The job at McD’s was getting more bearable, and Omar’s memory was fading, as the new store manager, a white man from South America named Javier Diaz, began his tenure as the new man in charge. My life was getting a facelift, smoothing out the unwanted wrinkles that an existence full of sorrows and lamentations had caused. However, the Doubting Thomas in me kept wondering how long this stroke of good luck was going to last. I wanted to remain optimistic for once in my life. While cleaning tables at the restaurant, I saw this pretty interesting girl staring at me as I was thinking about optimism. She sat at one of the booths by the main entrance, ignoring her cheeseburger and French fries.
She would come to the restaurant and look at me as I either took orders, swept, or cleaned around the lobby. And she wasn’t shy about it, which made me even more interested. I wanted to know more about her. I found the courage to approach her, having the perfect excuse in mind going down the tunnel of my thoughts and landing on my lips.
“Can I take your tray away?” I asked, and the firm, deep, nearly alien tone of my voice felt weird. But she liked it.
She had been texting, but I had a better chance to look at her face when she looked up. She had a round and beautiful visage, olive and clean skin, and a Medusa-like wad of black, curly, and lustrous hair that nearly blinded me. Her eyes were in the perfect spot, dark brown and small, and the line that shaped her tiny nose gave way to a small pair of lips that I was already planning to kiss.
Even if I had just been asking for the fucking tray.
She smiled and instantly stole my heart.
“Sure,” she said, handing me the empty tray and keeping that joyous smile on her face. I briefly glanced at her earrings, a pair of tiny and pretty green frogs that matched her necklace.
I said thank you and walked away, hating myself for not saying anything else. What was I going to say? I mean, I was on the clock; how could I even say anything when the ever-so-vigilant eye of Marlen kept looking at me from afar, making sure I did my job?
But there was something different in my face, which doesn’t come that often.
“Why are you smiling?” Marlen asked as I walked around the counter. I made my way past the register and continued towards the back to put the tray away.
“What?” That question took me by surprise. “Smiling? What are you talking about?”
There was another employee with us, Juanita, the newest manager. At that time, she and I hadn’t been that acquainted, yet even she could see the look on my face. Brenda was also there, cleaning the ice cream machine, but we didn’t talk much either; she looked sad that day. Later I learned why.
“Yeah,” Juanita said, inserting herself in the conversation. “We can tell when you fake a smile. And that one isn’t fake.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” she was right. Still, I feigned stupidity and kept walking to the back of the restaurant.
I walked by the kitchen, where Joel was cheerfully making burgers and singing to what sounded like Mana’s Mariposa Traicionera while the other two girl cooks laughed and sang along.
Marlen wasn’t going to give up. She made a beeline toward the back of the restaurant, stopped beside me, and said, “I’ve seen that girl before.”
I grabbed a clean, white rag and swiped away a smear of ketchup off a tray. “Have you?”
“Yep? And guess what?”
She waited for me to say something I didn’t want to say. I had tried to date Marlen last year, so talking to her about girls felt weird. I think most men find it easy to talk about this sort of thing with women they were previously interested in. Still, to me, it felt wrong, almost like a betrayal, even though I could very well discern I was not betraying anybody.
So I succumbed. “What?”
“I’ve seen how she looks at you,” she said, and that gave light to a brighter smile that colored my face at once.
“Really?” I said, concealing that I had also noticed how the girl in question looked at me.
She smiled, too. “Really.”
But then something happened, a thought came to me, and the look in my eyes no longer matched the grin on my lips.
“What was that?” she asked. Her perceptive eye caught my hesitation.
“I was thinking about Soria,” I said.
Soria. That was how we called The Second Maria since, at the time, three Marias were working there. Maria Sanchez, the one I slept with last year; Maria Soria, the one I wanted to sleep with this year; and another Maria who might as well have been a ghost because I barely remember seeing her at work.
Marlen nodded. “Oh, I didn’t know you liked her.”
“Well, I think I do.”
“She might come back.”
“Uh-huh. She actually has a visa and can come and go anytime she likes.”
“I didn’t know that,” I said while Marlen grabbed another white rag that was on the prep table and helped me clean trays. We then put on the new tray liners and placed them aside.
“She went to Mexico last year, too.”
“Another family emergency?”
She frowned. “I don’t think so. Who told you it was a family emergency?”
“He probably didn’t want to explain.”
“That makes sense.”
We looked toward the front counter. Marlen asked Juanita if she was okay because Brenda was cleaning tables in the lobby. Juanita said yes because another cashier had just walked in, fixing his black hat and tucking in his dark blue shirt. Marlen then looked at Joel and asked him the same question.
“Todo bien, Marlen,” he said, his right thump going up as he stared at the screen where the orders appeared.
Marlen was that kind of a manager, someone who was attentive, always ready to help. Her helpfulness went beyond McD’s matters because she hadn’t forgotten what we were talking about and continued where we left off.
“So that girl outside,” she said. We looked, and the girl was still sitting there.
“What about her?”
“You should make a move.”
“What about Soria?”
“What if she never comes back?”
I stopped cleaning a tray and looked at her. “But you just said-”
“I know what I said. But you never really know, do you?”
“That’s a good point,” I said. “But I’ve never been that good at making the first move.”
“I know that for a fact, Gabriel.”
We both laughed. It was true. If I had been more confident, I would have been dating Marlen at that moment.
“I think it’s time for you to try,” she said. “I noticed how you kinda turned off when Sanchez left.”
‘Turned off’ was an excellent way to put it because Sanchez was the first woman I slept with on American soil, and, as they say, you can never forget your first.
“Yeah,” I said. “That was fucked up.”
“It was,” she agreed. “What you have to do now is go to that booth and talk to that girl.”
“No buts. Do it.”
“But I’m on the clock.”
“Technically, you should’ve been off ten minutes ago. Now, stop wasting my labor and go.”
“You’re right,” I said. “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
And so I did. I sallied forth, as though embarking on an adventure, feeling like Christopher Columbus when he came to fuck things up in the new world. However, still trying to remain optimistic, I had a feeling my chances were going to be better than his.
The first thing I did was to sit across from her, my heart thudding inside my chest, the fear of rejection creeping in, telling me that I had misread the signs and was about to make a fool of myself. She was surprised. The look in her eyes was a mixture of excitement and danger. It was as though part of her had dreamed of this moment, the irrational and whimsical part, not the logical one, the one that was telling her that this was a bad idea.
The second thing I wanted to say was, ‘I’m sorry for being so bold and just sit here without asking for your permission.’ But was I really sorry? No, I was not.
“What’s your name?” I asked, thinking that was an excellent way to start a conversation.
“Maya,” she said, the dilation of her pupils indicating she was welcoming the interaction.
“I’m Gabriel,” I said.
Maya looked at my chest. The yellow letters woven on my dark blue shirt were conspicuous. “I knew that,” she said.
It took me a second to realize she was looking at my name tag, still visible behind the black sports jacket I was wearing.
“You don’t come here that often, do you?” I said, trying to keep the conversation going.
“You’ve noticed,” Maya said. The reddening on her cheeks gave her face a radiant shade.
I nodded. For one moment I didn’t know what to say.
“I don’t live here,” she continued. “I live with my mom in Mexico and come here sometimes to visit my dad.”
“I’m guessing he lives around here,” I said, grabbing the cord of the conversation and moving it along, willing to go as far as it needed to go.
She looked to her right. “Down the street.”
“That’s close by.”
“Yep,” she said and looked me in the eye, trying to guess what I was thinking. “Where do you live?”
“Also nearby. On the other side of the freeway.”
“Do you have your own apartment?”
“No. I rent a room at this house of a friend I used to work with at a gas station over on Turnpike.”
She nodded. “I think I know where that is.”
I briefly looked at the front counter, Marlen and Juanita -and even Joel back in the kitchen- were looking at us with interest.
“Your friends really like to keep an eye on you,” Maya said, her voice making me look back at her at once.
“No,” I said. “They’re just bored and trying to have some fun while they can.”
And then it came that awkward moment of silence, the same one I had dealt with many times before, a moment in which she was waiting for me to make a suggestion. I knew by then that she was interested, so what was I waiting for?
“Do you want to go somewhere else?” I said.
“What do you have in mind?”
That question sounded like a test. It was a way for her to see how much of a chump I was. She wanted to know whether or not I was only thinking about getting laid. I’m a human being, of course, I was thinking about that, but I was not going to suggest taking her to my place. Yet.
“Maybe we can have a cup of coffee,” I said.
“They don’t have coffee here?”
“Yes, but I was thinking of something better.”
She smiled. “I’d love that.”
She gathered her phone, and I stood up. She noticed the book sticking out of one of the pockets in my jacket. “I’m glad you like to read. It would’ve been a dealbreaker if you didn’t.”
Oh my, I thought. She is my type of girl.
We walked to the nearest Starbucks, grabbed a couple of coffees, and sat at the tables outside the place. It was still daylight, and we had plenty of time to talk and talk and talk, getting to know each other more in-depth.
“Okay,” Maya said, “this is gonna sound like a lame question, but what’s your favorite animal?”
I’d never thought of that before. Back in Mexico, my mom had all kinds of animals, and if I had to choose, I’d say cats, but I wasn’t entirely sure at that moment.
“I can’t think of a particular animal,” I said, “but for what I can tell, you’re into frogs.”
She smiled. “You noticed.”
Hard not to, I thought but didn’t say it.
Her right thumb and index finger rubbed her frog necklace gently as she prepared herself for the following sentence brewing in her head. “I gotta tell you something,” she said, “I don’t usually sleep with men I just met at a McDonald’s.”
“I guess there is always a first time for everything,” I said, not quite sure why the hell I thought that was a good idea. But she didn’t seem to mind.
“The thing is,” she continued, “even though this moment feels amazing, it usually ends badly.”
I nodded. “True. Maybe the fact that I don’t really know what animal I like means we’re probably walking down the wrong path.”
She grew quiet for a spell, taking in what I just said while studying the look on my face, a look that seemed nonchalant, almost uninterested, unlike what she was expecting.
“You’re good,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, a lesser man would’ve done anything within his power to make me realize I was wrong.”
“I guess I’m not a lesser man.”
“I guess you’re not,” she said, leaned closer, and said, “So are you okay if we take it slow?”
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s what I was thinking.”
I took a deep breath as a thought began to form in my head. “Let’s do something.”
“Something? What do you mean?”
“You know, recently I read this book, The Power of Now-”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“Yeah, it’s a good one. So, although I don’t remember the whole book, there is this one idea I think it is crystal clear.”
“And what is that?”
I took her hand, felt the electricity run through her fingers while I was shaking deep inside, wondering if she was going to walk away or stay there.
She didn’t walk away.
“Let’s focus on this moment, this moment alone,” I said, “whatever is left of it, without worrying about what could happen next, and after that, you can go your way, and I go mine. I mean, we don’t even have to kiss if you think that will kill the magic.”
She looked at me intensely, biting her lips, wondering why I was telling her those words she had never heard coming from the mouth of a man before. The truth was, I didn’t even know where they came from either, whether I read them in a book or heard them in a movie; the words felt just right. Talking to Marlen was somehow uplifting. I was not my usual shy self. I was letting the water flow.
“That sounds like a great idea,” she said, her hands still caressing mine. “I don’t know how I feel about the no-kissing part.” A shy chuckle followed.
“We can always renegotiate.”
She tucked an impatient curl behind her ear. “That means you don’t even want my phone number or anything?”
I squinted, deep in thought. “I haven’t thought that far out, but it does make sense, right?”
“Right,” she said. “So basically, trying to live in the present as best as we can, you want to be able to build a memory that will not be destroyed by the day after?”
“Let’s do this,” she said.
We stood up and left, still not knowing where we were going.
The Mercury Lounge was your typical dive bar; burgundy walls that might have been red on a better day and age were covered with paintings and drawings any of my six-year-old nephews could have created. An empty and small stage to our right felt abandoned and forgotten, but a sign that hung on a nail next to the stage advertised the upcoming performance of a local band I had never heard of before.
Some patrons were scattered around, a jukebox on the other end spewed out ‘Don’t Speak’ by No Doubt, and an empty pool table that felt as lonely as the stage was hoping someone could come and play; luckily, it didn’t have to wait that long.
“Let’s play pool,” I said.
The only game I knew was the one where you place all the balls in that triangle and put it at one of the ends of the table, then you put the white ball at the other end, hit it with one of the cue sticks, and hope for the best. I had no idea how the game was called.
Apparently, she was just as bad as I was at the pool table.
I ordered us a couple of beers. The bartender gave them to me in red plastic cups.
“We ran out of real glasses,” she said, which I found hard to believe, on account of the small number of clientele at the bar.
“Ok,” I said calmly.
I turned back, beers in hand, while Maya had scored, sending a couple of balls down the corner of the table.
“Impressive,” I said, handing her one of the beers; she was unconcerned about the red cup.
“I’ve played this game before,” she said, looking into my eyes for about three seconds, her smile so vast and vibrant. Her glance went down to my lips for a second. Then she chuckled, “Ok, I’ve never played this game before.”
“I couldn’t tell,” I said, laughing with her as our shoulders touched and the beer menaced to drip off the cup. Our eyes were still locked in that mesmerizing stare. “Too bad, we’re not gonna kiss tonight.”
She looked surprised. “If I wanted a kiss, I know I could get one.”
“Oh yeah? What makes you so sure?”
Her smile was mischievous. “‘Cause you’re a guy.”
“Fair point,” I said, as the eye contact lingered for more than three seconds. I tried to move closer.
But she turned away. “Not yet.”
“Ok,” I said, backing up and giving her some space.
“Are you sure it’s ok?” Maya asked, placing the beer down on the edge of the table. She then got ready to hit the balls again.
“If we kiss, this is going to become real,” she said, “you’re gonna fall in love, which, I’m sure it’s gonna happen.” She put the cue stick on the table and came closer. “Will you fall in love with me?”
“You’re right,” I said. “It’s going to happen. Eventually.”
Her eyes kept looking at my lips, her body longing to do things her mind reminded her were dangerous. My heart and my mind fought the same battle. I thought about the other girl out there I was also infatuated with. Was it true what Maya said? Maybe because I am a guy, it feels so easy to just hook up with whoever was available?
I didn’t like that definition of manliness.
But then again, I wasn’t really betraying anyone.
We kept playing a while longer, and even though she swore she had never played that game before, she beat me every time.
“Well, I’ve seen people play,” she said, laughing and finishing up her last drop of beer.
“Oh, are you that kind of person who goes to bars and spies on people as they play?”
She had that way of squinting while looking at me, sort of implying I said something lame, but she was polite enough not to admit it.
“Funny,” she said. “I can picture myself hovering over people’s shoulders and trying to learn all their secrets.”
“It wouldn’t be such a bad idea, would it?”
We stayed there for another hour, and after three or four more red cups of beer and dozens of hugs as either one of us won a match, that one promise to take things slow went to hell in a hand-basket when our lips met in a prolonged kiss.
And by the time we walked out of the bar, the dark blanket people call night had already covered the sky. There was a bench nearby. We went that way, sat down, and waited for the bus. We looked at each other, the intensity of the moon above us matching the fire in our eyes. Soon we were going to have to say goodbye, but I was hoping for a miracle, something that could make time stop.
Her legs parted ever so lightly. It was a subtle yet conspicuous movement that could only mean one thing. My right knee was touching her left, and the electricity that ran through our bodies had a mind of its own, a mind that spoke, articulating the next sentence in a way I could have never done on my own.
“Let’s go to my place,” I said.
She smirked. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Photo by JacksonDavid.