Maria, the black-eyed, reticent waitress who’d managed to keep herself alienated from the rest of the staff at my restaurant months after she started working there, liked her nails done. Each month she shelled out what I thought to be an inordinate chunk of her hard-earned tips to a lady who poured liquid acrylic over Maria’s fingertips before shaping, buffing, and polishing them into a flawless French manicure. I complimented them even though I thought they were impractical for a waitress and would never consider wearing fake nails myself—Maria hailed from Dallas, where rich cowboys and oil tycoons like their women gussied up, but us Austinites dress down. We wear flip-flops with everything (except maybe during the two weeks of proper winter) and jeans to the symphony. It wasn’t even acceptable to wear heels and a fancy dress, much as I wanted to; the mere presence of the woman in the next seat in her Chacos and moisture-wicking skirt from REI would shame the most intrepid fashionista to burying those uncomfortable heels and flashy frock in the back of her closet. I thought Maria’s nails were pretty, but I also thought they were trashy.
Maria and I both waited tables at a Mexican restaurant near the UT campus, a colorful place full of plastic parrots I’d found while I’d been a student myself, ever penniless and searching for a job that brought in rent while allowing sufficient time for my schoolwork. The greasy spoon type place didn’t provide spectacular tips table by table, but the sections were large and turned over quickly, so the money ended up being better than in any other place I’d previously waited. The sparse sidework and laidback owners who didn’t care about visible tattoos or piercings made me a loyal employee, and like most of the other workers, I’d been there years, through the end of college and then again after I’d completed Peace Corps and returned to school. The place felt like home. Maria felt like an interloper.
I remember her hips as slim, the same size as her waist, like a stick. Her belly bulged some and sometimes her shirts pulled up to show her navel was an outie. She was just noticeably knock-kneed. But her face was lovely, framed by shoulder-length velvety curls that matched her large, dark, Bette Davis eyes. She had olive skin and an almost embarrassingly full mouth. Sensual.
We agreed she didn’t like working there, and we took this as an affront. She didn’t want to make friends with us, from what she told Fred, our manager. There weren’t many of us—such large sections meant we didn’t need a lot of waiters—and we were close. Maria kept her distance, though. She didn’t chat at the host stand during slow stretches, and she’d be the first to call someone out for snaking tables. She wasn’t ever exactly rude, but she also never tried to be nice. She stood by her section watching TV, or by one of the computers, staring out the window. Fred told us she’d just broken up with her fiancé, right before the wedding, because he liked to knock her around.
I’ve never understood why people stay in relationships like that for so long. The second a guy raised his hand to me I’d be out the door. I said as much to Amy, a fellow waitress whose boyfriend had induced early labor by kicking her in the stomach when she was six months pregnant, and she told me I didn’t understand, that I would make excuses for someone I really loved. Bullshit, I thought, remembering the stepdad who used to hit me and my sister daily, more for fun than for discipline. After growing up with that there’s no way I could keep any feeling for a man who tried to control me through violence. I admired Maria for getting out of it—so many girls are stupid enough to think they can change a man or convince themselves that it really was an accident and that it’ll never happen again. It took guts to do what she did, to get out—but this at the cost of moving in with her parents at the age of thirty five, probably giving up any chance at kids. She did tell me she missed the sex.
“I just want to get laid,” she said.
Texas is crazy about football, especially UT football, and during home games the square mile around the stadium is a sea of burnt orange drunken tailgaters stumbling around clutching tall-boy Miller Lites. The red-faced fans flocked to us for our air conditioning, margaritas, and big-screen TVs, and because of this, all employees had to work every game day, up to fourteen hours. Some days weren’t so bad—I made over four hundred dollars once—but if you make less than a bill for a twelve hour shift you might be a little pissed, especially when tip out is at least twenty five bucks. We all got an hour break when the game started, in two shifts, during which we went a block away to the Dog n Duck to chain smoke and chug pitchers of beer. Near closing time we’d start with the shift shots, and later we’d clean our sections sipping a margarita.
Past midnight of one of these long days, I was one of the last ones out. Fred had locked the front doors and Comedy Central blared on the bar TV, which I watched idly while doing my checkout. Fred and Maria emerged from the kitchen where they’d been smoking a bowl where the cameras couldn’t see, and Fred was filibustering with some story about his uncle’s mistress, which I didn’t catch the gist of other than the fact that his uncle had a mistress. Fred was from Nicaragua and said that in his culture it’s perfectly acceptable for men to have girlfriends as well as wives, that most do. Maria was mainly quiet, smiling wide and gushing a “wow” every once in awhile, not taking her eyes off his face as he grinned back at her. Fred offered to lock me out. I was his favorite, and he usually pressed another margarita on me and begged me to watch TV with him until his high went away (partly because he was convinced the building, over a hundred years old, was haunted, and he didn’t like being there alone), so I was surprised. I put my frozen in a to go cup, trying to catch his eye when he hugged me at the door, but all he said was “Night, hon,” still with that stupid grin on his face, and turned the lock.
I told myself it wasn’t my place to judge. The fact that we were close didn’t mean I was blind to his faults. Fred wasn’t faithful to his fiancée—everyone knew that but her. She was his best friend, but he didn’t think she was all that pretty, and Fred had a thing for pretty girls. At work, though. This wouldn’t end well.
I didn’t say anything to anyone but rumors of their affair got around anyways. Diana, one of the waitresses, told a story about how, following another football game, she realized she’d forgotten her keys on her way to her car. When she went back in she saw them together at the host stand.
“They were standing really close together, like they were hugging, and when I knocked on the door they jumped apart.” Gossip was rampant among the small staff; any morsel of scandal was pounced upon, dissected, and ruminated over endlessly. By the next football game everyone in the restaurant was watching the two of them, waiting to catch them at something. After the third waitress told me the same story I warned Fred, but he pretended not to understand what I was telling him.
“Just be careful is what I’m saying.”
“But nothing’s going on.” He shook his head, a stubborn, exasperated smile lifting the corners of his mouth, as if he couldn’t believe I would ever doubt him, but that he’d forgive me if I dropped it. I did. After a month or two, though, he complained to me about her.
“The other night she kept telling me how she wants to fall in love. And the whole time she’s telling me, she’s kissing my chest!”
“Why was she kissing your chest?”
“I don’t know!” He threw his hands up. I guess he thought this answer was supposed to be sufficient, that I was supposed to gloss over that kissing tidbit and its implications and just glean what he wanted me to: that he’d broken it off. Everything about her seemed to annoy him for awhile.
“Have you smelled her breath? It’s horrible! I think she has a dead tooth.”
Another story circulated, courtesy of Mac, the bartender, who recounted it to me one night near closing time while he washed glasses behind the bar.
“She came over to my house after we left Dog n Duck the other night. I went to the bathroom and when I got back, she was totally naked. On my couch.” He looked up at me from the suds and his eyes widened, daring me to refute it. “She’s shaved, by the way. No hair. Anyways, she straight-up asked me to fuck her. She said that! She said, ‘just fuck me, Mac.’”
“No.” He raised his chin a bit, defiant. “Most guys would’ve. Not many would’ve turned her down.” He turned to his friend Joe, sitting on a barstool. “You would’ve fucked her.”
After a particularly busy shift Diana and Mac huddled together at the bar whispering. I collapsed at the table behind them with my checkout and margarita at the same time that Maria sat down at the end of the bar, a couple of seats away.
“Have you ever kissed Fred?” Diana called down to Maria. She liked the direct approach. Mac chuckled.
“I’ve kissed you, too,” Maria said to Mac. His jaw clenched, his smile gone. He didn’t want that part of the story told.
Football season ended and we all stopped working together as much. I didn’t see Maria very often. Fred told me he had to take her off the busier shifts.
“She sucks now, she’s sooo slow. And she’s in the bathroom all the time. You haven’t noticed?”
I hadn’t, but not long after that I heard she was in the hospital. One Sunday I came by to pick up my paycheck, ended up hanging around to watch The Simpsons with Fred. He was happy for the company because Sundays were so slow he’d have his work done by mid-afternoon and still have hours to count before closing. Every time I got back from the restroom my miraculously refilled margarita preempted all my attempts to leave. I didn’t mind. At first conversation was light, but during Family Guy he related a conversation with Maria that had him rattled, I could tell. One day she’d started crying and he hadn’t known what to do. There was blood when she went to the bathroom, she said. She was sick, she knew it, but she was so scared it was something bad she put off doing anything about it. He told her to take some time off and figure out what was wrong.
Fred collected money for flowers, but though his intentions were good, he never got around to buying them. After a month I took the money, telling him she was going to be out the hospital before he’d take care of it. I had eighty five dollars. I figured I could spend fifty on the flowers, which left enough for a card and a gift certificate to get her nails done, which I thought she’d appreciate more than the token flower gesture that would be dead soon anyways. At the nail salon I splurged enough to get the more expensive acrylic nails, but would’ve had to dip into my own money to get the French manicure, so I skipped it. Central Market had pretty flowers but I didn’t think they delivered, so I opted for the florist down the street, where I could only afford the cheapest arrangement. I tucked the gift certificate into the card everyone had signed and had it delivered with the flowers to her parents’ house.
When Maria returned to work, she surprised me with a smile and a thank you for the gift certificate. Her hug was unexpected, causing an awkward moment when I put my arms around her just as she took hers away, which I tried to cover by asking in too bright a tone about her illness. The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with her, she said. They thought it was cancer, but weren’t sure because they couldn’t find it, and though she was weak she needed money. She had to come back to work. I nodded, smiling, incongruously, unsure where to take the conversation.
I don’t remember telling her goodbye when I left Texas for grad school. I didn’t think about her again until one night months later Fred’s now-wife chatted me on Facebook and asked had I heard about Maria? They’d finally diagnosed her, she wrote, a rare and aggressive form of leukemia. Four days after the diagnosis Maria went into chemo and never woke up from the anesthesia—the doctors hadn’t noticed the infection in her brain before they put her under. Sheila apologized for having to tell me like that, on a Facebook chat, that Fred was pretty torn up about it, that he couldn’t go to the funeral because it was only for family.
A brain infection. It sounded made up, like a heroine in some cheesy novel with purple writing and a slew of suitors and friends weeping inconsolably at her bedside while she expired. Images of Maria naked, shaved, on Mac’s couch, begging him to fuck her, stained itself on my subconscious. Of her standing at the computer, staring out the window. Of her sitting, by herself, at the end of the bar, while we jeered from several seats away, from our circle, a circle she’d never be a part of.
“Vous êtes une sœur?” In Peace Corps, years before I met Maria, my neighbor asked me if I was a nun. The Malagasy believe that lack of sex causes insanity, and I’d been there two years without a boyfriend or sexual outlet. Male Peace Corps Volunteers are few, and I hadn’t found a local I could relate to. Their habit of asking me to marry them moments after meeting me, seeing a walking green card, was off-putting.
But later, when my service was through and I was learning to scuba dive in the warm and clear waters of the Indian Ocean, I met a married Italian scuba instructor. He jetted around the little island off Madagascar’s east coast on a motorcycle, his blond hair whipping around his tan and weathered face. His wife lived in Italy, and I flirted, donned tight jeans, let down my hair, blackened my lashes with mascara for the first time in months. On our last night on the island, he came to dinner with me and my friends. Near the end of the meal, giddy on beer, I went to the bathroom to freshen my face, and when I returned, he was gone. I knew he’d seen my advances, and I knew he had gently, but firmly, refused them.
I never used to do anything with my nails, but now I keep them trim, lacquered in a single coat of light pink polish. Just enough to make them look clean. I’ve still never had acrylic nails, although I did get a French manicure on my first trip to New York. At first I balled my hands into fists, trying to hide their gaudiness, but after a time I became more comfortable with the look, and found myself gazing as they fluttered with a new-found prettiness. When I got back to Austin, though, I unearthed the polish remover. Holding the cotton ball over my hand, I thought about Maria. How she would’ve liked my manicure. Would’ve complimented me, and meant it. I rubbed it away.
About The Writer
A few years after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, the city where she was born and raised, Valerie joined the Peace Corps and moved to a village on Madagascar’s east coast to teach English. When she returned, she taught English in Americorps to first graders, before then moving to a tiny little town in Georgia known for its insane asylums and for arresting six year olds throwing temper tantrums. There she studied writing, drank a lot, and, yes, taught English. She currently teaches kindergarten in Iraq.