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The spring semester was over in May, and I didn’t have to worry about school again until the end of August. I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but I wasn’t a fan of taking classes during the summer. Based on my unsolicited opinion, taking summer classes was like trying to compensate for wasted time. Some people see it differently, claiming that it is a way for them to get ahead. To get ahead of what? I mean, what is the rush? In the end, we all perish the same way.

As I continued learning about the new job and its intricacies, the one thing I noticed was a monster that was beginning to creep out through the cracks of my personality: my ego. I always knew I had it. In fact, I am still a firm believer that a dose of ego is good to strive for a better life. It has always been my ego that keeps me afloat, believing I could achieve anything I want to achieve when nobody else believes in me.

All was good, up to when I mixed ego with power; I thought my opinion mattered more just because I wore a tie. Hell, I even felt superior from time to time. By doing that, I was nurturing what I dubbed ‘an unhealthy ego boost.’ And it was all my fault, and I can see that now, since I had been warned about my predecessors’ mistakes and still did the things I was told not to do. I didn’t just dip my toes in the waters of the forbidden. I dove in, head first and without a lifesaver.

Why? The small power that I had made me think I could.

But I had fun, at least for a while.

One of the things I did was get involved with Elena, a cook I caught looking at me multiple times. I briefly mentioned her in the last chapter, and, since we weren’t technically dating, I argued it was okay for us to have a fling. It was similar to what I had with The First Maria last year, minus the emotional attachment. We both were single at the time, and nobody was getting hurt. We hooked up two weeks after I became a manager; yeah, shame on me. Doing it was easy since we both lived on the same block, and sometimes I would walk her home.

She was so skinny, pale, fragile. I was afraid I was going to break her. A single mom to three very young kids, she was barely an adult herself. She started ‘manufacturing’ humans when she was around fourteen years old, and sadly, each kid was from a different dad, none of whom was man enough to stick around. I have done some dumb shit in my life, but I made damn sure I was not going to be one more of those men who only played with her.

So I made my intentions clear from the beginning, and she thanked me for it.

Ok, I think I’m getting ahead of myself, so let me retract. Some of the managers had been showing me the ropes. Marlen mostly, since she was the official trainer. The night she talked to me about Soria, I was actually thinking about my trysts with Elena. And just like that, my thoughts of Elena faded away, like the rabbit in the hat.

The Second Maria took residence in my head again.

“Wait a minute,” I said to Marlen, putting the drawer in the safe so I could pay attention to her. “Maria Soria is coming back?”

“Probably,” Marlen said, getting into the tiny office to get some change from the safe. She then looked at my face and tried to read the ambivalence of my expression. “Are you excited she’s coming back, or you don’t care anymore?”

I wanted to tell Marlen the truth. Of course, I cared about Soria. I thought about her from time to time. That very brief conversation we had back in January was like a tattoo for the imagination, something that was hard to scrape off.

“It’s not that I don’t care anymore,” I said. “It’s just that now I’m a manager and I can’t–”

Marlen raised an eyebrow.

“What?” I asked.

“You think people don’t know about you and Elena?”

I felt all the blood drain to my feet and went pale with chagrin. Back in those days, I didn’t have a poker face. Instead, I was more transparent than purified water. “What are you talking about?” I asked with fake indignation.

Marlen shook her head and gave me a dead stare as if thinking I was the worst person in the world for denying it. She took the money and went to the front to put it in the register. I didn’t know what to say. I thought I had been discreet. Of course, my first suspicion was that Elena had probably talked to somebody. But then again, Marlen said, ‘you think people don’t know,’ which implied more than one person knew it. Maybe my lack of poker face gave it away. I might have looked at her in a certain way, just like the way Omar looked at Luna that one time I saw him.

Was this Karma? Was destiny now laughing at me because I laughed at Omar? That’s something I needed to find out. I decided to put all that aside for a moment and thought about something else. Soria was something good to think about, but then I realized how big of an asshole I was for thinking that. What was wrong with me?

I made my way to the front counter. It was a late night, Marlen had already sent the only cashier home, and I was going to fill in the role; yes, that’s pretty much what management is, a position where you do everything. The only difference is that you wear nicer clothes. There were also good things about the job. The only problem was my blind and obstinate cynicism.

I stood behind one of the registers. Every corner of the store was illuminated, and most of the tables and booths were empty. Joel was whistling and cleaning his station in the kitchen while sending another cook to clean some plastic mats in the back; the guy’s thin body prompted Joel to give him a hand since the mats seemed to be bigger than him. Marlen took apart the coffee machine and cleaned it with an assortment of towels and brushes on a wheeled table; apparently, the task had to be performed daily.

“Not a lot of people tonight, huh?” I said, looking at Marlen, who was still upset that I denied my involvement with Elena.

Again, Marlen gave me that angry stare and shook her head, answering my question as she continued cleaning. The way she worked that brushed into those coffee lines made it look as though she wanted to stab someone.

“It’s late. There is not a lot of people anywhere at this hour.”

“I see,” I said, looking for something else to talk about. “Did Javier talk to Soria?”

“Don’t know.”

I frowned. “So, how do you know she might come back?”

Marlen stopped cleaning, looked at me, and said, “Celestino told me. They talked about it, I don’t know, last week maybe, and then Celestino talked to me.” She stopped, then added, in the most passive-aggressive way possible. “We managers share everything. Put that in your binder so you can memorize it.”

I knew where she was going with that. “That binder is only for English words. It’s not for workplace gossip.”

The grin on her face made me think of Ted Bundy during his trials. I just hoped I wasn’t her type of victim.

“Alright, Marlen. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” I said, giving up and getting closer to where she was.

That apology softened her features. “So you’re not denying it?”

I gulped and pursed my lips hard, just in case the words wanted to get out on their own. Then I dodged the question. “What do you mean ‘people know’? I mean, I don’t think that’s true.”

Marlen put the towel and brush down on the table with the rest of the cleaning paraphernalia. “You don’t think that’s true?”

I shook my head.

Right on cue, Joel came to the front to grab a cup of soda.

“Joel,” Marlen said, still looking at me.

Que tranza, Marlen?” Joel said, which was his way to say, ‘what’s up.’

“Who knows about Gabriel and Elena?”

Joel chuckled, “Everybody knows.” He grabbed an empty soda cup and walked away.

I looked at Marlen in disbelief. “What?”

A customer came in at that moment, and Marlen sent me to take his order. I did, but I still had that mental itch to find out how they knew. The new customer was a young kid wearing black. He looked up at the food choices, and his facial expression suggested he didn’t even know what he wanted out of life, let alone out of the McD’s menu.

He got closer and said,” ‘Sup, man.”

I looked at his red eyes, thinking he had been crying, but the smell of marihuana that came out of his body told a whole different story. I tried to put my judgments aside and greeted him politely.

“I dunno what I wan, man,” he admitted, and I had a hard time hearing the ‘t’ in the word ‘want.’ Again, I was judging.

“Get a Big Mac meal,” I suggested, turning around and pointing at the photo, then down at the cost. I looked back at him and added, “I mean, that’s a classic, you know? It never fails.”

From his throat came an annoying laugh. “That’s what’s up, man!”

I nodded, fake smile on, but also glanced at Marlen occasionally, reminding her we had a pending conversation.

“Cool, man,” the customer said, “let me get that Big Mac meal.”

“Wanna make it a large combo?” I asked, ungrammatically, making a mental note to talk like an educated human being next time.

He laughed again, with that same guttural sound I couldn’t compare to anything.

“No, man, no. Just small is cool.”

“Medium then,” I said. “We only have medium and large.”

Still looking at the menu, he scratched his head and asked. “How much’s that?”

He was looking at the menu, the price was on the menu, I had shown him the photo, so I thought that was a stupid question.

“What do you mean?” I asked, then I thought he was probably going blind, and I decided to tune down my asshole-meter. The problem was that by doing that, I came across as condescending, just like Monte Baker. 

“Look,” I said, pointing at the menu again. “This is the menu with all the items we have. Each of them has a little letter’ M,’ which stands for ‘medium,’ and the price is right there. Same with the large, which has a letter ‘L’ and the price right next to it.”

Obviously, he didn’t like my attitude. “Yeah, man, I can see that. I ain’t blind!”

I was confused. “Then why do you ask how much is it? I just showed you the price.”

To that, he didn’t have an answer. “Medium is fine.”

“Great,” I said, charged him, but still had to wait for him to get all the coins out of his pocket.

Wow, I thought, trying to keep myself from making another remark. He gave me the money, which I didn’t count since I had neither time nor patience. As usual, the food was ready before I put the last quarter in the drawer. Marlen bagged it and gave it to the customer, who gave me the same look Marlen had given me earlier.

I blinked, recalling the last conversation I had with Marlen. I needed to know how come everyone knew about Elena and me. I walked to where Marlen was, and just then, when I thought I had free time to continue my conversation, Javier Diaz walked into the restaurant.

Oh well, I thought, walking back to the resister.

I made a couple of observations when Javier entered the restaurant, wearing a yellow Laker’s t-shirt and black pants with a rolled-up sheet of paper sticking out of one of the pockets. First, Marlen looked like the world would end, pretty much like she always did when either Monte or Gabby came around. Second, Javier observed his surroundings, as if he didn’t know the place, and stood there, about six feet from the register, without looking at the menu; I thought that was weird since nobody was in line.

“Hey, boss, how are you?” I said, greeting him as I always did, somewhere between friendly and nonchalantly.

Marlen came running to where I was and whispered in my ear rather harshly, “He’s grading you! Take his order!”

“I just greeted him!” I hissed back, ignoring what she fretted about.

And so I took his order, not the same way you handle regular people, but in a more personal and lay-back kind of way. However, Javier was still acting as if this was the first time he ever came to the restaurant; and yes, I heard when Marlen said he was grading me, but I didn’t know we had to act as if we didn’t know each other. The food was ready, Marlen gave it to him, and he took a seat near the register, took the piece of paper out, a pen, and started writing on it.

I looked at Marlen, who was even angrier this time.

“What did I do?” I asked, my hands in front of me, pleading for an answer, while Joel was in the kitchen, talking to the other cook, who was coming back with one of the mats.

Marlen got closer. If looks could kill, well, you know.

“I told you he was grading you!” She whispered in a loud way, loud enough for Javier to look up from the paper when he was writing.

“Yes, you did, and I took his order.”

“Did you say ‘welcome to McDonald’s?”

“I… no, I didn’t. He works here!”

“Did you offered the large size meal?”

“No… I mean, the other day he told me he was on a diet. “

“Did you offer dessert?”

“Marlen, I’m telling you, the man is on a diet!”

“I don’t care! You have to follow the rules!”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think-“ 

“You didn’t think what?”

“I didn’t think I had to! I mean, he works here! What’s the big deal?”

Marlen shook her head, trying to digest my words. “You didn’t think it was a big deal?”

I gulped and shook my head, too.

She just smiled, not in a friendly way. It was more like she was planning where to hide my body. Now that I think about it, she really looked like Ted Bun-

“What are you thinking, Gabriel?” Marlen said.

I thought carefully about my answer. “I think you’re right. I should’ve asked Javier the usual questions.”

At that moment, Javier called her, and she walked towards his table. I stood there, helped the next customer, and did everything by the book while Javier told her the things I was sure she would say to me later that night. I threw glances at them every so often while making sure I stuff my customers with more fries and sodas than they needed; I did feel sorry for the poor bastards. Later, they would have to pay a lot more to get all that unnecessary fat out of their bodies.

Joel came to the front, leaving the other cook to fend for himself. I heard he was new but had worked at the McDonald’s downtown, so he knew what he was doing.

Que tranza, mi Gaby?” Joel said. “Marlen is gonna kill you ‘soon as Javier leaves.” He laughed, making a playful mockery of my impending demise.

I gave the customer his order, thanked him the right fucking way, and said to Joel, “I just think it’s fucking weird, man. It’s like, why would I have to talk to him like I don’t know him?” I noticed I was getting upset because I used the words ‘like’ and ‘him’ twice. I breathed and tried to calm myself down while cleaning the front counter.

Joel tried to comfort me. “Don’t worry, man. It’s just the way it is here. Why do you think I don’t wanna be the kitchen manager?”

I looked at him. “Yeah, I always wondered about that.”

Joel shook his head and laughed. “No, man. You’re a slave here when you’re a manager. And what they pay you? Fuck no, it’s not worth it.”

I nodded, recalling the meager raise I got. Joel asked how much more they were paying me. It was like he was reading my mind. I told him.

“See? It’s not worth it.”

I sighed, looking at the table where Marlen and Javier were. He wasn’t yelling at her, just talking, but the way she rubbed her neck while looking down at the paper suggested she was under a lot of stress. I didn’t want to be under that much pressure. But it looked as though that was the route I was heading toward.

Well, who am I kidding? That was the motherfucking route I took.

I looked back at Joel, trying to change the conversation. “So, tell me, who knows about Elena and me?”

To that sudden change of conversation, Joel smiled. “Oh, you’re still thinking about that.”

“It’s hard not to.”

A customer came, I took his order quickly, and Joel helped me put it in the bag and gave it away.

Then he said. “Nobody really said anything.”

I squinted. “What do you mean?”

He shrugged. “It’s the way you guys look at each other. I mean, you’re a man, you know. You look at her like you want to make out in the back every time she goes to pick up a bag of onions.”

I smiled. “Don’t give me ideas.”

Then, I thought about it. It wasn’t that Elena had, or I had used words to tell the world about our clandestine involvement. It was body language. Plain and simple. I fucked up. She fucked up. We both were just a couple of young adults trying to pretend we knew what we were doing.

“It’s all good,” Joel said, looking at Marlen, who was coming back from the table. “We have all done it.”

I wanted to ask Joel what he meant by that, but he was already making his way back to the kitchen. Marlen was now standing by the register. She looked at me. Her eyes were red. Was she crying?

“Javier wants to talk to you,” she said.


The next day, I reminisced on that conversation with Javier the previous night. Unfortunately, the thought of it still meandered in my head, crashing against other problems and ruminations I wanted to focus on. But it was hard to concentrate on anything. I was riding the bus, going downtown. I had gotten a phone call from the downtown location, and they said I could pick up the burgundy shirt at The Annex anytime I wanted. I was seriously contemplating giving up on the whole manager farce, one, because of the raise I got, two, because of the mayhem that unfolded with Javier’s evaluation of my performance. I had argued with him, saying that I didn’t see what the big deal was.

“It’s just the way things are,” Javier had said, echoing Joel’s sentiment. “Monte and Gabby are also going to evaluate you, I don’t know when, but the good news is that I came first and now you are ready.” He’d paused. “You are ready, right?”

I had nodded.

I also sighed, thinking back on the meeting. I was moaning and whining a lot in those days, feeling as though I was running out of air. I had only gotten the position two weeks ago, and I was already giving up. I looked at the window. The bus was riding through UCSB, which made me think of the time when I was living in Isla Vista. I used to practice English with my friends, learning faster than I ever dreamed possible. Life was simpler. Sure, I was living in a wooden box, but at least I wasn’t under this kind of pressure, working a job that, yes, made me look good, but it was beginning to look gloomy. How did I get myself sucked into this frightening, monolithic establishment, run with absurd and arbitrary rules that made you want to quit?

I shrugged, remembering that life hadn’t been entirely better last year. There was that time a girl fucked me three times and left without saying goodbye. Moreover, there was the time I was trying to sleep with another girl and even went to church just to get points for trying. Last but not least, on the subject of ‘trying,’ there was that moment when I wanted to make it in Amway and lost the little money I had in the process.

And there were also Good Samaritans, like that guy who lent me money to pay my debts. I remembered paying him, but I couldn’t remember his name. I used to call him Bus Buddy. But what was his name?

I put a lid on that for a moment and looked at my backpack. I wasn’t going to school yet but still liked to carry it. Sometimes, while riding the bus, I would come up with story ideas; I was beginning to do that more often, and I even had a notebook where I planned to write something I had in mind for a while. I didn’t write anything because my English was still not that good. Could I have a conversion? Yes. Could I elaborate on ideas and come up with conclusions? Sometimes. See? I wasn’t fully ready. I needed more exposure. The kind of exposure I got with my friends at UCSB was great. I didn’t have that kind of exposure lately. Everyone around me only wanted to speak Spanish. They would try to talk in English, but they would give up.

I didn’t want to give up. My ego wouldn’t allow it.

Among the notebooks in my backpack, I also had The Alchemist. I put that book on hold while studying for the exam. I fished it out and gave it a read. The Alchemist was a great story, not the kind of story I would ever want to write, but entertaining nonetheless. As I began reading it, I went back into its universe, recalling every detail of what I had read last time. I read as time around me faded away, taking with it the seconds off the clock, pushing me deep into the fictional world, with only the vibration of the bus as a reminder of my existence on this planet.

Sometime later, the bus came to a sudden halt, and that brought me back to the world of the living. I looked up, away from The Alchemist, and another sudden sensation came from inside me; I got dizzy and felt like I wanted to puke. That happened to me a lot while riding the bus since I had this propensity to lose myself in my thoughts, and moments like this turned everything upside down. I looked through the window; the bus was at a red light. It had already exited the freeway and was about to make a left onto Carrillo. I was getting closer and closer to the heart of downtown.

I looked at the cars around me as well as the drivers. While waiting, some of them talked with their copilots, some others were fighting, and a loner behind the wheel of a small black convertible wished he had someone to talk to. Or fight with. The green light flashed, the bus emitted that puffing sound I always mistook for a fart, and moved on. Four blocks later, on the corner with Chapala, the bus made another left and parked right outside the transit center, aka the bus depot. Because this was what they called an express bus, it never went inside the building like the other buses; it just parked outside, as the driver looked at the rearview mirror and gently invited us to go fuck ourselves.

You know what they say about the power of your thoughts, that if you think of, say, a white Corolla, you start spotting white Corollas everywhere? Something similar happened to me as I stepped out of the bus. I had been thinking about the simplicity of life when I lived in Isla Vista, as well as the people I used to hang out with. Among the people I had been thinking about, there was that Good Samaritan I borrowed money from. I had actually met him here, at the transit center. That’s why I dubbed him Bus Buddy. He claimed he had also gone to SBCC, which was why we happened to see each other a lot.

Well, I hadn’t seen him in a while, but as I set foot outside the bus, I saw him there, sitting on one of the benches, with a copy of The Independent spread over his lap. And it was there when I finally recalled his name.


He looked up from his magazine and saw me. I covered the sun where I was standing, and as I moved, he had to shield his eyes from the glare. It took him a second to adjust his vision. Looking at me from a better angle, Jose’s smile spread from ear to ear. He stood up, put the magazine on the bench, and went for the hug.

“Oh,” I said, taking aback but welcoming his effusive greeting.

Jose patted my back with fervor, then grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. “Gabriel! My brother! Where have you been?”

When he called me ‘brother,’ that made me think of the time we had met. Jose had claimed that he approached me and started talking to me because I allegedly reminded him of his brother, who lived in Mexico, and he hadn’t seen in years. Because he was a bit darker than me, I always doubted I could actually look like a member of his family. But of course, I never said anything—no need to be a racist asshole. Just an asshole, that was all I could handle. I was pleased he thought of me as a brother, though, because at the beginning, I had the feeling he wanted something else from me when I borrowed that money from him.

“Um,” I said and coughed, covering my mouth and turning my head to the side. “I’m… I’m good, I’m good. How are you?”

Jose looked concerned, his eyes opened up, and somehow the white in them got whiter. “Are you sick, Gabriel? Quieres que marque al 911?” Jose’s suggestion was a bit much.

“Allergies,” I said. That was a lie. I never had any allergies. “It’s nothing to worry about.”

“What are you allergic to?”

Effusive displays of affection, I thought. I had to come up with something better than that, of course. “See, that’s what I don’t know, but I really need to figure it out,” I said, then patted him in the back and asked about his life, trying to get the spotlight away from me.

“Oh, just the same,” Jose said as he got the magazine from the bench. “I’m here trying to read.”

“That sounds good,” I said. “Are you still going to school? Because I haven’t seen you around?”

He shook his head. “No, I’m not. I had to stop going. Too much work.” He paused, then added. “That’s why I’m reading, you know, that way I don’t forget.” He finished up with a smile.

“That’s always a good plan.”

There was a bit of silence, a moment in which any number of questions could be asked. What are you doing here? Where are you going? Etc. etc. etc. Last time I saw him, Jose had mentioned he worked at Good Will, just two blocks west, right on the corner with Carrillo and Bath.

“Where are you going?” Jose finally asked, seeing my hesitation.

I told him where I was going and what had happened since the last time we saw each other.

“Man! That’s great news! I’m happy for you!”

I couldn’t keep myself from smiling, although I was a bit weirded out. I really didn’t know how to feel about these displays of affection; I guess I had been living by myself for a long time, and that was beginning to numb my sympathy.

“Thank you,” I managed to say, then asked. “So, what are you doing here?”

He had that look you make when trying to conceal something. Lips pursed, looking to the sides, trying to decide whether or not he should tell the truth. I guess he wasn’t a good liar.

“I just came from Goleta,” Jose finally said. “I went to K-Mart to buy some stuff.”

He wasn’t carrying anything, so he was either lying, or the store had run out of whatever he was looking for.

“I guess they didn’t have none of your stuff,” I said, smiling.

His eyes widened. “No. Um, they didn’t.”

“Better luck next time,” I said, trying to make him feel at ease. He just laughed nervously. The way he looked at me was a bit unsettling. Did I look that much like his brother? Probably.

“Hey,” I spoke again, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Thanks again for letting me borrow that money.”

“Oh, don’t mention it. Always happy to help.”

“Well, good to know. I’ll make more financial mistakes in the future and ask you for money again.”

He laughed, and I was glad he found my humor funny. Then he changed his facial expression for a solemn and almost melancholic look. “Um, Actually, I don’t know if you remember, but the time I lent you the money, I mentioned I had to go to Mexico.”

Honestly, I didn’t remember. “Oh yeah,” I lied. “But I paid you, didn’t I?”

“You did, yes, you did. Then I went down there.”

Silence. It looked like he was having a hard time getting something off his chest.

“What happened?”

He gulped. “My brother,” Jose said. “Remember, I told you about him.”

I nodded. “Yes, that I remind you of him.”

Jose sighed. I had a feeling I knew where this was heading.

“He, um.” Jose stopped, his eyes started to fill up with tears.

I hugged him this time. It was apparent he was upset about something. His brother either died or was about to die. I told him that it was okay, that he didn’t have to talk about it if he didn’t want to. He said he appreciated it and that he really wanted to share with me what happened.

“I went to Mexico because my mom told me my brother was getting involved with narcos, and because he always listened to me, my mom thought it was a good idea I talk to him.” He stopped, taking a breath to keep his story going. “Unfortunately, when I got there, he was already gone.” He stopped and dabbed his eyes with his shirt. “He was involved in a shooting, and… you know the rest.”

I nodded, trying to look sympathetic. I really didn’t know how this kind of thing worked. What was I supposed to say? Asked how he died? No, I didn’t think so. I just stayed there and said nothing. After a moment, he calmed down, and we talked some more about everything. I still didn’t like how he looked at me, but what the hell? I wasn’t going to make him feel bad.

“So, what are you doing right now?” Jose asked, running out of things to talk about.

I squinted. “Funny, I just told you.”

He touched his forehead, chastising himself. “Yes, yes, you did. I’m sorry.”

I waved him off. “No, don’t worry. It’s okay.” I didn’t know what else to say. I also didn’t want to cut him off just like that. I had things to do, so I said, “Look, I gotta go. Why don’t we catch up next time?”

It was as if I had told him he had just won the lottery. “Yes! That’d be great. Um, can I have your number?”

“I thought you had it?”

“You never gave it to me.”

I shrugged. “Okay.”

So we said goodbye, and I went my way, and he went his way. This was an important moment, something that I probably would not have mentioned if there hadn’t been a continuity to it. We were barely in May, halfway through this story, and my friendship with Bus Buddy had an interesting turnout that lasted well into 2009. Let’s just say, for the sake of brevity, seeing him there that day wasn’t a random act.

But that’s a story for another day.

That same afternoon, I came by the restaurant for no reason other than to read The Alchemist and have a coffee. And two apple pies. It was a Wednesday, and Marlen had just left, so I was redeemed from her angry stares. Javier and Cesar worked that day at the front. Joel and Elena were in the kitchen. She conspicuously smiled at me as she wrapped up a cheeseburger, and Joel giggled like a high-schooler when he spotted her. I didn’t say a thing. Javier seemed cheerful this time, taking my order in his usual, theatrical way. He even gave me a discount. A manager discount. According to my cynic side, this was another perk added to the job’s pros, a position that has more cons.

“I went Downtown,” I told Javier after he gave me my receipt, along with a fake smile. I took the shirt out of the backpack and showed it to him. “I got this.”

This time, the smile looked sincere. How did he do that?

“That’s excellent news, caballero,” Javier said, taking a closer look at the shirt as though he had never seen it before. Later, I learned that ‘caballero’ was his nickname and the word he used when talking to anyone who cared to listen. I should probably think of one word or phrase I could use.

Cesar gave out an order and came to see the shirt. “That’s what’s up, man,” he said.

“That’s right,” I said.

Cesar shook his head as a thought started to brew inside his head. “Marlen told me.”

He didn’t have to elaborate. It was clear he was talking about the evaluation.

“Oh well,” I said. “It won’t be the last time.”

Javier smiled, then said, “Get ready, because you’re going to be working with me on Wednesday. I want to get you ready, so you can start working the closing shift on your own.”

I looked at Cesar. He was getting my coffee and apple pies ready. This was his last day at the job, and he looked relieved. I imagined myself in his place. But I was unable to feel happiness.

“A lot of changes, Gabriel,” Javier said. “How do you feel about that?” He asked that question like a concerned dad would, according to movies I have watched.

Was I thinking of him as a father figure? Probably, since I never met my own. My father wasn’t a part of the deal as I was growing up, for reasons I mentioned before. Either way, I didn’t know how to feel.

“Great,” I said unconvincingly. “I feel great.”

“Are you going to stick around for a moment?” Javier asked.

“Yes,” I nodded. “I’m just gonna read for a bit,” I said as I sipped a bit of the hot coffee.

The pride in his green eyes was almost palpable. “Great. I have a quick meeting with the new kitchen manager. Maybe you want to stick around so we can talk after I’m done.”

I gulped the hot liquid as he mentioned the new kitchen manager. “Oh,” I managed to say, as thoughts of Maria Soria started to flow back all around my head. I thought of the moment we had while talking in the breakroom, the way we looked at each other.

“You probably know her. She used to work here.”

“Y-yeah,” I manage to say. “I-”

“Speaking of the devil,” he said, looking over my shoulder with that bright smile of his, the sincere one.

I didn’t want to look back. I wasn’t afraid of the devil. I just didn’t want to fall in love with it. I ended up looking around, though, as the devil (Maria Soria) conjured up a smile that was more sincere than Javier’s. My heart skipped a beat as she positioned herself next to me. Looking at that face once again, having that succulent piece of human marble next to me, made me feel things I hadn’t felt in a while.

“Hi Gabriel,” Maria Soria said. “Long time, no see.”

I looked at her like an idiot for a couple of seconds. In that same conspicuous manner Elena was still looking at me from the kitchen.

“It’s… It’s been a while.” Somehow, I managed to say.


Photo by Chenspec.

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