Cold, brown water gushed from a black opening in the bottom of the wall-mounted air conditioner near my bed. It roared out of the rumbling metal contraption, splashing on the gleaming mahogany chest of drawers below and forming muddled pools on the bronze tiled floor. The majority of that putrid water was collecting in large plastic buckets, thick and hefty. Each filthy bucket was deposited on my bed. One by one, a never ending stream. I couldn’t see who was putting them there – an invisible hand was slowly, carefully stacking them in concentric circles around where I lay. Through closed eyes I imagined a hazy cave of plastic, felt an encroaching suffocation, a dreamy procession of liquid kitchen-duties literally piling up on top of me. The large canopied bed, fitted with off-white blankets and ruffled pillows was inundated with the containers of mysteriously flowing water. I lay there under my covers, utterly unwilling and unable to move. I could feel their watery weight shifting the mattress, yet I still could not make myself get up. There was no way I could rouse myself to bring the buckets to the sink and empty them like I knew, somehow, I was supposed to. I was so tired; it was so late. They were piling up so quickly. I would soon be crushed.
I dug myself deeply under my blankets, hair wildly flung about my pillow, restlessly tossing about, half in this disturbing dream world. My impending suffocation-by-air-conditioner-water was eerily real, yet still not sharp enough to throw me into full wakefulness. I could practically hear The Chef yelling my name, reprimanding my tardy cleaning. Why are those buckets still full? What the hell are you doing? I mumbled incoherently, tossing and turning, unable to shake the sound of rushing water.
A bucket floating over my head, slowly descending – I woke with a start, alone in an empty bed, on my first night in Umbria. I was surprised to find a dry mattress, a smoothly running air conditioner.
The restaurant followed me to Italy. The Chef in my dreams did not seem to care that I was in an Umbrian villa with my family; he hounded me as there was work to be done. I couldn’t fall asleep again that first jet-lagged night. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had left (my dream? the restaurant?) too suddenly, that S. would be stuck taking all the water from the bed in Umbria to the sink alone.
I was surprised on this trip to Italy to find that my rudimentary restaurant-Spanish eclipsed all the Italian I had studied in college. It took me two days to stop saying hola when I meant buongiorno; a week to substitute molto for mucho. I was also surprised to find myself thinking about S. far more than anyone else I left at the restaurant. And so before I can write about Italy, I need to write about him. S. touched me far more than I affected him, I’m sure. But he was a defining character in my life this summer.
S., the other prep-chef and dishwasher in the small restaurant where I worked this summer, is a short man, standing only a few inches higher than my 5’3. His dark skin is rough, weather-hewn, stretched across his small features in a way that makes him look much older than his 31 years. His eyes, though, are young, sad. He is thin but strong, his belly just beginning to acquire a slight paunch. At the end of each night of work his shirt and pants were always spotless, pristinely clean in comparison to my inevitably stained clothing. He is quiet; it took an entire summer of long hours in the prep room, our heads bent over a mountain of fresh garbanzo beans or dirty mushrooms, unfamiliar words tossed out into the void of mistranslation, before I felt like I knew him at all.
S. emigrated from El Salvador two years go, leaving behind a girlfriend, 4-year-old son, and five of his nine siblings. He speaks hardly a word of English, despite his great desire to learn this foreign tongue and get a better job.
As my Spanish improved, I began translating what was said in the kitchen for him: the jokes, the insults, the quickly spouted instructions. Never before having felt integrated into the restaurant life, he appreciated the newfound lingual entrance. He was inspired enough to sign up for an English class beginning this fall. He, in turn, always managed to procure and save for me the extra desserts that were unfit for service, knowing my undying passion for chocolate. It was a wonderful partnership.
S. gave me a high-five and a goofily loud Hola, chica each afternoon when we converged at the sink. He plays soccer ever Sunday morning in the park with his friends, paints houses on his days off, and sends all his extra money back to his family. He worked harder than anyone I have ever witnessed: never a shortcut, hardly ever a break, night after night without fail, his cheerfulness never faltering. Our lives were different in every possible way. I feel incredibly lucky to have known him. I feel guilty to be moving on. I went to work at the restaurant expecting only an experience of food. What has been foremost in my mind recently, however, is my undying respect for S., a man who drowned every morsel of food in Tabasco sauce.
When I said goodbye to him my last night, I gave him my phone number so that he could practice his English when he began taking the language class. He told me that he doesn’t have a phone.