Ena was still living at Pablo’s apartment when she met Manny. Despite the high marks she received in English back when she was a student in Ecuador, Ena was reluctant to engage in conversation with real New Yorkers. English was awkward in her mouth and made her feel like a child. It was frustrating having to squeeze the full complexity of her thoughts through small holes created by the handful of words and sentences she knew. Her conversations in English tended towards idle chitchat. Alternating between the deep ache she nursed for Hector, the infant son she had left back home, and the unbridled anger at the son’s father and his family, Ena had little interest in discussing the weather, the cinema or the library in any language.
Now adrift, moored loosely to New York through Pablo’s lumpy couch, Ena sorely needed that sense of connection that comes from sharing stories relayed through the spoken word.
Manny, who mastered Spanish the same way Ena learned English, namely, under duress in a classroom, was nervous heading into that first date. How would they connect when all they had going for them was chemistry?
Over pizza, they quickly moved from safe sentences like; where are you from and how many brothers and sisters do you have, to who are you and what do you love most about your life. Manny took out his phone and pointed to Scotland on the world map, explaining, this is where he grew up and played soccer. He loved the game, was good at it and was expecting to dedicate his life to it, when a nasty knee injury sidelined him. Ena noticed that Manny walked with a slight limp. When she mimed his loping gait, his expression tightened. She could read in his face the faint echo from the original shock of adjusting to life without soccer. For a few moments, their conversation faltered. The pizza, mediocre to begin with, was now cold. Ena studied Manny objectively. Quick to go to the dark place, she wondered if Manny waiting for her by the train entrance day after day with an unwavering devotion was enough.
Perhaps sensing Ena’s cooling interest, Manny shifted the conversation to music, explaining that what once was a hobby came to fill in the gap left by his failed athletic career. No longer relying on words, he sang and hummed music that moved him. Over the intermittent jukebox playing music from another era, Manny sung bits of Mozart, a Mingus riff, imitated the thrum of Metallica and marked the bassline of Motown hits. Irish ditties danced around his head, as did big band tunes. Who was he, musically speaking, he still didn’t know. He liked it all. It was both a point of pride and a source of confusion. He admitted sheepishly that he didn’t know his “brand”, a concept of self that Ena didn’t quite follow.
Looking back on that night, Ena had to admit that Manny had been honest with her. He laid it all out; the things he loved and lost, his restlessness and in no small measure, the charm that made all those disparate elements cohere.
She happily agreed to a second date, despite the crappy pizza and that he made no secret of the fact that he wasn’t wired to be a breadwinner.