Before Love, Memory

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They come for me in a station wagon. My mother already has me dressed in a navy blue plaid jumper and a white blouse. She has yanked my dark hair into pigtails and now makes the sign of the cross on my forehead before turning me over to a skinny lady, who ushers me into the backseat of the station wagon. I join a small group of children, mostly Cuban, all of us dressed alike, our eyes bright and nervous.

The station wagon lady drops us off at the steps of a gloomy castle in Union City, New Jersey: Holy Family Catholic School. The yard is hemmed in with black iron bars and the front doors are made of steel. Women in dress pants roam the cement grounds like fat hens with their wings clipped, their beaks pointing and gesturing. I huddle with the other children in packs of three and five like scared chicks.

Miss Reynolds is the kindergarten teacher. She has glasses that make her eyes look like oversized buttons on her face, and she speaks the funny language that comes out of the television set at home when we are not watching telenovelas or the noticias, which is to say that she talks like the cartoon character Mighty Mouse. It is English, a language that sounds like marbles in the mouth. It is fun to hear, but mostly because the mouse on the TV screen is flying.

Sitting in the classroom, I wait for Miss Reynolds to start talking like my mother. In Spanish. Surely it won’t be long now. An hour passes. Two hours. An entire day it feels, and still it is all Mighty Mouse.

I am familiar with the language. I even speak a few words of it. But I have never heard so much of it all at once. It’s like being forced to watch the same cartoon all day long.

___

 

I don’t know if this is what actually happened on my first day of kindergarten, but it is what I remember of my first two years in school.

A few memories can be confirmed by research and on-site inspection: Mighty Mouse on television, the school’s black iron bars. My mother verifies the station wagon lady and the ethnicity of the other children, and school photographs offer details of the uniform and my teacher’s face.

There are, however, missteps in memory, places where emotion has distorted people, sights, even cuerpos. In a school photograph, for example, my teacher is a skinny, androgynous white woman with thick glasses. But I remember her as a fat hen, a flying mouse, and kindergarten as the beginning of the end.

___

 

A teacher comes for us one day. Just two of us. Me and my friend, a thin, pixie-faced girl.

I don’t know why we are being taken from class, but in the hallway as we find ourselves farther from our classroom, my friend starts crying and hers are not baby tears. They are full blast, llorona wailing. She roots herself to the ground and refuses to take one more step. The teacher begins dragging her by the arm, but the harder the woman pulls, the more my friend yells and twists in the darkened hallway, and for an instant, it looks as if her left arm is threatening to rip from her body, as if she will choose self-mutilation over what is to come at the hands of white women. As for myself, I don’t fight. I follow.

In an empty classroom, the white woman pulls out a deck of cards with pictures and words. She spreads the cards on a broad table, one by one. The sun is pouring through the window and coating us in a yellow liquid, but I can decipher the cards. Each one holds a picture and a word: dog, cat, house. I am to repeat each word after the teacher.

In Spanish, we have cartas.

Tía Rosa’s husband uses them to talk with the spirit world. The cards tell us about jobs that are about to arrive, ancestors who are unhappy, a case pending with immigration. The cards are paper doors only special people can open.

I look at the white woman’s cards and listen to her bold English wordsdog, cat, house—and there is all the evidence of what is to come in my life. I am not to go the way of the two people I long for in the thick terror of the night. The first man I love and the first woman I adore, my father and my mother with their Spanish words, are not in these cards. The road before me is English and the next part too awful to ask aloud or even silently: What is so wrong with my parents that I am not to mimic their hands, their needs, not even their words?

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