This piece was originally written in 2012 as a part of a short series I wrote about exploring my adoption file. I believe this was supposed to be the final piece in the four part series. I have edited it and thought it should be included.
Perhaps looking through the folder I was searching for something that helped explain me, or where I came from. Most of my life I have felt in-genuine, like I wasn’t truly who I am. I felt like I’ve been acting. I was looking through this folder to find me. I wanted to know who I was and the only way I knew how to do it was by trying to find my origin. Who my biological relatives were, where I was born, why I was given up and how I came to be where I am. This folder, the files from SOC SEAD, would surely clear up my true identity.
I felt that something was missing – my origin. Without it I felt I couldn’t properly be myself or understand who I was. This folder would hold these answers and set me free of my journey and allow my true self to take over – to be revealed. Something great, naturally. After years of looking over that blue folder, finding more scraps of paper and files tucked away in other files and most recently my almost entire adoption application packed away in a plastic Tupperware in our basement I must stop my search. “Discovering” who my biological relatives are, why I was given up….etc will provide no more insight into who I am than I already know. Yes, it would provide some certainty and perhaps relief, but change who I am it would not.
Up until this point in my life I had always felt like my life began when my father landed in India and met me to pick me up and take me back to the United States. Being birthed was not an experience I felt I had been a part of, for there were no stories of it and no recollections on my part.
That illusive indeterminable true identity stares me in the face every time I shave or check myself out in a mirror or puddle.
This isn’t a strategic plan or a novel or a marketing plan. There is no narrative arch to why I am who I am. This is my life. No predetermined purpose, just what has happened to me and how I have reacted.
I’m not quite sure what I was hoping to find when I opened that blue folder, but when I closed it and put back in the Tupperware I felt disappointed and betrayed. Disappointed it had held so little of what I had hoped for. Betrayed by my self for allowing me to believe that answers about my past could be so easily accessed as opening a folder. I spent much of my childhood not allowing myself to think about my life before coming to the U.S. I got my hopes up and got burned the way I had told myself I would and it hurt like hell.
I opened that folder thinking it could tell me who I am. I wasn’t just looking for information about my life in India I was looking for clues to who I am. It was foolish, yet hopeful. Hopeful that there was still an easy way to resolve my insecurities and the uncertainty that fills my past. There isn’t an easy way, there is no silver bullet. I know this, but exploring the contents of that blue folder was the first time I actually believed it.
It took almost a month for Luciano, my exchange program coordinator, to find a school that would let me in. The public schools in Rio Gallegos no longer accepted exchange students because they were lazy and disruptive. I would be attending one of the private schools in Rio Gallegos and based on the reaction Andres, my younger host brother, had when I told him I would be going to IPEI it was the richest of the city’s private schools, a dynamic I would learn more about as the year continued.
Maribel, my host mother, scheduled a time for us to visit IPEI, Instituto Privado de Educación Integral, my new school.
A few days later Maribel and I hopped into her red camioneta and drove to IPEI, located a block off of the main drag which would eventually be renamed after the late Argentine president Néstor Kirchner who was from Rio Gallegos. The entire 15 minute drive from our house to el centro my stomach was filled with butterflies. I had come to dread meeting new people, let alone new adults who I was surely meant to impress. I was still reluctant to talk to Maribel so the thought of speaking with the principal and staff at IPEI positively mortified me. I was excited to start school, but mortified of revealing how incompetent I still was in Spanish.
Minutes later we arrived in front of a four story cement building, skinny and tall with a courtyard on one side and a glasses small shop on the other. Maribel parked her hulking red Nissan and we both jumped out and I followed her towards the door. A short dark haired man, who would later befriend me, looked up at us as we approached the door. He smiled at Maribel and buzzed us in. He greeted us and I shot back some combination of buen dia como anda/esta, unsure what level of formality was appropriate to use with the door man. He escorted us up two flights of stairs where a tall blonde haired man in a grey suit and facial hair that made him look rather chipmunk like greeted us.
His name was Raúl and from what I could tell he was the principal. We followed him into an office where a short woman in a bright colored pants suit waited for us. The office was small with a few plexiglass windows facing the hallway we had just walked through to get here. I could see students of all ages, decked out in maroon uniforms, the boys wearing grey slacks and the girls mostly in skirts with panty hose. These uniforms looked much more serious than the long white lab coat looking “uniform” that Andres wore to class. I cringed at the thought of having to wear that everyday.
Raúl shut the door behind us and Maribel and I introduced ourselves the pants suit lady. She wore thick red lipstick that smeared over her front teeth when she smiled, which was often. I found it incredibly distracting. Maribel spoke with Raúl and this other woman and I tried to follow along as best as I could. Occasionally, they would all look at me and Maribel would, very slowly, ask me, “¿Tomás, entendes?” Thomas, do you understand? I would, regardless if I understood or not, slowly nod my head, make eye contact with each person and say “Si, si, si, lo entiendo” Yes, I understand. I’m not sure they really believed me, but they acted like it and went back to talking about who knows what.
As terrified as I was of taking ten classes entirely in Spanish, I was consoled by the fact that for at least one hour a day I would have English and would be able to understand there. About ten minutes into the conversation I realized they had begun talking about the classes I was going to have to take. I heard a couple words I could understand filosofía & matemática and the rest was incomprehensible. Then, to my horror, Raúl turns to me and begins to ask me questions. Terrified, I look to Maribel for help who dutifully swooped in and explained, in painfully slow Spanish, that I am not allowed to take English. She went on to explain that since I am already fluent in English I have to take a new language. I can choose between French and Italian, but there is no beginners class for Italian so I will have to take French.
Dumbfounded that these two school officials, who could obviously see I had the barest knowledge of Spanish were going to 1) deprive me of the luxury of comprehension and understanding for one hour a day and 2) make me learn a new language, as if my entire life wasn’t already focused on that task. It seemed like I must’ve misunderstood something so I held my tongue, although its not like I could’ve articulated much of a refusal anyway. I waited until Maribel and I had left to ask her what had happened.
After thanking Raúl and his lipstick smeared colleague we walked through the halls, empty now, down the flight of stairs, thanked the doorman and climbed back into la camioneta. She revved the diesel engine and we lurched forward. I looked over and asked her what had just happened. She confirmed my fear, instead of taking English I would be required to take French, which started an hour earlier, at 6:30 am, than all the other classes. Incredulous, I looked out the window and just laughed, “I’m fucked, I thought to myself” as we sped through town back towards home.
Once I started taking French my desk partner would often laugh at my, as much out of pity as incredulity at how hopeless I was, as I would sit in class with my French-Spanish dictionary next to my Spanish-English dictionary trying to understand what our French teacher was saying in Spanish, let alone French. It was a painful for all parties involved.
I ran a lot in my first months in Argentina. Not enough to lose weight or whittle down my feeble mile time but enough to call it a routine. I ran on the treadmills once I joined El Boxing Club, a hulking concrete and metal building at the entrance to the city. Once I learned the lay of the land, it was grid to some degree, I felt comfortable roaming about and running towards the outskirts of town in different directions. The city was about 100,000 people but pretty hard to get lost as long as you knew which way was north. There were no other towns within hundreds of miles of us so it was also pretty clear when you had run too far. Outside the city limits the desolate rock and shrubbery terrain stretched for as far as the eye could see without human interruption.
When in doubt I would run towards la ria, the river-front park where all the teenagers went to dar vueltas, cruise, along El Rio Gallegos showing off their cute little cars with souped up sound systems, manual transmissions and tinted windows. A charade eerily similar to cruising around my hometown in Ohio. Rolling through the C&O parking lot bumping the newest jams, rolling down the window to exchange a greeting, bump a fist, dap someone up or just offer a nod of acknowledgement. Those under 16 cursing us for having the power to drive, the power of possibility and the power of power over others.
Running was nice, it was fun, and made me feel like I belonged, in some ways, in Rio Gallegos. Even though no one else just went out for a run it somehow made me feel normal. It gave me an identity that I felt I could uphold. I didn’t have to talk to anyone or try to understand what they were saying I could just smile at them as I passed them by. Running gave me a presence, made me feel like I was in Rio Gallegos, being seen by other people, not just in my room on my computer or watching TV. It made me a somebody, even if I never knew who that somebody was to others.
I liked putting on my blue Saucony running sneakers, my black hoody and sweat pants. I’d queue up Atmosphere on my mp3 player, tie my house key to my shoelaces, slam the white gate to our yard behind me and kick off. I would get a lot of looks. Some of them inquisitive others acknowledging and some resentful looks. I liked the looks, even the resentful ones. I liked that people cared enough to look at me and speculate what I was doing out running. Again, being in a place where I felt so much like none it was nice to know others were thinking of you, acknowledging you even if you never know what those thoughts were.
More than anything running allowed me to go places that my friends, host family and the exchange program coordinator wouldn’t have taken me. My host family was making the jump from a lower middle class life style into the upper echelons in the Rio Gallegos so steered clear of the “bad neighborhoods”, my friends, all of whom attended the ritzy private school I had been placed into, were the children of the wealthiest in the city and my exchange coordinator was quite protective. I liked being able to see the homes where the kids I played soccer with in the plazas lived, the poorer areas of the city and the dirtier outskirts of the city. I quickly became comfortable in many parts of the city than many of my classmates which helped me develop the sense of independence I had felt stripped away by my inability to speak Spanish.
My running, as helpful as it proved to be, came to an end as the cold weather moved in, winds picked up and we all hid indoors. I eventually injured my hip, or re-injured it, and had to give up all physical activity for months. Fortunately enough for me, my Spanish had begun to catch hold and by the time I injured myself I no longer needed running as an escape from my inability to communicate.
Before arriving in Argentina I developed some very robust fantasies. I spent a fair amount of time thinking about how this experience would unlock my true potential and people would fully recognize how truly special I was. My fantasies ranged from becoming a break-out soccer star, learning Spanish lighting quick and getting with all the cute Argentinian ladies. I think the bigger the fantasy, the farther away from reality, the deeper the insecurity that fantasy was developed to cover up. My experience in Argentina validated, on a personal level, this hypothesis.
The actual reality of my experience, I’m sure to no one’s surprise, differed greatly from my initial fantasies. My first days and weeks in Argentina would be better described as lonely, insecure and at times utterly depressing. Before I was enrolled in school I slept 12-14 hours a day, stalked friends at home on the good ‘ole book of faces, which I later deleted, over ate, spent weeks at a time being physically ill and watched tons of American TV. This cycle, painstakingly documented in my journal, lifted gradually as my Spanish improved, I cut off contact with friends from home and began to feel independent again.
It is funny, now, how before I began to skim through my journal I had about a dozen or so strong stories from my time in Argentina that I have gotten really used to telling people about my time there. These stories have come to dominate my memory. These stories are almost like the fantasy version of my past. People don’t want to hear about how depressed you were or how incredibly difficult you found it to be alone, they want to hear that you had an incredible life changing experience, ate exotic food, saw beautiful sights and made a fool of yourself, all of this punctuated by a moment of triumph where you overcome the adversity of adapting to a new place, feel comfortable and conquer. I, get it, I mean I think that it wasn’t just the external pressure from friends and family that pushed me to retell the same glamorous stories but my own desire to have my experience life up to my initial fantasies.
The sobering realization that the naivety I rested on to create fantasies about my trip, even once shattered, resurfaced after the trip and coated my memories in fantasy yet. It’s like I am terrified of reality, of my own reality that is. I fantasize about the future and create a fantasy world of my past. I think these pieces, which I keep alluding to but haven’t written yet, are sort of my response to my fantasies. They are me trying to tell myself, through the retelling of my very ordinary and mundane experiences in Argentina, every story is worth telling even if only to help you better understand what that story means to you. Fuck the fantasies, fuck what other people want your experiences to be, fuck what you feel you need to do to make other feels comfortable and just say what you’ve got to say. I feel like all this selective story telling bullshit Its has made it hard for me to learn from the valuable experiences I did have while in Argentina. The valuable experiences I had not learning Spanish quickly, not getting with any Argentinian women and utterly sucking at soccer.
These next posts are about those experiences.
We’ve landed. My heart is pounding. The more anxious the passengers immediately stand up and begin to put their belongings away and open the overhead compartments. I slowly gather my things and wait for the passengers in front of me exit the plane. Most of them are Argentinians, few tourists are headed to Argentina in February. I am glad to stand up again after our 8 hour flight from Miami. I was lucky enough to be seated next to the two girls who had also had their flights cancelled due to the blizzard that blanketed most of the Midwest and East coast the day before Valentine’s Day, our scheduled departure date.
One of my new companions was from Vermont and the other Connecticut, both used to blizzards but all of us were nervous about missing the in-country orientation in Buenos Aires. At the beginning of each abroad program all the new exchange students fly into the same location, Buenos Aires in our case, and spend 2-3 days getting to know each other and learning about the host country. The three of us were arriving two days late, completely missing the orientation. Once we landed we were to take a taxi from the international airport to the domestic one to meet the other students before departing for our different cities. At first the cancelled flight seemed like a blessing, a few more days at home with friends, but we soon realized the disadvantage it placed upon us, newcomers in a group of newcomers. New groups of people always form their cliques quickly and are reluctant to give up that exclusivity initially. Everyone rushing to make good impressions and get with the “in crowd”. Being late to this game is like being the new kid at school – initially it is a disadvantage and you have to prove yourself in ways the established group does not.
Our turn arrives and we file out of the plane thanking the flight attendants on our way I try to muster a quick “gracias” and grin at myself as I almost butcher even the most basic words in Spanish. Once out of the plane and walking up the tunnel to the terminal I begin to feel bombarded with Spanish. Words flying around me. Words I don’t recognize. Normally in places where I don’t speak the language I am almost at ease by not knowing the language I feel complete and utter ignorance and no pressure to understand. Not here, I immediately feel small and terrified. I am acutely aware of how little I know. I begin to feel a sense of dread creeping up my body. The same type of dread you get before you walk on stage, ask a question in class or try something for the first time. As I am walking, overwhelmed by my surroundings and feeling completely ill prepared I think to myself, “Kumar, what the fuck where you thinking when you made this decision?”
As we reach the end of the tunnel the airport terminal opens up and I see a stocky gentleman in a blue vest. He has short dark brown hair, smooth light skin, strong cheek bones and is wearing slacks and a white shirt under his vest. He is scanning the group of passengers flooding out of our gate. Our eyes lock, he raises his eyebrows at me and then cuts through the crowd towards me.
“Hola,” I manage to get out as he nears me. His mouth opens and words come flying out. They are fluid, confident and fast as hell. I can’t even make out where one word stops and another starts. I am at a total loss. As he is talking he leans in kisses me once on each cheek before I realize what is happening. He swiftly moves on to the girls as they catch up to me. Afterwards I wonder whether or not I was supposed to kiss him back. Had his lips actually touched me cheek? Did guys and girls alike kiss each other on each others’ cheeks? I had heard Argentina, as a predominately Roman Catholic country, was very homophobic. Amidst my reflection whether or not my response was considered rude or not he motions for us to follow him as he continues to talk to us, all of us looking just as shell shocked as the others.
Eventually, out kind yet totally incomprehensible welcomer, leads us outside to the curb where he flags each of us a cab, hands each cab driver some cash, shouts something at the driver, kisses me again on the cheeks before I even have time to think about whether or not I should kiss him back, slams the door and sends me on my way.
These first hours, really the first full day, in Argentina ended up quite smoothly but shocked me into realizing how difficult that year would actually be for me.
Since spending a year in Argentina I have come to realize how difficult it is for me to do something without being in the context in which I am supposed to do that thing. On the flip side I have also realized how quickly I am able to “adapt” to new settings, unfortunately this quick adaption didn’t kick in while in Argentina. When I arrived in Argentina the amount of Spanish I knew amounted to basic vocabulary like immediate family members, simple locations, basic verbs and a lot of mispronunciation.
In my first few months in Argentina I occasionally worked up the courage, after rehearsing it a hundred times over in my head, to say something loud enough that everyone could understand it. Many times this worked fine and sometimes people even seemed mildly impressed that I had formed a coherent sentence. Other times, what I said either made absolutely no sense or I would result in me butchering pronunciation or improperly conjugating a verb. I much preferred to screw up a conjugation than to not know the correct word.
Before arriving in Argentina I envisioned meeting up with other exchange students in my program and all of us bonding over our inability to communicate or bond with anyone else. I realized quite early on, to my great dismay, that we did not even have that much in common. The other students in my group were all already fluent in 3+ languages which allowed them to pick up Spanish, for the most part, much quicker than I. I had hoped to find some comfort in being in a group full of bumbling idiots for at least the first few months but my own cohort provided little shelter from my own ineptitude.
Why is all of this necessary? Well, it isn’t really but it does have something to do with the title of this little series, “El Año del Caballo,” which for those who do not read Spanish means “The Year of the Horse.” The Chine calendar uses zodiac signs to mark each year. Each sign, all of them animal mark a different year and they rotate in a cycle. I spent most of 2007, the year of the pig, in Argentina. Why year of the horse? Well, it had to do with a little vocab mishap that turned into a nickname I couldn’t shake.
We were out to dinner, the exchange student cohort, and a few adventurous Argentinians who decided to befriend us. It was Lena’s birthday and we had decided to head to el centro. There were about 15 or so of us and we finally found a place that could handle us all and was willing to put up with our “special needs” as non-native speakers. I was glad to be out because it was nice to have company and so that on Monday when the kids at school asked what I did I could say Salî con unos amigos or I went out with friends. I was sick of telling them I stayed in or went bowling or hung out with my host brother, this would surely count as going out and prove I was taking advantage of my time in Argentina. I followed the others in and as the wait staff scrambled to pull four tables together and the accompanying chairs we began to stake out our seats at the massive table.
Once the table and chairs were assembled people began to sit down I found myself next to Lena. As a joke I pulled her chair out for her and pushed it back in as she giggled and sat down. Feeling the good vibes from her giggling at my fake chivalry I wanted to to complete the joke, and hopefully get a few laughs, so I followed it up by attempting to say, “Aren’t I such a gentleman?” This was the first time that I had come up with something spontaneous and just blurted it out. Lena grinned, looked across the table at a few others and they all burst out laughing. For a split second I thought I had totally nailed the joke but that thought was yanked from my mind by Felda who grabbed me and said between loud giggles, “you know you just said you were a horse! Caballero means gentleman but you said caballo which means horse!”
I cringed, because Felda had told me in English, and because I felt like a complete idiot. I laughed with them and sat down next to Lena who continued to make caballo jokes. Jokes that lived on and ended up becoming my nickname, caballo.
My father passed away in December of 2005. I was a sophomore in high school, my sister was in her first year of college and my mother, a recent widow, began contemplating joining the Peace Corps. That spring I, too, began contemplating leaving my home town to live abroad. Eventually, I applied, and was accepted, to a cultural study abroad exchange program. I had chosen Argentina and was granted my choice. A few weeks before my flight was scheduled to depart from our quaint little Dayton airport I received my host family assignment.
I remember being in Minneapolis, MN at Macalaster College on a college visit when I received the email. We had just gotten back from Dan’s, my host, theater class and I asked if I could check my email. Upon opening the email and reading where I would be living for the next year I immediately opened a new tab and copied the name of the city where my host family lived, Rio Gallegos, and pasted it into Google. Google shot back from Minnesota zooming out and then spinning the globe upwards as it began to zero in on South America, then Argentina then Patagonia and then Rio Gallegos.Rio Gallegos is the southern most city on the mainland of south America, almost the southernmost city in the world, only out-southed by Ushuaia which serves as a launch pad for expeditions to Antarctica. My host family, a middle-aged couple with two sons around my age, lived in Patagonia, southern Patagonia.
Meanwhile my sister, now a second year in college, had gotten herself into a college-level study abroad program in Mexico. There was a brief point of time where it looked that all three of us, just a little over a year after Peter’s death, were bound for foreign ground. Eventually my mother would decide that the Peace Corps was not for her and would remain in our home town while my sister and I flew south.
I’ve never asked my sister whether or not her decision to study abroad was driven or influenced by our father passing. I know that mine was even if, at the time, I tried to deny it. I think even before my father’s passing I was ready to leave home and strike it out on my own. The death of my father allowed me to leave. I couldn’t have left while he was still sick so once he had died I felt free to leave. What I did not realize and would not realize until both my sister and I had returned a year or so later was how hard it must’ve been for my mom to be completely alone. Every time I think about her alone in our house for that year I feel awful, inconsiderate and selfish. How could I not realize how difficult it would be for her to be completely alone after the loss of her husband. I know I was young and I shouldn’t be hard on myself but I am going to be so get over it. Honestly, I think it just shows how self-consuming grief can be.
So you may be asking yourself “what the hell does this have to do with anything?” or you may just be asking yourself “I wonder how late Aguas Tortas is open cause I could really go for some horchata right about now.” Either way I’m gonna tell you what all the hubbub is about.
My study abroad program lasted 11 months, starting in February of 2007 and ending in January of 2008. Throughout my time in Rio Gallegos I kept what some might generously call a journal and what would be more accurately described as meticulous notes on what it means to be an idiot American in a non-English speaking country.
There it is. This is the intro to posts about the writing I did while living in Argentina as a 17-18 year old from small town Ohio. The entries that follow I promise will be funny, depressing, hopeless, boring, amusing, nonsensical (at times) and above all else exceedingly mundane.
Enjoy, I’ll do my best to include songs, photos, maybe even a video or two, as this thing unfolds. Also, don’t get too excited because I might just flake out and never write again, in which case I’ve saved you valuable time you can spend strolling through someone else’s mind.n
I hear as I vault two steps at a time barely avoid careening into an elderly woman in a fluffy winter coat shuffling towards the staircase. Panting I shove an arm through the set of double doors as they begin to shut. They bounce back and I jump onto the train as the monotone announcer’s voice commands, “stand clear of the doors” and in quick succession, “doors closing” once again. I turn right and make my way towards the end of the car where two rows of hard plastic seats face each other I aim for the seat at the end, scanning the faded navy blue felt coverings to avoid any undesirable foreign substances.
My seat looks clean as I could’ve hoped for on the Red Line. I sit down and look at the person sitting across from me. He is tall, long torso, with a patchy scruffy blonde beard. He has plump cheeks and his eyes are filled with uncertainty, he almost looks a little pathetic, despite his size. We briefly catch each other’s eye as I look towards the middle of the car to see who else I’m sharing my ride downtown with. I wonder what he thinks of me.
The train lurches forward as we begin our ride south.
There are about 20 or so other folks in my car, none talking to each other. Everyone is either asleep, has headphones in or is glued to their phone. Almost instinctively I reach for my phone, pull it out and begin trying to figure out what word I can possibly come up with that has one vowel, an X and a host of other hard to work with letters. I’m not used to losing at Words with Friends but am getting my ass handed to me by a friend who I’ve just begun playing with. As I rack my tiny brain for possibilities I realize the tall man across from has his eyes on me. I don’t dare look up for fear of interrupting the world he is creating for me inside his head.
“Next stop Addison”
As he devours me with his eyes he builds a reality for me. He uses my clothes, my tardiness to the train, my being out of breath and mannerisms I barely notice: slightly slouched, adjusting my clothing and touching my face. I wonder who I am to this man, who am I in this world he is creating. Is my life in shambles? Am I sloppy, late to everything and constantly missing out? Am I careless, zoned out and out of touch; jaded by the monotony of the daily grind? Am I a villain that he is chasing down to stop from destroying the world?
“Addison” the monotone voice announces as we come to a slow stop.
I’ve give skinny patchy beard man plenty of time to defeat me if I am a villain and can’t hold back any long, I look up and our eyes meet immediately. It takes him a moment to realize I’m actually looking back. He hasn’t been looking at me sitting there but at the me he’s created in my own little world. Terrified at being caught he looks away. I can tell he is angry I caught him, angry that I ruined me for him. I grin to myself, knowing he wouldn’t dare bring me back into his gaze again.
I take a perverse pleasure in catching him at his daydreaming. I do the same to others, build worlds for them as we stand waiting for the train or walk home from work together, just a few strides apart. It’s kind of weird that I don’t just talk to people instead of creepily creating separate worlds and scenarios for them to live in while they are in my sight.
He sits alone at the end of the counter. Its Tuesday and the middle of winter. Too early for anyone but the regulars to show up. Some might call him a regular but he knows better, nothing is regular about him being here. Its the same each town he’s been in. He comes in quite and sticks around for a while, just long enough for peeople to get used to him being there and then he leaves. He moves around for work. Its always smaller places never anything big enough that he’d ever have to wrry about anyone being smarter or better trained than he is. Never small enough that anyone new is an outsider. He always chooses those towns just big enough that they have a couple elementary schools, a library and at least two gas stations. He needs people to know him enough not to remember him, he needs to seem like he’s just another face in the town, nothing special, not new, not flashy and not too talkative. These places are easiest. Sure people notice you’re a new face but no ones ever expecting it to be you.
When he was younger he’d been less careful choosing towns. He was a gifted kid and that got to his head real quick. he realized early on how much better he was than the his brothers. That ego was a dangerous thing in his line of work. It had done in a couple of his older brothers and had almost gotten him too. Sir had warned him once before he scouted the first time but he was 16, handsomer than hell and more stubborn than a horse.
He sipped his coffee angry at himself for thinking about how reckless he was as a kid. “Shit”, he muttered to himself, “we was all damn kids.” Candace, the plump, yet still beautiful in her own way, waitress passed him by filling up his cup as she asked Mr. Anderson how he thought the market looked this morning. Same damn conversation they had with each other every morning. Candace always trying to cheer the early birds in the diner up before they headed off to work. Most of them were bankers, insurance agents, car salesmen or traders getting ready to hop on the train to the city. “Poor bastards” he muttered to himself again as Candace swept back past him to attend the city slicker that jus sat down a few seats away from Mr. Anderson. These small town-folk don’t know shit about the world. They barely traveled outside of this little miserable place except to head to the city for a holiday or to visit a son in school.
Thinking about how much more he knew about the world than all these sore sons ‘o bitches made him smirk. He stole a glance at his watch even though there was a clock hanging right up in front of him on the other side of the counter. It was one of those ones that was supposed to look like it was from a diner in the 50s, it had a gaudy plastic rim that was supposed to look like chrome and a yellow neon light wrapped in a circle on the inside. He tried not to remember these types of things. He did his best not to remember anything from any of the towns he’d worked in. Sir had always said it was a bad thing to remember too much. Remembering meant you cared which meant you were as good as dead. Caring meant you’d slip up and they’d have to cut you loose. That’s what Sir always said. “I never knowed what the hell being ‘cut loose’ meant,” he thought to himself, but he had a pretty good idea.
It was 6:07 am and he’d just finished he 3rd cup of Joe. Candace, hearing the clink of his white porcelain up hitting its saucer made a move to fill it up again but he caught her eye and gave a stiff dead shake. He’d gotten to the Whistle early this morning, he’d left early because he’d heard the roads were a mess but it wasn’t anything more than he’d seen in his day. A few inches of powder, it was cold enough now that all that came down was powder, no more of that nice crunchy warm snow that soaks everything it touches. It was winter now.
He decided he’d have another cup of Joe after all and would leave by 7:00 am. Just as he was about to try and find Candace to have her pour him another cup of Joe a veiny hand with chipped yellow nail polish slid a piece of torn paper folded haphazardly underneath the white saucer. He looked up and he barely caught Candace’s eye as she withdrew her hand hastily grabbed his cup and filled it up setting it down too quickly and spilling coffee on the saucer. She turned away without a word and continued down towards Mr. Anderson who was making a fuss about how cheap a cup of Joe and eggs were back when he first moved to Lincoln Port. Slowly, he slid the piece of paper out from under the saucer and his heart began to beat faster as he turned it over. He had received notes like this before but usually from a woman trying to get him to take her out. He knew this was not that kind of note. He smoothed wrinkles in the paper, keeping it folded, to reach what was written on the front. Keeping a straight face, making sure not to seem uncomfortable or distressed, he read the letters, slowly, on the outside. He mouthed them as he went, “L” “E” “O”, “Leo” he mouthed. He didn’t get it until he said it out loud “Leo.” A wave of terror passed through him as he attempted to place the note in his breast pocket. He fumbled with the button as his hand had begun to tremble. He needed to leave and leave now. He needed to read that note.
“I’ve never even met her.”
“What? Why does that even matter? She’s into you. Dude just fucking chill.”
“Are you serious? Honestly, I can’t even believe you told her I was into her. I mean, I’m not really, I just said she looked cute. She’s not even that cute. There are plenty of girls hotter than her.” Laughing, Ben responds, “I fucking knew you liked her. You bastard.”
“Shut up, man. Is it just going to be me and her? I fucking hate first dates. At least we didn’t meet on one of those dumb ass dating site like Okcupid. Those are such bullshit.”
Ben looks at me grinning, “like you have room to talk, you’ve been single for 3 goddam years and this is your first real date in months.”
I light a cigarette and inhale. I feel the tobacco buzz coming on. I’ve just started smoking again and Ben thinks I’m just doing it so girls will think I’m reckless. “Yeah?” I respond, “well at least I’m not married like your whipped ass.” After a few seconds we catch each other’s eye and burst out laughing. Neither Ben nor I have been in a relationship for years. We’ve probably seen each other naked more times than we’ve seen a woman naked in the last couple years.
We cross Stafford and Main to wait for the bus. Its just us standing there. Its cold out. Mid-January in Cliff can be rough. Its no Minnesota or Wisconsin but every once in a while the wind from the lake comes down and give us a beating. Its steady, not gusty. As per usual I forgot my damn scarf and am trying to find warmth in my windbreaker collar. Ben, dressed like a Portland yuppy in his pee-coat, Frank and Oak scarf and poly-whatever-the-hell-ear muffs notices I’m freezing my ass off and begins to berate me as usual, “I told you to wear a hat, you knew it was windy out. Seriously, man why don’t you just wear a damn hat or something? I know you have one, cause you stole the one I got for Christmas last year.”
I’ve never been good at admitting I’m wrong, especially not to Ben who is mister fucking-know-it-all. “I’m not cold I say” pulling my neck out of the top of my windbreaker like a turtle popping up to catch a passing meal. I immediately regret my decision as I feel the cold Erie wind whip against my neck causing the hair on the back of my neck to stand and shivers to run up and down my spine.
I bring the Newport to my mouth again. Ben shakes his head and steps out on the curb to wave down the 43 as it barrels down Main towards us lurching up and down breaks screeching. I take one last drag and flick the cigarette to the curb. The 43 stops in front of us hissing as the hydraulics exhale. The doors open and two elderly women brush past us: one of them is still in her Kroger cashier blue vest. “Fuck, I couldn’t do that shit, not till 10” I think to myself as I follow Ben onto the bus. He swipes his card and heads to the row of hard plastic empty seats at the end of the bus. I rummage in my pocket for my card, no luck. “Ben!” I shout, “I forgot my card, can you spot me?” The bus driver, a middle aged slim man with a thick brown mustache gives me an exhausted look as we wait for Ben to walk back and swipe me in. “Thanks man, I’ll get you back next time” I say under my breathe as I follow him back to our usual seats.
We sit down, Ben sticks in his ear buds and closes his eyes. I rest my foot on the yellow metal railing in front of me and slouch back, the 43 takes forever but it sure beats the hell out of walking.