Our eyes locked unexpectedly as we stood in line at the DMV. I recognized her at once, even after more than two decades. I could tell she was struggling to place me, and I had no intention of helping her along. The pain she inflicted on me was not something I would ever forget, though it had long since stopped being a source of suffering.
We met twenty-three years ago, she having started working towards her Master’s in Nursing. I was a struggling undergraduate, in spite of the fact that I was a few years older than her. She came from a wealthy family, with all the attendant privileges you might expect. Needless to say, though I’m going to say it, she never had to worry about money, or how she was going to pay for her tuition and other expenses.
I, on the other hand, was a product of extreme poverty. I grew up in a poor family, with parents who also came from poor families. Schooling was tolerated only because it was mandated, and my family had no use for book learning. I, however, yearned for more. I wanted nothing more than to escape the soul-crushing reality of our existence.
So I worked hard, earned a few scholarships, but otherwise had to work to make ends meet. Sometimes I had to skip a semester in order to save up enough money to continue. I could have taken out loans, but my family preached against that, and at the time I fell for their misguided belief. The upside to this was that I left college without the immense debt that saddled many of my fellow students.
I was working as a janitor at the time, spending most of my time in the Medical building cleaning the restrooms, classroom, and occasionally the labs. I was cleaning the biology lab at the time, trying to get done early so I could go to my room to study, when a group of graduate students, led by Liz, walked in. I could sense trouble was brewing from the moment I saw her.
Like I mentioned, Liz was a product of a privileged upbringing, and she carried herself that way. She was the blond, tall, and statuesque, and usually traveled in a pack of no less than half a dozen hangers on, mostly other women like her, but sometimes men hoping for a chance to get her into bed.
I was tall, though lanky and of the wrong race and color. My brown skin seemed at odds with the student body in the medical center, discounting the foreign students. I was the stereotypical janitor, and they treated me with as much contempt as they could muster.
On our first meeting, she remarked that the only way a spic could ever be allowed into the medical center was to sweep the floors and wash the shit stains out of the toilets. Her coterie laughed sycophantically as I kept my head down and tried to finish sweeping the floors.
I made to leave but Liz blocked the way.
“Do you comprede dumbass?” She laughed.
“I understand quite well, thank you” I enunciated through gritted teeth.
“A spic with a brain,” she smirked. “Now where do you pick up the ability to speak? Been watching BBC instead of Telemundo?” Her clique laughed again.
“No,” I said, anger coursing through my veins. “I’m a Business major, minoring in English. I’m a student here. I graduate in December.”
“Affirmative action student, huh?” She smirked. “Gotta meet those pesky quotas, like my grandfather always says. He was a Senator in D.C., you probably heard of him, Senator….”
“I know exactly who he is,” I spat. “He worked to expand welfare, didn’t he? Working tirelessly to enslave the underprivileged.”
“Ungrateful,” she mused. “Probably kept your ass from dying of hunger. How many lived in your house? Twelve? Twenty?”
I shoved her aside and raced out of the room as she continued launching one taunt after another after me. This continued all semester, not bothering to stop even in the presence of a professor. They half-heartedly admonished her, but her grandfather was an alumni and a benefactor. They didn’t want to risk losing the donations he lobbed their way.
I tried not to think about her treatment, but I confess that it was next to impossible, especially with her turning to look at me every few minutes. I kept my eyes resolutely focused on the employee at the window, counting down the number of people in line, but Liz would look away and return her gaze to me, determined to figure out how she knew me.
This went on for nearly half an hour before her eyes grew wide in recognition, and she flushed with embarrassment. She turned to face the head of the line, hoping to disappear into the crowd, but it was a lost cause. I knew who she was and the source of her embarrassment. I admit that I enjoyed her discomfiture more than I should have.
It took nearly another half hour before the line wound down and she made it to the agent. Once done, she quickly departed and another five minutes I was at the window, renewing my driver’s licence. When I left, I found her waiting outside, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, steeling herself for the encounter I had hoped would not happen. I was greatly disappointed as he called my name.
“Diego,” she said nervously.
“Wow, I think that’s the first time you called me by the correct name,” I said without a trace of sympathy. “Usually you called me by the wrong name or else a series of ever more insulting slurs.”
Her wan smile faltered and she looked away, on the verge of tears. “I guess I deserve that,” she cried, her voice quivering with emotion.
“How are you?” I said, allowing a thaw in my tone to appear.
“I’ve been better,” she chuckled nervously. “You?”
“Never been better,” I smiled.
I took in her appearance, and it contrasted greatly with how I remembered her. As a student, she was young and thin, and now middle age did not agree with her. Where once she was dressed impeccably, she looked frumpy. It was less with how she dressed and how she carried herself. There was no pride in her, slouched over as though she wanted to hide from the world.
“I heard you were back in the area,” she said. “Vice President of Operations for the Southwest Region. You’ve done well.”
“Been lucky,” I say humbly, though we both know it was anything but luck that propelled me to my current position. “Right place, right time. You know how it goes. And how’s it been going with you?”
I see her smile falter as she looks away, and she seems distant as she replied. “Not as well as you, I’m afraid.”
“Divorced,” she says with a barking laugh, as though she’s seeing the absurdity of our meeting. “Ex-husband, the once great Dr. Plough sued for malpractice, arrested for medicare fraud. His practice closed, and my reputation in tatters because I worked with him in the clinic. Never mind that I had nothing to do with the fraud,” she huffed, “nevermind that it was him and his business director that did it all, I took the fall with him. Unemployable, my degrees in nursing and hospital administration not worth the paper they’re printed on.”
“So what are you doing now?”
“Working at a dry cleaners down the way,” she waved vaguely west. “Bought it with what was left with my savings. Family refuses to help me, saying it would ruin their reputation. Brother’s running for a House seat this November. I’m getting by, but barely.”
“That sucks,” I say, feeling sorry for my one-time tormentor.
“It’s not all bad, I suppose,” she said without meeting my eye. “I’m not in prison like my ex is, and I’m able to pay my bills, though I had to part with my dream home. I live in a studio apartment, but at least I’m not homeless, right?”
“Yeah,” I responded, the ache in my chest intensifying.
“So, anyways. I didn’t wait to bitch about how my life’s going. I – I’ve been thinking about you a lot over the years.”
“Yeah, and I’m ashamed of how I treated you. I was raised better than that. Took me a few years to realize how much of a bitch I was to you. Took me working a few years at the downtown clinic to realize how hard minorities have it, and how bad poverty affects people. It opened my eyes to how remarkable someone has to be to rise above that. A lot of them don’t.”
“It’s not easy,” I agreed.
“For what it’s worth, Diego, I’m sorry. I was a bitch, a rich, white, ignorant and blatantly bigoted bitch. I guess karma took care of me. Look where we are now, huh?”
“Yeah,” she fidgeted. “So, listen, I have to get back. I have some paperwork to do.”
She turned and began to walk away, and I struggled with myself for a moment before stopping her, “Hey, wait up!” She stopped and I ran to catch up. “There’s an opening,” I began, “in one of our area hospitals for Director of Nursing.”
“I’ve stopped applying,” she replied miserably. “What’s the point?”
“The point is,” I countered crossly, “is that I’m V.P., and I can pull a few strings, get your foot in the door. Pay is only in the low hundred thousands,” I shrugged as she wrapped her arms around me, tears streaming down her cheek. “Don’t thank me yet. I can’t guarantee you the job.”
“That’s fine,” she hiccupped. “I’ll do anything. Truth is, I’m on the verge of losing my business. I’m probably going to file for Chapter 7 before the end of the year. After that?” She finished with a shake of her head.
“Well,” I mused, looking at her with interest. “If you’re willing to do anything….”
“I am,” she interrupted eagerly.
I ran my fingers down her face and she didn’t resist my advance. Instead she moved in, wanting nothing more than to do whatever she had to get out of her predicament. I pulled her in, kissed her, and whispered, “Meet me in my office. Suite 1011, seventeenth floor, Stevenson Building. Wear something suitable for an interview, but on the sexy side. If you need an advance, I can front you something.”
“Don’t worry,” she cried happily. “I have something I’m sure you’ll love.”
“Three-thirty,” I informed her, excitement building for our rendezvous.
“I’ll be there. Thank you.” She hurried away, a bit of her old pride evident in her posture, and in the glow in her face. Of course I had no intention of getting her the job, but then again, why not? She was still the granddaughter of an ex-senator, sister to the likely next member of the House. She could prove useful as an ally, and after my divorce with my soon to be ex, marrying into her family could help me in turn. I have political ambitions of my own, and what better revenge than to use my once tormentor to help me with my goals?