This alone is a new experience for me. The heat is intense, the humidity oppressive and there is no getting away from it unless you roam the malls to mooch off their A/C. I must be out of my mind to be riding a bicycle today. The heat makes me miss Quito’s mild weather more than the infinite stream of memories playing in my mind.
I make my way to the Derby-Welkerton Bridge before the blues get the best of me. I have the nighttime for that, and I’ve been a loyal victim of nostalgia every single time I’m alone in my little bedroom. I’m sure my pillow will deteriorate soon from all the tears I’ve been leaving upon it.
After riding back to the house, I change out of my sweaty shirt and leave the bike to walk around the block then back down on Main. Before I realize how far I’ve walked, I find myself crossing Pershing drive into the commercial area of Ansonia. It’s strange that you can walk through three or four towns in less than an hour, just one more of the many differences I was finding. A few feet away from me, I spot the golden arches and remembering my money, I decide to face my fear and buy myself some lunch.
I use the bottom of my shirt to wipe at the streams of sweat, growing self-conscious of my presentation. I wish I would’ve brought the bike. Maybe I wouldn’t be so sweaty.
"One cheeseburger, one Coke", I practice the line my aunt taught me, out loud. "One cheeseburger, one Coke."
The R's are tricky but I hope to get by. Rolling my tongue feels uncomfortable and the sound feels phony. "One cheeseburger, one coke"
I step inside, soaking in the cool air and the cooking scents while I stand at the end of the line. I burn with envy as the woman in front of me lets out a litany of words that the girl behind the counter transforms into an array of burgers, fries, and drinks. She says something with a smile and receives one in return. The woman takes the tray and saunters away, another satisfied customer.
"How may I help you?"
I'm sure she said something prompting me to order, so I mutter the mantra from under a heavy boulder of trepidation that seems stuck in my throat, "One cheeseburger, one Coke... please," I say in an almost inaudible voice.
I am so proud of myself. "Please" wasn’t part of the line I practiced. I see this as a major improvement, a step in the right direction, a small but significant triumph. I square my shoulders and lift my chin. I’ve got money and by God, I’m about to have my first productive English conversation with a total stranger.
"Would you like to make it a value meal and get fries?"
The blood drains from my face and her voice sounds like the echoed warble you hear from teachers on any Charlie Brown cartoon.
"You know, French fries?"
Oh the horror...
She might as well be speaking Mandarin. I can’t tell where one word ends and another begins.
I simply stare at the girl, a false smile plastered on my lips, my five dollar bill shaking in my hand as new rivers of sweat trail down my temples. My heart is hammering a painful beat in my chest.
The girl looks at me uncertainly and repeats her question. Whatever courage I had, flees along with my dignity. My feet spin me in the direction of the door out of their own accord and I take off like a shot without looking back or heeding the girl's calls.
I pump my legs up Division Street and don’t stop until I find my way back to Main Street in Welkerton.
I sit in defeat on a stone pier that decorates the bank's parking lot. Bitter tears threaten to spill but I hold fast, conjuring an image of my Mom, smiling as she goes to work; Dad looking tired and a bit haggard, doing factory work instead of dressing up to go to his posh office on Avenida Amazonas in Quito; my little sister following my cousin around like a lost puppy in the name of companionship.
Damned if I’m going to cry.
The only things that spills for now are the rivulets of sweat that drench my brow and soak my shirt.
I come close to despair as I realize how long this road is going to be for us.
As I make my way back to the safety of the house, worn out by the stifling heat, my stomach growls in mockery.
It’s not fair.
It was just one cheeseburger and one Coke.
Author's Note: This is the most difficult novel I'll ever write, for it's so challenging to open up these vaults, but as a writer, I simply have no choice. This story must be told.
Javier A. Robayo