference. On the desk, I also had my binder, the one I’d filled up with words so I could study them. I reminisced on the time when I first came up with this idea. It was when I hung out with Carla and her friends. I hadn’t heard from them in a while. They had graduated last month, which meant they were probably following their individual paths and careers.
They are going to be deeply missed.
I took a sip of my coke and gave another glance at the meeting. Meanwhile, my past acquaintances’ good and memorable memories were also being placed on a different drawer, right next to the Polaroid of this new group of people I was looking at. I understood then how my life would be: filled with memories of old friends and new characters.
And yes, even if they were real people, not a product of my imagination, I thought they were all playing a role in their lives as managers at this restaurant. For example, Blanca and Cesar didn’t seem comfortable in their clothes; Cesar would constantly move his tie, as if it were asphyxiating him, while Blanca would pull down the short sleeves of her shirt, trying unsuccessfully to stretch the fabric. Lidia sat next to Cesar, her legs crossed and a look of boredom apparent, at least to the trained eye. The only three people paying close attention to Omar’s saying were Brenda, Celestino, and Marlen.
“Well, that’s it for today, you guys!” Omar said and stood up, practically yelling, but in a cheerful way.
Everyone walked by the table where I sat. Marlen gave me a glance and a smile, the same way she’d do to any customer, of course. A short, black and lustrous ponytail hung behind her back. I caught the briefest of glances as she walked by. Blanca stopped where I was and sat down without asking if I minded.
“What’s new with you?” Blanca asked.
Meanwhile, Marlen and the others faded in the corner as they walked into the restaurant’s kitchen. “Not much,” I confessed, turning back, trying not to ignore my unwelcome yet tolerable guest.
Blanca’s hair was shorter this time. She wasn’t wearing earrings; I don’t think she ever did. “You like her, don’t you?” she asked. Her straightforwardness was admirable.
I feigned stupidity, pretending I didn’t know what she was talking about. “Who?” I asked while my left hand grabbed a couple of the cold fries I’d forgotten to eat.
“Marlen,” she said, and the mischievous smile on her face suggested she knew I was playing dumb.
“Oh, you mean that girl?”
“Nope. I didn’t even know her name.” I lied.
And just as I said that, Marlen came back, carrying a black purse. “See you tomorrow, guys!” she said to the group of youngsters who were fervently feeding the hungry customers. She waved Blanca goodbye, but I could almost see an idea forming in her head.
“Marlen!” Blanca said, just when Marlen was about to open up the door and leave.
She turned back and approached the table. “Yes, Blanca,” she said, faking annoyance. But the serene look on her face suggested she was generally a quiet and collected person.
“I want to introduce you to_,” Blanca said and stopped because she didn’t even know my name.
“Gabriel,” I said, stood up, and gave Marlen my hand. “Please, forgive her. Seems like she has forgotten my name.” I tried to sound apologetic.
She smiled, gave me a prolonged I-like-you glance, and said, “I know. Sometimes she forgets her own name.”
Marlen’s eyes were big and light brown, her eyebrows were thick and natural, her olive skin had no trace of make-up, except for a shade of red lipstick that covered her full lips. She was slightly shorter than me, probably 5-5.
The tension was growing. Someone had to say something. “I’ve seen you a lot lately,” she said. At that moment, Blanca and the rest of the world had faded into a blurry wallpaper in the background.
“Yes,” I said, glad to know she’d noticed me. “I normally come in the afternoon to study or read.”
She looked at the binder on the table. “What do you study?”
“English,” I said. “I’m thinking about becoming a writer.”
Then, all of a sudden, Blanca broke through the imaginary wallpaper. “That’s what you have in the binder?” She asked and opened it.
“Blanca!” Marlen exclaimed. “Why are you looking through his stuff?”
“In case he has something to hide, you can find out right away,” she said with a smile.
“How old is she?” I said, which showed Marlen that I had a sense of humor and perhaps nothing to hide.
Then, one of those awkward moments of silence.
“Ok,” Marlen said, “I have to go. It’s nice meeting you.”
“Y-You too,” I stuttered.
I looked at Blanca with murderous eyes.
“What was that about?” I said while sitting down.
“Don’t pretend you didn’t want to meet her.”
She had a point.
“Well, you’re right, but I wasn’t thinking of doing it this way.”
She squinted. “And which way did you have in mind?”
Again, she had a point.
“Hadn’t thought about it.”
“Besides,” she said. “I’ve got good news for you.”
“She also likes you.”
I smiled. “Really?”
She nodded. “You don’t see the way she looks at you?”
My eyebrows went up, trying to look for a memory. “Actually, no. I don’t. I only see her when she gives me my Quarter Pounder with Cheese and on those rare occasions when I’m in the mood for an apple pie. She smiles, but I suppose that’s the way she does to everyone.”
She shook her head, “She does, but with you, it’s different.”
“She is interested in you.”
I hadn’t been in a relationship in a while, so I guess I’d forgotten how to look for signs of attraction. “And how do you know that?”
She gave me a look that suggested I just asked a stupid question. “Because she told me.”
I smiled one more time.
I spent the next day playing basketball with my friend Lazaro, the guy I used to hang out with last summer. I wasn’t really focused on the game, mainly because I was thinking about my last conversation with Blanca. I decided to sit down and let the rest of the people (whose names I’d forgotten) play.
“Pasala!” someone would yell in Spanish, summoning someone else to pass the ball.
“Esperate, hijo de la chingada!” the other person would say, which basically translates to: “Wait, you son of a bitch!” He bounced the ball a while longer, moving with grace, getting rid of the human barrier that was trying to block his game. Then, he’d finally pass the ball to the other guy, who was already getting tired of waiting.
The other guy grabbed the ball, looked at the target, feeling like Michael Jordan in his moments of glory, and then shoot.
“Hijo de la chingada! Que fue eso?” the other guy wanted to know what the fuck was that.
Everyone stopped for a while to drink from bottles of water and Gatorades. Lazaro sat next to me and said, “How’s school, primo?”
He called me primo, which was the unwanted moniker I got from my brief tenure at Super Cuca’s.
“It’s good,” I said, still trying to catch my breath while covering my head with an L.A. Dodger’s hat. “Are you planning on going to school?”
“Ni madres!” he said, meaning: “No way!”
“Why?” I wondered.
He took a sip of his Gatorade. “That shit isn’t for me, man. I guess I told you before.”
“I think you did.”
The players were getting ready. One of them, a skinny, funny-looking man with a goatee that looked like pubic hair, asked us if we were going to play again.
I shook my head.
Lazaro yelled, “No!”
“All right!” the guy said and started to play again with the rest of the people.
Lazaro said, “I asked you about school because I got something for you.” He took his backpack and pulled out a gray big iPod.
I’d seen those around. That was the new thing out there, the one that came and fucked up with the CD player’s legacy. Ok, I guess they had it coming since they also did the same to the cassettes. Apple came up with this new music player, and in the same way, Microsoft came up with Zune, another portable mp3 that died just six years after its inception. The iPod lasted a while longer.
“I found this by the beach,” he said. “Maybe a student dropped it.”
I looked at it. I knew a little bit about it because Roberto had one and he taught me how to use it. The previous owner of this device had a diverse taste in music. He listened to rock stars such as Bon Jovi and Rick Springfield, AC-DC, The Journey, and The Eagles. He also had some pop music, like Backstreet Boys and Nsync, Christina Aguilera, and even Britney Spears. And what I found even more surprising was his taste for classical music; Beethoven and Mozart were the only two I knew something about.
“Do you have one?” he asked.
“Yeah. You can listen to the music and learn English that way too.”
That was curious, he wanted me to learn but he didn’t care much about educating himself. “I can read the lyrics on the internet,” I said.
“Thanks, man!” I said.
And that was the last time I saw Lazaro. He also disappeared from my life, just like Carla and her friends.
That night I took a shower and went to Borders books store, bought a copy of a book Roberto recommended me (The Power of Now), and went to read it at McDonald’s. What Roberto didn’t know (and I would never tell him) was that I bought the book in Spanish. The reason why I did this was that I had picked up another book in English (a novel by Dean Koontz) and realized I wasn’t ready to take that challenge.
It had been a year since I started going to school and I was barely learning how to crawl; trying to stand up and run was a mistake.
Entering the restaurant, I breathed in the usual miasma of oil and French fries. Coffee was in the air, too. Blanca was brewing a new pot behind the counter. Marlen rapidly bagged and gave out Big Macs, McChickens, chicken nuggets, and fries to the hungry customers. That day, managers were wearing white shirts. The rest of the crew remained in their blue polos.
I think it was also because the night was quiet that I could listen to the background music. It was something by Michael Jackson. Beat It, I think.
There was a skinny, bald, and clean-shaved man sitting at the table I usually sat. He was reading a Bible with the same zeal I devour my grammar books. On the table, there was a Big Mac box and leftover fries drizzled with salt and ketchup. Lidia was sitting in front of him. I then realized there was some resemblance between them.
At the register, I asked one of the kids in polos for a coffee and two apple pies. There was a line, but the kids at the register were taking care of business with what looked like eager and hedonic ferocity. Likewise, Blanca and Marlen were bagging the food and giving out the trays. When Blanca saw me, she gently and subtly hit Marlen’s elbow. She turned, saw me, and there was a millisecond in which she stopped and smiled at me. Then she went back to business.
You had to appreciate the commitment.
Marlen gave me my order but wondered why I didn’t get my usual Quarter Pounder with Cheese. “I’m not that hungry,” I confessed. We said thank you simultaneously, and that called for another millisecond of intense eye contact.
I sat on the table across from Skinny-bald Man. By then, Lidia had gone back to work. I bit my pie, sipped my drink, and opened my book. Skinny-bald Man took a glance at it and said in a sermon-like manner, “That’s an excellent book, brother!”
Brother? I thought. You’re old enough to be my father.
“Don’t tell me,” I deadpanned, “haven’t gotten to the good parts yet.”
“You just bought it?”
I looked at him, faking surprise. “How did you know?”
“It was a wild guess.”
Sometimes I wonder if I have a sign on my head, invisible only to me, which says I am an approachable person. I don’t think I am, but the world tends to disagree. I was not in the mood to be an asshole this time. “Your book is interesting, as well,” I said, unknowingly opening a conversation I didn’t want to have.
“Have you read it?” He asked.
“I have. And I really liked it,” I lied. Sometimes it’s better that way.
He then gave me a look, suggesting he probably didn’t buy it. Meanwhile, Blanca approached me and once again sat at my table, uninvited. She was slurping from a cup of soda.
“Don Jose!” Blanca said, greeting Skinny-bald Man.
The man gave her what looked like a fake smile, then said to me, “You look familiar, brother. Have I met you before?”
“I don’t think you have,” I said and put the book down.
He squinted, looking at me in a Sherlockian way. Then, the dilation in his pupils suggested he found the answer in the drawers of his memory. “I saw you at The Nueva Vida Church!” he said. “You were invited by one of the girls in our congregation!”
Oh shit! I thought while other unmemorable memory flew out of my head. He was talking about Celia. Somehow, I had actually managed to forget about her.
Briefly, he told me that she was still going to church but will soon leave because she had just graduated. Blanca and I listened to him, with boredom in our eyes, as he went on and on, talking about what a wonderful person she was for having taken the time to share the glory of the Lord with me and taking me to church. I know she was a nice girl, but I didn’t want to think about her anymore.
“Great! I’m glad she’s doing well.”
I looked at Blanca, waiting for her to tell me something, anything, to be able to change the conversation. I could also read the book, but somehow, I lost interest. Fuck The Power of Now. Just for now, anyway.
Then, directly from heaven, Marlen came and greeted Jose. He actually stood up and walked outside with her. I guess they had private matters they had to attend to. Before leaving, Jose said, in that idiosyncratic sermon-like tone, “Hope to see you at church again, brother!”
I nodded, smirked, and as soon as he left with Marlen, I asked Blanca, “Who’s this guy?”
“A Christian,” she said as if she was referring to a venereal disease. “He’s Lidia’s dad, too.”
“I don’t remember seeing him at the church.”
“I never imagine you as a cristianito,” she said. The tone in her voice suggested she also had a dysfunctional relationship with God.
“I’m not,” I said, “I only went there because I was chasing tail,” I winked.
She laughed out loud, which made some customers look our way. “I knew it!”
I smiled. “You knew what?”
“You’re the sort of guy who looks quiet and all, always reading your books, but deep inside, you’re trouble!”
“Can’t argue with that,” I admitted.
After a moment of silence, as I looked at Marlen, who was still having a conversation with Jose outside, I asked Blanca, “So what’s her story?”
Blanca looked behind her shoulder. “Not much.”
“Is she related to him, too?”
She slurped from her drink one more time, but the empty noise reminded her it was time for a refill. “No, he’s just trying to convince her to go to church.”
I had to admit it. I didn’t like that idea. If I had some intention to pursue this girl, that intention was starting to shrink. I didn’t want to go back and make the mistake I made with Celia. As a human being, I believe you’re entitled to make mistakes. But making the same mistakes twice, that’s just plain stupid.
“Tell me,” I asked Blanca, “Is she happy going to church?”
Blanca kept on slurping on that thing, sucking air, and filling up her stomach with nothing. “She is,” Blanca said. “You may be able to change her mind.” The smile on her face was devilish.
I liked that idea. I really did. Taking this girl away from God’s hands sounded like a wonderful way to stick it to Him. But, really, why would I do that? I’m like a Little David down here, and God is a Goliath too big for anyone to fight.
That’s also plain stupid.
“No,” I said, which changed Blanca’s devilish expression for a look of surprise. Meanwhile, Marlen gave me a brief glance and a smile from the other side of the door. “Let’s just let her do what she thinks is best.”
Although I never pursued her, we actually became good friends.
Photo by Josephredfield.