Neighbors: Love and Loss at the Taqueria

My wife and I are fairly new to our neighborhood, just south of Sunset in the Rampart division of Silver Lake. But our next-door neighbor Manuel, who came to Los Angeles after leaving Guadalajara, has lived in these parts for 20-some years. He’s done his best to make us feel welcome, greeting us from the get-go with hellos and small talk in his broken English. I always try to reciprocate in my tortured Spanglish. On the occasions when my wife, Candy, is home — she’s a dancer who lives in Vegas — Manuel jokes with her about my perpetually scowling face. (“Is it true?” I ask her. “Well, if someone didn’t know you, they’d think you’re mean,” she insists.)

When Manuel isn’t at one of his two full-time jobs, he’s with his cars. He’s proud of his early ’80s Cadillac and mid-’70s Ford LTD. Often when I come home he’s monkeying around under the hood of one or the other, or else he’s sitting in one of them listening to music. Sometimes he’ll roll down the window to say hi as I walk by, but then he stays in the car listening to the music on the radio long after I’ve gone into the house.

Recently, my wife was home for a longer visit than usual, and Manuel must have noticed a change in my countenance.

“Oh, you smile today,” he said, poking more fun at me by animatedly turning a mock frown into a grin. He laughed heartily at this. “See what a pretty lady can do.”

Candy and I were headed to El 7 Mares, our favorite taco stand, just a few blocks away on Sunset Boulevard, so I invited Manuel to come with us. He seemed slightly taken aback, but quickly agreed.

“Give me two minutes to clean my hands,” he said.

It took more than two minutes.

“Sorry, Joe. I had to call Angela to tell her. She’s in Mexico right now.”

It was cold out and I insisted on driving the short distance. My wife insisted that Manuel sit up front with me. Manuel insisted that he sit in back, but he eventually, embarrassedly, gave in.

In a minute we were at the taqueria. I ordered two fish tacos, one chicken taco, a chicken tamale and rice and beans. I guess I was hungry. My wife ordered shrimp tacos and a chicken tamale. Manuel stepped up to the window and it was immediately clear that he and the young lady behind the counter knew each other. They spoke in Spanish, too rapidly for me to follow.

When he reached for his wallet, I told Manuel to put his money away. This too embarrassed him, but it seemed to delight the young lady behind the counter.

We sat down to wait for the food and started talking. Well, my wife and Manuel started talking. I’m like a shark; I have to be constantly moving or eating, and it was late enough that I was hungry to the point of distraction. Soon, though, matters turned to life and love. What else would it be, when food is on the way, the day is ending and the lights are shining on the boulevard?

Between impatient glances toward the pickup window, I gleaned that Manuel was inquiring about how long Candy and I had been married, how we met, the back story to our arrival in the neighborhood.

While she filled him in, I pulled off my wedding ring, handed it to Manuel and told him to read the inscription. He reached for the glasses resting on his forehead and brought them down over his eyes in the manner of an appraiser conducting important business. He held the ring close and then far and then up in the air and down in front of his chest, squinting as if trying to decipher something inscrutable. That puzzled me, since the inscription was in Spanish.

He was apologetic. “Sorry, Joe, I cannot see too well. It’s too small for me. My glasses are not so good, eh?” He chuckled.

“No worries,” I said. “It reads: Siempre mi amor. June 16, 2002. That’s when we got married. On Father’s Day.”

“Ah, siempre mi amor. Yes, I see.” He turned the ring around between his large fingers, still regarding it like an appraiser. “Siempre mi amor, yes, yes.”

As I slipped the ring back on, the young lady behind the counter called our number and I picked up our food.

“I was married for many years, many years. I was with the same woman for 23 years,” Manuel said as I handed out the food.

Candy and I thought Angela, the woman he lived with, was his wife and the mother of his three kids: two sons and a daughter. The kids were grown and on to exciting lives that Manuel loves to talk about. One son lives in Seattle, the daughter in Boston, and the youngest son, 26, lives a few blocks away. They are in movies and hospital administration and one is a writer. Stuff like that.

“No, no, Angela is not my wife. I’m going to marry her, though. She’s a good woman. We are good friends, good friends. Always laughing. She likes my jokes. But it’s different, you see. It’s not the same as with my wife.”

Manuel is one of those people who can’t eat and talk at the same time. I can eat, talk and mop floors at the same time. There was nothing left on my plate but one small chicken taco, and Manuel had barely taken the first bite of his ceviche tostadas. I hesitated to ask, realizing that doing so could keep us out there in the increasing chill for god knows how much longer. But I asked anyway.

“What happened with your wife?”

He didn’t look at either of us when he said it. “She died. Seven years ago.”

Again, I asked the question, even though, somehow, I already knew.

“How?”

“Oh, it was bad, Joe. Very bad. Someone was drunk and he killed her with his car.”

It was what I had expected. But that didn’t stop the pain and shame from traveling the great distance of years and miles and settling in a place inside that made my eyes burn with sadness. I told him about my grandfather who had killed someone while driving drunk. My father escaped the same fate by sheer luck.

“It’s practically a way of life where I came from,” I said. Manuel looked at me and nodded.

“How did you deal with that pain and anger?” I asked.

“It took a long time, man. A long time. There were a lot of things I wanted to do. I thought very much about doing some things that were bad. But I had our kids and I had to think of them. She loved music. We had our melodies. I still listen to those melodies on the radio all the time. Sometimes I just sit in the car. You see me. I’m listening and she’s with me.”

We finished dinner, slowly now, talking all the time about everything people talk about. The gaps between Manuel’s bites on his tacos were long, but not painful. I was no longer in a hurry to get back.

“I love my food, Joe. I like to eat it slowly,” he said, then he winked and laughed out loud. “Why be in a hurry all the time?”

—Joe Donnelly


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