The Crescent Ruby
In Mexico, a tacos stand takes precedence over everything else within eye range. No matter what is next to it, any person would always look at the meat, whether in utter, Lovecraftian, vegan horror, or sheer, ravenous, weakening hunger. Yet, any true connoisseur of tacos knew all too well the real deepness of what this sort of stand represented.
For all of those hard-fought five years of the Rubicon marriage, Izella and Sezar had poured their ever-dwindling free time to personify what a real gourmand was, and it was when they reached the first gas station on the highway that they could see what many could not.
As Charles Dickens had written, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
A line of cars extended beyond the limits of the gas station, and all drivers and mature passengers stared at the gas prices as if they wanted to show just how concerned they were about their sky-rocketing increase; yet at the same time, right next to it, as if to alleviate the souls of those despaired, a trio of angels with black aprons and a simple grilling stand masterfully captivated the people's attention the moment the cars reached a certain point in the line. Only when the smell of meat cooking on the grill vented within the vehicles did the passengers look away from the idol of anguish and preoccupation as if suddenly raptured by divine intervention—suddenly, money did not matter as much. As if seduced by the tacos, all forms of people, from families to lone drivers, descended into a new, more promising line.
As soon as each person received their share of tacos, topped with whatever sauce and minced veggies they desired, their worry would change to a smile and even some tears. People who would be, under natural circumstances, oblivious to their also-suffering neighbor, now greeted and smiled back and forth at people, wishing them luck and in some cases sharing stories.
Yes, the Rubicon couple knew.... they knew that Taco stands were more than just food stands; they were a true center of peace, comfort, and community, all without even trying.
Honestly, loving food was a godly pleasure.
"Papa, I'm hungry," Kaleb said. It was only a matter of time.
"You hungry, boyo?" Sezar replied, perhaps as a reflection
"—acos" uttered Eliana, seconding her dear brother as she drooled. The smell had reached them.
"Well, maybe we could..."
His wife's deadly eyes stopped Sezar's words. He had briefly forgotten the situation they were in.
However, Izella had too, to her dismay, been seduced by the irresistible smell that poured into every corner of their car in no time. She checked her wallet and saw some spare money she had saved just in case. Indeed, cravings from her husband, and her children later on, would cause them to spend unnecessarily in the past, so she had learned to be conservative with their expenses and save a bit for their go-outs.
"Maybe," she uttered as she saw Sezar's puppy eyes looking straight at the gas prices, "maybe we could get a few tacos, but let's save everything else for a proper breakfast once we get to our destination."
Sezar looked at her, hopeful, "Tacos and a drink?"
"One drink, the big one, so that we all drink from it."
"Hell yeah!" echoed Kaleb.
"Yea!" exclaimed Eliana.
"Give me the money and I'll be right back..." Sezar demanded.
"No, I'll go," Izella pontificated, not even waiting for her husband to argue back by jumping out of the car.
"Mama, I want to go!" Kaleb pleaded.
"Mama!" Eliana called out.
"No, no, I'll be right back before you know it, the line moves quickly."
Sezar jumped on this too, "Indeed, boyo, we're just two cars away from the gas, we need to move quickly so we can eat while we drive."
"Ok..." Kaleb sighed.
Izella rushed and plunged into the line to win the 20th spot. Sezar stared at the gas prices again.
The taco smell, that delicious, juicy meat being cooked a few meters away began to do its dirty work. Sezar, the ever so patient man, growled from within as the car now in turn at the station asked for a full tank. The attendant complied and set the hose before leaving to attend to the other side.
"Papa, I'm hungry."
Kaleb was just as assailed by the aroma as Sezar was.
"It's ok boyo, mama is coming."
"—ungry," uttered Eliana.
"Guys, I know. Mama is still in line but she is moving fast, she'll be here in no time. Give her a break she just left."
The gas hit the mark, and the driver in front waited patiently for the attendant to notice. Of course, he would be patient, that young man at the wheel, his tank had been filled. The attendant, a woman in a perfect, clean-cut uniform from the gas company, was still busy counting her cash, as she had received a large bill for a relatively small filling on the other side, forcing her to scramble for change.
"Is Mama at the stand now?"
Sezar looked at the taco line, spotting Izella at the seventh spot. It was not fast enough.
"Eh, yes, almost," he answered, thinking it was the most ambiguously smart answer to give to a 4-year-old toddler.
"So, she ordering now?"
"I know, sweetheart, let's just wait a bit more okay?"
The attendant was now inquiring about the young man's payment method, taking a small terminal out which indicated he had gone for the credit card. Awesome, Sezar thought, now they would be filled up by the time Izella arrived with the meal, so they wouldn't lose any time at all.
Then, the young man's card got rejected by the system. He enunciated a few words which implied the attendant needed to run it again, something she agreed to immediately. The smell had Sezar tightening his grip on the wheel.
"Papa, is Mama coming now?"
The kid had his own timing schedule, which, relativistically speaking, proceeded faster than light at times.
"You said 'almost' last time."
"Well, nothing's changed."
"Why is she taking so long."
Sezar scanned the stand and noticed a tall order had been asked by a client a few spots before Izella, delaying the whole thing. I should've had breakfast, he regretted.
"Someone ordered a lot of tacos before she got to the stand."
"—ungry!" she exclaimed in discomfort, twisting her body in her baby chair out of desperation.
"Eliana, control yourself!" Kaleb ordered.
"Ka—" she said, looking at her brother, "shhh!"
"Don't shh me!"
"Kids, stop it!"
"But I'm so hungry!" Kaleb said, now getting desperate.
"Mama is coming, don't worry!"
"She coming now?"
"Almost, why almost?!"
"Aaaah! —ungry! Mama!"
The credit card got rejected again, forcing the young man to search his entire car for the cash equivalent of a full tank.
Suddenly, Sezar found himself questioning his recent decision-making. The suffering, the kids, this hunger... This was just a simple gas filling, why did the taco stand have to be there? Why? Why did it have to smell so delicious?
"Papa, is it still almost?"
Sezar closed his eyes, "I don't know anymore, son."
"Why? Just look at the tacos!"
"Mama's there, she'll be back soon."
"...Y-yes dear," he answered, somehow fatigued.
"Ok, Mama will be back."
The young driver finally got his cash—it was a fist filled with coins and small bills, perhaps one long bill was there too, hopefully. Then he started counting the best way he apparently knew: coin by coin, somehow losing track of those he had counted already and absolutely needing to start over... twice. Now the attendant was getting, finally, uncomfortable.
Sezar remained silent. Instead of indulging in another useless exchange with his quite observant and desperate son, he instead pondered back at the sentence he had once reflected upon at the glance of this little corner of the universe.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
"Which am I living right now, Dickens?" he said.
He looked again at the tacos line, hoping to see Izella coming back with a bag full of food.
Sezar's hands loosened the wheel, and his eyes widened in shock.
His beloved, divinely beautiful wife was comfortably talking to another guy in the line, a guy that came after him. A guy whose ethnicity or nationality Sezar had no intention of assuming but that the circumstances made him involuntarily think he was Japanese. The man bowed several times, humbly, it was a teen, perhaps sixteen-years-old, with a long lock of hair covering one of his eyes, and headphones resting on his neck.
The sheer impunity! Was his wife really taking her time at a moment like this to enjoy a possibly enriching conversation with a person from abroad while she calmly waited for her turn to come? She was just two people away from ordering, damn it! She should look at the rough menu the taqueros had made on the side of the stand to see what they had and have her order ready.
She then locked eyes with Sezar, and asked with a simple glance if everyone was okay in the car, smiling gently.
Without second thoughts, Sezar smiled and retorted with a thumbs up, enticing Izella to take her time.
He then blinked, then blinked harder. He was angry! He was desperate! How could he just do that? Sometimes his every fiber, cell, and neuron simply decided they would fall in love again with that woman and just be complacent over being angry.
"Damn, I really love this woman."
"Damn!" Kaleb echoed.
"No don't say that!" Sezar said, turning to the back seats of the van.
"Tam!" Eliana yelled.
"I want Mama!" Kaleb demanded.
"Mama! —ungry!" Eliana cried out.
Sezar felt a tear coming out as the young driver finally drove away. It was his turn now.
"Damn! We are moving!"
Now the kids were playing with the word to see who would yell it louder.
"Mama... please hurry," he begged in a small whisper.
"I never asked for your name, Miss," said the gentle young man.
"Izella, and you?"
"Hai--I mean... Yes."
"How long since you arrived from Japan?" Izella wondered.
"Not much... two weeks I think, it was a Wednesday... so yeah I think it was too weeks ago."
"Are you fleeing the war ?"
"Too close to home, the China Sea. Father took the cheapest transport away from Japan as soon as the Chinese mobilized, something ticked different to him and... well here we are. We sailed by plane to Hawaii, and then we arrived here at the opportunity to work in a coffee plantation."
"You arrived through Vallarta?"
"Yes, from Yokohama, to Honolulu, then Vallarta."
"Why not the U.S.?"
"Uncle Okaba and my cousins traveled there, but they say there's plenty of unrest. Many people do not want war in a foreign country, and some families even blamed people who looked Asian just because they 'look similar' to the people they're fighting. Not down here, Miss Izella, Mexican people have been welcoming despite suffering from shortages."
"Well, if the big guys up there sneeze once, we get a fever. Imagine how things would be if they go to war—"
"Yes, but you people are happy and come together to eat tacos even in this all of this... back in Japan it was..."
Nobu's face turned somber, and Izella dared not to ask what was the matter. Then a single tear appeared on the lower lid of his face.
"It's okay, Mr. Nobu... Hey listen, I can't take away your frustrations, but I can surely say Tacos will warm up your heart, here... what are you ordering."
Nobu cleared his eyes and sniffed a bit, then looked at the menu on the post "It is our first time ordering tacos, so no, I wouldn't know, I'm here because I'm the only one who knows Spanish, and Father told me to be useful"
Izella pretended to be extremely shocked just to dramatize the moment, "You've been two weeks to Mexico and have not tried tacos? Did they not have some in Vallarta?"
"Well yes, but we were in a hurry," Nobu said, a bit embarrassed by Izella's act, "We really wanted to get going, since we were told the road trip to Chiapas was long, and since cellphone service has been tricky since the war started, getting a car that worked for the family was our priority."
"Ok, time to teach you the basics of every taco street stand. Listen well," Izella said, opening her arms outwards, "Some places may vary, and this is not standard by any means, but my husband would always say there are three essential realms to tacos, the Pastor trunk, the Bistec plate, and the Carnaza griddle... like this stand here. Do you see the orange trunk there? That's usually pork meat pickled with a delicious orange-based dressing, they sometimes add onion slices to the mix and it is coupled with pineapple cuts, that's why it has a pineapple inserted on top."
"I thought it was to distract the bugs or to bring good luck."
"Are you kidding me? It is a highly treasured pineapple, summit to every pastor taco we have..." Izella shook her head so as not to bring her gourmand fanatism upon the distressed highschooler, "anyway, for the Bistec plate, this is perhaps the most 'common-looking' meat you'll see, but each taquero may add its own dressing to the meat before even putting on the plate to cook it, in this case, this guy right here just puts some oil on the meat and chives next to it before placing it, only to then remove the onions and offer them separately."
"Why not pair it?"
"Customer preference, some people may like it together while others disregard the chives entirely."
"And, why do they put a cover over the meat on the Carnaza griddle?"
"Good question, because its meat is boiled instead of grilled, so they keep its aroma, juices, and flavor by isolating them with the covering. They're my daughter's favorites because the meat is always soft, easy to chew."
Nobu considered it while it was their turn.
"I'll go for some of each... realm, is that what you said Miss Izella?"
"Yes, that's how my husband labels it, but it's not a very popular label so don't go around using it."
"Right, I want enough for the family."
"How many are you?"
"We're five, my parents and my siblings."
Izella ordered a total of twenty-five tacos of all sorts for the Nobu family, and then she ordered 10 separately for her family. Her hand stopped Nobu when he reached for his wallet.
"Let us, we'll cover your family's first tacos."
"Miss Izella, it is an expensive order, let me pay it, we have money!"
"No no, you're away from home, It's still a half day's trip for you from here. Please allow us the courtesy."
"At least let me pay half!"
"It is done."
Nobu received his bags full of tacos, still not knowing how to react.
"Why? Why be so kind to someone you just met?"
Izella wondered for a second, but then she smiled, "It's what we the Rubicons do, we want people to be happy with food, it can bring calm in the middle of the storm. At least here, in our lands, we have always time for a good taco."
Nobu's eyes filled with tears, "Miss Izella, thank you."
Finally, Izella was coming with the bag of food towards them. Sezar lay defeated, his head leaning on the wheel as he drove out of the station. Everything had worked, in the end, how they had planned, just not in his own timeframe. Eliana was sleeping due to so much yelling, and Kaled already had watery eyes.
Izella jumped on the car and the tacos smell gained new power levels. Sezar drove to the side, by a small parking lot, and snatched his three tacos away from the bag in the middle of the two parents. Once he took the first bite, and the meaty fluids coupled with avocado sauce filled his mouth, he felt finally at peace.
"Hmmf!" he exclaimed, letting out a great fume of anguish in the process.
Izella laughed as she gave Kaleb his tacos and took her own.
"Who was the guy?" Sezar asked as he chewed.
"Him, oh he is... Mr. Nobu." said Izella, smiling.
"Mr. Nobu? He looks young."
"Yes, well that's how he introduced himself."
"Ah... was he...?"
"Japanese, yeah, what gave it away?"
"Him bowing down every time he apologized."
"Ah yes, he did that a lot."
"And... were you helping him with the tacos or...?"
"I invited him some tacos since it was his first time."
Sezar stopped chewing, "Invited him?"
"Yeah, he was quite distressed about coming to Mexico from Japan, you know? He was the only one who spoke Spanish in his family, and so I bought him the tacos."
"And... how many tacos did he order?"
Izella shrugged, "A lot."
"What's a lot?"
"Many, many tacos."
"How many?" he said, lowering his taco.
Sezar put his tacos next to him as calmly as he could, "With our own tacos, you paid a total of thirty tacos... that's our breakfast money you mentioned before."
"You knew this... and you went for it anyway?"
Izella lowered her eyes. Sezar was not even mad, it was just that this feeling of defeat the man had been feeling since Itzel left was now complete, full circle.
"W-why did you do this?"
Izella raised her eyes and saw him, gently, "Because that's what the Rubicons do."
Taken aback by this answer, he blinked a few times before coming to terms with her actions, and he felt a profound love for his wife, and suddenly his perceived defeat turned to an invigorated sense of strength.
He gently touched her hand and uttered "I love you." before starting the car.
"You are still missing two tacos, darling."
"Eliana will be very hungry, and Kaleb will ask for food in no time, I can have dinner once we get there."
Izella smiled, seeing her husband just smile and drive away.
Nobu was about to cross the street in order to get to the grocery store on the other side, where his father had parked out. Before he did, however, he managed to take one out, a Carnaza one and took a bite. The tender meat melted in his mouth, and the topping green sauce coupled with it massaged his entire head. This seasoned flavor was different from his land, and it was heartwarming. Another tear came out as he looked back at the Rubicon van driving away.
Nobu smiled, and as his mouth opened to say a simple 'thank you', other words came out instead with a certain dramatic intensity.
"To all the gods willing to listen, hasten a better, newer life for that family."
A thunder suddenly cracked in the sky, as if the heavens had heard the prayer.
Nobu then stepped into the highway, looking at his family resting in the car.
He stopped in his tracks as he saw a gigantic truck coming at him at full speed, pulling its brakes with all its might.
Nobu's senses paled, he was unable to move, it was all too fast. All he could do was to close his eyes.
He opened them slowly, expecting to be hit and, hopefully, reincarnate into another world. Instead, he saw the truck completely halted, its engine fuming out of the sheer pressure of stepping on those brakes.
"Hey kid, you okay?" the driver said, "I could've killed you, morro, get out of here!"
"Ah! Yes, I'm sorry!"
"Get out of here before I kick your ass out—aw damn it, motherfuck—"
Nobu could not perceive more of the ample vocabulary Mexicans had when angered, a category his Father had ordered him to censor no matter what,. He simply ran toward the car as the truck driver ranted over his exhausted engine and got it, proceeding to distribute the tacos.
Little did he know he had escaped a certain fate, one that was known to happen only to the Japanese through videogames and trucks, and occasionally, with the English and Americans through wardrobes, rabbit holes, and astral projections.
He had given up that fate once he, inspired by the power of hope instilled by tacos, aspired for a better life in Mexico.
That fate had moved, however, to others—more specifically, a certain family driving away in a van.