To understand this story, it helps to understand something about my parents. And that is that my parents go big. On everything. I mean, just look at their restaurant. It’s called La Gran Torre de las Pupusas. That translates to The Great Tower of Pupusas. And the pupusas themselves….my God, they’re almost as big as an entire plate. If you don’t know pupusas, they’re generally not much bigger than the circumference of a roll of paper towels. They’re filled with cheese, beans and pork. But my parents’ pupusas aren’t just filled. Of course not. They’re STUFFED. So stuffed, in fact, that they have become famous around Washington. An order even comes from the White House every so often.
The restaurant itself isn’t so big. If my parents could afford it, they’d have turned it into a real tower. They’d love to see it looming over all the other little businesses along Route 1. They’ve actually talked about it, but for now, La Gran Torre is just a refurbished Pizza Hut. That’s the one exception to their “go big” mantra. But they’ve gone all out with the decorating. There are two ginormous plastic cacti and fake banana trees with leaves bigger than me at the entrance. Inside, each wall is painted with a life-size scene from Soyapango, their hometown in El Salvador.
Even their vehicle is big. They drive a used passenger van that can seat up to 15 people. I don’t think they’ve ever actually driven 15 all at once – the most I remember is eight children for my little brother’s birthday party - but they do love plowing through normal-sized traffic in that thing.
So you see what I’m talking about when it comes to my parents and big things. That’s why it was no surprise to me and Diego – that’s my little brother – when our parents bought a HUGE sky dancer last month. You know what I’m talking about, right? Those inflatable things that businesses use for advertising. Tall skinny tubes with a dorky smiling face and arms outstretched that dip and bend and dive and sway when air is blown up them. My mom has always loved them. She actually gets transfixed when she sees one. It’s kind of cute. She’s a plump little woman barely hitting five feet. She stares and she giggles and claps her hands as the inflatable man goes through its dance. If she watches long enough, she starts mimicking its movements ever so slightly and then blushing when she realizes someone is watching.
So it was only a matter of time before La Gran Torre acquired its own grinning inflatable dance man. This is the thing - a 6-foot one would have been sufficient. A 10-foot one would have been perfect. But not for our parents.
“24 feet,” my dad said the first day he set it up. He’d beamed up at the cheery red tube which we all had to sidestep each time it bent over and swept the ground at the risk of being clobbered by polyamide nylon.
24 feet???? I’d done some research when my parents first started talking about buying one, and I hadn’t seen any over 20 feet. But that’s the thing with my parents. They are determined and they are resourceful. Of course they would find the biggest sky dancer out there.
This might be a good time to tell you here that my parents also have big dreams for my future with La Gran Torre. I’ve been working there ever since I was old enough to wipe down tables and they have, naturally enough, assumed that I will run it one day. Not only that, but they foresee a day when I will open up a chain of Torres throughout the area and become the Queen of the Oversized Pupusa. Now, I think it’s important for you to know that I’ve inherited my parents’ love of all things big. But my version of big is a little different.
See, I’m going to go to college – a BIG university – and study econ. Then I’m going to move to New York, find a job with the best investment banking company and become a big fucking deal in the world of finance. I want to wear power suits and stiletto heels, negotiate the most important contracts and rise to the top positions. I’m going to run multinational corporations and people are going to step aside when they see me coming. And I am going to make BIG money.
I haven’t mentioned any of this to my parents. I don’t know how. It will break their hearts and, knowing my folks, wind up in a fight. A big fight.
This is what was on my mind last Monday as I sat in traffic on Route 1, heading to La Gran Torre. I’d been preparing college applications and setting up informational interviews with university reps and alums. On that particular day, I was waiting for a call from someone at Columbia and kept checking my phone to make sure I hadn’t missed it.
That Monday was a windy one. Not just a strong breeze here or there, but 20 and 30 mile per hour gusts that came one after another. I could feel my little Honda strain against the wind and watched the traffic lights getting tossed around all the way down the road.
I was still about a mile away from the restaurant, but I could see the sky dancer – which my parents had taken to calling “el rojo gigante” – going through its dip and dive routine. Except that on this day, the wind was playing with it. Each gust sent all 24 feet of the thing dancing perilously over Route 1.
Traffic picked up and I was able to cruise along at 40 miles per hour. And that’s when the universe brought together el rojo gigante, the weather and my future in one spectacular moment.
My phone rang. It was set to an ear-piercing train whistle at full volume so I wouldn’t miss it. I looked down at it to see the number and answer it (yeah, I know. Not supposed to mess around with your phone while driving. But come on – you can’t tell me you haven’t). At the exact same moment, the strongest gust of the day swept across the road, pushing my car into the left lane. I tried to grab the steering wheel and straighten out with my phone-occupied hand. But I was still fixated on the phone, fumbling to answer it while steadying the car. And that is why I never saw that rush of wind push el rojo directly across Route 1. A most awkward and unexpected move in its routine of otherwise graceful undulations.
It all happened so fast. I heard a thud and breaking glass as el rojo and I careened into each other. The air bag deployed with a massive pop that blasted out my ears and kicked me in the chest and face. I must’ve blacked out for a moment because when I sort of half-opened my eyes, I was dimly aware of voices, far-off sirens and a smell of burning rubber. Over the deflated air bag and haze from the dust, I vaguely registered a shattered windshield with the flattened face of el rojo collapsed across it and grinning maniacally at me. Darkness closed in again.
I was ok in the end. I’ll tell you that now. I was fuzzy in the ambulance and whisked through tests and exams in the ER, but the docs said I only had a mild concussion and some bruising. They were keeping me overnight for observation, and by the time I was propped up in my hospital bed, I was feeling a lot better. Even so, my dad sat by my bed gripping my hand and wrinkling up his forehead, worried. My mom bustled around the room propping up crosses and images of Jesus, reading in Spanish from the Bible. Even Diego sat quietly in a chair, swinging his feet and staring at me in awe.
“Mom, I’m going to be fine,” I said. “You heard the doctor. They’ll discharge me tomorrow, a few days of rest and I’ll be as good as new.”
“Ay, Dios mio. El rojo gigante – he is cursed! He is the devil himself, Ernesto,” she said turning to my dad. Tears were trickling down her cheeks as if she’d been betrayed by her own flesh and blood.
I may have forgotten to mention that my parents are deeply, DEEPLY religious. They belong to the evangelical Oakton Valley Community Church which is, of course, a megachurch. With almost 20,000 members, it is the biggest in Virginia – in the whole mid-Atlantic region, as a matter of fact.
My dad nodded sadly. “I’ll have Manuel and the muchachos take el rojo to the dump first thing tomorrow.”
As I saw the sorrow on my parents’ face, a plan began to penetrate my mind which was, admittedly, clouded by painkillers.
“I think you’re wrong, Mom,” I said slowly. “El rojo isn’t cursed. He’s part of the family. It would be like saying Diego is the devil.” Diego looked up sharply, eyes wide with alarm. My mom put her hands over his ears.
“Sonia! Do not say such things,” she admonished.
“No, no, no. I mean we’re looking at this all wrong. Maybe el rojo hitting my car is a sign from above. A sign from God,” I said pausing to let a moment of reverence sink in. They all looked confused. “I think,” I continued, picking my words carefully, “God is trying to tell us through el rojo that my future is not with La Gran Torre.” I glanced surreptitiously at my parents before continuing. They seemed to be listening. “Maybe it’s a sign that something terrible will befall us or the restaurant if I am in charge. Maybe,” I slid my gaze over to my brother. “Maybe it’s a sign that it’s actually Diego who should run La Torre someday.”
Diego grinned and clapped his hands. “Pupusas all day!”
My parents’ worried faces had softened. My mom began to smile.
“Mi amor! You are right. I feel it.” She raised her hands to the ceiling and turned her face upwards. “Divine intervention. Una bendicion. A blessing. Gracias a Dios,” she murmured. She then turned to my father. “Ernesto, can we repair el rojo?”
My father grinned, “Claro, mi amor. We can!”
And so, you see, everything worked out. The next year, I was on my way to Columbia University and Diego was starting to wipe down tables at La Gran Torre. El rojo gigante had been patched up and was back to swaying and waving with that crazy smile and silly eyes. But this time, he was dancing a little further away from Route 1. Just in case another gusty wind one day blew in from the East. Just in case.