JEFF raised his head once more to check the arrivals on display in front of him. The plane was due in a few minutes, right about time to get rid of the board on which the new doctor’s name was written in big, black block characters. “Ugarte,” it said, and he had been wondering what the right pronunciation for that could be. At least the man’s name was Daniel, so there was still a dignified way out of it, even if the Spanish accent didn’t stress the same syllable at all. That could be easily forgiven, he hoped, especially if the doctor was just a typical NGO volunteer, all beard, sandals, and easygoing, brotherhood-of-man attitude.
Jeff had played his last hand with a phone call and still could not believe the famous NGO had acknowledged his plea for help and sent in a doctor right away. Not that the medical situation of his people wasn’t shameful or disastrous enough, but Jeff’s reports had been passed from government agency to government agency without so much as a polite dismissal. So it came as a surprise when just a phone call had brought them money, supplies, and, most importantly, a well-trained doctor, even if he was only to stay for a few months. It was a beginning, and the publicity he could get from having an NGO consider theirs a critical situation might shame the local authorities into doing something just to save face.
He only hoped the man could win his people’s trust in such a short time. Jeff knew how their minds worked and was reasonably afraid they would shut him out, no matter how much they really needed a doctor. Maybe the fact that he was a foreigner, and European at that, would help, especially if Spaniards had that brown-skinned, dark-haired image their neighbors across the border sported.
The loudspeaker announced the incoming flight. Jeff had done all he could, no point in worrying anymore. He walked to the gate with that look of grim determination on his face that had earned him the respect of his people and usually came in handy in crowded places, making passersby steer clear of him just as they were doing now, as if he were a force of nature suddenly cut loose in the small county airport.
DANIEL grabbed his case and started walking, more slowly than he intended, but his body didn’t seem all that cooperative after a twelve-hour flight, three plane changes included. Not that working late the last few days helped much—as Raúl had pointed out—but it wasn’t an office he worked in; he couldn’t just up and go, leaving a bunch of papers on his desk. You don’t have to kill yourself to keep others in good health, his best friend had told him, voice tight with anger, but Daniel knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep if he didn’t do all he could. He might have been overdoing it lately, though.
After Estela left, he had taken extra shifts to keep his mind busy, making true what she’d said he was: a twenty-four-hour, house-call doctor with no time for career advancement or medical research. Medical research? Raúl had snorted. Bet that’s what she claims she’s been doing with that plastic surgeon. Daniel had tried to give him a stern look, but sometimes the way his friend berated Estela helped, no matter how wrong he knew it to be. Made him feel less guilty, less hurt.
He changed the laptop bag from shoulder to shoulder. Damn, he felt so tired. At least he had taken Raúl’s advice, or rather command, the way he had looked at Daniel with those I-know-better, big-brother eyes of his before saying: No war, no disaster area this year. He didn’t think he would have made it with camp facilities this time, the way he was dragging himself about like a too-heavy attaché case.
Funny, they had just the right job for Raúl to approve of, in the least expected of all possible places. It was going to be weird, really weird. Just to think of the name of the social worker he had to contact made Daniel shake his head. Christ. How was he supposed to call someone “Redbear” without feeling he was insulting the man? It wasn’t simply that he had to face a culture somehow alien to him; he had done that before. The problem was this time he couldn’t help bringing with him a lot of what he imagined to be simple clichés about life on an Indian reservation. He sighed. They would have to be a little patient with him, but then again, they were on the same team, everything should be just fine. Right now, all he could hope for was someone waiting for him outside the gates, even if he had to pretend that giving the guy some animal’s name did not make him expect to be punched in return.
PASSENGERS started spilling out of the sliding doors. Jeff searched tired, expectant faces, holding the cardboard sign gingerly away from him. He felt like a tour leader waiting on a bunch of tourists. Not that anyone would travel that far to visit a reservation that didn’t even house a casino, but the embarrassed feeling was there all the same. He just hoped nobody he knew had business at the airport that day.
People carrying cases passed by him, but so far, no one looked the way he expected the foreign doctor to look. Maybe he was clinging to stereotypes there, but he figured his own looks entitled him to do so. He couldn’t hide what he was, never tried to. In fact, he always made sure one or two of his favorite stereotypes were right in place before leaving home.
Today he looked especially typical: his long, black hair falling unbridled past his shoulders, flannel shirt slightly open to show Grandpa’s medicine pouch, well-worn jeans hanging rather loosely on his lean frame, dusty cowboy boots on his feet. Surely the doctor wouldn’t have a hard time spotting him among the crowd, if he ever made it through the gate. Shit. What was keeping the man?
Jeff let his eyes wander over the passengers and almost gasped aloud. It had been a long time since he’d last seen anyone, either man or woman, so overpoweringly attractive. The guy definitely stood out. He wasn’t particularly tall, yet the way he moved, the way his clothes fit his slender body, the way everything he wore—case and shoulder bag included—had been carefully chosen to look casual and still elegant, all of it spoke of a kind of background completely alien to this godforsaken corner of the country. Not to mention the effect it was producing on Jeff, an instant knot of desire melting his brain right then and there like the nearby explosion of a supernova. Sweet lord Jesus. The man had one of the most beautiful faces he’d ever seen: features exquisitely drawn on a fair, flawless complexion, sensual lips, big green eyes staring with an intensity that made Jeff’s throat go dry when their gazes met.
They stood like that for a moment, eyes locked in some kind of staring-down contest that the stranger seemed to lose as his gaze focused on the cardboard sign in Jeff’s hands. Jeff forgot to even feel embarrassed; he was too busy keeping his knees from giving way under him. Then the stranger looked up and Jeff had to blink twice to be sure he was seeing right.
There was a smile on the man’s face, no doubt about it. And it wasn’t a smirk, either. It was a full, disarmingly sexy smile, the kind that makes you turn your head to confirm that you are the true recipient of such wonder. Jeff didn’t turn around, though, because the stranger had started walking toward him and he was frozen in place, the cardboard held tight in front of him as some kind of protective shield.
“Hi, I’m Daniel Ugarte.”
It took Jeff some time to process that single sentence, so much so that the man had to point to the board with the big name on it.
“That’s me,” he said, his voice a little uncertain this time.
Jeff shook himself out of the trance and offered his hand.
“Jeff Redbear. Welcome to the States.”
He could have slapped himself. What an original introduction. The man didn’t seem to care, though. He appeared truly happy to meet him, or to be there, or whatever it was that made him smile so brightly. Maybe that trait was the only one that matched his expectations. He seemed to be nice in a mushy-missionary kind of way. Or rather, that was what Jeff’s growing reticence tried to make him believe.
It happened every time he met interesting white people, which wasn’t that often, anyway. He felt threatened. Of course he knew it was irrational, but he couldn’t help it. He had built the courage to navigate through an all-white world from a well-proven notion that the culture he had inherited was in many ways superior to the dominant one.
He was honestly proud of who he was, and having seen too often what came out of despising one’s own roots in an ill-conceived effort toward assimilation, he felt grateful. His identity was solid, and comfortably so. Yet when something from the other world caught his attention, he felt as if he were about to betray his people, and all his defenses went into red-alert mode.
“I really appreciate you coming to pick me up. I feel like the perfect textbook example of jet lag.”
There. That was it. Of course the man was happy to find someone waiting for him after what, ten, eleven hours locked up in a shaking metal box? And there he was, being a total jerk. He fumbled for something to say.
“Have a good flight?”
Great, Jeff. How lame was that?
“Yeah, quiet all the way. Still, by the fourth Bruce Willis movie, I was ready to try my hand at skydiving.”
Jeff chuckled in spite of himself. “Could have been worse. Last time I took a Greyhound bus, I had to watch the first half of Dances with Wolves. Twice.”
The doctor laughed. Up close, his eyes were amazing. Never imagined green eyes could get that dark. Jesus. He’d better get a grip on himself. He was going to be stuck with the man for some months. He couldn’t afford to keep drooling over him all the time.
He bent to grab the doctor’s case, just to hide his embarrassment, but the man wouldn’t let him, so he ended up carrying what appeared to be a laptop. Of course. Jeff had been told the guy was some bigwig at a famous hospital, director of the pediatric emergency department or something like that. He probably expected the reservation to have Wi-Fi or at least proper ADSL facilities. Yeah, he was in for a big surprise. The nice doctor would probably faint when Jeff showed him the place they had refurbished for him to work and stay in.
As they walked toward the exit, Jeff realized he was still carrying the piece of cardboard and dumped it unceremoniously into the first trash can he saw.
Brace yourself, city boy, he thought as they marched to the parking lot, almost snorting as he remembered the state his pickup was in after the storm last night. He couldn’t wait to see the doctor’s face when he realized his fancy clothes had to touch that muddy piece of rolling junk.