Risks and Opportunities
Even now Julia cringed to think about it: how she must have appeared to him, caught standing in the middle of his office, riffling through his things. Monica from his sales group had assured her he was gone for the day, so how could she resist peeking in to see what she could learn about him—this company hero with the stunning gray eyes, ese hot papi chulo, as her friend Concepción called him. She’d wanted a closer look at the photo on his desk, the one of the San Fernando Valley beauty queen rumored once to have been his fiancée. Satisfied that she was only marginally beautiful, Julia had lingered. She’d taken the jacket from the back of his chair and pressed it to her nose, enjoying the sweet scent of cologne. That was when he had appeared in the doorway with a look of shock, eliciting from her a sharp gasp. And the lie she had come up with: She was looking for a lighter. A lighter! She wasn’t a smoker; he and everyone else she worked with knew it.
“Be thankful he’s not in your sales group,” Ime said when Julia called the next day to lament her blunder. “Imagine if you had to work with him every day.”
“I don’t think I could feel any more humiliated,” Julia said.
“You need to talk to him. Make nice, but not so nice that he thinks you’re stalking him.”
“Maybe I should take up smoking,” Julia said.
Ime laughed warmly. A knot of tension loosened in Julia’s chest. She could always count on Ime to make her feel better. Her laugh alone was sometimes all it took. Friends since the age of seven, they had grown up together in the northeastern part of the San Fernando Valley, daughters of hardworking Mexican parents reaching for an American Dream that always seemed a little out of reach. Of all Julia’s friends, only Ime, with her burgeoning real estate career and fearless financial risk-taking, had broken through to a life that resembled what their parents had dreamed of. Julia was not far behind, a fact she owed to Ime demanding her company on the way up the ladder of success. Julia was grateful for her encouragement. She owed Ime in more ways than she could count.
“I’m heading over to Marta’s now,” Ime said. “Why don’t I swing by and get you?”
“I’m too far out of your way. I’ll meet you there.”
“It’s no trouble. It’ll give us a chance to talk without those chismosas knowing every bit of our business.”
“Those chismosas are our friends,” Julia said.
“You signed a lifetime agreement with them,” Ime said. “I’m on month-to-month.”
Julia told Ime she’d be waiting for her outside her apartment in ten minutes. At her bedroom mirror she ran a brush through her hair and applied a little blush. She examined her face from several angles—the tawny cheeks, the expensive new salon cut. She didn’t think she looked like a pervert. She looked like someone who deserved success.
At her closet she slipped into the Marc Jacobs jacket Ime had given her for Christmas, then went to get her good Celine pumps from where she’d left them under the coffee table. She snapped one onto each foot, practiced a few of the salsa steps her friend Concepción had taught her, then tugged her belt to a fresh notch on the way out the door.
Outside, the day was cool and bright and dry. The San Gabriel Mountains stood clear and sharp in the distance from the winds that had blown through the San Fernando Valley the night before. On the sidewalk she dodged a couple of kids chasing another kid with fronds that had broken loose from the towering palms in front of her building.
When Ime pulled around the corner, Julia understood immediately why she’d been so eager to pick her up. She was behind the wheel of a new silver BMW 5 Series. She pulled up to the curb, rolled down her window, and propped her sunglasses on her head.
“Show-off!” Julia said, stepping up to the car. “¡Híjole! It’s beautiful, Ime. You didn’t tell me you were thinking of trading up.”
Ime flashed a proud grin. “Not bad for a girl from Pacoima, eh? It’s got ten-speaker audio and heated seats and a three-liter dual overhead cam—ha, what ever that is!”
Julia’s gaze followed the car’s contours as she circled to the passenger side and got in. She ran her hands over the buttery leather seats, breathed in the pungent mix of leather and plastic. “My God, Ime, are you sure you can afford this?”
Ime rolled her eyes. “I knew that’s the first thing you’d ask. To make it in my business you have to look the part. I’d let you drive, but with your record . . .” With a mischievous smile, she put the car in gear and tore out with a squeal of rubber.
“Careful,” Julia said, tensing. “Kids.”
Ime took San Fernando Road through downtown San Fernando, then cut south on Van Nuys Boulevard past the commercial districts of Pacoima, Arleta, and Panorama City, where shop signs alternated between English and Spanish. The wide, flat boulevard had been their weekend cruising grounds as teenagers, before any notion of themselves as “career women” had begun to take hold.
A few minutes later, the abandoned GM plant appeared on their left. The sight of the old, fading buildings always made Julia feel heavy and knotted. Her and Ime’s fathers had worked assembly there until ’92, when the company sent its production jobs to Canada. Though the plant’s closing hadn’t been a surprise, it had marked the beginning of Julia’s father’s struggle to find permanent, stable work. She remembered the shame in his face after long days of searching but coming up empty-handed. She remembered her mother’s anxiousness every time a bill came in the mail. Seeing her once bright, happy parents weighed down by worry had led Julia to promise herself this—that she would build enough security to never have to be in that position herself.
Ime was a part of that security, as were her other friends. Julia held Ime close because she knew she could be counted on, in spite of her flaws, in spite of her self-absorption. She was her safety net. When they were both in their early twenties, Julia’s father had announced that he and her mother were going to have to sell the little two-bedroom house Julia had grown up in; they could no longer make the mortgage payments. Julia had just started taking business classes at Valley College, which she believed would put her on track for the kind of career and security she wanted. A sinking feeling had overcome her as she realized that the only way to help her parents save their house was to quit school to work full-time. Ime, already making great money in her second year selling houses, had stepped in—not only with the money to help them catch up on their mortgage payments but with enough cash to pay off the house. Knowing Julia’s parents wouldn’t have accepted the money directly from her, she’d funneled it through Julia, letting her be the hero. When Julia offered to sign something promising to pay her back, Ime had cut her off firmly. “The only thing I want in return,” she’d said, taking Julia’s hand and squeezing it hard, “is a promise to stick with me. Successful Latinas don’t get support from anybody but each other.”
A sudden tap on the brakes brought Julia back to the present. With a nod toward the plant, Ime said, “They’re turning that into a mall.”
“Really? A mall?” It was hard for Julia to picture the plant as anything other than what it had been.
“Everything in the Valley eventually gets turned into a mall.” Ime said this optimistically, without sorrow or nostalgia. The past never blurred her view of the opportunities that came with change.
Approaching the Revolutionary Cantina, Ime started searching for a parking space out front. Failing to find one that would allow her to keep an eye on her car from the bar, she settled for a spot two blocks south. She and Julia got out and hugged, then started walking quickly side by side down the street. They talked over pedestrians and each other, breaking apart to pass people and coming together again still in conversation.
“There’s something I wanted to ask you,” Ime said as they came to a light. “A little favor that shouldn’t put you out too much.”
Julia slumped her shoulders in frustration. She knew what was coming—the same favor Ime brought up every few weeks.
“I want you to introduce me to some of your co-workers,” Ime said. “You know, just to get my business card out, plant a few seeds.”
“Ime, how many times do I have to tell you—”
“I know, I know. You think it puts your co-workers in an awkward position—”
“Exactly! There are millions of other prospects out there. Please stop bugging me.”
“I didn’t get to where I am today without bugging a few people,” Ime said.
Julia said nothing. Silence was the only way to get Ime to change this subject.
“Fine,” Ime said after a few seconds. The light turned and they stepped into the street. They were almost at the Cantina when Ime said, “By the way. How are your mom and dad doing? I happened to drive down their street the other day. The house sure is looking nice with all that new landscaping.”
Julia wagged her head in disbelief. “You’re unbelievable, Ime. Un. Be. Lievable.”
At the Revolutionary Cantina, first Ime, then Julia pushed through the glass doors. As usual during the afternoons, the narrow little place, decorated with framed photos of determined-looking mustachioed Mexican revolutionaries like Emiliano Zapata and Rodolfo Fierro, was nearly empty. At nineteen, Julia and Ime had started hanging out here because it was the only bar that looked past their flimsy fake IDs. In the years since, they had become good friends with the bar’s owner and several of the regulars. The Cantina was their default meeting spot for birthdays and canasta, and their first stop on the weekends before heading out for a night on the town.
Concepción, Julia’s loudest and tallest friend, was hanging yellow streamers from the brass lamps above the bar. Julia had nearly forgotten that today’s gathering had originally been planned in her honor, to celebrate her new job with Ostin Security Systems. She had already been working there for eight months as a sales rep when Concepción decided that it was a milestone that needed celebrating.
“Any excuse to have a few beers, eh?” Julia called to Concepción.
Concepción came down from her step stool and minced over in heels and glitter stretch pants. She pinched Julia’s cheeks. “Congratulations,” she squealed. “You’re really giving Ime a run for her money. I’m so happy for you!”
“I’m just glad to be working again,” Julia said. She felt her face turn red. It still embarrassed her to recall the way her last job had ended.
Marta, the squat, older, frowning bar own er, slipped down to the end of the bar and turned the music up. An Obie Bermúdez remix that was popular in the clubs sent Concepción into a shimmy. She took Julia’s hand and made her dance with her. Concepción taught Latin dance, mostly to Anglos trying to get in on the salsa craze. Over the years she had tried to teach Julia to ballroom dance, with limited success.
A few minutes later Marta swatted at the women with her bar towel, herding them to a table near the window where she had laid out a tray of beers from the tap. Settling into her chair with a cigarette, she took a double deck of cards from her apron and shuffled, then started firing cards around the table with her muscular hands.
Against Julia’s protests, Ime related the story Julia had just told her about getting caught in her co-worker’s office. Julia’s cheeks burned.
“Well, I can’t say I blame you,” Concepción said, drawing up her cards. “That co-worker of yours is pure hotness.” Concepción was the only one of Julia’s friends to have met him. Dropping by Julia’s office unannounced (a habit Julia had yet to break her of), she’d seen him coming out of the men’s room and had begged Julia for an introduction.
“What you should do,” Concepción continued, “is invite him to my Cinco de Mayo party.”
“Why would she want to do that?” Ime said. “She wants to impress him, not humiliate herself even more.”
“I’m not inviting him and I’m not trying to impress him,” Julia said. “I just need to make sure he understands it’s not going to happen again.”
“You never want us to meet the people you work with,” Concepción blurted.
“She’s ashamed of being Mexican,” Marta rasped. “You pochas are all like that.”
“That just isn’t true!” Julia said, and it wasn’t. She’d always been proud of her heritage. Ime, on the other hand, often downplayed hers. She pronounced Benevides, her last name, with three syllables instead of four. She referred to her ethnicity as “a mix of Latin and some other things.”
“It’s why she doesn’t like us coming by her office,” Concepción said to Marta.
“I’ve told you before, I’m not comfortable mixing work with my personal life. I can’t explain why exactly, but it just feels safer to me that way.”
“I’ll say it for her,” Ime said. “You guys can be a little embarrassing at times.” She drew a card and threw it down without much thought. She had little patience for card games, played recklessly, and often won.
“Your personal life and your work got pretty confused at your last job,” Marta said to Julia with a smirk.
“If you want advice about what to do with your co-worker, you should think about going to see Pilar Chávez,” Concepción said.
Marta frowned at her. “That vieja bruja you go to? Are you kidding?”
“Don’t underestimate her,” Concepción said. “Just last week she predicted that I was going to have a brush with celebrity. Sure enough, guess who I saw coming out of Bloomingdale’s on Saturday?”
“Who?” Julia said. She drew up another card.
“I’ve never heard of him.”
“He’s that Chicano that does the action movies,” Marta said. “The one they’re trying to sign as the first Latino James Bond.”
“I think I know the one you’re talking about,” Ime said. “Didn’t he marry that woman, la huera?”
“That’s him,” Concepción said.
“Don’t tell me you tried to talk to him.”
“Sure, why not? I had to tell him how much I love his movies.”
“I’m sure it was the highlight of his day,” Marta said. “I’m sure he doesn’t have enough crazed Mexicans bothering him in shopping malls.”
“Naturally, I invited him to my Cinco de Mayo party,” Concepción said.
“Good God,” Ime said. “You couldn’t possibly think he’d want to come to your party.”
“Why not?” Concepción said. “My parties are famous.”
“Because there’s always a fistfight,” Ime said. “Someone usually ends up in the emergency room.”
“Diego Ramirez is a womanizer and a drug user,” Marta said.
“How would you know that?” Concepción said. “Oh, wait, I forgot what a magnet this place is for celebrities. Isn’t that Meryl Streep over there?”
“I know more than you think,” Marta said. She squinted and released a pencil-thin shaft of smoke over Ime’s head. “His ex-wife disappeared two months ago and there’s talk that Ramirez might have had something to do with it.”
“He’s a terrible actor,” Ime said. “What was that movie he did with that woman?”
“Midnight Blood,” Concepción said.
“A Latino vampire movie. Ha!”
“At least they’ve started to make more movies with our people in them,” Marta said. She drummed her stubby fingers on the table. “Who’s holding up the game?”
“Just a minute,” Concepción said, reordering her cards. “Don’t hurry me, don’t hurry me. OK, how’s this?” She laid down the first canasta.
Marta slapped her cards down. “How do you always manage that?”
“You give me good cards,” Concepción said. “There’s nothing I can do about that.”
The women played a couple of games of canasta and went through a couple more rounds of beer. Toward the middle of the afternoon, Concepción pushed back her chair and stretched her longs arms overhead, sending her plastic bracelets to clatter down around her elbows. “Well, that’s it for me,” she said.
“Already?” Marta said. “I’m only ten points behind. You should give me a chance to catch up.”
“I’ve got a class to teach,” Concepción said. She stood up and with a swirl of her hips said, “If I want to eat, I’ve got to teach the gringos the Latin beat.”
“And I’ve got a house to show,” Ime said. “It’s for a couple that just found out they’re pregnant with twins. I need to convince them they can still afford a three-bedroom in Chatsworth—or else give them a lift to the abortion clinic. I didn’t say that. The devil made me say that.”
“The devil makes you say a lot of things,” Marta said.
“I know,” Ime said, threading her arm into her jacket. “We’re pretty good friends.”
The women exchanged hugs and promises to call. Concepción left first, then Julia followed Ime out.
“I hope you’re not mad I told them that story,” Ime said as they walked back to her car.
“No,” Julia said. “I just hate it when they accuse me of things.”
Excerpted from The Girls from the Revolutionary Cantina by M. Padilla.
Copyright Â© 2010 by M. Padilla.
Published in 2010 by Thomas Dunne Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.