A young, chubby girl with sausagesque fingers and cat like eyes lights a cigarette and continues talking into her phone, over the noise of downtown movement. She fumbles for a lighter in a rainbow colored purse and continues talking in between the sucking and puffing on the filter of a Camel Turkish Delight. By the time she is half done with the cigarette, she has filled the air around her with negativity; her boredom with the seminars, her dislike for the other writers she has met, the failure to gain knowledge from any of the panelists. She insists that she should have stayed home and worked on her manuscript.
She tells the person on the other end, “I didn’t really need to come to this. It was stupid. What a waste.” Her milky white cheeks are now red from the whip and stretch of the numbing cold and she puts out her cigarette in the gold plated ashtray under the heaters that fail to live up to their name on this morning. She hangs up the phone and walks past me to into the carousel doors. I smell the faint trail of vanilla she leaves behind as vanishes into the crowded lobby of the Chicago Hilton.
It is done now. The AWP is a wrap and I have celebrated with a ten dollar glass of Dewars (neat of course) in the mock Irish tavern on the lobby level of the Hilton. I forget about the 4 extra dollars I have just overpayed for a mediocre brand as I walk through the revolving doors. I climb into the back seat of a gray-skinned, four-wheeled beast. I leave the downtown area for the last time this week and head for the old neighborhood.
The line stretches out of the restaurant and onto the sidewalk, snaking down the block for at least 20 yards. People shiver, but the snot and tears will not get in the way of a good meal and no man dares utter the phrase, “let’s go it’s too long.”; not on valentines evening. My father climbs down onto the frozen pavement and tells my mother to park in the lot. He walks toward the restaurant doors and we drive up into the lot, where a bundled up parking attendant waves us off and starts yelling that there is no parking. My mother opens the window and sticks her head out. She looks at the man and smiles and ask, “no?” The smile is instantly returned by the attendant, who laughs and starts frantically waving us in. “Claro que si. Claro que si.”
I walk down 18th street and see the crowd down the way, in front of the restaurant, I will fight my way through it; but this moment is for reserved for taking inventory of what has bloomed and decayed in my absence. “The fire. See?” My mother points at the building directly in front of the restaurant and I see the shell of a building that was once a home to the old Eastern European immigrants, before it was the home for the new Latin American immigrants, before it died a fiery death, a few months ago. I stop and look at the damage for a moment and my mother walks on towards the crowd. The damage caused by the fire looks like it was caused by a fire that started in the bakery in the building next door. The bakery was only a few years old, but though everyone complained about the prices, the creations were wonderful pieces of edible confection and I lament missing out on a chocolate cupcake, laced with chile’ and buttercream frosting. My stomach protests the sightseeing and refuses to miss another meal today so I turn and walk towards the crowd.
When I reach the line my parents call to me from inside the restaurant, over the angry looks of people who can’t believe our audacity. I look past them, and at the doorway; they notice my indifference to their complaint twisted faces and collectively and silently make it difficult for me to make it into the restaurant. Half way through to the door a family, being led by a teenage boy with Down syndrome, comes out of the restaurant’s inner doorway towards me. I am already to the door of the restaurant, but see that the boy is having trouble getting through the crowd and he begins to screech excitedly. His mother gently nudges him, saying softly, “Dale’ Nestor. Dale’ Mijo.”
I take his arm and guide him back towards the opening asking people to please step aside. He continues screeching and laughing under his breath. I let the rest of the family through and I turn back towards the door of the restaurant. I don’t need to ask to get through; the people have seen a good deed and they reward me by stepping aside. My Carne Asada will taste better tonight than it ever has.