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Friday, June 22, 2012

Dinner at Daniel's

Dinner at my dear friend Daniel’s house was a feast for the soul. He whipped up a Cali-Asian fusion of silver rice noodles soaking in spicy green curry sauce, fresh veggies seasoning every bite. Daniel is a brilliant writer, the topic of our many conversations. His style is raw and poetic, blocks of words brimming with emotions that linger with you long after you’ve put the pages down. Hours passed like minutes between us until the next thing I knew, it was time to go home. This is where I knew things would get tricky. Daniel lives in a super sketchy part of town. From his kitchen, we’d looked down at the streets where sparks of lighters flickered above crack pipes. Skeletal women roamed the streets, looking for men to feed their bodies to so they could feed their habit. If I had the power to, I’d blink and the neighborhood would be a welcoming place for folks to call home. For now I had to worry about actually getting home. “I can walk you to the train station,” Daniel offered, and I graciously accepted.
            It turned out, walking down the street in Daniel’s neighborhood was easy. We chatted effortlessly as life carried on around us. Sure I received a couple of stolen glances, but not one word was said to me—not one. No one drooled a “hey baby” at me or blew any whistles my way. Men did not click their tongues at me as if I were a cat. People weren’t just seeing me; they were seeing me walk with a 6-foot tall confident man through his neighborhood. I felt a strange and lovely sense of protection. Even in broad daylight, I'm always on guard. What a peculiar privilege men have to walk so freely through the streets…are half of them even aware of this entitlement?
            At the top of the train station, I stalled my goodbye. A McDonald’s coffee cup had gotten stuck in a crack at the top of the escalator. Each rising step pushed the cup continuously before flattening out underneath the massive wheel in motion. The cup kept rolling and rolling in perfect circles. It was just a piece of trash but I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. I wanted to feel that way. I wanted to stay in that feeling forever with Daniel, that strange secure sense of invincibility in an exuberant world of chaos. I’m not saying men don’t have their own set of fears, but being violated by someone forcefully stronger than them isn’t likely the same reality that women carry with them everyday. I’ve been mugged before; my mugger flung me fiercely into the wall of a corner-store before I collapsed to the ground, wriggling desperately on a sidewalk soaked of piss and spilt beer. Another time a man touched my crotch late at night when I was walking to the train station after work—just walked by and glided his finger over me as if I were a piece of fruit at the market he’d suddenly changed his mind on. He laughed when I screamed back at him—laughed.
            I waved goodbye as the escalator carried me underground, trying to keep the strange high that Daniel had left me with. I couldn’t believe it. I’d walked through the ghetto at the heart of witching hour and I wasn’t even harassed—I wasn’t even afraid. I couldn’t wait to tell my ruca how good it felt to be me at that moment: a lighthearted freeness that a child might feel before life warps them. When I got to the bottom of the station, a young man was screaming on his cell phone about just having gotten evicted, and what the fuck was he going to do? And why the fuck wasn’t whoever he was calling answering his phone?! Cursing, strings of spit dangled from his lips as I walked past him, the only person in his sight or mine. The station agent booth was empty. Outside sounds drowned away in the roar of ambulance sirens from the streets. An ominous emotion flickered across the man’s eyes as he sized me up, too obviously fitting a scenario in his head. My safe-house feeling vanished. The protection, the security, it had all disappeared now and I was back to “normal.” Bluffing fearlessness, I squared my shoulders broadly as I hurried past him down the stairs. In that very moment, I envied Daniel as much as I loved him.
             The train blasted through the station, ready to take me back home where I’d soon be with my ruca and the cats. I hardly flinched as the train delivered a fervent gust of chilled night air through the tunnel. My mind was somewhere else. I couldn’t get the image of the coffee cup out of my head, it was all I could think about. It had rolled and rolled at the top of the escalator, stuck like a perfect wheel in motion…it could’ve gone on forever. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Studio on York Street

The ruca and I used to live in a studio on York Street. The ruca lived there first but I went with her to see the open house one Saturday afternoon. We weren’t living together yet, we were still “dating;” still getting used to trying pet-names with each other like ‘baby’ and ‘mi amor;’ still getting used to the awkward primitive questions like, “how do you like your steak cooked?” (Me: medium-rare, ruca: well done.)
York Street was lined with trees, an older, quieter part of the Mission where cats blinked out at you from windows and hopscotch covered sidewalks in rainbow-colored chalk. After the ruca scored the spot, we painted the kitchen a magnificent pink and green watermelon theme, and the bathroom a bright yellow marigold against a cobalt blue. The Frida Kahlo house, we called it. She was just settling in when my winds changed.
My younger sister had gotten sick with pneumonia. For weeks she’d struggled in ICU, weak as a baby bird with a 50/50 chance of surviving. I moved back to San Diego to nurse her back to health until slowly, gradually, she bloomed back to life. After six months I returned to the city and into the studio with the ruca, where I learned how to live with someone else other than family for the first time. I’d been living with my older sister in the city before that, who didn’t seem to mind that I left clothes trailed from one room to another like Hansel and Gretel’s path of pebbles. Cohabitation was challenging, especially since our bedroom/living room was supposed to fit all of our clothes in a closet the size of a pantry, and we both had enough tacones to open our own shoe shop. Then there was the getting to know each other phase all over again. We were in the honeymoon stage when I’d left, and for six months had talked on the phone every night about our separate lives. Now I was in bed next to her, hogging the bed-sheets. She asked me once, appalled: “Do you always sleep in till 11?” To which I answered, “When I work till one in the morning, yes…and I guess the days I don’t, too.”
Our landlords were “witches” who practiced some kind of magic and lived in the two units upstairs from us. They were nice enough but I knew not to touch the strange ornaments I found in the back yard, should I begin to grow an extra toe or something. And I suspected that the cryptic mosaic on the bathroom floor was not just some whacky art piece in bad taste. I made sure rent was always paid on time. The house was also cold—very cold. Shivering in the morning, I would bundle in ridiculous layers like I was hitting the ski slopes in Tahoe, then walk outside to a seventy-degree day. I wanted the house to be warm and flooded with smells of food, so I began to practice my cooking more than ever. The ruca turned me onto Los Tigres del Norte and I blasted the album incessantly while I cooked and “experimented” in the kitchen (although to this day, I don’t think I will ever attempt to make bell-pepper soup again, yuck).
There was a taco van a few blocks away that sold cheap and tasty tacos, dripping in chile. Sometimes I’d walk around the neighborhood, letting my mind write the way it does when I let it run free. At the time, I was still deciding if I should be a writer or go to nursing school. What kind of life was a struggling writer anyway? I listened closely to my thoughts on these walks. They said I was happy even though I didn’t fully feel settled. My life was on the cusp of so many transitions; all I wanted was for the waves to crash so I could finally feel some peace. I knew we wouldn’t stay at the York Street studio forever but being there made me realize that for the very first time, I wanted a place for us to call home, and I wanted it with the ruca.
The other day I was driving in the neighborhood with my cousin who was visiting from out of town. I took a detour, driving down good ol’ York Street for no apparent reason at all. For all the monumental transformations that took place inside the tiny studio, it just looked like any other ordinary house from the outside. The tree out front had grown, its branches shaggy and full, and the building had been painted in fresh bright coats. An entire world I once lived in rushed back to me: the cold Frida Kahlo House filled with warm smells of food, a struggling writer struggling with being a writer, too many shoes and snoring till noon. I pointed out the house to my cousin. “The ruca and I used to live there,” I said, the fact sounding as plain as saying the sky is blue.
My cousin joined my gaze. Her fingertips tapped on the window, as if trying to touch another era of time that had long past. “Oh,” she said, a curious smile on her lips. “How nice.”

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Full Moon

I watched the moon grow from a skinny sliver in the sky to a full-blown marvel illuminating above. On the night of the full moon, I was going to do my first reading at an open mic. It was a season closer—a guaranteed packed house—and writers and performers have five minutes to dock from their 15 minutes of fame in trying to win over the crowd.
I contemplated this event many times as I gazed up at the sky, the lunar light a visual calendar for my upcoming night. In my day-dreams, I would have an epic performance. My words would flow effortlessly as I read aloud a five-page excerpt from my novel. Everyone would laugh at the funny points, especially the part when my protagonist meets her landlord’s stuffed Chihuahua, Vegas. When I finished, the crowd’s fervid laughter would light up the room and I would read the audience’s eyes like open books. They would be thinking, This girl’s got something. She is someone to look out for. My fantastical daydreams had soared madly all month, shooting up like an arrow that never falls down.
The morning of the performance I woke up with a pain in my chest, as if someone had taken a lead pipe and bashed the inside of my ribcage. I trembled in fetal position. What was wrong with me? Was I having a freakish asthma attack? Had I swallowed stones for breakfast? The pain only worsened as I opened my laptop to prepare. I tried reading my first paragraph aloud and keeled over in pain, tears oozing involuntarily out of my clenched shut eyes. If I weren’t only 31 and healthy as a horse, I’d have thought I was having a heart attack.
“Isn’t it obvious? You’re having anxiety about tonight,” my ruca counseled.
“Anxiety? Don’t be ridiculous,” I scoffed. “What’s so big about reading to a packed house full of nearly a hundred people for the very first…ugh,” I cringed. Just at the mention of it, a new surge of torment had shot through me.
The ruca shook her head. “You don’t have to do this tonight if you’re not emotionally ready.”
“But I have to go—I need to go!” I insisted stubbornly.
For the next hour and a half I attempted sitting up in bed to read my work only to fall back down, contorting miserably in pain like a bad double in an Exorcist scene. My mental will hashed out a long battle with my physical will, but in the end, it was my body that called the shots. I’m not going to make it, I decided. And as soon as I realized it, the pain began to magically and gradually alleviate from my chest, only proving my ruca’s point exactly: I wasn’t having a freakish asthma attack—I was having a terrible case of nerves about my very first performance.
After this realization, I took up a whole new battle and began to beat myself up ruthlessly for not making the show. I’m a failure, I’m a coward, I’m a royal and world-class wuss. I exhausted myself until I finally called a truce between my tender emotions and my ball-busting ego, who, when it comes to writing, is about as kind to me as Glee’s coach Sue. I’m hard on myself in every other aspect of my life…why couldn’t I let this one anxiety attack slide?
I spent the night in the comfort of my Frisco family’s house eating homemade strawberry shortcake and watching TV and movies, until my laughter no longer followed cue to the laugh-track and was indeed my own. The full moon burst out in the sky, growing brighter as the night grew darker. It wasn’t even a mocking reminder for not being at the show; instead its magnificent fullness seemed to grant me a strange sense of comfort. I supposed my own hopes were like the moon in many ways. Sometimes when I feel so depleted, a light in the sky fills itself back up, a glowing blaze that lights the way. There will be other open mics and other performances to go to. And for now, I'll have to be at peace with that much. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Miami Beet

It was a Saturday afternoon and the nail shop was as psychotic as ever. Women toiled with remote controls to their spa chairs—“How do you get it to knead and roll at the same time?” A teenager shouted on her phone that some girl was “hella stupid—ohmygod, hella stupid.” Shards of fingernails were free-flying from the tip of electric files, making mini chainsaw sounding screeches through the air, while dialogue between the Vietnamese technicians was nothing less than frantic. One of the technicians was begging a little girl to stay still so she could paint her toes, while her mother shouted in a heavy British accent: “I need to be out of here in 15 minutes—fifteen!” Fans spewed on wet nails, shiny, twinkling like diamonds, and the women getting dried sat tall and regal, just as proud as if there were indeed jewels at their fingertips.
For the last hour and a half, I’d been trying to keep a centered zen composure. But I waited forty minutes longer than quoted and when I finally got a seat, I soaked my fingertips in soapy lukewarm water while my technician, Mai, did an eyebrow wax for someone. By the time she came back, my fingertips were shriveled prunes in the cold dead liquid—and the girl next to me on the phone had—omg!—hella not shut up the entire time.
“You pay now before I paint,” Mai instructed, in her thick Vietnamese accent that I’ve come to comprehend fluently.
I shelled out the cash for my manicure. Ten bucks with tip money wasn’t much, but it also wasn’t nothing either. Especially if you do this once a week; forty bucks a month is at least a week’s worth of groceries, and here I was, applying it to the beauty at my fingertips. Today’s color was Miami Beet.
The shop went back to its normal chaos: “Mommy! I want my toes puh-pul!” the little girl began to throw a tantrum. “Is that your final coat? I really have to be leaving soon,” the mother rolled her eyes. A horrific shriek erupted from the waxing room. A lady who was old enough to be my grandmother was laughing uncontrollably as her feet were getting exfoliated. “So I was like ohmygod, really, that’s like hella whack for reals, like seriously?” “Then we’re going to a party tonight…” “Excuse me? Can I get a flower on my toe? I don’t care, just paint something pretty.” “How much longer for a wax?!” “You’re going to do my nails? I think I’ll wait for Mai, no offense.” “I need change for a ten!” “You want half hour foot massage? Twenty dollars extra.”
Mai finished the second topcoat on my nails and that’s when I looked at them for the first time. The color was stunning, the darkened fuchsia complimenting beautifully against my morena skin. I stared at them mesmerized, waiting for them to dry completely as the chaos continued to tornado all around me. The entire rest of the day, I would flash my nails in front of me at any opportune moment: pulling hairs out of my face that weren’t there, touching up my lip-gloss just to line a pretty painted finger around my lips.
Gone were the tugging hang-nails around my cuticles, gone was the roughness and jagged edges of my nails that had accumulated during my work-week. Judging by my hands, there was no sign of the stress I put on them from my bartending job that drives me more neurotic than this nail-shop, but nevertheless pays my rent, pays my bills—pays me the time to let me write while I’m waiting for my actual writing career to take off. I felt many things at that moment, but what I liked most was the feeling that I didn't feel: like a frustrated and bitter bartender who sometimes hides my calloused worked fingers in my pockets.
“You come back next week, I give you new manicure,” Mai pointed at me, once I was dry and stood to leave.
“Yes,” I promised, almost outside where the sunny afternoon I’d missed was now waning. I waved goodbye to the estrogen entropy, dazzling my fabulous Miami Beet nails. “I’ll be here! I’ll see you then.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Rejection Letter

The letter came. I’d been waiting months for it. I tried to predict what my reaction would be when the moment of truth became real. Would I burst out into tears and slobber sloppily onto my pillow, or jump up and down like Bob Barker just called my name on The Price is Right?
When the letter finally arrived, it almost seemed surreal. I was trying to be polite but I snatched the envelope out of the mailman’s hands (who knew I’d been waiting for it), and dashed inside. My blustering energy had left the cats curious enough to stir awake from their naps. I looked at the envelope for one whole second before tearing it open, although carefully enough not to rip the letter itself. My throat had dried up like I’d just swallowed a stick of chalk. My hands were shaking like Momma needed a drink. I felt as if my entire destiny lay in the words before me.
I read the letter.
The words ‘unfortunately,’ ‘we encourage you next time’ and ‘thank you’ (for nothing) jumped out at the page. I’d been rejected. I didn’t get into the MFA in Creative Writing program I’d applied to.
As you can guess, dear reader, my reaction was not one of Bob Barker’s fans ecstatic to the point of a seizure. My go-to self-soothing words of, “it wasn’t meant to be,” and “it’s not that your work wasn’t good, you just have to keep trying,” failed me. What if I wanted something to be—really, really badly? And furthermore, if my work really is good, then why wasn’t it good enough?
Although my ego felt like it’d been run over by a dump truck, I looked at the time. I had to go to work.
My co-worker, another bartender who’s been bartending longer than I’ve been alive (seriously—37 years) noticed something was wrong as soon as I clocked in. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing,” I shrugged.
“C’mon, you can tell the old man,” he prodded.
I sang like a canary: the letter, waiting months for it, the rejection and feeling like a world-class loser.
“Toughen up, kid. You don’t want to go to some stupid school that won’t take you anyway! What would cheer you up? How ‘bout a slice of carrot cake?”
“I don’t want carrot cake.”
“Too bad, I know it’s your favorite. Listen, you can’t give up; you have to keep applying for as many things as possible. And above all—you have to keep writing! You don’t want to end up an old and cranky bartender like me, do you?”
I looked at him. He was pointing his muddler at me.
The ruca picked me up from work and surprised me with a box of chocolates, and besitos all over my face. I stayed home that weekend and watched back-to-back episodes of The Office on Netflix and emotionally ate myself into an oblivion. It was great.
On my next writing day, I stared at my computer long and hard without turning it on. For days, all my emotions had been fluttering inside my chest, like butterflies rapping their wings inside me to escape. I recalled an old Ernest Hemingway quote: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Finally, I sat down with my computer. The cats cuddled up all around me. I began to write, my emotions bleeding out onto pages and pages.
It was beautiful. It was savage. And going forward, it was my only choice.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Night Pizza

               Friday nights of my childhood were spent doing many things: watching TGIF shows on TV like Full House, telling ghost stories to my friends over sleepovers and, of course, going out for pizza. Filippi’s Pizza Grotto was our favorite family stomping ground; my sisters and I played tic-tac-toe on Mom’s scratch paper while we waited for what seemed like forever for pizza. Dad would ask what pizza toppings we all wanted, and even though I didn’t care for it I would request sausage—just because my older sister hated it and would predictably glare at me from across the table. My dad would try to teach us how to eat spaghetti with a spoon, and my mom would wipe at my face with a napkin and tsk, “Oh, sweetie!” 
Nostalgia won the best of me when my dad asked last week where I wanted to eat while I was back home visiting. It was Friday night—duh, pizza. My mom had gone to an event and we’d forgotten to take my sister’s wheelchair out of her car trunk, so I helped my younger handicapped sister walk step by step from the car curb into the restaurant, missing the “pizza window” out front. My dad used to lift me up to this pizza window to see a huge kitchen full of cooks spinning wheels of floured dough, and catching them with the spindle of their forefingers. Gazing into this window held the same fascination as magic to a kid. I shrugged off my slight disappointment. I was too old to be awestruck by some silly pizza window now anyway.
Inside, we sat in a bright room that had been built as an add-on years later that struck no spark of familiarity in me at all. It was not the same dim-lit room filled with garlands of garlic, and glowing red candles on the red and white checkered tablecloths. It was a bright room filled with families singing “happy birthday, cha-cha-cha!” and men staring up at the basketball games on T.V. Looking around me, I sipped on wine—something else I also never experienced as a kid. We were in the same restaurant I’d known all through my childhood, but everything felt so…different.
The food was just as good as I remembered: salad soaked in vinaigrette and strings of cheese pulling from each bite of pizza, the sauce a bright zest of tomatoes. We slurped up spaghetti and swallowed down raviolis, dipping buttered bread in the leftover plates of sauce. All of a sudden, my dad hollered out across the dining room: “Mauricio!” Over to us walked one of the waiters; a lanky man with a square jaw and wavy hair tied back in a ponytail. My dad was excited. “You used to wait on us all the time! These are my girls, they’re grown now.”
My sister thrust out her hand to Mauricio, although it looked like she was waiting for it to be kissed rather than shaken. “I Laura,” she giggled.
 I followed my sister’s lead. “Hello,” I said, my voice sounding suddenly shy. “I remember you, too.”

My dad helped Laura walk out of the restaurant. He didn’t have to drive up to the curb since he’d parked in the first space on the side reserved for take-out orders. That’s when we saw the pizza window. I was awestruck all over again as the men were busy at work in the kitchen. Even Laura stopped to stare, pressing her tiny fingertips like suctions on the glass. One of the cooks pointed at her and tossed the saucer-like dough extra high in the air just for her. She grinned, satisfied at the special treatment. As we turned the corner to the parking lot, I remembered the one thing I’d almost forgotten: the oven’s fan, blowing its scorching pizza fumes into the thick cold of night. How strong is the sense of smell! It’s a phenomenon beyond the simple base of sight because you feel it explode and burst through every waking cell in your body. After dinner, the sweet coolness of spumoni had put all my hunger pangs to rest, and still, my mouth began to flood as I stood beneath the fan.
The rain began just as we left, cascading down on the windshield as my dad drove us home. “It was great to see Mauricio,” my dad chatted, the windshield wipers squeaking against the glass.
I nodded. “You know, he looked exactly the same. Just…older.”
I thought about this as the car splashed out sheets of rain beneath its tires. Almost everything had been the same...just older.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

Man's Best Friend

It was one of those idealistic days that birthdays are made of. Out of the clamor of city traffic and past the towering peaks of the Golden Gate Bridge, the ruca and I were off to meet our friend Corrie for her birthday celebration. First we chucked oysters at Tomales Bay and swallowed them down whole, soaked in lemon and stinging of chipotle. Then we explored the notorious “pond” that Corrie has forever been bragging about: a magnificent mouth of water under a canopy of trees that reflects on its scintillating surface. Later we stopped for more wine to catch the sunset on the beach, although darkness seemed to be devouring away day’s light faster than we could move.
While Corrie and I waited outside the liquor store for our friends, a tall lumbering homeless man, as big and solid as a redwood tree, walked decidedly up to us. Half of his face was filled with a cotton fluff of beard, and a rather large belly fit snug against his red plaid coat. (If I were a kid I might’ve screeched out, “Santa Clause!”) “Whatchu got there?” he asked Corrie, whose tiny black Chihuahua was poking out of her jacket.
 “It’s my dog,” Corrie answered, hardly intimidated by the man’s titanic size. She unzipped her jacket, and out popped Ceelie: a tiny black Napoleon-minded dog who not only has mind control over Corrie’s pit-bull, but likes to cuddle with cats. 
“Aww,” the man marveled.
Corrie and I exchanged glances, registering that the man, albeit all size, was harmless—a gentle giant. Corrie held the dog in the air, its legs dangling beneath her like swings. “Would you like to hold her, Sir?”
His face lighting up, he handled Ceelie delicately, as if she might break in his massive hands. Excited at the new guest, Ceelie wagged her tail and licked his nose. The man tickled with laughter as she nuzzled her tiny black snout into his chest. “She’s so soft,” he gushed, and I couldn’t help but think of Lennie from Of Mice and Men; “It’s so soft, George.” Imitating Corrie, he zipped up his coat, and Ceelie stuck her head out from the top; warm, content. “She likes me,” he croaked. The words could’ve come from a child.
We stood very still in the moment’s harmony, enjoying the unlikely bond between the two. Our friends came racing out behind us suddenly, carrying with them a rush of anxiety as the last of the sun’s light began to spill away. “Let’s go!” they called out, and the man’s face crushed, his zen shattered like glass.
“We’re going to catch the sunset,” Corrie explained softly.
The man moved slowly, delicately handing Ceelie back from hand to hand. That’s when he blurted out: “I want a dog like that! Where could I…get a dog like that?”
Our friends, noticing that we were lagging behind, rejoined us. “You want a dog like that?” one of our friends jumped in. “They always have notices on that bulletin for dog adoptions.”
The man blinked hard but the emotion would not escape his eyes. Who would let a homeless person adopt a dog?

We missed the sunset by minutes but it didn’t matter. The city lights twinkled in the distance, under a sky ablaze with fiery streaks like a messy watercolor. Stars popped out in the sky as the sunset hues burned to the dark ash of night. We pitched a fire, opened the wine, shared stories and laughed until our bellies ached. In the company of friends and lovers, my ruca and I wrapped our arms around each other as one. I couldn’t get the man out of my head though, I kept hearing his voice: “I want a dog like that.” What he meant to say was that he wanted a companion: a tiny creature who would snuggle beside his chest when he slept; the non-judgmental and unconventional love that a pet brings to their master. After all, isn’t companionship one of life’s richest treasures that everyone wants in some way or form?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Mini-Bus

The bus was fifteen minutes late. We waited in the rain and when it finally arrived, the ruca and I wrung our hair out, miserably soaked and soggy as spitballs. Although we’d taken a larger tour bus from Santo Domingo to Las Galeras, our tour guide had told us the local mini-bus was the “same” as the other one—just cheaper.
The conductor hopped off and immediately pointed at our bulky brick of luggage. “That suitcase is huge—it’s ridiculous! You’ll have to buy an extra seat for it.”
“An extra seat?” we huffed. (Ah, the price women pay for packing ten pairs of shoes!)
Desperate for dry space, we agreed irritably. Onboard, we were met by three young women in their 20s who were singing—or rather, yelling—along to the bachata blasting on the radio.
Psst!” I nudged my ruca once we’d settled in. “I think they’re lesbians! And I think they’re drunk.”
“No,” she scoffed. Then, “really?”
We sneaked peeks behind us. One was guzzling down a bottle of Brugal Rum like a frat-boy playing beer pong while the other two were making out when they weren’t hollering out the high notes. All the other passengers shook their heads, chuckling under their breath at the karaoke bar the bus had become.
Through wet windy roads of the mountains, our driver texted non-stop as we pulled over to pick up more passengers. An elder man hobbled on, who the conductor was unusually kind to and addressed as “Papa.” Another man, handsome and seeming a little bit macho, settled into a seat next to one of the inebriated lesbians who was now crying out a song about a broken heart. Next to us, an innocent faced blond boy and his terrified looking girlfriend had sniffed us out as American. “Do you know how long it takes to get to Santo Domingo from here?” the guy asked us, unfolding his map.
We told him what our tour guide had told us: that it’d be the same two and a half hour ride. (Ha! Words we would later come to choke on.) We chit-chatted politely, his terrified girlfriend possibly a mute. Turns out he was a Midwest boy who lived in Puerto Rico with his Russian girlfriend he’d met in Moscow. The globe in my head was spinning when I realized something else; we were stopping way too often. Time was stretching out, long as taffy.
 In a major transport city, Samaná, we stopped long enough for the lesbians to go pee. The macho señor turned to the women with a bite in his voice. “You better use the bathroom now before the bus fills up and they put a seat between you.”
I looked at the aisle, which was narrow enough to pass through if you walked sideways. How would anyone fit a seat there?
The young woman fired back. “Uh-uh! No one’s gonna put anything in me! Maybe they’ll put it in you.”
“Are you crazy?! No one’s gonna put that thing in me either!”
Pero mi amor, maybe you need one in you.”
“No, no, no! I’m sure you could squeeze one in you. Just put a little Baby Oil to loosen it up.”
Baby Oil? I scratched my head, confused at the handfuls of Spanish I was picking up…. Were we still talking about a seat?
“Papi,” the lesbian hollered back. “I obviously haven’t had anything in me in years, and it’s not gonna happen now!”
The entire bus was a roaring laughter as the macho whooped and belted out: “Whoever gets the seat in them is a sucker!”
The Midwest boy had registered enough conversation and turned to his trembling girlfriend. “Oh, I get it. They’re talking about putting a…” he stopped, flushed.
With the energy of punks in a mosh-pit, the bus was still rowdy over who was going to be the sucker with the seat “in” them, until Papa finally spoke, silencing all of us: “Son tan vulgares!”
                Later, it seemed like we were on the main road back to Santo Domingo and had gotten more than five minutes of solid speed when the bus stopped to pick someone up. “Wait, I have to use the bathroom!” one of the lesbians cried, even though we’d just stopped. She hopped off and went pee in some bushes. We sighed…checked our watches…she came back. We took off again. The driver answered a few more texts and a few minutes later we stopped again. “Wait, I have to use the bathroom!” one of the other lesbians cried. A couple people snorted. She hopped off and went pee in some bushes. We sighed…checked our watches…she came back. We drove some more. The driver answered a few more texts and a few minutes later we stopped again. “Wait, I have to—” “Hijo de su madre!” the entire bus cried, up in arms. “This is an outrage!” “Ridiculous!” “Absurd!” Dozens of Dominicans shouted all at once, the macho growled like a pit-bull, and the ruca and I froze, beyond baffled. The Midwest boy looked up at me from his map, his flash-light glasses glaring at me. “I think we’ve been misinformed.”
               The crowd was worst than a pen-coop of squabbling chickens all pecking madly at each other, the lesbians defensively slurring their laughter back at them until finally Papa spoke. “I’m 83 years old!” he shouted. “I’ve been riding this bus for over 40 years, and I have never experienced anything like this!” He sounded thoroughly disgusted with all of us.
               Things calmed down a little bit after that, almost promising a peaceful ride the rest of the way. The lesbians sang until they slumbered into an alcohol comatose, and the Midwest boy was explaining the capital’s population and elevation to his girlfriend. The macho groaned and tapped his feet while Papa behind him began to snore. We passed fields of sugar cane, a plethora of palm trees, shacks and mansions, galloping horses and fat grazing cows. Every single seat in the bus was now full, and still, we stopped and picked up a man. As the macho had predicted, the conductor unfolded a small cushion between him and one of the lesbians in the next seat, who was not only passed out in her girlfriend’s arms, but revealing a huge eyeful of but-crack. The macho fought back immediately. “You’re not putting that seat there! I’m practically touching this girl’s ass as it is!”
               “He’s skinny,” the conductor waved at the man.
               “I don’t give a shit! No!” 
                The conductor next tried the seat between the Midwest boy and me. My ruca snapped suddenly to attention. “Uh-uh—no way.”
                “I need the space.”
                “I’ve already paid you extra money for an entire seat—I’m not giving you anymore space.”
                “Your suitcase was huge,” he scoffed.
                “Yeah, but you put all those other suitcases on my chair that no one else had to pay for—are you going to give me some money for sharing my seat with everyone else’s stuff?” she bellowed. The ruca was definitely getting streets on his ass.
                “No,” he admitted.
                “Of course not. And you’re not putting that seat here either! We’ve already given you enough business,” she exhaled firmly.
                The Midwest boy nudged his girlfriend. “They wanted to put a seat here, but she wouldn’t let them.”
 The fold-out seat, which was about the width of a laptop, was then thrust between a very voluptuous lady and someone else. The man sat there for an entire 30 seconds until the lady started to fuss. “Either this man gets up or I push him!”
                “He has nowhere else to sit,” the conductor exasperated.
                “Either he gets up or I push him!” she repeated, louder. “Get off! NOW! MOVE!” I elbowed the ruca—I already had five on the lady. She pushed mercilessly until the man got up.
                “I don’t think that lady wanted him to sit there either,” the Midwest boy whispered to his girlfriend, who looked like she was about to cry.
                “No one wants that seat between them—there’s no room on this bus!” Papa called out from the back. The conductor rubbed his temples, irritated that he was losing money by not being able to fill more people in the seats.
There was standing room only left. The bus sat 26 people, and we had almost 40 riders when we finally made it to Santo Domingo—five hours later (double the time it’d taken us on the tour bus).
                Since all rules of normalcy had long been thrown out the window, the ruca and I did not think it strange when we stopped at a random corner and a man handed over a coffee table to the conductor. (The driver must’ve been texting him along the way.) And when another man got on and cut up bits of cheese to sample before trying to sell the tiny wheels of quéso, we hardly thought this unusual either. In fact, the Midwest boy bought a piece to calm his girlfriend and boasted, “Mmm! Quéso!”
The lesbians had woken up and started singing their cruda bachata blues all the way to their stop and the macho pushed past us too, pausing only to slick back his hair. Finally, Papa rose to get off. Raising his hands, he crossed the air as if he were a pope and announced proudly, “It has been a pleasure to spend these last five hours with you. I’m 83 years old and in all my 40 years riding this bus-line, I’ve never been on a ride like this.”
                The ruca and I winked at each other. Neither had we. And in another 40 years, we probably never would again. 

© Sarah C. Jiménez, All Rights Reserved 2012

Friday, February 24, 2012

My Trip to the Dominican Republic!

They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles…Fukú—generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World…It is believed that the arrival of Europeans on Hispaniola unleashed the fukú on the world…Santo Domingo might be fukú’s…port of entry, but we are all of us its children, whether we know it or not.
JUNOT DÍAZThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

We spent long and lazy hours under a bushy hut attached at the end of the dock, where the water was still shallow and clear enough to see your feet. This was the paradise that fantasies of heaven are made of! Diamonds glistened atop a surface of water, still as a mirror; rays of sunshine melted into my skin; ice-cubes clinked in the glasses of passion-fruit juice. I could’ve floated on that cloud forever—had it not been for the cheesy music like Olivia Newton John and Journey blasting out from every single speaker that was dotted every ten feet of the resort—even on the dock! And the food menu? Hamburgers! Hot dogs! Chicken fingers! Appalled, we marched to the front desk. “Where the hell is the bachata and why are your waiters recommending burgers to us?” we flung up our arms in fury. The food issue no one seemed to have an answer for. But the music could have very well been pinned on the owner. Turned out he was some rich-ass Donald Trump-type dude (from San Francisco of all places). “He’ll fire us on the spot if he hears us playing our music,” the manager shrugged at us.
We checked out two days later, the entire soundtrack of Grease still burning bitterly in our ears like a slave-master’s whip.

-Santo Domingo-
Catedral Primada de América: The last time I was at the Good Will, I tried on a beautiful black wooly coat…only to take it off immediately. There was something horrid that had stuck in that itch of wool; a dark sordidness of energy that lingered, now woven invisibly into the fabric (and perhaps a reason the owner had discarded it in the first place). I couldn’t help feeling this way as we visited the first church ever built in Hispaniola; a dark sordidness of energy lingered, now cemented invisibly into the archaic stones of the church’s walls. So many questions plagued my mind, both a frustration and relief from only sensing the church’s palpable eeriness. Why were there statues of howling wolves clustered in the garden of weeds? Was that a welcome into “God’s home,” or merely a symbol of fear meant to sting into the psyches of the Tainos? Why did the hairs on my neck stand up when I passed the staircase that spiraled downwards into some kind of dungeon that had been barred off to the public? And why did the graves inside the church bear those cryptic skull and bones symbols that made death appear as anything but peaceful?

Walking the perimeter of the church, I touched the archaic stones that had held up these walls for centuries. I felt like I was watching a TV on mute, unable to hear the sounds of copious souls being tortured and killed, only able to see these same walls for what they were now, their silent secrets now eternally cemented into its stone. A newly dead pigeon had been caught in the wire netting that hung around the church’s exterior. Had the poor thing gone mad trying to escape? Had it fluttered its wings so badly that the netting stabbed like scissor blades into its flesh? Or had it given up altogether at that first sign of being trapped—knowing that, inevitably, there really was no way out?
In my dreams, I often find myself back in the childhood house I grew up: a familiar home of comforts with warm smells of dinner, the squeaking swings on the swing-set, my parents’ kiss good night. In my nightmares, I can only imagine pounding myself madly against the stones of the church’s walls, fluttering my wings against the wire net, no escape.

Peace Corps Ceremony: How did I get here? I wondered. I straightened my dress and fluffed my hair, trying to recall the confidence I’d felt when I’d left the hotel room. Still, I looked around me. Champagne glasses clinked. An Olympic-sized pool twinkled in the distance. I was at the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic; the entire week had been a festivity of ceremonies to honor Andres Hernandez, our friend’s late uncle, who’d first established the Peace Corps in the DR in the 60s. This was the reason we’d come here in the first place.
There was laughter, speeches, and lots of shaking hands. “The Peace Corps wouldn’t have been possible without your uncle,” someone had told our friend. And there were tears in his eyes.  
Hacienda Hernandez was a special space dedicated just for him at the Peace Corps headquarters, the walls adorned with his bio, quotes, and pictures on the wall. Another round of applause and a drop of a flag revealed a plaque in his memory. Did I also mention that an entire school will soon be named after him?
I was in complete awe. Some people live an entire lifetime and leave the world a little better by planting a tree behind them. Yet some people spend entire lifetimes planting nothing at all, becoming nothing more than merely roots in the ground. Andres had not simply planted a tree to leave his legacy behind—he had planted an entire forest.

The baseball game: Dominican Republic versus Puerto Rico! Last game of the Caribbe series!   
I walked into the stadium, my heart trembling at the rush of thousands of people whose roars were like stampeding horse hooves in the humid night air. Ever been to a game in the States, where the music and newscasters stop when the player is up at bat? Well…let’s just say it’s not like that in the DR. The music never stops—you’d think the band-players are on a perpetual Red Bull buzz. Drums, trumpets and bells wailed their batucada mercilessly, as if saluting the full moon that had blown up magnificently in the starless sky. Trompezancos—stilt walkers—rallied the crowd while a trio of girls grinded their hips in orange shorts bloomers. No one seemed to mind the teenagers that were guzzling down bottles of Presidente. Vendors worked the crowd too: “Cerveza!” “Empanadas!” “Quéso!” (Quéso?) I’d never felt so under-dressed in jeans at a baseball game. Women walked around in heels—ten-inch high heels—one might wear to a club, all of them thick as a tree-trunk and in skin-tight pants (with a belt just in case).
We sat next to a class of 11-year olds on a “field trip” who looked at us strangely in our plain jeans and tennies with no cleavage-baring tops, and asked where on earth we were from. “Los Estados Unidos,” our friend answered. “De California.” “Ohh,” they nodded. “Isn’t it cold there?”

After the smoke had cleared the stadium from the fireworks, a free concert was given by the famous bachata singer, El Toro. Thrilled, the ruca sang along to every song, repeating incredulously every ten seconds, “I can’t believe this—it’s El Toro!” The locals spun around in the sizzling heat of bachata, bottles of empty beer broke all around us, and a rico suave playa—who was a whole foot shorter than my ruca—kept begging her to save him the last dance. The ruca and I winked at each other and muffled our laughter, saving it for later at the hotel-room.
           The entire experience was definitely a game and a show, with the actual sport of baseball seeming to be the least of everyone’s focus. I wish I could tell you the score of the game—hell, I wish I could tell you who won.

“Tourist Police”: Lord, was she beautiful—and, shockingly, one of the friendliest people we'd met on the trip. She had a brick-house of a body with curves bursting out all over the place, all squeezed into her tourist police uniform. (I wasn’t sure what a “tourist police” did, but the headquarters situated in the center of Zona Colonial was blasting AC.) We asked her for two things: to call us a cab we could be sure was legit, and to answer us why the locals kept calling us “gringas.” (Back home, a gringo/a is a white person.) Sure, our morena skin paled in comparison to the darker, black-skinned Dominicans—but we certainly weren’t gringas.
The officer threw her head back and laughed. We didn’t know what we were laughing at, but hell, it seemed rude not to laugh with her. Here, she explained, a gringo was originally used to describe the white tourists. Then it just carried over to anyone who was foreign, even if they’re Latino. But the black Americans, she raised her brows, well, the locals just scratch their heads at them. They’re not quite sure what to call them.
            Our cabbie arrived, wailing along to a Maná song both beautifully and terribly off-key. I couldn’t get the tourist cop’s words out of my head though; I could just picture the Afro-Caribbeans staring at the African-Americans, stumped, searching for the right words to call their distant native brother.

-Las Galeras/Samaná-
(History 101: After the Emancipation Proclamation, an exodus of freed slaves from Philadelphia fled to Samaná around the 1860s. American last names like Johnson and King are still common in this region. Many even spoke English until the dictatorship of Trujillo forced its erasure.)

La Playa: After a three-hour bus ride and a 40-minute cab ride, we trudged down a rocky dirt path that was another 15-minute walk to the beach, our core destination. Supposedly, La Playa was a treasure, the most beautiful beach in the DR. I scoffed to myself, tired, cranky, “this shit better be worth it.” Seriously, how great can a beach be?

Turns out…it was the most stunning beach I’ve ever been to—hermoso. In a vast cove, it was surrounded by a mountainous backdrop with palm trees shooting out of the rocky cliffs. Silky grains of sand tickled my toes. We paid someone 200 pesos to lie out in the lawn chairs, who may or may not have been legit—we didn't care. Exhausted, we melted into sleep with the sun high at its zenith, and awoke to its faint light at the far edge of the sky.

El dueño y la araña: We checked into our bed & breakfast where the owner, a bald French man with black teeth, spoke to us in Spanish—or was it French? His accent was so thick, webbed between both languages, that I could hardly tell. He’d burst into a terrible hissy fit when he found out that, through a miscommunication on behalf of our tour guide, we would only be staying in that spot one night and not two. Flailing his arms, he yelled and cursed in Spanish—or was it French?           
I gave him some time to cool off before I paid him our board for the night, only to find him upstairs yelling at the housekeeper.           
“De dónde son ustedes?” he asked, blowing smoke in my hair.
            “De San Francisco,” I answered. “Pero somos Mexicanas.”
            “Ay, México!” he kissed his fingertips. “I have a tortilla maker.”
“Wow,” I squinted up at him.
“And I make the best guacamole you’ve ever had in your life!”
I doubt that, I bit my tongue.
He proceeded to tell me that his recipe for guacamole included a teaspoon of sugar, which I thought sounded disgusting, but handed him money for our board that night and waved adios. Seventy bucks bought us a plain, ordinary, and rather dingy room with beige walls bare of art. In the middle of the night I went to use the restroom, only to find a massive furry-legged spider that might’ve been a young tarantula. Perched upside down on the counter of the sink, its body was the size of a child’s palm with legs that sprawled outwards like broken pipes…I was so scared I felt faint. Obviously, I did what any normal person with a mild case of arachnophobia would do: I held my bladder until we checked into the next bed & breakfast the following afternoon.
“How’d you sleep?” our tour-guide greeted us the next day, annoyingly chipper.
“Sleep?” I yawned.

Whale watching: Whales bigger than the 14 bus surfaced to the top of the ocean—beside us, below us, all around us. Their gigantic dorsal fins glided through the water as if breaking it apart like a knife. It was mating and calving season, and the ocean was a party with the hundred-plus tons of gentle giants blowing fountains out of their blowholes. Our tiny boat was close enough to touch them—what a speck we were to them! They didn’t seem to mind our presence; were hardly fazed at the buzz of our boat’s motor, or the poor seasick kid who’d expelled his entire breakfast overboard. “Bravo!” we yelled, any time they revealed their massive flukes before dipping back underwater. We gasped and applauded madly and oohed and awed like 4th of July fireworks as they sprung up all around us; I wonder if they translated our humanistic behaviors to utter and complete fascination of them?
I looked up at the sky and down at the ocean...everything was blue for miles around. I felt very small in the universe right then, a sentiment that, on occasion, cleanses me humbly.
My heart beat gloriously inside me.

Sshh! If you’re quiet, you can hear the orchestra of life chanting all around you: the whinny of horses, the cluck-cluck-cluck of bustling chickens, squawking birds rattling in trees, the subtle slither of lizards in the sand, roosters cockadoodle-dooing at dawn—and every hour after. Can you hear it? The sounds of wildlife, of nature’s symphony that inhabits the island?

Coming home: The U.S. customs agent stared blankly at up us. “Unless you’re family, you can only check in one at a time.”
“We’re domestic partners,” the ruca said.
He looked at us strangely, as if we were grasshoppers standing in his line and not humans. “Are you married?”
“No. We’re domestic partners,” the ruca repeated, a tinge of irritation.
“But are you married?”
No, we’re domestic partners.”
“But are you married?”
“No! We’re domestic partners!”
“We’re DOMESTIC PARTNERS!” we both shouted at him in unison.
He gave us the grasshopper look again, then did whatever it is those customs agents get paid to do. Finally, he handed us back our passports as he pawed furtively at his chin; his feebly grown facial hair looked more like rat whiskers than a goatee. “Welcome to America,” he snorted.
“Thanks,” we muttered, a substitution for what we really wanted to say: Go fuck yourself.

---Welcome home, indeed! Stay tuned next week for my adventures on the Mini-bus!

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Dominican Republic

            In just a matter of days, I’ll be melting tanning oil off my body as I sit under a fan of softly swaying palm trees, and sipping frozen drinks with pink umbrellas. If you haven’t guessed already, I’m going on vacation! For two weeks, I’ll be in the Dominican Republic with my ruca and two of my good friends, my “Frisco family.” While I should be squealing like a schoolgirl over her first crush, I can’t help but feel slightly indifferent and I figured out why: Not only does the vacation not seem “real” yet, but I’m not quite sure what to expect…
            The reason my vacation probably doesn’t seem “real” is because the winter chill in San Francisco is so poignant, my bones feel like wet washcloths too cold to dry. While the high 60s might be a warm day to some city folks, I feel like a friggin' snowman. Eighty-degree Caribbean humidity is unfathomable! Frozen daiquiris sound absurd! Last night, in my thick winter robe and wooly slipper boots, I held up my bathing suit for the first time in two years and gasped, “I’m going to wear this?” I know my vacation (and the weather) will all be real sooner than I know, and I’ll probably no doubt bake myself silly like a pepperoni sizzling on top of a burning hot pizza, but right now, in a blustering cold city in the middle of winter, paradise still seems like fairytale talk.
            Also, I have no idea what to expect from the Dominican Republic. Besides reading Dominican writer Junot Diaz's works so spellbound, I nearly ripped pages for turning them so fast, I have little connection with the DR. Although, isn’t that the beauty of traveling? To go to some exotic foreign place you know hardly anything about, and learn their culture firsthand by actually immersing yourself in it?
I began to think back on some of my other travels and pre-anticipations. Before I studied abroad in Oaxaca, all I knew was that the mole there was off the hook. Now when I think of it, thousands of images and sentiments zap instantaneously back through my mind: I can feel the exuberant buzz swelling through the marketplace, the smells of food, and laughing children running with their trensas trailing behind them like a cape. I recall brilliantly colored alebrijes, exquisite black pottery, tlayudas on the street, señoras in their auténtica blusas, mayates wallowing in cobblestone street puddles. I can still hear the symphony of a thousand birds harmonizing the grand tree of Tule, and reminisce the marvel of feeling like a tiny star in a vast and monstrous galaxy as I overlooked the ancient Monte Alban ruins. Then there was Cuba. Before, all I could think was that the country was an ominous, forbidden place. Now, I remember the dazzling dancers of every café and street-corner in Havana, the magnificence of the Malecón clearing in the early morning fog, classic 50s cars sharing the streets with the over-stuffed gua-guas, and striking women proudly filled with voluptuous curves, untouched by American’s obsession with sickly looking skinniness. There was also Jamaica, an island where I once believed everyone smoked weed and called each other ‘mon.’ When I got there, I realized that everyone smoked weed and called each other ‘mon.’ Ah, the wonderments of travel are simply exhilarating!
While the trip still does not seem real yet, it will be soon enough. Or perhaps that reality will only sink in once I step off the plane and the humid air kinks up my hair fantastically! As for not knowing what to expect, well, I can’t help but think that maybe the unknowing is half the fun of the experience…. In two weeks, just the mere mention of the Dominican Republic will unfurl an entire new world of images and sentiments in my headall of which I will gladly share with you, dear reader. 

Stay tuned in mid-February for my next posting!
Extra note: Did I say Cuba? Silly typo, ha ha! Er…I did mention this was a fiction blog, right?

© Sarah C. Jiménez, All Rights Reserved 2012