It was early on Wednesday, about half past 10, and I was washing lettuce in the industrial sink of the kitchen where I work Monday through Friday. Next to me was a woman I've been getting to know--Marivel, from San Pedro Sula, Mexico. She doesn't speak much English, and I don't speak much Spanish. I began to stack lettuce leaves onto a drying rack, laying each piece sideways against the one before it. I ran out of room on the rack. So I began to stack lettuce leaves on top.
My boss--or, one of them (I have two)--walked behind me. I saw her pause, saw her eyes on the lettuce. She unpaused, her eyes moving to the side and her head shaking just a very, very little. An almost imperceptible eye-roll. I felt it. I felt it when she walked on by me without speaking.
"Marivel," I said. "Creo que, no esta bien?" I looked at the lettuce. The stacks I'd made.
She looked down at it, too. She's much shorter than me, always wears a pale pink hat, her dark hair wrapped in a shining tight bun, out the back. She shrugged a little. "Maybe no," she says, and shrugged again. "Si, get another one."
I sighed a little. The importance of lettuce? The importance. I wanted to put my hands on my hips and say to my boss--straight to her face--tell me what you're thinking, just SAY it. I wanted her to know I had ears, I had eyes: and I could feel her disappointment.
I went and got another empty rack. I shifted the lettuce. I rose a little, in myself, knowing I'd move past it, knowing my boss had her ways and I had mine. Each of us held things in--anger, frustration, questions. Opinions. At the end of the day, it was lettuce. The world will be at peace.
I was bold this week, speaking Spanish. On Friday afternoon I went to a different part of the kitchen, a short distance away from the sink. I went to help Marivel wrap what we call "relish." Just a pickle, carrot, and olive. Nothing glamorous, here, just prettiness. Trivial prettiness. The thing people leave on their plates.
"Puedo ayudar te?" I asked her. Can I help you?
She nodded. "Si, si!"
I settled into a rhythm. In another part of the kitchen I heard a co-worker hollering some tune. Some operatic tune. It was one of the young guys, just twenty-two. He had a beard, and long hair. I'd once told him I could picture him starring in "300," the movie, and he'd pounded his chest, gave a war cry. The guy was fun. Now, hearing him, I turned to Marivel. Thinking of music.
"Te gusta musica?" I said. Do you like it?
She nodded. And asked me the same.
"Si, mucho," I said.
"Que tipo?" she asked.
"Mmm, casi todos," I answered. Almost everything. "But right now I'm thinking of church music." I said it in Spanish. Feeling so proud--so proud I'd remembered the vocabulary.
We began to talk about "Iglesias." She told me she went sometimes, told me the church she truly enjoyed was just up the street from her home. A two-minute walk, she said, and she liked it.
I nodded. Told her that was good.
The conversation was simple. But it lifted me.
Lately I have been struggling to find the purpose in the job I am doing in the kitchen: I'm creating food for people I don't even know. People who insist upon this cheese or that one on their sandwich, their burger, their burrito. Sometimes I hurtle myself forward, applying the small skills like chopping and slicing and melting and making this hot, and on time, to the day when I have a little place of my own. Someplace in a town where there are less people and there are no Walmarts and community matters more than how much it costs for extra pickle. It's a dream--to serve people. To see people.
Sometimes I'll watch my other boss (not the woman, but the man), stare out from the opening in the kitchen, watching his customers come through the doors, stand at the pastry case wanting danish, buns, petit fours. What does he see?
I hope it is much more than money. It must be. I hope it is.
If there is anything keeping me at work, it is being with people. Lately my bosses have been telling me they can't understand me. They tell me they discuss the matter at night, "What is up with Maggie?" And: "why is she always smiling?"
I tell them, with laughter, that I hope that continues. That yes, sometimes I get angry. I'm told they'd like to see that.
I tell them they truly, really don't. I tell them I keep it all in. Until it has to burst. And then it's ugly.
For now I will think about speaking Spanish and washing lettuce and saying kind things instead of . . . tired ones. It's enough for now. I have faith in that.
Elizabeth Gilbert. The author. In her first published book, Pilgrims, (a collection of short stories), I read one called "Alice to the East." It's about two teens, Alice and Pete, whose car breaks down in North Dakota. A Montana man, Roy, pulls up beside them and asks if they need a little help. They do. Together they drive in Roy's car to a nearby town. Roy believes they need a fuel pump and he knows who might have one.
Alice is head-smart and gut-smart. Her younger brother, Pete, is loyal. The man with the car parts--who says he can't help them--sizes up Alice and pursues her to a bar, where she and Roy and Pete are biding time, reconsidering their options. Car Part Man finds Alice, comes on to her. Pete reacts, then Pete is punched in the face.
On the road to Roy's house, Car Part Man off on his way and Alice stunned to silence, she notices Roy's silence, too. And it is greater than hers. Three people, thrown together--Pete in the back with a bloody nose, Alice trying to make-do, and Roy, a man, who is lonely. Alice reaches out to him.
As if she had been following his thoughts all along, Alice slid across the front seat and placed her hand over his. Her touch was at once that of a mother, a lover, a daughter, and it was so long since he'd known any of these things that Roy sighed, allowed his head to fall forward. He shut his eyes. Alice reached for the steering wheel, and he let her take it, knowing that the road was straight and safe, and that, for now, it would be better to let her steer. (47-48).
I pray this week that I would know when it's right to reach out. That's something simple, and so not simple in what it means. There's some pretty deep shit in this world, everyone. I try to ignore a lot of it. But it's everywhere. Gonna try to be a light in it. You too? Hope so.
Be blessed. Keep reading. (Always, always, always).