Submerged in the depths of the pizzeria’s kitchen during the hottest month of the year, I wait for the new chef to pass me the plates of food. His brown skin glistens, and his hair, damp from sweat, begins to curl at the nape of his neck. I’m anxious with nothing to take to my tables—checking my watch, tapping my fingers on the countertop, cracking my knuckles. I think, Why ring the damn bell if the food isn’t ready yet?
I walk back to the wooden door framing a window that looks out into the dining room. My customers are grumbling to one another. I make a mental checklist: Table one needs chicken francese, table two needs veal cacciatore and fried calamari, table nine hasn’t even ordered yet, and a line is forming at the door.
I hear another cook call this new guy Juan. A crown of curls quivers beneath his cap as he moves from pan to pan. With an expert flick of his wrist, he arches white wine into a pan. He abandons the emerald green bottle next to the stove, leaving smudged fingerprints along its neck. Droplets of wine and oil spark and dance along vaporized fumes of diffused alcohol. Again he flicks his wrist and tosses the sauce up; it splashes neatly back into the pan. The sharp scent of lemon cuts through the air. I’ve watched the other cooks maneuver this kitchen for years but something about his movements mesmerizes me.
“I don’t have all day to wait here,” I say, trying to break my trance. “Next time ring the bell when it’s ready, not when you’ve just started to cook the food.” The other cooks snicker. Juan’s back is to me when I say this. He pours the sauce speckled with parsley and oregano over linguine and places it on the partition separating us. The plate teeters on a tin of butter. We reach in to grab it. The plate is hot. Heat jolts me. Sauce spills on my hands. Almost dropping the plate, he catches it. I don’t pull my hands back as he wipes the sauce off with his fingers.
When I look up I see lidded eyes underneath a beat-up hat. His forehead is permanently creased from furrowing. He leans forward some more and I see his eyes are the color of warmed honey. His lashes are thick and black, curled back from his eyes.
“Estas bien, Krystal?”
I nod and look down, afraid to fall into the sticky warmth of his gaze again. My hands are cupped in his. Salmon hisses in a pan nearby; spices tickle my nostrils. I hear the chomp of a knife dicing carrots. Pots and pans clang in the sink. His fingers are shiny from butter, oil, and wine. They are thick and rough from years of cooking. I feel people beginning to stare so I start pulling my hands away, but not before he caresses me once more with his calloused fingers. The tenderness of his brush stays with me long after I’ve walked away.
Throughout the night, my phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s my boyfriend, Michael. In direct contrast to Juan’s brooding features, Michael’s Irish complexion lights up my screen, crystalline blue eyes piercing mine.
After three years of being his girlfriend, I’d recently told Michael about my undocumented status in America as we stood in an empty parking lot during a walk through town, tormented by the lies burgeoning between us. He dropped my hands and stepped away from me. He sat on a stone divider and raked his hands through his hair and down his face, leaving red lines on his white cheeks. The minutes passed with his heavy sighs between us.
“But you’re working on it, right? I mean, it’ll be fixed eventually?” He was still sitting away from me.
“I’m not sure, Michael. It’s been eight or nine years at this point, I just don’t know. We get status updates from immigration but nothing has changed really.”
“Okay. I mean, if we were to get married and everything, you’ll be legal by then right?”
“I don’t know.”
“How will I explain this to my family?”
“Please don’t tell anyone anything. You must understand this doesn’t only affect me. It’s my whole family—my dad, my mom, my sister. I’m trusting you with this secret. I’ve never told anyone before.”
It was true. I’d chosen to lose good friends rather than divulge my family’s precarious situation. I continued to plead with him not to tell anyone, especially not anyone in his family. But Michael went home and told his mother anyway, the same woman who, upon meeting me, told her son behind my back I was too dark for him, the same woman who pushed her son away when he leaned in for a kiss one day on returning from one of our family barbecues and said, “You smell like curry. Get away from me, Michael.” This same woman had told him he couldn’t bring me inside their house while we were dating; she told him she preferred it if we stayed on the front porch where she wouldn’t have to see me.
I’d avoided seeing him since then and that was a week ago. Something had shifted between us. I had somehow taken on an inferior role in our relationship—he got irritated if I questioned him and became vicious when I expressed my displeasure at him telling his family. His brother was a lawyer so I was worried about what they would do with this information—if his family would wield it against me. There was no room for anger, only concern.
“I only told my mom,” he assured me, “and I told her not to tell anyone else.”
“Because I have every reason to trust your mom, Michael? The woman doesn’t even like me!”
And that was where we left it, so when my phone vibrates again tonight, I shut it off. I walk away from Juan fighting the urge to look back at him. I allow the heavy plates to ground me. Yet all I see around me are his tired eyes infused with a spark of interest. The shine of his skin, the blue flames ringed yellow, the heat, the black, the white, all push and pull me into the kitchen. The dishes warm my hands. I kick open the door with my right foot and the cool breeze of the air conditioner ices my sweat.
I couldn’t have known he didn’t ring the bell that day, that he bit his lip when he flicked the sauce and some splattered his skin, nor seen the tremble of his hands as he set the plates out. I did what people inexplicably do after time—I saw what I wanted to see.
I did not, however, feel what I wanted to feel. Each time I entered the kitchen and he was there, his breath drew with mine, he captured my gaze as I did his, and I always welcomed the touches he offered. Amid the rolling boils of pasta and the popping of tomatoes bursting in the pots, I looked forward to his lingering stares. I held the tickets up for him to read.
“Table three wants fried calamari, clams, and mussels,” I told him.
He wrapped his fingers around mine, raising the ticket between us. He looked not at ticket but into my eyes.
“Sí, Krystal,” he said, rolling the R in my name in the most decadent way possible.
I always walked away smiling, a familiar spin of emotions spiraling down my torso. I’d begun to neglect Michael, filling my days with twelve-hour work schedules whenever I wasn’t taking classes so I could see Juan whenever I wanted. On the days I signed up to work all day and he wasn’t there, the disappointment that dwelled within me ran as deep as the ocean.
He whispered questions to me and I moved in closer to answer them, enjoying the way his eyes played upon my body. Sometimes I sat next to him while he cooked. We joked and laughed. When he moved closer to me, I rested my head on his shoulder. The smell of stale oil mixed with his cologne pulsated off him. The cooks in the kitchen turned away or averted their eyes while our hands found one another’s under the counter.
One day he placed his hand over his chest and said, “ Aye, Krystal, tengo dolor en mi corazón.”
“Your heart hurts? What happened?”
From inside his shirt, he pulled out a single white rose, thorns stippled like fine hairs along the stem.
“Sí, para ti, Krystal.”
With upturned palms, he presented the rose. Though attractive when covered in butter and oil, his hands, before work, were cracked and dry. Caked with grime, the ridges of his nails and skin were blackened and tainted. I yearned to rub life back into them.
Abandoning the dining room when it wasn’t busy, I stayed in the kitchen where I helped him rinse rice. We submerged our hands in the water, our fingers sifting the grains. I helped him pry lustrous mussel shells apart, knead dough, and pound meat. I told him I had a boyfriend. He told me about his girlfriend in Mexico. These revelations deterred neither of us, the comfort of two brown bodies lost in America succumbing to the tantalizing aromas of food.
At eleven at night, the pizzeria shut down and the boss arrived to collect the money for the day. That meant no fraternizing with the guys in the back. I packed up the pepperoni rolls, garlic knots, and calzones from the front. I wiped down the figurines of fat pizza men spinning dough and the bottles of olive oil, vinegar, and pepper seeds.
Covered in dried pizza sauce and grease, I untied my apron. Still talking about her daughter, the boss lady beckoned me to the car. I muttered something about the bathroom and disappeared in the back one last time to find him. But he wasn’t there.
“I don’t need a ride tonight,” I said emerging from the kitchen. Though this was my answer every night, it was nice of her to offer. The girls working there thought I was one of them—another college girl waitressing on the side. They didn’t know this job was a lifeline for me, that it was the only work I could get that paid off the books, no questions asked.
A few blocks away from work, I saw Juan smoking a cigarette on the corner. It was the first time I saw him outside the walls of our job. Months of our games had slipped away. His hat was off, his head full of ringlets shining in the silver moonlight. Curlicues of smoke danced around his head.
“Aye, Krystal,” he said as I drew closer. “Estas muy bonita, chiquita.”
I’d learned enough Spanish over the years to enjoy the compliment. His workman fingers moved through my hair, tickled my scalp, sifted my hairs as though memorizing every strand. The heat from our bodies was overpowering. I inhaled the familiar smells of food. His arms circled my waist, his hands squeezed my thighs. I trembled, shook, quaked. I’d begun to unravel.
Closing my eyes, I fell into him, two people with illegal status from two different parts of the world melding together momentarily.
That was the beginning.
Soon, I was as familiar with his living space as I was with mine—his bare attic room on the third floor of a lopsided house. We entered one day by way of rickety back steps and one fire escape ladder. He explained how he rented this room from a friend and didn’t want to interrupt their family time on the floor below.
“How old is their little girl?” I asked.
“En español, Krystal.”
“Fine,” I said, “Cuantos años tiene su hija?”
My Spanish, good before, was now excellent because of him. He now spoke to me only in Spanish and though my responses were sometimes shaky, we’d shifted from English almost entirely.
I stood by the window as he shrugged off his sweater and hung it inside an old wardrobe next to us. He flicked on a lamp sitting atop a broken table next to his bed and weak light pulsed around the shade. The threadbare carpet beneath my sneakers was stained. Compared to my apartment where my parents had worked so hard to make it feel like home—my mom painting the walls, gluing decorative wallpaper, and sewing curtains; and my dad tiling the bathroom, making new cupboards for the kitchen and running wires for new lights—Juan’s meager surroundings screamed desolation, utter loneliness. Everything I witnessed was what I felt inside.
“Who’s this?” I asked him even though I suspected it was his girlfriend. There was a picture of a woman on a CD case. Her short bleached hair was flipped out onto her shoulders. Her eyes were lidded like his but her gaze was intense, severe, her lips pressed into a line.
“Karina,” he whispered, his voice hoarse and low. The way his voice caressed her name sent a warning through me but I pushed it to the side. I didn’t want to deal with that then, not when forging a connection with someone like me was so close, just within my grasp.
In the months that followed, that attic floor became as familiar to me as my own bedroom. I lied to my boyfriend Michael, ignored the few friends I had, saw no one but Juan and the inside of his room. They couldn’t understand the shadows I existed in, always lying, living in fear.
If I were to get caught doing anything, my family could get deported. Something as simple as supplying identification so I could get a drink in a bar required me to walk around with my passport and explain to everyone, “Sorry, lost my ID and haven’t had a chance to replace it yet,” but that could only work for so long. My friends would get a slap on the wrist, just a warning, and their families would be fine.
Juan lived with the same fears I did every day. But I never told him that. I couldn’t trust anyone with that information for fear of how they could use it against me.
Tangled in bedsheets one day he asked me to marry him.
“Para documentos,” he clarified.
Not for love. For papers. He didn’t know the one reason that drove me to him, the one thing that united us, the one thing no one else around us could understand—our lack of legal status in the United States. While Juan was surrounded by other Mexicans like him in the kitchen of the pizzeria, all of them undocumented, I had to pretend. He had a community of people who shared his background, culture, and fears, while I had no one. He thought the girl he was bedding was an American citizen, a girl foolish enough to marry him and give him the status we both so desperately craved.
He asked again and again and after he realized my answer would always be no, he turned to drinking more. The six-packs he often brought home with him turned into twelve-packs that he drained one right after the other, bottles clinking as he tossed them into a pile. I’d gotten used to joining him too, enjoying the numbing effect alcohol often had on my senses.
Drunk, I no longer cared Michael and I were always fighting and I ignored the phone calls Juan always slipped away to take when I was with him. I had become this young woman who cheated instead of telling the truth and breaking away; I lied to my family every time I slipped away telling them I was working when what I was doing was lying in the bed of a man who was using me more than I was him. Who was this person I had become? Could I crawl out of it? Did I want to?
I stopped drinking with him and, equipped with sharper senses and all my emotions, I started to ask questions about the phone calls he took out on the fire escape every night.
“Who are you talking to?”
“Mi hija, Krystal,” and he caressed my name in the long, lazy way he often did, his voice calling forth something deep in me. But, no longer drunk, I continued pestering him.
“If it’s your daughter, why are you outside in the dead of winter talking to her? Why not in here with me?”
He just ignored me, turned his back and slipped out the window with a bottleneck hooked between his fingers. I sat by the window and strained to hear what he said.
“Karina . . . mi amor . . . mi vida . . . te amo mi amor . . . voy a volver para usted.”
An unfounded hatred of a woman I wronged started to seep through me. She was his everything, his love, his life; he revered her among all others, and he was going to return to her and only her. What was I thinking allowing myself to become infatuated with this man eleven years older than me? Why couldn’t I stop myself from hating her? She was the mother of his daughter.
When he slid in through the window, he cupped his hands to his mouth and puffed warm air into them.
“Aye, Krystal, qué pasó?”
No chiquita. Nothing. Just what was wrong?
“Nada, Juan. Nada.”
I knew about Karina but she didn’t know about me. I realized I was a way to pass his time in America until he could return to Mexico and be with his family. While I cherished the time I spent with him and imagined a deeper bond existed between us, I was a story he told to the friends he trusted and they snickered behind my back.
Anger flashed in his eyes as he moved toward me. I was yelling too much; the family downstairs would hear me, and he didn’t want to explain me to them.
“Karina,” he said while looking at me. And then he stopped, realizing his mistake, “Krystal, lo siento, it was a mistake. Nothing else.”
In my rage, I couldn’t understand I was doing the same to him except no child was at stake. I felt used and betrayed, flashes of me slipping into Michael’s car moments after Juan’s beard has scratched my body raw, taking control of my actions. I shoved Juan against the wall.
“Krystal,” he begged.
But I wanted no more of it.
I thought of Michael clambering on top of me, my insides still slick from Juan’s touch, his moans still in my ear, me reminding myself to say the right name, to moan in English.
What kind of person had I become? How could I do this to someone else?
“No,” I screamed.
I stormed down the precipitous staircase that led to the apartment below. I was leaving the way I should have always entered and left, not only the select times Juan knew the family wasn’t home or had already gone to bed. Startled, the woman and the little girl looked up at my tear-stained face. I flew through the door and into the cold night, buttoning up my thin jacket.
It was late. The turmoil that filled me was a stark contrast to the eerily quiet night. I looked behind me but he hadn’t followed. I started walking in the direction of my apartment but was unsure I could make the thirty-seven blocks home in the dead of winter wearing nothing but a glorified sweater. Torn, I kept checking behind me, a part of me hoping he was following to make sure I was safe and another thinking he should stay as far away from me as possible. Though I checked my phone often, it remained silent.
In the days that followed, I approached my studies with renewed vigor, determined to finish up my last year and a half of college. We couldn’t be together; I’d known that all along, but I wanted it to be untrue. He was the first person I could move through life with. I understood him on such an intimate level; his stories of crossing from Mexico and into America both frightening and appealing. But we didn’t share common ground because even though he shared his secrets with me, I kept my secrets from him, protecting myself and my family as I’d always done.
We fell into one another a few times after that but it was no longer the same. His voice no longer captivated me, the lines on his face had lost their intrigue, the stories I found in the scars on his body belonged to someone else. It wasn’t fair of me to cause another woman this pain.
When he disappeared from the kitchen of the restaurant, I thought he was sick, but days and weeks passed by before I realized he’d returned to Mexico. On my walk home at nights, even though I didn’t want to, I saw him leaning against the tree we always rendezvoused under after work, cap pulled over his curls, smoke disappearing around his head. I found him in the shadows, one foot resting against the trunk of a tree. But when I moved closer there was no one there. I heard him in the scrape of the branches against one another—Krystal—the way only he said my name, the way it should be pronounced, he often said.
A month after he left, my phone rang and his breath over the phone brought back everything I’d been holding at bay.
“Wait for me,” he said. “I’ll come back for you.”
They were the same words he whispered to Karina. He wanted us both, the loneliness here wrecking him while he was away from her. Maybe now, while in Mexico, he thought of me, saw my eyes in hers, forced himself to say her name instead of mine.
I now wanted none of it—neither him nor Michael—but untangling myself from the mess I’d created would take time.
In the little room I shared with my sister, I sat at the simple desk my parents scrounge together to buy for me, this space my only solace. I understood now that my sanctuary lay in the messy sheaf of handwritten and typed sheets splayed across its surface, and also within the pages of my modest collection of used books. I breathed deeply. Our papers for legal residency were in the works, had been for years and I needed to trust that my grandmother’s sponsorship of our family would eventually be approved. In the meantime, I would return to school, to writing, with renewed vigor. Uncapping the nib of my worn fountain pen, I wrote, staining the white pages before me the color of the Caribbean sea.