I cannot leave Miami without having a café con leche and empanadas one last time. That was my first thought this morning as I rose from my makeshift bed on the tile floor of my beach bungalow. I had slept on a pile of comforters all night and I was hungry and caffeine starved.
I looked at the time. Damn, it was getting late. My friends would be here any moment to help move my furniture. I had no time to run to the Argentinian bakery in the corner for my morning fuel.
The phone rang. My friend Cris was here to pick up some chairs. “I’m downstairs,” he told me. He made his way up to the front door. I opened the door and thought I was staring at a stranger.
My friend had changed in the past six months! He was wearing glasses, his mannerism were different and there was a certain peacefulness about him that was very different from the tightly wound former Marine that I knew.
He quickly got to work with the rope and the furniture. I told him I was hungry and needed coffee and he offered to go pick up my favorite morning treat. I felt bad about sending him off on a favor instead of sticking to today’s moving agenda.
Just at that moment my friend Ellen called. “Baby, we’re at Buenos Aires bakery and want to know if you want café con leche. We are bringing over empanadas.” Really? Oh thank God!
“Yes, please!” I gushed on the phone as I counted my blessing for having such a wonderful friend.
Ellen and her boyfriend Pablo live three blocks from me. We all worked together at Talula. They are the best friends I have in Miami. I moved to that neighborhood to be closer to them, my job and my favorite bar.
The bond between Ellen and I is a rock. We’ve been there for each other in the good, the bad, and the ugly. I will sure miss our bike rides along the beach and our late night chats while watching Top Chef and chilling after work.
When my mother died it was Ellen who held my hands while I received the shocking news. As I held the phone to my ear, I looked deep into Ellen’s blue eyes for comfort while my brother cried on the phone that “Mami died.”
Those are probably the most terrible two words I have ever heard in my life. The circumstances couldn’t have been any worse for me at that moment.
It was Easter Sunday and I was working the carving station at Talula all afternoon. In the kitchen, we are not allowed to use our phones so I didn’t notice the 17 missed calls until I excused myself to go to the ladies room.
I wondered what was going on. There were several missed calls from my brother Jesus and my mother’s husband Diego. Then phone calls from Puerto Rico, Virginia, Arizona. That’s when I felt my world crashing.
I walked up to Ellen, who was working the hostess stand, and said, “I think something is wrong with my mother.”
Ellen said not to worry that everything will be ok. I said, “No, Ellen. Something is wrong. I would not be receiving all these calls if everything was not ok.”
Knowing my mother, I jokingly told Ellen that there we only three possibilities: “Either she killed someone, she’s in jail, or she’s dead.”
Luckily, service was winding down and not too many guests remained at the buffet so I did not have to return to the carving station.
Ellen accompanied me to the into Chef Andrea’s office. Andrea was gone for the day but a few of the guys were in the office looking at stuff on the computer. We passed them and settled into the back room with all the linen so I could have quiet time for calling my family.
I don’t know exactly how it happened but I ended up getting in touch with my sister-in-law Siobhan, my brother Robert’s wife. Siobhan is one of my best friends and I could feel alarm in her voice. I gave the phone to Ellen.
All of my coworkers had been cracking jokes the whole time but suddenly fell silent. Everything was quiet around me. I needed to sit but didn’t see a chair. I decided a stack of fresh kitchen towels was the best seating I was going to find under the circumstances.
Ellen passed me the phone. “Baby, Siobhan wants to tell you something.” I don’t know if my heart was racing, I don’t know what I thought, I just know that Ellen knelt before me and held my hands. She looked deep in my eyes the whole time I was on the phone.
With shaky fingers, I held the phone to my ear. “Siobhan, what happened?”
“Rose, your brother wants to talk to you.”
I think I stopped breathing by then.
My brother Robert was weeping on the phone and I just knew. I just knew what the bad news was. I called my brother by his childhood nickname. “Maco, who is it? Is it mami or papi?”
For a split second I thought, please God don’t let it be papi because I don’t know what I would do. I can take my mother’s death but not my father’s. My mother had been sick for so long I had already begun conditioning myself for the blow. But nothing prepares you.
Between sobs, my brother declared that “Mami died.”
I found myself comforting my brother as tears streamed down my face.
“Maco, remember that Mami lives in us. Her blood is our blood and it will always run through our bodies. It’s ok. Mami was sick.”
I looked around me. All of the guys I worked with were silently staring at me with tears streaking their faces. I could not break down now. Not here. Not on the stack of linen I was sitting on. Not with all of my coworkers looking at me with faces of shock. No, I could not break down and I did not break down.
Out of the nowhere there was a cup of chamomile green tea in my hand that had been sweetened with honey. Somehow I made it to the office chair in front of Chef Andrea’s computer. I needed to go online.
The reporter in me kicked in. I was all business now. I began my newspaper career writing obituaries so I knew what came next. I needed to look for funeral homes.
My brother Jesus called. He was a momma’s boy till the end. He wouldn’t stop crying on the phone. He was at my mother’s apartment so he and my sister had seen her body. He was traumatized.
“Describe her to me, please,” I begged him. He said Mami was wearing a white tank top and light blue shorts and was barefoot. She died in her sleep so her body was found on her bed with her arms extended like a cross. An eerie fact being that she died Easter morning.
“Are her toe nails painted?” I asked, not knowing why but wanting a full picture of what she last looked like.
“No, they are not painted.”
The paramedics were wheeling my mother out of the house now and the police was asking where they should take the body.
“They want to take her to Chiacchio Funeral Home,” my brother said between tears.
“No. Mami will receive the best. Send her to Saul Funeral Homes.”
From experience I knew that Saul Funeral Homes were the most professional in town. My mother would have the best funeral services we could possibly afford. So help me God!
Ellen took care of me that awful Easter Sunday until my boyfriend came to get me. Ellen held my hand then and many other times when I needed the comfort of a friend.
As I prepare to leave Miami, I look around me. Ellen and Pablo are waiting for me on the balcony. They greet me with a big hug and quickly hand me my coffee.
I savor my last café con leche in Miami and I sink my teeth into a spinach empanada. Que rico!
Oh, those spinach empanadas are delightful. The inside tastes a bit like the spinach filling of spanakopita. Instead of being rolled in puff pastry like the Greeks do, the spinach filling is encansed into a buttery rich Argentinian empanada dough.
They are rolled into a little purse so they can be easily distinguished from the meat filled empanadas. Then they are baked until golden brown.
As the breeze flows through my balcony, Ellen, Pablo, Cris and I are sharing our last few laughs. It’s crunch time now so the boys start packing the cars. After a few rides to and from my apartment, Ellen and Pablo come back to say goodbye.
I hug Pablito and tell him I love him. That he is a great friend and that we will meet each other again.
When I turn to Ellen, she is already crying. I hug her and tell her she’s going to make me cry.
“Where are my books?” she says. For once, she stopped crying.
I proceed to give Ellen two books I’m dedicating to her. One is a motivational book about making your dreams come true. The other is a cookbook from my collection. It’s a book on knife skills that I’m sure will improve her talent in the kitchen.
She opens the book and reads my dedication.
“Dear Ellen, may this book give you the knowledge and confidence you need to become the best chef I know you can be. I believe in you!”
Then tears start flowing again. “I’m going to miss you, Rosita”
We hug each other tight. I know in my heart this will not be the last time we see each other.
“Baby, this is a lifelong friendship. You think you can get rid of me that easily?” I jokingly say.
“I love you, baby.”
“I love you too.”
As I walked them out to the door I thanked them for their wonderful friendship.
Before they walked away I said one last thing. “Thank you and for my last café con leche and empanadas in Miami.”