“Sprite martini? Perhaps with a cherry?”
Fernando nodded shyly, dark-fringed eyes darting to his abuela for approval before daring to gaze upwards at the form towering above him. First he took in the waiter’s bronzed torso, then the blonde spikes of hair rising above his dazzling smile like rays of the California sun. The hue of the waiter’s skin was even darker than his own, or his grandmother’s. But it was a different order of brown, glowing golden from lazy days on the beach.
“Ashton at your service, young man. Your wish is my command!”
Calling out the drink order across the copper-topped bar, Ashton winked at the five-year old, then twirled his serving tray like one of the Frisbee players Fernando loved to watch as they showed off their moves on Sunday afternoons in MacArthur Park. Spinning the disc on a single fingertip, swooping it under his arm and behind his back, Ashton brought it to a perfect rest on his opposite palm, upright and ready to deliver drinks, grinning down at the boy all the while. Fernando gazed back, mesmerized. The waiter was taller than any adult in his family, chest as broad as Superman’s. Maybe he could fly, too.
Rosa, watching her grandson’s eyes, clucked her tongue and chuckled as she lifted him to a bar stool.
“Catch you darlings later.”
With a mock bow, Ashton spun away, disappearing into the Saturday night crowd at Vespers as deftly as he had set his tray into motion. Fernando turned his attention to the bartender, watching as he plunked a glistening cherry into the long-stemmed glass he’d set before the boy, fizzy bubbles immediately attaching to the fruit. The man was as shirtless, muscled, and tanned as Ashton, but he was shorter by a foot and his dark skin and darker eyes felt familiar, a kindred spirit.
“No spill, chico!” Rosa warned. She turned to the bartender. “Sorry, Rickie, I had no choice but bring him tonight.”
Azucena, her youngest daughter, had unceremoniously dumped the boy off at dusk, no warning. Azucena proudly called herself a single mother, as if there weren’t more appropriate descriptions for a girl who’d borne a child out of wedlock at the age of fifteen and claimed she didn’t know who the father was. At least she wasn’t a teenager anymore and held a steady job. “You’ve got to take care of him till tomorrow,” she’d begged her mother. “I have a date, an important date, my babysitter just bailed. These Disney DVDs are his favorites, show him what a good abuela you are!
“Like you’re such a good mother, Rosa thought as Azucena entreated and Fernando wrapped his short arms around his grandmother’s legs. But of course Rosa ultimately assented. Her revenge would be Azucena’s when she came to pick up the boy tomorrow and learned where his good abuela had taken him. Well, there was no helping it. Rosa didn’t care what others thought of her keeping a child up so late and bringing him to such places. She was not to be deterred from her one weekly pleasure. She looked down at Fernando cradling his sprite martini like a pro. He was having fun.
Rickie reached across the copper expanse to flick Fernando’s hair.
“He’ll be fine with me. Go do your thing.”
“Grazias, Rico.” Sometimes Rosa slipped and called the young man by his given name; here in America, here in Los Angeles, he preferred Rickie. He’d emigrated from Honduras three years ago and, with his handsome Latin features and perfect English, he’d quickly landed a job at West Hollywood’s trendiest watering hole. He had trained as an architect back home but couldn’t find a job in his field in the States. Rosa understood. Ten years earlier, in northern Peru, she and her sister Luisa had owned a popular restaurant that featured gourmet Honduran food. When an offshoot of the Shining Path had burned it down and assassinated Luisa’s husband, the sisters had migrated to the States along with Rosa’s husband and two children. Now, instead of supervising a staff of fifteen, balancing the books, or crafting seasonal menus, she and her sister cleaned rich people’s houses. When Rosa had learned that Rico was Honduran, she immediately warmed to him, and when she was homesick for the old days she would bring him home-cooked treats, pastelitos or nueganos de yuca.
The evening was still early but the patio already packed body-to-body, mostly gay men, also some of their lady friends, still mostly the boys, always the gorgeous boys. Rosa shimmied her way into their midst, holding her long-stemmed roses—red, pink, yellow—high above her head. She brandished the bouquet like a tour-guide’s baton: the only sure means, at a bare five feet, to make her presence known.
Rosas, rosas! she chanted, rolling the r’s and hissing the s’s so that they sang above the chatter and the amplified beat of the music to which male go-go dancers gyrated. To her left, to her right, she thrust herself to the fore of the youthful clusters, especially the couples, somehow managing never to insult the patrons no matter how many flirtations or spats she interrupted. Some attributed it to her insistent smile, red lipstick stretching from cheek to cheek, as she lifted her roses to their faces, genially, imperiously, mesmerizingly waving the perfumed buds back and forth.
Only four dollar!
For give this friend, make him smile!
She had her weekend game down pat: she got off the bus at Santa Monica and La Brea on weekend nights at ten, where she met her deliverer at his parked car to pick up her roses for the evening—two, sometimes three dozen, each prickly stem corseted in crisp cellophane. These she then spritzed with the perfume she carried in her shoulder bag: however immaculately shaped, these hothouse roses were completely scentless—outrageous! So she’d decided to douse them with perfume: her extra touch. It was an enhancement that Maria Elena, her squat competitor in the gay bars dotting the boulevard between La Brea and Robertson, had never gleaned, and one to which Rosa attributed her superior sales. That, along with the fact that at five feet Rosa still stood two inches taller than her nemesis in the floral trade.
Still, it was the rare evening she went home with all her wares sold. When she’d begun the weekend job, the extended family had clucked their tongues—a grandmother, blessed Dios!, spending her spare time among those maricones, what are you thinking? Not that they really disliked the gays, not at all, here in Los Angeles you couldn’t avoid working with them or for them. But they were a different species, and, really, mingling in their nightclubs? What would Father Berto at Corpos Christi say? Witnessing such shameless displays with your very own eyes? Better watch out, or before you know it they’ll convert you, your husband will wake up to find he’s married an expert tortillera!
Rosa laughed right back at them, for she secretly loved her extra job—she’d loved it from the first night she’d begun hawking the scentless roses three years ago. The money she took home was slight, truth be told, but unlike the drudgery of weekdays spent scouring other people’s kitchens and bathrooms, this work felt liberating, enlivening, an event to anticipate rather than a chore to endure. Her girls had grown up and moved out, her husband spent Saturday evenings at his club drinking cerveza with his pals and otherwise watching ESPN, her sister had moved to the Valley—and Rosa had found herself growing bored, bored, bored. The long stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard and one block of Robertson became her lifeline—and now, three years later, the bouncers let her slip in ahead of the queues, the waiters tolerated her with good humor, and the boys greeted her as a familiar, calling out their greetings as she passed, teasing her for keeping such late hours, complimenting her outfits.
For she had begun dressing for her evenings out—more makeup and fancy earrings, a marcelled hairdo, bright scarves sewn with sequins and draped around her neck, hip-hugging black jeans, leather jacket and nice boots in the winter. The boys appreciated the effort, they egged her on, pecked her rouged cheeks, performed the role of swains recognizing royalty circulating in their midst. The flattery and fawning was all in good fun; and she grew to love them for being who they were. Even when they were sloshed, which was often, the majority acknowledged her as a kindred spirit, a companion of the night: “Our Lady of Rosas!” they chanted in her wake.
Only four dollar, si?
For this sweet one, buy two for six, he love you!
What a difference five years made—and not just the roses!
These girls—pouring into West Hollywood these days, but especially into Vespers: most popular bar in the United States People magazine had proclaimed. Pouring in from all over the city, even the Valley, arrayed in the shortest of skirts, showing too much cleavage (even in the dead of winter), teetering on stilettos as they clung to each others’ waists to keep from falling—arriving here, West Hollywood, where they felt free to try on new identities and try out outrageous costumes, giggling as they approached Vesper’s go-go boys, daring each another to slip dollar bills into pouty, protuding crotches covered in latex. White girls and Latinas and Asians—not many black girls, though, Rosa, noticed—clustered in coveys, boozy with merriment. Their presence had begun as a trickle, then became a flood; and the city’s most successful gay hotspot had suddenly taken on a new vibe. There were still plenty of the gay boys of course, but it wasn’t just their space, not anymore, not with all the straight boys showing up in posses now that word was out that Vespers was the best place in town to score with unattached, pretty girls.
The trend was good for Rosa’s trade; the straights bought more roses to abet their attempts at wooing than the gays had never done, and these days Rosa—measuring the swain’s degree of desperation to get laid by the chick he was chatting up—sometimes asked for six dollars a stem and got it. But the fun was missing. And just look at these “roses”! During the summer her supplier had begun plying Rosa with a new gimmick—plastic roses powered by LED lights that glowed a rainbow of ghoulish colors utterly unknown to the genus rosa: aquas, purples, minty greens. Rosa still sold hothouse roses as well, but more and more customers seemed fascinated by the unreal ones—which she didn’t bother spritzing. Who expected a plastic rose to carry a scent, anyway?
Weekend nights the waiters still greeted her with amused affection, as did the gays who hadn’t stopped coming, despite the way she noticed them grimacing at the drunken girls of barely legal age who didn’t realize that every gay man wasn’t eager to talk Fashion Weeks or Taylor Swift’s latest boyfriend. The vibe just wasn’t the same, and over the past year Rosa had stopped dressing up for the occasion. So what if the puffy down vest she was wearing over a plaid shirt accentuated the weight she’d put on? This summer she’d stopped dying her hair. It had taken her husband two months to notice the change.
Rosa’s six-year-old niece, Lourdes, twisted at her side, nervously gripping her grandmother’s free hand as the new, bald-headed bouncer silently stared down at the girl, then at Rosa. A tense interval passed before he gave a nod signaling that they might enter. Eyes averted, Rosa scurried past him towards the back bar, tugging Lourdes in her wake. It was mid-November but the cold snap in the weather hadn’t deterred Friday nighters from congregating under the heat lamps that sprouted across the outdoors area like a grove of citrus trees. How many years had passed, Rosa wondered, since the evening she’d first taken Fernando here? The sweet kid, unlike his cousin Lourdes, had been enthralled by the clamor, the lights, the music, even the gyrating dancers: his inner world had lit up, you could see it in his eyes. Three or so subsequent times over the next few years, when Fernando had been dropped off at Rosa’s place at the last minute on weekends, he and his abuela had made this journey together. His face had glowed with excitement when Rosa told him where they’d be going—and best keep it their own little secret, not to tell his mama when he went home.
Tonight, Rosa had tried to distract Lourdes by asking if she might like to hold one of the glowing plastic roses as they walked down the Boulevard, but Lourdes didn’t rise to the bait. Nina dulce, Rosa cooed to the girl, soothingly as she could, patting her light-brown hair. She looked more like her half-Anglo father than her mother, Rosa’s first-born Teresa. Nina dulce, don’t fret—we’re on an adventure, you and your abuela! Teresa, opposite of her spontaneous, reckless, younger sister Azucena, had arranged in advance for Rosa to babysit Lourdes Thursday night while she attended an overnight marketing conference in San Diego. This morning, she’d called to ask if it would be a bother if Lourdes stayed over Friday night as well; a Saturday morning workshop had opened up she’d like to attend. Rosa didn’t remind her daughter that most weekend nights she still made the trek to West Hollywood to sell roses. What would be the point? Besides, she was glad Teresa had ambitions.
What Rosa hadn’t reckoned on was how needy and anxious Lourdes could be outside her known environment. It was too late to do anything about it—but Rosa decided she’d only do one round of the bars, rather than two, and skip the less promising venues altogether. Here at Vespers, at least, Rickie would be working the back bar and could watch over Lourdes while Rosa made the rounds—he had a way with kids. Rosa hadn’t recognized the sullen new bouncer; Ashton was long gone—waiters and dancers changed on a yearly basis, as their careers took off or as their bodies declined—but Rickie still worked the back bar, his preferred station: let’s be honest, I’m not going to do better than this, he’d once told Rosa, unwrapping the foil from the pastelito she’d brought him, pausing to inhale its fragrance with eyes narrowed in pleasure.
So Rosa plied her roses, real and fake, throughout the courtyard and patio and open-air rooms of the ever-expanding complex while Rickie kept an eye on Lourdes.
“Why doesn’t somebody show that old lady the door?” So Rosa overheard one man quip to his female companion.
“Buy me three roses.” a woman said to her date, a challenge in her eyes.
Rosa smiled through it all. To any outsider, her lips, stretching to meet her ears in upward curves, looked as they had been carved onto her face for eternity. Half an hour later, having exhausted all possible opportunities for a sale, and having exhausted her smile as well, she decided to call it an evening. It was midnight anyway. So she weaved a path towards the back bar, every now and then croaking rosas, rosas! in a desultory voice absent her usual lilt. Soaking her feet in Epsom salts after she put Lourdes to bed was her main thought as the sight of her granddaughter sitting on her bar stool came into view.
Lourdes was crying. Rickie was doing his best to distract the little girl, but something, someone, had frightened her, and tears streaked her pale cheeks. When she spied her grandmother, the child jumped off her stool—but her foot caught in a rung and she fell to the floor, bringing the stool clattering down with her. In an instant Rosa had tossed her remaining roses onto the copper bar top and swooped to lift the child into her arms, while Rickie came around the bar to righten the stool. “My little sweet,” Rosa cooed, rocking Lourdes against her breast as Rickie stroked the girl’s head; but their tender mercies were too late to quell Lourdes’s sobs. She let out a wail that pierced the thudding bass of the house music.
Gradually, Rosa grew aware that people were looking at her. She cradled Lourdes more tightly. Rickie moved closer, protectively, as if to block the quizzical eyes and overlapping voices that encircled them.
What’s going on? What happened to that little girl?
Should someone call 911?
Who brings a kid to a bar for Chrissake?
She left the poor child sitting alone–I saw.
Call social services!
A young woman slipped a cell phone from her back jeans pocket and began video-recording the moment.
They don’t look related, bet the old lady’s her nanny.
Wait till the parents find out where their girl’s been!
ICE, anyone? And I’m not talking about your cocktail!
Rickie tried to calm the onlookers. “It’s Rosa, just Rosa. One of us.”
Over Lourdes’ shoulder, Rosa glimpsed the bald skull of the bouncer parting his way through the crowd.
“Get me out of here, Rico,” she whispered.
Rickie swiftly guided Rosa into the wait-station behind the bar. Lourdes’ cries had calmed to a whimper, her eyelids were closing in exhaustion. A back security door led into the alley running the length of the building.
“Gracias,” Rosa whispered to Rickie as she carried Lourdes across the threshold.
Walking away, she felt a knot of sadness expanding in her chest, a dense core of pain pressing her ribs and meeting the lighter weight of Lourdes’s bundled warmth. It grew and grew as she turned right onto Santa Monica Boulevard and headed towards her bus stop.
She wouldn’t stop returning, damned if she wouldn’t stay at Vespers till the closing hours tomorrow night. Selling her roses, real or fake: it was her right.
It was her job.
She sighed. But it was only that, now: just a job.
From the instant over a decade ago I saw the real-life incarnation of my character selling roses in West Hollywood’s gay bars, I knew a story was there—who was this person? what was her relation, as a Latina and older and presumably straight woman, to the gay partiers to whom she sold her wares? what did her family, her community, think of her spending so much time among this subculture? But I didn’t know what form such a story might take until the occasion, only a year ago, when I spied “Rosas” toting fake, LED-lit, plastic roses along with her regular fare.
All of a sudden, I had a “before” and “after,” a timeline of “then” and “now” on which to hinge a narrative arc; and this revelation led me quickly to imagine two instances, spread over time, of my character being forced by external circumstance to bring grandchildren along with her to West Hollywood. The contrasting reactions of these children (and their interactions with this night-world) became a means to measure transformations in urban gay life—and in the process a measure of my character’s process of self-disillusion as she comes to realize, with rue, that her “job” is just a “job.”
So the sighting of those absurd artificial roses, glowing bizarre hues in the dark, became the trigger, or the “razor” if you will, that cut through my hitherto unorganized musings and gave this story its shape.