“You're going to end up with your elbows flat.” That's what my boss used to tell me every evening. The reason was that there was a period of time between six and eight in the evening when I would get bored out of my mind at “La Parada,” the bar where I worked. Hardly anyone came in for coffee, as it coincided with the rush hour for travelers on the bus lines ten and seven, whose buses stopped right in front of the bar.
At first, I didn't pay much attention to the passengers, but as the calendar pages fell like leaves from a deciduous tree, I started to make up imaginary friends. Their faces came and went in my mind as if I had known them all my life. I knew their schedules, how they liked their coffee, their favorite dinner… Because occasionally, some of them treated themselves. It was no surprise that with so much boredom, I ended up having a favorite passenger. That's how I came to know their voices, who they talked to on the phone, and what they did for a living…
“Good morning, Alicia!” a customer interrupted my thoughts.
“The usual?” I asked with a playful tone.
“I wish my wife knew me as well as you do,” he replied as I steamed the milk for his coffee.
“How many times does she make you breakfast?” I asked jokingly.
“But we never have breakfast at home,” he exclaimed, “and on weekends, we always run out of time. I was going to wake up early to have a coffee…”
He was Miguel, one of the regulars, of course. In this bar, there was only one type of customer: commuters. And if most of them followed a schedule, it was inevitable that they would spend a small portion of their lives with me.
“Here you go,” I offered him the cup.
He opened his hand on the bar and left the exact amount for his breakfast. With his other hand, he brought the coffee to his lips, making a gesture of farewell with a furrowed brow. He walked out to the entrance of the bar, waiting for the arrival of the number seven bus.
Today, he had been the first in the morning rush, followed by Laura, Antonio, Fidel, Noelia…
“How are you doing?” Mario, my coworker, asked as he came out of the kitchen wiping his hands with a rag.
“I'm good on my own, don't worry,” I responded. “Whole wheat toast with tomato,” I continued, passing on the order from the next customer.
And so, like characters from a tavern folklore, a succession of orders rang out:
“Muffin with tomato and ham, no tomato.”
“Half sandwich with butter.”
“Croissant grilled with ham.”
“Two 'porras' and three 'churros'.”
“Get two more.”
As the waters began to calm in the mornings at “La Parada,” others started their day. Take the case of Susana: she entered the office, greeted everyone as if they were her godchildren, and sat at her desk. After checking her email, she gestured to her coworker to go out for a smoke. But there was also Joaquin, the railway worker who arrived at his post dragging his feet, assuming a tired posture after downing a double shot from the coffee machine before starting his shift between here and the nearby city.
My brain recreated the lives of each of my regular customers, as if I could see them through a hole, as if I could choose to watch the episodes of each of their lives.
“Alicia, the toast!” Mario exclaimed, rescuing me from my abduction.
I reached for the toast and handed it to the customer.
“Here you go,” I said with a certain tone of submission, as an apology.
Because whether people believed it or not, I enjoyed my job! My family thought I gave up on my studies too soon; I thought the studies failed to captivate me. I was a girl with difficult access, with eccentric interests that not everyone could accept. My routine at the bar allowed me to scrutinize people's lives, making me feel like a cat with a ball of yarn that I could manipulate at will, regardless of the reasons or consequences. I wanted to emancipate myself early on to fill the gaps in my life with money and whims, but that had been a few years ago already. Who could care about the life of the girl at the bar?
As the morning went on, countless faces were satisfied with breakfast, giving way to the midday frenzy, ready to devour each of the trays of tapas from the display. At the table in front of me, table number seven to be exact, and as if it were reserved, the same person usually sat every day. Every so often, he would glance at me as I served the second-to-last servings before he uttered his usual request:
“Hey, girl, potato salad.”
It was Fernando, a retiree who came to have his last drink before enjoying one of the delicious stews made by Fernanda, coincidentally his wife. The last drink? No, any of the last tapas I could serve him. I knew he liked them loaded, as I insisted on scraping every last bit from the spoon before replenishing the trays on display.
“Is everything okay at home?” I asked.
“As always, my wife is recovering from her latest sprain while watching the 'Wheel of Fortune' show,” he replied.
It never failed, a classic among housewives of her age.
“Tell her I hope she gets better soon, I look forward to seeing her around here one afternoon.”
With a discreet gesture, he grabbed my hand and placed several coins in my palm.
“For you, my dear.”
Something regular customers did. Between tips from here and there, it wasn't enough for an extra income, but it was enough to keep my self-esteem afloat for the rest of the day. Between serving drinks, portions, tapas, and sandwiches in a rush that could earn a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, my energy levels usually took a constant hit. No one could explain where we, the people in this line of work, got the energy from, not even me, who used to ask myself the same question as a kid. The answer? Well, thanks to people like me, others could do their jobs better and with better spirits. In other words, I felt proud to be an important part of people's everyday lives. Don't they say that breakfast…? But look at the time now!
“I'm off to rest!” I exclaimed before hanging my apron behind the kitchen door.
“A little late, huh?” Paco from the afternoon shift said, surprised.
“Yeah, well, this is my occupational therapy, but what do you care?” I tossed a rag at his face.
We laughed, there was good camaraderie among all of us. So, it wasn't the best job in the world, but it made me happy in my own way.
“I'll be back around five,” I continued as I put on my coat. “Don't forget to clean under table five!”
“Loud and clear!” A voice echoed in the background.
I said my goodbyes, looking up to the back of the kitchen. Mario paused his cleaning to bid me farewell with a raised hand.
I left the bar at the usual time. It was starting to rain, just as the weather forecast had predicted. People were gathering at the bus stop across the street, the one that would take me home after a busy morning. I wasn't worried about having a split shift, after all, afternoons at “La Parada” seemed designed for resting your elbows on the bar and indulging in the most whimsical of daydreams.
Upon arriving home, a sense of emptiness washed over me. The kitchen was messy, the bed unmade, the trash not taken out… Emancipating oneself didn't mean living exempt from the same responsibilities I used to complain about when I lived with my parents. I lay down on the couch for a while and grabbed a slice of pizza leftover from last night. Although it looked freshly made, it was cold and a bit dry, but still delicious.
And so, between bites, yawns, and channel surfing, I fell asleep to take a break from my overdose of reality.
I woke up abruptly with the noise of the intercom at my apartment door. Whoever it was outside had every reason to be cursed with the worst repertoire I could think of!
“Commercial mail carrier,” said the voice of a young man, sounding unfortunate.
Or maybe he was as happy in his job as I was in mine. I wasn't the best person to judge, and despite his job being much more annoying to people than mine, I gladly opened the door for him. That event marked the beginning of the second half of my day.
The catchy, somewhat silly melody of the last commercial I heard on TV before falling asleep accompanied me during the entire return trip on bus line ten. Like any other brown-haired, curly-haired girl you might find sitting on a bus, I hastily pushed my hair away from my face before the bus stopped at the bar door.
In addition to the company of Paco and Luisa, the other girl in the evening shift, Isaac had taken over Mario's place in the kitchen. My coworker approached table two with an unusual smile, carrying a decaf from the coffee machine, as that's what Manuel, the school janitor who worked two streets away, usually ordered. In the background, an unknown couple laughed. In my opinion, the bar wasn't the best place for a date. I don't think I would ever dare to meet someone in a place like this, but I understood that being a meeting point between two bus lines and workers from a good part of the city, it was a frequent destination for young people searching for love. Plus, they were lucky to have me to bring them the bill while they whispered with mischievous giggles because in my imagination, they were about to live happily ever after. I observed them from head to toe as the girl pulled out her wallet to pay. I had seen couples of all kinds; for some, the bar had been their “last” stop on the train of relationships. However, these two exuded a very fresh optimism, the result of a successful first date.
“Keep the change,” she said with a well-placed smile.
I thanked her before starting to clear the table. The boss and owner of the bar would arrive in an hour, so I could keep my tip without having to showcase my acting skills.
“Did you sleep a lot?” Isaac asked when he saw me taking the plates to the sink.
“Hardly at all, the intercom woke me up shortly after falling asleep.”
“Who would've thought, give yourself a little there,” he scratched the corner of his left eye.
Okay, he was just trying to be subtle and tell me I had a sleep crust.
“Note to self, look in the mirror before leaving,” I replied as I wiped it away with the knuckle of my index finger. “Done?”
Paco nodded as he prepared a tray of seafood cocktail.
“Take out those two,” he pointed with his chin.
Potato aioli and a well-cut Spanish omelette, also, but without aioli. I made space for them on the red carpet of the tapas display, as they were the hit of the late afternoon. I bent down to the fridge and grabbed a cola soda before returning to the kitchen to open it.
“Wasn't today the day of the match?” I asked, feeling somewhat illiterate, as I'm not really into sports.
“Yes, at eleven, so make sure you're charged up.”
That's what I did, taking a sip of my drink as I approached to get the clean plates. Once the calm of the afternoon was over, we would be facing the storm of beer bottles and appetizers of the week. Who knows? Maybe it was the universe's way of not making it too easy for me: familiar faces, typical of the area, mixed with others who happened to drop by pure chance. With all the hustle and bustle, I would hardly have time to fix their lives in my fantasy world. I took another sip before leaving the bottle on the table and starting to take out all the clean pots. I crossed paths with Luisa, who was loaded with dirty plates and utensils.
“I have to tell you something, sis!” she exclaimed.
“I can't believe it, really?” I responded.
She jumped a little, barely lifting a palm off the ground, trying to contain her excitement and avoid accidentally knocking something over. As Paco processed payments from other customers with the card machine, I noticed a serious-looking unfamiliar girl had taken a seat at the table next to Fernando's favorite spot in the mornings, and Marisa's in the afternoons. A chance customer. I approached to see what brought her here.
“Good afternoon,” I greeted her, scanning her to add her to my mental visitor log. “What can I get you?”
“A hot soy latte, please,” she replied in a somewhat timid voice.
She had a certain attractiveness that, even as a woman, I found it hard not to admire. She was dressed up, in my head, as if she were on her way to a job interview. On her way, yes, otherwise her facial expressions and the way she typed on her mobile phone would have given her away. And speaking of job interviews, here came Luisa, a bundle of nerves.
“I got accepted!” she exclaimed.
“Wow! I can't believe it! Where?” I jumped up with contained excitement, which the other customers could appreciate.
“San Patricio's University, my top choice!”
“Oh my goodness! We have to celebrate!” I exclaimed.
“Are you leaving us?” Paco asked.
That's what coworkers with studies had, they usually didn't last long as their part-time salary did. As I served the new customer her coffee, I kept repeating how happy I was for her future.
“Give me a white donut,” the girl said as she broke open a sugar packet over her cup.
“We're out of sugar, can I get you a chocolate one?”
After a very short silence, she nodded as if to say “that'll do.” She had to trust me, a good dose of theobromine would change her attitude for her interview. Paco and Luisa kept talking, mentioning something about having a good drink tomorrow early in the afternoon. Thanks to tongs, I picked up the pastry for my new sweet-toothed customer, who kept typing on her phone while blinking with long, well-defined lashes.
“Thank you,” she said as soon as I placed the plate on her table.
While clearing the tables around, Luisa approached to help.
“Alicia, do you mind if I leave early to celebrate with my family?”
“Of course not, I'll take care of the rest.”
“Oh… I'm sorry, today was that football match, wasn't it?”
“Yes, but you have a more important victory to celebrate,” I said as we left the dirty dishes at the bar.
My companion shared her warmth with me in a hug that could easily be classified as a first aid technique. It wasn't the first time we faced a night of minimal service at the bar, where the bottles practically served themselves and cleaning took a back seat until closing time.
The afternoon passed as usual. Some occasional customers came in, and Luisa, compensating for her early end to the shift, attended to them for me while I indulged in my favorite spot behind the bar, lost in my thoughts.
Pablo had just finished his omelette tapa and bid us farewell with a gesture. Other customers enjoyed their apéritif before continuing their journey, but my new customer with her mysterious glamour remained in her spot. She had already had her coffee and donut and was now entertained by watching people moving through the window. Those who were not under the awning of the bus stop were using umbrellas to shield themselves from the rain, which, although not heavy, adorned the street with reflections of car and traffic light's lights.
If she kept standing there, she would be late for her interview… Or perhaps it was a date? In any case, someone was running late, that much was becoming evident as she kept checking her watch. Maybe she was the interviewer and had arranged to meet in this informal location to break the ice. At first, she typed forcefully on her mobile phone screen, but now she just glanced at it occasionally. She could be around my age, but her serious appearance gave her an air of adulthood that I still lacked. What could have brought her to this corner of the city? Soon, it would be filled with football fanatics, not the appropriate place for a lady like her. I need to find out more about her.
“Do you need anything else?” I approached and asked her.
“No, thank you.” She pinched her immaculate nails, looking nervous. As I walked away, she let out a sigh. When I turned around, she was angrily typing on her phone. Who could be keeping this girl waiting? How inconsiderate! She gestured for me to come back with the bill.
“Is everything okay?” I dared to ask.
“Yes, perfectly fine,” she replied with a curt and sharp tone as she took out her card to pay.
Her hands were well-groomed, but she didn't wear any rings, so she didn't seem to be married or engaged, or perhaps she didn't like jewelry. She also wasn't wearing earrings. Could she be allergic to certain metals? I didn't have a chance to find out much more about her, although I noticed an endless list of missed calls on her phone screen.
“Don't worry, not all afternoons at the bar are as gloomy as this one,” I tried to cheer her up about whatever was bothering her. “I often see people miss the bus at the stop, in front of 'La Parada', isn't it ironic?”
She responded with a forced smile and a chuckle. “Parada” means “stop” in Spanish, you know…
“I mean, sometimes, missing a bus isn't so bad. And I don't just say that because they leave their money at the bar,” I leaned in to speak to her in a low voice, “but because occasionally, it's not a bad thing to play hard to get.”
The girl looked at me skeptically. She got up, grabbed her coat and bag.
“You're absolutely right,” she replied. “Crawling is for cowards.”
And what seemed like poorly given advice turned into a glimpse of camaraderie.
“Goodbye, thank you very much,” she said as she left.
As I was clearing the table, I watched her standing at the bus stop for line ten, sheltered from the rain. She kept looking towards the bar. When she noticed me watching her, she made a gesture, which I returned warmly.
I returned to my favorite spot, my thinking corner. Luisa's voice could be heard in the background of the kitchen, saying goodbye to our other mates.
“Oh sis, thank you so much over and over again,” she said as she kissed me on the cheek, followed by a hug.
“Go on, leave before the boss arrives, everything will be fine.”
My friend put on her coat hood and hurriedly left for the bus stop of the number ten line, the same one where the mysterious girl was still waiting.
The bus arrived soon after, and before boarding, Luisa said goodbye to me, blowing me a kiss. She sat a few seats away from my new imaginary pastime. I raised my hand to wave goodbye, a routine that would soon come to an end once she starts working at the university.
Out of the crowd that had gotten off the bus and crossed the pedestrian crossing, only one person entered the bar. It was a new unfamiliar face, somebody slightly younger than me. He took off his coat and started walking between the tables while looking at the table numbers, until he reached number seven. Today was the table of success.
“Good afternoon, what can I get you?” I asked from a distance as I approached with my notepad in hand.
The guy stopped for a moment to look at the menu on the table.
“Hello, just an orange soda, please.”
“Anything to eat? We have Spanish omelette, garlic potatoes, Russian salad…”
“No, thank you,” he interrupted.
I opened a bottle and poured his soda into a glass with ice. Honestly, there was nothing special about doing that. I brought it to his table and returned to my spot to continue observing the people outside. There were hardly any customers left inside, some had even paid their bill and were still talking about their matters.
The new guy was looking out the window while taking a sip of his drink. Unlike the girl who had sat at the same table before him, this person didn't seem to care about his appearance at all. He was wearing a gray hoodie, jeans, and sneakers, blending in better with the type of customer who frequented the bar. Perhaps he was a student, a twenty-something with no responsibilities or obligations. My imagination for inventing lives had started working with the new subject. What story would I come up with this time? With a calm demeanor, he drank his soda while alternating his gaze between the outside and the bar's television.
Thirty minutes passed, during which I played around with his family background, as well as with some familiar faces passing by the bar, as no one else had entered since then. I peeked outside the door and took a deep breath to savor the smell of wet soil that hadn't made its way into the bar since the last customer left.
The boss still hadn't arrived, and in a couple of hours, people would start coming in to watch that silly game called football. Until then, I better enjoy this moment. I went back inside.
“Would you like anything else?” I asked the guy.
“No, nothing else, thank you.”
It goes without saying where I went back to. This time, I stopped to observe my client. He wasn't wearing any rings, and I didn't see him take out a mobile phone. Could he be the date of the other girl? He didn't seem like the type, it was highly unlikely.
“Hello?” he surprised me by approaching the bar without me noticing.
“Yes, what can I get you?”
Have I been staring at him? How embarrassing! Good thing I'm good at disguising my embarrassment.
“Is this 'Los Cerezos' street? Right?” he asked.
“That's correct,” I nodded.
He looked at the clock behind me and then at his wristwatch before sitting back down at his table. What was that about?
“Why do you ask?”
“I have a date with someone I don't know,” he looked at his watch again, “but I think I'm late. My watch didn't change the time automatically, I left my phone at home, and to top it off, I missed a bus stop.”
Bingo! There was no doubt, he was the date of that girl, but I didn't dare say anything about it. Did they not know each other at all? A blind date? How curious. It seemed like too many excuses at once, and only the one about the time change seemed convincing to me.
I didn't have to rack my brain to remember the behavior of my favorite stranger of the day: serious demeanor, reserved, constantly checking the time and typing on her phone. How long could she have been waiting? On the other hand, the guy seemed hopeful about meeting his date. I'm so mean! What if I leave him waiting?
“Do you want me to get you something while you wait?”
“Well, a glass of water, if you don't mind.”
“Coming right up.”
And I served him the glass.
“I think I messed up, maybe I should leave, but what if she comes back?”
“They say the best things are worth the wait,” I said when I picked up his drink.
I didn't intend to give him false hope. On one hand, I thought it wouldn't hurt for him to learn a lesson. On the other hand, I remembered everything that had happened to him until he arrived at “La Parada.” First, he gets off at the wrong stop. How ironic! Second, he arrives an hour late. That's forgivable! Third and last: who leaves the house without their mobile phone? Come on, the stars had aligned to make him arrive outside the scheduled time. Maybe that's what was meant to happen, that elegant girl didn't seem to match with this guy at all. His charm was more youthful, very much in dissonance with the aura she exuded.
I entered the kitchen, Isaac was still preparing a plethora of appetizers for the evening. The boss hadn't arrived yet, and it didn't seem like he was going to show up anytime soon. Paco, on the other hand, was sitting with an old puzzle magazine. And I, finishing a quirky idea as I put the glass in the sink. That's how afternoons were supposed to be, everyone with their own thing.
When I returned, the guy was still looking through the window with the glass of water in his hands. He certainly had patience, despite his blunder, he seemed to be holding steadfast in his wait. Who in their right mind would have a date in a bar with this name and then miss the stop? At that moment, he looked at me. When he realized I was watching him, he quickly looked away. Maybe… what if…? My inner imaginary life was screaming to come out. I wouldn't have been able to meet someone in a place like this, in a place where I work, but this guy seemed to be able to. How brave!
I grabbed a tray and placed a couple of orange sodas and two pieces of Spanish omelette on it. I took off my apron and approached table seven, where the guy was still staring through the window.
“You're not allergic to eggs, are you?” I said, surprising him.
“Um, no,” he replied.
“Alright.” I finished serving the food and drinks and left the tray on the table next to him before sitting down with him.
“Are you Alicia?” he asked.
I froze, not knowing how to respond. I gathered my courage.
“I'm your date.”
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