Soon, I had to say goodbye to Esmeralda as well.
“I’m going to take you to Manuel’s house,” she said.
“Who is Manuel?”
“He’s friends with Juan, your cousin,” she said while making a stop. There were three more stop signs after that one, and I began to wonder about the need for that. The octagonal signs on every corner looked like silent officers, making sure everyone respected the law. My active imagination allowed me to imagine big, bright, and commanding eyes on the signs, to add extra fear to keep the drivers in line. What I didn’t know was that every waking moment of my life was going to be a daydream, and I’d imagine things like this all over the place.
“Are there stop signs in California, too?” I asked.
Esmeralda smiled. The question was stupid and sweet at the same time. “Yes, all over the country.”
“Wow. What if people are in a hurry?” I asked, seriously concerned. “They will not want to stop at every corner.”
“That’s why God invented freeways. That way, you can go at 65 miles per hour.”
I thought about it. “Isn’t that about 100 kilometers?”
Esmeralda glanced behind the steering wheel. “Yes, that’s about right.”
“That’s not too bad.”
She pulled over right outside of a bright blue, windowless house. A small, cemented path ended at a front, white door, and a couple of tired, black bull terriers rested on either side of the door. They were supposed to guard the place, but the look on their faces suggested boredom, maybe because the neighborhood was too safe and didn’t provide them with the necessary excitement they craved.
Right on cue, a tall and robust man with a tan, who was wearing prescription glasses, opened the door. The dogs glanced at him in unison, and the look on their faces didn’t change. Of course, that man’s presence was way too familiar, so they were beginning to hate seeing him every day.
He looked at the sky. The clear afternoon sun brightened his short gray hair; it was either that or the excessive amount of Three Flowers pomade he used. As he walked toward the Marquis, the soft noise he made with his Timberland boots suggested the weight of his years, and the smear of dirt on his blue jeans and white t-shirt gave away the fact that he worked at a construction company.
Now that he was closer, Esmeralda rolled down the car window. I had a better look at his belly, which hung freely over a black, worn-out belt. He squatted in front of the car and rested his thick fingers on the car door.
“Hello there!” he said with a flawless American accent. Now that he was closer, I was able to see his green, small eyes behind the glass-bottom glasses. Yes, he was white, but working outdoors had given him that perpetual tanned complexion.
Esmeralda said in English, “James, this is Gabriel.”
James’ hand was extended, ready for the formal introduction. I was confused. I knew basic English but was tongue-tied for a second. “Nice to meet you,” I finally said and shook his hand.
Esmeralda smiled with pride, happy to see I was saying my first words in English. I will never forget that smile.
When Esmeralda left, James confessed he also spoke perfect Spanish because he was happily married to a Mexican woman. “She taught me everything I know,” he said as we walked into the house. Once inside, a familiar food smell hit my nose. The dogs had left. I was sure they found something more exciting to do elsewhere.
“Do you want some menudo?” James asked. “I also have warm tortillas.”
“Sure,” I said.
At six o’clock, a 2004 white Impala pulled over outside of the house. By then, James had brought out a couple of chairs and sat with me while we both smoked red Marlboros.
“I have to take advantage of my wife’s absence so that I can smoke,” James confessed.
I thought that was funny. “What? She beats you up or something?” I asked as the man in the white Impala stepped out of the car.
“Yeah. Something like that,” he said while looking at the new visitor walked toward us. “Manuel! Someone has been waiting for you.”
Manuel wore blue jeans, black cowboy boots, and a white button-up shirt tucked in, showing off his belt buckle with the words ‘I AM THE BOSS’ written on it. He was skinny but muscular, and a red line on his forehead suggested he also used a hat to cover his gradual loss of hair.
Yes, he looked like a real man, the kind you only see in Clint Eastwood movies, but as soon as he opened his mouth, his high-pitched voice let me know that God had run out of manly tones of voice the day Manuel was born.
“Hi, how are you?” he said, and I went deaf with the intensity of his tone.
“I’m good,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Great! Are you ready to go? We gotta get to Phoenix right now,” he said and then looked at his watch. “We might get there by ten.”
“Aren’t you gonna have some menudo, Manuel?” James asked, “I made it myself.”
“I’d love to, but I gotta go.”
“Oh. That’s too bad.”
I thanked James for his kindness and left.
As he drove away, Manuel asked, “I saw you smoking over there. Do you want another one?”
After smoking a couple of cigarettes and getting acquainted with Manuel, who also happened to be from the same city where I was born, I began to take a look around. I saw Manuel was driving at seventy miles per hour and asked, “Is this what they call a freeway?”
Manuel nodded. “Yes. You can actually go a little bit faster, but you gotta be careful. Cops are always looking for excuses to pull you over.”
I squinted, trying to understand the wisdom behind that comment. “So, I think it’s better not to give them any excuses, right?”
Manuel let it sink in for a moment. “Yeah. You’re right.”
I fell asleep looking at the freeway. What I found particularly mesmerizing was that there were freeways on top of other freeways. It was as if they had run out of space on the ground and said, what the hell? Let’s pile these sons of bitches up. It was quite a sight, I thought, while my eyelids closed up, all by themselves.
It was around eleven o’clock when we entered Phoenix, Arizona. I opened my eyes when the car stopped. I looked around and found myself in another unknown place. Manuel was on the phone, telling someone that he was outside. I looked to the right and saw a window. Inside, someone turned on the light and looked outside.
Manuel put his phone away and said, “I was going to take you to Santa Barbara, but I have to cover someone at work tomorrow. My friend is going to take you.”
I looked to the right one more time and saw Manuel’s friend coming out of the house and walking toward the Impala. The man was short in stature and notoriously overweight. His black double XL hoodie only made him look worse. He had on a black snapback hat with LA printed on the front and matching shorts.
As he got closer to the car, I had a better look at his face and his short goatee. Manuel wished me the best and stepped out of the car. Obese Man stepped in, said hi, and drove away. We didn’t talk much because I fell asleep again as we entered the freeway.
Four hours later, when I opened my eyes and saw the freeways piled up one on top of the other, I had the sudden suspicion that we were still in Phoenix.
“Where are we?”
Obese Man said, “L.A. We’re gonna sleep at my brother’s house. You’ll be in Santa Barbara tomorrow afternoon.”
I looked around. We were not on the freeway anymore. “How far is your brother’s house?”
Obese Man stopped the car. “We’re here.”
We stepped out of the car. The neighborhood was quiet, which was obvious, given that it was four in the morning. The little cemented path that ended at the front door looked too similar to James’ house.
It wasn’t the first time I had this weird sense of déjà vu, creeping in unannounced. The full moon gave us some light as we walked into the house. There was a big and comfortable couch in the living room. Obese Man squatted and retrieved a key that was underneath the doormat.
Obese Man said, “You’re probably not sleepy, right?”
I shook my head.
He pointed toward the living room. “Make yourself comfortable. You may fall asleep again.”
“And by the way,” Obese Man said before walking away. “Has anyone told you that you snore really loud?”
I smiled. “Yeah. I’ve heard that before.”
“All right. Have a good night,” he said, walking away into a corridor.
I stepped into the living room, sat down, and looked at the window. The moonlight peered discreetly through the blinds, taking a look at the new illegal immigrant in town. I looked at the moon and had the stupid idea that this was a different moon. An American moon.
I then took my shoes off and was squeamish at my own smell. I decided to put them back on instead. People in the house may be ok with the snoring issue, but stinky feet were a whole different ball game.
I rested my head on the pillow while looking at the moon. Meanwhile, flashes of my past, present, and future began to form in my head. I was looking at the man I’d been before I even thought about crossing the border. I then looked at the man I was at that moment, while my stinky feet made me feel uncomfortable. However, the most important vision I had was the future and the man I will become tomorrow.