(part 1 here)
Lela’s American Cafe, Part 2
by David S. McWilliams
You didn’t get bullied as a kid, did you? No, I didn’t think so. You had “conflict resolution meetings,” and “communication skills.” Your mom drove you to soccer practice in a minivan and had a talk with the other boy’s parents when he made you cry at Billy’s sleepover, right? I’m not saying that to be mean, I’m just trying to show you how different it was for you.
I wasn’t just bullied; I was the whipping boy at my school. Doesn’t surprise you much, does it? Big mouth, small muscles, it happens. By middle school it was habit for some people. Go to class. Eat lunch. Beat the shit out of Francis. Didn’t bother me as much as—well—
Anyway. I got beat up a lot.
And I was only good at one thing in school: photography. So when I graduated I said fuck all this, I’m leaving it behind. I’m going to escape school and go make art.
But you know what I found? The world is just middle school all over again, except the bullies have guns and the law’s on their side.
This is pretty much the only way I can fight back, with the camera. Georgia might as well have been 7th grade again, for all I cared.
So I went to Georgia and watched the Russians show off their big dicks for a few months. I got some good shots of people on both sides doing some despicable shit. Now that Syria and ISIS are going down, we’re getting desensitized to this sort of thing, but in 2008 it was a big deal. It was going to make Putin look real bad, and nobody else had the balls to get it.
I had mostly good luck, right until the very end. I made a stupid mistake, and I had to get the hell out of there. A friend of mine snuck me out of the country in his vegetable truck, and I caught a flight from Tel Aviv to Boston via Casablanca.
Only problem was that the Russians followed me from the airport in Tel Aviv. They were even on my damn flight, so I figured I’d skip out in Casablanca and disappear.
It totally didn’t work. I got into a taxi at the airport and two blocks later some dude slides in next to me at a stoplight. He spoke good English, with a Russian accent, and was in a sharp black suit. He offered me $10,000 in cash for my backpack and all the film in it.
“Boris,” I told him, “I haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about.”
He rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to say something. That’s when I hit him.
See, when you grow up with bullies, you learn a lot. First of all, always hit first. If you can’t beat them, at least get the first shot in and then try to get away. Sometimes surprise is all you’ve got. Use it.
I hit him as hard as I could, which in the back of the taxi wasn’t very hard. It surprised the shit out of him, though, and so I jammed the door open and bailed out of the taxi right there in the middle of the street.
It looks so easy in the movies, right? Jumping out of a moving vehicle? Well, it’s not. It hurts like hell and you will fuck yourself up. I sprained my ankle, scraped half of the skin off of my arm, and found out later that I broke one of the bones in my hand. Don’t try it at home, kids.
But it got me away from Boris for a second. I hailed another cab from the median and told him to take me to the first spot I could think of: Lela’s bar.
I don’t know why I thought of her then. I guess I figured I could lose myself in the tourists, or at least gain a minute to think about another plan. The Russians probably weren’t going to try anything fishy with so many bystanders around. They’d bide their time and wait for the crowd to thin out.
At the very least, I figured Lela would have a phone.
I gave the cabbie the last of my cash and limped into Lela’s on my sprained ankle. It wasn’t as busy as last time, but there were a good mix of locals and tourists inside. Lela wasn’t around, so I grabbed a table and ordered a drink. The waitress gave me a weird look and brought me some extra napkins to clean myself off with. I tried not to bleed on the furniture.
There were probably only a couple minutes until the Russians caught up with me, so I started looking for a spot to hide the film. Maybe I could convince Lela to hold on to them and mail them back in a few weeks when the heat died down. It was about a dozen canisters, all duct-taped together, and goddamn it if I wasn’t sitting right next to the old piano. The top opened up, and so I stood up and slid them in. Just like the movie.
That’s when somebody grabbed me by the shoulder and spun me around. “You son of a bitch!” they said, and slapped me full in the face. Hard.
Yeah, it was Lela.
You see, there’s a minor detail that I left out earlier, but it’s important here. Lela had this other bartender working for her—this Scandinavian chick named Inga—and she was smoking hot. 10 out of 10. Like, Lela’s a cute girl, but this Inga chick was just out of control. Legs like ballistic missiles. Curves bad enough to give you whiplash. And tits . . . Jesus. Those tits. Look, I’m a photographer, not a poet, so just take my word for it. Those fucking tits. Jesus.
Inga had the personality of a box of rocks, too, but fuck—who cares? The first night we were there (the night that Lela and I slept together) she had the night off, but when we came back the second night she was working. I didn’t see Lela anywhere, so hey—fair game, right? I busted out the hand grenade story again, and turns out it works just as well on the dumb ones as the smart ones.
Maybe . . . look, I didn’t know that Lela was in back. I didn’t know that she overheard me tell this Inga chick the same story that I told her the night before. Maybe I would’ve been a little more sensitive if I’d know she could hear. That’s fair.
But she didn’t take it well. And as I found out a few months later, it wasn’t something she was just going to get over. Nope, she turned me around and smacked me with the strength that only months of pent-up hatred can inspire.
What Lela didn’t know (and I hadn’t figured out yet) was that there was a big gash in my scalp right at my hairline from taking a tumble on the pavement. So when Lela smacked me, she sent this big spray of blood all over the table and both of us.
Lela was horrified. “Francis—Francis, what the fuck?” she said.
“Ow,” I said.
So I told her the whole story. There’s something liberating about a woman smacking you, you know. You both know where you stand. There’s no reason to bullshit her; you can say whatever you want. I told her everything.
“So these pictures,” she asked me, “they’re a big deal?”
“A big fucking deal,” I told her. “A humanitarian disaster. The human rights issue of the decade. You can practically see ‘UN sanction’ written in the bottom corner of each frame.”
“Hmph.” She looked at me for a while. I just shut up and let her think. Lela loves to the do the right thing, and this is what I was counting on. Finally she replied. “Alright. Come on.”
I followed her into the kitchen. She pointed me to an empty stool and went to get a wet napkin to clean off my face. I was about to thank her until she touched my face. You ever used vodka to clean an open wound? Jesus, it hurt. She probably enjoyed it, and I can’t say I completely blame her. I did manage not to scream, which was good.
“Now stay here,” she told me, “and I’ll see what I can do for you.” That sounded like a great plan to me; my ankle was really hurting. I pushed my stool back and tried to stay out of everyone’s way.
An hour later, she came back. She was arguing on her cell phone in alternating Arabic, French, and English, which I’ll admit impressed me. It’s no joke to cuss somebody out in three languages. She covered the receiver.
“You’ll sneak out the back with a friend of mine. I’ll hold onto the film for now and mail it to you. What’s the address?”
I was just writing it down when somebody kicked down the front door.
(part 3 here)