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2008 was a long fucking year.

Learning English became a habit. No, scratch that. It was an obsession. Despite having a distinct and perpetual accent, my constant interest in English phonetics and almost-accurate pronunciations, as well as a plethora of English movies –horror and dark comedy, mainly- helped me develop what people called ‘a not-so-Hispanic-accent.’ “You don’t sound Mexican,” some people would say, to which I’d reply, “Well, Mother says I’m Mexican. Unless she’s lying to me.”

By this time, I was still an illegal immigrant, went back to college, and even after juggling with two jobs (Staples and McDonald’s), I didn’t feel exhausted or overwhelmed; sometimes, I even wondered if I was human but then realized that was my ego talking. I didn’t live in The Box anymore–thankfully- and moved to a safer neighborhood in Goleta, a place so quiet and white, people would immediately notice someone like me.

It didn’t matter. Even if I didn’t amount to anything, I still walked like I owned the motherfucking world.

My old friend Jose, El Cristianito, helped me move one afternoon. I liked him a lot, always thought of him as a father figure, but unfortunately, we had to part ways; our life interests would never be the same. The house I moved into was Luis’ (remember him? The curly-haired guy from the gas station who always came late to work?).

I’d seen him once at McD’s. I thought he’d be mad because I hadn’t shown up on my last night at work, but he’d said, “It’s cool, man. No hard feelings.”

I took the desk, the nightstand, the bookshelf, the books, and the few clothes I owned. It was there that I started to notice that having little belongings was going to be my style. I became a minimalist by accident, and later in life, that came in handy.

Luis’ place was a beautiful, blue pastel house that sat on a corner, facing the 101 freeway. When I was outside, all I could hear was the cars whizzing by, leaving clouds of smoke and dirt behind. It didn’t take us long to unload Jose’s white Datsun truck. In less than 30 minutes, my world experienced a meritorious update; it went from a small and uncomfortable wooden box to a spacious and private room.

Luis’ family was pleasant. His mom was an angel who had, for some reason, dropped on this planet. Luis’ step-dad wasn’t the exception; his quiet manner and friendly disposition underlined the household’s bedrock foundation. There were also two younger kids (a girl and a boy), well behaved and respectful. They all seemed like the original idea of The Good Samaritan.

Why else would they help someone like me?

I’m not saying I was the devil, but I was not an angel from heaven either.

There was this other guy, Hugo, who also rented a room in the house. Like me, he was skinny but had some muscle over his bones. He also worked at McDonald’s, but the one on Fairview, where the main office was. Hugo had met Luis at another gas station, became friends, and Luis ended up renting him a room, just like he did with me.

After getting settled in, I walked to The Camino Real Marketplace. It was also my day off in both jobs, a rare occurrence, by the way, and I wanted to do nothing for once in my life. I went to a local AT&T store, ready to buy a new phone. The first iPhone ever had been out for a year, so people were still talking about it, and the price was higher than a kid who had smoked weed for the first time in his life.

I ended up buying nothing, mainly based on my inability to save money. However, I did stumble upon a McD’s manager who was selling his iPhone because he ended up not liking it so much. I took it off his hands for a reasonable price, used it for a while, and ended up giving it to Luis later that year.

Being single and having no kids, I usually spent my money at fancy restaurants. I liked to eat well, and good food costs a pretty penny. I regularly frequented Italian eateries, such as Pascucci, Aldo’s, Palazzio, and Olive Garden. There was also this local place called Silvergreen’s, where Brian Rocha, the manager, would always have a welcoming smile every time people walked into the restaurant.

Even if I worked at McD’s, I rarely ate there, maybe because I was becoming more health-conscious. Well, that didn’t last, really.

But all this rambling about new rooms, phones, and the food wasn’t the highlight of my first days in the year 2008. Thankfully, I had more important things going on. Remember the girl I told you about in the last chapter? The one who walked past me a couple of times, but I never really noticed her? Her name was also Maria. The Second Maria.

Along with my constant obsession with education, she became one of the highlights of 2008.

The problem with ‘walking like you own the motherfucking world,’ as I liked to call it, is that you tend to overlook the people around you. You become too egocentric. I won’t deny I behaved like this, which kept me from paying attention to my surroundings. I needed to change that.

And I did.

One day, walking into McD’s, I noticed this damsel in distress and a brute orangutan pushing her around out in the parking lot, in broad daylight, behind the restaurant.

One thing my mother taught me well was to respect women. I had to do something about it.

I’ve never been a good fighter, but I have a look in my eyes that conjures up your worst nightmares, or so I’ve been told. No, I don’t have superpowers, just overwhelming confidence and a couple of tricks up my sleeve.

I texted Celestino, told him what was going on, put my phone away, and approached the guy.

I tapped his shoulder, stood straight, and waited for him to turn back. He was Hispanic, a little darker than me, and his language choice told me he had forgotten what country he was living in. Maria was panting, agitated, holding back tears behind those big, brown, and captivating eyes.

Fuck. She is cute. Why didn’t I see her before? 

“Que! Que chingados quieres?” he said, which translates to ‘what the fuck you want?’

I smirked, gave him my best impression of a Hannibal Lecter Look, and told him what I would do with his chopped-up body if he continued yelling at the lady behind him. And yes, he was taller than me, perhaps more frightening, but one thing I’ve learned about human interactions is that you have to keep eye contact at all times, channeling your current emotions, believing every word you say. That way, the person in front of you does what you want them to do.

I think it’s called persuasion?

This flippant and belligerent man-child was clearly naïve. He wanted to retaliate.

Maria said. “We’re ok.” She was lying, of course.

He gave me a look, trying to make me walk away, but I just kept that quiet and almost equanimous façade.

After seeing I wasn’t going to give up, he barked, “Leave!”

I smiled and said, “I’m afraid it’s you who is going to leave…right now. Because if you don’t…” I stopped, deliberately, while the back door opened. Celestino, wearing his white manager shirt and blue tie, came out with Joel.

And they were bigger and more frightening than this yelling man-child was.

Maria continued cleaning tears off her face. Even if I had never had a conversation with her nor considered her a friend, I did feel sympathy.

Celestino’s stare and presence made the man-child back down.

“What’s going on here?” he said, his voice sounding like an angry thunder, or so my over-excessive imagination perceived it as such.

“Nada! Nada! Todo bien!” Man-child said, his voice quivered before the presence of bigger men.

Joel stood like a bulldog in the background, ready to spring and use Man-child’s neck as an appetizer.

“Well,” I said, “if everything is ok, you should go right now.”

He looked at me as though I had spoken Chinese. Well, I was talking in English, an equally foreign language to him.

“No speak English!” he says.

So I had to put my ego aside for a second and talk in Spanish. I asked him how long he’d lived in America.

He had to think about it and then said he’d been here for ten years.

I smirked, Celestino and Joel laughed.

“Ten years? I’ve been here four years, and I already kick your ass,” I said. “Now, do yourself a favor and start learning English instead of harassing women. It keeps you outta trouble.”

The man didn’t believe it. And yes, he did speak English but was probably too lazy to try, until now. “So, you learn in four years?”

“No, I actually learned in two, but that’s not the point,” I said, giving him that angry look, which now worked better because of my two wingmen behind me. “Now leave. Before I show you what I know about the human body and the most sensitive areas where you can inflict the most excruciating pain.”

I was on a roll.

The man left, and no one heard from him ever again.

Don’t ask me why.

Maria and I didn’t talk on the day of the incident. We’d never had a real conversation before, anyway. I wasn’t expecting to be praised for what I did, either. I was not exactly a kind person, but I wouldn’t mistreat someone just for kicks.

One morning, I took the bus to school while talking on the phone with Maggie White, a young Staples manager whose skin color and last name were the same. I was working fewer hours at Staples, cleaning toilets.

Now that I didn’t have money troubles, my life was more relaxed, and I could focus on the essential things.

But remember, I had a room now, and the rent was expensive, so I was hoping to afford my new commodities. I was getting used to them. Maggie, who was in charge of schedules, said she’d do whatever she could to give me four hours every day because somebody had to clean the toilets.

Yes, if I didn’t work, nobody was going to clean shit. Literally.

I entered the cafeteria at SBCC that morning, thinking I should try and switch to the late or night shift again. I had never been a morning person. However, a cup of coffee with a pack of Splenda did wonders, destroying my lethargic lassitude.

My good friend Jorge was behind me. He asked, “Do you always use Splenda?”

I shook my head. “Not always. I usually use regular sugar. I just wanna give this a try.”

He tore off a couple of regular sugar packets and let them rain on his coffee while stirring it with a thin wooden stick. “Splenda causes cancer.”

“What? Are you afraid of dying? It’s gonna happen one day, you know?”

He gave me a look of agreement. I recalled he used artificial sweeteners in the past but had stopped thanks to an article he read online. Now he was afraid even to see them.

We sat down at our usual table in the middle of the place. We watched many students walk by, trying to figure out what had made people of different colors and flavors gravitate toward this edge of land called California.

“Where have you been?” Jorge asked me while unwrapping a chicken salad sandwich. “You stopped coming for a while.”

I told him about my brief tenure trying out the multi-level marketing biz. And of course, because we’re men, I had to say that I finally got laid after three years of abstinence. He wanted details. I didn’t give any. I thought that would be too much information.

“Good for you, man,” he said, congratulating me as if having sex was some Olympic accomplishment. “We should go out sometime. I also have a new girlfriend.”

I smiled at the unnecessary use of the adjective ‘new’ in front of the noun’ girlfriend.’ I thought we were talking about people, not cars.

“She wasn’t exactly a girlfriend. It was more like a nightstand that happened more than once,” I confessed.

For some reason, he found that fascinating.

But I told him that it wasn’t as good as it sounded, that I had developed feelings for her and that I was somewhat sad over the fact.

“She was the perfect coquette,” I said, “pulling me in, pushing me out, to the point that I found myself writing poetry dedicated to her. Kinda childish.”

“How many poems did you write?”

“Just one. In fact, I had never written poems for a real person. I always wrote for made-up muses.”

He swallowed a chunk of food and said, “Mm, it’s not childish. You were in love.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think I was in love. I was maybe just too infatuated.”

“What else did you do?” Jorge asked. “Spent Christmas with the family?”

I shook my head. “No. I was alone. Well, not really. I was with a group of people from McDonald’s.”

“Why you didn’t see your family?”

That was an interesting question. But the truth is I was getting used to spending time alone. “I don’t know. I haven’t seen my family in a while.”

He looked at my coffee, changing the subject, noticing I wasn’t going to elaborate on the topic. “You are not going to eat anything?”

“No, I’m not hungry.”

He frowned. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you eat.”

I chuckled. Jorge had seen me eat; he just didn’t remember.

“I might not be real,” I said. “I’m simply a product of your imagination.”

He was kind of afraid when I said that.

“I’m just kidding,” I said while getting my books out. We had a test to do.

The class was entertaining. I sat at the front, like always. I liked to be the first in line, ready to absorb the flow of knowledge the professor was throwing at us. This was the Grammar class, and what I found interesting about it was the teacher’s view on the subject: ‘when you know the rules, you can break them freely.’

Paradoxical, no doubt, but highly amusing as well.

So we had the test that day; he gave us plenty of time to finish. The purpose of it was to send students to a higher level based on their knowledge. We were currently in the third level of the ESL program, which consisted of five levels, and people thought that the fourth level was somewhat obsolete, so they wanted to give some of us the chance to advance quickly.

I would’ve been at that level if I hadn’t dropped out to follow my wet dreams of becoming a multi-level marketing millionaire.

I finished the test in fifteen minutes, causing many heads to turn my way when I stood up and put it on the desk. Too fast, according to Jorge’s point of view later that day. The professor, a tall and white German man whose ample belly suggested he was a fan of the Oktoberfest, asked me, “Are you sure you don’t want more time?”

Even if he’d lived on this side of the pond for over thirty years, you could still hear his loud and resounding German accent.

“I’m sure,” I said.

He was reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment but had to put it down to check my test. He would glance at me every now and then while I sat and waited. I looked around, surprised to see people scratching their heads and biting their nails, afraid to write something wrong. There is nothing wrong with making mistakes. I didn’t know why they were so scared of that.

The professor whispered my name, but, since he was German, his whisper was loud enough to pass as a usual conversation’s sound. I approached him, and before giving me my test back, he said. “Gabriel, how long have you been studying English? I mean, did you learn some before coming here?”

I said no. I mentioned my study habits, listening to music, and watching movies while reading the English lyrics and subtitles. I also said I liked to carry an English-only dictionary, forcing myself to learn the definitions without a Spanish dictionary. “I basically abstain myself from all things Spanish,” I said.

“Abstain?” he said. “That’s a big word!”

I frowned. “Is it?”

He gave me my test, which had an A+ written on top. Outside, I didn’t react to it. Inside, I was jumping with excitement. “You should consider going to the fifth level. You’re highly qualified!”

I thought about it. “No, I’m ok taking it slow. I’m in no hurry.”

He smiled. “You’re also very smart.”

I smirked and said. “I doubt that. I think I’m just highly perspicacious.”

I blew him away with another big, English word.

The next day, after cleaning toilets at Staples, I had another fun and intellectual conversation in the breakroom with Roberto, my old and wise friend. His job hadn’t changed; he was still pushing that cart, pulling tags all over the store. Sergio wasn’t working there anymore. He had the brilliant idea to ask the company for some extra health benefits that would require a second look into his SSN. Like me, Sergio was also an illegal immigrant, who had tricked his way into working there, but once he felt comfortable, Uncle Sam came down hard on him, and he lost his job.

That’s why I loathe getting comfortable.

“There is one thing I don’t understand,” I said while unwrapping an Italian sub from Subway. “Do you mean the company doesn’t perform a thorough background check first before they hire you?”

The look on his face proved I still asked stupid questions from time to time. “Look at yourself. What do you think the answer is?” he asked, and then bit into his turkey sandwich.

“I get it.”

He then said, food still in his mouth. “You’d better never accept those benefits if you still want to work here.”

“But what are those so-called benefits?”

He fixed his eyeglasses, the sweat under the bridge of his nose made them fall off. “Every time an employee spends a particular amount of time working in the company, he or she is offered some sort of health insurance that will be covered by them,” he said. “I told Sergio not to take it, but he never listened!”

I could see his discontent, and to calm himself down, he decided to change the subject. “Have you decided what genre you want to use for your future writing career?”

I remembered we had a conversation about this before, where I told him about my English writing interest since I wasn’t planning to go back to Mexico anytime soon.

“Horror,” I said at once.

“You don’t strike me as a horror writer,” Roberto said, as a frown decorated his forehead. He then added. “Well, you dress in black most of the time, but that could also mean you’re depressed and suicidal, but I don’t know.”

His description of me was humorous. “I think you’re right.”

“Why do you want to choose that genre then?”

I went down Memory Lane for a bit, trying to bring out an answer. There were things I’d never said to anyone before; things I had imagined were long forgotten.

“Because since I was a kid, I mostly watched horror movies. Scream is my all-time favorite movie. I like The Exorcist, Children Of The Corn, The Thing, and An Interview With A Vampire.” I smiled at the remembrance of something touching about my long-forgotten childhood. “You know what my mom’s version of a lullaby was? She would tell me stories of La Llorona, and even how many times a monster would pull her blankets if she didn’t sleep after a certain time.”

“Did you ever listen to La Mano Peluda?” Roberto asked, making me remember an old but magnificent radio program where people called to tell scary stories.

My eyes widened. “Yeah, I did!” I said, and the excitement was evident in my voice. “I remember the first broadcast was in ’95. I was ten years old at the time.”

He nodded. “What are you reading lately?”

“Koontz,” I said. “Good writer.”

“What other genres do you like?”

“I like comedy. Dark comedy. Also mysteries, science fiction.”

He nodded while an idea formed in his mind. “Then you can come up with some sort of a combination of genres.”

I agreed.

“Have you actually written a scary story before?”

“I wrote a vampire story back in ’99 after watching An Interview With A Vampire,” I said. “I never quite finished it, though.”

“What else have you written?”

“Poetry mostly.”

“No more stories?”

I thought about it. “One. About a guy who cheats on the wife, then she and the kids died, and he repents for his philandering ways.”

His eyes opened wide. “That’s depressing.”

I agreed.

He said after a short pause. “So, it seems like you’re ready to write.”

I shook my head. “I want to write in English, remember? I still need to learn more.”

“You can write in Spanish and then translate it.”

I thought about it. “Not a good idea.”

Now it was his time to agree. We stopped talking. I had to work that afternoon at McD’s. After a break, I had an exciting conversation with Maria for the first time.

It had been a week since the incident. I was now sitting in the McD’s breakroom, getting Koontz’s Fear Nothing out of my bag. From what I gathered, it was an interesting book, but I was still scribbling down words I’d never heard before, copying them into my white binder, and memorizing them. I needed to give the book another read in the future.

The Second Maria made her appearance, opening the door with so much grace and pose, taking off her apron and letting it land on the chair in front of me. I didn’t hesitate to give her an underlook, taking my sight off the book’s fictional spectrum to the apparent reality we live in. Remember, we’d never had an actual conversation before. I didn’t even work with her. She was always leaving work when I was clocking in.

But now we were looking at each other like we were the two last people in this world.

She sat down, smiled at me, and tried her best to establish a conversation in English. She was the cook, and they always talked in Spanish because, well, who cares?

But she wasn’t like everybody else. I learned that Maria was also interested in her education. We had something in common.

“I see you like to read,” she said, her voice was soft and breathy, as though she had just woken up from a long and pleasant dream.

I smirked, “I do. I like to kill time somehow. Killing people is still illegal.”

Apparently, she also liked my dark and monotonous sense of humor. She tried not to laugh out loud by putting a hand to her lips. She crossed her long and slender legs (she was about two inches taller than me), getting herself comfortable.

Her skin’s brown tone made her look like some distant Aztec princess who had discovered time travel and was now among us, wondering just how she was ever going to get back. Her hair was hidden under a hat, and when she took it off, I couldn’t stop staring at the shiny black of her hair, the way it cascaded down her back. Her lipstick was burgundy, giving her thin lips an alluring look.

What I found attractive about The First Maria was her forward and coquettish ways, how she made her intentions clear from the beginning. But what really struck me about The Second Maria was her subtlety, the way her eyes did the talking, making me imagine a thousand possible things she was pondering at that moment.

I decided to hold my horses for a bit, wait, and see what she had in mind before I said or did something stupid.

“I wanted to thank you for what you did last week,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” I said. “Anyone with a dose of common sense would’ve done the same.”

She smiled, “Common sense is shrinking nowadays. I have a feeling people are going to be more self-centered in the future with the new technology.”

I nodded. “Einstein said: ‘I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.'”

Her smile was broader this time. A connection had been made. “He said that?”

“That’s what I heard. But even if it is not true, it’s still funny.”

“Wow. I wonder how it will be ten years from now.”

There was that awkward moment of silence that always occurred in moments like this, where you’re talking to someone you’re starting to find interesting. You feel this fight-or-flight rush going through your body. You become paralyzed most of the time. I was about to feel that way, but then, I decided to use the silence to my advantage.

“Did you hear that?” I asked, put the book down, and waited for her to respond.

She turned back, thinking something was going on outside. “What?”

“The sound of silence,” I said, “which makes me wonder what you’re thinking. I have a feeling you have a lot to say. And I want to hear it.”

I didn’t know where that came from, but it was a good idea. In fact, I didn’t know what to say, just like any other man. But girls are the opposite. They always have something to say, and the only thing a man has to do is become a good listener. She told me her full name was Maria Evangelina Soria. She was born in the beautiful state of Sinaloa, Mexico, and wanted to become a doctor. She was four years older than me. Her maturity was another thing I liked.

We ended up talking in Spanish, and I was okay with it this time. Her eloquence was music to my ears. She told me about her studies and the books she liked to read (academic and non-fiction, mostly). She had a more sophisticated arsenal of words that made my jaw drop. As I continued listening to Maria, I discovered something else about myself, something that I probably knew, based on my conversations with Roberto and Jose, El Cristianito, who were both smart people in their own right. I was drawn to them because of their intelligence.

Just like I was drawn to Maria at that moment. It was her who indirectly taught me I was a sapiosexual, a person who finds intelligence sexually attractive and arousing, or so the bulk in my pants suggested it.

I don’t know how long this conversation went, but I had to clock in and hadn’t even put on my shirt, so I said, before giving a brief glance at my watch, “I feel like we should have a coffee sometime and continue this conversation.”

Yes, I basically asked her out without asking her out.

The sparkle in her eyes suggested I was in. “I’d love that,” she said, and the eye contact and the smiles lingered for a while longer.

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