It was the tenth anniversary of Usnavi's parent's death, and somehow waking up on that date became little bit more difficult every year. As his alarm clock blared, Usnavi stared at the numbers with blurry eyes and slammed the off button. No matter what the date on the calendar said, he still had to get up in the early morning and run the store because life never stopped without death. His mother and father would have wanted him to go on with business as usual, but every year the anniversary passed and he was still working at the bodega, he felt like a failure. He knew that where he belonged was back home in the Domincan Republic.
With a quick motion, he thrust open the curtains to the window that connected to the fire escape. The sun was just rising above the horizon, but that didn't mean he was the only one awake in the city. Nina Rosario, Usnavi's best friend and recent junior in high school, was leaning out the window across from him listening to the sounds of the city. Usnavi had already graduated high school, but he couldn't leave like he knew Nina was going to do in a few years. He didn't have the money and the timing certainly wasn't right. Nina, on the other hand, was going to make it big. She was a genius.
"Rosario!" He yelled, opening up his window and pulling on his classic hat. She brushed her hair away from her faced and looked at him with sad, sympathetic eyes. "Aw, come on now, don't do that." He then climbed out the window and sat on the fire escape, staring at the sunrise. "You know I don't like it when you do that."
Nina did the same, sitting across the street on her own fire escape and putting on the happiest smile that she could. "Hey there, Captain." Usnavi laughed. 'Captain' was a nickname Nina had come up with when they were younger after she had found out he was named after a boat labeled 'U.S. Navy'.
"Fun day at school today?" Usnavi asked. Nina rolled her eyes at him. She knew that he was just trying to distract himself, so she did her best to entertain him.
"Mid-terms are coming up, so I was studying all night long. No time for breaks, ya know?" She said, leaning against the brick of her building. It was then that Usnavi noticed the book in her lap. Who knows how long she had been awake.
He checked his watch and saw that Nina had at least another half an hour before she had to be at school, so he asked, "You sure you don't have a few minutes to help me open up shop?"
Nina set her book down inside her room and then yelled out through the window, "I'll race ya!" She then shut the window with a goofy grin on her face. Usnavi, realizing that he had quite a bit of ground to cover, did the same, running at the fastest speed that his legs could muster up so early in the morning. Even with her headstart, Usnavi made it down to the bodega at least thirty seconds before Nina did. He began to unlock the grate that covered the store. Nina ran to him, completely out of breath, and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Not fair! I had to run so much farther than you."
"Hey, you got a headstart," Usnavi laughed, turning around to face her. She looked up to him, keeping her arms around his neck but had to stand on her tippy toes. Her eyes became sad once again, as she saw the fake smile plastered all over his face. "Come on now, none of that. It's just any other day."
"I love you, you know that?" Nina asked rhetorically. Growing up, Usnavi was always like a big brother to Nina. Both growing up too fast in the same neighborhood, they found comfort in one another. There was never anything romantic between the two of them, but Usnavi tended to be incredibly protective over the girl. Without parents to protect him, Usnavi took on the role for anyone that became close to him. Abuela, Nina, and Sonny were the most prominent people in his life in that regard. When Nina felt immense pressure from her parents, she would always run to Usnavi to lift it off her shoulders. Most of the time, Usnavi knew that she was harder on herself than anyone else could be on her.
"I know, I know," Usnavi assured her. "You wanna make the coffee today?" A shocked look appeared on Nina's face.
"You're going to let me make the coffee?" She beamed.
"I trust you. Remember, light and sweet. Light and sweet," he confirmed. "If you make it right, you can have a cup for free." With a steady hand, she measured the grounds and added the milk, making sure all of the measurements were perfect. Usnavi didn't give out free coffee to just anyone.
Well, except for maybe Vanessa. With her school bag slung over her shoulder, she sauntered through the door, the little bell above it ringing brightly. Usnavi's mouth immeadiately dropped open with cartoon hearts basically popping out of his eyes. "Morning, Usnavi. Nina," she said while popping her gum.
"Good morning, Vanessa. Coffee?" Nina asked after a moment of silence from Usnavi. She poured some of the sweet liquid into the cup for her, knowing that the answer would be yes. The barrio basically lived on Usnavi's coffee.
"Mm!" She swooned, taking a sip. "Usnavi! This is your best batch yet!" Nina snickered as she poured out a bit of coffee for herself.
"Well, actually, Nina made it. So of course it's perfect," Usnavi laughed. Nina rolled her eyes at the word 'perfect'. She wasn't perfect; in fact she was far from it. Her grades were good, but she constantly felt like she was missing something.
Nina glanced at the clock and saw that if she didn't hurry, she would be late. "I should be going, 'Nessa, you wanna come with me? If we don't leave soon we'll be tardy." Vanessa shook her head. Senioritis, Nina assumed. "Okay, I'll see you at school. Coffee still on you, captain?"
"You got it, Rosario," Usnavi responded and with that she left the bodega and made her way to the high school, her nose in her book and a headphone in one ear. "Vanessa, you're gonna be late."
"I know, but I needed to wait for Nina to leave. I got you a present, but it's not one that we can share with Nina," Vanessa hinted. Usnavi raised an eyebrow, wondering what she had up her sleeve. If they couldn't share it with Nina, it was probably something that she would disapprove of.
"Vanessa, you didn't have to get me anything, it's just another day…" He said, trailing off when he saw what Vanessa was pulling out of her bag. It was a bottle of champagne still in its brown paper bag. She set it down on the counter with a proud look on her face. "How'd you swing that?" He asked. She was only eighteen, so it was illegal for her to buy any kind of alcohol.
"I have my ways," she boasted. "Do you have any glasses?" Usnavi whipped his head around trying to find something suitable for the gift that Vanessa had presented him.
"I've got coffee cups, but I don't think it'll taste very good in the Styrofoam," Usnavi chattered, his mouth running at a million miles a minute as it always did.
"How about this, I'll come back tonight with real glasses when you're off work and I'm out of school, and we'll drink this together," Vanessa replied, trying to calm his nerves. She then slipped the bottle back into her bag.
"Alright, alright. I think I can manage that," Usnavi smiled. "Your coffee is on the house." Vanessa gave him a wide grin as she walked through the door again.
Then, Usnavi was alone. Sonny didn't end up going to school, but he would let it go today instead of pushing him to make more of an effort. He knew that today was just as hard on Sonny as it was on him. The only thing he could think about all day long was the time that he was going to have with Vanessa that night. Still, he wiped counters, bagged grocery items, and sold coffee like it was any other day. That's what he had to keep telling himself; that it was just any other day. He wasn't about to cry. He was a role model, and if he lost it Sonny would surely lose it too and he couldn't have that. It was just any other day.
Before he knew it, it was three o'clock and Nina was making her daily stop after school at the bodega. "Usnavi!" She yelled, running through the door. "I did it! I got into the honor society! Look, there's a certificate and everything!" She flashed the piece of paper in his face and then placed it down proudly on the countertop. Usnavi flipped it around so that the paper was facing him correctly while scanning the page with wild eyes.
"Nina, this is fantastic! I'm not surprised at all," he hollered. "Do you want coffee or something to eat maybe? Gee, Nina, I'm just so proud of you!" Nina beamed at his words.
"Coffee please," she replied, the smile not even close to leaving her face. He poured her a cup and leaned against the countertop, reading the certificate over and over again. "You wanna come over for dinner tonight? My parents are throwing a little celebration dinner and there's plenty to eat. I don't want you to be alone tonight."
"Oh, I don't know Nina. I sort of have plans," he muttered.
"Plans?" She questioned. Usnavi was a hardworker. He rarely got out, and when he did it was usually with Nina or Benny and they just hung out together at the Rosario's. It wasn't that he didn't have any other friends; it was just that he usually didn't make time for them.
"With Vanessa," he muttered once again. "She's coming over to the bodega after we close."
"Vanessa," Nina repeated with sing song voice. "Whatcha gonna do with Vanessa." Usnavi rolled his eyes at her. He couldn't tell her what they were actually going to do, because she would totally disapprove. Vanessa was eighteen and Usnavi was twenty, so technically drinking the champagne and any other alcohol that she happened to bring along would be illegal. But, he was romanticizing the idea of drinking that night. He wanted to forget and be happy for at least a little while on a day that was always filled with clouded and painful thoughts.
"We're just going to hang out, I guess. I mean, I don't know," he stammered. Nina raised an eyebrow at him.
"Sure, you're just going to hang out. It's not a date or anything," she replied.
"No, no dates tonight, Rosario. I'd tell you if it was a date, you know that."
"Sure, Captain," Nina sarcastically responded.
"So here's your present," Vanessa said, placing the brown paper bag down on the counter for the second time that day. "And here's some glasses. I had to take them from my mom's china cabinet, but she was drunk I doubt she even noticed."
Usnavi pulled the bottle out of the bag and studied the label. This was some cheap shit, but it was still good shit. Anything that took the edge off was good enough for him. "Mind if I pour?" He asked, wanting to get right to it. Vanessa nodded, and Usnavi filled the two glasses after struggling to get it open. She sipped at hers, but he immeadiately downed his. Vanessa raised an eyebrow as if to say, slow down, but she would never dare to say that to him aloud, especially on a day like today.
"Complete shit," she stated, making a disgusted face at her glass, but continued to drink anyways. "You want more?" Usnavi eagerly nodded. The second time, he didn't drink it all in one gulp, but at least half of it was gone in a breath. He was already starting to feel more relaxed.
"Thanks for bringing this, ya know, because you really didn't have to. It's just another day," Usnavi muttered as he continued to drink. It left a bitter taste in his mouth but he sort of liked it. Vanessa was still on her first glass while Usnavi was almost on his third. She had all sorts of things that she'd like to drink away and forget, but she preferred to do that alone.
"It really wasn't a big deal, just thought you'd like some company," Vanessa responded, her gaze not meeting his.
Seven glasses later for Usnavi and two for Vanessa, the two of them were sitting on the floor of the bodega, leaning against the register desk while Usnavi swirled the small bit of champagne that was left in the bottle. "So why champagne?" He asked, staring at the liquid.
"What?" Vanessa replied, contemplating drinking her last sip. Usnavi was getting more drunk by the minute but Vanessa thought that at least one of them should be semi competent.
"Why'd you choose champagne? It's not like we have anything to celebrate," he clarified, his words slurring together.
"Champagne is a happy drink. I thought we could use a little happiness," she responded, taking the bottle from his hands. "But, as I said before, this is complete shit. I think you've had enough, though." Usnavi giggled, something he hadn't done in a long while. "What?" She asked, trying to hold him up from falling completely onto the floor.
"When do you think the next time you and I have something to celebrate will be? 20 years? 30?" He continued to laugh. Vanessa had a puzzled look on her face. "No, but really. When's something really good going to happen to us? When are we going to get to drink the expensive champagne?" He took the bottle from her hands. "I've got an idea. The day that you move downtown or get some fancy job, I'll buy you really nice champagne. The day that I get out of the barrio, you buy me a bottle. Deal? Come on, Vanessa, it'll be fun!" He turned to her, grabbing her hands while they were both still on their knees. Vanessa smiled. Usnavi was such a child when he was drunk, but she thought it was fun. Champagne would be their thing. Years from that day, when everything changed, they would still have their deal and their champagne.
"You got a deal, Usnavi."