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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