After locking the door to the apartment, I carried the vacuum down to my white Chevy and drove two miles home. Lately things were looking up financially. I now had the bonus check from this cleaning job to look forward to, and a second job working on a landscaping crew to begin the next week. A friend whom I met at the garden center owned a lawn maintenance company. Although it was unconventional to hire a white woman to work on his all male Mexican and Guatemalan crew, he knew of my situation and offered me the opportunity to help with edging and trimming lawns while his guys drove the mowers. Over the next several weeks, I would ride around the city in the center seat of a truck between two young men, both named Jose'. We stank of sweat. The truck smelled like old lunch.
The two Jose's learned English by listening to the radio and watching television. I learned more Spanish by listening to ranchero songs and their occassional conversations. Mostly, we just worked. Sometimes we ate lunch in the truck together and I nodded my head a lot.
At the end of a day operating a gas weed whip, I could barely lift my hands to my mouth to drag on a cigarette. It was a brutal workout, and I often asked for help pulling the start cords. The younger Jose' would be the first to come to my rescue. After work, I was often too exhausted to fix a meal and would come home and belly flop on my bed. Perhaps it would have been easier to drive a mower all day, but being new, I was happy to do the grunt work. It was thrilling to work outdoors, visiting beautiful neighborhoods and completely free of the burden of talking. There was no need to explain anything about my current situation because of the language barrier. I just worked all day, ate a little, and slept. It was a good way to survive the first summer when Emily was gone, having much needed time with her dad. I was working too hard to have time to be an emotional wreck.
The truth is, I was a walking bag of pain.
And my harassing co-worker at the apartments knew this. It's funny, but even while he tried every single day to get me to laugh at his dirty jokes, tried every hour to get me to pay attention to him in any kind of way, I developed a soft spot in my heart for him. I was in this strange situation of feeling creeped out and full of pity. What an odd turn in my life. I hadn't planned on growing up to wear steel toed boots and a tool belt, becoming a maintenance apprentice for this dirty old man driving me around in a rickety golf cart with bags of garbage and plumbing parts rattling in the back. The confusing part of my dilemna was that he genuinely liked people and wanted to be everyone's friend. It was difficult to ignore his enduring qualities, which took the edge off my disgust. On our routes around the complex fixing things like leaky garbage disposals and caulking bath tubs, he would talk to the residents about their lives and made them feel like someone cared. For many, this was a rare gift to be seen as a person with feelings and problems. One sunny day at the end of my shift, Frank (not his real name) pulled up to our workshop in the creaky golf cart and stopped to talk with a man sitting on the steps with a cloth laundry sack at his feet. Frank was asking this man about joining the Moose Lodge and going out for a drink. They talked about someday going sailing in the man's sailboat. In the middle of this conversation, (Frank was a long talker), the man unexpectedly interrupted to ask who I was. Clearly annoyed at the interruption, Frank said, "oh, that's just JEN."
When the man reached over Frank to shake my hand and introduce himself, I was surprised by a feeling of instant recognition that passed through me like an electric current. The charge of the moment made Frank feel defeated, and so he abruptly crafted an excuse to lock up the cart and put away tools. I went home with the memory of that introduction floating around in my soul.
Some tall, dark and gorgeous man wanted to know my name.
I didn't know this, but before that meeting on the steps by the laundry room, my new friend had noticed me walking with my blue plastic bucket and my trash picking tool. He was sitting in his car, and while I walked within his line of sight, he literally heard a voice in his head say "there goes your wife."
He shook his head a few times and wondered if he was going mad, then drove to work. He forgot about the woman with the bucket and the voice until he saw me again at the steps.
A few days after that first meeting, I saw him at the mail boxes with a cocker spaniel. I was driving home, but gave into a magnetizing impulse to stop and roll down my window. I said "hi" and we talked for a few minutes. I asked him where he worked, and when he said (insert name of company where my ex husband used to work) I squelched an urge to step on the accellerator and drive out of sight. Ignoring that impulse, we discussed the idea of having coffee. I gave him my number. He repeated it to himself over an over on the way back to his apartment, which I learned later was the same apartment that I had been asked to clean.
Discoveries like this tell me that in life, there are no coincidences. There is a plan in the making, and with our willingness to participate in blind faith, God shows up in a big way that will leave you with vertigo at the magic of it all.
My new friend was a humble guy who owned some clothing, tools, and a guitar. He had a few dishes and a couple of pans. He had been living on a sailboat before moving to our city, and the apartment he was now renting was devoid of furniture. What he lacked in material wealth, he made up for in emotional riches and layers upon layers of intelligence. There was a depth to our conversations that sparkled with energy and light. If I had been feeling sorry for myself, the pain of my suffering would be cared for in his tender understanding. He was also recently divorced, and when I asked him where he was originally from, he said "misery."
But you wouldn't know it. He wasn't the feel-sorry-for-me kind of person. He was a survivor and a champion. When I was invited to his apartment for dinner, I opened the door to this:
An empty room, suddenly furnished with a cardboard box table, covered with cloth and set with tin foil candle holders and tea lights. Music I was comfortably familiar with played on a stereo, and the sound of a meal sizzling in a pan mixed with a delightful aroma was my welcome. I walked in to find him at the stove, dish cloth over his shoulder, tending beautiful little cuts of breaded veal and some vegetables. No man had ever prepared a meal just for me. When we sat on the floor in the tea light, with this beautiful and simple gormet meal in front of me, I looked up into his smiling face and cried.
In every bite, I tasted kindness. Care. Compassion.
I didn't talk very much while he cleared the table and began to wash the dishes. I think I just stat there in stunned emotion while he talked and washed up, too overwhelmed at the gift and the atmosphere of love he had created.
I went home and replayed the entire evening in my head until sleep finally came. In the morning, everything was new.
Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year from my family to yours!