Say it Like This
“My name is Jade. Say it like this: Ha-day.”
(Como la piedra. Like the stone.)
The space behind the bar is small. Behind my hips are the shelves of glasses lit by white Christmas lights. Above me, are the glass shelves holding the liquor, lit by candles in clear, glass globes. The bottles of wine and the bowl of olives and jar of almonds are in the corner of the copper bar. I arrive at four in the afternoon to set up and my routine never varies. At 4:45 I am lighting the candles and sipping a coffee and if a customer strays in and interrupts, I am pissed. We open at 5.
“My mother was a hippie, and my father was born in Mexico City.”
(She was staying in a house in Mexico City when he walked into the room, his hair wet from the shower. His hair was dark dark and curly. He flipped his head so the curls fell with a slap against his shoulders. They drove north through Mexico together and while she drove, my father lit two cigarettes at once, passed one to her. It was in the month of June.)
My corkscrews rest against the wooden ledge next to the register; I keep the pens in the highball glass; I slip paper clips onto the postcards, and stack them behind the metal canister of extra paper clips and corks. My tips are in order from ones to twenties, presidents facing forward, in another highball glass, beside the mounted iPod, which is sticky with splashed sangria, and almond oil finger prints. My long hair is up in a ponytail, the ponytail wound into a heavy braid. No, you cannot request a song.
“Oh, they divorced when I was little.”
(Mexico was my father’s country, and the U.S. my mother’s, but they switched the summer after they met. She stayed on in Mexico, living with a friend in the jungle, and he traveled back to the Pennsylvania commune to which they both had ties. In September, she too, traveled north to Pennsylvania and they began “courting,” she says. On October 8th, in a tent on the commune, my father performed a ceremony to call me forward and they conceived me on purpose.)
By 11 the bar is full. The early arrivals who meant only to have a drink before moving on are into their third round and they’re not leaving. I’ve pulled them in and held them, and yes, they’ll have another, and actually, yes, a look at the menu, some almonds, sure thank you. The contented hum radiates through the door onto the quiet cobblestoned street. Fashionable stragglers pop in and see that there’s nowhere to sit and decide that it might be a place worth being. And they see me, whirling, my heavy braid hanging straight, now I’m shaking a cocktail, angling my body just so, in profile, my arms lifted high and bent at the elbows, now I’m opening a new bottle, and now gathering bills off the copper, and they stay, and try to catch my eye, and order in a way that will make me like them. They tip over 20% on the first round, and yes, that does mean that their next round will come quicker and be poured a little higher in the glass. Thank you, but no, I don’t start drinking till midnight.
“I lived there when I was a baby.”
(Mexico is not a land I know, I do not go there. All I remember are the stories my mother tells and so I remember the old men who sat in the dust and laughed when she killed the scorpion. I remember the avocado tree that was the fourth wall of the kitchen, and I remember the girl named Mariposa who was my friend. Mariposa means butterfly. I know because my mother told me. And she remembers walking tall and blonde through the market. I sat on her hip and from her hand dangled a small blue bucket to carry home the cornmeal. The bucket sits now in her bathroom in Brooklyn.)
The wines are Spanish, and the food is Spanish, and when I repeat their orders back to them I roll my r’s.
“No, I’m learning. I didn’t grow up speaking. I want to be able to speak to my cousins when I go.”
(Alone sometimes I read aloud from a book of Pablo Neruda poetry which my mother gave me, the cover torn and taped. As I read, I pretend to not need the English translation that appears on the opposite page. I say the words in Spanish, but in Spanish they are beyond me. I fondle the syllables in my mouth, but I am too careful with each one, as if it were an egg beneath my tongue, and when I’m done I sound like an asshole.)
I wear hoop earrings and dark lipstick and with that and the candles and the braid they begin to see it; some brown man somewhere. I see them seeing it. Midnight. I line up the shot glasses along the wood that edges the bar. I wave the other bartender over. We face each other, clink a toast, drink. She hurries back. I grab a lime, suck, throw it away, turn, refreshed now, zingy, perky, as if a curtain hanging between their side of the bar and mine has only just been pulled open.
“My cousins live in Puebla.”
(Their mother’s name was Luz, which means light, but she’s dead now. When my father wrote to tell me of her death, he said, “There are only a few of us left now.” But I didn’t write them. I was afraid. My mother was upset; she and Luz had been young wives together in the mountains.)
Cherrie Moraga wrote, “We light-skinned breeds are like chameleons, those lagartijas with the capacity to change the color of their skins. We change not for lack of conviction but lack of definite shade and shape. My lovers have always been the environment that defined my color.”
My lover is white. It is not him I go to for the change.
“No, I only met them once. It’s a bit of a reunion trip.”
(They don’t know I’m coming.)
When I ride to work, I get off one stop further than I need to so that I can get a coffee at the French bakery where I sometimes spot famous people. From there I walk down the stone street which skinny women in heels pick their way across like herons. The street is narrow, and the buildings lined with fire escapes. This is New York as it wants to see itself. My manager grew up on this block, as did his parents. He speaks with an accent that reminds the regulars of Scorsese movies and they like him to tell them stories of the neighborhood back in the day. When their parents come into town they introduce him, and prod him to speak so that they too can hear the accent, and maybe an anecdote or two about the mafia or betting on horses.
“Well, border politics are crazy. They can’t get visas.”
(I’ve never invited them.)
I’m the second oldest bartender. When I began I was the second youngest. The younger girls go out for brunch after the long shifts. They text more than I do.
At fourteen men lit me up in the high beam of a gaze that followed me wherever I went. At twenty-two I discovered that bartending was the magnifying glass to that relentless light; bend it this way, and the gaze is rent. Bend it another, and I am my father’s daughter.
And so in that dim, long, narrow bar, I’ll make them New Yorkers, if they make me Mexican. I’ll make them glamorous, if they make me his. I offer them this; a woman listening attentively. I offer them a sassy joke. I offer them a sympathetic nod. I let them look if they see what I want them to. If they see him in me, I buy them a drink and am happy the next time they come in. I remember details of their lives and toss them back at them. I ask about their trips to Paris. I tell them about the time I ran out of money in Paris and walked for ten hours which is not really the story but they’ll like it better. I tell them about the art I make and we decide that this is a fabulous life. It’s two in the morning and we’re having another round. We’re feeling good. We’re listening to my friend’s unreleased album and tonight I’ll close a little late. Together, we can make anything true.
"In reference to the Cherrie Moraga quote I use, in this piece my lovers are my customers, the men and women who gaze at me from the other side of a copper covered bar. I use them to change my skin color. I need them in order to become a version of myself that the U.S. often denies me. I need them in order to cross the many borders that keep me from far-flung family. It is a calculated use of my own skin and body."
Jade Sanchez-Ventura is a writer, and teacher of writing. She received her MFA from Hunter College, and is an alumni of the VONA writer’s workshop. Her work has been published by Seal Press and on the internet. She is currently completing her first manuscript, maintaining the blog, The Secret Pregnancy, and teaching at the Brooklyn Free School. Though she has ties to many far-flung countries, she has always made her home in Brooklyn, NY.