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I thought it would be good to put Maya’s memory in the vault, a made-up box I have in my mind, where I keep thoughts and memories I don’t want to think of anymore. But I am a human being, am I not? It is hard to stay away from these memories because I decided to put them in a journal. And then there was the necklace, a physical object that had no place in my imaginary vault. I put it in a blue zipped bag in my closet, where all my important papers go, tax documents, birth certificate, passport, etc. It took a whole other year until I had a reason to see that necklace again.

I did well at school and didn’t have homework to worry about. I needed to fill my time with something else other than romance. I could read a book. There was always that. The last book I read was Kafka’s Metamorphosis, and it was time for me to get lost in another tome. I had bought a copy of The Alchemist, hadn’t read it before, but it was there, collecting dust on my bookshelf. I picked it up, dusted it off, and gave it a try. It was in one of those days, as I lost myself, or at least try to, in the imaginary world of Paulo Coelho, that I got what I thought was the best piece of good news ever. Javier Diaz, the new store manager, asked me the question I had been eager to hear for some time.

“How would you like to be a manager, Gabriel?”

Santiago, the protagonist of The Alchemist, got frozen in time as I looked up and listened to Javier. He stood by the breakroom door at work, and I sat on one of the chairs. I don’t know if you remember, but early on, I had written that I was planning to dazzle Gabriela Vazquez and Monte Baker when they had come to visit the store with Javier the first time; if Javier was asking me that question, that only meant I did a good job. I slapped the book close and let a couple of seconds fly by as I internally rejoiced, happy to see my plan had rendered fruit.

“That sounds like a great idea, sir,” I said, trying to sound polite and proper since Javier and I hadn’t had many conversations yet, and I was unaware of how he liked to be addressed.

“Call me Javier,” he said, the cheerful look still written on his face.

I shrugged. “Alright. Javier.”

Javier walked in, pulled out a chair, and sat next to me. He retrieved a yellow booklet out of his shirt pocket with a big, white letter ‘M’ on it. He gave it to me and said, “In this booklet, you will find everything you need to learn for the test.”

I frowned. “Come again?”


“I mean, what test?”

“Oh,” Javier said, “before you become a manager, you have to study for a test. You have to learn everything about how to be a swing manager.”

“What exactly is a swing manager?” I asked. My fingers moved through the pages, and my eyes tried to capture the images and words inside.

Javier got ready for a lesson. “Every restaurant has three main managers. Who do you think are the main managers here?”

“Easy,” I said. “You, Celestino, and Marlen.”

“Correct!” Javier said.

“So that means Blanca, Brenda, Juanita, Cesar, and Lidia are swing managers?”

“That’s right. You are quite smart, you know that?”

I shrugged. “Nah, I just spent too much time here, and for some reason, I learn things.”

“So you are observant? That’s great.”

“Yeah,” I said. “It can be creepy, though. Some people don’t like to be observed,” I added.

He laughed. “And funny, too.”

“Sometimes,” I said, thinking of something funny to say, but nothing came to mind. I didn’t know what to think of Javier. He was too friendly, the kind who is trying too hard to pretend everything is ok. “And how many swing managers do you need to have?”

“Depends on the restaurant.”

“So this restaurant needs six? Besides the three main managers?”

Javier nodded his head, half agreeing with my question. “More or less. The reason why I would like to train you is that two swing managers are leaving.”

Is that the reason? I thought, seeing with penance how wrong I was about my attempts at dazzling the big shots.

“Really?” I asked, focusing on the gossip rather than my personal feelings and fragile ego. “Who are the managers that are leaving?”

Javier looked to the door. He was about to say some secret, something that was most likely none of my business.

“Lidia and Cesar,” Javier said.

I hadn’t seen much of them in a while. I might have only worked one shift with Cesar when I started working here. He was what I like to call ‘the Mexican exception,’ a white, skinny, and tall kid who did not fit the usual stereotype. But that wasn’t what I was more interested to know. I was curious about how Javier said their names as if trying to say something he didn’t want to say.

“Were they having sex?” I asked, point-blank, and Javier’s white face crimsoned with chagrin.

He looked at the door again. “Yes, they were,” he said, “but I am not supposed to tell you this. And so you know, that is prohibited when you work at the restaurant.”

“What? Sticking my pen in the company’s ink?”

He squinted, and I moved on with the conversation.

“Well, I’m sure it is against the rules,” I said. “It could create a hostile working environment.”

“Yes,” Javier said.

“People can get fired and/or transfer to other restaurants.”

“That’s correct!”

“Just like it happened to Omar and Luna, right?”

He nodded, “Yes, um…” then realized his mistake. “But, like I said, I’m not supposed to tell you these things.”

“Well, you didn’t have to say it,” I said. “Your face got so red I almost mistook you for a tomato.”

He couldn’t contain his laughter.

“You should be a comedian.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so. But thanks, anyway.”

“Or you can have a career here as a manager.”

I frowned. “What do you mean ‘a career’?” I asked. “I’ve always thought of this as a regular job.”

“It can be more than that. And becoming a manager is the beginning. Get it?”

I tried to get it, but the little respect I had for the job kept me from seeing it as what it was, just another job where someone would always dictate my future.

“No, I don’t.”

He moved around in his seat as if looking for a better way to establish his buttocks on the chair would help him explain himself better. “You know how McDonald’s started, right?”

I was about to shake my head, but I briefly recalled the orientation I had when I went to pick up my uniform at the downtown location after getting hired. In that orientation, someone explained to me, and a whole other bunch of new recruits, the history behind The Golden Arches, its founder, its first location, and all that.

“Oh yeah,” I said, “I vaguely recall that.”

“You remember about The Hamburger University?”

I chuckled when he said that. “Who is the comedian now?”

He was puzzled. “No, I am serious. There is a Hamburger University in Chicago where they train people.”

I was quiet for a moment. “I guess I wasn’t paying attention,” I said. “But you gotta admit, that’s kinda funny. What do they teach you there? How to flip burgers?”

Now that he saw things from my perspective, Javier said, “When you put it that way.”

Then I said, “Look, don’t think I deride the company just to be an asshole. I just can’t control myself when something sounds this funny.”

There was a brief moment when I realized I was probably talking too much, so I shut my mouth for a spell.

“Anyway,” he said, “I want you to study this book and practice. When you’re done, you’re gonna have the test with Gabby, and then Monte. Have you met Monte?”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “Monte’s kind of flamboyant.”

And there I was again, talking too much.

“Flamboyant? What does that mean?”

“It means he likes to attract attention.”

“Oh, a new word.”

“Did you know the word ‘deride’?”


“I just used it in a sentence.”

“I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”

I smiled. “Fair point.”

“I guess you’re the kind of person who’s always learning the word of the day.”

“Yes,” I said, “I’m always learning new words.”

He looked at the book I was reading. “I read that book before. In Spanish.”

“Yeah? I am not reading a lot of Spanish right now.”

“Why not?”

“I’m forcing myself to learn English faster.”

“Interesting. But you’re planning to read Spanish again?”

“Of course,” I said. “I’m still very Mexican, and that ain’t gonna change.”

He smiled. “I’m gonna let you read. Start practicing, though. I’m telling Gabby about you, so she can come and meet you.”

“Ok,” I said, browsing briefly through the booklet.

“And remember the main rule when you become a manager,” Javier said as he stood up.

He hadn’t said anything about the main rule, but I got an idea of what he was talking about. “Avoid sleeping with my coworkers?”

“That’s right!”

“Ok,” I said. “It’s not gonna happen.”

It did happen, though. But that’s a story for another day. 

I walked into Staples, carrying a cup holder with only two coffees and a couple of pastries. One for me and one for Roberto. Long gone were the days when I brought coffee for Arturo, Juan, and Sergio. The place did look a little pale without that many Mexicans around. I was walking with a bit more arrogance, I noticed, as I continued internally rejoicing because of my future new position at McD’s, which, when I got, prompted me to make a change in my life, a change that would turn Staples paler than it was.

I planned to leave this job and started thinking of McD’s as a more stable gig. Knowing I wanted to be a writer felt isolated, as though I was destined to live a life of solitude. I needed to belong somewhere, and McD’s was what looked good at the time. Enough to stop feeling like a rootless wanderer for a change.

Anyway, that was the plan. I had to keep the restrooms clean at Staples for the time being.

The atmosphere inside the store was the same. The bright, blinding lights that spread throughout the locale made time stand still, making you forget how many hours you spend there, perhaps in hopes of making you waste some of your golden years browsing around, buying shit you don’t need. I wondered if that was a marketing trick.

I briefly glanced toward the register and saw a new cashier, a Latina, who later I learned was trying to become a vegetarian. Her reason? She didn’t want to feel guilty for all the cows and chickens that had to die so she could eat. I thought that was hypocritical because plants are also living organisms, aren’t they?

She was absent from my made-up list of Mexicans because of the meager Spanish that she spoke. Roberto, always so dedicated to preserving accuracy, referred to her as just another ‘pocha,’ a word that I found a bit insulting.

What was her name again? I Don’t remember.

Further back, there was Mike (I think that was his name), one of the new managers, a bald man in his late thirties whom I couldn’t help to think of as the epitome of what I would be ten years into the future. I wasn’t wrong. He walked into the office with Kyle and Maggie, and a somber aura surrounded them. Maggie, who usually smiled and walked with her head up, always sure of what she wanted, gave the impression of a woman who was between a rock and a hard place. Kyle appeared his usual self, unsmiling and nonchalant.

“Good morning, Gabriel,” the Latina said, revealing a set of white teeth that matched with the blinding clarity of the store.

“Good morning,” I said, trying to see what her name was, but her shirt covered her name tag.

“You didn’t get me a coffee,” she said in a flirtatious way, but I didn’t reciprocate.

“You didn’t ask.” It was all I said and kept on walking.

I noticed how empty the place looked on my way down the aisle. No employees; maybe they were all taking a break. No customers, except for a woman who was walking out, empty-handed, ushering an angry-looking teen as the woman showered him with a reproachful stare. I didn’t know if it was the season or people weren’t interested in buying this time. The merchandise on the shelves begged to be purchased. The music spewing from the speakers supplicated to be heard. Roberto sat at the table in the breakroom, alone, a book without a cover jacket rested on his hands. The soft munching and cracking of his teeth ground what I presumed was a breakfast sandwich because of the wrapper lying on the table.

I had the McD’s booklet hidden in my pocket, somewhere in my jacket, and as soon as I laid the cup holder on the table, I took it out and told Roberto the good news. He put his book down, and I gave it a quick look. Its black hardcover offered no clues as to what it was about. Roberto fixed his glasses and gave my booklet a sweeping glance.

He then grabbed his coffee, no thanks necessary, sipped on it, and said, “are you sure this is what you want?”

I felt as though we had that conversation before.

“It’s not what I want,” I said. “It’s what I need. Writing is the main goal, but I still have to make a living.” Even though this was the truth, it always felt like an excuse as soon as it left my mouth. As if I was intentionally lying to myself.

He shrugged. “I guess this is a different kind of dream.”

“I don’t know if I would call it a dream. More of a necessity.”

Javier Diaz would beg to differ since he called it ‘a career,’ a title too fancy for a job too simple. What would a stripper call herself if she thought highly of her job? A Professional Contortionist?

Roberto sipped on his coffee again. “That’s the problem with young people today. They can’t distinguish between a necessity and a dream.”

I sat down across from him. “I don’t think I know what you’re getting at.”

He prepared for one of his lectures. “What do you really want to be?”

“A writer,” I said, matter-of-factly. “What do you think I’m going to school for?”

“Yes, but you’re also working yourself to the bone.”

“To the bone? I don’t think I’m working that hard.”

“You’re an overachiever. You just can’t see it.”

“I don’t think I have achieved anything.”

He paused, a knowing look on his face. “Are you listening to yourself, Gabriel? We’re having this conversation in fluent English. We, two people who speak Spanish as a first language, are speaking in our second language like nobody’s business, and you’re telling me you’ve not achieved anything?”

That was an eye-opening revelation, and it made me realize he was right. I looked at the coffee and didn’t want to drink it anymore. Roberto’s words had enough caffeine to wake an elephant.

I told him what I was planning to do. “What if I just keep one job, then?”

He looked at me for a moment. “That changes things,” he said. “Having two jobs and going to school is not a good idea.”

“But the job I would want to leave is going to be Staples.”

He shrugged again. “If you think it’s better.”

“I thought you were gonna like the idea.”

“And I do,” he said, “but being a manager is gonna be hard because they would want you to take on bigger responsibilities, and you might not have the time to write.”

“I can see that, but…” I had nothing. I was at a loss for words. That wasn’t a good sign if I wanted to be a writer.

Roberto said, “What happened to the guy who was your boss at McDonald’s?”

“He got transferred,” I said, then remembered what happened with Cesar and Lidia. “Two other managers are also leaving because they were dating.”

He laughed. “Well, Staples and McDonald’s don’t seem to be that different.”

I squinted. “What do you mean?”

“Maggie is leaving,” he said.

It hit me then, the reason why she looked sad as she had walked into that office with Mike and Kyle. “Was she…?”

“Dating Kyle? Yes, she was,” Roberto said. “And you know what the problem is? She felt in love with him.”

“How do you know?”

A rhetorical question was coming. “Do you think you’re the only one who talks to me about their life?”

I shrugged. “Fair point.”

“They were actually living together,” Roberto continued, “but when Mike told them to choose between love and career, Kyle didn’t hesitate and chose a career. That devastated her. They broke up, and Maggie said she didn’t want to work here anymore. Now she has no job and has to look for a place to live.”

“How did Mike find out?”

“I’m telling you, Maggie fell in love. It became too obvious, the way she talked to him, the glances they threw at each other. In the beginning, it was great, but Kyle stopped reciprocating. He was more interested in his job from the start. So when Mike asked if something was going on, Kyle didn’t lie.”

“That’s fucked up,” I said. “But what does that have to do with me?”

He looked at me like I had asked a stupid question. “Being a manager anywhere is like selling your soul to the devil. You have to adhere to rules and guidelines that are arbitrary most of the time. As a regular employee, you have more freedom. Two employees can date, for some reason, but two managers can’t.”

“Or a manager and an employee,” I added, thinking of Omar’s example.

“Exactly,” Roberto said. “My point is, you’re going to want to date someone at work, and you will have to be discreet or else.”

“Or else I lose my job?”

He nodded.

“I am not gonna do it.”

No digas de esa agua no he de beber,” he said, meaning ‘don’t say you’ll never drink from that water.’

That made me think. He was right, he usually was, but I needed to find some stability. My life situation was better compared to last year, but I still wanted more. He was right about something else: I am an overachiever. But aren’t we all, up to some extent?

“Ok, then,” I said. “I hope I don’t have to drink it.”

His right eyebrow went up, “Drink what?”

“From that water.”

“Oh, I see.”

I went home that day and decided to keep The Alchemist frozen in time a while longer. Focusing on the McDonald’s booklet had to be the main priority. For some reason, though, at that moment, I felt as if I was making the wrong decision. Back then, I wish I had had the farsightedness to avoid making some of my mistakes. But then again, this story wouldn’t have been as interesting as it is now. Well, that’s what I like to think.


Photo by 0fjd125gk87.

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