Coke

Somebody told me one time that life is made of moments. It really isn’t; life is made of mistakes. It was a mistake to move a thousand miles away for a graduate program I couldn’t afford. It was a mistake to break up with the man I had been seeing for five years to ease my own conscience. It was a mistake to call back the federal office that contacted me about a covert operation that needed the talents of an intelligent, female criminal justice student, fluent in Spanish and with no drug record.

Special Agent Nathan Hurst was the one who told me that stupid platitude. “Life,” he said, sneaking a drag off a cigarette underneath the “No Smoking” sign on the cafe patio, “is all about moments. There’s good moments and bad moments. I can promise you there will be bad moments in this — you’ll be dealing with some scary people, Ms. Salinas. But in the end, I can promise you there will be a good moment, when we can take down this cartel, once and for all.” I shuffled back and forth and feigned a sip off my cold coffee; the Feds had gotten in touch with me, not the other way around, but I was looking for something — anything — to get my mind off the hellhole my life had become. “You’d be in deep cover for around a year,” he continued after a moment of polite silence. “I can get a brief and a bio ready for you in about two weeks. You’d go in next month. But no one, and I mean no one, can know.”

That was the easy part. I was avoiding my phone and social media anyway. I didn’t want my parents concerned about me; I couldn’t stand the thought of them telling me to move back. I couldn’t handle the shame. I had abandoned everyone I knew to follow something I honestly knew wouldn’t work out, choosing the pretentious sounding out-of-state program to try and make myself feel more important than the smallish-town girl with a half-Mexican father and a mild interest in the court system. But most of all, I was utterly terrified of seeing what Jack was doing now that I had left. I think he was getting about ready to propose when I called him and asked to meet him at the hole-in-the-wall donut shop he liked. He bought us both a couple of Cokes and we sat down at a table near the door. I told him what I was doing — we’d already talked about it and he was supportive — but that I couldn’t handle the distance. I heard the breath catch in his throat. He never would cry in public, so he just coughed out an “I understand,” and sat there for about fifteen more minutes awkwardly trying to wish me luck and part amicably. I eventually said a hasty goodbye and walked out the door, but not before noticed his hand, loosely holding his drink, was shaking and shining with sweat. That was the last time I’d seen him.

I was expected to be a Gun Moll, essentially; cozy up to the murdering rapists who were running drugs in southeast Texas until I had enough dirt to arrange a sting. If life was made of moments, then mine sure has been made of shitty ones, because letting a man who uses children to smuggle cocaine fondle your hair is certainly in the “bad moments” category.

I had been under for about six months. I was with several men, a couple of whom were higher-ups in whatever the hell syndicate I was involved with, and they had pulled over to refill their gas tanks and talk with a contact who worked at the garage there. I had gone inside to get a Coke; my hair was slicked back in a ponytail and you could see my bra through the white tank top I was wearing. Before I used to like wearing skirts and sweaters, but when you’re running with these kinds of people, they aren’t exactly into that. I rummaged through my purse and pulled a couple wadded ones from my wallet and popped the top on a bottle opener at the checkstand.

“Elizabeth?” I didn’t react. They’d changed my name because my old one was too White, my mother’s doing. “Elizabeth Salinas?”

Somewhere deep in my skull a synapse fired and I turned at the impulse.

“Hey,” the voice quivered, as the familiar lips parted to reveal the saddest smile I’ve ever seen. It was Jack. “Fancy running into you here!”

My eyes darted to the man at the cash register; he was an older man, an illegal immigrant my new gangster friends were helping stay under the radar. The only English words he knew were numbers and “Thank you,” so he wasn’t much of a threat. But it was still drilled into me to run — not only by my training but also by my own inability to face the only man I ever loved. I stood in silence, feeling naked in this strange outfit in this desolate part of the world

“I’m driving out to my sister’s wedding,” he swallowed hard. “You remember David? He proposed about a year ago.” I rubbed my thumb hard against the glass lip of the bottle in my hand, trying to discover an out. He looked down at my hands and laughed a little, in a lonely sort of way. “Always did like Mexicokes, like me,” he held up the identical one in his own hand.

I wanted to grab that stupid bottle from his hands and kiss him and tell him I was so sorry and just wanted out of this Hell of my own creation and to take me back home where I was safe and warm and sane, but instead I twisted the belt loop on my shorts and looked at the empty space above his head. Then, even though every good fiber in my body strained for me to stay, I pushed the door behind me open and left. The door swung shut behind me, and I was able to catch, just for a second, those hazel eyes I had dreamed about every night for the year and a half since I had left him, on the verge of tears and holding a Coke.