Sunday, January 27, 2008

Sunday Scribblings: Misc. people (a story in a letter)

These dolls from here.

Dear Mami,

I wish that you were reading this in English. Then maybe you could have a taste of what my life is like, Mami—spending the day listening to words that sound just like wearing a coat in winter. Like footsteps on the concrete. But then again, it would mean you having to go all the way to the Plaza Grande, dragging your skirts in the dust, asking for translations. Not that it would be so hard, not these days. I wish it had always been so. Then maybe it wouldn't be so hard for me right now.

“It's so important to us that Thalia grow up knowing her culture, and I don't just mean 'Dora the Explorer' you know? These are the years to learn—it never sticks when you get old like us, huh?” Doña Rosa had said to me, in blessed Spanish. I nod, not sure what to say. Surely Doña Rosa knows that I am spending every night sitting up in my room, tracing my fingers over every word in the dictionary, trying to absorb the smooth letters through my skin. Circling all of the unknown words in that little book of cartoons that Tomas gave me the last time I left. Six months, and there are still more circles than not. “And I told Pedro that if he'd grown up in my pueblo, he'd know the Delgados are known for being excellent teachers.” What good is it being a Delgado who teaches when I cannot learn myself?

Still, it is good that Doña Rosa remembers. It helps me remember myself.

I try to remind her that there is so much more I can do than just take care of Thalia and the house. Thalia is a placid child, content to sit in her little red rocking chair and watch me moving around the kitchen. And the house itself—luxury looks different in los Estados Unidos. It's clean, spacious, all the surfaces hard and shining. All of Doña Rosa and Don Pedro's recuerdos from home, the straw filled dolls, the framed flags, the clay pots—they seem to be swallowed by the smoothness, the glow of these American things. They look extra.

Doña Rosa is so tired after a day at work. “It is not easy to make ends meet,” she says. “People think once you get here, you are saved. But they are wrong.” She sounds angry, as though I have accused her of this myself. “It's not like home.” I mention. “No, she says again. “Not even like your home.” This brightens her, and she loses some of the harsh tone when she asks me to help her in her private office. I am excited as well. This is what I have been angling for since I arrived. Work that will feed my mind, the way you always did it, Mami. Delgado work.

“Please sort these bills into piles, and then I'll ask Pedro to file them.” She showed me how to recognize each bill and match it to others, without knowing the words. Like the card game we used to play.

We worked in quiet, equal silence. Every now and then I would hold up an envelope, and she would tell me, “Just put that aside.” When we were done, that “aside” pile was rather large. She swept them all into a folder marked, “Misc.

“What does this mean, this word wrote here?” I was proud to ask her in English, but she made no comment on that. She was too busy making notes on a pad, a pencil between her teeth. “Oh, it means miscellaneous.” I waited.

“Uh, its just important paperwork. It's important.”

I filed this away. It seemed a useful word.

The other day, Don Pedro came home from work all excited. It seemed he had invited a new friend home from work. Bob. The man mooned around as though he was preparing for his Quinceñera, the joy flushed on his face. “Bob says not to worry about cooking anything special. Bob is a very understanding man. He is an important man at work. He does not often go out to people's houses. This is a very good thing for us, Rosa.” Of course, Doña Rosa left me detailed instructions for what dishes I should cook, and as soon as she got home, without even removing her coat, she began lifting the lids off of the steaming pots, and then she starts chopping the vegetables for her special sofrito. She was pleased when I complimented her on it later. “Even the Delgados don't know everything, right?” She said, smiling big as she went up the stairs to get dressed.

I was bathing Thalia, elbow deep in two year old and soapy water, when Don Pedro walked in, pulling his tie straight around his neck. Six months, and he is still hesitant around me. He averted his eyes as though I was the one taking the bath. “Uh, Nilda...” He began. “Perhaps you would like to go to Carmen's house tonight? Or even to a movie?” It was not a question.

“Of course, Don Pedro.” I was not surprised, but it does not feel good to be asked, all the same.

Well, Mami, I decided to make a night of it. I called Carmen and we made arrangements to go to the Rinconcito and then the Copa for dancing. We were both going to speak in nothing but English and enjoy ourselves as though we belong here. I have heard that Miami is a beautiful city, and I am sure it looks better when you are not in the backseat, next to a screaming baby.

Tell Tomas that I did my hair the way he likes it—dance floor hair, all swirls and dips and spins. I only wish he could have seen it.

I could hear their voices carrying up the stairs as I stood there, wondering if maybe I should just go past, quickly, towards the kitchen door. But I was curious about this Bob man. So I went down, directly into the living room, where they all sat, balancing drinks on their knees.

He immediately stood up. “ didn't tell me your sister was here.” He was very tall, with blood energy reddening his skin and gentle blue eyes and hair almost white, like the sun over the water at noon. I took the hand he offered, but couldn't think of anything to say. Sometimes this English feels like a funnel, like all of my thoughts are being drained through a too-small hole.

“No, that's... that's just Nilda. She knows my wife's family. From home.” He made the introductions, while Doña Rosa just looked at me and said nothing, loudly.

I'm not sure how it happened, but Don Pedro offered me a drink and I took it and sat down on their white couch, careful with my wine.

They spoke in English, and I felt pulled along by it, always a few ideas behind. But finally, Bob turned to me and asked me how I liked “the States.” Usually I just smile when someone asks me if I need to say it in English, but something about his blue eyes looking at me, so was the 'courage of the red dress' like you always say.

I wanted to say something to help them, Don Pedro and Doña Rosa, something to thank them for their kindness and impress this nice American man.

So I opened my mouth and I said, “They are very misc. people.” Silence. Bob looked confused, “Mixed?”

“No, misc...miscellaneous people.” And, ay, Mami, somehow I lost control of that word even as it passed through my mouth, and it came out like Spanish, like English, like everything other than what it should be. I flung it down like a dead fish at the table, and it just lay there, stinking.

Bob smiled like he'd forgotten how to stop. “I don't see what you mean.”

“Important. They are...important people at home.”

I already knew I was wrong, but it was too late. I couldn't do anything about the twist on Doña Rosa's face, or the way Don Pedro's face looked white like playa sand. So I smiled and threw my hands in the air, like a surrender, and just then Carmen came and honked the horn and I escaped.

Before I closed the door to her car, I heard Doña Rosa saying, “Poor thing...not very well educated, you know. Trying so hard. She teaches Thalia, but I think Thalia teaches her so much more!”

And we still went out to dinner, where the sounds of Spanish all around us was like a balm. But I begged off dancing; told Carmen what I said. She patted my hand and told me what the word really meant. Different people or things, from a bunch of places, not all the same.

When I got home that night, Don Pedro was waiting by the door. You charmed Bob, he said. He thought you were funny. Then he said, “You is's not good right now, Nilda. We have no extra anymore. You understand...”

And of course, I do.

Because I know I am extra, because Don Pedro and Doña Rosa are miscellaneous in this new land.

So I need to look here, hard, or you will see me sooner than you think. And I know we can't have that. We also have no extra.

Wish me luck, querida mama. And tell Tomas that his mami misses him more than words can say. In either Spanish OR English.

Tu Nilda
For more misc. tales, go here.

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Anonymous gautami tripathy said...

I like the story in a letter form.

2:57 AM, January 27, 2008  
Blogger Becca said...

This is such a good story on so many levels - the disconnect between Nilda and language, her friends, the new culture is so clear, but so gently portrayed.
And as always you paint such lovely word pictures - I could just see her sitting in her room tracing the words in the dictionary.

And we are a "misc" people here in "the states." What a perfect description!

I love your writing :)

8:07 AM, January 27, 2008  
Blogger Herb Urban said...

You tell a wonderful story. Your writing is always such a pleasure to read.

6:47 PM, January 27, 2008  
Blogger tumblewords said...

Yes, indeed. A lovely story and told in such description. Very nice!!

9:53 PM, January 27, 2008  
Blogger Shari said...

There are so many things in your story that make it entertaining: it being a letter, the expression of her feelings and concerns, the Spanish mixed in with the English, the culture, the connection between Nilda and Mami.

11:41 AM, January 28, 2008  
Blogger Lisa said...

This is such a tease! I can't wait to read more. I love the point of view and the letter format and your imagery is delicious!

12:05 PM, January 28, 2008  
Blogger Left-handed Trees... said...

Very nicely done...I "tagged" you with a writing prompt too, and I never tag--so if you feel up for it let me know!

12:29 PM, January 28, 2008  
Blogger Melba said...

You are a writer.
A good writer.
A beautiful writer!

8:21 PM, January 28, 2008  
Blogger Amber said...

"He made the introductions, while Doña Rosa just looked at me and said nothing, loudly."---

Oh, I loved that! You are SO GOOD. I love seeing this view. And what a totally creative take on this prompt. Wow.


11:50 PM, January 29, 2008  
Blogger paris parfait said...

A lovely story - you're so good at story-telling!

3:13 AM, January 30, 2008  
Blogger Deirdre said...

I loved this story, it tells so many stories, calls me to wonder about even more.

6:37 AM, January 30, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you all so much--I was a little nervous, it's been so long since I've even been able to think "in fiction" so I am glad that you all took te time to read it.

10:32 PM, January 31, 2008  
Anonymous fern said...

Fantastic! I'm so glad you haven't completely given up on fiction, it would be such a shame. Your writing is beautiful. Your characters are always so very vivid. Lovely read :)

9:36 PM, February 02, 2008  

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