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THE HOLY TORTILLA AND A POT OF BEANS
Excerpt from the short story:
She was ugly. Or worse, plain. Nothing nobody could even dress up to be other than plain. She could enter a room and no one would even look up. She could walk past a crew of construction workers at lunchtime and no one would even look past their sandwich. Not even Mama’s friends would tease like they did to other mothers, “Ooh, has this baby grown!” or “What happened to you? When’d YOU get all grown up, girl?” They never even mentioned her at all, just accepted the iced tea Mama had asked her to bring them and looked right past her.
Dark, round face, unremarkable bare eyes, one and the same color spread over skin, eyes and lips, the only comment she’d ever received on her looks was a casual “Media trompuda” from her mother, commenting on her lips and teeth protruding a bit too far. The clearest translation she could give it in English was “a little too much snout.” Even when her figure filled out, and her breasts had filled the brassiere cups, no one noticed.
Sometimes, as a young teen, she had stood on the edge of the bathtub, perched high enough to be able to see her body reflected in the mirror above the sink. She struggled to maintain her balance, worried about the noise a fall would cause, but she was determined to see herself. With the door locked and all her clothes removed, she studied the mirror. She saw strange (and ugly, she thought) nuances against smooth brown skin. Dark, curly hair growing in a big bush where it most embarrassed her; dark, bumpy circles, too big, around the tips of the mis-shaped breasts; and then, four too-skinny limbs sticking out from a too-fat torso. Still, while she studied all the fragments at length, it was difficult to see the whole. Perhaps the fault was the mirror’s. It was not really large enough. Or perhaps, the fault was her own. She was not really visible enough. So she resigned herself, hoping maybe something would bloom in her face or her body or her overall appearance as she grew older.
She got a job, waitressing at the drugstore lunch counter, but people never saw her. They gave their orders to her notepad, not to her.
Just once, she thought someone had noticed her. A man sat quietly in the corner booth. He was older than the teenage boys she studied from a distance at school, and older than the young-to-mid-20’s delivery men she studied at a distance from the door to the back parking lot. His long, curly lashes framed the dark shine of his eyes as his gaze poured into the book in front of him. The scent of a subtle but delicious men’s cologne spilled flirtatiously out of the crisp white shirt collar, open at the neck. A glimpse of his brown chest was visible above the “V” of the first fastened button. He was not extraordinarily handsome, could maybe even be considered to have a hint of average, but still he was very classy.
He had ordered routinely, efficiently, and returned his gaze to the book. But later, as she took an order from the adjacent booth, he had raised his head and stared, deeply, hungrily, steadily in her direction, as the hint of a smile curled up at the corners of his full lips. The slow, deep dreaminess of his gaze had caught her by surprise; the fullness of the now-parted lips had carried too much sensuality to ignore; his look stole her breath away.
She blushed, stumbled a bit, as she left the booth and headed for the counter, to leave off the order. His head was still raised, his gaze still deep, but his eyes had not moved when she did. She could see now that they were focused on nothing in this room. They were in a dream, a memory maybe, a thought, and eventually, they returned to the book, the same smile on the corner of his lips now directed at the small black letters on the cream-colored page.
She stopped, reached deep into her belly to find a breath of air, slumped into a restrained sigh, and lowered her eyes, demoting herself back down to where she, just five minutes ago, had never doubted she belonged: in the emptiness of a mirror with no reflection, a shadow without a face...
At her graduation, she crossed the stage, wondering if people saw an empty cap and gown walk across, or just nothing at all. It was the latter, she decided, since anything she put on would disappear right with her. The principal mispronounced her name and the Superintendent of Schools missed her hand on the handshake, correcting the mistake with a brief touch of the fingertips before the next graduate approached.
She increased her hours at the drugstore. Sometimes, people forgot to tip.
Occasionally, when business was slow, she would walk over to the Hair Brushes & Accessories Aisle, and stare at her face in the $5.99 large hand-held mirror. She never took it off the rack, just dipped her face down enough to look into it. After a while, she quit seeing anything.
One day, her six-year-old niece came over to read Grandma her new book. “I want to read it again, Grandma!” said Cindy. The telephone rang and Grandma had to take it. So she alone was left to listen to Cindy’s performance. Cindy didn’t hide her disappointment. “Just You??? Hmph!” The second reading was conducted as if to an empty audience.
“The Ugly Duckling!” she announced, reading each page with flair and importance. When Cindy finished, she turned to leave, not expecting even applause from this unimpressive non-audience, but was surprised to hear an audience comment.
“It lied,” came the flat but quiet voice out of her mouth. “It lied. The ugly duckling doesn’t become a swan. It becomes an ugly, grown-up duck.” Cindy looked like she was about to break out crying for a moment, but then it passed, and she left the room haughtily, smirking “You don’t know nothing anyway.”
Alone after the young child’s exit, she spent the rest of the evening doodling. Things that looked like ugly ducks marched across the page, invisibly, quacking inaudible quacks. One wore a cap and gown, another a waitress frock, another a housedress, another a low-cut nightgown. She felt like something inside her was going to break...