He was thirty-five years old when I met him; I was twenty-four. The first time I laid eyes on Luis I was in training as a server at a new job where he was a fry cook. My third night in training, I walked into the kitchen and I saw him- tall, dark and handsome, wearing a green shirt that was a size too small, hugging his muscles. He wore his thick, black, wavy hair short and had a gap in his front teeth when he smiled. His was a smile that could melt my heart even two years later. I stopped short when our eyes met; he took my breath away. It was not his looks alone; it was the look in his eyes when he smiled at me. His eyes were deep and soulful and I felt as though he were really seeing me, not a reflection in a mirror, but the person I know I am. Luis was charismatic and charming; the girls in the restaurant would often refer to him as “Hot Luis.” We did not speak that first day, nor did we speak the second, but in time, we would come to know each other very well.
Luis was from Mazatlán and spoke little English. I had spent three months in Mexico on an exchange, but I still spoke very little Spanish. Several weeks after my training ended, I worked up the nerve to talk to this quiet man when we passed each other in the back of the kitchen. “Hola, Luis, ¿como estas?” was all I said. He responded, “Muy bien, Sarita, gracias.” Often, these “conversations” consisted of only a few words. “Pásale,” he would tell me as I tried to go into the walk-in refrigerator at the same time he was going in. I told him, “gracias,” then quickly took what I needed and left. I could feel my heart pounding after these brief encounters, but I treasured the feeling of being near him. As time passed, we had longer and more frequent conversations. Luis said hello as I got to work everyday and I asked him how he was. Once, he took my hand through the salad window and squeezed it. I felt the rough calloused skin on mine and shivers ran down my spine. He told me that day, “Sarita, your smell is muy nice.” My face got warm and I am certain that I was blushing, the color overtaking my face, when I thanked him.
We soon developed a connection and became friends. He hugged me daily and pretended to be hurt if I forgot this simple act. We talked through the food window and things began to feel familiar. His eyes lit up with mischief when we teased me and I always feigned irritation with him. I never told him that each time he spoke to, touched or teased me a virtual flock of butterflies took to flight in my stomach. I was a recovering self-loather, that is, I had survived some exceptionally trying times as an adolescent and was only just recovering from a life of depression and poor self-image. I had no idea that a man like this could ever see me as more than a friend. As my feelings for Luis grew, I confided in my friend and co-worker Julie that I had a colossal crush on him. She told me that she was certain he felt the same way towards me. This statement took me aback. I stared at her in what must have been a look of utter shock, because she instantly hit my arm and asked me, “Why is that so surprising?” Unexpected emotion filled me as I sputtered, “Guys like Luis don’t go for girls like me.” I walked away, feeling sure that it was cruel of her to tease me in such a way, regardless of her good intentions. As it was, he had begun kissing my cheek when we said hello or goodbye and, as it turned out, was not doing this with anyone else.
As time passed and I found myself spending more and more time going into work on my days off under the guise of checking my schedule or talking to friends. I always agonized over making sure that I applied my make-up to perfection and dressed myself carefully, so as not to appear to have made an effort. I caught myself constantly thinking about Luis and I just needed to see him. One night, several months after we began talking, I went to work to see Julie. Luis was working and strutted over to me and breathed, “Sarita, estas muy bonita.” He was standing too close, I could smell him, feel his body heat. Then he took my hands and looked directly into my eyes. I was nervous, my sensations were overwhelmed, but I could not look away. I had to be brave; I would make him look away first. When he did not look away, I began to fidget. Luis held my hands to his mouth and kissed them, inhaled deeply and asked, “I could get your address, please? I could visit you at your home?” I was stunned and stammered, “I can give you my phone number, and yes.” I scribbled my phone number with shaking hands, thrust the paper in his hand and informed Julie that I had to leave. He kissed my cheek and smiled, I nearly tripped myself trying to get out that door.
I awoke to my telephone ringing at eight o’clock the following morning. I answered, but no one spoke on the other end, “hello?” I said again more forcefully into the phone. Finally, I heard, “Sarita? That is you?” He had actually called. We spoke in broken “Spanglish” for several minutes until we decided that he would come over at two o’clock that afternoon. I rattled off the directions to my home to the best of my ability and hung up the phone. I frantically cleaned in my preferred last minute method, that is to say I shoved things anywhere they would fit so that everything was out of sight. Just before two o’clock, I scurried outside to wait for him, when I saw his old green truck pull up I implored my lungs to take in a breath. I felt as though I had temporarily forgotten how to breathe. He strolled over to me and there, in my parking lot, we had our first kiss. His lips were soft and warm and I could not think. We walked to my apartment holding hands; I was elated. Polite and kind, he perched on my couch as I offered him something to drink. I gave him the grand tour of my small but cozy apartment, most of which could be seen from where he had been sitting. Then we settled on my couch, which would become main stage for most of our relationship. We spent nearly all of our time on that couch. We talked for three hours about life and family. He told me about his family and briefly mentioned a daughter in Mexico. We discussed movies, music and politics. Here I sat on my couch with the man I had idolized for so long, and suddenly it occurred to me that he was just man. This beautiful man, who the entire time had been holding my hand absentmindedly and was stroking it with his thumb. He was a man who loved people and who people loved, just another human being, and he had chosen to sit here with me. When he left, he kissed me one last time while standing on my front porchand told me he would call me. Over the next several months, he came over to my house everyday when he got off work.
Luis was chronically late to work and I was chronically early everywhere, so our paths inadvertently crossed in the parking lot. Many times, we stood by my car talking and kissing or just holding hands for several minutes before one or both of us darted inside. We had decided that no one at work should know about our relationship, we did not want it to get in the way of work. The nature of the restaurant working world lends itself to mean-spirited gossip and meddling, so keeping this a secret seemed the right thing to do. Due to this secrecy our interactions at work took on a more forbidden and exciting tone. His hand often brushed mine as I reached for an item from the window and our eyes would meet; occasionally he let slip Spanish words that were reserved for alone time. We did not think anyone noticed, but of course, love is blind and the truth was, everyone was murmuring about our suspected love affair in the corners. Nevertheless, he hugged me everyday, sometimes kissed me briefly in the parking lot, but most often, he surprised me in the walk-in refrigerator. Walking in behind me, he kissed me and whispered the words that have come to represent much of what is now my memory of him, las palabras de mi amor, the words of my love.
As the relationship progressed, we often would lay in bed and talk. We talked of past relationships, family and dreams. He finally confided in me about his daughter, Ana Luisa, and told me of his intention to get his citizenship so that he could provide a life for her here. Luis’ eyes would always mist over and often a tear or two would escape, the anguish he felt evident on his face when he spoke of Ana Luisa in Mexico with her mother. Luis felt things deeper than most men I had known. Often, his Latin machismo attitude was in great conflict with his tender emotions. I would wonder if he would ever learn how to reconcile these two contrasting states of being. His eyes filled with tears the first time he told me, “Te quiero, Sarita. I want for you to know, you are the beautifulest woman I ever have known. Your eyes remind me of my daughter. ¿Azul, the color of sky, no?” I cried and was deeply touched that he felt this way, but also that he thought enough of me to compare even just my eyes with his beloved hija.
Eventually, he transferred to a store closer to his home, and left for Mexico for several weeks to visit his family and daughter. I heard nothing from him for two months. I was devastated and consumed with worry. I had no way of knowing if he had made it back to the United States, perhaps there had been some problem with his Visa or he had simply changed his mind about returning. Daily life continued without Luis, just as it had before he came into my little world, but it was emptier now. Although we had endured several minor arguments, this time he had let me down. I was sure that he was taking this as an opportunity to step effortlessly out of my life forever. By the time Luis left my restaurant, several of the staff had taken the liberty to tell me that everyone knew. I stalked around in a daze, my make-up never done, my hair pulled back into a ponytail. Gone were the days of preening before work, I had, in many ways returned briefly to the depression that had plagued my life for so many years before. Many looked at me with pleading eyes and implored me to tell them the story of my rendezvous with the man who had captured the admiration of so many girls. However, I chose to tell only a select few people the story in its entirety; it was just too raw and personal. He was gone and I was miserable. I was in love and he was gone. I decided not to call the restaurant he had transferred to, choosing to believe that he remained in Mexico and not that he was intentionally avoiding me. One of my managers however, had a meddling tendency and called his store. One afternoon, several weeks later, she let me know that she had spoken to a fellow manager at his store and that he was indeed back in town. My heart, the heart that I had been slowly piecing back together, seemed to shatter again. One day, unexpectedly, he called, as though no time had passed, as though he had not been working across town without telling me for well over a month.
Try as I might, I could not hold on to my resolve to keep him from my life when I looked upon his face. I was in love with this man and with all of his flaws. When he was present, he was attentive and sweet, often driving across town to sit on my couch with me and talk or hold me. He helped me with my Spanish and scolded me with accusing looks when I failed to practice with him. He said, “Mi amor, necesitas practicar conmigo.” Our language barrier was the best and worst part of our relationship in many ways. Luis pushed me to learn and communicate, while simultaneously wielding the Spanish I tried so hard to understand as his weapon. If he was proud of me or happy he would speak slowly and deliberately so we could understand each other. On the other side of things however, when he was angry or upset with me, he riddled me with a rapid barrage of Spanish words. Eventually, he left me sitting by the window, again and again, waiting for him and would forget to call to say he was not coming or simply just did not think about it at all. There I sat for hours on end, staring out a window; every shadow might be him, but never was. He began visiting on his schedule, regardless of plans made. I knew he loved me but this man was never going to change.
Things progressed and on our one-year anniversary, he simply forgot, or perhaps it just was not as important to him as it was to me. In a year’s time, we had grown close, despite our problems; often talking of our future together and the things that we would do. I realized however, that he was never going to mend his ways, and they were ways I just could not live with. As sentimental as he was, he would never be the considerate man I needed him to be. After a year of hearing about Luis, I took my friends to meet him at the restaurant where he worked. When Luis appeared at the table, I suddenly saw him as I once had. He was engaging my friends Valeria and Lauren in conversation. Speaking in both Spanish and English for both of their benefits, he charmed them and I was flooded with emotion. I had fallen in love with this man. This man, whom I had become so accustomed to, made me remember a long forgotten charming and charismatic side. I watched in awe from an outside perspective as he wove a tapestry of magic all around the table. I imagined the two of us in an exotic location, where life was perfect and this stunning man with his beautiful words and kindness were enough. I felt hopeful that we could rekindle the passion that had started the relationship. The nights of waiting around and mild neglect melted away in that moment and all I seemed able to recall was my love for him.
That was the last time I ever saw Luis. I called him for weeks afterward but could never get him on the phone. In a final, desperate move, I sent him a text message. I typed, “Luisito, te quiero mucho, pero…” I ended a relationship with the only man I had ever loved over a text message. One week later, I received a call from Luis, who had been gallivanting in Mexico. (Perhaps that is not the actual intention of his visit, but it is what I had imagined.) The concern in his voice told me that he did not understand what had prompted this. “I love you, Sarita,” he ensured me. Somewhat detached, I marveled at how much his English had improved. Later that evening, from Valeria’s apartment, I re-ended my relationship over the phone, but this time, he was actually on the other end. I sobbed inconsolably. He cried also and he told me, “Entiendo Sarita, lo siento.” I knew he was sorry but his life was not my life. The next words out of his mouth, etched forever in my memories of Luis, “I have never loved someone the way I love you. I feel much proud of you and please keep to your school. You are do many great things.” These words seemed to me, spoken straight to my heart. I whimpered into the phone, “I will never stop loving you. All I have ever hoped for you is happiness and I know that you will find a way to make all your dreams come true. Te quiero, Luisto. Please do not forget me.” I could hear his quiet crying on the other end of my phone and he whispered, “Sarita, you will be in my love siempre. Te quiero, mi amor. Adios.” I listened to him hang up the phone and I felt as though my heart had surely burst. Just as he had left me breathless when I met him, he again left me breathless in the end of our relationship. Weeks later, he called to tell me that he wanted to come see me to say goodbye, he was returning to Mexico forever. As history would dictate, he never materialized. I waited for what seemed like a lifetime for him. I supposed it is true what they say some things never change.
As time passed, I still thought about Luis every day. Some days my mind drifted for long periods. I sat, awestruck, at how this brown-eyed boy had become so important to me and how he charged into my life and changed it forever. Some days he was merely a passing thought, fleeting but always he was there. The last time I spoke of Luis it had been more than a month since he was supposed to leave for Mexico. One evening at dinner, my cousin had asked about him and I told her with a heavy heart that he was gone. I told her how he had never come over to say his goodbye, but I that figured it was for the best. Perhaps now, I confided in her, I could finally find some peace in my heart. I was chatting animatedly with a friend on the phone when I got home that night. As I hung up and opened my door, I looked down and there, on my front porch mat was LUIS, spelled out in rocks. It was only then that I realized it was his birthday.
I propped myself in front of the rocks and I started to cry. He had been here, one last time. I cried for all the beautiful moments we had shared; I cried for all the pain. I let each tear roll over my cheek, off my chin and drop silently onto the rocks spelling out his name. I picked one up and held it in my hand. I desperately wanted to feel his energy, as though by holding this rock, I could feel all the love we had shared. Round and smooth, the rock was perfect except for a chip on one side. It was everything our relationship had never been and always was. You see, he never really did anything wrong; he just did so few things right. I knew I would never see Luis again; he had finally come to say his goodbye. I left the rocks there not yet ready to remove them it was too final. I left for school and when I returned, the maintenance crew had swept them back into their places. Life, as usual, had thrust me into moving on whether I was ready or not. It was the ending of a love story, my love story. I look out at the rocks in front of my home sometimes; I wonder if I am looking at the ones he held. Some have been lost among the others, some may still be on top, but I never have any doubt that they will always be there, a testament forever, to the love I had shared with a tall, dark and handsome man.