Last night I took a Guatemalan to dinner. Actually, we went to see a movie, and afterward ate at a Greek diner. The new Tarantino flick was partially in English, partially in Thai with English subtitles. I had decided on that particular film for my friend and me to see because it contained a lot of action, so it would be exciting, and because the storyline seemed like it would be easy to understand, even if the viewer understood little English. The added bonus was that it was by Tarantino, creator of my favorite, and my least favorite, movies of all time.
When we walked into the cinema, his jaw dropped. We were nearly the only people there on a Tuesday night, and our hushed voices echoed throughout the two-story lobby, surrounded by blinking arcade games and pinball machines. As he always does when we go places, he hung back, as I bought our tickets and made chatty small talk with the woman behind the cash register. His crossed arms, held tightly against his chest, belied his self consciousness.
Inside the theater, we had our choice of seats as there were only three other people there. We sat in the center, about a third of the way back. He smiled and remarked ironically on the small size of the enormous screen. I asked if he had been to this cinema before, and he answered no. In fact, this was the first time he had ever been to a movie theater at all. Before the movie had even started, he asked when we could go to the theater again. He enjoyed the movie, and asked when it would be available on DVD.
After the movie, we were both hungry, and I knew of a 24-hour diner nearby, so we went. The place is opulent in a way that reminds me of visiting old people - white leather-like vinyl upholstery, gold gilt and chandeliers. Sparkly lights. The place was totally empty with the exception of the owner, a waitress, and whoever was working in the kitchen. I mentioned to my friend that I had met a guatemalteco at a dance who works here in the kitchen. My friend also works in a kitchen, and after our meal of chicken livers and fried fish, he tidied up the table, carefully stacking the plates and wiping off the table with a napkin. He is considerate in ways only one who has worked in resturants can be.
My friend seldom eats in restaurants, besides the Mexican resturant in which he works. Most places are closed by the time he gets out of work at 10 pm. He has worked in a diner, so he's familiar with diner menus, although he still shyly asks me if I will order for him because he is self-conscious speaking his fledgling English. He is becoming acquainted with American food; I keep my eye on him and gently stop him before he pours tartar sauce on his salad. It looks just like ranch dressing. He sniffs the plastic cup of Italian dressing intended for his salad and raising his eyebrows, takes a guess: "Caldo de pollo?" "No, it's for your salad," I smile back. He shakes his head and lowers his black eyes, "Que vergüenza."
I take for granted all the little tasks involved in going places and doing things in a society I´ve grown up in. He is eager to learn English, but embarrassed to practice it. He wants to experience the United States, but has no idea where to begin. There is always the possibility that he will draw too much attention to himself, get into trouble and get deported.
I love taking him places and watching his confidence grow. One of the first places we ever went was to an outdoor ice cream stand. I had somehow mispronounced "helado," so he didn´t know what to expect until we arrived. He didn´t want to get out of the car and join the line of people. He did finally get out of the car, and we huddled and discussed the myriad flavors in hushed Spanish until I placed our order in bold English.
"Vergüenza" is a word he uses often; it means shame or embarrassment. But every time we go to the mall, to a restaurant or to a park, his arms relax a little more, and he utters the word a little less often.