I woke up the next day with a smile on my face, lying alone in the middle of the bed, considering that the events that had transpired might have been just a dream. It sure felt like it, I was ready to believe it, but a brief look toward the nightstand told a whole other story: Maya had left the frog necklace behind. I slapped myself across the face, thinking that I was probably still asleep. I wasn’t. Maya’s faint perfume, lavender I thought it was, still lingered in the air. The sun was still hours away from rising. The clock said it was 5:30 a.m. I had thirty minutes to get ready and clean the restrooms at Staples.
I told Roberto about The Frog-Girl during a break, as I had dubbed her. He was chewing on an egg sandwich and sipping from a cup of coffee, sitting across the same big, white plastic table we’ve sat across many times before. Other employees came and went out of the breakroom. Even a young man was working on a test in the next room, staring at the computer with enthusiasm, and I thought about a time not long ago when I was doing the same thing.
“Yeah,” Roberto finally spoke, pushing up his glasses against the brick of his nose, a habit that was synonymous with his intellectual demeanor. “I think you dreamed the whole thing up.”
I smirked. “I’m telling you, that’s what I thought.”
Roberto shook his head so fast I feared it was going to come off. “No. I mean, you did dream the whole thing up.”
“No,” I said. “How do you explain the necklace, then?”
“Where’s the necklace?”
“Home. I’m not gonna walk around carrying a necklace with me.”
I didn’t have an answer to that. “Do you think I should?”
Roberto collected his thoughts and spoke. “Say you happen to see this imaginary girl again.“
“She is not imaginary!”
“Whatever,” he went on. “You talk to her, and then she tells you about the necklace she lost; she doesn’t even remember where she lost it. Then, like the hero, you retrieve the necklace from your pocket and give it to her.”
“That’d be great,” I said.
“Did she tell you where she lives?”
“Not exactly,” I confessed.
“What exactly did she tell you?”
I told him the gist of the conversation I had with Maya.
He squinted. “You realize how improbable that all sounds?”
“Yeah, it means-“
I stopped him. “I know what improbable means.”
“Why didn’t you get her phone number?”
I sighed. “Because the plan was to live in the moment.”
“How romantic,” Roberto said, rolling his eyes.
“Well, I guess I am a romantic.”
“How often does she goes to McDonald’s?”
“Not that often,” I said, adding to the improbability Roberto was so vehemently believing in.
“What are you going to do?” Roberto asked. “Try to find out where she lives?”
I thought about it, remembering the conversation Maya and I had. When mentioning that she was staying in her dad’s house, Maya looked to her right, toward the university, so if I wanted to look for her, I would have to go that way and start looking.
“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea,” I said.
It was a bad idea. First, I would be breaking a promise. We had said that there would not be a morning after, and it would all belong to that particular moment in time we shared. That’s it. Trying to add more to the story could spell trouble. And what was the most significant problem? Falling in love. Second, where exactly was I going to start looking? Isla Vista, California, the tiny burg near campus, is packed with a swarm, ant-like multitude of students and regular people. They commute, walk, run, ride, and flight (depend on your brand of weed) all over the place, at all times, dozed up with copious amounts of coffee and/or Red Bull. If I were to ask anyone about this mysterious, curly-black-haired goddess I met, they all would agree it was improbable she even existed.
Just like Roberto thought.
I ruminated about all of this one day as I waited outside the house where I lived, ready for an afternoon of leisure at Zodo’s with some friends from school: Nestor, Jorge, and Pedro, a guy who later became a good friend of mine. He came and picked me up; Pedro and Nestor met at a Mexican restaurant where the two waited tables. I didn’t work at McD’s that afternoon, and since I didn’t have any homework to worry about, I thought that spending a day at the bowling place could be a swell idea, unlike searching for a girl like an idiot.
The funny thing was, all I did was to think about her.
I told Pedro about the girl as we drove off in his nice-looking, white Mustang.
“I’m telling you, man. That girl was something else.”
“Why didn’t you ask for her phone number?” Pedro asked, taking off his reading glasses and putting them in one of the cup holders. He also fixed his hair, which looked wet thanks to whatever hair product he used.
I told him why.
Pedro shrugged while sliding into the 101 south. “I guess it wasn’t meant to be.”
Somehow, that answer didn’t please me.
At Zodo’s, Jorge and Nestor waited for us. The place was semi-empty, and since it was early, it was safe to assume the action would start later. Neon lights showered the area with a multitude of colors, ads thrown at you from the screens spread all over the place, and the few players shouted and jumped when they struck down all the bottle-shaped objects at the other end of the line; I didn’t care to learn what the proper name for those bottles was.
Jorge and Nestor had already reserved a spot for us, segregated at the other corner of the place. We walked down a small flight of stairs that led to the bowling area. My friends had already gotten those special shoes for us, which you have to wear when bowling; I didn’t know what was so special about them. My pair was white and red. They made me look like a clown.
“How you guys doing?” Nestor asked, always so cheerful and ready for action.
Going out with them allowed me to learn more about their interests, hobbies, etc. Nestor, for example, was an avid dancer and self-proclaimed womanizer; I always thought that was stupid. Why would you call yourself a womanizer? Wouldn’t women see through that and avoid going out with someone that vane? Jorge, the one I spent more time with, was a lot more reserved, the kind of man who talked less and did more. He did accomplish a lot. We happened to see each other years later, and I learned he had a family and his own business. Pedro was somewhat of a juxtaposition of the two aforementioned, but never bragged or said he was unique in any way.
“All good,” Pedro said, as we all shared fist pumps. “Gabriel was just telling me about his love life.”
Jorge said, “He doesn’t waste any time, does he?”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
We threw balls for a while, and I was surprised at how heavy they were and imagined that constant practice would make me a better player; the truth was, I never became a better player.
Unlike me, my three friends were good with the ball. They had technique, a way to insert their fingers in the holes, curling gently at first, as though they were holding a baby, and then throwing it fast and with precision, always hitting the bottle-shaped objects, reaching a perfect score.
A moment later, Nestor and Pedro went to get some beers while Jorge and I waited on our assigned seat, a long, brown sofa that looked old and stained with sugar and the passage of time. Nestor and Jorge had rented the area for another hour, so it was okay for us just to sit there and take a break.
“Are you doing well in your classes?” Jorge asked. Like me, he was also serious about his education.
“You know I am.”
“Do you still have the white binder?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I just haven’t collected words, lately. As you know, work and life get in the way.”
“They sure do,” Jorge said, then paused, as though deciding if he should say what he had in mind. “I think I’m gonna do the same.”
“Collect words in a binder?”
Jorge nodded. “What do you think?”
Pedro and Nestor came back, carrying our beers, striding down the flight of stairs, trying not to spill the golden liquid.
“I think it’s a great idea,” I said, looking at him as Nestor handed me a cold one.
Pedro gave Jorge a beer, too. I looked around. More and more people were walking in. Unsurprisingly, all I could think about was seeing Maya walk in, either alone or with someone else. It didn’t matter, so long as I could have a chance to see her again. Despite being among friends in a relaxed environment, I couldn’t help to feel tense. Maybe I should have listened to Roberto and brought that necklace, just in case.
“So what are you guys talking about?” Nestor asked.
Jorge told him.
“Oh, that’s cool, Gabriel,” Nestor said. “I didn’t know you were a nerd.” He laughed, but Pedro and Jorge didn’t find that joke amusing.
“I guess we’re all nerds, in a way,” I said. “You just have to find something to nerd over.”
“Nerd over?” Jorge said. “I have never heard that word as a verb.”
“I just made it up. I think.”
Pedro sipped his beer, then said, “I agree. We have to find something to nerd over.”
I nodded, a smile painted on my face. “That’s right,” I said, then asked. “So, what is it that you are into, Pedro?”
“Computers,” Pedro said right away. He didn’t even hesitate. Later, ten years after we had that conversation, I found out he had developed a career in website design and business.
“What about you?” Pedro asked me. “I heard you’re planning to become a manager at McD’s.”
“That’s the plan,” I said.
“He also wants to become a writer,” Jorge added.
“Like, for newspapers?” Nestor asked.
“Oh no, nothing like that,” I said, as though the thought of it were impure. Later, also ten years after we had that conversation, I found myself writing for a newspaper.
“He wants to write fiction,” Jorge said. “You know, made-up stories like Gabriel Garcia Marquez.”
“Oh, that’s cool,” Nestor said. “I didn’t know they were made-up stories.”
I found that revelation rather asinine but decided to keep that comment to myself. Even though he was a bit unlearned, Nestor was still my friend, and I didn’t want to deride him for his lack of knowledge. Instead, I put myself in his shoes (something I don’t do regularly, guilty as charged) and remembered how little I know about Math.
Yes, I am a complete idiot when it comes to making the easiest of calculations.
“Yeah,” I said. “And as you know, they sometimes make movies out of those stories.”
“I’ll just wait for the movie then,” Nestor said and laughed.
We all laughed.
After a couple of seconds, Nestor said, “Hey, Gabriel. Pedro told me about that girl. Did you seal the deal?”
Seal the deal—what a clever phrase, which suggested that he was also learning English somehow. As I mentioned earlier, he was a self-proclaimed womanizer, so sealing the deal was a usual phrase in his repertoire. The guy was ugly, but I’ve got to admit he had more confidence than James Bond.
“I didn’t,” I lied. I wasn’t comfortable sharing with them what happened under the blankets.
“What?” Nestor asked, throwing his arms up, making it look like it was a crime not to seal the deal; I couldn’t help but think of a dystopian future where you could go to jail for that. “Look, you have my number. Next time just call me, and I show you how’s done.”
I squinted, somehow doubting I would ever do such a thing.
The conversation went on and morphed into something else. Most of it was about women, of course, with Nestor sharing tales of his dance moves and how easy it was to pick up girls if you knew how to move your booty; his words, not mine. There was a dance room adjacent to Zodo’s, where a guy who was friends with Nestor taught dancing lessons twice a week. The first time I met Pedro was a night after school when Nestor had invited us to one of the classes. I didn’t have a ride home, and Pedro picked me up from school.
Pedro and Jorge were interested in dancing. I was not. But still, we kept on talking, throwing in brief and sporadic mentions of school and whether we were going to apply for the summer. I said no, but they all said yes, each of them for their own selfish reasons. For Jorge, Pedro, and I, college was a place to get an education. For Nestor, it was just another place to pick up girls.
Zodo’s began to fill up. The cheers and laughter were a perfect match with the neon lights. I looked at the river of people flooding in and out, and among the multitude, a gracious mane of black, curly hair caught my eye.
“Maya?” I said out loud.
I have to admit, saying her name out loud was a bit melodramatic. What can I say? I’ve always had a flair for that kind of stuff. Why didn’t I think of becoming an actor instead of a writer? I would have accomplished that dream faster since the only thing I had to do was to pretend I was someone else. I already did that at McDonald’s, smiling at people when I didn’t want to smile.
After hearing my clamor for someone who probably wasn’t there, my friends turned their heads at once.
“Who is Maya?” Nestor asked. “Another chick?”
Chick? I’ve never liked that word but decided not to say it. “The same girl,” I said.
The woman I was looking at was walking among the crowd. I could only see her hair, that lustrous mane of black hair that made me think of Medusa, for some reason. I wasn’t sure if she was Maya. I wanted to believe it was Maya. I was wrestling to make a decision, to stand up and see if it was her. Sitting there and doing nothing felt like the sane thing to do.
But I didn’t come to this world to be sane, did I?
“I’ll be right back?” I said and made my way towards the moving crowd that flowed and swayed like waves in the ocean. My friends’ words of encouragement propelled me forward. When I stepped over the flight of stairs, it was as though I was stepping into a different realm.
The curly-haired woman moved with ease among everyone else, with the grace of a shark, dodging the forces that came at her as she made her way to the other side. The cheers, music, and mundane conversations drowned my ears, but my eyes looked ahead, trying not to lose sight of her. It almost felt like I was swimming, and since I didn’t know how to swim at the time, I did feel like I was drowning.
Now I know I was merely drowning in anticipation.
“I want size nine, please!” Someone said, asking a clerk for those special shoes you have to wear when bowling.
Hearing that made me look down at the red and white shoes I was wearing. On the other side of the platform, walking in these shoes was difficult, slippery, and hazardous, which explained why I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.
But I had to keep going. I couldn’t just sit there and keep my sanity. I’d instead get out there and lose my mind.
I was inches away from her, my hand about to touch her right shoulder. From behind, she looked just like Maya, and then more than ever, I wished I had her necklace with me so I could be the hero and give it to her. I hoped she was here alone, looking for me, also trying to break the promise I was trying to break. As the hopeless romantic I was, I wished for many things that may or may not be improbable most of the time.
“Hey, love,” a man said, greeting and hugging the woman I was about to tap on the shoulder.
She turned and kissed him. A bittersweet rush came over me. I was embarrassed, thinking what could have happened had I touched her shoulder. That would have been awkward since the woman I was looking at wasn’t the woman I had made love to the previous night.
I came back and told my friends it wasn’t her. I could see the pity in their eyes, and that didn’t bother me. I was pitiful, but I guess that is the way of infatuation. I couldn’t call it love. It took me a long time to know how love really felt like.
Photo by Foundry.