SHE CAME TO my table as I was draining the last deep red drops from my glass after having eaten a tuna sandwich that tasted so good following a day of very little to eat.
Buenas tardes, I said, as she removed the tray, surprising her. Buenas, she replied, timidly. Then, feeling a bit more at ease, she added, Mucho calor, no?
Sí, I said, adding that, unfortunately, we still had three more months of hot weather to go.
I asked her where she was from, a safe question to pose to a person busing a table in this city because almost inevitably they are from somewhere else. And, sure enough, she responded, El Salvador.
She’s been here, meaning the United States, thirty years, she said, having left her country because of the war. I told her I had been in El Salvador to cover some of the politics during that war, back in ’84, and added that it was horrible.
It’s worse now, she said. Much worse. More people dying. More people suffering. That’s why I could never go back.
Her mother died last year but she was unable to go. Qué puede hacer uno? It was a question but not really, so I didn’t respond. What can one do, after all? That’s not a question either.
As she spoke, she kept looking towards the counter, where her boss was working. I could tell she wanted to talk but she also didn’t want to lose her job: there were more dishes to be picked up and tables to be wiped.
So we talked only a bit more, about Washington, where she lived for a few years, about losing one’s parents.
She was very young when her father died, and she still missed him. A father protects you, she said. A father is there for you, and when he’s not there …
AND THEN SHE said she had to go. I asked her name. Juana, she said. Me llamo Juana.
Yo soy Juan Ramón.
Mucho gusto, she nodded, and moved on to the next table.
And that’s how Juana met Juan Ramón.