Days with Four Seasons
With nail clippers from the medicine cabinet, I cut the tag off a dress bought at a thrift store for two dollars. I glanced at my chipped blue nail polish when Javier silently walked into the bathroom pressing his naked body, still warm from my bed, against my back. I felt his morning erection as he wrapped his arms around me, slid the strap of my red slip off my shoulder with his chin, and began kissing my neck. “Not now, I said softly, “I already took a shower.”
Javier kissed my shoulder before turning to pull back the shower curtain. I watched as he jumped in the shower through the reflection in the mirror. His body slinky and youthful like Donatello’s sculpture of David. I took a long, hard look at myself in the mirror. The dark circles and crow’s feet forming around my eyes seemed more pronounced. I pulled the skin back towards my ears. In an instant I looked like I was in my twenties again. Javier began singing a Mexican love song as I walked out of the bathroom slipping the dress over my head.
I grabbed the remote off the coffee table, and hit play. Joy Division’s song “Love Will Tear Us Apart” began playing. I lifted the small ceramic pipe from behind my collection of Vonnegut books, lit what was left in the bowl, took a long deep breath and held. To avoid a lecture from Javi about my weed smoking, I walked toward the open window and exhaled. The spotlight from a police helicopter circling nearby was shining on my second-floor window and the ground below. The sound of sirens and screeching brakes came to a halt just below my balcony. Six cops tumbled out of three patrol cars to arrest what appeared to be one terrified looking crack head.
* * *
Living in downtown Long Beach in this historic landmark, built in 1923, has everything from the good, the bad, and the annoying. The noise from police helicopters filling the skies nightly are an annoyance, but the views of the ocean are stunning. The lobby entrance has the original crystal chandelier and arched windows from floor to ceiling, but one of the two elevators is usually being serviced. The grand parlor off the lobby with its working fireplace, grand piano, antique furniture, and fading Persian rugs reminds me of something you would see in an old European hotel.
The people who live here range from yuppies to struggling musicians, actors, writers, and students. The yuppies live in the one-bedroom units located at the end of the hallways on all twelve floors while the rest of us live in the studios with Murphy beds.
Our most famous resident is Mrs. Bob Dylan. Her name is Sarah Thomas, but she insists on being called Mrs. Dylan. Mrs. Dylan wears sunglasses and scarves around her neck at all times. She keeps her stringy gray hair tied back in an untidy ponytail and is as thin as the crack head awaiting arrest out on the curb below my balcony. Mrs. Dylan tells anyone who will listen that she is still married to Bob, but that they are separated. Rumor has it, she lives off a family trust and about four or five bottles of red wine a day. Mrs. Dylan has also been known to drop empty wine bottles like bombs from her fifth-floor balcony aiming at no one in particular. When this happens, management calls the family in for a meeting where eviction and charges of endangerment are discussed.
Mrs. Dylan was standing by the front door waiting for a taxi on a day I scored a parking spot in front of the building. While I was putting money in the meter, she walked over to me, poked me in the arm with her finger, and said, “I do not like that hat. Take it off. I insist that you take it off.” I was wearing a black vintage hat from the 30s with detailed beading around the sides that I found in a thrift store. I thought it was cool. Her taxi pulled up just as I was about to respond. Mrs. Dylan turned and walked to her taxi.
The parking Nazis patrol the streets around the building vigilantly. One day while I was sitting on my second-floor balcony, Mrs. Dylan was throwing empty wine bottle bombs from her fifth-floor balcony. The bottles shattered dangerously close to a parking Nazi’s tiny golf cart-like car while he was writing out a ticket. While struggling his way out of his car, a button from his shirt got caught and popped off when his fat beer belly pressed against the steering wheel. With his ticket book in hand, he turned around in circles like a dog chasing his tail. Finally, he looked up in my direction. I immediately looked up as if trying to figure out where the wine bottle bombs were coming from. When I looked down, the parking Nazi was staring at me. I shrugged my shoulders, stood up, flashed him the peace sign and walked back inside.
Jesus, the artist from Barcelona, lives on the tenth floor with his American boyfriend and three lap dogs. His fuzzy hair he dyes bright red matches the red converse sneakers he wears giving him a clownish appearance. I asked Jesus the name of his dogs when I ran into him near the front of the building one day. He said in a thick Castilian accent, “Well the little Yorkie his name is Jose Sanchez, the Chihuahua is Catalina Garcia, and the little poodle she name is Lucy Jones.”
I laughed and then said, “I’ve never heard of anyone giving their dogs first and last names.”
“Why are two of them Spanish names and one American?”
"Bueno pues, the Chihuahua, Catalina talks and talks and never shuts up like a typical Spanish girl. Now Jose, the Yorkie, well he is always sniffing around and chasing the girls like a typical Spanish man. And Lucy Jones, the poodle, she has an attitude, you know. How do you say? Maybe you say stuck up—conceited? Si, si, conceited? She acts like she owns the world,” Jesus replied.
We have security around the clock in the building. The security guards wear maroon-colored suit jackets with gray slacks making them look more like door men in a fancy hotel. Jane, the security guard who works nights on the weekends walks with a manly swagger, shaves her head, and wears thick black-rimmed glasses. Jane always talks in whisper and never looks you in the eye. The only time I saw her look anyone in the eye was the first time she saw Dion and I walk through the lobby holding hands. Jane narrowed her eyes and gave him a jealous glare from behind her desk near the entrance.
Dionysus lived a few doors down from me. I never really talked to him, just shared a friendly hello in the hallway. He was tall and thin, with cheek bones and full luscious lips the women in Beverly Hills paid plastic surgeons to imitate. He reminded me of a young Julian Sands, the actor. He was usually carrying a camera bag and tripod when we passed each other. I thought he might be a student or a working photographer.
One night after I finished working a late-night shift at the Seashore Café, waiting on obnoxious drunks coming out of the bars, Dion was in the lobby, sitting on the edge of the security guard’s desk, debating the Solidarity movement with a heavy accent and drunken slurred speech. He brushed his long blonde hair away from his face when he saw me walk in. The last thing I wanted to do was talk to another drunk.
Intent on engaging me, Dion stood up and said, “What do you think? I am sorry, I don’t know your name. What is your name?”
His beauty and alluring Polish accent made me want to stay and talk, even though he was drunk. After fifteen minutes of standing in the lobby debating, I suggested we move the conversation to my apartment.
We were lovers for a long time. I was such a serious student back then that I told him not to come by until after 11 as I would be studying. I was studying cultural and intellectual history from the 17th to the 20th century. I was often required to read as many as 33 books per quarter. He always respected my wishes and came over shortly after 11 with a bottle of champagne.
I remember one night after too much champagne, I played the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony Number Three. I asked if Dion knew of Gorecki. His eyes lit up. “Yes, yes. I do not recognize this symphony though. How do you know of Gorecki?” he asked, excitedly.
“Tom Schnabel, a DJ at KCRW, is playing it on his world music show and the classical music station, KUSC, has it in heavy rotation right now,” I answered.
“Ah, I see. It must be new,” he said.
Dion became animated while telling me that his parents took the whole family to see Gorecki at the opera house in Warsaw. He moved to the floor in front of the stereo to listen closely. I handed him the CD cover.
I sat down across from him, cross-legged and said, “The symphony takes place during Hitler's invasion of Poland.”
“Really?” Dion said while pulling out the insert from the CD.
“Yeah, it’s a story about a mother looking for her son she fears has been killed. She can’t bear the thought that her son might be lying in a ditch somewhere, alone,” I said.
“Some parts of the symphony simply must be listened to real loud,” I said while turning the volume up. During those parts, tears welled up in our eyes. Jane, the security guard, showed up banging at the door. When I opened the door she saw Dion sitting on the floor. She dropped her head down quickly and said in a whispery voice, “The neighbors are complaining. Can you please turn it down.” We turned it down.
Dion asked me to be his model for a school project. He was working on shadows in black in white photography. I reluctantly agreed. I remember laughing when Dion wanted me to look serious every time he was about to take the shot. He was so patient and kind with me that day knowing how embarrassed I felt about the whole thing. We had so much fun that day, I almost fell in love with him.
Dion left for New York a few months after our photo shoot to pursue his photography dreams. The name Dionysus was perfect for him. The god of wine, ritual and ecstasy. That was Dion.
* * *
I watched the helicopter that was circling fly away. Two of the six cops got in their patrol cars and drove off. The remaining four cops made the crack head sit on the curb and appeared to be firing questions at him.
I yelled from my spot at the window, “Javi, if you are not ready in ten minutes, you’re going to have to take the bus to work. Por favor.”
“Si como no, María,” Javier answered in his sing-song voice from the bathroom.
I walked into the bathroom to braid my hair. I wiped the steam-covered mirror with a towel. A sudden rush of racing thoughts flooded my mind. What the hell am I doing having an affair with a young busboy? Why am I still working as a waitress when I went to college so I would not have to work in restaurants anymore? What happened to living in Central America reporting on revolutions?
“What happen to you?” Javi asked, reaching for a towel on the rack.
“Nothing,” I said while offering him the towel in my hand. “It’s just your run of the mill existential angst.”
Running the towel over his hairless chest, he said “Como?”
“Nothing. It’s just that we’re going to be late for work now. And I really wish I hadn’t picked up this 6 a.m. breakfast shift. Jesus, it’s still dark out,” I complained.
“Ay María, pero, you have late every days. Why you care ahora?”
“That’s not true. I’m not late every day,” I snapped while walking out of the bathroom.
I love the way he says my name. Most of my friends are unable to roll the ‘r’ when they say my name. It sounds more like Ma-ree-a.
* * *
I am the only one in the family born with olive skin and dark hair like my Spanish father. However, I did get my Ukrainian mother's high cheekbones and her body; tall, thin, and flat chested. When I was a kid, I remember playing outside in the backyard of our home in Tucson, Arizona with my two blonde and pale sisters, barely five feet tall. They would look up at me, hands on their hips, and sing, “You were adopted, you were adopted, na-na, na-na-na.”
When I would run in the house crying, my mother would wipe her hands on her apron, open the sliding glass door, step outside with her hands on her hips and say, “Listen girls, your sister wasn't adopted and I wasn’t having an affair with the mailman. So, cut the crap or it’ll be your turn to do the dishes tonight.”
* * *
I refilled the bowl of my pipe, took another big hit, and headed for the window to exhale. The early dawn light broke across the sky as the police below were handcuffing the crack head and shoving him in the back of the police car. As I turned away from the window, the smell of Javier's cologne filled the room. Javier sat on the bed while tying his bootlaces. He looked up, flashed me a smile, walked to the bathroom for one last look in the mirror, and said, “Listo María? Vámonos, mi amor.”
After a ten-minute search for parking, we finally found a place a block away from the Seashore Café. Javi got out of the car first. I stayed in the car, lit the joint in my ashtray, and took two hits. I watched Javi walk up the street until he disappeared behind the dumpsters in the back of the restaurant.
* * *
Javi’s first day at work, Jose called me to the back and said, “This is my little brother, Javier. Be nice to him. He just got here from Michoacán.”
His killer green eyes and Che Guevara good looks momentarily rendered me speechless. Eventually, I mumbled, “Mucho gusto.”
Jose stared at me with a look of concern, shook his head, and continued, “Javi, this is Maria. She speaks some Spanish. You can ask her questions.”
“Con mucho gusto,” Javier said.
“Maria, would you help Javi with English lessons?” Jose asked.
I stammered, “Um… yeah sure. Yes, yes, of course. Maybe on Mondays?”
* * *
The Seashore Café is a greasy spoon diner where I worked to support myself through university. I still pick up shifts while figuring out what I want to do with my life. The owner, Tony, is an insane Italian man with a temper. Most customers are polite and interesting. University students on a budget dine here or just order coffee. Often conversations while pouring coffee and delivering burgers veered toward literature, philosophy, politics, upcoming papers and final exams. The drunks who come in after the bars close are obnoxious, but usually humorous.
* * *
A marijuana time warp made it seem I was sitting in my car for a long time. I jumped out of my car and raced down the street. Tony, was perched on the stool near the time cards arguing with the produce man about some brown lettuce when I darted through the door. Gasping for breath, I said, “Sorry, traffic was a bear. And the parking just a complete nightmare this morning.”
Tony glared at me while I punched in, threatened to fire me again for being late, and then continued his argument with the produce man. Tony had a loud bark, but in the five years I worked for him, no one ever got fired, unless they were caught stealing.
I almost made it through the swinging door when Tony called me back. “Here, I saved this for you,” he said, handing me the classified section from the Los Angeles Times. “You have no business working here anymore for chrissakes. Time to spread your wings and fly,” he urged while flapping his arms like a bird.
The Mexican cooks, illegal and afraid, work twelve-hour shifts, six days a week. Tired and homesick, they yell and scream out their frustrations at the waitresses. Ringing the bell repeatedly, I could hear Jose all the way at table twenty in the back. “María! Pick up this food! Antes de navidad, por favor!”
Some of our customers who hate their jobs, wives—or both, also take out their frustrations on the waitresses. They bombard us with incessant complaints about the food or service. Sundays are always the worst. Folks coming from services at various churches think that since they attended their once-a-week-praise-the-lord-activity hoping for a free pass into heaven, they can treat waitresses and busboys like crap.
One late night shift, just as the bars were closing, this guy with long hair, wearing a worn out black leather jacket, with the punk band Black Flag sprayed on the back in white letters, walked to the TV, changed it to a UHF channel with only snowy distortion displayed, and sat down at a table nearby. I asked him if he would like me to change the channel, thinking he was looking for something else. He said, “No, no, this is the channel I want. I am waiting for a message to come through.”
I said, “Okay. Can I get you a menu?”
He looked back at the TV screen and said, “No thanks. I’ll take a black coffee though. Thanks.”
Poor guy was probably a schizophrenic or tripping on drugs—or both. He was still staring at the screen when I left at three in the morning.
The waitresses were mostly university students, a few years younger than me. I dropped out of college for almost a decade. Wanderlust and men took precedence over my studies back then. I ended up living in a few major cities on the east coast and then headed to the beaches cities in California. Love for a man from New Zealand led me to leave Newport Beach, California and move with him to London and then the South Pacific.
Lily and Gabby are my closest friends at the restaurant. Lily is here on a study abroad program. She is from Yorkshire, about three hours north of London. When Gabby asked Lily about Yorkshire, she said, “It’s a place where you can see the ghosts of Catherine and Heathcliff roaming on the moors.”
Lily is studying creative writing. She dreamed of living in Paris when she graduated next year. Men requested to sit in her section all the time. They loved her accent, waifish body and brown doe-like eyes. She was Audrey Hepburn in a short skirt and Doc Martens.
Gabby has surfer girl long blonde hair and a tan. She is studying environmental science. Gabby always wore faded torn Levi jeans and short sleeveless tops showing off her surfer toned arms and abs. Her boyfriend has a boat in the marina where they both live.
Gabby is our hero at the restaurant for being brave enough to stand up to a rude customer. This customer was incredibly loud and rude to her. We heard him yelling from the counter where we picked up food. “Waitress! I can’t believe you call this food. And you. You were absolutely worthless,” he said as he threw a few coins on the table. Gabby walked to the table, grabbed the change, and threw it at him as he walked down the sidewalk. Unfortunately for Gabby, the bastard filed battery and assault charges. Luckily, Gabby’s Dad hired an expensive attorney who was able get the charges dropped.
* * *
After my shift, I got in my car and lit the half-smoked joint I left in the ashtray. The 70s station on the car radio was playing the Pink Floyd song “Time.” David Gilmour singing, “And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you, no one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun,” hit me especially hard on this day.
I decided to visit my voice of reason before my volunteer shift at KCRW, the public radio station in Santa Monica. I have been answering the phones at KCRW once a week since I graduated a year ago hoping Warren Olney, a journalist I had the utmost respect for, would notice me and ask me to produce his Peabody-Award winning radio show, To the Point. But mostly I accidentally hang up on record label executives calling in during the 3 o’clock hour when we had unsigned artists on the show. They would shout in the phone, “Connect me to the studio.” I would try to transfer, but push the wrong button hanging up on them instead. The day Beck came in for a live performance, the lines lit up like the twinkling lights on a Christmas Tree. Beck was unsigned and sleeping in his car at the time.
I hopped on the 405 freeway and headed to Westwood. After circling UCLA for thirty minutes, I finally found a spot in a parking structure. I took one last hit off the joint before reaching in the glove box for the eye drops and perfume.
Sitting on the couch in my old cross dresser professor's book-lined office, I began a rapid-fire soliloquy full of whiny angst. I included my dead-end job, broken dreams, and my inability to make a commitment to anything. Leaning back in his chair, arms folded across his chest, Professor Anderson listened intently, stroking his beard from time to time. His eyes grew bigger when I mentioned the Pink Floyd song I just heard. “I love that song!” Professor Anderson shouted, leaning forward excitedly. “You know that album broke the billboard record by staying in the top hundred for over ten years?”
* * *
I took Professor Anderson’s class, “19th Century Russian Intellectual History” my first quarter at UCLA. I sat in the front row of the large auditorium. He walked in wearing a Russia Cossack looking coat with faux fur around the collar, a white three musketeer-type looking shirt, faded jeans tucked into black knee-high riding boots. After going over the syllabus, he sat on the edge of the stage and addressed the students. While pulling out a lipstick from his pocket, he explained that from time to time he likes to wear dresses and skirts. He applied the lipstick—which was green, and offered no apologies about his cross dressing—or choice of lipstick color. He did let us know that he was smart enough about his cross dressing and did not do it in areas of Los Angeles where he feared he might get beat up. As I was packing up my book bag, he spoke directly to me. He asked where I got my dress. I told him I bought it for a dollar at a thrift store in Long Beach. He proceeded to tell me about all the great thrift stores in Venice Beach where he lived. I visited him a few times a week from then on. We would talk in his office or head to the student union for lunch.
I felt we were a couple of misfits in the sea of students and faculty on campus. I always felt like someone was going to tell me I was not good enough for UCLA and kick me out. I felt self-conscious being ten years older than most of the students. I often wondered if Professor Anderson ever felt like his cross dressing might get him kicked out.
* * *
From his place at his desk, you would never guess he was a cross dresser, except for maybe the hint of eyeliner he wore. His graying beard and ponytail—and the embroidered shirt from India he was wearing would make you think he was some old hippie.
“Look,” Professor Anderson continued, “I personally think you would make a great professor. Why not come back to school here and get your doctorate?”
I looked down and shook my head.
“I thought you loved school. Thought you would pitch a tent and never leave.”
The phone rang. Professor Anderson’s tone of voice changed. It was his girlfriend. In all the years I have known him, he has only dated Asian women. He has been with this woman for three years now—a record for him.
Hanging up, he said, "Sorry about that. Listen, I would love to have someone like you in this history department.”
“Well I just can’t bear the thought of working as a waitress for another five years. I’m too old for that—and way too many hoops to jump through to become a professor.”
“Not once you get tenure,” Professor Anderson replied while standing up from behind his desk revealing the floral print skirt he was wearing.
He walked to the corner of his office where he had a small fridge and coffee maker and asked, “Coffee?”
“Sure, sounds great,” I said smiling at his colorful skirt.
I leaned back, spread my arms across the back of the couch, and began scanning the bookshelf across from me. His literature books were in alphabetical order. I saw books by Bowles and Burroughs on the top row. I said, “What I really want to do is fly to Morocco, then head to Tunisia, find an opium den, and never re-emerge.”
“Okay, okay. Look, if it is travel you want, then why don’t you go over to the student lounge and take a look at the ‘overseas jobs’ board,” Professor Anderson suggested while pouring our coffees in cups without handles he picked up on his last trip to Mongolia. “There are always jobs for university graduates to teach English overseas. Or jobs working for humanitarian aid organizations or the Peace Corp,” he continued, handing me a cup.
I made my way across the crowded campus toward the student lounge. I walked by college girls in mini-skirts and tight tops just short enough to reveal flat stomachs and belly button piercings. The young men wore skinny jeans and t-shirts with their favorite bands or political statements, like ‘Free Leonard Peltier.’
Scanning the job board in the student lounge, I came across an index card with this ad: Teach in Bogotá, Colombia – When the school day ends, experience Colombian culture and cuisine, adventures to the Amazon and Andes Mountains, visit the beaches on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. International Job Fair, Biltmore Hotel, Los Angeles. The job fair was in a week.
* * *
Colombia conjured up images from the Gabriel García Márquez book One Hundred Years of Solitude. I read that book while living in Wellington, New Zealand. His writing lifted me out of my house and away from my Stepford Wife existence, flew me across oceans to the far away and exotic country of Colombia and into the lives of the characters in the story.
I moved to New Zealand with my fiancé Ian. We met at a party in Newport Beach, California. His New Zealand accent, surfer boy good looks, and sense of humor drew me to him. I brought him home with me that night and he never left. We moved to London together a year later.
Before we moved to London, I was leading a somewhat slacker and shallow life. Life in Newport Beach was easy. Working as a waitress at an elite restaurant four nights a week from 5 until 11 gave me lots of free time. My days were spent reading on the beach or riding my bike down the ocean bike path. I drank expensive wines when out at bars or restaurants and drove a trendy car. A neighbor of mine, John, was a journalist at the Los Angeles Times. He was my mentor—always lending great books to read—many by Nobel Prize winners. We would discuss these books over dinners or while hanging out on the beach. All discussions seemed to end with John telling me I belonged back in college. Before dropping out of college eight years ago at the age of nineteen, I was studying journalism and literature.
Ian found a flat in Kensington for us. A friend of Ian’s from New Zealand, Devon, was remodeling houses in Chelsea. Ian began working with Devon. I worked at a cafe on High Holburn called My Old Dutch near the West End. At the cafe, I met the most interesting women I have ever encountered in my life—to this day. Cristina from Sardinia had just returned from a six-month journey through South America, alone. She started out traveling with a friend, but they went their separate ways after a month. I just could not imagine traveling alone for so long. Most of my friends in California spent one week in Hawaii for their vacations. Valentina from Milan, Italy had many lovers a dozen years younger banging on her door at all hours of the night begging to be let in. Then there was the brilliant English girl, glamorous Tanis from Liverpool, but you would never know it. Tanis took elocution classes to lose the accent and sounded more like a member of the House of Lords. She was working on her law degree and sleeping with a younger man, recently arrived from Nigeria who was also studying law.
All of these women were so strong and adventurous. We spent nearly every afternoon together when our lunch shift ended at 2pm until 6pm when we had to return for the dinner shift. We walked to Convent Garden to have lunch at a cheap, but good vegetarian cafe. We shared stories, discussed the cultural differences between our countries, and of course discussed our men.
These women had such amazing stories and lives—so well-traveled. They opened up a whole new world to me. I felt that my life thus far in the culturally vacuous wasteland of Newport Beach was meaningless.
Valentina had coincidentally moved to New Zealand with a boyfriend she met in London who was filthy rich, but tight with his money. She lasted less than a year in Wellington before running back to London. She shared with me countless horror stories of her time there.
Ian also came from a wealthy family and was tight with his money. Valentina kept telling me how New Zealand was like stepping back in time in terms of how they viewed a woman's role. Valentina was a devout feminist and could not tolerate this sort of view. As a matter of fact, when I began having trouble with Ian, Valentina kept warning me not to go to New Zealand with him.
I made Ian leave our flat after several incidents I felt were worrisome. One morning he threw a tantrum after discovering he was out of clean socks. On that occasion, I said “Well, I guess when you took the last pair out of the drawer yesterday, you should have thrown a load of laundry in the wash.”
He stayed with a Devon for a week. At the end of that week, I called and asked him to meet me in Leicester Square for dinner at an Italian restaurant we loved. After my second glass of Chianti, I said, “Here’s the thing, if you are looking for a mother and a maid, I think you should head back to Kiwi-land and find yourself a nice Kiwi girl.” Ian raised his eyebrows. I held my hand up, and said, “Wait, I am not finished. Now, if you are looking for a lover and a friend, well then, I’m your girl.”
Ian said, “I can’t believe you could even think that.” He poured more wine in both our glasses. “I love you Maria. I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“Well Ian, you are not the same as you were in Newport Beach. You seem to forget, I am working too. So, you can take care of shopping and laundry, just like I can. If you use the last of the milk, go to the corner dairy and buy more.”
I spent a four-hour lunch with Valentina on the day I was to purchase the one-way tickets to New Zealand. We consumed two bottles of Pinot Grigio while I listened to Valentina's list of reasons not to go to New Zealand. At the end of this marathon lunch, I said, “If I do not go, I may wonder the rest of my life if I made the right decision.”
Valentina and I walked—more like stumbled and staggered our way across the street to the travel agency where I purchased non-refundable one way tickets to New Zealand.
We left London on yet another bone chilling cold and rainy November morning. I was happy to leave the weather behind, but so sad to leave my new friends who had become like sisters to me.
While in New Zealand, I was feeling very much like I wanted more from my life than being a wife, country club memberships, and tennis with the other wives. The London experience and the women I met inspired me to finish my degree. I told Ian that I wanted to go back to university. He said I was too old. I was twenty-nine at the time.
Shortly after Ian crushed my dream of a university education, I was home one afternoon escaping my mundane reality with the Gabriel García Márquez book One Hundred Years of Solitude. I had all the French doors and windows open in our house on this warm fall day. I put a pot of potatoes on to boil for dinner in between chapters.
The potatoes were on the verge of burning when Ian came home. The cross breeze from the open windows and doors kept the smell from reaching me in the living room. He picked up the pot and threw it across the kitchen. Ian stomped into the living room and yelled, “I am sick and tired of you sitting around reading books all the time!”
I ran from the living room for the bedroom. My hands were shaking so bad that I dialed the wrong number before finally reaching Phoebe, the wife of one of Ian's friends. I asked her to come and get me. Ian stood outside the bedroom banging on the door until Phoebe arrived ten minutes later.
I left New Zealand shortly after that, returned to the greater Los Angeles area, applied to UCLA, rode a bike for transportation, and got a job waiting tables at a diner—the Seashore Café. John, my mentor in Newport Beach was transferred to a Los Angeles Times bureau in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil while I was gone. I wrote him a letter and enclosed my letter of acceptance to UCLA. He was ecstatic I was returning to college.
* * *
As I walked into the swanky hotel lobby in downtown Los Angeles, the skirt from my new navy-blue suit I bought was riding up my thighs. I pulled it down as graciously as possible. I asked the elderly concierge where the job fair was being held. He answered with an English accent, “If you just walk down this hallway and take your first left, you will find your job fair.”
I entered the crowded convention room full of professionally dressed people. There were signs above all the tables that lined the walls indicating the different countries being represented. I strolled past long lines for interview appointments at the tables with teaching positions in Italy, Spain, France, and Argentina. I ended up in front of the table marked Colombia. Not a soul was in line. I stood staring with uncertainty at the man across the table who was rifling through some papers in front of him. When he looked up, his eyes locked with mine for what seemed like longer than normal. The man stood up and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to stare. I’m Dr. Martin, the director of the school in Bogotá.” He motioned to the empty chair across from him. “Are you interested in teaching in Colombia?”
* * *
The weekend after the international job fair was windy and rainy. The forecast was for five or more days of this nasty weather. If it rains in Southern California for more than two days in a row, the masses, in an Aldous Huxley, Brave New World-like way, rush to their doctors for prescriptions of Prozac.
I stood next to the Murphy bed with a tray of coffee and Javi’s favorite pastries I bought at the panaderia on Fourth Street. Javi looked up at me and asked, “Que hora es?”
“Almost ten,” I said while placing the tray on the table.
He grabbed me by the waist and pulled me down on the bed. He yawned and then said, “I think we should stay here all the day.”
We held each other tightly, legs entwined like pretzels. We dozed off with our lips locked in a kiss. I woke up a few hours later to a drool drenched pillow. I wiped the drool from my cheek, ran my fingers through Javi’s thick, dark hair, and watched him sleep. I thought about how I would write his story for the New York Times…
Transporting Human Cargo
By Maria Ambri
Times Staff Writer
They are called coyotes. Not the brown-four-legged-from-the-canine-family coyotes who howl and prowl at night through the streets near the outskirts of desert cities and towns in Arizona, knocking over trash cans in search of food. These coyotes are the men who orchestrate border crossings for desperate people escaping their poverty-stricken lives in Mexico or political persecution in various countries in Central America. Fees for their services range anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000.
Some coyotes take their human cargo through the rat-infested sewer tunnels near San Diego where they are forced to crawl on their stomachs in the dark, with the overwhelming stench of sewage, while rats bite and crawl under their clothes for the mile it takes to get to the other side. Emerging traumatized, dazed, and confused, the coyotes bustle their cargo into trunks of small compact cars. Crammed into the spoon position, they endure another two hours in total darkness with little air to breathe. The coyote drops his cargo off at some
rundown apartment in Anaheim where anywhere from ten to fifteen people live in a tiny one bedroom like cattle in a corral waiting to be slaughtered.
The trek through the mountains near Mexicali is 30 hours long with very little food or water. Crossing treacherous mountain passes at night with Border Patrol helicopters in the skies shining their lights on the frightened people running for their lives. They scour the dirt roads in Jeeps—and on horseback where the Jeeps drive. It is especially difficult for the children and the older women who are overweight, a Mexican busboy in Long Beach reported. Asking that only his first name be used, Javier shared what it was like when he tried to cross, “it was so cold that night we see our breath. The gordas, you know the fat ladies, were breathing hard and could barely make it. When I stopped to help these ladies, the immigration men came up on horseback. We were caught.”
The coyotes who take their cargo through the deserts in Arizona run the highest risk of loss on their investment. It doesn't take much time to die from dehydration in the hot desert sun near Arizona. As a result, volunteers from humanitarian-aid border group from the Tucson area roam the deserts near the border to set up water stations for the illegal immigrants.
Some coyotes take their brown-skinned cargo through the border town of Agua Prieta, near the town of Douglas, Arizona. The local red necks have been known to use illegal aliens as recreational target practice. Javier crossed through Agua Prieta in his second border crossing attempt.
"I go walking in a dirt road close to Douglas early one morning. An old green pick-up truck with gun rack in back window pass me. The driver screech to a stop in front of me. Two men inside, they pull guns down out de rack They jump out and shoot at me, " Javier said.
Javier paused for a long time before continuing with his story, “I ran through the field. I could feel bullets flying past my ears. Then I walk to the town of Bisbee. An artist lady walking her dog saw me. She said I look like a deer caught in headlights. She took me to her home and let me spend the night in her studio behind her house. In the morning, she tell me she go to Tucson for some things. She drive me to Tucson and buy me a bus ticket to
Los Angeles. She said something about karma. You know this thing karma?"
The rain was pounding against my windows. I whispered in his ear, “Javi, mi amor, I have something to tell you.”
Javi left my apartment in the pouring rain, refusing to borrow my umbrella. He seemed to stop listening to a word I said after I told him I would be leaving for Bogotá in six weeks. I watched him walk to the bus stop from my window. He looked so small standing there in the rain, hands thrust deep in the pockets of his jeans.
I walked to my couch, sat down and watched the rain pour down in sheets with my cordless phone in my lap. I pressed redial for the third time. Not ready to hear the one hundred questions my mother would fire at me about my decision to move to a war-torn country, I hung up after the first ring.
I glanced over at the book on my kitchen table. My brother, Brad, the research scientist at Stanford University, express-mailed Gabriel García Márquez’s News of a Kidnapping to me from San Francisco when I told him I signed a contract to teach in Bogotá, Colombia. Brad also included a mixed CD with an arty cover he made. We were both fans of dream pop. The CD was filled with tracks by The Dream Syndicate, Swirlies, My Bloody Valentine, Broken Social Scene, and Stereolab.
Brad was the only one in the family I called last weekend. Alarmed, he said, “Are you crazy? You must have some sort of death wish.”
I said, “No death wish. Just a wish for something more than this life I’m living right now.”
“Weren’t there any jobs teaching in Argentina, Brazil or Europe for that matter? Why Colombia?” Brad asked.
“There were. But the lines were long to interview and competition tough. I feel lucky to have been given this opportunity Brad,” I argued. “Look, it’s a private school. Embassy kids and the children of the president of Colombia attend the school. And they are setting me up in a nice apartment with a maid.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” he said.
I invited Brad to the going away party Lily and Gabby were organizing. He said “Oh you bet I will be there. Are you inviting mom and dad out to see you before you take off?”
“Have you told mom?’
“Not yet,” I said.
Brad laughed and then said, “Good luck with that.”
“Yeah, I’m not looking forward to it,” I replied.
“Look, I was watching ABC news with Peter Jennings the other night. There was a report about these three Americans who were kidnapped for six months by the guerillas,” he said.
“Yes really. I am telling you Maria, they looked like death. There was a Red Cross Jeep, with nuns and what appeared to be aid workers, waiting on the side of the road next to a mountain covered in mist.”
“Then the kidnapped men appeared through the mist, escorted by men in green army fatigues brandishing machine guns over their shoulders,” Brad continued.
“Did the report say what they were doing in Colombia?” I asked.
“Yes, they worked for an oil company and were out birdwatching when they were captured.”
While Brad was waiting for my response, I could hear the street traffic outside his house.
“Listen, Brad, I am not ready to die yet. I know it is dangerous, but Escobar is dead. And I think the rebel groups and paramilitaries kidnap the rich. I am far from being rich.”
“Look, if you make it back alive, you will certainly have some stories to tell,” he said.
“Yes, I will. And stop being so melodramatic,” I pleaded.
“I am going to send you a book by Gabriel García Márquez,” Brad continued.
“I love him. You know I love him,” I said.
“Well it’s not a work of fiction. It’s based on a true story.”
“Is it News of a Kidnapping?”
“Yes. You’ve heard of it?” Brad asked.
“I read the review in the New York Review of Books. I’ve been meaning to buy it. It’s about that female journalist who was kidnapped.”
“I want you to promise to read it before you leave.”
* * *
While signing the contract at the job fair last week, the director asked me if I had any questions. I pulled my pen away from the contract and pressed the end against my chin. After some hesitation, I asked about the weather. Dr. Martin looked relieved. He smiled and said, “Well, the Colombian people describe Bogotá as the city with four seasons in a day. Did you know Bogotá is 8600 feet above sea level? So, the weather can be chilly like San Francisco.”
I slid my signed contract across the table and asked, “What do you mean by four seasons in one day?”
Dr. Martin picked up my contract and put it in a file. He folded his hands together on the table, looked up at me and continued, “Well if it rains in the morning, it will be sunny in the afternoon and if it is sunny in the morning you can bet it will rain in the afternoon. And when it rains, it’s as cold as winter day.”
“Cold as a winter day?” I asked.
“But when the clouds move out, it gradually warms up like spring or autumn, until finally it might feel like a summer day. Four seasons in one day.”
I leaned back in my chair feeling comfortable for the first time since our interview began. I said, “You thought I was going to ask you about the political situation, didn't you?” I leaned forward and clasped my hands together like his and continued, “The way I look at it, I don’t think the guerillas will be too interested in kidnapping a poor teacher. Don’t they usually go after the rich, sort of like Robin Hood did?”
Dr. Martin looked down and started shuffling some papers on the table. He mumbled something under his breath I could not quite make out.
I smiled and said, “Well, the weather sounds like something I could live with for a year.”