I leaned my left shoulder down, reaching my hand below the tablecloth, and little la Lulú nibbled the meat from my fingers, her tiny canines suggesting how small her body must be under all that fluffy white fur.
“Oye, Santiago, mi’jo. No lo hagas, porfa.” [Son, please, don’t do that...]
“Disculpe.” [I’m sorry.] That was one of the first phrases I’d learned.
My mamá made a hissing sound with her teeth--“ssssst, Lulú!” And the little white dog ran from under the table cloth and up the stairs, her collar tinkling as she went. She perched herself at the top of the stairs and looked down at me, licking her chops to thank me for the human food.
[This meat is called vacuno], my mamá said, [which means it’s from a cow. Do you like it, Santiago?]
“Si, muy. Es muy bien.” And I nodded my head--more certain with gestures than with words. It tasted pretty much like beef from home.
Two days later we were sitting on the porch. I played musical chairs against myself, first to get out of the sun, and then to get out of the barbecue smoke--both times trying to avoid becoming the smelly gringo, as gringo was already bad enough. My mamá was talking with her husband, Señor Burns. La Lulú walked over, and I reached down and scratched her under the ears.
[Come over here, Santiago. Come get some food.] I walked over and held out my glass plate--they didn’t use paper like in the states. Señor Burns forked a large chunk of meat off the grill onto my plate. He glanced at me with his blue eyes and gave a sympathetic half smile, but he didn’t say anything. He never really talked to me. Of course, he never really talked to his wife either. “E’te se llama chancho,” she continued. [This one’s called chancho. It means it’s the meat of a pig.]
I wanted to say--have you seen Nacho Libre? But I didn’t. I just nodded and repeated, “Chancho. Si.” And I quietly ate my chancho.
I got home from class the next day, threw my backpack on my bed, and came down for dinner--I mean la cena. Señor Burns was gone. And that would mean just me and mamá. I lifted the table cloth, but la Lulú wasn’t around either.
Trying to make conversation last a whole dinner made me wish I didn’t have to eat dinner at all. I pulled a pot toward me that was filled with a white gravy and poured a ladle-full onto my rice and saw a small piece of white meat. I fished around till I got a few more chunks. As I chewed, the meat was tough, tougher than most chicken I’d had. But maybe it was turkey. Or maybe it had gone bad in that tiny hotel refrigerator of theirs.
Mamá was just eating vegetables. I thought maybe she was watching her weight. Which was a good idea.
We sat there in silence. I glanced up and saw her watching me eat, and then looked down at my plate as I chewed. I swallowed quickly, wanting to get the awkwardness and rancid taste over as quick as I could. But it wasn’t fast enough. There had to be something I could say.
“Y, uh, que carne?” [What meat?] I asked.
“Si. Como te gu’ta la carne?” [How do you like the meat?]
“Me gusta la carne. Es muy bien.”
Then it was quiet again. I kept choking it down.
“Es pollo?” I asked. [Is chicken?]
[No. No it’s not chicken,] she replied.
I scooped the last bite into my mouth.
“La carne es...? Uh...” I didn’t know the word for turkey. “La carne es...” [Something?]
I glanced down the hallway for la Lulú. But she wasn’t on her perch at the top of the stairs.
“Si. Carne, no mas,” she said with a fake smile. [It’s just meat.]