To give you a taste of where I come from, I have to tell you about how I got shot, before I was born. The fact Bradley Nowell, lead singer of Sublime, was my father, I just found it poetic. Honestly, as my mother put it, he was an asshole. She’d told me, after one of his concerts, Nowell had invited her backstage, and this was where I was conceived. What do you expect from a rock star? My mother, Martina, had been around the block once or twice, and she named me Destiny. I can’t tell you how long it took me to come to terms about being the prodigy of a groupie, and a subpar, half known, ska band in 1996.
“Échale ganas!” -Make it feel! My mother would yell at me when making her a mojito. She wanted it stronger. She wanted life put into it. The perfect mojito is a fizzy mint, lime drink, and a bit sweet. The rum, you see, you can hardly taste. And that is the danger. It's too easy to abuse. The problem, or blessing, is I have, what you call, a Perfect Pallet. I can make any drink my mother desires, to perfection.
It all goes back to the beginning when my mother was living in a small bungalow with a couple of artist friends of hers trying to make the best of their situation. As a waitress, in several local bars and clubs, she was a looker. Her laugh, and charm, brought in the tips, but once her pregnancy was noticeable the tips took a dive and dwindled to near nothing. Things were getting desperate for her. She was evicted from the bungalow because her artist friends were found to be cooking meth. The police let her off, plainly because, as she kept saying, “I had nothing to do with it.” Perhaps the officer saw a clean, good looking 26 year old, expectant mother, and felt pity, or maybe she knew the officer from before. I wouldn’t be surprised if mother did whatever she needed to, to survive. She was Taco de ojo, meaning she looked good enough to eat, and men, even the police, took notice when it came to her.
Dragging a large red suitcase behind her with no place to go, she stopped, dropped the heavy thing on the street corner and sat down on it. Sweaty and dismayed, she held back tears. Difficult times were ahead. Miraculously she saw opportunity knock as though the saints were standing right outside your door. In front of her a young girl came out of a shabby looking eatery, yelling.
“¡Más loco que una cabra con pollitos!” -crazier than a goat with chicks. The young girl spit and stormed off. Seconds later a drab looking man in his late thirties, came storming out.
“Fuck you, You little tease!” he said. He stumbled just then and fell flat on his stomach, hard. This man, who reeked of booze, was Carlos De Leon. He was the owner of a local tapas bar, named Tapas Santiago. My mother helped him up, took him back into his eatery and took full advantage of the situation.
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” she said, as she patched up his scraped knees and began tending to a pretty big gash in his forehead. Through glossy eyes he gave an inquiring look. “My name is Martina, and you look like you need some help, so here I am. You’re in no condition to do anything right now, so let me take care of you.” She fixed him a drink, and then set him down in a back room, where he could sleep it off. When Carl De Leon awoke late in the afternoon, he came out to see his small eatery spic and span. Soft Salsa music was playing in the background, and Martina was behind the bar fixing some drinks for a couple who were sitting by the window.
“What the fuck is this?” Carl said, noticing my mothers large red suitcase in the corner of the bar.
“I took the liberty…”
“Yes, you bloody well did.” He sat on a stool, elbows on the bar.
“What, you don’t like?”
“I don’t know you,” he said, pointing an index finger at her. She placed a shot of tequila in front of him, to which he never questioned, but threw it back and tapped the bar for another.
“Listen. I know that girl was your waitress. And now she’s gone.”
“Good.” He downed the second shot.
“You are in need of a waitress, and I need a job.”
Carl looked her up and down. At 14 weeks pregnant she hardly looked pregnant at all, but that couldn’t fool this drunk's eyes. He cringed and said, “You need much more than a job. You’re pregnant aren’t you,” wagging his finger up and down at her. “Nobody wants to see a pregnant woman serving drinks. ¡No manches! -No way! The night life isn’t for you,” How do I know he said this? Simply because I’ve heard the story a hundred times.
“I will keep this place running. You won’t have to worry about a thing. I promise you, Mr. De Leon. I will make sure of it.”
“This isn’t a place for pregnant women.”
“You won’t have to lift a finger.” Martina put another shot down, and took a hold of his hands in hers. “I need this. I have nowhere else to go.”
He looked up from the shot glass to her, felt her pressing his hands together, and then back down at the shot glass.
“Fuck! Okay, then.”
Martina let go of his hands, and he took the shot, as she kissed his forehead and danced away to the soft salsa music that was playing. Watching her, Carl perked up, but then remembered she was pregnant.
“Put your luggage in the spare room upstairs. I will not have my new waitress homeless. You will cook me meals and serve the drinks. Only lunch and early dinner. But, when that baby comes, you are out of here, comprendo? This isn’t a daycare.”
And that’s how we came to live here. My mother served drinks, made sure Carl was taken care of, and gave life to the Tapas Santiago again.
My perfect pallet all started, you guessed it, when I got shot, or so my mother would have you believe. Like any talent it developed over time and practice, but the catalyst was the bullet. My mother, you see, was caught in a drive by shooting. She wasn’t a member of any gang. Nothing like that. It was a classic case of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
She and Carl had had an argument. Carl didn’t like how big her belly was getting, and said so drunkenly that it was affecting business. It was bullshit. She knew since she’d arrived that business had tripled. In a dramatic flair she stomped off, before things got more heated.
The car came round a corner, bullets flew, and that was that. Was it the West Side Longos, or the Rolling 20’s? Who knew? It was some dispute over territory and as luck would have it she was the only one standing between them. Martina took a bullet in the abdomen.
Carl was the only person the hospital called. He never left Martina’s side and declared openly that no matter how big her belly got that it didn’t matter. “Please, keep the baby safe and bring Martina home, Lord. Bring them home.” In that moment he vowed to take care of us and to never abandon us.
The doctors proceeded with an emergency C-Section. The bullet went through my mother’s stomach, tore through the umbilical cord, and into mine. By the luck of the saints, the bullet stopped short leaving only a small scar that resembled more and more like a flame as I grew older. Other than that I was a perfectly healthy baby. It was touch and go there, for my mother though, in the days that followed.
My early years, my mother described it as chaotic bliss. Carl had turned into a complete new person. He doted over the new baby, took up the slack at the Tapas Santiago, and made sure Martina had everything she needed to make a full recovery. To say he stopped drinking would be like saying Telenovelas were the highest form of cinema. He certainly cut back though. My mother once again danced, served drinks and food at lunch and dinner, and eventually in the evenings too.
I grew up surrounded by music and good food.
“Hijole! -Wow! Look at how beautiful she is.” Carl would take me around, showing me off to each customer like a proud papa. My mother would have to pry me out of his arms to feed me. In the back room, while feeding, was where I began to develop my distinct pallet. If my mother ate anything too spicy, or too bland, I’d spit out her nipple and cry. She learned quickly to balance her meals with my taste. At four years old I’d already tasted everything in the kitchen Tapas Santiago had to offer. From the Patatas Bravas to the Chorizo al vino, I tried it all. But my favorite was the Pimiento del Padrón. These little green peppers were a joy to eat. Carl found me, one day, literally with my hand in a bowl of them, and my mouth smeared with olive oil.
Understand, the Pimiento del Padrón is blistered in canola oil, and served with just a drizzle of olive oil and topped with a dash of coarse sea salt. One must sauté them, without moving them, to get that charred look. Only about one in ten of them are crazy hot, so eating them is like playing Russian roulette.
“Qué onda?” -What’s happening? Carl said, as I bit into a spicy one. My face squished and my hand waved rapidly. “Martina, come and look at your little Destiny.”
“Oh, my,” she said, and both of them laughed because I continued to chew despite the heat. They laughed even harder as my little hand reached for another.
“Your Destiny, has what they say, Fuego en el vientre, fire in the belly.” Carl chuckled. He picked me up and brought me to the wash basin, and from then on he called me: Mi Fuego, my fire.
My favorite days were Tuesdays when we'd go to the fresh market. The sites and sounds were dazzling. People yelled, as they sold their fruits and vegetables. Everything was bright and colorful. It was here when I first noticed I was different from the others. When I was nine there was a long heatwave. Carl had been drinking a little more than usual. My mother and I went that Tuesday to the market. While my mother negotiated with the vendors, I went exploring and met another girl my own age. Her name was Tricia and we later became besties. That day we went around to the different booths and we got to try all kinds of things, like fresh mangos, pineapples, and guanabanas. While I sat there with my new friend, eating from that delicious prickly pear shaped fruit, I suddenly tasted something other than what I had in my mouth. It came from deep down in my belly and surfaced to my tongue. My flame shaped scar prickled. I swallowed, wiping my face with the back of my hand. What was it? The heat bore down. I could smell the ocean and I stuck my tongue out. Yes, there it was. The humidity. I could taste it. The salty sea.
“It’s gonna rain,” I said to my friend, who laughed. Droplets of water immediately poured down. Rain exploded from the sky soaking everything. Tricia looked at me in awe.
“¡Ándale! ¡Ándale!” My mother yelled, as we ran home, our sandals squeaking with moisture. The neighborhood was happy for the respite of the heat. We could hear children playing outside, in the downpour, as we prepared for the lunch rush.
By the time I turned 14 the Tapas Santiago had expanded from a small eatery to a full blown Tapas bar with live salsa music. Carl had acquired the building next door, knocked down the wall, and put in a stage. There was enough seating for 20 more tables. Of course it was my mother who convinced him to do this, as she knew exactly how much money the Santiago pulled in every year.
With the new additions came new problems. I honed my skills in the kitchen, and Tricia and I got to dance with the Afro-Latino band on the weekends. I’d never felt so good and free as I did learning to Cha-cha.
Cinco de mayo came and Carl pulled out all the stops. We had festive lanterns and all sorts of decorations. While I was doing a half decent Samba, Martina found Carl chatting up one of the waitresses at the bar. She flipped her hair flirtatiously and giggled.
“Don’t you have tables to serve?” Martina said. The waitress huffed and set about her business.
“Don’t be so harsh. It’s Cinco de Mayo.”
“Yes, and we’re busy.”
“What, are you jealous?” Carl smiled almost charmingly.
“I don’t think the waitresses are your problem.” He pointed and Martina followed his finger to find Tricia and me dancing with a couple of boys. Tricia spun around and into the boy’s arms, and nuzzled his neck. From then on it was a battle between my mother and I. She was constantly warning me of what boys wanted, and I hadn’t even had my first kiss.
Something did happen though to merit my mother’s worry. In the beginning of July my mother found Tricia and I, on more than one occasion, having deep conversations. Tricia would leave upset and I’d be alone brooding in my room. Every time she inquired what was going on I’d give her the standard teenaged response of, “nothing.” After a while my mother feared the worst. There was a certain heavy taste of starch in the air, when my mother barged into my room.
“Are you pregnant?” she demanded. This sent us into a shouting match like no other.
“Just because you slept with half the continent by the time you were my age doesn’t mean I will,” I declared.
“How dare you speak to me in this way? What am I supposed to do with you?”
“Leave me alone!”
I ran out into the street and found myself walking along the beach. I could smell the salt water. In fact, I could taste it. It rose from my belly to my tongue. Things were about to be different for me. The world in all its ugliness awoke my pallet. It tasted like change.
Sublime’s Santeria was playing on someone’s car radio when I got home. It was late. My mother was nowhere, and Carl was sleeping on the bar. I tried to slip past him.
“¡Hey, Mi Fuego!” he said. “Your mother’s worried about you.”
“Come on, you’re too hard on her.”
“What are you doing up?”
“I thought I might catch you coming back,” he paused, and took a sip from a beer. “You are the closest thing to me as a child. If I had a daughter I’d wish her to be like you.”
“You’re drunk.” The fire scar prickled again. There was a melancholy taste in the air.
“Yes, probably,” he said with a sad smile. “All this,” he stirred his finger in the air. “Is, because of a boy?”
Though his concern comforted me, that mournful taste radiated from him. I felt a need to answer him. But not before I got something from him first. I couldn't make it too easy.
“No. Why do you drink so much?”
His eyes rose up to meet mine, and a certain sobriety entered them. That melancholy taste was really heavy now.
“I lost a friend in the ground offensive during the Gulf War.” His voice was flat. “I had promised his mom I’d look after him. I failed.” he downed the rest of his drink and poured two shots of tequila and slid one towards me. I was dumbfounded. It had never occurred to me what others had gone through.
“I took Tricia to the clinic two days ago.” I downed the tequila shot and winced. Then I coughed. I had known, before Tricia told me, that she was going to abort it, when I saw her that day. I knew she’d ask me to take her. The scar had pricked and the air tasted of mold. At the clinic the taste almost overpowered me, but I stood strong. It was the taste of death.
“I don’t understand why she has to act the way she does. She doesn’t care about herself.”
“Guacala, that’s horrible! Things are not always easy. You were a true friend.” In that instant the melancholy taste lifted and was replaced by the salt water, but not as before. Now, It tasted like a vast ocean.
“I wish you were my dad!” I hugged him and then I asked a question that had been in the back of my mind. “Is it true Bradley Nowell’s my father?”
He thought about it for a while and with a devilish grin finally said, “Probably not. But it makes a great story. Your mother has lived.”
Was that a tear in his eye?
At that moment my mother walked through the door. She’d been looking for me all night. Without thinking I ran to her. I told her everything, about Tricia’s abortion, and how I felt about it. We talked about her past, the Tapas bar, and the eventuality of all things. My mother had lived, and I had discovered that my pallet too had a taste for life.