Small Words in a Large World

Christine Ma-Kellams

1
“Baño” was the only word I knew. At Colegio Sagrado Corazón de Jesus, bilingualism started and ended with the morning prayer, which the other kids recited first in English, and then, with more conviction, in Spanish. I recited neither because no one had taught me either language before I arrived in Río Piedras. I knew “baño” only because the teachers would say that to me periodically throughout the day, baño with an upward tilt at the end to suggest it was a question, one that demanded an answer, to which the response was always a shake of the head, no. I’d rather hold my pee until my bladder burst. Grandma said when she was my age she climbed out of a collapsed school toward a pockmark of sunlight, and when she got outside she saw ghosts coming toward her, holding their eyeballs, their intestines, in their hands like embodied peace offerings. Hiroshima, she chanted, Hiroshima, the same way the nuns at Sagrado whispered Hey-zeus, Hey-zeus, while rubbing their beads, like an incantation, or a lullaby. My bladder never did burst, so I couldn’t verify if you could pop your insides and still live, even in ghost form.

At noon, the lunch ladies at Corazón de Jesus gave me rice, piles and piles of rice, because they noticed I wouldn’t touch anything else. The other kids, they left me alone, maybe by virtue of their uniformed Catholicism or their puertorriqueñisimo or perhaps because they didn’t know what to do with me, the girl who never talked and never went to the bathroom and ate only rice, like a malformed, half-assed robot.

 

2
Ames, Iowa, was a different story. Miss Espinosa wore translucent black stockings that matched her matte-navy kitten heels, and all the kids would race to her feet during circle time. Whoever got there first would get to rub her ankles. The first time I won I didn’t know what to do with my hands; I reached for her calf and then withdrew. She looked at me and said, “You can do it, go on.” I loved her right then and there.

Years later, my husband asked, “You did what with your first grade teacher?”

“Rubbed her ankles, that’s all.”

“That’s weird. And wildly inappropriate.”

“It’s ankles,” I said. “Nothing inappropriate ever happened with ankles.”

One day, Miss Espinosa disappeared and a student teacher named Miss Sachs showed up instead. I liked her immediately because she was gorgeous, but I did not love her because she was too easy. She drew happy faces on the Greek mythology homework she passed back, instead of correcting them, and let me raid the sticker box whenever I spelled the names of the gods correctly—Zeus, Athena, Hera, Poseidon, Ares, Apollo, and Artemis. Did she not understand the concept of the lure? Still, I hid all my stickers in a sea-green box that used to store a diary of the same color, and counted them every night before going to bed instead of saying the Lord’s Prayer, careful to never detach them from their adhesive backing and forever ruin their virgin status as new, unused, from a smoke-free home. This went on for five years until my little sister was born. In a single afternoon she unpeeled every sticker I had collected and stuck them all over her naked torso, and then cried about it when Mommy had to remove them one by one, slowly and methodically, like Band-Aids on a burn victim. I hated her after that. Even now, I can’t help but consider her with suspicion whenever we meet up for Sunday brunch, which is never.

My first day at school, the kids at Kate Mitchell Elementary had taken notice of me immediately and attacked with an earnestness that I have never found again outside the Midwest. At recess the whole class of twelve ran toward me as I tried to make my way toward the swings. I started to sprint, but that only made them run harder. By the time the first girl reached me, I collapsed preemptively as a show of surrender, folding my arms over my head and knees on the sunken asphalt, expecting to pelted with foreign objects or imaginary bullets. Nothing happened. Instead, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I looked up. The girl who caught me had short hair and a denim romper and a ceramic face Jackson Pollocked with freckles. She asked, “What do you eat for supper?”

“Duck,” I said. It was my favorite, and I had learned a few words during the transatlantic flight.

“Gross,” the class chimed. “No way,” a kid with a Boy Scout outfit declared, doubting.

“Yeah-huh,” I said. I heard the phrase on Saved by the Bell, which I watched for three hours every afternoon, religiously, “to learn English of course,” Mommy had said to her friends.

“What do you eat for breakfast?” Boy Scout asked.

“Cereal,” I decided, because this was true. A different one each week, using my two-dollar allowance whose restrictions started and ended with whatever was on sale at Albertson’s. “Cereal” elicited a collective nod, and like that I was in. Freckles told me her name was Katie Baedke and that she was having a birthday party that Saturday. She handed me a yellow envelope with a brown teddy bear cutout and a giant “7” on its belly. “Address is on the back,” she said, adding, “I like Barbies.”

Saturday morning Daddy took Mommy and me to Save-On. We went to the Hallmark section, and they stood behind me squinting as I fingered all the card stock I could reach. Eventually I picked one that had a cat wearing a flowered dress and a bonnet. It said, “To My Favorite Aunt” on the front, but none of us could read English anyway, so it was fine. Daddy sighed heavily when the cashier rang up $1.03 with tax, but Mommy made a shushing noise with her throat and pushed him hard on the back. He handed over a dollar bill and counted out three pennies.

At the party, Katie’s mom had made her a chocolate birthday cake shaped like a bear, with a small circle head, a bigger circle body, and Oreos as ears. It was the best thing I had ever seen. When I gave Katie the card, she opened it immediately, read the inscription, and engorged her eyes wide. “I love it,” she said, giving me a hug. I patted her on the back and waited for the release. Daddy always said, “Americans are like peaches.” I wasn’t sure what he meant at first, but I started to get the idea.

The end of the school year coincided with my own birthday, which also coincided with summer. Daddy promised to take me to Walmart that weekend and buy me (one) bathing suit to celebrate the (three) momentous occasions. I didn’t know how to swim (still don’t) but I knew the excitement would be imprinted on my brain forever. That Friday afternoon, right before the bell rang, I made the announcement to the rest of Blue Group.

“My daddy is taking me to Walmart,” I said.

Nothing happened.

Finally, Daniel said, “What’s so special about Walmart?”

“To buy a bathing suit!” I told him.

“Yeah?” he said, waiting.

I could see that he didn’t get it. “Nevermind,” I said.

We did end up going to Walmart; I bought a neon one-piece with dripping vertical stripes in yellow, pink, and orange. If we hadn’t, this would’ve been a different story.

 

For a brief time, Mommy thought she could learn English and, who knows, become a nurse or something. This is what people did when they came to America: learn English, pick something up—something practical, make enough money so that their kids will have choices, like whether to be an engineer or a software programmer (pick one). To this end she enrolled in the free English language classes at Christ Community Church, where she spent every afternoon. An octogenarian named Mrs. Nelson taught her and five other women, all recent transplants from parts of the world that God had long ago forsaken but was working on getting back. Mrs. Nelson taught her how to spell out numbers in English so that one day she would be able to write her own checks without asking her daughter whether “eighty” started with an “a” or an “e,” and also taught her that Jesus was real. Mrs. Nelson knew this because when she was twenty-three, she was eight months pregnant with her first daughter and driving, when her car slid across the center divider on the I-30 and flipped over. Still conscious, Mrs. Nelson said, “Jeesus,” “Jeesus,” over and over again, until the Holy Spirit gave her such an immense and temporary surge of upper body strength that she managed to push her door open and climb out of the vehicle. The baby was fine; albeit now she is grown and a lesbian. “What’s a lesbian?” Mommy had asked. “Nevermind that,” Mrs. Nelson had said.

While Mommy was learning about Jesus and lesbians, I rode the school bus home and inched along the block between the bus stop and my front door, taking as much time as possible because I knew no one would be there when I landed on the front porch with a cookie in my pocket and an empty backpack. I wore the house key around my neck on a green piece of thread that we had gotten from one of those toiletries bags that the airlines pass out whenever people fly international. It came from a mini sewing kit with a needle, white replacement button, and three strands of cotton-polyester blend in red, green, and black. These days, Mommy and Daddy are rich and live in a Spanish-style five-bedroom house on a suburban hill in Southern California, where in their master bath they still keep a growing collection of free airline toiletries bags, like a hoarder’s alternative to scrapbooking.

Once home, I always called Daddy’s lab, punching in the numbers slowly and surgically. It’d invariably ring, ring, ring, ring, until a woman’s voice would come on and say something I never understood, to which I would always reply, “Is Rong Ma there? I’d like to speak to Rong Ma, please.” The woman, she would continue talking, talking, and I would continue asking for Rong Ma, until a mechanical beep would interrupt us both and replace the dialogue with a silence of the stone-cold kind.

These days, Mommy still can’t speak English. It is unclear whether this is more Mrs. Nelson’s fault or Jesus’s. True, she can sign her name in English on her checks, but she still makes me fill in the part where the amount goes in words, and I have to know that “eighty” starts with an “e,” no matter how much it sounds like an “a.” She never became a nurse, although to be fair I never became a software engineer. Sometimes generational brokenness travels in both directions.

 

3
College Station, Texas—things that happen in Texas tend to stay there.

 

4
Hiroshima, Hiroshima. Today the president of the free world visited. “This is not an apology,” the journalists repeated, then repeated again, because they knew no one believed them. The president, he said something about the logic of fear, and how we shouldn’t rely on it. My more empirical self snorted, because everyone knows that fear and logic are forever divorced, separated by a vast chasm of irreconcilable differences. Fear lives in a pea-sized bullet in the emotional middle of your brain called the limbic system. When it fires, it is fast and sloppy, prone to be swayed by silicone tits and hot dogs and Donald Trump. Logic lives a million evolutionary light-years away in the cavernous groves of your prefrontal cortex, which sits on top of your brain like a bulky add-on, a practical bike rack attached to the world’s fastest and most dangerous race car. Fear has no logic, and logic no fear. The president, he knows this, because even though he too is a demagogue, he is a smart one who went to Harvard, where he presumably learned a few things, like the mutual exclusivity between fear and logic.

Grandma calls this “wishful thinking.” She is nice like that.

Today school kids wearing bright-teal caps and buttoned polos take notes at the Atomic Bomb Dome near Hiroshima’s city center, along a river the color of pine needles. A survivor’s group walks around showing old pictures of the city, drawings wrapped in plastic that look like they came from a travel guide brochure. The children squint and pull on their lanyards and think about lunch.

“Do you have questions?” one of the survivor tour guide says.

“How old are you?” a boy asks.

“I was twelve when it happened,” the survivor says. “Not that far from your age.” He doesn’t say how old he is today, perhaps because after a while you stop counting. For most of us this happens at fifty, or maybe sixty-seven. For him it happened the day one hundred forty pounds of uranium fell from the August sky and splintered into a thousand orange blossoms that crackled as they sank.

Grandma is not here; she lives in a one-story in Toronto, where the winters are severe but the shawarma is tender year-around. When she calls out “Hiroshima, Hiroshima” in her sleep, the stripes on the Kurogane holly trees bristle along the river’s edge outside Kanon Elementary School, in the Nishi-ku district of a Japanese town that God had relinquished to the Allies a long time ago, but was working on getting back. When an American tourist says “Jesus” underneath her breath while walking along said river and peering at the uniformly dressed children that looked just like those at Sagrado Corazón, the nuns in Río Piedras remember to say their prayers and taste the fragrant rub of rice against their cheeks. They hold on to their insides and wonder if they could still live if they burst. They whisper, “Hey-zeus, hey-zeus.” On a mountain named Olympus several light years away, Zeus is not there to hear them.

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