Chapter Eighteen: Reseda
"You haven’t clocked out yet?”
Ngoc stood over me. I was kneeling in the toy aisle stacking jump ropes and bags of toy soldiers in the bottom rack. Another mother let her kids run wild.
I stood up. “Shouldn’t I finish up here?”
Ngoc shook his head. “Closing crew will do it. You can’t work overtime.”
I nodded. Ngoc hated paying overtime.
I headed towards the front of the store. Ngoc walked with me.
I glanced at the clock above the front door. I was overtime, but only by 15 minutes. I could have checked the time on my iPhone, but I never took it out of my pocket while at work. I don’t know what Ngoc and the others would think about me sleeping in my SUV when I had a fairly new iPhone.
Ngoc followed me into the office. “You’re off tomorrow.” He made it sound like a reminder and an order.
“I know.” I hung up my apron, and clocked out.
“See you Saturday.” He made it sounds like a greeting and an order.
In a way, I was glad I didn’t see Pearl after work. I had to charge my iPhone. I figured I would go to the library. Maybe check my Facebook and email, even though it would probably make me depressed.
First, I had to eat. And Thursday was when Magdalena served her special tacos.
She served authentic Mexican tacos, soft-shelled with handmade corn tortillas. No cheese though. Kosher food doesn’t mix meat and dairy. But her ground beef had the most amazing flavors, and she filled it with lettuce, diced tomatoes and onions, cilantro, and the best salsa I ever had. Others must have loved her tacos too, because the place was always packed on Thursday night. People waited outside to get in. But I knew the quickest way to get a seat.
I came in through the back door into the kitchen. And Magdalena was waiting for me with a hug and a kiss.
“Two, please.” But I knew Magdalena would make it three.
“¡Tres!,” she called out to her cooks. I was right.
The kitchen echoed with clanking spatulas, clinking plates, and someone singing in the corner. Murmured voices came in from the front of the restaurant. It was noisy, but noisy with a positive vibe. It was noise that could drive away all those hateful voices in my head.
Magdalena handed me a plate. Three tacos, just as I thought. I reached into my pocket.
She shook her head. “You enjoy.”
I set the plate on a side table and smiled. “Why are you so good to me?”
I realized that was a corny question, something that was usually said as a compliment and didn’t require an answer.
But Magdalena gave one anyway. “Why shouldn’t I be good to you?”
She was indeed Jewish, answering a question with a question. But I wanted an answer.
“But really. I’m just some guy off the streets. Why would you be so good to me?”
“Because of Mamá. Her name was Frieda Barchevsky. I named the restaurant after her, you know. She survived Auschwitz. She saw the worst in humanity, but she never lost faith and never stopped loving. She told me, ‘Magdalena, the world will crush you if you let it. Your only defense is kindness. Always be kind.’”
Magdalena gave her crooked smile. “Your friend seems to feel the same way.”
“Your friend who let you use her shower.”
Her? How did she know? What do I say?
“¿Señora Magdalena?” A cook at the other end of the kitchen saved me from having to answer.
Magdalena looked at the food on the side table and patted me on the cheek. “Enjoy.”
I picked up a taco from the plate. The plate she gave me because she was kind.
But staring at my Facebook page, I didn’t see a whole lot of kindness.
I don’t know why I even bothered looking. The library was about to close. Why was I wasting time making myself miserable knowing that people I thought cared about me have gone on and forgotten me?
I wondered if Pearl had a Facebook. But she’s probably too busy taking care of her mom. And what is wrong with her mom anyway?
I decided to check my email. I figured there would be another urgent email from Dad. And there was.
I told Muriel all about what happened with you. She’s very worried and upset.”
Muriel? Upset? Since when did she ever give a fuck about me? At home, we’d go for days without saying anything more than “Morning” and “Did you use my toothbrush again!?” She was always busy with school, sports, music, and her boyfriend. Actually, boyfriends. There was her official boyfriend Kevin. Steven and his dad fixed him up with her at church. But Kevin was gay, and super in the closet because his parents would have literally killed him if they found out. So, she kept up appearances to save his ass. Muriel’s real boyfriend was Raúl. And they fucked like crazy. She asked to me to buy her condoms because God knew what a shitstorm Mom and Steven would unleash if they found their perfectly perfect girl was getting it, especially from a Latino.
Muriel told me all of this stuff. And made me swear on my life not to tell anyone. And I didn’t. But I never told her any of my shit, because I knew she’d run to Mom and Steven if I did the slightest thing wrong. Like when she caught me watching porn on my computer. I thought spanking a kid with a belt was illegal.
But I continued with Dad’s email.
“We’re both very upset that Mom and Steven would toss you out like this and not care about you.”
Was this what his emails were really about? Making himself look good while making Mom and Steven look like shit? They were shit, but so was Dad. There were so many times I wanted to talk to him, especially when things were bad in school and home. But there was always a reason we couldn’t meet. He got a last-minute appointment, or someone needed an emergency appendectomy. And when we did get together, it was just small talk like, “Did you see the Angels game last night?” or “What do you think about that new Captain America movie?” I just wanted to break down, bawl like a baby, tell him how fucked up my life was, and if I could live with him, things would be better.
But I just wound up saying, “Yeah” and “Fine.”
I don’t know why I couldn’t be open with him. Was it because I was a man, and a man can’t be open with other men? As I sat there thinking about it, I wondered if I was really open with my friends. I thought I could talk to them about everything. Mostly, we talked about weed and pussy.
“Please, Dylan, if you get this message, email or call me right away. We pray everyday that you’re OK. Please, Dylan. Please contact me.
I moved the mouse pointer over the Reply button and clicked. A new email message opened. Dad’s email address was in the To box. The Message box had a bunch of blank space with his email below it. I started typing.
I stopped. Now, what do I say? I kept typing.
I stopped again. What do I tell him? What would he think? And if I told him I was OK, would he stop emailing me? Was that all he really wants to know? Did he just want to stop feeling guilty? Or did he want something he could wag in front of Mom and say, “Dylan wrote to me and not you, you sawed-off bitch!”
But I kept typing.
“I’m OK. I’m in LA.”
No. Don’t say “LA.” Reza warned me the first time I said it. “Don’t say ‘LA.’ Say ‘the Valley.’ People in the Valley hate when you call it ‘LA.’”
So, I backspaced it.
“I’m OK. I’m in the Valley. Don’t worry about me.
What the fuck did I mean “Love”? He didn’t love me! Or did he? If he didn’t really love me, why would he care what happened to me? Or was it because of guilt or to show up Mom? I backspaced again.
“I’m OK. I’m in the Valley. Don’t worry about me.
That looked wrong. That made me look like a dick. He is my dad. I complain about him not caring about me. But do I really care about him? Wasn’t I the one who’s wrong? I mean, he lives in a nice home and has a nice girlfriend, and I sleep in a Ford Explorer he gave me. I have to depend on others for food and to get clean. I work in a minimum-wage job that’s the only thing that keeps me from dumpster diving for spoiled food. Who’s the one who doesn’t have his shit together?
And didn’t Magdalena say I should always be kind? Why can’t I be kind to my own dad?
“The library will be closing in fifteen minutes. The computers will be shutting down in five minutes. Please bring your books to check out. Thank you for visiting the West Valley Regional Branch Library.”
I logged off the computer without sending the email.