The words ‘do you want to be my girlfriend’ were not spoken right away. We decided that we liked each other, and that was that. I felt strange, really, like a man in a strange land, obviously, since Maria Soria was what I presumed to be my first serious relationship on American Soil. As a kid who followed specific dating rules and/or principles back in Mexico, I wondered if I had to pop the question to make things more serious.
“Do you want to be my girlfriend?” I asked her one time as we were under the blankets after a passionate and torrid round, covered in sweat and other fluids.
It had been a month since we started going out. Thus far, we had had sex in that Motel 8 (the one I thought about the time we made out at the library), a Motel 6 next to Zodo’s, my place, and even one time that nobody was at her house, we did it all over the couch in her apartment.
I hadn’t been properly introduced to her family and felt like there was a reason for that. So that day at the motel 8, I decided it was time to make this relationship more serious and hope for the best. She looked at me, her chest rising and dropping with cadence, her eyes probing into mine as though she was waiting for a punchline or something. Did she think I was joking?
“What do you say?” I asked, seeing that her silence was stretching a bit much.
She put a hand on her mouth and looked away, clearing up her throat. I wondered why she was taking so long. It was a simple question.
“Here, take some water,” I said, handing her a water bottle on the nightstand.
“Thank you,” she said, drank, and gave it back.
A tiny dribble escaped from the corner of her mouth. I made it disappear with my thumb, patiently waiting for an answer. If she took this long to respond, that could only mean she didn’t want to be my girlfriend.
“Yes,” she finally said, briefly lifting the pressure off my shoulders. “I would love to, but…” and she put the pressure back on.
Was I the only one who thought this was a serious relationship? Apparently, I had no idea what that was. I kept quiet. I knew if anything came out of my mouth, it would only cause a fight, and we hadn’t had one of those yet. I walked up to the restroom, butt naked, thinking that a shower could help me out.
“Hold on,” she said, covering her body with a blanket as she jumped off the bed. “You caught me by surprise, I… I didn’t know that’s what you wanted.”
This anger coming out of me seemed to have a body of its own. When my hand was about to open the knob, I realized I would explode. Irritated, I said, “You didn’t know that’s what I wanted?”
Maria was unfamiliar with this side of me. In many ways, I looked like the idiot who had been yelling at her the first time we met. I didn’t like that. I really didn’t. I stood by the door, trying not to scream again. I just wanted to calm the fuck down.
“I am listening.”
“I’m sorry, but we didn’t talk about this and-“
“But now we’re talking,” I cut her off. “I’m asking you because I don’t want to play games.”
“I thought you were also seeing Elena.”
I told her what I did with Elena. This unpleasant situation felt like karma. I stopped seeing Elena because I wanted something serious, but I ended up being hand-fucked by whoever runs this messed up world. I tried to cool off. I didn’t want to fight.
“I… I didn’t know you did,” Maria said. “When we are at work, she still looks at you like, you know, like she wants to make out with you.”
That was a fact. Elena had it practically written on her forehead how much she liked me. Her trembling mouth and playful eyes had a language of their own. Anybody could tell. That was cool; I had to admit it since a man like me doesn’t get that kind of attention.
I shook my head. “You mean to tell me that you thought I was sleeping with the two of you at the same time?”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“Gross!” I said, and as soon as that word came out of my mouth, I realized I was the girl in this relationship. I was probably the girl in every relationship I ever had. Some people might think that polygamy is excellent, but I was a big advocate for monogamy.
She tried to suppress a laugh.
“Oh, you think it’s funny?”
“Any other man would be proud. You know, us girls like men who get around.”
“I’m not any other man. I am Gabriel Fucking Lucatero!”
She came closer, her right hand covering her breasts with the blanket. I kept on wondering what was so wrong with me. Why was I so unlucky in matters of the heart? Yes, I was the girl. It was time to admit that. And what about that absurd sentence I just blabbered? I am Gabriel Fucking Lucatero? Wow, my ego was through the roof!
“No, I don’t think it’s funny,” she said, hugging me. “I think it’s… interesting.”
“Well, I’m glad you feel that way,” I said, rolling my eyes.
She sighed, tugged in the blanket under her arm, and put both hands against my cheeks. “Gabriel, I really like you, but I’m not thinking about being in a relationship. I have school. I have my kid.”
“I see. You have other plans.”
“Yes. I know you do, too.”
She waited for me to speak. I couldn’t do it, though. Sure, I had plans, too, that was a fact. I had to be honest with myself and see that I was overreacting. I couldn’t yell at her for something she didn’t want to do. It sucked. I had already pictured a future with her. She epitomized what I thought I liked in a woman, and perhaps that was the problem. We were too similar. Suppose we ended up being together and have a life where both of us accomplish our goals. What then? What else was there? It all sounded fine and dandy in my head, but perhaps it wasn’t. Maybe her dreams and aspirations didn’t match up with mine.
I was going to find that out later.
“Yeah, I’m thinking,” I said. “You’re right. It’s best if we focus on the plans we have. That’s what’s important.”
I walked away from her and put on my clothes, forgetting I wanted to take a shower. Maria stood there, waiting for me to say something else, keep arguing, but the sanest thing I could do was walk away. I didn’t want to become another asshole like the ones she liked to date. I guess that makes me a different kind of an asshole.
“We can…” she said, formulating a thought; the coquettish look on her face was the kind that could convince any other man. “We can keep seeing each other.”
I grunted. “It’s not gonna happen.”
I left. A week went by until we saw each other again.
“I told you so,” Roberto said as we walked toward the breakroom the next day, carrying our lunch from McD’s. A couple of new crew members walked by and said hello; I didn’t even know their names. Roberto laughed without mercy as I told the sad tale of my tragic, complicated, yet amusing love life. “It didn’t take you that long to mess things up, did it?”
“No,” I admitted it. “About two months.”
Once in the breakroom, we sat down. There were empty food containers all over the table. Since my job was to clean, I started picking shit up and throwing everything in the trashcan.
“You’re on your break,” Roberto said. “Why don’t you wait until you’re back to throw everything away?”
“Because I don’t like to eat with a dirty table.”
“I don’t care,” Roberto assured me with a shrug as he sat down and unwrapped his double cheeseburger.
“Well, my OCD doesn’t allow me to be comfortable with this mess.”
“Well, my ADHD doesn’t intervene with my hunger.”
“Are ADHD people messy?”
“Yes, we are.”
With the table looking decent enough, I sat down and started eating my Quarter Pounder. I wondered if Maria had made that burger. She and I kept working different schedules, and the few times that I would see her occurred as I came into work when she was leaving. Same with Elena, which was why Maria always had a chance to see her looking at me with lust. I wanted to stop thinking about Maria, but it was hard. I even stopped calling her. I liked to think she was considering things from my perspective, yet I had a feeling she was laughing at me.
At that moment, I didn’t understand how our relationship would hinder our goals and keep us from becoming that seemingly ephemeral version of ourselves that lay waiting in some distant future we could only dream of. That was what Maria thought, though. I couldn’t do anything to change her mind. The little intelligence I possessed suggested that I should put myself in her position. That way, I could understand her better. And I did, regrettably.
The loud chewing and cracking from Roberto’s mouth sucked me back into the present moment. Somehow I had finished the burger and didn’t notice. It was like I swallowed it whole. I looked at him. He was reading the local paper. The front of the Santa Barbara Newspress featured a story about the Summer Solstice, an event that was underway, happening downtown every year.
From behind the paper, he looked at me and asked, “You still thinking about that girl?”
“What else is there to think about?”
“How about school?”
“I’m going back. Fall classes start until the end of August.”
“You enrolled already?”
“Of course I did.”
He smiled. “I’m glad you’re not that dumb.”
That was kind of funny. I had to admit. I was then dipping my fries in ranch dressing and eating them one at a time.
“Level three, right?” Roberto went back to question mode.
“Nope. Level four.”
“What are you taking?”
“Everything. Writing, Reading, Grammar.”
“Are you beginning to write your own fiction?”
I cleaned my lips with a napkin. “I started something, but I don’t think it’s going anywhere.”
Roberto nodded, pondering on his next question. “What about the girl? What’s she taking?”
I frowned. “I thought you didn’t want me to think about her anymore.”
“If pigs could fly,” he said. “Besides, who are we kidding? You’re not going to stop thinking about her.”
He was right about that.
“She wants to be a nurse,” I said. “Already took ESL last year. She’s quite smart.”
“And that’s why she doesn’t want a serious relationship,” Roberto said. I knew something good was brewing in the back of his head. “What you have to do right now is go ahead and play along.”
He put the paper down. “I know what I’m about to tell you is going to sound contradictory,” he said, “but from now on, you just have to be okay with what she wants. Don’t pressure her. Keep going out with her the way you’ve been doing it.”
My head was hurting. “I never expected to hear that from you,” I confessed.
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “You have to stop overthinking. Go and apologize for walking away and try and see if you can be friends.”
“Yes. Do you need me to give you a dictionary, so you know the meaning of the word?”
“No. I get it.”
“Great,” he said. “Now go ahead and be a man. It’s not that hard.”
I left that day thinking back on his words. Of all the advice I got from Roberto, that was perhaps the most valuable. The next day, I went to work over at McD’s with the thought of an apology in mind. And as it turned out, The Divine Hand of whoever was in charge had a surprise in store for me.
Marlen had become an essential part of my life, someone who was always ready to tell me something that I needed to know regarding love and women. Do you remember she was the one who talked me into going after Maya? And before that, Marlen had been the one who told Maria Sanchez (the first Maria) that I was available?
Last but not least, she let me know when Maria Soria was back at work. And the following day, when I had to work at McDonald’s, Marlen had something interesting to tell me. Something that was going to put me in a compromising situation.
As I was about to get some coffee into my system that morning, Marlen said, “Guess who’s back?”
I was asked to come to work early since Javier thought it would be an excellent idea to learn about the opening and closing shifts. I thought that was crazy, a trip to an early grave because of the constant sleep schedule change. It was also summer, and Javier had said many more people came into the store during those days. To me, the place always looked packed, regardless.
“I have no idea,” I said, “but I’m sure you’re gonna tell me, aren’t you?”
I walked back to the office to put my jacket under the desk, in some corner designated for us managers; ever since I walked around with a tie, I never used the breakroom anymore. Marlen followed me, but first, she looked at the registers and lobby, making sure Juanita and Blanca at the front had everything under control. Leticia and Reina were in the kitchen, wrapping up Egg McMuffins and McGriddles like it was not a big deal. God, their dexterity was uncanny.
“Yes, that’s what I’m trying to do, but you’re walking away. What are you? The boss?”
I stood by the door in the office and took both a sip of my steamy coffee and a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” I said, getting ready to give apologies out as if they were candy on Halloween. “I meant no disrespect. It’s just that I am so eager to start. I wanted to put my jacket away and give you the attention you deserve.”
She squinted. “Smartass.” The smile that preceded told me we were okay.
Once my jacket was out of the way, I said, “So tell me, who is back?”
Marlen went back to gossip mode, her eyes lighting up at once. “You’re not going to believe it.”
“And if you keep stretching it out,” I said, “whoever reads my memoirs is gonna get tired of waiting and close the damn book.”
“Maria Sanchez,” she said.
That was a surprise. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a twist, but it didn’t take away the impact. I could already picture the days at work where three women I had slept with would co-exist, forming some sort of a McHouse of Pleasures if you will, where I could have liaisons with all of them. Whatever happened to monogamy? I asked myself. I felt like a hypocrite at that moment. I didn’t want an effigy of me burning in the middle of the lobby, next to the glass case with sports paraphernalia.
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I knew you were going to freak out.”
“Well, yeah, I mean,” I said, doubtful about how to proceed. “Can you imagine if the three of them work at the same time?”
Marlen didn’t have to say anything else. I could see the words forming above her head. I was behaving in the same way I was trying to avoid. Whatever happened to trying to make a difference?
I told you so, Roberto had said.
“They are working together, aren’t they? Just like when Omar was working with Luna and Brenda?”
Marlen shrugged. “In your case, there is one more,” she said. “I mean, there could’ve been four if you counted me.”
She said that last part with a teasing smile, making me think about what Maria Soria said: Any other man would be proud. You know, us girls like men who get around.
But why wasn’t I proud of that?
“When are they working?” I asked the same way a dying patient wondered about how long he has to live.
Marlen sighed. “You know how Javier is bringing extra people today?”
“Yeah, that’s why I am here, too.”
“Well,” she said. “Your three girlfriends are working today.”
“I’m a dead man,” I said.
“Yes, you are.”
The countdown to what I thought was the end of my days started at nine o’clock; as Maria Soria walked into the restaurant alongside Elena, the two of them talking so amicably, the sudden thought of a threesome appeared in my head. I tried to focus on the customer I was helping, one of those panhandlers who take one of the mall’s corners every morning, using creative signs with messages that make you laugh. The one this guy held in his hands said: I’M UGLY AND OLD. IF I CAN’T MAKE IT AS A WHORE, I CAN’T MAKE IT ANYWHERE.
I wasn’t the only one with problems, it seemed.
Elena clocked in at one of the registers, farther away from where I stood, as I listened to Marlen telling me more about some new item the restaurant was trying to push. I wasn’t paying attention (how could I?). All my thoughts were on the day’s awkwardness ahead. On the other hand, Soria stood right next to me, where I could breathe in the full blast of her perfume. I don’t remember what brand it was. I only remember what it made me feel at the time.
“Good morning, Marlen,” Soria said with a high and friendly pitch, unlike the one she usually used when talking to me.
“Hey, Soria,” Marlen said as I caught a glimpse of pleasure in her eyes. She knew how I felt and was enjoying the hell out of it.
And as soon as Marlen walked away, Soria looked at me and said, “Haven’t seen you in a long time, Gabriel.”
The hairs on my back went up, almost as if her voice were some electrical current that mobilized every part of me. I mean, every part.
“I’ve been… busy,” I said, looking at her as casual as possible. But I couldn’t. Then I remembered what Roberto had suggested. “Look, I have to tell you something.”
“What is it?” Soria said, positioning her body right in front of me, her left hand resting against the counter. Technically, we weren’t supposed to establish casual conversations in the front area while the people around us were trying to do their jobs, but I had never been that good at following all the rules.
Elena walked past me and mouthed a quick and timid good morning. I said good morning, too, and continued with my conversation.
“I’m sorry for walking away the other day,” I said to Soria. The look in her eyes suggested she wasn’t expecting that. “It was childish and stupid. I understand if you want things to be casual, or not. It’s your right, and I can’t change that.”
She was speechless. I had rendered this goddess speechless. This woman who had so much power over me was now quiet. She was used to conflict, to whinny men who yelled and hurt her. I wasn’t going to be one of them.
“I,” she tried to speak. The words didn’t want to make an appearance.
“Don’t worry,” I said, looking at Marlen, Blanca, and Juanita, who were multitasking, doing their jobs, and keeping an eye on my conversation. Even Leticia and Reina took a brief second to look at the drama unfolding before their very eyes. I put my hand on her lower arm, “Why don’t we get back to work and have this conversation later today?”
A nice tint of crimson melted over her cheeks, a bright red I had seen many times before as we made love. “Yes, I would love that.”
She walked to the breakroom, looking back briefly to catch a glimpse of me as I stared at her body. She was happy, just for a moment, but when Maria Sanchez arrived, the whole world crumbled under my feet.
It was like walking on eggshells, as the saying goes. It had been about seven months ago when Maria Sanchez worked here. I remembered how many times she ignored my calls and my messages. She had left just like that without saying goodbye, and that day, she came like nothing ever happened. I did my best to pretend I wasn’t hurt. She stood at the corner, shooting the breeze with Juanita, who was apparently pregnant again.
“Weren’t you pregnant last time I was here?” Maria Sanchez said as she, Blanca, and Juanita started to laugh.
“She needs to buy a tv,” Blanca came and gave her opinion, and the laughter went on alongside coffee and conversations regarding the goings and doings of Sanchez in the last seven months.
Marlen was taking a quick break, and I was handling the front. It got slow, surprisingly, maybe because we had just had a quick breakfast rush. I could see Sanchez looking briefly at me as I gave a customer a tray filled with McMuffins, hashbrowns, and coffee cups. I tried not to look at her since I didn’t know what was appropriate. A smile, a look of anger, I had no clue.
Then I looked at the kitchen, where the other two women I had loved were also chatting with Reina and Leticia. So I was practically alone, surrounded by people, yet making conversations with myself, thinking of a reason to walk away. But what was I going to walk away from? Why was I so uncomfortable? Maybe that diatribe I formulated at the motel had some veracity. Well, it was egocentric of me, yet honest.
I wasn’t like any other man. I wasn’t comfortable being thought of as someone who ‘gets around.’ It was as though I had a correct grasp of the differences between right and wrong, yet I opted to do stupid shit anyway. My heart was in the right place, but my other body parts had different ideas.
“Good morning, you,” I heard someone say. I had been so focused on my thoughts I didn’t see Maria Sanchez approaching me.
And I decided to greet her with a smile. “How are you? It’s been a long time.”
She came closer and gave me a hug that took me by surprise; it wasn’t the middle of the day yet, and I was getting too many fucking surprises for one day. Maria Soria and Elena stopped what they were doing to look at us, same with Blanca and Juanita. I was praying for the earth to split open and swallow me whole.
When the hug was over, she said, “I know. I went to Oxnard with my dad. He got a job there and wanted me to move with him.”
“And what brought you back?”
She sighed. “I missed working here.”
I frowned. “Really?”
“Yeah,” she said and laughed, my reaction making her blush. Sanchez then looked at my uniform. “You look good with a tie.”
“I thought you didn’t notice.”
We were going to keep talking, but Marlen came back from her break, and everyone started to work the way they were supposed to, including me. Maria Sanchez went to the kitchen and joined the others. I kept giving orders out, helping Marlen, while Juanita and Blanca took orders. Every now and then, I would look towards the kitchen, and it was during one of those furtive glances that Leticia saw me.
She was running the food, Reina standing beside her, while Elena took care of the fryers, and the two Marias put meats on the grills. Leticia had a smile on her face, somewhere between playful and mocking. She looked at the three women behind her and then at me. As if guessing what I was thinking about. Even though I was supposed to be thinking about work.
Then the three women looked back and smiled at me at the same time. Well, I thought, this might not be as bad as I think it is.
Photo by Glennski.