The woman who walked toward Cecilia’s pickup looked serious and quiet. There was something about her brown, deep eyes, olive skin, and even her confident gait. Her dress was a pale green with flowers all over it. I was convinced I hadn’t seen that kind of green before. Her heels matched her dress and made her look three inches taller; I surmised she was about 5′ 5” without the shoes. Truly, the dress made her look like an oversized girl, but the look in her eyes suggested she was the boss.
She looked at me for three seconds. I had to look down, unable to hold her gaze.
“How old are you?” She asked, already guessing an unsatisfactory answer.
“19,” I said.
She shook her head. Disapproval.
“What’s wrong?” Cecilia wondered while I kept on looking at the dirt on my shoes.
“He’s too young to get into the casino,” she said, “and I really want to win some cash today.” She got a green packet of cigarettes from a pocket. Marlboro Menthols. I could’ve sworn that pocket wasn’t there, but it was camouflaged with the pale green and the flowers. “Do you smoke?” she asked. She lit up a cigarette, took a drag, and filled up her lungs with that minty, cancerous delicacy.
“Good. Come with me. If they see you smoking, they might think you’re older.”
“Think you can pull that off?” Cecilia was hesitant but winked at me to make me think she was kidding.
I knew better.
“Well,” The Boss said, took another drag, and smirked, “dreams and hopes are what bring us to this country, right?”
I said goodbye to Cecilia, and she wished me the best. Later in life, I learned to take that as a habitual comment people would always say after meeting me.
Everything about The Boss was green, even her name.
“Esmeralda,” she said as we walked into the casino. I had an unlit Marlboro dangling between my lips. My white shirt, dirty black jeans, and messy hair made me look like a rebel without a cause.
“Esmeralda?” I wondered. “Isn’t that a color?”
“Yes, like my dress.”
I remembered the green Marquis outside. “That must be your favorite color, then,” I guessed, as she sat in front of a dollar machine.
“Yes, the color of money,” she smirked.
By then, two things were obvious to me: she was clearly a money-oriented woman and preferred to have a confident, half-smile on her face.
She put a coin into the slot, pressed a couple of buttons, and an image on the screen began to spin in front of her. After that, it stopped at different drawings of numbers and fruits I didn’t understand.
She made a face. Disapproval.
“Did you lose?” I asked.
She was now surprised. “Do you know how to play?”
“No, but your expression is pretty transparent.”
“I see. You’re a bit perceptive.” The smirk on her face threatened to become a full smile.
She kept on playing for another hour while my ashtray filled with half-smoked cigarettes. Sporadically, casino employees would walk by and look at me with suspicion. I had to come up with my toughest look to avoid being asked any questions. Esmeralda’s transparent expression went from mad to happy several times. I had the suspicion she played only because she liked to feel the thrill of the game. She didn’t look like she needed the money.
The time to leave came. A couple of employees stood close by, whispering and looking at me, as I continued trying too hard to look tough and older.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Once outside, we hopped into the green car. The black leather seats made me feel like a king. When she turned on the engine, “Marriage of Figaro” played automatically on the radio. I thought that was interesting.
“Classical music,” I said as she drove away from the parking lot. “Since when do you listen to that music?”
She was surprised by that question and maybe slightly offended, too. “What do you mean? Do you think we Mexicans shouldn’t listen to that music?” She took her eyes away from the road for a moment and gave me a darting look, undressing my body and soul, making me wish I could go back in time and avoid asking such a stupid question.
“Sorry,” I managed to say, “I just-”
“I’m kidding,” she said, liberating me from my imaginary leash of apprehension.
“I get it,” she added, “you and I came from a small and limited city where opportunities, as well as good music, are not something everybody can get. When I was down there, I never listened to this music.”
I was curious about something she just said. “What do you mean ‘you and I’?”
She realized she hadn’t told me that part. “Apatzingan,” she said. “I was also born in Apatzingan.”
Now I looked at her, glad to see that many of the questions I had were being answered by themselves. I went back into my head and thought about the conversations I had with El Negro.
“So because we are from the same city, you want to make sure I make it?” I asked, and the look on her face suggested that that was probably another stupid question.
“What?” she asked, feeling as if I was suddenly speaking in a different language.
“No?” I was confused.
She shook her head. “No. I know Juan, your cousin, and he paid me good money to bring you home safe.”
“Oh,” I said. “I guess I am a very important person.”
“You are important,” she assured me as she pulled into a driveway where a white garage door opened automatically. “Most people don’t get the treatment you got, and they die in the desert before they could sip from the waters of the American Dream.”
I reconsidered it. “That makes sense.”
We talked about the future during the four hours I spent in her house. I still didn’t know what to think about it. I knew I wanted to do something positive with my life, maybe leave a mark in this world. But I still didn’t know what to do.
“I liked the theater,” I told Esmeralda. “I even wrote a play at school and acted in front of a crowd along with other classmates.”
“Well, maybe you can do that here,” she suggested.
“I don’t know,” I hesitated.
We were standing in her kitchen. She grabbed a jar of cold water out of a tall, white fridge and poured the vital liquid into two small glasses on top of a wooden table in the kitchen center.
“You said you wrote the play?” she asked while handing me the glass with water.
I nodded and took a sip.
“Do that then.”
I thought about it. “I don’t know.”
We walked toward the front porch. There were two white, wooden chairs outside. She took a seat and told me to do likewise. “You better think of something. It’d be a shame if you came here to do what everybody else does.”
“Nothing. Most people come here to do nothing. Many white people hate us for good reasons; we come to their land and never move a finger to try and mingle and learn their language. It’s true, we may never be extraordinary, but we have to look for something that will give meaning to our existence.”
I was about to ask another stupid question. I wanted to know if Esmeralda had another profession because being a coyote wasn’t exactly something legit. I kept quiet this time. The woman was trying to give me a piece of advice, and the best thing I could do was to shut up and take it.
I drank half the glass of water and said, “You’re right. I am going to think about it.”
My conversation with her gave birth to an idea that followed me for years to come. That day I learned the American Dream was, in fact, a combination of many small goals that needed to be accomplished to get something else, something better. Being on American soil was the first dream I had, and now I needed to go with the next and the next. At that moment in time, the image of that dream was like a blurry picture in my mind, even when Esmeralda had already suggested it.
“Write,” She had said.