Waiting for Friday to come was torturous. You look at your watch so many times, like a lunatic, lose your mind, and convince yourself that time is intentionally dragging by because it wants to keep you from getting laid. But is that all you want? My Internal Self asked. What happened with making a connection with someone? Then I pondered: isn’t getting laid some kind of connection?
Ok, bad joke.
“Who am I fucking kidding?” I said to myself as I was shaving in front of the mirror that Friday afternoon. “I really like Maria. If that wasn’t the case, I wouldn’t have talked to Elena about it.”
Yes, I had talked to Elena the previous day. I started thinking about our conversation as I continued gliding the razor against my skin. I had seen her at her house. She jumped and hugged me as she saw me, then suggested we go to a more private place with a timid smile. That could only mean she wanted to have sex. But I didn’t want to do that. I had already planned a date with Maria and didn’t think it would have been fair if I slept with Elena; what was I? An asshole with scruples or a selective sociopath?
“We need to talk,” I had said.
Elena looked at me with sorrowful eyes that made me think of cats, and since she was shorter than me, the simile couldn’t be more accurate.
“Is it about what Fatima said? She was just messing around, I swear. Me and her make fun of each other all the time.”
At first, I did not quite register what she said but remembered the brief chat Juanita and I had with Fatima about Elena’s propensities.
I shook my head. “No, it’s not that. I mean, who am I to judge? It’s not like we have something exclusive.”
Elena hadn’t quit hugging me. She melted against my body, and I didn’t know how to pull her away. Did she want something exclusive? Probably.
“Then what is it?” she finally asked.
I had to tell her the truth. There was not any other way to put it. “I asked someone else on a date, and I don’t think it’s fair to you that we keep seeing each other.”
“It’s Soria, isn’t it?” Elena asked at once.
I wasn’t surprised she knew about it. I was surprised she hadn’t mentioned it before. It was confusing, and I could not understand what Elena truly wanted out of this, whatever was what we were doing. Calling it a relationship sounded a bit formal.
“Yeah. It’s Soria.”
She finally let go of me and said, “I heard about it but didn’t think it was true.”
“Well, it is,” I said, “and I don’t wanna feel like I’m using you, that’s why I wanted to be honest.”
There had been no reaction, only an equanimous look on her face that functioned as a blanket to cover what she felt inside. Hatred, jealousy, I never knew for sure. That’s the problem with men; we spend our lives trying to understand women when there is nothing to understand. Acceptance is what both parties have to focus on in a relationship. Unfortunately, that wasn’t something I learned that night; it took me ten more years to get it.
I winced and returned to the present moment as a small dribble of blood made its way down my neck. I reminded myself never to get lost in thought while playing with sharp objects.
Ready for my date, I walked out of the house, said goodbye to everyone, and headed toward Old Town Goleta. I didn’t have a car at the time, but when you’re full of confidence, you realize one thing: why do you need wheels when you can just fly?
Maria and I planned to meet at McDonald’s on Fairview since it was closest to her house. She had mentioned she lived with an aunt and didn’t want her to know about her dating life. I didn’t know how to feel about that. I came to the restaurant first. The last time I came here, I was with Celia. After our morning prayers, my friend El Cristianito would also bring me here. Since I was an employee at the other location, I could order something and ask for a discount. But I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want them to know who I was.
I saw Monte’s car parked outside, near his office, attached to a long ‘L’ shape building adjacent to the restaurant. He was the only one who knew me, and I was glad he wasn’t in the lobby when I arrived. I entered through the door facing Fairview Avenue. This restaurant was busier than the one at Camino Real. There were two more doors on both sides. They even had a drive-thru. The never-ending line of cars and the agglomeration inside were a parade, the picture-perfect example of the American way of life.
Managers and coworkers yelled orders out, just like we did. It was the same song with a different tune. They even had a glass case in the middle of the lobby filled with sports paraphernalia, balls, jerseys, and the usual stuff. I always found it paradoxical how a fast-food restaurant, known for inciting obesity, tried hard to encourage people to exercise; this made me think of priests who like to fiddle with kids during the day and chastise themselves during the night for doing so. Obviously, most of the clientele ignored the glass case and went straight for the double-cheese burgers.
So I stepped in line and waited for my turn. I looked around, didn’t know anybody, but presumed that the new manager was the young-looking fellow with the crisp-ironed shirt. Everyone did that at the beginning of their manager careers when the idea of being the boss still sounded cool in their heads.
Not me, though. I didn’t own an iron.
The new manager took my order. His name was Jose, and I was about to ask if his parents couldn’t think of a more common name for him. But I didn’t say a word. Who was I to judge? I only got a couple of pies and a coffee, and just when I was about to pay, I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder, and a voice whispered behind my ear.
“Make that two coffees.”
I looked back. Maria was so close to me, and I wanted to kiss her.
And I could have kissed her. All the signs were there: eye dilation, open body language, the tip of her fingers on my shoulder when she whispered. There was interest, some kind of interest. Hopefully, the sort of interest I was expecting. But it would’ve been too soon and desperate. Besides, who wants to reminisce about having had their first kiss at a McDonald’s line while a fat kid is touching himself behind your date?
I gave Jose the money while another employee behind him poured our steamy coffees into plastic cups. Their coffee pots looked cleaner than ours, which made me feel jealous. I began to sweat, wondering why. It was more than evident that having Maria Soria in such proximity was the answer to my inopportune perspiration. This time, she wore a black blouse with a see-through fabric over her breasts, blue jeans that accentuated her long legs, and black boots that made her taller than me.
“You just got here?” Maria asked as she took the pies, and I carried the coffees.
“About five minutes ago,” I said, my eyes darting for a booth or a table, preferably something far away from any doors. But there was nothing. All of the tables were taken. I made a face, ready to say something scathing. “Jesus, who died? This place is busier than a funeral.”
She giggled, pleased at my cynicism. Then put a hand on my shoulder again.
“Look! They’re leaving.”
The booth she was looking at was near an entrance. I was about to say no, but I also didn’t want to be the girl in this relationship.
“Sure. Let’s go.”
We slid into the booth. I was facing the door. There was also a trashcan behind Maria, but it didn’t bother her. I realized I was acting like a girl deep inside. I was twenty-three and hadn’t had a decent date in a long time. I never counted what I had with Maya as a date since we were just two horny people looking for heat somewhere; the same thing happened with Elena. See, the difference between Maria Soria and the other girls was age. She was older than the other girls and me. Four years older, to be exact. Therefore, it was evident that I wasn’t going to Rico-suave my way into Maria’s jeans as easy as I did with the other girls; she would see through my bullshit right away.
Trying to find something to talk about, I looked at the wall to my right, filled with photos of employees. I recognized some faces: Monte, David, Randy, and even Gabby, looking ten years younger in a black and white shot. “What is it with these people and photographs?”
She looked at the photos for two seconds and said, “Memories. They like to look back and see how far they’ve come.”
I sipped my coffee. “That’s an interesting way to put it.”
She was curious. “You don’t like photos?”
“I don’t like how I look in photos.”
She laughed. “That explains it.”
“All the people in these photos have that je ne sais quoi that makes them look good.” I took another sip. “I don’t have that.”
She leaned back, too. “Est-ce que tu parles français?”
I smiled. “I understand what you’re saying, but I can’t answer. In other words, I don’t speak French.”
She nodded. “I ask because you said ‘je ne sais quoi.'”
I explained. “I read the dictionary quite often. Every day, actually. So when I read that phrase, it fascinated me, and I probably use it more than I should. Most people don’t understand what I’m saying half the time.”
“You read the dictionary because you want to be a writer?”
“Correct,” I said, suddenly feeling this more like a job interview than a date.
“I remember you mentioned you like horror fiction, but how did it start?”
“That’s what I grew up with,” I said. “Horror films, ghost stories, paranormal shows, you know.”
She sipped her coffee for the first time. “I asked because you don’t strike me as a horror aficionado.”
I chuckled, thinking of when my friend Roberto said almost the same thing.
“I’ve heard that before.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m deep in thought most of the time, but I don’t have that somber and suicidal outlook, do I?”
Smiling, she said, “Your sense of humor saves the day.”
“Enough about me,” I said. “Tell me more about you.”
Maria rested her hands on the table like she did last time we talked. The only difference was that she placed her hands under her chin this time. “I will, but I want to know one more thing.”
“You said writing in English is your American Dream, but I supposed you’ve written before you came here.”
I nodded. “I have. I used to write poetry as a kid.”
“I love poetry.”
I smiled, then said, “First, I wanted to be a soccer player, but then I realized how much I sucked at it.”
“Is that a joke?” she asked, her cheeks already red from laughing.
“I wish it was,” I said, drank more coffee, and resumed. “My mom realized it, too, and then she introduced me to the world of rhymes. I wrote poems all the way through high school.”
“You must have had a lot of girlfriends.”
I shook my head. “I actually didn’t. Not even one.”
She squinted. “I don’t believe you.”
“You don’t have to. In fact, I wrote poetry because I didn’t know how to talk to girls.”
“You were shy.”
She started to formulate her next question. “What happened after high school? Did you go to college?”
“Because I wasn’t interested in anything else. Only thing I did after that was a year of computer science in 2001 because, you know, computers are the future. After that, I worked three more years, and then I came here by the end of 2004.”
“Where did you work those three years?”
“An ice cream store. And a cellphone company.”
“And you continued writing?”
“Not as much as when I was in school,” I admitted, feeling somewhat ashamed. “I did start working on a vampire story while taking the computer science class but never finished it.”
“The real job got in the way?”
I nodded. “Yeah, the usual stuff. But everything changed when I came here.”
I told her about the conversation I had with the Coyote Lady back in Tucson when I first got here and how she told me I should look for something to do with my life, something I was passionate about.
“She advised me to learn English since I wasn’t planning to go to Mexico anytime soon.”
“And you’ve been dedicated to it ever since?”
“So far,” I said. “I’m focused on learning all the rules first. I started working on a story, but I know I still have a lot more to learn.”
“Seems like you have your priorities in place.”
“I like to think so,” I said. “And so do you.”
“I like to think so, too.”
We looked at each other for a moment, losing ourselves in the middle of the noise. People walked by, and employees yelled out orders, but we could tune out the noise. We succeeded for a moment, and just when our hands were about to reach each other over the table, Monte Baker showed up and broke the spell.
He was surprised. It wasn’t hard to miss that look on his face, that millisecond in which he first tried to recall where he knew me from -he’d never seen me without the uniform- and then the grin and nod of recognition. He approached the booth as my finger retracted like a turtle’s head into its shell. Maria saw the look on my face and knew something was amiss.
“Lucatero?” Monte said, standing next to me with his right hand already out.
I was pleased he got my last name right this time.
We shook hands. I put on a look that said how glad I was to see him. “That’s me!”
Monte then looked at my companion, who he recognized at once. “Mari?”
“Hi, Monte,” she said, giving him her shy and shaking hand.
I had a feeling Maria also knew it was a bad idea to be seen -by the CEO, not less- breaking the rules of the company we worked for. We didn’t even have time to lie, and Monte must have seen our body language and how our hands were about to touch. Our store manager just gave us a coveted position in the company. Monte could take it away if he wanted to.
“You guys decided to come down and check the other restaurants?” Monte asked, looking for words to break the silence.
“I, umm… yes, we did,” I said, forgetting in one instant all the English I had learned thus far. Keep it together, you idiot! I said to myself.
“Yes, we, umm,” Maria said, also running out of words. “I live nearby. We’re just… talking.”
That knowing smile. Monte knew there was something we weren’t saying. Seeing that we were tightlipped, he decided to help out. “Are you guys dating?”
She laughed, not like she did when laughing at one of my jokes. It was that kind of absurd and deriding scorn someone expresses at the suggestion of a preposterous idea.
“Oh, God! No way!” Maria said, and she did it in such a convincing way that I believed it.
Monte burst out laughing, too. “Sorry, I assumed. It just seems that way.”
She looked disgusted. “What gave you that impression?”
He looked at both of us, formulating a thought. “It’s not hard to imagine, I mean, you two are young and compatible.”
“He is not my type,” Maria said, winking at me with her left eye so Monte couldn’t see her.
I smiled, glad to be part of the game. “Besides, would you take a date to a McDonald’s?”
He reconsidered. “You’re right. McDonald’s is the kind of place you take someone on a different occasion.”
Maria started to take another sip of coffee.
“Yeah,” I said. “You take someone to McDonald’s when you get tired of her, and you’re looking for a reason to dump her.”
She couldn’t contain her laughter and spat all over my uneaten apple pies.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
I got a napkin, started cleaning, and said with a wink, “No worries. It’s not like we’re dating or anything.”
“Let me get you more napkins,” Monte offered.
“I’m good, boss.”
I nodded, getting a bunch of napkins off my pocket. “I’m prepared.”
“Good job!” Monte said, and after a moment in which nothing else came to mind, he added, “Well, I’ve got to go now.”
“Good to see you, boss,” I waved him goodbye.
“Bye, Monte,” Maria said to him, and as I finished cleaning the table, she said, “Maybe we should go somewhere else.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“It’s a surprise.”
We walked out of the restaurant and toward the other side of Fairview Avenue. To get there, we had to cross a bridge. The bowling area I frequented with my friends was in that direction. I presumed that was where we were going.
“I didn’t know there was a bowling place there,” Maria confessed, “and I’ve lived here for a long time.”
I looked up. The day was giving out. Cars whizzed by, too close to the sidewalk, leaving behind the unwanted smell of burned tires, gasoline, and unnecessary hurry. The flow of vehicles also made the bridge wiggle a little.
“Do you feel that?” I asked.
“The bridge is moving.”
Maria shook her head. “No. It’s you.”
I frowned. “Me?”
“Yes. You’re a bit nervous to be next to me.” She gave me that seductive look.
I blushed. “That explains it.”
We crossed the corner of Fairview and Calle Real. There was a shopping center to my left that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. At one end, there was a Panda Express sandwiched between a Chicken Ranch restaurant and a Miner’s Ace Hardware store, and a bunch of other stores I had never seen in my life. I saw a theater next to a Wells Fargo, too.
It was hidden, pushed back into a corner of the shopping center. It didn’t look as big and ostentatious as other theaters I’d seen, with their overexposing signs hanging from the top at the main entrance. I only knew this was a theater on account of a small sign near a shit-coated bench, where a white man wearing a black suit stood in the middle of a parted body of water like Moses. In contrast, this man’s hands were up as if saying, “Whatever,” and his name and movie titled in red letters above said: Bill Maher. Religulous. I smirked, thinking that was the kind of movie I would like to watch.
She saw my expression. “Do you believe in God?”
“I’m more of an Agnostic.”
I explained what it was.
“Sounds like an Atheist.”
“More or less,” I agreed, “but I have a hard time calling myself an Atheist, though.”
“They sound too negative.”
Her right eyebrow went up. “That’s true.”
We faded out of the commercial area and blended into a residential zone. There was a school to my left, houses and apartments all over. I was curious but preferred to wait, without making any assumptions about where we were heading; Maria said that she lived nearby, but I didn’t expect we were going to her house on account of the aunt who didn’t have to know about Maria’s love life. She took my hand, and we crossed the street. I thought that was cute. I only needed to find an opportunity to kiss her.
“Here,” she said, walking into a parking lot. To its left, there was a library.
“The Goleta Library,” I said, reading the sign at the entrance. It was hard to keep myself from smiling.
“Since you like books,” Maria said, looking at me in a way that made me want to jump all over here and make out right in there. “We didn’t plan where to go, so I-”
“This is perfect,” I said, our hands still laced together. “Let’s go inside.”
She was right. We hadn’t planned anything. Later I learned Maria was expecting me to decide on a place; I supposed because that’s what men usually do. I remembered a few instances when I was the first person to resolve, but the attraction I felt for this woman rendered me clueless. I was nervous, but I was also aware of that and tried to wrest the urge to run. Yes, running away crossed my mind. It was something I’d done before, unfortunately. But I needed to do something bold, and when Maria finally picked the place for our date, it was my turn to make the next move.
The silence that welcomed us as we entered the building was a breath of fresh air for the senses. It was like coming home, where people with our same interests lost themselves in the pages of books, looking for some relief or break from the real world. Maria looked around as I did, forming her conclusions about the place. The lady clerk at the front desk looked at us and how we stood there for a moment without saying a word.
“She must think we’re crazy,” I whispered, moving my face closer to Maria’s ear but keeping my eyes on the clerk, who was reaching for her glasses next to the computer monitor.
“And she’s going to put her glasses on to see just how crazy we are,” Maria said, pulling my hand and taking me away into the aisles on the left side of the library.
I couldn’t keep myself from looking at her rear end, small and round, just perfect. “It looks like you know where you’re going.”
She looked back, caught me in the act, but wasn’t bothered. Thankfully. “Yes, I do.”
We walked past tables where people had their faces buried in books. We moved past aisles tagged with different words on them. Fiction, Mystery (which is fiction, but they still had it separately. I don’t know why), Non-fiction, Psychology, Biology, Anatomy. It all smelled like knowledge. It all smelled like wisdom.
“Who’s your favorite author?” Maria asked, stopping between the last two aisles we saw.
“I don’t have one,” I confessed, which was the God-given truth at the time. Had she asked me a year later, I would have said, Stephen King.
“That’s interesting,” she said. “Most people have one.”
“I’ve read books and watched movies, but I don’t memorize names for the most part.”
“Maybe you should. It gives you something to talk about.”
“Why don’t we check the fiction section? See if there is something you like?”
I nodded as we made our way through it. I saw books I recognized, titles I had seen before at Borders but had never bought. I tried to see if I saw Kafka somewhere, but his books weren’t there. A title caught my attention: To Kill A Mockingbird.
“Have you read it?” Maria asked me. She got closer, her hand still holding mine.
“No. I know there’s a movie.”
“I’ve seen it.”
“Is it good?”
She smiled. “You’ll have to watch it. I’m not going to spoil it.”
We got out of there, and then she pulled me into the Anatomy aisle, let go of my hand, and picked a random book filled with photos of the human body. She turned those pages with the patience of a surgeon. She became transfixed, like a kid walking into the closet and getting lost in Narnia. I loved to see the look on her face, the subtle way her chest rose as she took a breath. Her lips parted briefly, letting the air in and out.
“I love the human body,” Maria said, still browsing through it, the smell of the pages as she turned them filling up my nostrils.
“I like it, too. Probably not in the same way.”
She looked up from the page. I looked at her. That lingering eye contact was nothing but the preamble of what was to come. Her smile, her perfume, and the distance between our bodies gave me a hard-on that felt like a rock between my legs. I was glad I didn’t kiss her at McDonald’s, surrounded by horny fat kids and the stink of fries. It was way more romantic to kiss her there, surrounded by the aisles and the smell of books.
That chemistry radiating out of our bodies was like a magnet. The book was still between us, but it didn’t keep our lips from fusing in a kiss that only made the bulk in my pants hurt more as it tried to liberate itself from the prison that was my zipper. Maria tried to put the book back in its place while we were still kissing, but it fell to the floor and made a loud thud that caused more than one person in the library to gasp. She tried to laugh, still hugging me, her lower body rubbing against mine with passion. I was running out of breath.
“I think we have to leave,” I said.
“I think you’re right.”
We walked out of there. Well, Maria walked while I was limping because of the hard-on that wasn’t going anywhere. She looked at me, raising a hand to her mouth to stop herself from laughing. Some people looked our way, asking themselves if we were the miscreants who made that God-awful noise. Wait, we didn’t pick up the book! Now I feel like an asshole! I thought. We got out of there so fast the clerk gave us a final look, wondering if we took something with us.
Once outside, under the first shadows of the night, we kissed again, leaning against the wall. Her kisses were so passionate and long. I felt she didn’t want to stop, and I wasn’t about to let her stop. She continued rubbing herself against my body as I thought of a place where I could take her. Her house was out of the question, and if we decided to go to my home, we would stop being horny by the time we got there. There was a Motel 8 nearby, so I suggested it.
She stopped kissing and gave me a look. For a moment, I thought I had said something inappropriate. Was I misreading the situation? I didn’t think so.
“We can’t today,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Those words washed away my lust faster than a Holy Father. “Why? Did I-“
She put a finger against my mouth. “No, it’s not you.”
I frowned, still holding onto her waist, my fingers pressing firmly on her jeans. If it wasn’t me, who was it? The president of The United States? Jesus? Mother Theresa?
She caught her breath. “You know,” she said, looking down there, where the sun doesn’t dare to go unless you let it. At that moment, I didn’t get it. I was thinking with the wrong head, so she had to put it bluntly. “It’s that time of the month.”
“Oh,” I said. “That explains it.”
She looked at me for a moment, trying to find something in my eyes: disgust, understanding, an overwhelming urge to leave. I didn’t say anything. I kept kissing her because I didn’t care what time of the month it was, but I wasn’t going to come out and say it.
But then again, I was still thinking with the wrong head.
We left, stopping at every other corner to kiss again but pulling away as soon as she realized it was too much. She admitted that she wanted to be with me. I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit I wanted to be with her. I walked her home, and most of the way, we walked in silence if we weren’t kissing. I knew I would learn from her; she had already taught me I should think about having a favorite writer. We had a lot in common, I was happy to see that, but the ugly and doubtful side of me showed his face, wondering if I was making the right decision.
Photo by Solas-ser.