“The Summer I Was Sergio,” New Era, July 2000, 40
“You look so ridiculous, Ed. I’m totally serious,” the lovely and talented Maggie, my 10-year-old sister, told me as I was leaving to go to work at Reel Life Video store. I caught a glimpse of myself in the entryway mirror. Unfortunately, she was right.
And you would look ridiculous, too, if you were required by your employer to wear shiny shoes with pointed toes, black tuxedo pants, a red cummerbund, a ruffled shirt, and a snappy red bow tie. It doesn’t help, either, that I have to wear a former employee’s name tag because my manager hasn’t had a new one made up for me yet. So that is why I, Ed McIff, an ordinary, boring teenager with an ordinary, boring life, wear a name tag that says “Sergio” instead of my name.
“See you later, Sergio!” my mom trilled from the kitchen. And then she burst into gales of laughter.
Doesn’t it say somewhere that mothers aren’t supposed to laugh at their children who are required to wear stupid clothes to work? I opened our ordinary, boring front door and let myself out into a boring evening in ordinary, boring Salt Lake City, Utah.
Actually, work was okay. We were pretty busy, which helps the time go by faster. I was surprised when Marv the Manager told me and Wendy, another proud Reel Life Video employee like myself, to go on break.
“Want to get some ice cream next door?” Wendy asked as we walked out the door together.
I gave her a sideways smile. “A triple scoop of burnt almond fudge, chocolate, and vanilla …”
“… in a sugar cone,” she finished my sentence for me and grinned.
“My treat,” I said.
“You always treat, Ed,” she said, giving my arm a friendly slug.
“You’re right, I do.”
Wendy Duncan is possibly the only human being I know who likes ice cream more than I do, which is one of the things that makes it so fun to buy it for her. In fact, we like a lot of the same things—baseball, science fiction novels, old movies, breakfast at George’s Cafe. You get the idea.
After getting our cones, we sat down on the strip of grass in front of Reel Life Video and looked at the evening sky while licking ice cream. The moon was high and bright.
“Sometimes when I really miss my brother,” Wendy said, “I step out onto our front porch and wonder if he’s looking at the moon, too. Thinking about him doing the exact same thing I’m doing makes it feel like he’s not so far away after all.”
Wendy cupped her hands around her mouth. “Alo, irmão Ben,” she called to the moon. “That means, ‘Hello, Brother Ben,’ in case you’re interested.” Wendy’s brother, Ben, is on a mission in Brazil.
“When I was a little boy my mother told me I could make wishes on a star,” I told her. “But I liked the moon better because it was way bigger, so I always made my wishes on the moon.”
“Moonlight, moon bright, the first moon I see tonight,” Wendy laughed. “So what do you wish for on the moon tonight, Ed?”
“Nothing,” I told her. “I happen to know from personal experience that wishing on the moon doesn’t work.”
Actually, this is only partially true. Wishing doesn’t work, it’s true, but I do it anyway. And what I wished for that night as I sat in front of Reel Life Video eating ice cream with Wendy was that my life wouldn’t be so ordinary and boring.
What I wished for was excitement.
Wendy and I were busy shelving videos when someone tapped me lightly on the shoulder. “Excuse me. Do you work here?”
“Yes, I work here,” I answered politely as I tucked Ivanhoe back on the shelf. Then I turned to discover, standing there, the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my life.
Okay. Here are some adjectives to help you get the picture. Tall. Brown hair. Tan. Blue-eyed. Smooth-skinned. Gorgeous. You look at her and think she’s so much higher up on the food chain than you are that the two of you don’t even belong to the same species.
For the record, this is the kind of girl who is never interested in guys wearing red cummerbunds.
She flashed me a dazzling smile (her teeth, in case you’re interested, were white and even, not unlike pearls). Then, looking at my name tag, she said, “You’re Sergio. What a cool name!”
My heart began to pound beneath my frilly shirt. Here it was. My big chance to stop being ordinary, to stop being boring.
“Yes, indeed,” I said, barely believing what was coming out of my mouth. “My name is Sergio. Sergio Mendez.”
Wendy looked at me in pure disbelief, then crossed her eyes.
Sergio Mendez? Now where had that come from? Somehow it was a name with a vaguely familiar ring.
“Wow!” the amazingly beautiful girl said, and I could tell she was interested, really interested. In me! “Sergio Mendez. Are you from somewhere else? I mean besides Salt Lake City?”
Wendy was watching me now with a great deal of interest.
“Yes,” I blurted out. This is not technically the truth since I was born in Salt Lake City and have lived in Salt Lake my whole life. It’s just that I would have been from someplace else if I’d had the chance. “I’m from Brazil originally.” I even faked a little bit of an accent when I said this.
Wendy began to choke, and the beautiful girl shot her a look of real concern. “Are you okay?”
Wendy nodded, causing the beautiful girl to smile kindly at her as she spoke. “Isn’t that cool he’s from Brazil, but he speaks English like a native.”
“Like a native,” Wendy agreed. “He probably speaks Brazilian like a native, too.”
Wendy’s little joke did not register with the beautiful girl who forged ahead. “I’d love to go to Brazil. Wouldn’t you?” she asked Wendy, who nodded truthfully.
The beautiful girl wrapped her beautiful arms around herself and sighed dreamily. “I’ve never been anywhere, really. Just being here in Salt Lake City this summer is such a huge deal for me. And I love it here. Honest! I love the way you can walk outside at night and see lights everywhere. It feels like there are a whole bunch of people all around you doing really interesting things.”
“Where are you from?”
The girl gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Well, I’m for sure not from Brazil. I come from Fountain Green. You’ve probably never even heard of it. It’s a little town way down in Sanpete County. I’m staying here for the summer with my Aunt Mary, who’s a student at the University of Utah. She got me a job waitressing at the same place she works. By the way, my name’s Liesel.”
“And I’m Wendy.”
Liesel grabbed Wendy’s hand and shook it. I could tell that Wendy was surprised. I mean who shakes hands when they’re 16? Surprised or not, however, Wendy was softening.
“Wendy and Sergio,” Liesel gave a happy little laugh. “You’re my new friends in Salt Lake City.”
Marv the Manager, who absolutely cannot stand it when his employees look like they’re having fun, joined us. “Are these two helping you find everything you need?” he asked Liesel.
Liesel linked her arms through mine and Wendy’s. “They were just going to show me where I can find The Sound of Music. My mom named me after one of the characters, you know.” She winked at Marv. He did a little backwards stagger as though he’d just been kissed. It was easy to see that Marv was totally smitten. Just like the rest of us.
There was a little surprise waiting for me in the parking lot when I got off work. Liesel and another girl, who was a few years older, were sitting in a truck. Liesel waved and smiled when she saw me, then elbowed the girl next to her. I walked over to say hello. Or make that “alo.”
“This is the boy I was telling you about, Mary,” she said. “Sergio Mendez. Sergio, this is my Aunt Mary, the one I’m living with this summer.”
“Sergio Mendez?” the aunt repeated, looking me up and down. I started to feel nervous. What if she thought I was—you know—a phony?
“It’s very nice to meet you,” I said in my best Eagle Scout voice.
“Pleased to meet you, too, Sergio,” Liesel’s aunt said through the pickup window. She had a little smile on her face. I wasn’t sure it was a friendly smile, to tell you the truth, but then again it was hard to tell in the dark.
“Can you teach me some words, Sergio?” Liesel said. Then she lowered her beautiful voice to a whisper. “By the way, I know you speak Portuguese. Not Brazilian. I went along with Wendy when she said that because I didn’t want her to feel stupid. She’s really sweet, Sergio.”
“Right,” I said. A strange, uncomfortable feeling shot through me. Whatever the feeling was, it didn’t stop me from calling Sweet Wendy the next day. “You have to help me learn some Portuguese quick.”
“You’re crazy, Ed. Oh, excuse me. Senhor Sergio Mendez.” Wendy did a very obnoxious accent. “Talk about lame. My father still has his old Sergio Mendez and Brazil 66 albums from when he was in high school.”
No wonder my new name had sounded familiar to me. I used to be a rock star back in the late ’60s. I prayed that neither Liesel nor her Aunt Mary had recognized the name.
“Didn’t Ben teach you any words besides ‘Alo’?” I pressed on, ignoring Wendy’s wisecracks.
“Well,” Wendy sounded reluctant, “I can say the days of the week.”
“The days of the week are good. I can just stand there and say Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday over and over again in Portuguese, and Liesel won’t know the difference.”
“Ed …” Wendy paused.
“Ed, my first impulse is to hate girls that look like Liesel because—well, because I don’t look like them. But Liesel seems really nice. And innocent. And maybe even a little lonely.” Wendy stopped.
“So what’s your point?” I said, playing really stupid. The feeling from last night returned, although this time I came closer to recognizing it for what it was.
“My point, Ed,” Wendy pressed on, “is that you’re tricking her. She’s going to feel bad if she finds out.”
“Who says she’s going to find out?”
“Please, Wendy,” I pleaded. “This is my chance to—to be somebody different. Somebody who is not ordinary, boring Ed McIff.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized how totally pathetic they were. And also how true.
“Okay, fine,” she snapped. “Sunday is domingo. Monday is segunda-feira. Tuesday is terca-feira …”
You know that feeling I had while talking to Liesel and Mary? Well, I’m pretty sure it was guilt.
Liesel returned the next day, looking as fresh as flowers in the morning. Her Aunt Mary was with her, and so was another guy who looked like he spent his lunch hours in the gym every day.
“Hi, Sergio,” Liesel said with a sunny grin. “I brought you a surprise today. Mary’s friend, Rick!”
Just what I always wanted for a surprise. A guy with big muscles.
“Rick went on his mission to Brazil, and Mary thought it might make you happy to have somebody to talk to in your own language again,” Liesel said, her face alive with kindness and concern.
“Como vai?” Rick smiled and crushed my hand, although in fairness I think he only meant to shake it.
My stomach dropped like a loose elevator. I opened my mouth to answer him. “Domingo, segunda-feira, terca-feira.”
Rick looked at me closely. “Que?”
I repeated myself, “Domingo, segunda-feira.”
Rick didn’t say anything, but I could see from his expression that he realized what was going on. Just my luck.
Liesel giggled, “Hey, what are you guys saying to each other?”
“Not much,” I said truthfully.
“Mary, show Liesel that movie we were looking at the other night and ask her if she wants to check it out,” Rick said. Liesel gave me a smile then hurried down the aisle after her aunt.
“Okay,” Elder Rick whispered to me, his face close to mine. “I’m giving you a choice: either you come clean with her, or I’ll do it for you. Okay, Sergio?”
I swallowed and nodded, fear and shame coursing through my veins like salmon swimming upstream. I looked over at Wendy. Her face was unintelligible.
Mary, Liesel, and Rick returned with an armful of videos which I checked out for them. Liesel was chattering away happily, but I only heard part of what she said because I was so distracted.
“Ah, Liesel,” I said, as they turned to go. “Could I talk to you for a minute? Alone?”
Rick looked over Mary and Liesel’s heads and gave me a little smile that was actually friendly. “We’ll wait for you in the truck, Liesel,” he said, then left with Mary.
Liesel gave me a sidelong glance while smiling and shuffling her feet a little bit. She was acting like a girl who knows you’re going to ask her to dance.
I cleared my throat. “I owe you an apology. I … I lied to you. My name isn’t Sergio. It’s Ed McIff. I’ve never been to Brazil.”
The smile faded slowly from Liesel’s lips as my words sank in.
“The only reason I wear this name tag is because my manager hasn’t made me a new one yet,” I went on.
Liesel looked straight at me for a long time, then said, “You must think I’m pretty stupid, huh?”
“No!” I said. “I don’t think you’re stupid at all!”
“Then why did you lie to me?”
I hadn’t let myself think about how Liesel would feel if she found out I was lying. But now I could see that she was hurt, maybe even a little humiliated, which made me feel like the complete jerk I’d been. “I don’t think you’re stupid at all. I was just trying to impress you. I was trying to be somebody I’m not to get your attention.”
“But how do you know I wouldn’t have liked Ed McIff?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“You misjudged me, Ed,” Liesel said softly. “It’s too bad, too. We could have been friends this summer.”
She gave me one last look out of those huge blue eyes, picked up her videos, and walked out of the door. And out of my life.
Wendy let out a low whistle. “Wow.”
Just then, Marv the Manager came scuttling up the aisle like a crab toward me. “I got something for you here.” He dropped a plastic name tag in front of me.
I removed my old name tag and put on the new one.
Wendy looked at it and smiled. “Welcome back, Ed. Somebody from Brazil named Sergio has been inhabiting your body. It’s been kind of spooky.”
In spite of the fact I was feeling like dirt, I had to smile.
“He was pretty cute,” Wendy went on, “but he was such a liar. I like you a lot better.”
“Really?” I said, “Why?”
“Because you buy me ice cream and because you make me laugh,” said Wendy. “Be yourself from now on, Ed. Okay? It’s less confusing that way.” She chucked a video at me. “Now go shelve this.”
I snagged it on the fly. “Yes, ma’am.”
Wendy smiled, and it occurred to me what great eyes she has. I gave the video a little flip, then caught it again.
So that’s it. My story about last summer when I learned to be true by suffering the consequences of playing false. The summer I was Sergio.