What Comes Next
Ciara Alfaro | Essays
My first job is at a desert of a store, tucked in the West Texas Panhandle, next to the Bible Mart and across from the Zales. At just the right angle from inside the store, the city waterpark peeks out from behind the glossy wedding band shop, all faded-blue loopy slides from the seventies and fields of dirt. I watch summer happen over there—shoulders in the sun, towels dancing in the breeze, teens and lovers playing parking lot tag.
The soundtrack to their summer plays overhead in the form of the restaurant’s corporate playlist, running on a loop, phantom-remixed in my head. Already, I know what comes next. I crush my plastic water cup, toss it in the trash bin I’ll lug to the back later. I get back to work. I’m sixteen and ready to learn what the body can be used for.
Inside this store that I can’t classify as a restaurant, we roll Coloradoan burritos, which are not the same as Tex-Mex burritos, which are not the same as Mexican burritos, but are instead pinnacle American something-rittos: assembly line tortillas filled and filled until they sometimes explode the tortilla during the rolling process. When this happens, I yell, “FLIP!” A fresh tortilla gets pressed, then passed down the assembly line to me, where I perform heart surgery on the monstrosity. I unwrap the torn tortilla, lay the new one mirrored on top, press the edges to create seams, and flip the beast over, trying not to lose even a single cube of steak.
At this place, the men love me. They call me “The Little One,” both for my height and for the way I look like a tiny mouse in the uniform: hair in a tight top bun, navy blue velcro visor pulled staunchly across my forehead, ears out. The Little One wears a baggy, sexless potato sack T-shirt tucked into low-rise jeans, which flare out and over the no-slip eye-sore sneakers her mom bought her at Walmart. Her summer skin is pasty white. She’s gained queso weight at the hips.
The Little One’s specialties include smiling at anyone who will take her, moving down the food line with the speed of a rodent, and rolling burritos bigger than both her forearms put together.
“Here’s your baby,” Ari and I say in unison after I reach the register. One of us holds the foil-wrapped burrito child balanced on the tops of her palms, an offering, while the other one cheers and winks congratulations.
Ari and I are twin nurses—burrito nurses—and the guests love it. They love to look us up and down, to try to peek beneath the brims of our visors at the faces of the young girls underneath, rolling fat phallic burritos and handing them over with honeysilk young voices.
Ari and I met on the job and now request all our shifts together. She is me, except not. She is younger and louder and thinner and I would say prettier, but guests cannot seem to tell us apart. We play games with them. She sweeps the lobby and greets the groups of frat daddies or families at the door. I wait for them at the front of the burrito line. When they arrive at me—the little white Mexican girl with the bun and the visor and the black makeup lining her lashes—their eyes go wide. They do a double take and ask, “Weren’t you just over there?”
We have a script for this part, too. Ari puts down her broom, moves over to work beside me, and we tell a joke about the store cloning cute girls. Everyone laughs. It makes them feel special. Sometimes, the frat guys ask if there are any extras sitting around. Girls, they mean.
What we’re really doing is distracting the guests from the expense of their baby—twelve dollars?!—and trying to get the reviews of the store up. If we do this, nothing will happen, except that Steve, the GM, will stop holding us outside his office door, pointing at the printed sheet of Google reviews hung on it, the smell of sweet cigarettes on his clothes and his beating heart visible in the vein at the center of his forehead, saying, “Look at this review. We can do better than this, right girls? Right!” We used to like Steve.
Technically, we’re not allowed to take tips, but sometimes after Steve has left for the night, Ari and I empty the Bodyworks Gym Lottery jar in front of the register and fill it with loose change instead. When we’re extra darling, when we really nail the burrito nurse skit, whole bills end up in the jar. Bills that Ari and I scoop out at the end of the night and split between the two of us because we know we’re doing the heavy lifting here. Some nights, when the stars align and the moon is on our side, we leave with three extra dollars apiece.
Rocky, the night manager, lets us do this. He lets us pack up one, maybe even two, meals and hide them inside the holding cabinet for later. He lets us plug in our music to the speakers during closing, even though all we listen to is girly pop. Depending on the day, he even lets us turn off the lobby lights on the customers who are still poking at their food past closing.
He tells me, “Ciara, you’re such a good girl” and, “you’re still so sweet.” He likes to point out to everyone that I’m the innocent one, even though I’m the same age as half the staff. Occasionally, when I get pissed at a stupid fucking customer for spreading their queso-sour cream-shredded beef all over the top of a booth, he smiles at me, proud, and says, “I’ve corrupted you, Little One.”
He never says it—that he just wants me to be over eighteen already—but I know what he means. I love him the way a girl loves a boss her dad’s age: like he’s a boss my dad’s age. I know his kids by name and pull my sugary chapstick out of my pocket when his eight-year-old daughter asks what’s on my lips. “Maybe next time,” I tell her when she asks if she can have it, half because I’m young and selfish and half because I don’t want any of us getting the wrong idea.
Rocky has a good heart, one that I want to see fall in love with some other kind heart. He’s lonely, really, and that’s what makes him look at me the way he does. His words are harmless. I smile, laugh, touch my visor—the hat pinnacle of sex—or pat his shoulder, say, “Ooo-kay, Rocky,” and head back to whatever I was doing, anywhere else.
Unlike the other managers, Rocky is invaluable to us. When he’s around, we’re unstoppable. Me on tortilla station, him on salsas, Ari on register, Lionel or Vedo or Josh on grill. We fly through customers with the ease of knife through avocado. We know the rhythm of one another. We’re a family who speak the silent language of the Coloradoan Burrito Gods.
Even on the busy nights, when we don’t start closing duties until the legal closing time of ten, we have the whole store finished by eleven thirty. If the night cook is Lionel, I roll out the trash into the chilly parking lot dumpster with him. If it’s Vedo, I help with dishes. But if it’s Josh, I spend every waking moment I can with him in the kitchen: trash, dishes, playing hockey-wrestling with our mops and squeegees.
Josh is twenty-five and has short, straight black hair that sparkles when he sweats. He doesn’t smile often, unless I’m around teasing him. When that happens, he looks down at me and his black eyes go wide. Unlike how I love Rocky, I love Josh the way a teenage girl loves her adult coworker: like she wants to fuck or maybe even marry him.
Once we’re done, sweaty and sleepy, the four of us shut off the lights and lock the front doors made entirely of glass. From the outside, the store is an empty aquarium in which the Coke machine glows quietly through the night, waiting to capture us again tomorrow.
We tell each other goodnight, sometimes with an I love you attached. I slip into the passenger seat of my dad’s idling car. I listen to him complain about the time and then we sit together with our matching silent wish that we’d talk more. Once we’re home, Dad crawls into bed and I sit in front of the living room TV, New Girl on, leftover Qdoba dinner in my lap, my one AM legs buzzing.
Even though they were the ones who encouraged me to get a job, my parents don’t like the hours I’ve been working. They tell me I need to talk to my managers. I need to remind them I’m in high school, that I come to work straight from class and don’t get enough sleep, that I need to study for the SATs, eventually, and that I don’t have a car or even a license to drive someone else’s car.
This is how the walls of my junior and senior year melt away: timeless, body ringing, always on the way to the next shift or the next class, black makeup eyes heavy, the clock a leash wrapped tight around my throat pulling me along the way.
I don’t talk to my managers about any of this. I need money for the car to even take the license test, so that I can drive myself to work, so that I can save money for college and get out of this city. The only way out is through
The leaves in Upstate New York are the color of fresh apples I’ve only ever seen at the grocery store because we don’t have orchards where I’m from. They turn a yellow that ombres into a blood, and they crackle like fire when the wind rustles them. Even while dying, the earth is lush and alive here, like Eden. It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever lived before.
Except my college is not like Eden. It’s Gossip Girl minus the uniforms. Colgate is high school on cocaine, where the children of the top one percent use their private school language to speak in a dialect I don’t understand. “Piggybacking off that,” they say in class, “K” for Ketamine they say in the lib. Lib, as in library, which I now say, too.
My roommates are from New York City and San Francisco. Their parents make more money than my whole extended family put together. As a hobby, they have dehydrated greens and coconut water delivered to our dorm, where they stack them into tall piles that turn to slender silhouettes who stare down at me and my mid-sized working-class body. We pay more attention to our bodies than ever before. Skinniness is one of the school’s innominate tenets. Whiteness is another: I can count the number of even vaguely ethnically ambiguous people living on my floor on one hand.
Before bed each night, the roommates fill empty glass Vodka bottles with water from the bathroom sink and line all of our window sills with them. Anything could happen in the middle of the weekday night; we’re the only girls living on the men’s side of the hallway and we suspect the building is haunted. Occasionally, a few times a month, the fire alarm gets tripped and sends us out, into the biting ass cold, hair sudsy and damp, pneumonia locking in on our bodies. The men direct slurred words towards our towels and stare.
At least once a week, the roommates throw big parties in our common room to get the white boys across the hall to come over. The boys usually don’t and I usually don’t come out of my bunk bed, either. Unlike my roommates, I don’t drink because of my parents’ History with Alcohol, I don’t think dehydrated vegetables are a substantive meal, I don’t own black lacy cropped anything, I don’t have any promising shot at social capital here, and I don’t believe the white boys across the hall have souls. We don’t get along much.
I don’t have many friends outside of the roommates, either. This is how I end up at a sticky October frat party, tepid girl group gone somewhere else, holding hands with a boy I’ve met once before in the dining hall. What I know about him I can contain within less than three lines: he’s on the soccer team, has dimples the size of the Jade crystals I keep hidden from my roommates in my desk, and is a very charming drunk.
Earlier, he’d jumped off a rickety frat table and came spilling into me. During his glazed apology, after I’d said I recognized him, his eyes scanned my face more carefully than before. “You’re worth sobering up for,” he says to me. Secretly, I agree—I think I’m too cute for him. But he’s someone, and I haven’t touched someone in months. And those dimples.
We leave the party holding hands. When we kiss, it’s wet and warm and Drake stares down at us from the boy’s bedroom wall. We don’t have sex even though he wants to—he really wants to. I leave just before the sun rises. The second time we hang out a week later, we’re in my bedroom, which is also both of my roommates’ bedrooms. I text them a heads up that I have someone over and they send me emojis, cheers that they hope I get laid. Their enthusiasm is nice, but it’s yet another way in which they don’t really know me. I’m a good girl.
We’re alone when it happens. He really wants to have sex again, but I’m not down for it. Instead, the boy pushes his head between my legs and pulls off my underwear. I tell him no. I squeeze my legs against his skull and he pushes them back apart. I grab his forehead with my hands, trying to push him off, and he pins them to my sides. It’s not violent because he’s laughing, and maybe I might be, too. He thinks I’m being cheeky. I fake an ending like the ones I’ve seen in porn because I want it to be over. He doesn’t ask for anything in return. I think that makes him principled.
The sky is a clean-sheet white by the time fall cartwheels into winter. The twin swans that live on the lake in the center of campus have gone south and the trees look at me, barren-boned.
The school is small so I still see the boy who held me down and then dumped me via text everywhere—while I’m scooping dining hall eggs onto my plate, running late to class, working my campus library job. I didn’t realize we worked on the same floor of the library, much less had the same schedule, until we started talking after the party. At the time, it was a relief to me, to know he was on work study, too. In totality, the boy and I only lasted a couple of days after that second hookup. I didn’t dump him. In a cosmic cliché, it was another girl.
Now, the school pays me to sit in the same room as him, breathe his air, and watch him save people in printer-distress. He’s the hunky IT hero. For a while, I say hi to him to cut the awkwardness, to make it into Not a Big Deal.
On the last night of my freshman year, I’ll even hook up with him once more. We’ll be standing alone at the village’s corner bus stop, the distant heartbeat of the illegal university club pumping into the pavement, our friends still inside dancing, when he says something about fucking the shit out of me. I’ll think to be nervous. I’ll start with the nos. I’ll feel like I have to see the night through with him to prove something. Our bus won’t come, we’ll walk the mile up the hill together, joking and tripping and hugging one another, and it’ll be colder than it’s supposed to be. I’ll be relieved when we stumble into his dorm and he passes out early.
But I don’t know any of that yet. For now, I stop my practice of saying hi to him when he starts to pretend not to know me. I move all of my library shifts later into the night so I don’t have to see him there anymore. I close the library with the adults who work there, then crawl up the icy black-skied hill alone. I won’t realize what he actually did until almost a year later, while sitting in sexual assault prevention training for my second job as an RA, and even then, it will still take me many years to call it by its name.
In my classes, I never know what anyone is talking about. For the first time in a long time, I’m not smart. I’m stupid. I almost fail chem and bio and even linguistics, for God’s sake. The only class that keeps my GPA breathing is Italian, taught by an angelic, fashionable Swiss woman who I wish I could trade places with. I want her gondola-green eyes, her dainty freckles, her airy accent, her clothes that layer and hang off her slender body just right. I want to get off work, into my Nissan, and drive home to a person who loves me. I want to be inside the body of anybody else.
Under Professoressa’s gaze, I feel seen in a way I don’t believe I’m worthy of. Some days, I wear a ballcap to class and she bends her knees, ring-stacked fingers clasped around her thighs, to peek beneath, saying, “Chara, there you are!” Other days she calls me “Cara” instead and I think it’s because the solidity of my name slips her mind. It won’t be until a whole semester in that I’ll realize cara means dear or beloved.
In my memory, the no that I say softens with time. It becomes elusive, slippery, translucent, like a jellyfish gone somewhere else. Once a month, I call Ari. I lie on my bunk bed in the winter dark, my roommate’s alarm clock glowing like a heart in the corner. It’s been getting dark earlier and earlier—another creeping metaphor no one warned me about. Ari tells me about her life; always some new drama.
“You’re like cable without commercials,” I tell her. “A telenovela dream.”
Her brother just finished middle school. She went to a concert and spit her gum in the hair of a girl who tried to fight her. Qdoba has a new manager. It’s a total boy’s club, with him and GM Steve and the new line cooks.
“He got in a fight with Rocky and fired him,” she says.
“What?” I ask, picking at the popcorn ceiling above me.
“WHAT?!” I scream, the ceiling coming down in dandruffy chunks of white around me.
“Yeah. And last week I was cleaning the bathroom when Ray came in and kissed me.”
“Waitwaitwait.” Her voice had buried the lead. “What do you mean, Ari?”
He’d locked the door behind him. She’d pushed him off. She had to run out of the bathroom and come back for the mop bucket later. She laughs as she tells me, into the phone and into my body. I haven’t told her, or anyone from home, about the boy from the frat. I know not to laugh back.
“Did you tell anybody?”
“Yeah, Steve. He didn’t believe me.”
Ray had been there for half the time Ari and I had, even with me away at college. He was late and hungover and had a fiancée, but that didn’t matter to Steve.
My whole body pulses. I scratch the ceiling off in angry streaks, and the stippling wedges between my nail and skin, painful with pressure. I want to find Ray and Steve and I want to kill them.
Instead, I say sorry. I tell her that I love her. We hang up and I lie on my bed, surrounded by darkness and the ceiling I’ve destroyed, waiting for something to happen.
In the corner, the clock switches.
I fly home to a drought. On the plane, the woman next to me tells me she’s never been to Lubbock before. She looks out the window at the dry brown earth beneath us, then back at me. “Are we close?” she asks, hesitantly. I’m remorseful to tell her that yes, we’re already here.
It’s the summer after my sophomore year of college. Between the drought and Ari quitting Qdoba, I decide that I can’t go back. I apply at my and my parents’ favorite restaurant—a Frankenstein-cuisined place owned by one of the city’s former quarterbacks. I don’t care much about any of this. What I care about is the decor. Large collaged walls covered in Stevie Nicks and movie memorabilia, booths and high tops and bars, a patio with string lights and live music, servers that are all young and attractive. It’s sobering and comfortable, to feel like a body in a room. This is a real restaurant, built on tips and nostalgia and myths, I tell myself. And I will become a real server.
For this job, I work with my uniform. I know how a girl makes a tip. I ask for the tighter shirt in black because it looks best with my complexion. My jeans hike higher and my belt wraps around the slender of my waist, above my big hips and thighs. I straighten my hair, paint on my makeup carefully, and bring powder to fix myself up in the bathroom halfway through shifts. Unlike in Upstate, the men in my hometown love the way I look: small and Latina and curvy and made-up. They like that I look like I can be overpowered and they think I make the choices I do for them. Whether I know it or not, they’re usually right.
In this uniform, the only part of myself I keep modest is my chest, which I tuck into a sports bra, because my boobs are huge and I don’t want to deal with gathering them back inside their cups in between refilling sodas. This is the one comfort I give myself, at my tip’s expense.
As it turns out, I suck ass at serving. Not even my appearance can save me. I forget which tables are mine and leave them waiting too long so that I’ve already shot myself before I even begin. I never memorize the Book of Psalms menu and thus, never know what follow up questions to ask. When I’m stationed in the patio bar and a table asks which drinks are the best, I point to words at random. This is half because I’m only twenty and can’t try the drink menu, and half because I still don’t drink in private either.
I learn that Tito’s and Grey Goose and Svedka are very different. The groups past their twenties don’t appreciate when I choose the cheapest vodka for them all night. They blink at their receipts and say, “Do you know what this is going to do to me in the morning?” I think I’m doing them a favor. I’m only ever trying to help.
What’s the same as Qdoba is that Sunday mornings are terrible. No one can rip me a new one like Southern Christians fresh out of church. But here, what’s worse than Sundays are all the nights on the patio. On these nights, I sweat myself into a new dimension. Half the time, I think I’m going to pass out. Sitting is against the restaurant law. I wait on the same groups of people and don’t know until the end of the stumbling night if they’re drunk tippers or not.
I learn that, as a rule, the worse a table is, the better the money will be. The couple who ask for the manager after I tell them we don’t have steak knives—Under no circumstances give the customers the steak knives!—leave me forty percent. An eight top of thirty-year-old men and their golf-shirted fathers who call me “sexy little baby” all night tip me $450.
One night, a man with a red burnt neck in a plaid button-down grabs my shoulders and places me right next to his wife. He tells her, “See? You’d be just as pretty as her if you wore makeup.”
I hate him immediately. He directs his next question to me.
“Don’t you think?”
I look at her sad face—tired, offended, soft. I tell him the truth.
“I think she’s beautiful without it.”
No tip, and we all leave unhappy.
It goes like this. I have a hard time making friends here, too, because the staff is big and I don’t pop Xanax in the walk-in with them. They take this personally. I stay at the job because it’s just for the summer and I know my worth—it’s somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle of humiliation, no friends, and $450.
When our schedules align, Ari and I catch up on Texas patios under the sweating summer sun. She works at a restaurant down the street and is a much better server than me. Our peachy Arnold Palmers turn watery as we compare work notes: crushes, mutuals we can’t stand, fat tips, recent horror stories. I tell her about the day I accidentally spilled a tray of half-sipped drinks inside a fussy woman’s Coach purse, and she tells me about all the men.
For the rest of our lives, Ari and I will say we’re the same person. Our life seasons happen identically, down to us getting our literal asses eaten the same week. What becomes apparent to me is that what happened to Ari also happened to me. What plays out between us I see perpetuated by all of my friends: dick slips in the wrong holes, bosses turning into hookups, unrelenting reminders that our bodies aren’t our own. I don’t tell any of the men I know about my rape because I don’t want to give them the chance to not believe me. Disbelief is the spirit’s drought. I can’t let it near me.
Across the table, I watch Ari stir her drink and roll her eyes. I’m starting to see it more: how much we look alike. Dark hair, petite noses, strong eyebrows, and shoulders that hang forward, self-protective. She squeezes a lime slice. Its rheumy juice shoots everywhere except into her drink—across the table, onto my forearm, out into the summer heat. We laugh, the same.
One time, close to the end of the summer, I tell a lie.
It’s a Saturday night, near closing, and all the games people camp out to watch on the massive flatscreens have ended. The place has nearly emptied and the restaurant is teetering to a slow, sobering end, but my corpse-aching feet know I still have another few hours of closing to go. I’m passing by the bar when a man who is not my customer grabs my elbow to stop me. I pull my arm back in a way that makes it seem like I’m grateful he found it for me and hug my empty tray across my chest. “Can I get you something?” I ask, smiling.
He scans my body with drunken eyes and licks his lips. Even while sitting in his bar chair, he’s taller than me. He’s Latino; several shades darker than me, with skin like my step-grandfather’s—russet red, paprika in the oiled skillet.
I overlook his gaze to dare to feel comfortable for a moment. After being away from Tejanos for so long, I want me and this man to recognize something in one another. A kinship, or nod that says, This shit sucks, huh? Instead, the man says, “God, you girls here all have the best asses.”
He moves in closer to me and to my body, but doesn’t reach for it. Before he can do anything more, I laugh and walk away. Quick, out of body, smiling, even still. In my hands, my tray is shaking. Once I’m back in the kitchen, I realize I don’t want to go back out. I tell the other girls to watch out for the man at the end of the bar. Even though he didn’t, I say that he tried to grab my ass.
I don’t know why I do it, except that I’m scared and angry and I’ve come to think this kind of thing is normal. I want the volume of my story to match the volume of my fear. I don’t expect anything to happen.
The other girls are not surprised. “Ugh, gross,” they say, poking their heads around the bend to glance towards the bar. “Yee-uck.” They go back to plugging their orders into the touchscreen. I start rolling my silverware, knife and fork tucked in tight. I should be checking in on my last table, but I’m waiting on my hands to stop shaking.
“Are you okay?” the redhead with the veiny rose tattoos vining her arms asks. She was my trainer when I first started and I liked her energy: sensual but tough. Even now, especially now, that slant feels inaccessible to me.
“Ya. Yeah.” I keep rolling.
“Just a bit longer,” she says, giving me a look like a hug.
I’m still in the kitchen, well past my silverware count, when I’m told that the bartender—a quiet, mid-thirties, scrawny man with kids and a chain-smoking habit—heard about what I said and confronted the man. He told him to never talk to us girls like that again. He told him to get the hell out.
But the man doesn’t leave. Instead, he stands and gets loud. He tries to punch the bartender. Most of the girls have crowded in the kitchen to watch from a distance. They lean their heads around the corner, sweat-matted hair hanging long behind them. I stay back; I worry the man is going to want to fight me next. That he’s going to see me, barrel into the kitchen, grab me by my throat, spit in my face, and tell everyone I’m a sick fucking liar. Or, that he’s going to sober up enough to explain my narrative massaging. My lying.
I hide in the kitchen for nearly the rest of my shift. I tell my coworkers I’ll do all of their closing duties if they just watch my tables for me, please.
By the time I coax myself back out, I don’t see the man, but I worry that he’s still around. I grab a broom and get to sweeping. I keep my head down. More than anything, I want to be at home on my couch, New Girl on.
Coloring the floor, I see the purple flicker of police lights streaming in through the front windows. I look up. Near the hostess stand, two officers in black buckled uniforms talk to the managers. Their hands all wave, their white man heads nod. I try to make out what they’re saying. I’ve never seen the police stop in before and can only think of one reason why they’d be here. I scan the bar. My stomach turns to a fist inside me.
Suddenly, I want to see this man who terrified me slip out of the bathroom and settle back in front of his whiskey. I want to see that he’s all right. I think about our skin tones, about how much darker he was than me. How much I don’t trust the police and what could easily happen next. I didn’t mean for the night to go down like this. I didn’t mean for anyone to actually listen to me. I feel whiter than I’ve felt in a long time.
I watch the officers grab at their hips, resting their hands on their guns. I imagine the man locked in the backseat of their car, handcuffed, confused, crying, awaiting punishment. I wonder if he has a family. I wonder if he’ll see them again.
Just as I’m about to tell someone that the man never actually tried to grab my ass—not yet, not really—one of the girls wiping down the bar tells me that the police out front aren’t here for me. “The owners don’t call the police for stuff like that,” she says, her face bored, watching the sports recap. “They’re here because there was a car crash out on Milwaukee.”
I almost laugh. My body is achy all over, pumped and drained of a week’s cache of adrenaline. I tell myself, after the summer is up, I will quit this job and never come back.
For now, I finish everyone’s closing duties and prepare to leave for the night. The manager who is 6’4” and twice my age, who smells of Ranch dressing and cologne, does what he does every night. He stands in front of the register, blocking me from cashing out. He says, “And where’s my goodnight hug?”
With my keys already clasped in my fist for the walk out to my car, I give it to him.
Ciara Alfaro is a writer, romantic, and descendant of magicians from Lubbock, Texas. Her work has appeared in Cutthroat’s Puro Chicanx Writers of the 21st Century Anthology, Water~Stone Review, Sad Girls Club, and more. She is the winner of Iron Horse Literary Review’s 2022 PhotoFinish Contest. Currently, she is an MFA candidate at the University of Minnesota.