I didn’t notice her until now, but she’s watching me. I try not to overthink it. I struggle to process this kind of thing, doubly so since my insurance here doesn’t start until next month.
I wave her over to my register and she brings me a towering armful of books. Despite their heft, her movements are still more scamper than stride. She watches me the whole way over. It’s uncomfortable. I wish I could pass her off to a coworker, but Arun is on break and Lindsey has been out sick this week.
The customer smiles and brushes a blond strand off the shoulder of her sea-green Peace Corps t-shirt. She pushes her books through a rectangular hole in the Plexiglas divider that the owners put up at the start of COVID, back when they pretended to care. I ignore a piece of ground beef stuck in her teeth.
“Are you a member with the store?”
“No, I’m just visiting town.” She squints at my name tag. “But thank you, Raquel,” she says, leaning into the Spanish ‘r’. I cringe but she smiles wider, like she’s done something spectacular. I’m grateful to be hidden behind a mask.
I scan her books, careful to avoid eye contact. She’s buying a lot, mostly travel guides. Too many travel guides. It’s enough books to make me wonder how badly I need this job. But I remember my empty prescription bottles and scan a travel guide to Morocco. I bag it next to a copy of The Alchemist.
“Where are you from, Raquel?” she asks, exaggerating my name.
“Florida,” I say. “Where are you visiting from?”
“All over.” She says waving a hand toward all the world with a flourish of wanderlust. She rests her palms on her side of the counter. “Where are your parents from?”
My lunch undigests itself in my stomach. I’ve had this conversation a million and one times. I glance around the floor for an ally, but he’s still on lunch. My only companions are the front door and a display table labeled ‘Diverse Voices: Nonfiction’.
“Mom’s from California,” I say, delaying the part she’s really asking about. In my head, there’s a Jiminy Cricket voice reminding me I don’t have to answer her questions. But I can’t stop myself. I’m too fidgety. “My dad’s from Cuba.”
The customer makes an exaggerated face of intrigue and props her pink cheeks upon her palms. I know the script. The shame makes me nauseated before she asks the question.
“Do you speak Spanish?”
I fumble to scan a guide to Ethiopia.
“No,” I say. It’s a half-lie but it feels like the truth.
The woman on the other side of the Plexiglas leans in closer. Her breath collects on the acrylic in droplets. I stare at the ground beef in her teeth through a window frosted with her hot breath. I white-knuckle my customer serviceness and scan the rest of her books.
“Why don’t you speak Spanish?”
“I don’t know.” I want to shut up. “My dad didn’t speak it at home.”
“Probably wanted to integrate.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Probably.”
Among the final items is a massive art book, full of works by painters from Grenada. It’s too big to fit alongside the other books. Cursing my bad luck, I try to put it into a bag of its own. My fingers are clumsy and anxious. I struggle.
“I can speak Spanish,” she says. She beams a grin of dumb pride and burps out a soliloquy in quick Spanish. Her accent is a parody of Castilian, terrifying in its confidence. She speaks so fast I have almost no idea what she says except I catch the words ‘la Mancha’ a few times. I’m almost certain she quoted Cervantes.
“Wow.” I don’t know what else to say.
“Thank you,” she says. “In undergrad, I studied abroad in Barcelona. Beautiful city. Have you ever been to España?” I shake my head. The customer presses her hand against the Plexiglas. “You know, you should really consider traveling abroad if you want to work on that Spanish of yours.”
“Thank you, that’s good advice.”
She removes her hand from the glass and pushes a finger into her mouth. My eyes dart around the room. Someone has to be seeing this, right? The floor is empty and quiet, save for the whir of the air conditioning and this woman’s raggedy breath.
“That’ll be two hundred and fifty-nine dollars and sixty-seven cents.” My face feels hot and I pick at my fingernails whenever there isn’t a book in my hands. I pray she’ll leave.
She fishes in a canvas New Yorker tote and retrieves a credit card. She slides it through the divider. It’s wet and leaves an oily slickness in its wake. I hold it between my thumb and middle finger as I insert it into the chip reader.
“If you don’t speak Spanish how then do you express yourself?” The chip reader is slow to process the order. “How do you express your heritage?”
“I don’t know.” My voice is small. “I don’t know.”
“Can you dance?”
“Can you cook picadillo?”
I’m shocked to hear the name of my favorite dish. Her expression is unflinching. I wonder if she somehow knows.
“Yes.” I say. My abuelita taught me before she died. I’m good at it. It’s the only thing that makes me feel connected. “Yes, I can cook picadillo.”
A long receipt prints on my side of the glass. I pass it to her with a pen. She signs the thermal paper without looking down. I swear, I see her pupils dilate.
“How wonderful, I love picadillo,” she says. “I have a recipe for picadillo. A family recipe. Not my family, but it’s authentic. From la Habana.”
“Oh?” I say in polite terror. I cram the books toward the hole in the glass. The bag with the art book doesn’t fit. I rotate the thing over and over again hoping something will change.
“Yes. It’s delicious. All my neighbors love it. My neighbor—José—he’s from Puerto Rico. He says mine is the best in the world. Can you believe that? The world. He says it’s like I grew up in the Caribbean. Isn’t that something?”
“Yes,” I say, forcing the book through the Plexiglas. The bag tears in the corner, ripping it from handle to handle. I don’t care anymore. I push the next bag through.
“Would you like to try some?” she says, glaring at me with her predator eyes.
“Yes—sometime—sure.” I force the last bag through and pull my hands back as if the divider were a guillotine.
The woman smiles her great, pink smile and dusts her fingers on her Peace Corps shirt. Keeping her lower jaw in place, the top of her head tilts back and she presses her fingers down her throat. I watch, frozen, as she rakes her manicured nails along the soft tissue. She fingers her uvula while a string of spittle rolls down the corners of her thin lips. She retches.
Her shoulders spasm then her whole body joins. Her esophagus bulges. She gags against her fingers, which she flicks faster and faster along the interior of her throat. A single chunk of ground beef slides down the spittle like a spider descending her web.
In a flurry, she lurches forward then reels backward, spraying a wet slop of ground beef and garlic and olives onto the counter and window, drenching the bottom half of my blouse in her sickness. She wipes wet picadillo from the corners of her mouth.
I press a fist against my mask to hold down my own erupting bile. With my free hand, I wipe the mush from my lap. My mask is powerless to stop the smell. Sweet like tomatoes. Herby with oregano.
The nostalgic stench condemns me to two places at once:
I am a child in my abuelita’s kitchen, playing with her mortar and pestle.
I am in hell.
The customer closes her jaws back into a smile so big that her cruel blue eyes disappear under her rosy cheeks. She waves goodbye as she leaves the store with her books, taking everything with her.