Here’s a little excerpt of something I’ve been working on recently called The Elder of Us.
Topped with the syrup created by the melted sugar coating and the oven’s heat, and spread with a pungent guava jelly between each delicate layer of filo dough, his first bite of the pastelito they shared at El Bon-Bon bakery would forever be reminiscent of their friendship: sweet, layered and complex, but altogether satisfying until the pastry had run its course and all that remained were the few crumbs dangling from his upper lip.
For three days they sat in silence in the back of Pucha’s mini school bus service on their way home from school. They were both the last two kids to be dropped off in their Little Havana homes in the city of Miami. This was Miami after the influx of Cuban exiles in the sixties but before the Mariel Boatlift of the eighties. It was 1978 and they were both in the eighth grade.
On the fourth day, just before she was going to be dropped off at her apartment complex near the Orange Bowl, she finally spoke to him from the rear seat of the minivan.
“Do you eat pastelitos?” she asked very ‘matter of factly’ as if they had been speaking forever. Not even hinting at a pause waiting for a response she continued, “Because if you do, maybe we can convince Pucha to take us to El Bon-Bon one of these days and you and me can have an afterschool snack.”
He turned around and looked at her. Really, she wasn’t much to look at but then again neither was he. She was skinny, had teeth that went in various directions but where they needed to go inside her mouth and the coke bottle glasses she wore signified to the world that any bakery she sought looking for Cuban pastries would have to be found through her sense of smell because her sense of sight was clearly absent. To top things off, her hair, shoulder length, dark and somewhat scattered looked quite home cut, especially since there was a forest green bobby pin looking thing keeping her bangs from falling into the telescopes she had on her eyes.
Nevertheless he was happy she spoke to him because most people never did. He was quiet, shy, fat, not athletic and altogether non-descript. The only thing that set him apart from the rest of the world, was the nose, too big for his face with a bump that always reminded him of camels when he saw his profile. The final thing he noticed about her was that she too had a bumpy nose, although on her between the traveling molars and the magnifying glasses, the nose seemed pretty much at home unlike his that screamed ugly anytime he looked in a mirror. But they shared a nose and this made him happy.
“I love pastelitos. My favorites are the guava ones. Do you like them too?” and even though he knew he sounded like a nerd speaking in monotone sentences he had the courage to respond to her question, somewhat of a first for him. He was always weary of most people because he didn’t understand them. It was easier for him to become friends with the characters in his books than any of the kids at school. He mostly felt ill at ease around people his age, but he could sometimes relate to older folks, in fact on many an afternoon he and Pucha would embark on these long conversations about everything going on in the world, but he couldn’t do that with other kids.
At least not until she came along and asked him about his afterschool snack eating habits and he found the courage to respond and engage.
He would always wonder what made her ask and what made him answer, but he would forever be grateful that they were the last two on Pucha’s minibus through the streets of Little Havana. It was in these afternoons on their way home, that these two forged a friendship, shared many a pastelito (after they convinced diabetic Pucha by invoking her sweet tooth to take them to El Bon-Bon before taking them home) and discovered the magic of one’s first best friend. For both of them it was a period of awakening, two misfits who somehow made the puzzle piece fit and completed an awkward, yet functional picture.
When she found out that he had third period algebra and she had fifth period with Mrs. Fernandez, sharing the 11:45 A.M. lunch break in between, she knew this was a very promising friendship for her socially awkward, big nosed, chubby friend was also a Mathematical genius. And she, much to her dismay, was not.