Destiny is a bitch. As a man in your twenties, you tend to fantasize. Thankfully, for some, pornography is always available at the click of a button. Not for me, though. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe in the magic of the human touch, the moment when two bodies infuse and become one, while the rest of the world goes ahead and fucks itself whether you like it or not.
After chatting with The Second Maria in the breakroom over at McDonald’s, I found myself daydreaming. I dreamt of wrapping myself up against her naked body so many times I lost count. I was ready to go out with her, but sometimes something happens that turns everything into shit. Yes, you guessed it, Destiny made sure Maria had a family emergency and had to leave the country for some time.
Among other things, the economy was still in the trash, and I needed to focus on something else. Something less traumatic. I was still collecting words in my white binder, memorizing, and using them at Staples for the most part. One other thing I started doing was reading the newspaper and watching the news. The hottest topic at the time was Barack Obama and his presidential run. People were still talking about his speech in Nashua, New Hampshire, on January 8th, 2008. He made history. We all know that by now.
The world around me began to metamorphose, and ideas I still follow today took root and cemented themselves in the foundations of my head, nurturing the man I had decided to become.
First off, let me tell you about school. I was beginning to get cocky about my education. I’d walk around the classroom and look at my classmates struggling to write a three-paragraph paper while I was so ready for the next. And the next. Based on the praise I received from my Grammar professor, I went ahead and took two additional classes: Reading and Writing. I had taken those classes before but skipped them for a semester. Sorry about that. In one of those particular classes (Writing), I met a peculiar professor who carved a hole in my head and took residence there for the years to come. Why? Because he didn’t like my writing.
And what is it that you do when someone disdains what you like or do? You try to prove your worth. Yes, I tended not to give a fuck about what others thought of me for the most part. But in this case, I had to. He was an educated professor. He knew his shit. He walked once into the classroom, his old and reliable leather bag hanging from his shoulder, while he held a bunch of essays we’d given him. I sat back and relaxed, thinking I would be on the clear. He sat down, fixed his glasses. His athletic body hid the fact that he was way over his forties, while his thinning hairline made sure that truth didn’t stay hidden for too long. As his fingertips rifled through the papers, he could see the anticipation in our faces.
Even though I was cocky, I still felt that urge to see my essay.
He started calling people’s names. The students he summoned to the front would drag their feet as they walked, feeling as though the chains of anticipation were clutching their feet, keeping them from thrusting forward. Many of them would step back, holding that piece of paper that had so much red ink it seemed to bleed. Red ink was a bad sign. It meant your essay sucked. I’ve had red ink on my papers, too, but never enough to make me worry.
“Puta Madre,” a student whispered as he walked past my seat, looking at his paper in horror. The professor looked up, probably catching a bit of what the student said but ultimately letting it go.
For some reason, I remembered my very first day at school, how I came at 8:00 am even though my class didn’t start until 10:00 am. I took a deep breath, thinking about how far I’d gotten. What was the name of that girl I saw? The one who made fun of my propensity for being punctual? I think her name was Laura. I wonder what she is doing right now.
“Gabriel,” the professor called my name, pulling me back into this world out of the warm and soothing interior of my brain.
Someone giggled behind me, probably because the professor had been calling me for a while.
I stood up, and an unexpected fear seized my feet, making me stop, just like everyone else. I didn’t like that. With that same underlook, the professor looked at me, the massive frame of his glasses leaving prominent redness on the brick of his nose. I walked toward the desk. The saliva dried up in my throat, scratching my neck pipe as it went down. Standing in front of him, I stretched my hand, and my eyes were about to pop out as I saw the paper.
It was all covered in red ink.
Thinking about the red ink on my essay gave me nightmares. Whenever I was able to close my eyes and rest, a stream of red ink would bleed out of the page and make me doubt my ‘talent.’ Sitting in front of my desk in my room, I would stare at the paper the professor gave me and wonder what went wrong. Other teachers had praised my writing. But Thomas Arnold was different.
Wait, did I mention his name before? I don’t think I did.
I went back again into my head and thought about the situation. After the class was over, Arnold could see the color on my face going away into the ether. A ghostly white veil fell over me and had me there, glued to my seat for a moment, paralyzed, probably making an unnecessary fuss of the situation. My brash and over-confident persona turned into shreds. Destiny had promulgated my demise in front of my peers.
I know. I was acting like a little bitch.
As I gathered my books and papers, the professor looked at me and said, “I need to talk to you about your essay.”
A bit of color came back to my face. “Are you going to explain what you didn’t like about it?” I asked. My voice sounded like the one anger customers at McDonald’s use every time they see only one pickle in their hamburgers.
He was also gathering his stuff as he spoke. “See, that’s the issue,” he said. “It is good, but it lacks something.” The frown on his face was telling. “But, this is just the first draft. I’m sure you’ll do a better job next time.”
I sighed and then opened my eyes to find myself back in my room. I’d dozed off while thinking about my conversation with Thomas Arnold.
I looked at the essay with the same enthusiasm you look at a sink full of dirty dishes. Right, I was still green when it came to writing essays. I knew how to put a sentence together, yet I wasn’t ready for writing a story or even a coherent idea; it wasn’t my forte then. But suddenly, as I continued feeling sorry for myself, the words of Raul Gil, the owner of El Zarape on the Westside, came back and slapped me across the face: “Stay focused. Don’t listen to the negative voices inside your head.”
Have I talked about Raul Gil before? I don’t think I have.
I met him just a year after I’d arrived to this country. I told him about my aspirations. That conversation was memorable because I mentioned that if by the time I were thirty years old, and I wasn’t successful and had a stable life, I would kill myself. Gently, he advised me to think more positively.
I drifted back into the present. I read the title of the paper, which was supposed to be a narrative. There are all kinds of essays: persuasive, informative, descriptive, and narrative, just to mention some. This was just the beginning. I had to learn this and much more if I wanted to call myself a writer.
“It is good, but it lacks something,” Thomas Arnold had said.
I looked at the time on my computer. It was time to go to work. McD’s was waiting for me.
Before walking into the restaurant that afternoon, I promised to stop feeling sorry about myself. Yes, I wanted to be a writer. That had always been the plan, but the recent events had me seriously considering a plan B. Or C. Or whatever, the alphabet is big enough, so I can keep trying to use as many letters as I want.
An idea drilled itself into my head that afternoon as I was in charge, running the restaurant’s front counter. The managers were having one of their usual meetings, and some of them liked the way I worked, so I was allowed to be in charge while they all sat pretty, talking in managerial jargon I was not privy to.
But I wanted to be in the know. This could be my plan B. I looked at Omar Machado, the store manager. Someone told me Omar made a sweet living, making over $4000 a month plus bonuses. I felt inclined to believe that, since he owned two brand new cars, he only had this job and what appeared to be a happy and pregnant wife at home.
But there was one big problem: he didn’t seem to like me. I have this internal radar that detects when someone hates to see me around but can’t do much about it. There was something about the way he looked at me, his black and full mustache shaking briefly in irritation at the mention of my presence. I am telling you, if hatred were tangible, he would’ve grabbed it and thrown it on my face.
I always thought the only reason he had me around was that Marlen and Celestino did like me.
But I was definitely wrong about that.
When the meeting was over, all the managers picked up their notes and pens and binders, preparing to abscond as if being there another minute could kill them. I did notice something else in everyone’s general demeanor, a shade of sadness. Later that day, Celestino mentioned that an important someone had died, but I was so wrapped up in my own little world and paid little to no attention to who that person was.
Celestino, Marlen, and Omar strode back behind the front counter as I bagged a Big Mac and medium fries for a woman wearing a straight pink wig, blue overalls over a white blouse, and more makeup than a fucking clown. “Have a great day!” I said, and my smile was so fake you could call the cops on me due to my counterfeit honesty.
Marlen sent me to take my break, so I made my way back to the breakroom. I saw Omar in the office, a tiny workspace the size of my patience, and decided to tell him what I had in mind. Approaching the office, I noticed the Lead Cook was there talking to him. From what I saw, she was standing too close to him. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, given the aforementioned size of the office. Still, it was the look they exchanged as she walked away, a look I could only describe as flirtatious, that made me suspect there was something here that should not be happening.
I decided to put a lid on that.
“Omar,” I said, standing by the open door as he darted his eyes intensely into his laptop.
“What’s up,” he said, still looking at the computer, giving me a smidgen of his attention.
I went straight to the point. “I wanna become a manager.”
He looked at me closely as if I were asking something inappropriate. Sometimes I speak too fast, and I can’t even understand myself; thinking this was the case, I repeated, “I said I wanna become a manager.”
He nodded, “I heard you the first time.”
“So, what do you think?”
He also went straight to the point. “You are not ready,” he said and went back to his computer.
My right eyebrow went up, and the timbre of my voice was a bit higher than usual.
“What do you mean? I’m always running the floor while you guys have your meetings,” I said.
First, my professor said my writing lacked something, and then this guy had no problem expressing his First Amendment Right regarding my lack of preparedness for the managerial world.
Lack. Lack. Lack.
What was wrong with me?
He sighed, ready for a monologue I probably didn’t want to hear. “It’s true,” he said, “you run the store when we have our meetings, and that is only because I don’t have a choice. You are the only one here who has some idea of what to do. Besides, we don’t need another manager at the moment.”
I tried to process his words, and the only sentence that resonated inside my head was, ‘I don’t have a choice.’ I was upset, yes, and wanted to tell him what he was going to die from, but at the same time, I had a feeling Karma was going to come back a bite him in the ass, as it usually happens in life when someone says or does wrong, they end up paying dearly for their mistakes. And yes, I thought he was making a mistake. That’s not to say I think I am a big deal and deserve to be treated like royalty, but that everyone in this world is entitled to some level of respect.
“Ok,” I said, biting my tongue and walking away, clinging to the dregs of my self-esteem, as I heard that little voice inside my head scoffing at me for thinking myself an aspirant for the job while at the same time getting ready to start considering Plan C.
After a lot of thinking, I concluded: there was no Plan C. I wanted to be optimistic and use the whole alphabet until I could find a solution. But there was none. It looked like I also ran out of choices. I didn’t want to have a chip on my shoulder over my last conversation with Omar, but how could I not? As diligently as possible, I continued working, cleaning toilets at Staples in the morning, and putting pallets of merchandise away for five hours until my shift at McD’s started. Life was getting tedious.
And I still had to write that essay. Thomas Arnold was waiting for the second draft.
I went to school one day and gave it another try. The whole class gave it another try. The moment came when we all waited for him to check the essays and fill them up with that atrocious red ink. Once again, students dragged their feet as they strode through the aisles. With a sad look on their faces, they expected the worst due to their inability to believe in themselves. Or maybe they believed. And I was the only one who didn’t.
I couldn’t help imagining myself in a frenzy, overturning every seat and giving life the middle finger for being so shitty with me. I’ve read all the self-help books, tried to have positive thoughts, but every time I smile and try to change the way I see my surroundings, something happens that makes me lose all hope again. And again. I just can’t be happy. I continued saying this to myself endlessly as I saw a girl walking back to her seat, tears streaming down her face as she stared at the red ink on her essay.
I took a breath, focused on the present. I need to get laid, I thought, hoping to find something comical in this unfunny farce.
Another torrent of bad words invaded my mind. Thomas Arnold continued calling students. Let’s make this clear: I got nothing against him. On the contrary, I was -and still am- thankful for all he taught me. I was just pissed at myself for not getting it fast enough. Was I too harsh on myself? Yes, I was. This is the only way you can get anything done in life.
The scathing and abusive monologue inside my head ceased. I didn’t want to listen to it. I’ve been advised against it. But sometimes, it’s tough to stay away from it.
“Gabriel,” Thomas Arnold said, his voice felt so distant, even though I was sitting at the front row, no more than three feet away from him. I looked up, we locked eyes, the saliva in my throat slid down the pipe, making a thud down in my stomach, filling my gut with anticipation and an overwhelming desire to throw up.
My legs shook. I didn’t want to know anything about the paper. I tried to run, call it quits, pretend I never even thought of following my very own American Dream. The professor’s eyes were still on me. Everyone else was looking at me. Even Jorge, who was sitting by my side, said, “Hey, he’s calling your name.”
My testicles had shrunk all the way back and what was left of my penis made the pinky finger look giant in comparison. But I had to stand up and face the music. I stood up, made a beeline for the desk, grabbed the paper, came back to my seat, and didn’t look at it. I didn’t dare give it the most furtive of glances. But my heart was thrusting against my ribcage, forcing me to take a peek.
The pages were redder than before.
Photo by Chenspec.