by Kevin Tosca
Los refrescos? I asked, pointing at the soda machine and wanting to know if I had the right words. I wanted to learn Spanish.
Sí, he said. Te gusta?
No, I said, no me gusta. I hadn’t had a soda in five years. That didn’t mean I didn’t like them, but what it did mean I knew I didn’t have the words for.
Yo también, he said. No soda, no alcohol, no smoke.
No cervezas? I said with an incredulous and jocular something I never trusted when I heard it in my voice. No vino?
No, he said proudly, tres años.
Three years, I said, surprised, and I was. Excess, rather than abstinence, is what is usually found in a kitchen.
No nada, he added, sola agua.
Sola agua? I said, shaking my head, but shaking it a little too much.
The information was interesting, though, and so was the conversation, our longest bilingual one in two years, me and this short, older, brickhouse of a Peruvian man who had bussed hundreds, if not thousands, of my tables.
Agua, he repeated, and trabajo, and—he paused, outlined a woman’s curves with his hands—señoritas.
He smiled a sly, eminently masculine smile.
I was thirty then, and he could have been my father’s age, or older, it was hard to tell, but I knew he worked two jobs, something ridiculous like seventy hours a week, and that he had a wife and kids in Peru he planned to rejoin someday, and that he had at least one girlfriend here, in Wisconsin.
I laughed, but my laugh wasn’t the merriment kind. It was conversational oil, the false lubrication male relationships demanded. I didn’t like this oil, but I thought two foreigners needed even more of it.
He continued to smile and I had no clue what he was thinking. Was he thinking anything?
He slapped me on my back and returned to the dining room to finish his work and his day. I poured myself a cup of water, and thought about his philosophy.
Eventually, I pushed open the swinging doors that led to the dining room. There was a counter there, above where the employees kept their jackets. I leaned against it and took my server’s book out of my apron, its pages where I jotted down the notes for the Spanish words I learned or wanted to learn.
‘Wise’, I wrote. Then ‘adulterer’, then ‘chauvinist’, then ‘wage slave’ and ‘immigrant opportunist’. I wasn’t angry, not at all. As far as philosophies go, I liked his—I had encountered worse—I simply wasn’t going to let it, and that smile of his, go unchallenged. I knew mine could look just as smug.
At home, I found the translations, or the proximate translations. ‘Wise’ is easy. ‘Immigrant opportunist’ is not so easy.
I wrote them down in my book, but as I did so I realized the absurdity of what I was doing. I knew I’d never say those words to him, never confront or challenge him.
The truth was I felt sorry for him, for him and all the other South Americans and Mexicans in the kitchen. That, and that I probably had no idea what I was talking about, anyway. ‘Opportunist’? Maybe, but most likely not. I would never have the balls, or the interest, to find out, to befriend this man, to get rid of my pity and tell him that his philosophy was flawed, that it reeked of masculine and ignorant bullshit.
I tore up the pages with my notes on them, leaving me with a blank page I’d soon scribble some stranger’s order on. I tore up the other pages in my apartment, full of the words I had been collecting and studying, and threw the pieces in the trash. I was about to throw the dictionary away, too, but I stopped and set it on one of my bookshelves instead, which amounted to the same thing.
What I had left was the white page and all of its possibility, which was large, but my doubts were larger. We needed a new language. But where, when, and if.
I shut the book and went to the counter to pour myself a glass of wine, a Malbec from Mario’s part of the world. Then I sat down, put my feet up, and stared at a Renoir I had on my wall, two rosy-cheeked girls, children, in a field, lit by what even a depressed atheist could have been persuaded to call a divine and optimistic light.
Kevin Tosca’s stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Thrice Fiction, Fleeting, Umbrella Factory, Underground Voices, Prick of the Spindle and elsewhere. He lives in France. Read more at www.kevintosca.com