oasis

arts


Now, Then

By Sandra, xanii@aol.com

I think she would be delectable. That's what I always think when I walk to the cafe. She makes her drinks there. They are all her drinks. Just the way she handles them. Grasping the mixing cup with her quick strong hands, trimmed clean nails making equal reflections on the polished aluminum. She strains lime or throws crushed ice in, measuring with experience and caps the cup, shaking vigorously, her forearm muscles jumping and flinching beneath tanned honey skin. She'll then pour her drink, after she has molded it, into your waiting glass, slow and deliberate. Yes, definitely delectable.

I will be working doubles today, even though I know she won't get in until late. So I wait, working quickly, hoping to catch a glimpse of her coming through the front door. Quiet, demure.

Before the noon rush, I stand behind her counter and look out, wondering what she sees, what she says to the people who ask for something maybe she's never made before. I imagine she knows it all, the names, the tastes, the right combinations. I stop a minute and wonder if she makes drinks for someone at home.

"Did they give my job away without telling?"

I take my hand from the beer tap and step back, embarrassed.

"No, I was just... um, looking."

I step from behind the counter and tie my hunter green half apron on, tie my long braids back and make sure I have pencil and pad to start taking orders. And I catch a glance as her dark eyes smirk at me, maybe wondering what I was really doing.

She's cut her hair today, close around the sides as curly raven locks flop on top. It's Friday, so she wears her loose black shirt and pleated black trousers with her thick black belt. She looks rugged, set, an unconventional handsomeness in her tanned and tight skin. I wonder what it would be to touch her face, feeling her eyebrows beneath my fingertips or her jawbone against my palms, her smallish lips against mine.

"Sex on the Beach, Fuzzy Navel and a Bloody Mary, table four."

She gives me this surprised look, I only keep my eyes down, waiting for her to fill the orders. She hands me the last drink and I swear her hand lingers a bit, waiting for me to ask, to say something. I put the pad in my apron and bustle to table four.

Table three wants the special, table six wants vegetarian, table one is waiting for their rolls. Suzanna called in sick and Jack was hiding from Mayla, the manager and owner of the Manasawa Cafe. So there it was, me and Lana and there they were, sixteen tables. It was two hours since my last break.

"Mayla is waiting for you."

"So let her wait. I've got to pee."

"She's got me waiting tables too."

"Welcome to the club."

She gives this deep chuckled laugh and knocks on the stall.

"I'm coming, I'm coming."

I stop by the sink and look down at my feet. The backs of my heels are crimson with blood. Her silver bracelet hand reaches for my calf, the warmth from her palm dissolves my angry will.

"That looks nasty."

"Yeah. " is all I can muster before looking into her eyes.

"Hold on. " And she leaves me in the bathroom, returning with a can. She sprays the backs of my heels and makes cushions with wads of toilet paper. Satisfied with her work, she stands back and scratches her nose with her pinkie.

"It's not the best but it should carry you through the night. " She looks up and winks.

"Thanks. " And I wish she wouldn't let go, wish she wouldn't leave. We wash our hands and head out into the noisy room.

And that's how it was that night. Her standing behind the counter and me moving like a bee between the tables. When things would slow down between drink orders, she would serve the entrees or do refills.

I offered to split my tips with her as we washed the bar glasses.

"No. " She says, as her hands are busy in the sink.

"... tonight was a good night."

I nod my head and keep cleaning. We wind up closing at three. Jack was still no where to be found, Vince came to take Lana home and Mayla's husband, Mariano, came to count the money with Mayla. So we were free to go.

I packed my smallish backpack and wrapped my jacket around me. Chef left me a plate and I bagged it to take home.

"You got a ride?"

I push the door and almost leave without answering. I stop, too tired to want to take the bus the twenty blocks to my cramped apartment.

"No. " I turn and give a distressed look.

"Can I take you home? " She swaggers to me and makes this funny asking face I've never seen before. I wonder if she's been sipping the drinks.

Her car smells like fabric softener. I put my head back and close my eyes.

"You okay?"

"I don't think ever I've worked so hard before!"

"Tonight was kinda rough."

"I just want to get home and go to bed."

I put my hands on my eyes and exhale softly. We arrive at my complex.

"How did you know where I live?"

"I watch to make sure you get home sometimes, especially when you work late."

I look at her and wonder what else she knows, whom else she's seen me with what other details she's noticed.

"Thank You. " I hesitate.

"... Do you want to come up?"

She nods 'No' but watches as I unlock the bottom door, then close it, before she starts up her car.

It is Saturday and already I am beginning to dread the cafe tonight. The families will be there early with the kids, the grandparents and seniors file in after that and the too good tourists and trendsetters are always the last and worst of the crowd. With their loud perfumes and colognes and their demanding and their mess. Always there will be someone putting out cigarettes in the wine glasses or wiping their waterproof lipstick on the linen napkins. For now, I won't have to think about it, all that will come later.

I sleep till one and laze around while the weeks worth of recorded soap operas play in the VCR. By the fourth commercial break, I manage to make it out of bed and open the window on the right. A warm breeze billows my sleeveless pajamas and I peer out to the kids playing below.

"Lisa!!"

A pair of red shorts stop in mid play and heads to my window.

"Mornin' Ms. Erica !!"

She waves up and smiles her best front tooth-missing smile.

"Mornin'! Do me a favor..."

"I know, I know, run to the store!"

I smile and pull my head back in, I grab a sock, weighted with the spare change I pick up from tips and a few bills, I scrawl a list on the back of a receipt and appear back at the window.

"Careful down there!"

And I drop the weighted sock to her, watching her move out of harms way while it falls four floors to the pavement.

"Thank You! " I shout as she skips away, her little plastic barrettes clicking against each other.

I stop a moment to see how far the tragedies have gotten on the soaps and make work of washing my face and brushing my teeth before Lisa gets back. I turn the television up and make my way into the living room/kitchenette.

Since I do most of my living in my bedroom, there isn't much to clean away. I go back and gather the cups and dishes from the bedroom and put them aside. I heap the laundry on to the bed, sorting and watching TV all the while. During an intermission I load the washer and keep the door cracked for Lisa's return. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror by the bedroom and stop.

Tears begin to well in my eyes and I no longer want to be in that cramped space, cleaning the same dirty clothes or sheets or dishes.

"I'm back!! " Lisa bunts the door with her butt and waddles in with a brown bag full of errands.

"Are you sure you got everything? " She drops the bag on top of her shoes and cocks her head to the side.

"Yes Ma'am!"

"Alright now. " I smile widely as she turns to close the door.

She pulls out the stepping stand from beneath the table and rolls up her sleeves. I take out the plastic apron and tie it around her eight-year-old waist. She does quick work of soaking the dishes and washing the mugs and utensils. She is silent while I turn the contents of the washer into the over head dryer and continue cleaning.

"Are you going to work tonight?"

"Yes."

I watch as she slumps to the side.

"I'll be here Sunday though, all day!"

"Mama said I have to go to church."

"Well, I'll wait for you to come back. I'll have a surprise."

She turns and gives me this half awe half teasing look. I lift my eyebrows and keep cleaning.

At four o'clock she is done helping me with the kitchen and folding of the wash. She lays in the middle of the double bed and watches a tape I've bought for when she comes over. In the other room, I iron the uniform for tonight: black skirt with a tropical blouse and a black vest.

"You should rest before you go to work Ms. Erica."

"I will, soon."

"Tweety bird is so smart!!"

That is my cue that she wants me to come. I put the finishing touches on my blouse and put the things away, then make my way next to her on the bed.

"You want some dinner Chef left me?"

"Sure. " Her eyes never leaving the characters. I get up to go heat the food.

Lisa used to sit on the steps of the building waiting for her mother to come back from work in the evenings. When I used to work mornings, I would let her stay in my apartment after my shifts were over. She would help me cook dinner and I would help her with homework. She was never afraid and always willing to help out and there was something about her reserve that made me feel she was more looking out for me than me for her.

I came back with two forks and the plate, we ate mostly in silence.

"Ms. Erica, are you ever going to leave here?"

"Why would you ask me something like that? " I scrunch my face up and look at her.

"Mama said staying here ain't good for nobody. " And her doe eyes look at me, hoping my answer would be 'No'. I snuggle closer and keep watching the cartoons.

"Don't know."

"Well, if you have to leave, I... " I stopped a moment and kiss her forehead.

"Speaking of going, you should be on your way Kiddo."

She covers her eyes and gives a sigh.

"Tell your mother 'Thank You' for letting you spend the day with me and ask her about tomorrow, 'kay?"

She slides off the bed and heads slowly for the window, checking to see if any of her playmates are still there, then she turns and heads for the door.

"Hey!! I gotta give you something. I reach into the brown grocery bag and give her the sock of change. Her eyes light up.

"Save some so we can get ice cream tomorrow."

She holds the door open for me, like she's been waiting for me to get there and I duck in, walking to the back to get myself together.

"Hello. Ready for another night?"

She notices how I zip by, half ignoring her, half lost in my thoughts. I reach to the back and put my back pack in the locker. I feel her stand in the doorway and I turn abruptly toward her.

"As ready as I'll ever get."

She gives me this look that further darkens her eyes and stops me from leaving the back room.

"Is everything okay?"

"Fine. " And I sluggishly give her a sideways look. I finish tying my apron and smooth my hands down my uniform to make sure it all flattened out.

"Just fine. " And I try to give her my most reassuring look.

Mariano says business is growing. I, am just tired of being on my feet so much. He mentions he might have to open the Cafe for extended hours and all I manage to do is melt into the back room and pluck my back pack from the locker.

"Extended hours would be better for your pocket."

I peer around the door of my locker and eyes as she changes her shirt from the tropical to a bright royal blue T-shirt. The muscles in her shoulders flex and recoil to her movements. I glimpse the heather gray of her T strap sports bra and the silvery gold chain she wears around her neck.

"I guess. " And she catches me staring. I blink and flutter my eyes but I still keep staring.

"Sorry. " I bring my gaze down and try to back my way out. She catches up with me by the front door and puts her arm across to stop me from leaving.

"You've been acting really strange today, are you sure things are alright?"

I feel her touch my cheek with the warmth of her palm, her thumb ring rubbing against my ear lobe. It feels like something from a movie. Just that she would take, what I thought, was such an assumption. She really didn't know me, she didn't know if this was what I needed to feel, she didn't know if I was even going to let her touch me.

And she did. And I let her. And it was.

I extended my hand and ran my trembling fingers against her jaw. She turned into me, melting almost as much as I was. Yes, this was what she wanted to feel, this was what she wanted to know, this was the assumption, this was her answer.

"Erica, I thought you would be... oh, excuse me!"

Mayla came checking and we pulled from each other like children caught eating ice cream in the middle of the night. I ran my suddenly sweaty hands down my sides and looked to the floor.

"Yeah, Mayla, we were just leaving."

And she caught the back of my arm and ushered me to her car. I stood by the rear of the car and wrapped my arms around me. She stood by the drivers side and ran her fingers though her luscious inky hair. She stuck her hands in her pockets.

"I'll be more than happy to drive you home. " Pleading more than asking. I walk to the other side of the car and she meets me there, ready with the door open.

I barely breath an " Okay."

She arrives at my apartment and tries to find the words.

"Just wait, I'll be right back."

I run upstairs and throw a pair of jeans and a shirt, my bathroom kit and sneakers and a few other things I think I may need into my back pack and fly back down to her.

"Let's go."

"Where?"

"Any place but here."

She pushes the door on my side closed and sprints to the driver's side.

"Are you sure?"

"Please drive."

Carrot cake bricks in your stomach at four in the morning. I don't even think it is natural for you to consume anything beyond ten at night. But there we were, noshing free food from one of her friend's restaurants, sitting on the front of her car, in the library parking lot.

"Do this often do you?"

She gets that intensive smirk of hers and my spine lights up.

"What gave it away? " She bags the empty cartons and wipes down the hood. I jump to my feet, stretching off my meal. I turn to find her staring at me, unabashedly.

I make my way back to her and grab her face in both of my hands. I bring my lips toward hers and brush against them lightly. She feathers the back of her hand against my belly, making the already nervous flips feel like convulsions. I clench my teeth and fall softly against her hard body. We speak in whispers.

"Is this okay...?"

"Why wouldn't it be? " Her hand travels slightly beneath my shirt.

"Is...this..."

"Erica..."

"Okay...?"

She pulls me back, keeping me at arms length.

"We shouldn't... not now, not here, like this."

She drives me back home. In silence. My Saturdays are spent with Lisa and I miss her when she goes back to school in September but I manage to fill my time until she can visit.

"So when are you going to ask her up here?"

I sat on the edge of the bed painting my toes. Lisa was telling me about this field trip she thought I might want to chaperone when she sat by the window looking down.

"Who? " I ask, not looking up.

"That lady who used to bring you home sometimes and who has been waiting outside your window for the past few weeks."

"What?! " And I almost trip trying to get to the window.

And there she is, sitting on the hood of her car, looking up at the sky. I look at Lisa.

"Don't tell me you didn't know she comes?"

"Shouldn't you be doing some home work?"

She slaps her forehead.

"Ms. Erica! Even my mother tells me to watch out for strange things! And she is definitely strange sitting outside your window like she does."

I send Lisa home and throw on a robe to head downstairs.

"Caitlyn, what are you doing here? " I shiver from the cold wind. She looks to the side and tries to avoid my question.

"I wanted... to be, near you."

"You see me everyday."

"And you've been ignoring me for all that time. " She looks into my eyes and I look down.

"Come on up. " She locks her car and follows suit.

The apartment seems smaller now that she is standing by the sofa. I offer her some tea and we sit, like opposite ends of the world. She only wears a long sleeve turtle neck and hunter green jeans. Her nipples show slightly through the fabric. My eyes climb to her face.

"So... okay..."

"I didn't want to cause any alarm. " She gives me this look like She's expecting me to jump up and hug her, making everything okay. She runs her fingers through her hair and looks down.

"What did I do? " Almost too painful, she stares at me, wanting answers I'm not sure I can give.

"I'm scared... of what I'm feeling."

She shifts her seat and turns from me. I'm sure she's heard this before, I'm sure she is hating me for it.

"Okay. But I want to tell you that you don't have to be scared and you don't have to keep ignoring me and that you don't have to pretend you don't feel anything... at all."

And her look asks me if I am sure, asks me if this is what I am sure of.

"I am afraid."

She reaches over and touches my hand, pulling me into her. I feel her quick soft hands soothe the side of my cheek, her breathe warming my lips as she makes her way closer.

"It's okay to be afraid."

And lightly, she touches her lips to mine, lightly she touches me, letting her hand spiral down the side of my neck, lightly she begins to steal my soul.

Lisa sees me off sometimes, and I think I am pretty sure she doesn't know where I go.

"You're going out with Caitlyn again aren't you?"

I turn around, snapping my earring on and eye her with caution.

"Yeah, How did you know?"

"That's who you leave with when you go. You meet her at the coffee shop or the train station and she picks you up. Sometimes I wait by the window until you come home, sometimes it's a long time and I wonder if you've left, if you're not coming back like Mama said you weren't."

"Lisa..."

"Caitlyn is nice, a lot nicer than Thomas. I know, I can tell 'cause you hum when you're doing the laundry and you make sure you put on make up when you go to the corner store, you never did that when Thomas was here. Or Darla either."

She flips through the magazine while she lays on her stomach, never missing a beat or a page.

"Well Ms. Personal Journal! Is it okay with you if I go out with Caitlyn?"

"I guess. I just don't know why you ever went out with Thomas."

"For an eight year old, you sure have a lot to say."

"Do you kiss her? " And she gives me this matter of factly look that makes me want to hide beneath the bed. I turn and put my hands behind my back.

"Sometimes. But it's not like kissing Thomas or Darla."

"Will that give you a baby?"

"No, it won't. " I smile broadly and sit next to her.

"As long as you like her, it's okay with me. Just... " She looks down, then to me.

"...Just don't leave."

"Lisa still thinks you're okay."

"Really?"

We are sitting on the other side of town, in this painfully clean diner, having mocha lattes and toast with jam. I reach across the table several times and take her hands into mine. Feeling the light veins through her rugged skin, playing with her pliable resistance. She has a surprise for me, she says and won't tell me more.

It has been almost a year since we've been going out and these little "outings" always astound me.

"There is nothing we can do in this down pour."

I learn to read love and concern in her dark smirks. Sometimes all she has to do is give me a look and I drop what it is I am doing and kiss the spot that makes me tingle. Mainly it is her cheeks. Sometimes I kiss both her eyelids or her nose or even her neck. Casually, discreet and then I continue with what I was doing.

Today though, I have a thing for her hands.

"I didn't know Randel was part of the surprise."

"No... " She smiles broadly at my attempt at trying to make her talk and keeps on driving.

She fastens on a velvet blind fold and takes me up the front steps.

"I know we are at his house, what's with the blindfold?"

Her hand eases down the center of my back, giving me pause in the middle of my venture over the threshold.

She whispers close,

"It's okay... surprise..."

The blindfold flitters away and there I am, in the middle of this massive

loft, surrounded by lit candles.

It must have taken hours to set up the candles much less to light them.

Tree stump sized candles, little angel candles, long tapers, stout church votives.

Light reds and greens and blues, pastels, whites. The stair well, the chimney, covered with candles.

"Oh my Goddess..."

In the center of the room, she laid out an area, with pillows and linens and all the things she knew I would love: pretzels, chocolate, strawberries and a liter of Cola, scented oils, crisp cotton clothing, books, music.

"I can't believe you did this... " She smiles broadly, pulling me into the center of the area.

"No? " Asking as if I've hurt her, looking as mischievous as sin. Her lips pout and I kiss them, trying to keep my grounding, trying to savor all her hard work.

"Thank You. " She smiles, closing her eyes, knowing I will enjoy this time we have together.

"You're going to be leaving soon."

Lisa looks down at the package she has brought from the store for me this morning.

"Lisa..."

"You will. " Her eyes fill with tears and my heartaches.

I kneel down and hug her.

"Soon, I think."

"Is everything okay?"

Caitlyn comes from the bedroom in her sweat shorts and sleeveless tank, her hair flattened on the side. Lisa looks at her with sadness and backs out to leave.

"Lisa, stay for breakfast. I started making the waffles. Banana and pineapple... " I try to tempt her into staying and it works, barely.

There they sit, opposite each other at the table, like rivals in a staring contest. Caitlyn looking sorry for breaking what Lisa and I have and

Lisa angry she couldn't have me all to herself.

I set the plates in front of them, waiting.

"Guys... we gotta work this out."

Lisa sends me daggers with her eyes.

"I wanted you to stay Ms. Erica, how will I ever finish learning long division? Mama has to work at night still. " She pouts.

"I can help you with that Lisa, I can come by in the afternoons and bring you to our new house and we can get your homework done and I'll bring you back."

Lisa throws down her fork and storms out.

I grab my hair through my fingers.

"This is NOT happening!"

"It's okay Er... we can get through this. " She grabs my hand and strokes my back.

"It's okay."

She winds up pouting the whole day while the movers took my things into the back of the truck and drove it down to the other side of town.

"You can't be mad at her forever Lisa."

"You're the one whose making her go away, things were fine until you started talking about moving."

"We love each other very much and this is how we are showing it, by moving in together."

"Aren't you supposed to be married to live together?"

"We will be, sorta. I came back to invite you to our ceremony."

"How come Ms. Erica didn't tell me?"

"She didn't want to make you any more upset. She cries almost everytime she sees you like this. She is happy Lisa, help her to stay happy."

And they break up before I get a chance to ask what was happening.

"I'm gonna be leaving soon Leese."

She doesn't respond.

"I wanted to give this to you to remember me."

I hand her the tape she watches when she would come to my apartment and a small jewelry box. I open it and pull out the thin silver chain with a ring through it.

"Caitlyn and I are going to get, something like married in two weeks. I got you a ring like the one we have, so we'll all kind of be together. I know you're still mad at me for leaving. I'll still be by to visit, we can still do all the things we used to and maybe if I ask, your mother will let you sleep over."

She looked up in sadness.

"I love you Erica. I'll miss you very much."

And she hugged me, sending me off into my new life, my new world with blessings.

Thank You Lisa.


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