"There's a white girl waving at you," Conchita says.
"Over there." She points to our friend Lola who is walking up the sidewalk toward us.
"That's not a white girl, that's Lola," I tell Conchita, giving her my best "You're so stupid" look.
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"Are you sure?" she says, squinting at her.
"Yes." It's not the first time someone has mistaken Lola for something other than the 100 percent Second Ward Mexican that she is. Reddish-blond hair, light green eyes, skin the color of milk and "this can't be true" beautiful, she looks like a plus-size Nicole Kidman.
Kisses and hugs all around, and we head into Chili's for dinner (3215 Southwest Freeway, 713-592-5100).
"What kind of place is this?" Conchita whispers to me.
"It's a regular restaurant, don't worry," I whisper back. Conchita, who has lived in Houston her whole life, has, until just recently, managed to live, work and play all within a 12-block radius of the hospital where she was born. Where we were born. I was luckier -- and smarter. I left the old neighborhood as soon as I could, and except for occasional enchilada runs, I almost never go back. But Conchita is just now discovering multilingual, multiethnic Houston.
Chili's, with its integrated crowd, is another galaxy to her. White people, black people, a table full of Asian teenagers, an interracial couple with their biracial kids, everyone sitting next to each other and not fighting. This is like an outtake of the "We Are the World" video. Conchita isn't used to mixed crowds. She understands color coding. Okay, so this is exercise, I think to myself. Like army field maneuvers, Chili's is a practice run for Conchita living in a multihued city.
She's making faces at the menu. "Qu es Cajun chicken pasta?" She pronounces Cajun "caj-oon."
Before I can answer, the waitress appears. "We'll get the onion to start," Lola tells her. She nods and chippers off.
The Chili's Awesome Blossom, fried food royalty. I'm happy already and momentarily forget about Conchita. "Ouch!"
Conchita kicks me under the table. "What?" I snap at her.
"I don't want no onion." She's talking without moving her lips, her version of being secretive, even though she hasn't lowered her voice any.
"It's not just an onion, it's like onion rings, but all still attached to the..." I let my voice trail off. She's not going for it.
"I'll just have a margarita," she announces, looking around for the waitress. Lola and I shrug, whatever. We chatter for a few minutes, then a good-looking kid, about 19 years old, with a long ponytail hanging down his back, brings out the onion, steamy hot, fresh from the deep fryer. Lola and I are thrilled. I think Lola's blushing, she's so happy.
"That's not an onion," Conchita says suspiciously. The waiter flashes us a movie-star smile and walks away just as the waitress comes back with Conchita's margarita.
"He was pretty, huh?" Lola says, in a completely non-pervert way.
"Yeah, sure," I say, reaching for my first sliver of fried onion. He could've been Jabba the Hutt's ugly brother, but with an Awesome Blossom in his hands, he would've been beautiful.
"He's gay," the waitress laughs.
"Oh, that's okay, so is she." I point to Conchita, who's taking a big swallow of her drink. Conchita spurts out green gush at us.
"Hey, don't get it on the onion," warns Lola.
The waitress laughs again and bounces away.
"Why did you tell her that?" sputters Conchita.
"I thought it was funny."
"Me being a gay ain't funny," she says, wiping green slush from her chin.
"Okay, first of all, it's not 'a gay,' it's just gay. And second, yeah, it is kinda funny."
"Ay, I'm gonna tell her it's not true." She starts looking around for the waitress.
"Do that," I say while I shove more onion in my mouth. "Conchita thought you were a white girl," I tell Lola.
Another frown from Conchita, who is now waving at the waitress.
"Everybody always thinks so," Lola laughs. Conchita is halfway out of her chair, both arms in the air waving frantically at the waitress.
"Sometimes things aren't what they seem to be," I tell Conchita, but she's past hearing us. The only person in the room who matters is the waitress.
A few more frantic waves and the "Conchita is gay" waitress is back.
"Hey, look," starts Conchita.
"Don't pay her any attention," I tell the waitress in a "Don't upset the mass murderer" tone of voice.
The waitress looks a little confused, but not scared. Not yet.
"I ain't a gay, okay? I know my friend told you that I'm a gay, but I'm not, okay?"
Conchita's voice is rising an octave with every other word. The waitress is starting to inch away. "Ah, okay," she says. Inch, inch.
"I ain't." Another octave.
"Okay." Inch, inch, big giant step, inch.
"I ain't!" At the top of her range, Conchita has decided to go for louder instead of higher.
"It's okay, we serve everybody."
"Just walk away, just walk away," I hiss through my teeth at the waitress. She bolts. An older couple at the next table, just about to bite into their burgers, looks over at us, worried.
"I ain't!" Conchita's on the verge of tears. She gulps down the rest of her margarita and reaches for Lola's.
"Hey," Lola whispers to me. "How come she can't be gay?"
"I'm not a gay! Conchita wails. "And that's not an onion!"
Lola protectively pulls the Awesome Blossom closer.
"Conchita," I say in what I hope is a calming voice, "how come you care about what somebody you don't know thinks about you?"
"Huh?" she sniffs.
"You don't know that waitress."
"None of us do," adds Lola.
"Yeah," Conchita says doubtfully, her eyes still glistening.
"So, if you don't know her, why do you care if she thinks you're something it's not bad to be?"
Lola nods meaningfully, licking dipping sauce off her fingers.
Conchita sits there for a few seconds; I can almost hear the gears in her head.
"Right?" she says finally. "I don't know her."
"And even if I was a gay, it ain't her business."
"It's not." I resist the urge to correct her "a gay" terminology again.
"Ay," she sighs, squaring up her shoulders and patting at her eye makeup with her napkin. "I don't know why I even let you guys upset me. I don't care what that waitress thinks."
"Good." I smile at her.
"But I do care if she don't bring us no more margaritas," she says, all in one octave again. Flagging down a passing waiter, she eyes the Awesome Blossom. "Are you sure that's an onion?"
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