For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
After the fall semester finals, where I managed to squeak out a 78 in vile organic chemistry, I flew to Colorado Springs. I had hoped to do nothing but lie on the couch in my mom’s tiny apartment reading the dumbest romance novels I could find. But my Winter Break was spent prepping my anxiety-ridden mom for her upcoming Real Estate Agent exam (she was still waiting on that second marriage proposal), listening to one sister, Heidi, sob about how much she hated her school and every girl in it, and watching the other, Lani, pack her bags. She was moving back to Duluth to live with our dad. My mother mourned the loss of child support, but she would have gladly sent Lani to the moon to keep her away from her 21-year-old boyfriend. (Within six months, my dad signed some papers and Lani became a bride at sixteen.)
After two weeks of exhausting family drama, I flew back to waitressing, college, and full-on Minnesota winter, which meant no more riding my bike to and from work. I took the city bus to my job waitressing at Pracna, but the buses stopped running at midnight, forcing me to peel off my hard-earned ones for cab fare home, a cab that was always half an hour late; at one-thirty in the morning in Minneapolis there were probably all of three cabs on call.
The January days ended at 4 o’clock, when the dim grey light of winter leached away. Most twilights found me hopping from one frozen foot to the other on the icy sidewalk waiting for the bus and feeling sorry for myself.
I was ignored by my roommate Liz, since I wasn’t fun anymore. Steve, my bad boy boyfriend, stopped calling, probably busy seducing freshman girls and selling bad pills to freshman boys. I looked at my roll of ones, shrunk down to almost nothing after buying plane tickets, paying for my winter tuition, and not working for the two weeks of Christmas break, and I wallowed in self-pity.
One night as I had my face pressed up against the foggy front window of Pracna, peering into the snowy frozen dark in search of my cab, I was rescued by a tap on the shoulder and a voice: “Hey you need a ride to campus?” It was Mindy, one of my favorite sister waitresses, who hustled me out to a car idling in front. Inside that toasty warm car were another Pracna waitress, Patti, and Patti’s very handsome Cuban boyfriend Eduardo, who was driving. Eduardo was at the bar almost every night, waiting for Patti and eyeing the asses of all the waitresses as we swerved around the tables. Mindy was smart, funny, and curvy, with dark, thick-lashed eyes and patent leather black hair. Her best friend Patti was a pretty, pale, flame-haired skinny girl, Lucy to Eduardo’s Ricky Ricardo.
Accepting the ride was not the bad decision. The bad decision was saying “Yeah, I guess so, for a minute” when asked if I wanted to hang out with them at Eduardo’s apartment. It was only a few blocks from my own underheated, creaky dump, where I had to let myself in on tiptoe so as to not wake either my roommate Liz or the crabby landlady beneath us. If I went home now, Mindy and Patti might think I was ungrateful or stuck-up, and I wanted them to like me.
A fancy new apartment building had popped up that fall near campus, in Dinkytown, a neighborhood known for cheap, code-violating housing. It towered like a supermodel over the crumbling duplexes and exhausted garden apartments the rest of us students lived in. I had heard that it was full of rich kids, but had never been inside.
This was where Eduardo lived. His apartment, which he had all to himself, was roomy and new, with shiny kitchen appliances, only slightly stained beige shag carpet, and plenty of heat. In the living room a ratty couch faced a littered coffee table; across the room sitting on shelves made of boards and bricks was the biggest, most complicated stereo system I had ever seen, and hundreds of vinyl records. I drooled a little.
Bob Marley crooned sweetly from out of the chest-high speakers, beers were cracked, joints were lit, and I felt a physical loosening in my chest and shoulders, which reminded me I needed to review the names of the bones in the human body for my physical anthropology class the next morning. One beer and I would go home. Maybe two.
Eduardo sat unnecessarily close to me, our hips touching, and in his charming accent said, “I apologize for my poor furnishings.” His father gave him a generous monthly allowance, which he preferred to spend on beer and pot and albums, rather than bookshelves (or books: I didn’t see a single one).
Eduardo’s family had managed to flee from Castro with quite a bit of their money. Although not nearly enough of it according to Eduardo, who held me captive for several more beers that night with his fascinating if slightly biased history of the Cuban Revolution as seen through the eyes of the very people who inspired Castro and Che to reach for their revolvers. Mindy and Patti, who had heard this tale countless times before, indulged in Pracna gossip till they passed out. Way too late, I finally thanked Eduardo and stumbled home through three-foot snowdrifts, thinking, well that was fun, I needed that, all work and no play and who wants to be dull? I promised myself once was enough, I wouldn’t make it a habit.
I ended up at Eduardo’s apartment the next night and the one after that.
Mindy, Patti, and Eduardo should have been a cautionary tale for me. All three of them were on academic probation after spending most of the fall semester listening to Bob Marley and smoking weed. Mindy was the only one who seemed concerned, but the textbooks she lugged to work and then to Eduardo’s and then back home remained uncracked. At least she bought books. Eduardo had better things to do with his money, keeping the four of us in Grain Belt beers and pot.
Eduardo wasn’t worried about being on probation. His family had just parked him at the University of Minnesota until he was old enough to join their mysterious business. If he flunked out, they would find a place for him at a college in Mexico or Spain, one that didn’t care about a transcript. Patti had decided that as the future Señora Eduardo, she didn’t need a college education either and rarely went to any of the three classes she had registered for.
Somehow I managed to keep my grades above water while doing what most 20-year-old college kids did then and still do: get shit-faced every single night. I just didn’t sleep much. I’d make it back to my dingy apartment and my disapproving roommate Liz in the morning in time to shower and change before trudging through the snow to my eight o’clock class. I told myself that as long as I never missed a class, I was fine. And I wasn’t spending my hard-earned money at an after hours club; I was just hanging out, in a warm place with very attractive people, while three little birds assured me that everything was going to be all right.
Eduardo was delighted to add a blonde to his collection; he was always stroking my hair, resting his hand on my thigh, holding a joint to my lips. I didn’t take it seriously, as Eduardo flirted with Mindy and all the other Pracna waitresses. Then one night, when my brain had punched out for the evening and Patti and Mindy had fallen asleep on the couch to the lullaby of “No Woman No Cry,” the handsome Eduardo took me by the hand and led me into his bedroom. The sex, even in my stoned and drunken state, was unremarkable, and I regretted it well before Eduardo rolled off of me and started snoring.
I have no excuse for my awful behavior outside of callow, stupid youth. I had broken the girlfriend code. I confessed to Patti the next day, as we were changing into our uniforms at work. I steeled myself for tears and yelling and the mass disapproval of the entire Pracna waitstaff, which thrived on gossip. What if I had to quit my job? Guilt and dread gripped my head and stomach in a vise but Patti shrugged it off as if I had done nothing worse than help myself to a beer from Eduardo’s fridge. She had absorbed enough of the Latin male mindset to know not to make a fuss about such a thing; she had her eye on the prize. Patti did ask me not to tell her best friend Mindy, and made sure that I never had another opportunity to be alone with Eduardo.
I was relieved and grateful that I had not been banished from Eduardo’s. I had grown to hate my charmless, chilly duplex. Liz and I lived directly above our witchy, man-hating landlady, who thundered up the stairs with her own key the moment she heard anything “suspicious,” threatening that if a boy as much as set foot on our front stoop Liz and I would be tossed out on the street where we belonged.
A brand new apartment with a cute shiny alcove kitchen in an elevator building with plenty of heat was all I needed of luxury, even though there was barely a stick of furniture besides the rumpled couch suffering from cigarette burns and many spilled drinks and that massive stereo system; in the bedroom a double mattress rested on the floor, with sheets that looked like they had never been changed, even after my escapade with Eduardo.
My drunken, stoned nights at Eduardo’s lifted me off the treadmill of work and school and the awfulness of trudging to both through the sleet, snow, and freezing temperatures of a Minnesota winter, a winter that set records in how high the drifts were and how low the thermometer plunged. Those three little birds had obviously never been through February in Minnesota.
I had thrown myself back into my hectic work schedule, taking as many shifts at Pracna as I could, closing up Saturday nights and ten hours later cheerfully serving Bloody Marys to people who worshiped at a bar. The church people arrived at one, still dressed in their Sunday best and ready for the weekend’s last bender.
Winter drives Minnesotans to drink, to search out the warmth of bars and other people, and Pracna, with the golden glow of its oak bar, polished by generations of elbows, profusion of fake Tiffany lamps bestowing flattering spots of color, and attractive and professionally friendly waitresses, was constantly packed. My shoebox stash was replenished and continued to grow, as fast as if the one dollar bills in there were mating and reproducing.
One snowy sub-zero day I was counting up my money like Scrooge McDuck and remembering that a year ago I was living on off-brand fish sticks and instant ice tea to scrape together the cash for a one-way plane ticket so I could spend six days in an old folks home in Daytona Beach.
Now my junior year Spring Break was coming up, and I was awash in dollar bills. I could go on a vacation that did not involve rooming houses or hitchhiking. My pal Liz had not mentioned any Spring Break plans of her own; we had gone our separate ways, passing at odd hours through our shared apartment, occasionally backing out of the already occupied bathroom, or silently sipping instant coffee in the morning. Patti was going to Florida with Eduardo to meet la familia. That left Mindy, who was dying to get away for a week somewhere your snot didn’t freeze the second you stepped outside, where you could wear sandals and a bikini, drink piña coladas, and meet boys. That sounded good to me too.
Mindy brought me brochures from a student travel company that offered Spring Break trips to Montego Bay or Acapulco, $299 for airfare and hotel. I voted for Jamaica. I had spent months listening to Bob Marley while smoking weed at Eduardo’s; I looked at the photo of a white sand beach and calm turquoise sea and pictured myself right there with a big blunt and a handsome Rastaman. But another Pracna waitress told Mindy that the beaches in Jamaica were overrun with packs of ferocious, tourist-eating dogs. Mindy was terrified of dogs; even my mother’s miniature poodle Shay-Shay would have sent her scrambling up a palm tree. So instead we flew off to Mexico on a chartered flight, packed with students who couldn’t wait to start drinking to wretched excess. Mindy and I navigated the flight and the bus to the hotel with only minor pawing and mauling from male Spring Breakers.
The bus disgorged us under a torn awning attached to a three-story, mildewy green building. Mindy and I stood on the sidewalk in the noon Acapulco heat, looked at the hotel and looked at each other. In no way did this hotel resemble the one in the brochure except for the name, which was La Casa Cheapo, or something similar. The sullen, non-English-speaking guy at the front desk glanced at our reservations and tossed us a big metal key attached to a heavy weight etched with our room number. The elevator doors opened to release a toxic combination of stinks and a pack of boys too hung over to even leer at the new meat. Our room did not overlook the famous Acapulco beach, but the busy, noisy Avenida Costera. The air conditioner, thick with dust, refused to work; when we opened the one tiny window clouds of car exhaust were sucked into our room. There was a urinal cake perched on top of the toilet. After emptying the drawers of roaches, we unpacked, put on our cute bikinis, and headed down to the pool, which looked like pea soup: a clot of vomit floated in one corner and two broken patio chairs in another. Mindy was about to cry. I was mentally comparing this dump to the luxury hotel my family had stayed at during a dental convention, and I snapped to a decision: “We’re going to the El Presidente.”
We rushed down the Avenida Costera to the El Presidente pool, which was exactly as I had remembered it from that trip, eight years before, the scene of so many drunken dental hijinks. Shiny sea blue tiles surrounded a huge, sparkling pool, with that eighth wonder of the world, a swim up bar. On all four sides of the pool area Tiki huts were serving oversized margaritas, frosty Sol beers, and drinks in coconuts. Rows and rows of lounge chairs held dozens of college students, boys and girls in various shades of Spring Break, from the just-arrived paper whites, to the should-have-gotten-out-of-the-sun crimsons, with a few lucky souls who can get a tan in seven days scattered about. Prominently displayed above this wonderland was a sign FOR GUESTS OF THE EL PRESIDENTE ONLY.
Mindy said, “If I have to go back to that hotel, I’m going home.” We agreed to live dangerously; if we had to, we could just spend the day getting thrown out of different hotel pools. We found two free lounge chairs and tried to look as if we belonged there.
Mindy and I were busy rubbing Coppertone on each other when two shadows fell over us. I looked up to see what was keeping the sun from bestowing some kind of glow to my pasty Nordic skin. There stood two Mexican guys, fully dressed in billowing shirts and tight pants. One looked like a younger, pudgier Cantinflas, smiley and slightly goofy. The other could have Eduardo’s taller, better-looking, older brother. He had dark brown, shoulder-length wavy hair and eyelashes longer and thicker than any offered by Maybelline; his gleaming white shirt gaped open to reveal a deeply tanned, muscular chest adorned with a thick gold chain and dangling charms: a small clenched fist in ivory, a blue eye, a half-dollar sized gold medallion. The guys asked if we wanted a drink (“Why yes, thank you!”) and introduced themselves. The tall one was Fito Giron—didn’t we recognize the famous singer? We had to have seen Fito’s poster in the hotel lobby! Fito was the star of the show at the El Presidente lounge; the other guy, the one who was doing all the talking, was Jorge, Fito’s full-time gofer and friend.
Rum and coconut drinks magically appeared and Fito scribbled on the bill offered by a fawning waiter. Mindy and I thanked Fito for our cocktails and apologized to Jorge for our ignorance. No, we hadn’t seen Fito’s act, we had only gotten to town that day. While Fito posed, hands on hips, chin cocked, hair tilted into the wind, Jorge insisted that we had to go that night to hear Fito. He, Jorge, would put us on the guest list. What were our names and room numbers?
Ten minutes trespassing and we were busted. We confessed that we weren’t staying at El Presidente but down the Avenida at the no-star hotel des estudiantes. This was shrugged off by Fito. “No importa,” he said as he looked down and locked eyes with me. Jorge was quick to jump in. “Don’t worry, your names will be on the list, you see Fito’s show and then we all go dancing!” Jorge wrote down our names, and Fito swooped down on me like a hawk to plant a kiss on both cheeks, then turned and left with a backward wave.
I was bewildered and amazed and giddy at what had just happened. We had landed dates in our first hour of Spring Break, we had free drinks in our hands, and we had successfully snuck into the El Presidente pool. To be sure that we were not at risk of getting the bum’s rush, we called over the waiter for more coconut rum drinks; he scurried over like a Mexican Groucho Marx, took our order, and let us know that everything was on Fito’s bill.