*Truth is, I was looking for a trellis when I met Angelica. You know: one of those wooden structures on which plants grow. One weekday evening in the summer of 1994 I’d gone to an airplane hangar-sized home and garden center in L.A. with the bright idea of growing bougainvillea on my back patio.
Angelica, working in the store’s garden department, knew all about trellises. In addition to width and height, she insisted construction strength was a factor.
“The ones back home were strangled by my mother’s roses,” she said matter of factly. “Just crushed the trellis apart. You have to get the right trellis for the right plant.”
Standing among giant outdoor planters, fertilizer and shelves of weed killer, our conversation segued from plants to the seven years Angelica had lived in Los Angeles, here from her native Mexico City. She’d just turned 30.
Angelica told me about her trade school courses and ambitions in health care. She lived with her brother, seven years her junior, in a home in East L.A. owned by her parents, who lived in Mexico City. I was sold on both the trellis and the lady selling it.
Smitten but unclear whether I’d mistaken superlative customer service for something else, the next day I called the store and thanked Angelica for helping me with all my trellis needs.
“Is that it?” she said, her voice smiling. “You didn’t call to ask me what time I take lunch?”
In a month, we did three lunches at the McDonald’s across from her job, which led to a couple of dinner dates–that allowed me to see Angelica out of that green polo shirt with the yellow company logo and admire her Tommy Hilfiger-meets-post punk-Melrose Avenue style.
When Angelica invited me to her home to cook for me, I was a bit nervous. For the 21 years I’d lived in Los Angeles, all I knew about the community east of downtown was that supposedly it is to Hispanics what South Central Los Angeles is to Blacks. It was where “they” lived.
A buddy’s response to where I was headed that evening didn’t help. “Those draws must be damn good,” he quipped, assuming there’d been sex. “’Mexican gangs HATE niggas. Be cool.”
Angelica’s street looked kind of rough when I turned onto it, before altering mid-avenue into a delightful, quiet haven resembling Mayberry.
My destination was a narrow, two-story white clapboard with gray trim. In the driveway was Angelica’s little faded green Toyota, which I pulled up behind. Up the side of the house, on a trellis, of course, ran a stunning growth of white roses.
Standing in the open doorway and watching me manage a supermarket flower bouquet and a bottle of red was a barefoot Angelica, striking in a flowing, white sleeveless cotton mumu, her mess of dark curls up on her head to reveal gold ear hoops.
Inside her cozy and smartly furnished digs permeated the heavenly aroma of a Mexican feast. I asked where her brother was. “He’s upstairs,” Angelica replied, her voice lowering in honor of what she said. Those words explained the slight parting of one of the blinds in the upstairs window that I noticed as I got out of my car.
“He’s more nervous about us than I am,” she continued. “He just wants me to be happy.”
Indeed, after dinner Angelica seemed quite happy on the couch where we made out, my wine-fueled amorousness tempered by the thought of little brother suddenly ambling down the stairs, which never happened.
I left her place about eleven that night, again under the watchful eyes of whoever was behind that bent window blind. Beyond the terminal wrinkling of my blue oxford shirt and white pants, nothing had happened. I liked Angelica and didn’t want to foil the possibilities by moving too fast.
A week later we dined in a funky yet charming little seafood place in her neighborhood, packed mostly with Hispanics, but some whites and blacks, too. So much for East L.A. not being welcoming to all.
Angelica said she especially appreciated my willingness to visit her in her community and in her home. Chic Hollywood restaurants aside, home was where she felt most comfortable. I was happy to oblige.
Leaving Mayberry a little after midnight, I felt the emotional groundwork being laid for something special. Her brother and I had yet to meet, but that night I wasn’t spied on from the upstairs window as I came and went. That felt like progress.
In any case, all that writhing on Angelica’s couch that evening gave me a sugar rush. Before leaving her neighborhood I stopped at a local 7-11 and picked up some candy bars. I’d just reached my car in the empty lot when out of nowhere appeared four Hispanic young men.
“Yo, homie,” the smallest one began. “Where you from?”
“What do you mean, ‘Where am I from?’” I’d later learn that question, gang-related, is rhetorical. Any answer is moot. Translation: You’re on my turf. This is what my buddy warned me about. Shit.
“What’s up, brother,” I said, pointedly, attempting to put a can of ass-whup in my tone. Without a can opener.
“I got this muthafucka,” said the taller one in a black stocking cap with a Raiders logo and black and white bandana covering his nose and mouth.
In one movement he grabbed me by my white button down shirt at its neck while reaching around to my back jean pocket and taking my wallet. Shoving me up against my car door, he kneed me, just missing my groin. I dropped the candy.
“When I was in County, muthafuckas like you used to suck my muthafuckin’ dick.” Laughter all around. “If I see yo’ black ass again muthafucka, after you suck all our dicks, Ima slit yo’ throat and shit in it.”
With that, he backed off, staring disdainfully. I wanted to ask why in the world all this anger for a complete stranger, but instinctively knew this was no time for an Oprah moment. Over his shoulder, in the background, I noticed one of those assholes munching my Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
And then they were gone. Didn’t see a car; didn’t see where they went on foot. I didn’t care. Shaking like a leaf in the wind, I drove through two lights getting out of there. I’d have kissed the cop who pulled me over.
My father used to say no matter what dread we experience in life, take solace in the fact that things could be worse. He didn’t use “dread” or “solace.” Those are my words. But considering that I got home in one piece without Latino penis on my breath, I figured I came out ahead.
However, I felt terrible. Not just because of how those punks treated me or that my stolen wallet had $300 in it. I felt bad–and rather shallow–because I was clear on the fact that I wouldn’t be visiting Angelica again. Not at the risk of my life. I reached for the phone but decided the least I could do was tell her in person.
The next morning I left a message at her job’s personal voice mail extension asking her to meet me for lunch. She didn’t confirm she’d be there but when I walked into McDonald’s, she was already at “our” table. She’d ordered my usual for me, the fish filet sandwich with fries.
I came up behind her, leaned in, gave her a kiss and then took a seat in front of her. She looked as if she hadn’t slept.
“Here,” she said, pushing across the table my wallet.
“I am so, so very sorry,” she softly began, her eyes welling up with water. “Last night, you met Jose—my brother. I am so ashamed.”
Angelica explained that her brother came home about two in the morning, woke her and told her what had happened: He and his friends were out looking for someone to jack when they came upon me at the 7-11. Jose, immediately recognizing me, stepped in before the rest of the guys could get busy.
“Yeah, well, he stepped in alright,” I said. “Your brother did me no favors.”
“He told me what he did to you,” Angelica said. “He’s so sorry about that, but he HAD to make it look real. Those guys were gonna do way worse. He split your money with them but he replaced it with his own.” I opened my wallet; everything was there.
Perhaps Jose had saved my life, but not because he wanted me to be with his sister. “I hate to say this,” said Angelica, “but my brother is a racist.
“When I told him I met somebody and mentioned that you were black, he went crazy. He called our parents and got them all up about it. I feel like a coward saying this, but…I don’t think we can see one another. You don’t deserve it.”
I’ll be damn. Here I’d come to tell her I couldn’t do this, and she fell on the sword before I could. I took her to my car so that we could have a modicum of privacy. We embraced and cried together for reasons that were different but the same.
After that day, our phone communication, which went on for about a month, was sporadic and friendly, but felt obligatory. One day I called and she just didn’t call back. That was that.
However, Angelica was right about the particular trellis she suggested. The bougainvillea didn’t crush it. Instead, the plant seemed to caress and weave itself around that trellis, like a lover.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]