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It turned out that Maria Sanchez’s return did cause some conflict. ‘conflict’ isn’t probably the right word, but it changed how Maria Soria thought about our relationship. All of a sudden, she wanted something serious. After Soria saw how Sanchez hugged me, she became jealous. I learned that Elena was jealous, too, but never tried to rekindle what he had. And that was a good thing. I was broke as fuck and couldn’t afford to have an army of concubines. July, August, and September of 2008 were the three months I enjoyed that brief commitment with The Second Maria. And I called it ‘brief’ for a reason.

There was a bench (it might still be there today) at the bus stop of what most locals call the K-Mart mall across the street from Camino Real. Visibly smaller than the latter, the K-Mart mall constituted an array of small businesses. There was a nail salon that was always packed, a smoke store that nobody visited, a liquor store that kept the open sign off for some reason, and a sandwich shop with dirty windows that killed my appetite every time I saw it. The only profitable businesses there are K-Mart (obviously), the Cajun Kitchen restaurant I usually visited on my days off, and a Jack In the Box I tried to ignore on account of my loyalty to The Golden Arches.

I was off that day and waited for Maria Soria, sitting on the bench, reading a new book I got from the library. It was a collection of horror short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, and because it had been written in old English, I was having a hard time understanding it. I made a mental note, reminding myself to buy a more recent translation. The afternoon heat clued me to the fact that wearing a black, long-sleeve shirt was a bad idea. Perspiration began to also obscure the smell of the cheap cologne I had bought at K-Mart the day before.

My eyes tired of looking at the words, and all my concentration went down the toilet. I looked to my left, trying to take in anything else that wasn’t the text, when I saw Maria Soria crossing the street, coming my way. I squinted, thinking I was a cast-away witnessing nothing but a mirage, a good-looking one at that. I didn’t take my eyes away from Maria, and it was most likely the feelings I had for her at the time that made me think she was levitating rather than walking.

I know I was putting her on a pedestal. But then again, it all came down to my lack of self-love, which crept up every time I had in my life something good, like the love of a woman. Yes, I also had an ego, but there were times when it seemed to take a break, making me think I didn’t deserve anything, and the fact that I was unable to reach my goals only worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy that stated what a piece of a worthless person I was.

Once Maria was right next to me, she sat down and gave me a salty kiss, smelling of fries and cheeseburgers, but it was the most delicious thing an idiot like me could ever ask for. My left arm had a chance to caress her breast as she pressed her body against me; the erection after that was inevitable. I was in my early twenties. I used to get an erection by merely sneezing.

The afternoon’s plan was to go to her house, meet the family, make the relationship official, and go to the motel around the corner right after that. I wanted to skip the family gathering and go straight to Love Village.

Maria gave me an inquisitive look as I suggested that. “I have to take a shower first,” she said. “I can’t go to a motel looking like this.”

I relented. “You’re right. Besides, it’s time to meet the family.”

“How do you feel about that?” she asked, the look on her face suggesting she would know if I was lying.

“Nervous,” I said, realizing that was the best way to describe the turbulent cocktail of emotions I was wrapped with; anxiety, fear of the unknown, horniness.

“There’s nothing to be worried about,” she assured me while standing up and getting money off her pocket for the approaching bus. “Only my aunt, my cousin, and my kid are going to be home.”

“Your kid isn’t going to punch me in the face?” I asked, following her up the bus.

Maria couldn’t contain her laughter, and while giving the driver her fare money, she said, “Rafa is only four years old. The only thing he can do is punch you in the testicles.”

“That’s even worse!”

She smiled. “I’m kidding.”

I shrugged. “Oh well, I’ll be alert.”

She rolled her eyes.

We segregated ourselves at the back of the bus, sat down, and she glanced at the book I was reading. The somber face of Edgar Allan Poe made her eyes pop, feigning fright. She then looked at me and said, “You are way too handsome to be a horror writer.”

I thought that was hilarious. “You think I’m handsome because you love me.”

Maria grew quiet at the mention of the “L” word, changing the subject as fast as possible. “So, you said you’re working on a story right now?”

“I have ideas,” I said, “but what I’m using a lot of time on right now is a character.”

“A character?”

“Yeah, I want to make a series of stories with one main character.”

“Has it been done before?”

“Many times,” I said, somehow surprised she didn’t know that. Even though she didn’t watch TV a lot or read many fiction books, I had a feeling that it should be common knowledge; I was wrong, of course.

“Almost all the writers I have read have a character like that.”

“How do you want to call your character?”


She squinted. “What does that mean?”

“It’s an acronym,” I said. “The combination of the two first letters of my name and my two last names.”

“Gabriel Lucatero Rios,” she said. “GA-LU-RI.”

“That’s right.”

She smiled. “Very clever.”

“Thank you.”

Meeting the family didn’t turn out to be what was expected. The aunt wasn’t home. She had a sudden family emergency, according to Karen, Maria’s cousin. Karen had been waiting for Maria to arrive so she could go to work. I walked into the apartment and stood at the door, pretending I had never been there before, looking at the sofa and thinking of the time we’d had sex on it.

“She didn’t tell you where she went?” Maria asked, showing more concern than her cousin, who grabbed her purse and walked to the door.

Karen was in a hurry but took a minute to stand by the door and look at me. She had no resemblance to Maria. Her lighter skin and ten extra pounds suggested she was from another family. Who knew? Maybe she was adopted, and nobody ever told her.

“So, this is the new one,” she said, sizing me up, making me feel like a Louis Vuitton bag rather than a human being.

Maria rolled her eyes and made the proper introductions. “Karen, this is Gabriel.”

Karen gave me her hand, which felt cold to the touch, nearly sizzling against my warm palm. “Maria, are you looking for a boyfriend or an older brother for Rafa?”

I thought that was funny but tried my best not to laugh. On the other hand, Maria looked at Karen like she was about to rip every hair off her head when she least expected it.

“He’s only four years younger,” Maria said, thinking that would help her case, but it only worsened it.

“That’s what I’m saying!” Karen said.

“Where’s Rafa?” Maria changed the subject. I started to see that it was one of her favorite things to do.

“He’s taking a nap,” Karen said. “You too have like an hour to make out.” She pointed at the sofa as if she knew something I thought nobody was supposed to know.

“We were planning to go to the, um, movies,” Maria said.

Karen laughed. “Oh, is that the new motel in town? ’Cause I haven’t heard of it.”

Maria really wanted to kill her cousin at that moment.


I was able to meet the kid the next month. Maria, Rafa, and I went shopping at K-Mart, where Karen worked. Staples had gone back to their same old ways and started giving me fewer hours. I wasn’t as worried as I was before since my position at McD’s allowed me to have a fixed schedule that was good enough for me at the time. It also enabled me to spend more time with Maria and the kid, something I thought of as a training session for what it felt like to be a dad.

I am not going to deny that the thought had crossed my mind. I was a kid myself (Karen wasn’t so wrong about that) and still didn’t know much about anything. But I tried, as I walked around the store holding Rafa’s hand, and Maria sent messages on her phone, smiling in a way that made me feel jealous. I attempted to hide it, knowing that jealousy is one of those destructive emotions that made people do and say stupid shit, harming those we claimed to love.

I made an effort to establish conversations with the kid, but he was quiet. Polite but quiet. He never punched me in the testicles, he never gave me the stink eye, he just nodded and said yes to almost everything I said.

“Do you want this candy?”


“Do we buy this movie so we can watch it later?”


“Can I kiss your mom until the crack of dawn?”


Yes, he was a sweet kid.

Once Maria was done with her messages, she came closer and kissed me.

“Who was it?” I asked.


“On the phone,” I said. “You were texting someone.”

She took a second to answer. “Karen,” she said, looking at whatever was in front of her, which made me think she avoided eye contact. “She’s still making fun of me ’cause you’re too young.”

Maria said that as if she was no longer happy with the age difference. Was I reading too much into it? Probably. Still, I wanted to know.

“How do you feel about it?”

Again, she took a second too long to answer, gave me a hug, and smiled in a way that I could not believe was sincere. “What do you think?”

I didn’t know what to think.

Maria and I worked together that afternoon. She was called in because Joel had asked for the day off. It was Wednesday, one of those days I also worked with Javier. He and I became very close, and people started to think of me as some sort of a protégé, Javier’s own pet project. That was all backed up by his constant training, continually sharing new information about the job, teaching me managerial job procedures I should learn for the future, and showing me the booklet I had studied to become a manager.

“You still have yours, right?” Javier asked me as we were in the office, looking at sales on the computer. A cashier was at the front, and Maria and Reina were in the kitchen.

“I do,” I said, trying to pay attention to him but distracted by Maria’s presence. “It must be in my bag.”

“You have to carry it with you at all times,” he said. “That’s why you have a pocket in your shirt.”

“Got it,” I said.

Javier was a smart man. He could see that I was distracted and asked me a question I feared he would ask me someday. “How is it going with Maria?”

I supposed I could’ve lied, I had done it many times before to get out of trouble, but I thought it would be particularly detrimental if I lied to Javier on account of how decent he had been with me. He had let Cesar and Lidia go because they were dating. And let’s not forget about Omar and Luna. It felt like my destiny would be painted with the same brush.

“Bad,” I said, deciding not to lie. I could have said ‘good,’ but those little details I was beginning to pick up from Maria bothered me; her habit of changing the conversation, her constant text messaging.

Javier put a hand on my shoulder, showing how much he cared. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Will I get fired after I talk about it?” I said and looked up. Javier was slightly taller than me, so it always felt like I was talking to God when I was before his presence.

He thought that was the strangest question. “Why would I do that?”

I frowned. “What do you mean? Didn’t you fire Lidia and Cesar ’cause they were dating?”

“They were fired because they lied.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Are we allowed to date on the job or not?”

Javier sighed. “Technically, no,” he said. “We’re not allowed to date on the job, but in the end, everybody does it, so it is one of those rules we can bend.”

“Have you dated on the job?”

Javier shook his head. “No. I’m happily married.”

My head was filled with questions. I went back to those thoughts of nepotism and how some employees could get a better position if someone high up happened to like them. I guessed this was my opportunity to climb the ladder of success faster while having Javier’s support.

It did feel like that at the time.

“And because I didn’t lie to you,” I dared to ask, “you’re not gonna fire me?”

“Correct,” Javier said, matter-of-factly, and walked up to the register.

I walked up to the front five minutes later, carrying with me the schedule. Doing the schedule was Celestino’s responsibility as a second in charge, but Javier really wanted me to learn everything. As I walked past the kitchen, Reina’s and Maria’s loud giggles took me away from the page I was looking at. Maria was very flirtatious despite having Javier a couple of steps away from us.

“Tell him what you said,” Reina spoke, and her voice was urgent as if she was dying to know what I would think about whatever she had in mind.

I thought that was interesting, given that Reina was usually quiet. An oddball, many would opine, caught in a world filled with vociferous people who always had something to say. This time, Reina wanted to say something as well. Her body language was tantamount to the urge I felt as a child every time I tried to ask permission to go out with friends.

“What did you say?” I asked the woman who appeared to be officially my girlfriend, even though I never asked the question again.

Maria looked at the front, making sure nobody else heard. At that moment, Javier was having a conversation with a young teen in the lobby, whom I assumed was Javier’s kid because of the strong resemblance. A cashier put some cheeseburgers and fries into the bag for another customer.

“I was asking Reina is she likes to do it with a condom or without,” she said, just like that, as if she was talking about French Fries.

I didn’t know whether I was shocked or amused. “And what did she say?”

“She didn’t want to say!” Maria said, laughing so hard Javier could hear from the lobby.

Maria and I used protection because we weren’t thinking about getting pregnant. But I was curious. I wanted to see what she really thought about it. So I asked her, and Reina jumped in and said what she had in mind.

“Maria said that using a condom is like eating a lollipop with the wrap on. It just doesn’t taste the same.”

I thought that was hilarious, a different side to Maria Soria. Was she more than what I thought she was?

Later that night, Reina and I happened to take a break at the same time. She was still shy due to the previous conversations about condoms. It was a sensitive topic, I knew that, and that was why I didn’t want to talk about it. Besides, we were alone in the breakroom, which was another reason that kept me from saying anything compromising. But Reina had different ideas. She didn’t talk about condoms, but she did touch upon relationship-related topics.

“You like to keep your girlfriend happy, huh?” Reina asked.

The question posed a myriad of interpretations. How would I respond? I still thought to keep my mouth shut on the sensitive topics, but Reina wanted to go down that road for the looks of it. Another point I found interesting was that Reina said ‘your girlfriend.’ That made it sound like Maria had mentioned we were a couple; Reina also knew about Elena and Maria Sanchez and never assumed the ‘G’ word needed to be used, so what other explanation was there?

“Yeah,” I said, “I like to keep her happy. I think it’s important.”

She was drinking soda while I was still trying to power through Edgar Allan Poe’s book. Neither of us was hungry at that hour of the night. That same urge I saw before came back to her face after she looked at the door; there was something else she wanted to say, and she had to power through it, just like I was doing with Poe’s relic.

“She doesn’t deserve you, you know?” Reina said, taking me by surprise.

I was expecting to be surprised, but not this surprised. Reina wanted to get something off her chest, and she finally did it. But I wasn’t expecting what she just said. That was the epitome of backstabbing since she was all gaga right next to Maria no less than thirty minutes ago, and now, behind closed doors, she dumped on me this bomb that was apt to make anyone go crazy with doubts and questions.

“What do you mean?” I asked, unable to believe there was a better question.

She looked at the door again. “You know we live on the same street?”


“Maria and me.”

I would say maria and I but didn’t think it was the moment for a grammar lesson.

I shook my head. “No, I didn’t know.”

“How long have you two gone out?”

“About two months?”

She took a deep breath, getting ready to throw a bigger bomb at me.

“Two weeks ago, I saw her by the 7-11.”

She said that as if assuming I knew what 7-11 she was talking about. Then I thought of my former business partner at Amway, Margarita Palma. She used to work at a restaurant next to the 7-11 in Old Town Goleta, the neighborhood where Maria lived.

“The one by Altamirano’s?” I asked after recalling the restaurant’s name.

“Yes,” Reina said, “she was there with her ex, the one who used to hit her?”

That didn’t mean anything. It didn’t seem like a big deal if someone you were going out with was talking to someone she used to go out with. That was the lie I was trying to tell myself when I should have been wondering what Reina saw them doing. It must have been something big, something reprehensible. Why else would Reina come and say that Maria didn’t deserve me? So I asked her.

“They were holding hands,” she said.

A sudden fear pressed my chest and shook me. My hands began to sweat. My heart hammered as I tried to stay calm. I had felt that sensation before. I felt that when my first girlfriend -her name was actually Maya, I must’ve been around sixteen years old- told me she would start going out with someone who had money. It was the same feeling I got when I learned that Rosa cheated on me and when Celia said there was no future between us.

It was the same feeling I got the few times I truly fell in love.

I excused myself and walked out. It was not the time to cause any problems or arguments. I ended up lying to Javier, saying I had a sudden headache, and because I was his favorite, he said it was ok. I didn’t know what to tell Maria, though, so I just walked away at a moment when she wasn’t looking. Later, she sent me a message asking what the matter was.

I don’t feel so well, I wrote. I’ll see you tomorrow.

She didn’t reply. In fact, she didn’t answer the next day when I sent her another message. I could only imagine her holding hands with someone else. I couldn’t read anymore. I couldn’t concentrate. These were the last days of August, and I was so looking forward to going back to school. Being in school and trying to be in love with someone are two things that don’t go well together.

Lots of things were going to change.


The day the month started, my relationship with the Second Maria ended. It was chaos, a dramatic breakup that taught me to be more careful next time I open my heart to anyone again. Words, screams, cosmetics, and a shoe were thrown around. And like always, words were the ones that hurt the most. Yes, it was a lesson I needed to learn. Unfortunately, when it comes to love, I never find myself able to follow my own advice.

After two days of silence, Maria sent me a message saying, ‘we need to talk.’ She had been evasive since the day Reina planted the seed of doubt in me. I wondered if Maria suspected Reina had said anything to me. That could have happened. At that point, anything was a possibility.

I went to her house after work that day. I had covered Marlen’s shift since she, Blanca, and Celestino had gone to a management class. That was something Javier said I should start looking forward to. He could have chosen Brenda or Juanita to take Marlen’s place for the day because of their seniority, but Javier had other plans. I knew Brenda was upset. Someone had told me they heard her complain after she had seen the schedule. I was supposed to feel good about my work life, but my romantic side kept me from enjoying the little victories.

Taking the bus to Old Town Goleta, I read the message repeatedly. It was an easy sentence, four words, the simplest to understand, but I had a hard time grasping its meaning. We need to talk. According to self-proclaimed experts on romanticism, those four words are the ones nobody wants to hear because they always mean the end of the relationship.

And yes, I know, those are the words I used when ending my fling with Elena.

With the warm afternoon and the heat of my body, I felt like I was about to explode. Expecting the worst was the easiest thing to do. The memories of the days before came back to haunt me when I saw her preoccupied with her phone as I walked the kid around or asked questions that had no answers. I never believed she talked to Karen as she said. K-Mart employees weren’t allowed to be using their phones at work. They had to leave them in the locker room. I knew this because my friend Roberto used to work at K-Mart too.

But I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that.

The day I was about to knock at the apartment’s door, I felt like walking away was the best thing I could do. But I had to know. I had to know what she wanted to say. I stepped back, still hesitating. She opened the door and looked at me with the most frigid and aloof eyes I had ever seen.

It was like we’d never been intimate. It was as though I was the beggar you pass on the street every day while wondering why he doesn’t get a job. She tried to smile, but it was like pulling teeth. Her usual hug and kiss were replaced by a forced nod. I became convinced that it was ok to expect the worst.

We need to talk, the words got louder inside my head. I was still listening to them, like background music, the one you hear at Starbucks while reading a novel, but they got so loud and inconceivably hard to handle that I decided to open my mouth and say what I had to say.

“So, what did you want to talk about?”

She let me in. I didn’t try to hug her or kiss her. This was the end, and nothing in the atmosphere indicated otherwise. We walked up the stairs to the room. I hadn’t actually been to the room before. The first time we were here, our trysts took place on the sofa. Once inside the room, we sat on her bed. She had on the same black blouse and blue jeans she wore on our first date. It was fitting, I supposed, wearing the same close from the day we started going out.

“Thank you for coming,” she said, avoiding eye contact.

“You said you needed to talk, so here I am.”

She put the tips of her hair behind her ear as she spoke. “I’m sorry I’ve been… distant.”

I swallowed, keeping myself from being defensive. “Well, I’m sure you had your reasons.”

She looked at me as if that wasn’t what she was expecting. “Yeah, um… I actually do.”

“I’m all ears.”

She breathed in, having a hard time articulating her thoughts. “You’re a great guy,” she said, and all I could hear inside my head was that ominous ‘but’ that was coming. “But I think we made a mistake.”

That wasn’t it. I could have paid for the conversation to stop there to avoid the pain, but there was a lot more coming my way, a lot more I felt I wasn’t going to handle.

“So you’re breaking up with me?” I said, stating the obvious.

“Yes,” she said. “I can’t be with you after what I did. All you’ve done is to be a decent boyfriend, taking care of Rafa and me-”

I put my hand up, making her stop. She was going too fast.

“What do you mean by that?”


I rolled my eyes. I was losing my mind. “You just said you can’t be with me after what you did,” I raised my voice and immediately tried to pull myself together.

It was too late. I was coming undone. But Maria just looked at me and said nothing. There was fear in her eyes, the same fear she had when her ex had been yelling at her outside the restaurant the day I intervened.

“What did you do?”

She was trying to find a better way to explain herself. But there was none. “I slept with someone else,” she finally said, and the weight that fell off her shoulders was almost palpable. Maria’s emotions were contradictory, for she appeared worried and relieved at the same time. She was relieved she said the words causing her to suffocate, but she was concerned about how I would react.

Reacting was what I did. Reacting was what I had to do, apparently, since I played the role of the heartbroken boyfriend. For reasons I never understood, I took a shoe off the floor, under the bed, and threw it against the window. Luckily, I didn’t break it, but because it was one of those shoes with a thick heel, it nicked the white frame, and the deafening noise was loud enough to wake up the dead.

Maria stood up and tried to hold me. I shoved her back onto the bed and called her by adjectives that I thought I would never use when describing a woman. I was ashamed of myself as soon as the words were out, but I was also upset. She had just confessed to sleeping with someone else, so how else was I supposed to feel?

She said she was sorry, and I laughed at her. I laughed as tears and sweat ran down my face. I didn’t know if the perspiration had something to do with the day’s heat or the burning angst I felt inside me. I wanted to hit her, the thought crossed my mind, and it was as if she knew what I thought because her eyes filled with horror. I am glad I didn’t put a hand on her to this day. Instead, I grabbed a box with cosmetics she kept on her nightstand and launched it against the door.

“Stop! I said I was sorry?”

“How the fuck do you want me to stop?” I yelled back, pacing the room, feeling caged in, holding myself from doing or saying anything that could land me in trouble.

“I said I was sorry,” Maria said again, her voice trembling as tears began to fill her eyes.

I felt even more ashamed of myself at that moment, seeing her cry like that. I was becoming the man I avoided turning into, the brute, the bully with no self-control who lets himself go at the first confrontation. I decided to walk away from the house. It was the best thing to do. She tried to stop me, but I jerked my arm away. I opened the door and shut it. The noise it made was so loud I feared it would come unhinged.

Once outside, I saw a group of people. They had been paying attention, listening to the commotion, which also embarrassed me. I didn’t want that kind of attention. I had so much in my chest, and I wanted to talk to somebody. I needed to vent. For some reason, Javier was the first person who crossed my mind.

To my surprise, Javier not only answered my phone call, but he also came to the McDonald’s on Fairview, where I waited for him, sitting outside on one of the chairs on the patio. I never knew if this was true, but as I told him what had just happened, Javier said he had gone through a similar situation when he was my age. I sat across from him, listening to his story, which was in many ways similar to mine.

“You’re young,” he said, “and you will go through the same experience again.”

I thought that was the shittiest thing to say, given the circumstances.

“Don’t take me wrong,” he continued after reading my facial expression. “I’m not telling you this because I want you to think love doesn’t exist. If I hadn’t been betrayed by the woman I thought I loved, I would not have traveled to Mexico years ago and met my wife. We’ve been together for twenty-five years.”

“If you put it that way,” I said.

“Because that’s the only way. You are going to fall in love again, many times, until you find the right woman.”

I was ready to retaliate. “Yeah, but isn’t that crazy?”

“What is crazy?”

“I mean, trying to find the right woman and being unable to find her. It sounds like doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different outcome.”

He squinted. “Einstein?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, he said it.”

Javier put a hand on my shoulder like he did before. “Don’t beat yourself up, Gabriel. That quote you just used, it only applies to things; humans are a lot more complex.”

“How do you expect me to not beat myself up,” I argued. “She slept with another man. That could only mean I am not nearly as good in bed as I thought I was.”

The way I said that made him smile. At the time, I didn’t think it was funny, but now, looking back at it, it was the best thing that could ever happen to me. He advised me to look at myself more closely and fix the things that needed to change. And most importantly, Javier wanted me to forgive Maria Soria. Javier said she had her reason for doing what she did, and only God could have the final judgment.

I didn’t want to start a debate about religion.

I also started to think about changes. I wasn’t happy where I was, emotionally. I was an emotional person, even though I never quite showed it. I thanked Javier for listening to me but didn’t tell him what I had in mind. I didn’t tell him about the changes I wanted to make. I knew he would understand, but he was never going to approve.


Photo by Garten-gg.

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