Dispatch 22 (Nov. 24, 1998)

     Gina and I were both busy the next couple of days with pre-holiday test studying and work, so I wasn’t able to thank her for her good deed that night on Fourth Street.
     Gina’s actions had grown in my mind, snowballing until my young Latina friend was becoming Rambo, Lara Croft and Sigourney Weaver rolled into one college student-sized package.
     Yes, it’s easy to act with courage when you have a weapon, but Gina’s actions had provoked in me a little bit of hero worship. It was hero worship, however, that spoke less of Gina’s guts and more about my own regrets about past moments of hesitation and inaction.
     On Tuesday, I treated Gina to China Inn, a little restaurant off the North side of campus. Over egg drop soup, I thanked Gina, who only smiled and downplayed what she’d done.
     "I was scared, but I didn’t think anything bad would happen," Gina said, between spoonfuls. "They just wanted some money. They probably moved the barricade so that it would happen to somebody, and they could go help push cars for money."
     That theory hadn’t occurred to me, and I was surprised and dismayed by my own naiveté.
     We talked about it a little more, both still a little weirded out by the event – it was as if we’d shared a dream and neither of us could remember anymore what was real and what was imagined. That it had only happened a few nights before made it even stranger. That street and the men who’d approached us seemed light years away from China Inn. Another planet from some other dreamscape.
     By the time out entrees arrived (lemon chicken, sweet and sour chicken), Gina’s enthusiasm for conversation was tapering off. It was the middle of the afternoon and outside the sun had settled in and brought back temperatures I hadn’t expected to see again until after a short winter. When we’d arrived, she seemed to enjoy the sunlight, but inside, her mood had darkened. She didn’t bring up her mother, but I knew it was on her mind and whatever we talked about was merely a distraction from the topic that was most important to her.
     "What are you doing for Thanksgiving?" Gina asked. "Are you going home?"
     "I was going to," I said, "but my car’s not really in good shape for a trip like that and I can’t afford to get it worked on."
     "You’re not going home?" Gina asked, sounding incredulous. "Won’t your mom be upset?"
     "She already knows," I said. "She’s not happy, but she’s not really angry or anything. She understands. Plus, I’m going home for Christmas, so it’s not such a big deal."
     "But it’s only a few hours away. Can’t you take a bus or a cheap flight?"
     "I need to save my money for Christmas shopping," I said. "Besides, Thanksgiving’s not a huge deal in our family. We don’t have a lot of family stateside, so it’s usually just us. We eat turkey like everybody else and a lot of side dishes, then my dad watches football and we all kind of hang around and see if a conversation springs up. It’s really not too big a deal."
     "My mother would have a breakdown if I didn’t come home for Thanksgiving," Gina said. "She puts so much work into it. All the cooking and preparation. She’d probably come here and cook at the co-op if she thought I wasn’t coming down to visit."
     "So are you gonna help her cook?" I asked.
     Gina looked like she was about to say something, then she froze. Her hands, folded together in front of her plate, were shaking. Her eyes looked through me. I realized what I said just a moment after it was out of my mouth, but it was enough time to stun Gina.
     "She’s not cooking his year," Gina said finally. "My grandmother and I… I guess we’ll do it."
     "Gina, I’m sorry if I – " I began.
     "No, Heather, it’s not your fault. I don’t know what’s going to happen either. It’s all strange and scary. I don’t know what to do."
     "When do you leave?" I asked.
     "Tomorrow, around noon."
     "All weekend?"
     "I’ll come back early Sunday, I guess, if she’s doing okay."
     "I hope she is okay," I said. And meant it.
     "Thanks, Heather. So what are you doing here Thursday?"
     I blanked out, unsure. This was the first year I wasn’t going home, and it hadn’t really seemed like such a loss until this moment. I had friends who were staying in Austin, making their own little "friends instead of family" celebrations on tiny apartment ovens. But I hadn’t made firm plans.
     "I’ll go buy a frozen turkey pot pie and eat it alone with some instant mashed potatoes," I said. "And whatever I don’t eat I’ll give to the poor."
     Gina laughed. "The food at the shelters will be better than that," she said.
     "Yeah, well, maybe I’ll go volunteer."
     "Why don’t you come with me?"
     I looked to see if she was serious or just being polite. Nothing in her eyes, which had lately carried more sadness that light, betrayed her suggestion.
     "Oh, Gina, I don’t know. Your mom isn’t well and I don’t want to be in the way, you know."
     "You’re still writing," Gina said. "And this is something very important that’s happening in my life."
     "Gina, I wasn’t thinking about that. I mean, you don’t want me writing about your mother, do you?"
     "My mother is the most important person in my life," Gina said. "Whatever good things you see in me come mostly from her."
     I thought about it, trying to keep my mind from writing prose for something that hasn’t even happened yet. I was flashing through images of her cancer-stricken mother, Gina by her bedside, imparting wisdom. I was afraid of cheapening that – of fumbling it with my outsider’s fish-eye lens.
     But if Gina was willing to trust me with her life, to bring me into it full center when it was in crisis, I didn’t think I could turn her down. She was trusting me with her leap of faith, and I felt I at least owed it to her and to myself to take the same leap. I needed to trust myself.
     "You’re sure it’s okay," I said.
     "All right, I’ll go. Tomorrow afternoon we leave?"
     "Tomorrow," Gina said.
     We finished our meals without many more words uttered. When we left the restaurant, the sun was still bright as students crossed streets or navigated through traffic. Everyone was moving a little faster than usual, trying to finish this or that before leaving own to see their families, or to welcome them here.
     Gina and I parted on a promise that tomorrow, I would see for myself where and who she came from.