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I saw her one last time in the year 2008. I had strategically avoided her for two weeks since we had our argument, and, seeing that I was not going to approach her, Maria decided to pay me a visit over at Staples. I was in the pens & pencils aisle, opening up Bic and Signo boxes while looking at the stands. As I tried to figure out where everything belonged, Maria Soria came into the store, walking in a way that suggested she was afraid of what was to come but knew that she had to face the music.

My first reaction was anger, the blood boiled inside me as I started to shake a little. I stuck my hands inside my pockets, inconspicuously cleaning the perspiration that was beginning to form. Maria approached with wariness, and I felt like a caged monkey in the zoo, looking at a human who was about to penetrate my natural habitat. She tried to speak and said hello, but there must have been an uninviting look in my eyes that kept her from saying anything else. Maybe I didn’t look like a monkey. I was more like a dog with rabies.

But then there came that soft side of me, that part that still had feelings for her. I’m an expert in holding grudges like any Taurus does. But how could I hold a grudge against the woman I loved at the time?

“It’s been a while,” I managed to say without breaking, despite the thud inside my chest increasing as she came closer.

She gulped and lowered her shoulders, the mental weight of her infidelity pushing her down into an imaginary pit. She must have thought I would throw her against the wall and nail her like they nailed Jesus. I wanted to nail her. But differently.

“It has been a while,” she said, repeating what I just said, unable to come up with something else. “How… how are you?”

There was sarcasm dripping off my face. I started to hang the pen packets in the wrong places, trying to control myself. I didn’t want to yell. I didn’t like myself when I behaved like an animal.

I looked at her. “How do you think I am?”

She looked down for a second. What was it that I was seeing on her face? Remorse?

“I know,” she said, “and it probably doesn’t matter what I want to say.”

“It matters if you think it does.”

She looked up and got a bit closer. The heat of her presence still made my privates swell. There is an imbalance in us human beings. We can’t think straight because our bodies react to emotion as our heads battle with logic. We call it ‘thinking with the other head’ in the male species. In other words, if that wasn’t explicit enough, we men think we our penises as well.

But I wanted to break the rules. I tried to use logic for once. I couldn’t allow myself to go back with Maria, even though I really had feelings for her. It didn’t matter what she wanted to say.

“I lied to you,” she said.

I stopped what I was doing, looked at Maria, and tried to understand what she meant. Did she lie to me by cheating? If that’s what she meant, well, I already knew it.

“Yes,” I said, “isn’t that why we aren’t together anymore?”

She sighed. It was hard for her to say what she wanted to say. “I lied to you by telling you that I cheated. I actually didn’t.”

I frowned as my two heads started to talk to each other, deciding which direction they would take me. The head over my shoulders had a good argument, whereas the head inside my pants wanted to, well, you know.

“Wow,” I said, “and how do you want me to respond to that?”

She tried to touch me, and I flinched. One point for the head over my shoulders, zero for the head inside my pants.

“I didn’t know how to tell you what I really wanted to tell you, and I thought things would get easier if I said I cheated.”

At that moment, I started to doubt her intelligence.

Roberto passed by, pushing his cart. He could feel the tension and didn’t even say hi.

“And what was it that you couldn’t tell me?”

She bit her lip. “I have a scholarship in Mexico, and I have to move,” she said. “For some stupid reason, I thought it would be a better idea if I told you I cheated instead of telling you the truth.” She paused, possibly realizing how stupid her logic sounded for the first time.

I changed my mind. I really wanted to nail her like they nailed Jesus. I tossed the packet I was holding and faced her. I could see on her face that she was expecting the worst.

“Let me recapitulate,” I said. “You’re telling me that you thought it would be a better idea to crush my feelings by saying that you slept with another man instead of, I don’t know, sharing with me something good about your career?”

“I see it now,” she said, her begging eyes filling up with tears. “I just…”

“You just what?”

“I thought you were like everyone else. I thought you would say that you also cheated and didn’t care about me. But when I saw how you started to cry, I realized you were really, really hurt.”

I couldn’t say anything. I wanted to reiterate how stupid she sounded, but I knew she got it by then.

“What do you mean you thought I was like everyone else?”

“Well, like most guys. Men always have someone else on the side. I thought you were back with Sanchez, or maybe Elena.”

I was pissed, very pissed. Part of me understood what she was saying, though. Most men are either thinking about fucking someone else or actually doing it, but I was still set on breaking the rules. I didn’t want to be like most men. I picked up the packet I dropped and hung it on the wrong spot on purpose.

“I talked to them,” she said.

“To whom?”

“Elena and Sanchez. I asked them if you were also sleeping with them.”

I sneered. “I can only imagine how that conversation went.”

“Not bad,” she said. “Elena can’t lie to save her life. When I asked her, she said that you broke things off with her because you wanted something serious with me. I thought that was the nicest thing I ever heard.”

“I told you that’s what I did, but I guess you didn’t believe me.”

She didn’t have anything to say to that.

Focusing on what I was doing was impossible. Still, I had to pretend I was working. What Maria just said, about the nicest thing she ever heard, was about to convince me to give her a hug right there and forget everything. But head logic still had the floor—two points for the head over my shoulders, zero for the head inside my pants.

She continued, “And when I talked to Sanchez, she said that you guys haven’t even talked since the day she came back.”

“We have nothing to talk about.”

Finally, after seeing the mayhem she had started, Maria said, “I know you’re not gonna believe a word I say, but I can show you. I have the emails. I even have a date. I’m leaving soon.”

I didn’t know what to say. It was probably true that she had this scholarship, but how would that matter in our relationship? She was gone, even though she was standing right there in front of me. The Bull of my astrological sign was ready to hold an eternal grudge, but what would that ever do? She was sorry, came to basically lie the cards on the table, clear the waters. I knew I had a huge, motherfucking ego, but I couldn’t play God at that moment.

“I’d like to keep in touch,” she said. “You’re not going to get rid of me that easy.”

That was a bald thing to say, something that still makes me smile every time I think about it, the way you smile when you remember a joke someone told you ages ago. We didn’t hug. We didn’t kiss. I only saw her leave. She wasn’t levitating, though. She only walked like a regular person, someone I used to know. I didn’t believe we would ever be in touch, but it turns out we did for a while.

The day was thick with possibility and boredom. Possibility because I was free and could look at women’s body parts without feeling like I was cheating, and boredom because I lacked the impetus to ask them out. At that time, I was unaware that men should give themselves the chance to grieve for the loss of a relationship the same way they mourn the death of a loved one; in the end, the two examples have a lot in common, don’t they? At some point, someone in your relationship was a loved one. But I was very young and foolish in 2008 to understand that. The hands of time had to murder many batteries on the clock before I understood anything.

I walked through one of the many parking lots near City College, my shoulder bag ready to be filled up with books, notebooks, and women’s phone numbers written on a cafeteria napkin.

Okay, the last part was bullshit. You got me.

The clear and bright day felt heavy in my eyes, and I wondered if I had overslept; I didn’t think that was possible. The morning hue that clothed the leaves made me smile for some reason. It brought out the swollen vulnerability I was trying to conceal with my seemingly emaciated body; was I using self-deprecation to cover my fears the same way the leaves used hue to cover theirs? I’d never know.

A parking lot that had been empty just seconds ago became a sea of students that surged and slithered from the corners, most of them gravitating towards me. I was deep inside my own little world that the presence of these equally young and clueless humans jolted my senses a bit. There was no real danger, only an overactive imagination that needed to find a muse.

I reached a point on the skirts of campus where the excess of stairs became an annoyance. You had to go up, and if you didn’t exercise regularly, getting tired and breathless was the fate that awaited you at the top. Moreover, if you were a smoker, your lungs would not be happy with the role they had to play in your unhealthy life.

I was fucked, either way.

That flight of stairs was a metaphor for my life; every step I took represented my eagerness to learn a foreign language only because I decided to achieve an impossible dream. That thought made me want to quit and get back to whatever hole I crawled out of. I felt worse during moments like this when a relationship ended, but I only forced myself to keep going up after remembering how much I had accomplished. I was always breathless at the top, but I never allowed myself to give up.

Once I was on the east campus, there was yet another parking lot, but the flat pavement was a breeze compared to the hurricane I had just conquered.

I already had the list of the books I needed to buy for the semester—Fourth Level English of the ESL program. I should have been on the Fifth, but, you know, I had to take a break from school out of necessity. I didn’t feel too bad, though, since all I did was practice and practice daily and always gave zero fucks whether or not I was being laughed at due to my accent. Many people on the same level as I held back and never tried to speak because they were ashamed to be heard.

I was never ashamed. Instead, I figured out what I was doing wrong and fixed it, or I made sure to laugh at myself first before anyone else could; that’s always the best medicine.

The bookstore was packed, as I thought it would be. These were the first days of the Fall Semester, and I wasn’t the only one walking around with an empty and hungry bag that wanted to be fed with knowledge. The ESL books had a particular place in the basement, so I had to go down more stairs to get to them. I saw many people just like me, immigrants I cataloged as the exemption to the rule, the ones with jobs during the day and school during the night, always trying to aim a little higher.

They had dreams that were more reachable than mine.

I saw my good friend Jorge there, looking for books. I never called, I never wrote, and based on the look he gave me, utter surprised, he probably thought I was dead. That reminded me of what a piece of shit I was.

“The great Gabriel Lucatero comes back!” Jorge said, giving my ego a chance to swell up a bit.

I gave him a hug, the kind of hug you give to a brother you haven’t seen in years. And maybe that’s why I liked this guy so much because I thought of him as a brother.

“I’m still small, but thanks for the support,” I said.

“Are you ready for level 4?” Jorge asked. I liked his enthusiasm. Like me, he wasn’t here to waste his time.

“As ready as I can be. I’m taking the three classes.”

“Me too.”

I started looking at the book on the shelves while keeping up the conversation with Jorge. “Have you seen Nestor and Pedro?”

He shook his head. “No, but Nestor told me he is not taking classes this semester.”

“Too much work?”

“Too much party.”

I chuckled. “He sure likes to party.”

“It’s like his version of church.”

That was a good one. “True. Reminds me of my grandmother.”

“She went to church every Sunday?”

“No. She partied every Saturday.”

He had a good laugh with that one.

“Maybe we see Pedro around,” I said, looking at new faces of people who walked and politely nodded their heads. “Was Nestor also working at a restaurant with Pedro?”

Jorge nodded and smiled as a thought made its way to the center of it all. “Whatever happened to that girl you were talking about last time we met?”

The last time we met was at Zodo’s during the spring. God, it felt like an eternity.

“Maya,” I said, pronouncing a name I thought I would never pronounce again.

“Yeah, what happened to her?”

I shrugged. “I’m beginning to think I made her up,” I said, moving my eyes slowly through the bookshelves.

Jorge frowned, “Did you?”

“I’m kidding,” I said, pulling a book out of the shelf and putting it under my arm. “I still have the necklace to prove it.”

“She will show up,” Jorge prophesied.

“If she does, I’m gonna ask her to have the decency to at least say goodbye.”

“That was weird. She left just like that?”

“That’s true, my friend. We’re swimming in a sea of weird.”

Jorge picked up the same book I had under my arm. I was glad he and I were going to take another class together.

“Did you end up becoming a manager?”

“I did,” I said, the same way you announced you just went to the bathroom.

“You don’t look happy about it.”

“You know how it is with me. I only took the job out of necessity. What I want to do outside of work is what’s important.”

“Writing?”

“Yes.”

“But you still have to learn a lot before you start writing,” Jorge said. “I think you told me that.”

“I did.”

“So why not enjoy what you have right now?”

That was a great point, but I never paid attention until I was old and bald.

“There is something else, isn’t it?” Jorge asked, already knowing the answer to the question.

“What do you think?”

“Another girl.”

“No, it was a guy this time,” I said, and the people who were getting books on the other side of the aisle couldn’t keep themselves from snickering at two things: what I said and the look on Jorge’s face.

“What?”

“I’m kidding, man!”

“You scared me!” Jorge said. “I mean, I’m not judging, but-”

“Forget about it.”

I let him catch his breath before I told him the sad story of The Second Maria. He listened attentively, as he always did, showing sympathy. He was equally baffled at Maria’s excuse for lying and shared my belief that it would’ve been a better idea to be honest instead of coming up with such a stupid plan to see how I would react.

“It’s like she was pranking you,” Jorge said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I mean, if she had said that, we would probably still be doing it.”

“Doing what?”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, I got it.”

“I think I need a new place to live,” I said, in what looked like a random thought that yearned to get out.

“You have something in mind?”

“No, but it has to be something close to school.”

“Do you want to keep working in Goleta?”

“That’s what I still don’t know,” I confessed, “but the best thing to do is ask for a transfer. They have another McD’s in Downtown.”

“Have you been thinking about that for a while?”

“Since the incident with the girlfriend,” I said, “but I’m still not sure about making a change.”

“You’ll figure it out.”

“I will.”

He looked at the books we bought and said, “You ready?”

“As ready as I can be.”

Those changes I had thought about started to become more real. It was no longer an idea that came out on a whim. It felt a lot more pertinent than ever. We took our first classes in September 2008, made new friends, and together, we started to write a better future.

October

This was the month where I looked for reasons to validate the changes I had in mind. It wasn’t hard. Cleaning shit off the toilets at Staples in the morning didn’t feel like it was the greatest part-time in the world anymore. Similarly, wearing a tie and smiling at people just because they had spent one dollar on a cheeseburger was the most hypocritical thing I had ever done.

I needed to get the fuck out.

And I knew these were only excuses to cover the truth: I missed Maria Soria, and I wanted to stay away from anything that reminded me of her; the breakroom at McDonald’s where we first talked, the freezer where we made out once in a while, the streets of Goleta that kept her essence, and the aisle at Staples where she promised I wasn’t going to get rid of her that easy.

Again, I needed to get the fuck out.

When the restrooms were clean at Staples, I put my two-week notice and was welcomed to leave sooner because my job wasn’t so essential, and anyone could do it. I didn’t think about it. I walked out and breathed easy, with one item off my shoulder.

At McDonald’s, I started to think my coworkers were annoying. In a way, I realized now, I was acting like The Second Maria, and instead of being honest, I was looking for stupid validations to be able to leave and don’t feel bad about myself.

College was the only place where I could be frank and really say what I felt. At the cafeteria, among new students eager to learn a second language, I talked to Jorge about my sudden departure from Staples. He was nursing a coffee, packets of sugar, and cream scattered in the middle of the table. We were done for the day, with plenty of homework to do, but it was okay to sit back and relax for a moment.

“Just don’t do the same at McDonald’s and tell them you want to quit.”

I sighed. “I can’t do that. I actually need to work.”

“And you’re getting ready to have that conversation with your boss?”

I nodded.

“Put it in writing,” he suggested. “See how it comes out.”

I frowned. “I want to be a fucking writer, and I didn’t even think of that.”

Jorge smiled while seeing two new classmates approaching our table, their hands holding trays with food and energy drinks, their faces looking for a friendly gesture from us. I recognized their faces. They were the two people who chuckled at what I said at the bookstore when we’d been looking for books. The whole scene made me think of prison, not because I’ve been there (I’m too smart for that), but because of the tv shows and movies I’ve watched.

One of them looked almost like me, his black and curly hair was thicker than mine, and there were no signs that he would lose it. He was also skinny but firm. You could see the line on his chest, suggesting he at least did pushups every morning. He was also happy, not in a clownish way, but comfortable in his own skin.

“You guys mind if we sit here?” He asked. “I mean, we’re gonna be seeing each other’s faces for a while, so why not get to know each other now?”

Who could say no to that?

They sat across from us. We made the necessary introductions. Unlike the one with curly hair, the one who didn’t speak had straight hair, hardened with the kind of hair product that keeps your hair in place even when you are in front of a hurricane. He was more of a listener, like Jorge.

“I’m Alex,” the curly-haired guy said.

“I’m Orlando,” the hardened-hair guy said.

“So, what are we talking about today,” Alex said as he unwrapped his club sandwich.

I really liked this guy. He was like me in so many ways but with a better sense of humor. Orlando was eating a club sandwich, too, and as they ate real food and we drank watered-down coffee, I gave them the scoop of our conversation.

“Oh yeah,” Orlando said. “We heard you talking about that at the bookstore the other day.”

“Yeah,” Alex said. “We also heard you’re into guys, too.”

That was the funniest thing I heard that day, and instead of feeling offended, I started laughing like it was the end of the world.

“I mean, I don’t judge, either,” Alex said, looking at Jorge.

“I told him I wasn’t gonna be upset if that’s what he was into now,” Jorge seconded.

“Yeah, it’s cool, man,” Orlando said.

Then, feeling like we’d known each other for years, I put them up to date on the love life of Gabriel Lucatero. They just gave me the confidence to keep talking and talking. I needed that kind of love, that kind of fraternal love, the love that doesn’t fuck you in the ass and then tells you whatever shit feels right only because they want a reaction from you.

“You’ve been unlucky,” Alex said, stating the obvious.

“A good woman is going to come along,” Orlando said. “You just have to be patient.”

After taking a sip of his drink, Alex said, “Her name is not gonna be Maria, though.”

We all laughed. God, he was way funnier than me.

After a moment of silence, Alex added. “Gabriel, are you planning to put numbers on all of your victims?”

I never saw them as ‘victims,’ but I got what he was talking about.

“I probably thought about it but didn’t think it was a great idea.”

“I think it’s a great idea,” Alex said. “You got two Marias so far. One Rosa, One Maya-”

“It’s been two Mayas, actually,” I corrected him.

Jorge was taken aback, “I thought I knew all of them.”

“Maya was my first girlfriend, ever,” I said. “Sometimes, I don’t even remember her.”

“That bad?” Orlando said.

“Yeah.”

“What’d she do?” Alex asked.

“She broke up with me for a younger and richer guy.”

“Ouch!” Alex said, and I could’ve been upset under different circumstances, but I couldn’t deny it was tragically funny this time.

“I’m sorry, man.”

I waved him off. “It’s cool, man. What am I gonna do? She’s probably pregnant with a third kid and divorced her second husband by now.”

The laughter that erupted from that table made everybody turn their heads to look at us. Like I said, it felt great to be the first to laugh at your pain.

“You should probably be a priest, man,” Orlando suggested.

“No fucking way,” I said. “I’m gonna keep trying. Like you said, the right woman has to be somewhere.”

We kept on talking, and people came and went. The sun called it a day and went to sleep. This was one of the most meaningful conversations I had that year. My conversations with Javier and Roberto were great, but they always felt like talking to a sage, a wise man filled with knowledge, someone akin to a father figure. On the contrary, these were men my age, people trying to make a mark in the world, like me. These men were like brothers.

“Can I suggest something?” Alex asked.

“Shoot.”

“It might be a good idea if you moved to another restaurant. That way, you don’t have the urge to jerk off every time you go to the walk-in for tomatoes and remember when you made out with any of the Marias in there.”

“Amen,” I said, and we all laughed and drank. Our coffees tasted like shit, but the conversation made everything better.

“I’m gonna do it,” I added. “I’m gonna talk to my boss and ask for a transfer.”

After a little while, they said their goodbyes. I stayed there to read for a bit. I didn’t want to go home just yet. The room still smelled like Maria, and I needed to bleach it as soon as possible. I got a book out and started to work on the homework. At that moment, a young guy came to my table out of nowhere. He had a full smile on his face, black hair parted to one side, skinny but with a slight belly that didn’t look so bad.

Point blank, without any worries about how I was going to take it, he said, “Just to be clear. You are not gay?”

I frowned. I got what he was saying. I just didn’t know how to respond.

“You’re thinking about it too much? Does that mean you-”

“No, it doesn’t mean that. It means I’m baffled. Who comes and asks something like that to someone you don’t know?”

He sat without asking. I guessed he’d probably seen Alex and how friendly we were with him and thought I would not deny him the seat.

“I’m Cesar,” he said and gave me his hand. They were clean and pedicured. That dude knew how to take care of his hands.

“Gabriel.”

“I know. We’re in the same classes.”

“Classes? As in all of them?”

He nodded while his eyebrows went up. There was something subtly feminine about him. Like there are many kinds of straight people, in the gay realm, there is an assortment of individuals who behave differently. Cesar gave no indications of his sexual orientation. At first sight, his voice pitch was even more sonorous than mine. He opened himself up and started to talk, moving his hands freely.

“You haven’t noticed me because you’re the smart kid who sits at the front while all of us, the ones nobody cares about, sit way in the back.”

That was very theatrical. And good.

“Well, I care about myself. Maybe that should be enough.”

“Good point,” he said.

I closed my book, ready to keep having random conversations with new friends.

“So, I take it you listened to our conversation.”

“I did,” Cesar said, a hand resting under his chin. He was beginning to get more comfortable, increasing his pitch a bit. “And I have a theory about heterosexuals.”

My eyebrows went up. “You don’t say.”

“I do.”

“What’s your theory?”

“I think heterosexuals are actually heteroflexibles.”

I chuckled. “Is that even a real word?”

“It could be,” Cesar said, looked at his watch, and stood up. “Maybe you can put it in a book someday.”

I frowned. “What? On a book? What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean,” he said. “I gotta go. My boyfriend is gonna pick me up. You need a ride?”

“A ride? You don’t even know where I live.”

“Um, excuse me? I know a lot about you. You are learning English because you want to be a writer. You also write poems every now and then, mostly when your relationships end. And you work in Goleta. And you live there, too.”

I was speechless. Cesar had done his homework. Maybe I had been too vociferous, talking about my life all the time. People heard. People I never saw, mainly because they were way in the background.

“So, you coming?”

I shook my head. “Next time.”

He left but let me have something I could use, something I could put on a book someday.

November.

It’s funny how it goes; every time you make a significant decision, The Universe always sends people your way to help you achieve your goals. What The Universe cannot anticipate, though, is whether or not the people It sent are full of shit. But well, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Yes, I was one hundred percent certain I wanted to move away from Goleta and see if I could transfer to the Downtown store. One day, I was on a bus going home while scribbling on a notepad what I wanted to tell Javier. How I wanted to say it without sounding like a giant and ungrateful dick.

According to the suggestions given by my most inners thoughts, there wasn’t a better way to say it other than, “You know what, I’m done with this shit. People here suck. I already slept with half the women here, and I want to find new tail elsewhere.”

I was surprised and worried about my inner thoughts. That was a bunch of shit I would never say out loud. I’d probably put it on a story, yes, change the names, claim I never uttered such nonsense, but I could not, for the life of me, say that to anyone. I could feel the eyes of people who boarded the bus. They all looked at me as I lost myself on the tranquil yellow page of my notepad.

“Seems like you’re working hard,” someone said behind me, yanking me away from my reverie.

I wanted to turn my head like Linda Blair did in The Exorcist, but I didn’t think I would survive that. Knowing that what I heard was a familiar voice, I whirled to have a better view, like a regular person would, realizing that my good and sporadic Bus Buddy had somehow materialized there. Kidding aside, I had the impression this guy was some kind of an apparition since I only saw him at the bus station or on the bus. It was weird, but he looked so real and non-threatening.

“How are you?” I said, trying to appear friendly while forgetting for one second what his name was… wait, it was Jose. “It’s been a while.”

He nodded. “We saw each other four months ago when you came Downtown to pick up your manager uniform.”

That was a bit specific, I thought. “That’s right,” I said.

The scoop of our conversation came back, and I recalled what he mentioned about his brother. He never really said anything, but I assumed the guy died based on what was said. I wondered whether it was good to bring up the subject again but decided not to.

“How’s the new manager position going?” Jose said, switching seats and placing himself right next to me.

I told him everything, which made me think of Cesar.

Most likely, he had heard me talk, and that’s why he knew so much about me. I was a fucking gossip queen.

Jose tried to hug me as if trying to console me. I cringed and pulled back, visibly expressing my dislike. When he saw the look on my face, he was embarrassed. Did I really look like his brother? So much that he wanted to go for a hug with a complete stranger?

“I’m sorry, I was just trying to-”

“It’s okay, no worries,” I said.

We didn’t say a word for a minute, but it felt like an eternity. I wondered if he thought about moving back to his seat, but he sat there without saying anything. Until an idea sparked in his head.

“You’re going to talk to your boss right now?”

“That’s the plan.”

“Have you started to look for a room?”

“No, but someone mentioned Radio Lazer, said people offered rooms for rent there. It’s like Craigslist.”

“Craigslist?”

“It’s where white people go looking for trouble.”

He smiled at that, wondering if it was a good idea to laugh.

“You have my number?”

“I do,” I said. “You gave it to me last time.”

“Well, I have a room. You can come and live at my place if you want.”

“Where do you live?”

“The Westside,” he said. “On Victoria and Chino.”

“I don’t know that area. I used to live on Robbins, then on San Andres.”

“Chino runs like San Andres, one street down.”

“I’ll give you a call,” I said.

And just like that, he was out on the next exit. Why didn’t I think that was too coincidental at the time?

Walking into the restaurant on my days off had become an occurrence everyone was used to back then, so it didn’t seem like something out of the ordinary when they saw me come in that day. Everything was as it always was. Marlen ran the show, and Juanita was by the register with another cashier they had just hired. Joel and the girls were in the kitchen. Brenda was shaking a basket of fries and looking away; her forehead wrinkled more than my grandmother’s on her eightieth birthday. She had probably burned her face many times and was trying to be more cautious.

Lastly, Javier browsed a binder and went over some notes sitting at my favorite table. At first, I thought he was alone, for the number of people standing online obstructed my field of vision, but then, as one person moved, I was able to see someone sitting right next to him, someone I wasn’t ready to face at that moment.

Gabriela Vazquez.

I didn’t hate the woman. It was the opposite. Let me put it this way: telling Javier that I wanted to move because I needed to be closer to school and needed a fresher kind of air was a walk in the park, something any man would take at face value since we men don’t ask too many questions. But women are different. Gabby was going to go deeper. She was going to ask questions, she was going to make me confess, and when I revealed my true intentions, she would think I was just a giant pussy.

Would I blame her? Nope.

I had to be brave, though. There was no other way around it. I approached the table, and that moment in time slowed down a bit, my mind racing, looking for ways to avoid the unavoidable. I had folded the note with the words I wanted to tell Javier, but I never used it. I had to fly by the seat of my pants. Javier looked up and saw me coming, and the smile on his face almost made me change my mind. God, that man was good. I hadn’t opened my mouth, and I was already having second thoughts.

“Caballero!” Javier said. I was going to miss that effusive greeting. “You love your job so much you decided to come on your day off, didn’t you?”

If he only knew the truth, that deep inside, I hated everything about my life. Well, except for my writing aspirations. I didn’t hate that. Gabby looked at me. She also smiled, but in a more reserved way. She was the top boss, so she had to act the part.

Completely ignoring his question, I got closer and stood next to the table. “How are you?” I asked. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I say what I had to say?

“We’re doing great, Gabriel,” Javier said, looking down at the binder and the papers on the table for a second.

“There’s a new menu coming soon, and we’re expecting the price tags by the end of the week. Maybe you can help us change the prices?”

I nodded instinctively, wondering if working here had turned me into a yes-man, a robot without his own thoughts and ideas. That was a scary thought, even scarier than the stories I was planning to write in the future. But thankfully, I snapped out of it, and when I was ready to speak, Gabby saved the day.

“Something in your mind, Gabriel?”

God, she was good.

“Yes, ma’am.”

Javier knew what was going on in my personal life, so he wasn’t giving it so much thought. He probably thought I would find courage like any man does and move on. But I’ve always been a different kind of man. It wasn’t that I was dwelling on the past. It was more like I was revisiting it way too much, trying to learn more about what I did wrong and avoid doing it again. It was time for Javier to stop doing whatever he was doing and follow Gabby’s lead.

Gabby closed her notes and said, “Take a seat.”

I sat down next to Javier and told them the truth. That I wasn’t happy there anymore. That dating on the job was the most atrocious mistake I had committed, and I was not going to be able to keep working in a place where I had memories that I was trying to forget. It didn’t surprise me that Gabby knew I was dating Maria Soria since Monte had seen us on our very first date and went right ahead and told everyone about it. I was surprised she didn’t seem upset, though, since dating coworkers was frowned upon.

Later, I found out why.

“I’m glad you chose McDonald’s over Staples,” Gabby said.

“It wasn’t hard. Burning my face with oil beats sticking my hand in toilets.”

They had to smile at that.

Gabby leaned back and said, “Lucky for you, there’s a position open at the downtown location. I don’t mean to sound curt, but it was probably good timing.”

“I guess you’re right,” I said.

“There’s another supervisor there,” she added. “I only run the stores in Goleta and one on Upper State. He runs the other three in the downtown area, the Eastside, and The Mesa.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll get in touch with him.”

“Thank you, Gabby.”

I looked at Javier and could see the sadness behind his eyes. He really had big plans for me and tried hard to make me the most outstanding manager in the world. But I had different dreams. Regardless of how well they pay, having a job as a manager would never be tantamount to what I wanted to accomplish.

December

I woke up the following day, remembering how good it felt to walk out of Camino with another layer of worries off my shoulders. I had already gone to Downtown McD’s and met with my future crew, a different cast of characters that gave my life another flavor. True, we were still selling burgers and fries, but the stories that came out of that store shaped my life a lot more. Did I become perfect? No, that hasn’t happened yet, and I fucking hate it, but what can I tell you? Nobody is really perfect. I talked to Luis’ family and told them about my sudden decision to move out. At first, they thought it was their fault, but it wasn’t, and I told them the truth.

“Have you found a place?” Luis asked.

I took my phone out, looked at the message I received, and said, “That’s what I’m gonna find out right now.”

I headed towards the Westside. I couldn’t recall when was the last time I had come down these streets. Against my better judgment, I had called Jose and told him I wanted to see the room he had for rent. As you probably expect, the guy was exuberant, happy that I was moving in at his house; part of me was still not sure about it, but I guess this is one example where everything happens for a reason.

Jose waited for me on the corner of Chino and Victoria, a quiet area on the Westside, about two blocks away from the buzzing and constant clangor of San Andres, Westside’s main street. He stood outside what looked like the house of your nightmares, a large property with fading walls and an unkempt yard. That place had to be abandoned, I thought. I could have bet nobody lived here. Who in their right mind would allow their home to look like the house where The Chainsaw Massacre took place?

But of course, I would have lost that bet because as I approached Jose, a group of people came out and strolled freely, admiring the day and waving Jose goodbye as they crossed the street and faded around the corner. After acting neighborly, Jose looked back at me as I approached him. He didn’t hold back and went for the hug. I didn’t push him away this time. My level of assholeness had its limits.

“So good to see you again,” Jose said, squeezing me hard for a second that felt like an hour.

I freed myself as soon as I could and tried hard to look as happy as he did. “I wasn’t hard to find,” I said, realizing that he expected a different response.

“Did you talk to your boss?”

I told him how the conversation went and that I was lucky there was a spot for me at the downtown store.

“You already checked it out?”

“I did,” I said. “I went last week and met everyone.”

“When is your first day?”

“Friday.”

“The twelfth,” he said. “El día de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.”

He was referring to that Catholic holiday where Mexicans venerate God’s mom. That didn’t interest me. I should be thinking about my own mother. She was real. When was the last time I talked to her? God only knows.

“I guess,” I said, apathy oozing out of me.

“What? You are not a Catholic?”

“Let’s go see the house and talk about religion next time,” I said, walking away, thinking he would follow me.

I thought the unmistakable look of confusion on his face was due to my unwillingness to discuss ecclesiastical matters.

“Where are you going?” Jose asked.

That was a great question. Where was I going? I was under the impression that I had come here to see a room, but I guessed Jose would rather have a conversation outside Chucky’s childhood home.

“We’re gonna see the room,” I said.

What he did next made me puke inside. I was glad I hadn’t revealed what I had been thinking. Otherwise, I’d be sleeping under a bridge. He lifted a finger and pointed at the house I had been dissing for the last five minutes.

Fuck, I thought.

The house was ugly as fuck from the inside as it was from the outside. It was in no way like Luis’ house. If there was a competition to see whose home sucked the most, Jose’s house would have been the winner in a landslide. I’m aware I sounded like an ungrateful son of a bitch at the time, but you have to understand, I had a lot of resentment, and my ego was in its beginning stages where it made me feel like I could fly. I was just another poor, young man living on his own, with big dreams that seemed unattainable and farting conviction every time I walked. I always wanted something better and living in that house felt like going backward for several reasons.

First, while living in Luis’ house, I had my own room. Only Luis’ parents and one other tenant lived there. Second, the place was quiet and felt like home, I didn’t have to smell other person’s body odor every morning, and I didn’t have to wake up to someone jerking off in the middle of the night. In contrast, Jose’s room was already occupied, he and another dude I barely talked to were there, and I would be the third wheel in a messy and crowded space. Adding insult to injury, the house only had two more rooms, one bathroom, and about twenty more people lived there.

I’m not kidding.

The voice inside my head came back at that moment -I hadn’t listened to it in a while- and let me know how stupid I was as if I hadn’t figured that out on my own. I was bombarded with questions that sprang out of me so loud my ears shook: why didn’t you think of checking the room before talking to Javier? Why didn’t you wait to tell Luis you wanted to move out? Did you know he had already found someone? That perfect room you had is gone, buddy.

I wanted to run away.

Jose put a hand on my shoulder as the two of us stood at the door, pulling me out of my head and placing me in the real world at once, a world I was avoiding inhabiting. My other new roommate was getting ready to go to work. I learned his name was Salvador. He was the kind of guy who always kept to himself and never made any noise. I was never sure, but I figured he had three jobs, which explained why I barely saw him.

After the necessary introduction, Salvador made his way out the door, ready to hassle. He smelled like grease, suggesting he worked as a cook somewhere I never really knew.

Kind of the way Maria Soria used to smell after work.

There were only two beds in this room, one on each side. A small nightstand under the window worked as an imaginary line, and everything that was placed on my left side belonged to Salvador, whereas everything on the right was Jose’s.

I looked at him. “Now I’m gonna have to buy another bed.”

“You don’t have one?”

“No. All I have is books and clothes. I gave the furniture away.”

Jose was thinking of something. He looked just like me when I was lost in contemplation. Meanwhile, I was looking at a corner where I could place my stuff when I finally moved in.

“Why don’t you sleep on my bed for a while?” Jose suggested.

“I’m okay sleeping on the floor. It’s good for your back.”

He tilted his head to the left and smirked. It was a curious smirk, kind of intimate, it reminded me of someone, but I could not remember who. The more I lived in his house, the more I learned. In a way, that was a good thing because I no longer thought he was a ghost.

He was becoming real. Too fucking real.

“Do you have back problems?”

I shook my head. “Better safe than sorry.”

“I actually have back problems, that’s why I said it.”

I shrugged. “You’ve twisted my arm.”

“I’m sorry.”

He thought I was being literal. I didn’t have time to explain I was using an idiom.

“I mean, yes, you can have the floor, but only temporarily. I’m gonna buy a bed.”

“Deal,” he said and kept smiling.

I wondered if his brother also found it weird that Jose smiled too much.

I walked out of the nightmarish house with one goal: I had to stop being too judgmental and embrace my new reality. It was overwhelming because, like I said initially, 2008 was a long fucking year. Weirdly and incoherently, my three first years on American soil felt shorter. I could only imagine how much more my life would change in the future.

And speaking of changes, at the time, I didn’t know if it was a good idea to make this particular move, switching addresses only because I had my heart torn to pieces. But remember when I mentioned that everything happened for a reason? In this case, the reason was that I wrote and finished my first horror story while living in that house.

I guess inspiration comes in any shape, doesn’t it?

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