Valerie L. Mendoza
We weren’t supposed to move upstate.
There we were, completely broke and homeless, again defeated by another round of trying to survive in the city with no money, no job, and no official place to reside.
We had run out of options. My then husband and I were on the verge of divorce, and were at a loss as to what we were going to do about generating income and finding an apartment. We weren’t even sure if we were going to stay together once we did. We had arrived to the city as young, underprepared artists, with a couple hundred dollars that were bled dry within the first few weeks.
My then husband hated everything about the city, and had moved across the country solely to appease my desire to get out of Florida. Between his resentment for having to move, and mine for him not being able to hold down a job, we were working more against each other than as a team. Eventually, once everything was gone, we ran out of options. This led to being forced to make the most uncomfortable phone call I’ve ever had to make, in which I would have to swallow my pride, stick my tail between my legs, and ask my aunt if we could temporarily sublet her basement in Woodstock until we had enough money for an apartment.
On a frigid and snowy January morning, we found ourselves north-bound on a Trailways bus, headed up to the Hudson Valley. I stared out of the window of the bus, admiring the serenity of the mountains, yet dreading the fact that I would be living in between them, in a small town, where I knew no one, and had no idea how I would get around. I craved the scents of the city, like water or air. I longed to see the hovering skyscrapers and the unmistakable grin on the Statue of Liberty. Much to my dismay, I had been sidetracked again, wandering aimlessly, ending up in a country town that I had no desire to live in. And then I had to find a job.
I began working as a waitress in a restaurant off of the side of the interstate, adjacent to a shopping center. I came in on my first shift, soaking wet from the remnants of snow that clung to my pea coat, and began my training. I politely introduced myself to the other waitresses, often receiving an uninterested “hello” or a silent head nod. I knew that my time working there would be limited, so I tried not to become discouraged by their lack of enthusiasm.
While punching in “mock” orders on the computer, I began to anxiously scan the screen for a “substitution” key, my brow furrowed in frustration. My fellow co-worker, Alicia, a petite Latin girl, wearing hoop earrings and a ponytail was deeply engaged in the application of her mascara in the mirror next to me. “You better smile, girlie,” she joked. “It’s part of your uniform,” she commented, poking fun at the laws in the employee manual.
“Ugh,” I grunted, laughing aloud at the ridiculousness of her comment. “That’s probably the dumbest line I’ve ever heard. Smile! It’s a part of your uniform
! How obnoxious.”
I rolled my eyes in detestation.
“Maybe there’s some value in it. I mean, you can’t just walk around pissed off at everyone, right? It’s easier just to be happy,” she replied, fixated on her reflection.
Alicia then dripped tiny black streaks of makeup onto the corners of her chin, leaving tracks of smudge marks all over her face. I giggled and assisted her with a tissue, freeing her from the trail of residue. Within moments, we were cracking jokes and nearly hugging each other. Instantly, we had hit it off, and would spend the next eight months involved in great adventures and the formation of a lasting friendship.
Ours was a story reminiscent of “Thelma and Louise.” When we weren’t at work, whispering underneath the glassware, flirting with the cute bartenders, or intensely engaged in philosophical rant, we were bouncing all over town, hopping from bar to bar, meeting all kinds of people, and dancing throughout the night at illegal warehouse parties. The bitter mountain cold never stopped us from adventure; the freezing temperatures only ignited our dual curiosity to explore and live life. Many times we would go out with a bottle of wine masked by a brown paper bag. We´d sit in the middle of New Paltz on someone’s stoop, smoking Parliaments and rave on about our passion for life and where we saw ourselves in the future. To me, those were the most memorable of our times. I was planning to pursue my education and to play music in a band, while Alicia was moving to Albany to study voice at an arts school. We were high off of these dreams. We shared the responsibility of motivating one another to obtain success in whatever life could offer us.
Alicia was also present during the declination of my marriage. Although we were to move back to the city and begin a new life together, my husband and I began to silently mourn the death of the five years of love that we once knew. It was inevitable that the end was near, and I grieved the loss silently.
“You know, the key to life is being happy,” Alicia began, one night over sushi.
“And you will be happy, even if you guys aren’t together. You’re young. You’re beautiful, smart, and motivated. Talented. And you stop at nothing to get what you want. You are going to have everything, I’m telling you. Every last thing,” She assured.
The truth was that while I was adventurous and passionate, I lacked self-confidence. I couldn’t imagine life without him, despite knowing that being alone was probably the best thing I could do for myself. However, her encouragement had inspired me to take the action that I had been delaying. I knew what needed to be done.
I can DO this,
I thought. I’ve got this.
Eight months passed, more quickly than I had expected. I had finally saved up enough money to move. I bid Alicia and the countryside farewell and boarded the bus again to begin my new life. Within a few weeks, I had acquired a job and a beautiful apartment in Brooklyn. I was making steps toward finalizing the eventual separation between my husband and me.
One night, while unpacking my things in the new apartment, I received a frantic voicemail from a mutual friend of ours in Woodstock. “You need to call me back immediately. There’s been an accident,” she urged, through a mouthful of sobs.
As I dialed the number into my cell phone, I knew that something had happened to Alicia. We had always had a way of sensing when something was wrong with the other person.
I returned the call and confirmed the worst news that I could have possibly received.
Julie asked, her voice quivering, “Have you seen the news?”
Alicia was gone.
My Alicia. My effervescent Alicia, once contagious with her love for life, was dead.
“Alicia was involved in a head-on collision by a sixteen wheeler truck at 4:00 a.m.”
“…and they found her body. There was nothing they could do…”
She’s so young. There’s so many people that need her. I NEED her.
“and I knew that you two were close, so I thought you should…”
The rest of the conversation echoed vacantly through my brain like a cacophony of unintelligible sounds. I absorbed the rest of the grotesque details of her demise and hung up the phone without a response.
She was gone. I had just seen her weeks before, smiling and ecstatic for her future plans.
I wept in the silence of my room, remembering us in the mountains. Thinking of what she could have been.
She had been the best thing that came out of that detour in my life. And then, it was over.
Despite the unbearable sorrow, that night was the last time I cried for her.
Alicia would have wanted her life to be celebrated, not mourned, because that was who she was. At her funeral, I looked to the sky to give thanks for her once existence. She was a person with whom I not only shared memories and an unbreakable friendship, but who made me feel instantly loved and welcomed in a dark period in my life. She had inspired me in so many different ways. My stay in upstate New York had been worth it, after all. In some strange, unpredictable way, she had made it memorable; a journey that only made me better in the end.
The gratitude that I felt for knowing her had given me hope, and for that, I could only smile.
After all, it was part of my uniform.