Ah, Those Tea Candles
By Cora Ann Metz (USA)
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Ah, those dainty tea light candles. Actually, they serve many useful purposes, from warming gourmet foods at extravagant buffets to pumping pleasant scents throughout one’s home to setting a serene mood at dinner tables. However, a previous close but dangerous encounter with one met with almost disastrous results, and I have been wary of these wily rascals ever since. Unfortunately in abundance at a recent social event, one executed a precision sneak attack on a good friend of mine and almost spoiled our planned night out. Almost.
While in the Army, I lived in different locations all over Germany . After retiring, I settled in Kaiserslautern , located about 30 minutes from the French border. This town proved to be an ideal location from which to carve out weekend jaunts to nearby countries. I would go to quaint towns for shopping, to celebrate traditional festivities or for other forms of entertainment. One of my favorite getaways was my monthly drive to Aschaffenburg , a small town an hour and a half away and about 20 minutes east of Frankfurt . One fun-filled weekend, hilarious events unfolded and provided me with fond memories I will cherish forever.
After arriving and checking into my hotel, I contacted my friend, Jose, to set a time to meet him at Goya, a popular salsa club. Jose is Puerto Rican. I met him over 10 years ago when both of us were in the Army and stationed at Heidelberg , Germany . We have been friends ever since. His passionate love of salsa music eventually rubbed off on me, and I am just as much a fanatic about it as he is. Since I have known him, his thick, rapid-fire Spanish accent never, ever improved. After first meeting him, I thought that over time my ears would adjust to the speed of his accent and that my comprehension of his Spanglish would improve. But even after all these years, I still struggle through our conversations. Although I am not hard of hearing, I found myself constantly asking him to repeat things he had already said.
With his magnetic personality, carefree nature and constantly upbeat attitude, he is undoubtedly a perennial child at heart, and I love that aspect about him. An agile, energetic salsa dancer despite his burgeoning weight, Jose remained a popular pick from the swarm of spirited senoritas itching to show off their moves with him on the dance floor. And to keep me from beating those hussies off with a stick, he always reserved several dances for me.
To kill some time before heading to Goya, Jose met me at my hotel and from there we walked to the downtown area a short distance away. Though it was 8:30 at night, the slowly setting sun resisted being put away for the night by casting a vibrant orange glow over the city and cloaking it in a stifling heat. The heavy mugginess aroused our thirst and prompted us to have a drink at one of the numerous chic bistros.
A Caribbean-themed bar caught our eyes, and rhythmic beats of the Latin music lured us in. The entrance consisted of a straw canopy bedecked with strings of multicolored lights. Large fake palm trees stood at each side of the front door. Once inside, I felt myself transported to a sultry tropical island. Round, dark wooden tables and high-back wicker chairs added more flavor. The large blades of the ceiling fans spun lazily to help circulate the cool air inside. More significant was the decorative shelf, which jutted out along the walls. Arousing a déjà vu uneasiness deep within me, treacherous tea candles in glass cups rested at uneven intervals along this ledge. Although the candles looked as innocent as sleeping pit bulls, their golden glow created a relaxed, calming atmosphere throughout the place.
Jose picked a table near a wall, much too close to the candles to suit me, but I didn’t want to alarm him, at least not just yet. I recalled a frightening past experience with tea candles at a restaurant. One sneaked up to my tray with the stealth precision of a king cobra and started a blaze at my table which almost led to a major fire, but that is another story. Ever since then, I have never trusted these little demons. I preferred to sit outside where no candles were in sight, but I felt that would be over reacting. Thinking that I would be somewhat safe with Jose with me, I decided to stay put. For good measure, I sat at the end of the table farther away from the wall, feeling safer at that distance because this was a different town, a different setting, and a different occasion and thank God I was not alone this time.
The waitress came to take our order: Long Island iced tea for Jose and merlot for me. After our drinks came, we toasted each other to lock in the good time we planned to have. After tasting his tea, Jose bubbled enthusiastically “Ooo, this is good.” He persuaded me to take a sip and, indeed, it proved to be a supreme mix of this famously potent drink.
After seeing that we had nearly finished our drinks, the server visited our table again. Because I was driving, I order mineral water, but Jose obviously ordered another tea. I didn’t mind because he wasn’t driving and, juiced up or not, he was more than capable of proving he was the salsa king of the dance floor.
About halfway through his second drink, Jose evolved into somewhat of a cartoon character. His constant smiling and intermittent giggling at absolutely nothing validated my assessment. I watched in amazement at the hilarious transformation. His warm brown skin took on a ruddy hue and his coal-black eyes appeared to be swimming in their sockets. Though the large ceiling fans along with the air conditioner kept the place pleasantly cool, Jose started sweating like a former undercover informant who had come out of hiding to testify against the mob. He used all the napkins we had at the table to dab at the sweat constantly rolling down his face. Fidgeting in his seat to find a good position for himself, Jose finally leaned to one side of his chair and casually draped one arm over the back. Too bad I didn’t have a camera to capture that pose.
Throughout our conversation and in between sips of our respective refreshments, I noticed that Jose’s accent took on an even higher level of hysterical incomprehension. It sounded as if he were talking to me in Spanish under water. Thoroughly tickled at this free show, I sipped more wine and smiled frequently as he started to sound like an uneven mix of Speedy Gonzalez and Pepe Lepew. As if this wasn’t enough, the high volume of the background Latin music made it even harder for me to hear him let alone trying to understand what the hell he was saying.
Remaining my gracious self under this priceless conversational pressure, I relied on Jose’s facial expressions and sweeping hand gestures as my cues to respond. I laughed when he blurted out something in Spanish, which only God knew I could not understand. I added my two cents worth when I thought he expected a reply or said something of consequence. I nodded in agreement a few times when he waived an arm in the air as if swatting away an annoying gnat. I couldn’t tell if he was discussing current political situations or the last lame episode of the Sopranos, but it didn’t matter. I knew he would be toast by the end of that second drink and thank God he was not driving.
Suddenly, Jose slammed his glass down hard on the table and sat upright in his chair. Startled, I asked him what was wrong, but he didn’t answer. With his right hand, he started slapping at the upper left of his back. Actually, I thought a mosquito had bitten him through his shirt, but no insect’s bite in the world could generate that much reaction after two glasses of that potent tea. Continuing slapping frantically, he turned at an angle for me to see what was happening back there. The unbelievable situation? A small flame seemed to dance around on his shirt. My jaw dropped. I froze momentarily and seconds later released a groan, “Dammit, the tea candles have struck again!” Apparently, Jose had leaned too close to the candle on the ledge and its flame reached out and touched him in the worst way.
I knew I had to spring into action. I really had good intentions of dousing the brewing combustion with whatever liquid was handy, but using my half a glass of merlot was simply out of the question. But before I could grab the glass of water to splash it on his back, he slapped out the last bit of the flame after mere seconds. Wincing, he kept his hand over the area as if it could absorb the obvious agony showing on his tensed-up face. He turned again so that I could see the hole in his shirt. Amazed, I saw that I could put my fist through it. I asked him if he was OK. Through a frozen grimace he squeaked out a pitiful reply in perfectly understandable English, “Yeeeaaah, I’m OK.”
I knew he was lying, trying to save face and endure the pain like the man that he is. I asked him if he wanted me to take him home to change into another shirt, but he declined the offer. Although he was hurting, he vowed to carry on with our plans for partying later that night. Nothing stands in the way of Jose’s salsa dancing, not even the painful blistering skin in the fist-sized, gaping black-rimmed hole in the back of his shirt.
He paid our tab and we headed for Goya. After parking and approaching the club, we noticed a line had formed at door, indicating that the club would be packed. The line moved quickly through the small, bleak entryway, which was painted black and contained one small table, which held a bank of tickets and a cash box. A burly bouncer with a stoic look on his face stood in one corner. Like a new bowling ball, his smooth bald head glistened under the dim lights. With his muscles straining under his tight black tee shirt, he kept his arms folded across his massive muscular chest, a stance, which I am sure, deterred any hint of a disturbance. All the time I’ve been to Goya, there has never been any trouble and I presume he is the reason. But the drab entrance belied the club’s interior décor.
With Jose in tow, I pushed aside the curtains at the entry door and stepped up to a colorful, elaborately patterned tiled floor. Off to my right were two long buffet tables, which always held an eclectic mix of several tasty, spicy Spanish dishes, salads and desserts, all free for the patrons. Fresh flowers always decorated each end of the tables. This area would be open for serving at 11 sharp, and I always made it a point to stop whatever I was doing to get in line early, even if it meant leaving Jose on the dance floor. Oddly shaped mirrors decorated some areas of the pastel pink walls. The expertly crafted, ornate bar off to my left consisted of well-stocked shelves. The bar’s mirrored backdrop reflected the light from three large mirrored disco balls positioned over the dance floor. These dated yet still fashionable globes spun in unison as the colossal speakers pumped out the latest and greatest of salsa, meringue and reggaeton tunes. Strings of multicolored lights woven into struts in the ceiling flashed at intervals. The blinking multicolored lights coupled with sporadic flashes from the disco balls created a vivid kaleidoscope effect.
A large screen TV to the rear of a small stage continuously ran videos of famous Latin singers and dance bands. To the right of the small stage were the winding wrought-iron stairs leading to the rest rooms downstairs. I had to be careful not to get too tipsy so that I could maneuver the steps without slipping down on my butt.
We made our way through the enthusiastic crowd to our favorite strategic spot between the DJ’s booth and the bar. There, we had a perfect view of the dance floor and easy access to it. I hopped up on one of the low-back bar stools and let my feet dangle just above the first rung. Jose stood next to me, ready to dance with me or any of the cheeky wenches frisky enough to grab him. When strains of one of my favorite salsa tunes blasted from the huge speakers, I grabbed Jose’s arm before hopping off my stool, but my foot landed on something squishy, which felt like a thick piece of meat. Jose quickly grabbed my arm as the object under my foot tried to move. I looked down and realized I had stepped on one of his feet. Typical of Jose, he had discarded his shoes somewhere near the bar and decided to dance in his black socks. Why? I didn’t know and was afraid to ask. Fortunately, no one else noticed either; at least I hoped no one did. Jose threw his head back and let out a belly laugh as I quickly removed my foot from on top of his. I felt bad about stepping on his foot despite his run-in with the candle, but I quickly realized one significant thing: no type of pain anywhere else on Jose’s body that night could come close to that of the scorched skin on his back.
Jose grabbed my hand and led me to the dance floor. As we started our salsa routine, I took great care to avoid both of his feet while dancing my butt off. I think I probably created some new dance steps in doing so. We partied well into the early morning hours. Actually, I don’t think anyone ever noticed either the hole in his shirt or his shoeless feet during the night, except me. Being the friend that I am, I didn’t plan on telling anyone about any of his mishaps because no one would believe me. And after many bottles of cold Coronas with fresh lemon slices and several shots of tequila in between his saucy salsa steps and rhythmic merengue moves, trust me, Jose felt absolutely no pain.