The boy tiptoed down from the bus, black eyes as round and darting as two bees buzzing around an endless field of flowers. The air stung his cheeks, so cold his lungs caught fire when he drew in a breath.
He pulled the thin collar of his ragged denim jacket up over his throat, confused. The sun was bright, its rays piercing the sharp crystal of a blue sky. How could the air be this painful?
He trailed the the crowd, hurrying toward a pair of glass doors just a few meters away, but he couldn’t tear his eyes from the steel spires reaching up toward the icy sun. No matter which direction he looked, there they were. When he’d first spotted them from his cozy window seat on the bus, he thought his mind was playing tricks on him.
Now, his nose pointed straight up as he gawked at the astonishing steel canyons of midtown Manhattan. He didn’t notice the grimy smudges on the plate glass of the station entrance or have a chance to marvel that they’d parted with no human intervention.
A blast of warm air finally tore his thoughts away from the view. Jostled and pushed by people scurrying off in a million directions, he stopped dead to marvel at the cavernous concrete building. His senses were overwhelmed — ears filled with cacophonous babble, eyes taking in a ceiling so high and a space so large that he felt himself outdoors.
His mouth flooded with saliva before he even noticed that he smelled food. Somebody pushed him hard, and as he fought to keep his balance he remembered that he hadn’t eaten in a very long time. More than a whole day. Almost two?
He scrambled sideways out of the river of people flooding in and found a corner where he could catch his breath. Rooting around inside his tattered backpack, pushing aside pieces of greasy wadded newspaper, his fingers probed — slowly at first then in panicked frenzy.
Where was it?
If he’d lost it, then he didn’t know what he’d do. Tears leaked into his eyes. He cursed himself as he pushed past his spare t-shirt. He wasn’t a little kid anymore. He’d be 15 soon. Practically a man. Crying was for babies.
He took a deep breath to calm himself, paused, then carefully removed all the crumpled newspaper, tossing each into a wire mesh trash can that shared his quiet corner with him. He couldn’t help checking each one to make sure his grandmother’s tortillas were all gone. Nothing. Not even a crumb.
But he knew that. He wasn’t searching for food.
There! A flash of white caught his eye, and he let out a huge sigh of relief. He fished the envelope out of his pack as all the tension drained from his body. He sank to the floor.
If anyone at the crowded Port Authority bus terminal had noticed the boy that cold February afternoon, they wouldn’t have looked twice. Ragged and skinny with shiny black hair and pale features, he looked Puerto Rican or South American — nothing unusual at all for the City.
He was tall, well into adolescence already despite his age. The baby-faced kid would have laughed to know that some of the people rushing about would presume him to be a threat if he got too close. He thought of himself as a child, despite his tough interior dialogue.
He glanced at the name on the envelope and smiled. Tio … uncle. He’d met the man once or twice when he was little. He thought he remembered. He tried to peer through a misty haze in his mind to the image of a large man seated in the kitchen joking with Papa, back when his parents were still alive. He could almost smell his mother’s cooking.
No. He did smell cooking. A painful rumbling in his stomach snatched his attention back to the present. He fumbled the envelope open in the space of a heartbeat. Two bills. Paper money. Twenty dollar notes.
He pushed them aside to find what he really needed, the slip of paper with his grandmother’s spidery handwriting. There was that name again — his tio’s name, followed by a string of numerals.
“Don’t use the money,” his abuela had told him, stroking his hair one last time with arthritis-wrecked fingers. “Not until you reach Nueva York. Eat the tortillas. Save the money.”
He followed his nose past clusters of filthy plastic chairs surrounding more automatic glass doors. He stared incomprehensibly at banks of TV monitors featuring blinking strings of letters and numbers.
He passed two big blue doors with stick figures drawn on them. One of them opened briefly, and the stench of an outhouse stung his nostrils. He pressed on, following the scent of food. Finally, after walking further than anyone should be able to walk under one roof, he came to a row of colorful little shops. The food smell grabbed hold of him and shook him, torturing his stomach.
He paced from shop to shop eyeing pictures of food, unsure of how to proceed. He stepped up to one counter at random. “Por favor?” he asked, sticking the paper money out in front of him.
A girl with kinky hair and dark chocolate skin spit out a stream of words he couldn’t understand. She was smiling, white teeth blazing, eyes huge and deep. He interrupted, trying to explain that he couldn’t understand. Her smile cut off abruptly and she was snarling at him, voice inflected with a question that he couldn’t puzzle out.
He backed away stuttering, unsure of himself, frightened by her volume and animation.
Salvation appeared on his left as words floated in — actual words he could understand, apparently directed to him. They came from a man standing behind the counter of the next shop! He was short, fat, and greasy looking with thinning hair. He talked like his mouth was full of mush, but if the boy listened hard, he could make out the words.
“Come here, cabron.” The boy obeyed, edging closer.
“You speak no english?” The boy looked down at his shoes and shook his head.
“You hungry? You just arrive now? I see you have money.” The boy smiled and nodded eagerly.
Thirty minutes later he stood by a large door, bouncing back and forth on his heels as he waited for his uncle. He was so lucky to have met the man at the food shop. His forty dollars had been exactly enough to buy a pork sandwich and pay for a phone call.
He knew he was going to love New York.