This story is by Zia bon Signore and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I stood in the studio apartment in my old neighborhood, clutching the lease knowing full well I would never pass the credit check.
“It’s clean, not much crime but you wanna lock your door. The stairs’ll give ya exercise,” said the landlord, eyeing my ass. “Be good for ya.”
The fees amounted to $3000.00. A sum I couldn’t imagine procuring, but began a quick mental inventory of what I might still have left to sell.
“Listen, you want it or not? I’m a busy man here!” he swept his arms wide to remind me that he had 300 square feet of prime real estate on offer.
“Of course you are. Yes, I want it. I may need some time to get the money together. What sort of timeline are we looking at?” I asked.
I had few options. And by few I meant none. It was late summer of 2009. I was eight months separated from my husband who when he left, before his third deployment to Iraq- porked his ex and drained our bank account.
The “economic downturn”, as it was being gently labeled by the news, produced harsh realities for me. My treasured home in foreclosure, my car repossessed, my perfect credit in ashes and a grim job market for a once accomplished NY Chef who moved to the South for love. What a dumbbell. Returning home to my New York suburban neighborhood with my very public series of failures was the least of my concerns. My waitressing job seemed to be secure at the moment, but one never knew.
“Timeline?” he belched out a laugh. “What’s this history class? Have the money in two days. You’ll find me at the coffee shop.”
I had two hours before my shift at Peruvian Palace where the food wasn’t bad and the owner Marko, seemed harmless. It opened two months earlier and was the only place that responded to me when I emailed my resume. But we were slowly losing customers. I headed
toward the bus stop, loping past a row of shops while silently sifting through anything I owned that held no sentimental value. Clothes? Shoes? Can you sell clothing for decent money?
Passing the old “Canter’s Bakery”, the aroma of coffee beckoned me inside. In seconds I saw that this was not the same bakery of yore; this was something else entirely. I was inside a jewel box of a sweet shoppe. A pink-hued, miniature kingdom filled with delicate, exquisite creations of berries, cinnamon and sugar flowers all at once. It was Heaven. And way too upscale and elegant for this neighborhood.
Behind the counter stood the boss. Wrapped in a heather-grey shawl tossed over one shoulder, jet -black hair twisted atop her head. She wore black, wide -legged slacks draped to the very tip of her stiletto boots. She gripped a clipboard, and strode towards a small cafe table to sit down. She was mesmerizing.
I joined the line of customers snaked around the counter, and watched her grilling a series of women. I waited for an opportunity, then pounced.
“Excuse me? I’m sorry to disturb you, I couldn’t help but notice…are you interviewing for a position here at your shop?” I queried.
She looked directly into my eyes; hers were black as pools of ink.
“Oh we are. Always looking for people. Sit down here with me.” she answered.
Her name was Tavi from Lebanon. She arrived in America twenty years ago, fell in love and married an American. I told her about my years of cooking in Manhattan, Mexico and Ireland, and what brought me back here. Her eyes shone when I mentioned my recent move as she covered my hand in hers.
“You have a sister now,” she said. I felt ridiculous as tears welled in my eyes. “Return tomorrow before your shift at Peruvian Palace.”
Warm in the glow of fresh possibility at work that evening, not even
Marko’s usual knuckle- dragging across the back of my pants, (Oops my God Sarah! You know I would never do that on purpose right?), could darken my mood. With a second job I could almost afford that apartment, I thought. Who knows what could happen next? Wearing this absurd Inca vest covered in camel faces while waiting tables was an embarrassment I could endure if it meant that I had a future somewhere.
“Sarah there’s a couple here to see you, she’s hot for an old broad. Table five,” Marko in my ear.
With menus under my arm, I approached table five and recognized Tavi and a man who could be her twin. Happiness and surprise broadsided me and I almost skipped over to the table. She must really like me! They spoke in hushed tones, heads almost touching. When they heard me get closer, they turned with a shared look of horror on their faces. That’s when I remembered my Inca vest covered in camels. My face went scarlet and I stopped in an awkward, mid-way, walk-talk absurdity of foolishness.
“Tavi! Hungry? No, I mean I’m sorry. It’s so nice of you to bring me menus. I apologize. Would you like a drink?”
They spoke Arabic. A language I knew well from my ex’s years in the Marines. “Muham (lawyer)…khutba (contract),…” murmured the man. He seemed angry and Tavi was shushing him.
“Sarah! Water is fine,” Tavi said. “This is my brother Sival. Sarah, we came to you tonight because we have something very important to talk to you about. Can you leave here to work with us at the bakery? Come tomorrow and we will talk about our lives.”
Tavi wrapped her hands around my waist and leaned in with a hug. Sival stood awkwardly, but I kissed him goodbye. He looked at Tavi and they laughed. Something passed between them; the insult of the Inca vest had been forgotten.
At the bakery the next morning I was treated like a celebrity. When I
arrived there was a cafe table laid with sweet pastries. Cappuccino, warm croissants, sweet French butter and raspberry preserves -all waiting for me. Tavi and Sival sat at the table, smiling and waving me in. I joined them and again, tears sprang to my eyes. So touched was I by their warmth and apparent regard for me, that I turned away so they could not see my wet face.
“We have a deal for you, dear Sarah. But time is important. Finish your coffee, we go down to the office and talk as family,” Tavi instructed.
Seated in the office, Tavi and Sival spoke Arabic to each other in quick bursts. On my lap lay a copy of my resume, emailed to Tavi the day before with pride. I began to fantasize about what Tavi, Sival and I would create together. My mind ran away with itself, to generations of our families in bakeries all over the county. I imagined providing for my brother, who had given me a place to stay during this terrible time.
“…Alzawja…”(wife) slipped from Sival’s mouth like a balloon, floating into my stream of consciousness.
I envisioned a future of arriving home to a husband at night, a pink box of cupcakes under my arm, my white Chef’s coat stained with sugar, and maybe even-to a child.
My thumb slid over the HOME button and pressed “record” on the iPhone resting inside my jacket. The Arabic ceased. Tavi stared at me and spoke in English:
“Put the silly resume away. My brother is here from Lebanon on a working visa. He is the genius behind what you see before you; the works of art in the pastry cases. You have nothing left at your age, but you have one thing of value that we can use. I need my brother here in the States to make this business a success. He needs citizenship, and for this —you can be of use to us. In return you will receive the following: a cash payment of 3K in two days when you and Sival marry, another 3K when he receives his green card and another 3K on the date of your divorce. You are desperate and sad, Sarah! How long can a woman of your age serve food in a goat vest?”
I felt the tiny office spin.
“This is all very exciting!” I managed. “And of course you are right. Might I use the rest room Okhti?”.
Four black eyebrows shot up in alarm upon hearing the Arabic word for ‘sister’ escape my lips.
I fled the office and ran up to the cafe, passing the landlord from the apartment scarfing a donut, his chin shiny with glaze. Spotting me, a light went on within him.
“She likes cake this one. Sarah! I see you’ve co..” My middle finger shot up.
Once in the bathroom I pulled out my cellphone, turned off the recorder and dialed 1-866-347-2423.
“Hello I’d like to report an attempt at illegal immigration marriage fraud …..”