Steam rose in lovely swirling patterns, warming up face as the waiter bowed, leaving me alone in the quiet cobblestoned alley by a restaurant, a young woman in Quito enjoying the freedom that comes with graduating high school. The smells, the sounds, everything here was interesting and new and special, as if she were seeing the world for the first time. She took a few bites of her meal as two children, a boy and a girl, walked into the alley from the main road followed by a woman hold a baby.
“Mama…” the girl looked at the young woman and up at her mother.
“Esta bien, siéntense niños,” replied her mother.
The family sat at a long table in front of the young woman’s, all facing her direction. This made her uncomfortable, she wasn’t sure if it would be rude to continue eating as if they weren’t there, which surely she couldn’t do either, not with the two children’s hungry stares. The waiter comes out from the restaurant, ready to welcome new customers with a smile but upon seeing the family, dressed in simple thin-looking clothes and flip flops, slightly dirty faces and disheveled hair, the smile disappears and he turns to ask the young woman if everything is to her liking while throwing sideways glances at the other table. She assures him all is well. The waiter looked at the family once more, the children staring at him and the mother glaring as he spun on his heel, his footsteps echoing in the small alley space as he retreats. The young woman’s stomach growls and she takes a few more bites of her food, although it no longer tastes as good as she’d originally thought. The baby, a soft little bundle in his mother’s arms, had begun to fuss and his mother nursed him, gentle suckling sounds of contentment could be heard. The young woman smiled at the children and the mother noticed, looking at her as if trying to understand, who is this girl to smile at them, sitting there and she unable to feed her other children? Some American here on vacation, having a wonderful time while women like herself struggle to make any ends meet, can’t even offer her children the security of a safe home. The young woman had seen many families like the one before her and she knew it was all unfair, the way some live the lives of princes and princesses and others have to dig through the garbage for scraps of food. These children will be forced to grow up quickly and face the harsh world, unable to enjoy the carefree days of childhood play and laughter.
The woman drinks juice from a pitcher, courtesy of the restaurant, the naturally sweet orange juice putting to shame anything she could possibly buy at a market at home in the States. The mother whispered to her children in a hushed and harsh tone, forcing them to look down at the empty table in front of them. The waiter popped his head out of the restaurant doorway and the young woman raised her hand to him, beckoning him over. She ordered two plates of appetizers and a pitcher of juice, he nodded and left, having memorized her order.
The little girl looked at the young woman from beneath her long eyelashes, shyly smiling, wondering who she was and why she was in Quito. Back home, kids would be playing on playground swings, playing tag and squealing with delight, their mom’s watching from nearby benches with bags of snacks at the ready, taking it all from granted as most people are apt to do. This little girl, sitting across the bench from the young woman, likely worried about when and where her next meal would come from.
The waiter came back, balancing a tray on his thin arm, the pitcher and glasses tinkling against each other, the plates of food releasing tempting smells into the air. He placed them in front of the children, whose wide eyes and slow smiles that lit their faces brought a feeling of warmth to the young woman. The kids looked at their mother, waiting for approval. The slightest nod of the head, yes, and the kids dug in, laughing and talking excitedly, forgetting all about the woman’s presence, as she took ate more of her food, noticing the mother’s steely gaze. No looks of gratefulness from her, but in truth, the pure joy on those children’s faces were more than any words could express. The woman paid the waiter and left the family to eat in peace as she headed out to explore more of the city, grateful for the blessings in her life.