Coming to America is accepting that old pieces of you will continuously flourish, then dry up and fold into themselves until they disappear like seasons, and finally being asked to show gratitude for it.
I had just recently started liking eating Cheerios for breakfast. It was the American kid's first meal of the day- you got up and you assembled your cereal all by yourself in your pajamas and your tussled morning hair because people didn’t have maids here. You ate your cold, sad breakfast before you showered or got dressed; before you covered your skin with layer upon layer, braced yourself for the piercing fall wind and went to school.
That’s not how we did it in Colombia. I used to sit at the table while The Help, a woman named Miriam, cooked eggs, arepas, brought out rolls, butter, queso campesino. I’d eat all this carefully in my neatly ironed school uniform with my curly black hair slicked back perfectly. Then I’d go out to the small school bus, a van really, and go to Catholic school. Every day the same weather, the same breakfast, the same routine.
That morning I shook the box slowly, swaying it from one side to the other, while the loops poured out into the bowl like unsolicited excuses clink clink clink clink clink. The milk from the large gallon container overwhelmed the bowl and, satisfied, I took it with me to my parents' room to watch cartoons before another day of third grade.
From the doorway, I encountered my mother sitting on the edge of the bed, her face in a tight spasm facing the T.V.; the way her face used to look when something happened in Colombia: a bombing, a shooting, an attempt.
She's always been too sensitive. No one else reacted like her in Colombia. We all just accepted it and went on with our day, but even with bombings and violence on the news, I still believed we were better off there. In Colombia, when I played in the neighborhood I could find three fruit vendors and a candy salesman on my street, I could run to get milk and meat for lunch. We sacrificed this for quiet streets, no vendors, and trips in the old used car to the store. It seemed impractical, impossible that we gave up paradise for this. My parents said I’d understand when I’m older.
Our small home was surrounded by bigger houses that contained a series of old lonely couples. Monica and Bill to our left had been married for fifty years, they said, and Gertrude and Bob, Liza’s grandparents, to our right had been living in that house for twenty-five years. Outside we were embraced by trees almost as ancient as the neighbors, maybe even more, right on our front lawn.
I was usually the only child on the block, except on weekends, when Liza came to visit her grandparents and we rode our bikes up and down the cul-de-sac, but her granny said only if it was 70 degrees out. When Liza was gone, I felt like a ghost riding up and down endlessly while the yellow and red leaves fell on me like I didn't exist. They dropped to the ground quickly, as if abandoning a place they knew was doomed, foreseeing the winter ahead. I had never seen so many leaves fall at the same time. In Colombia they are constantly falling, a few at a time, the same way people die, every once in a while.
My parents made the effort to stumble their way through conversation with the neighbors, giving a new meaning to the term speech impediment. Bill puts one hand on his wife's shoulder, the other on his hip, saying, "you must be so happy to be in America. You’re so lucky! Have you thought about bringing your folks from...where was it? Venezuela?"
My parents look at me blankly, my cue to come help. My mother mouths: folks? My father: Venezuela?
I had managed to grasp at least twice as much English as my mom and dad in the short amount of time we'd been here, which constantly made us switch roles as a family:
"Mom, she says that I’ve been settling well and she’s looking forward to seeing more progress in my language skills" I translate, leaving out the part about my occasional lack of attention in class.
“Miss Miller, she wants to thank you for helping me….yes, she is learning a lot lately, she can understand a lot more. Yeah, I’m practicing with her at home…”
Ever since the first day of school, the small yellow bus, the foreigner bus, arrives at the end of the block to pick me up. My mother walks with me and watches me climb onto the metal box filled with lethargic children, a circus crate. We ride silently to the school because no one knows enough English to communicate. It's too early to battle the new language, some sleep, some watch the passing streets anxiously.
Instead of going to the elementary school a few blocks from home, I commute five more miles to a school that's prepared for students with y es él needs. Eeenglish ass a secund leng-ooagge, where we sit in a room under fluorescent lighting and over old blue smelly carpet staring at hand drawn tables of verbs on the board, at the motivational posters stapled onto the walls, at each other. The same way I stared at my mother’s tangled expression while she watches the T.V., stoic.
I walked towards her and turn towards the screen. Two large buildings stand in the shot, one taller than the other. One ejecting smoke from its side. She said nothing. I sat and ate my cereal like popcorn at a movie theater, watching only the screen, feeling the milk drip onto my lap. I caught a word here and there from the report, first "accident," then “tragedy.”
I got ready for school and found my way back into the room where my mother had then crawled under the covers. The second tower now mirrored the first and the words I caught shifted towards “terror,” and “war” and “justice.”
I kissed my mother on the forehead, I told her I'll see her after school and walked alone to the small bus for the first time. On it, I stared at the objects we passed, shaken by the Fall wind and thought back to my visit to New York City almost two years prior. Though I was six back then, the flash memories I rushed to my head: Times Square, Madison Square Garden, ads, neon lights, snow, the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, but only the ferry, Liberty herself was closed for the day.
The Twin Towers.
I remembered the footage of the top from home videos, My grandfather lost his red scarf to the harsh wind, the video catches the moment it abandons his neck and the building entirely, falling to its demise. The elevators at light-speed, the cars, the trains, the span of the eye from the top to the bottom of the towers when standing on the sidewalk, making your neck hurt. I clutched my scarf now as if it, too, cold suddenly fly away.
Lights. Speed. Happiness. That's how I imagined America-like New York. But, moving to America is more like dropping all your belongings into the Pacific Ocean.
It’s like losing all your marbles at recess right before the bell, so you can’t win them back.
You don’t feel lucky.
It’s like last week in y es él class when I was asked to write a question on the board. I took the marker confidently and placed the tip on the whiteboard where it started bleeding black ink slowly. I followed the curve of the opening question mark "¿" and finished with a loud dot on top. I faced the teacher, eyes wide open what now? She stood and walked towards the board, eraser in hand, and turned my question mark into dusty debris. “No. Not like that.” She said, and handed the marker to another student from Honduras while I walked back to my desk, my wet cheeks burning.
We arrived at school and made a "single file!"' into the building where we put our bags and coats into cubbies and climbed into our seats. They wheeled in a television and we skipped the pledge of allegiance- I hadn’t learned completely yet because it was a bit of a mouthful- and listened as the teacher gestured with her hands, shook her head and talked about the country or something.
The images of the burning buildings turned cyclical, complemented by close up shots of flying bodies wearing suits and ties, falling like scarves in the wind or Fall leaves, abandoning a place they know is doomed. We watched until the towers were erased from the skyline, turned into debris.
In Colombia, we also know a thing or two about 24-hour news cycles. You put a sad event on screen for hours, front and center, over and over and you talk about it. Then you interview people about it. Then you talk about it some more, replaying the images the whole time. But people watch it during their lunch break, before and after school, after tucking in their children at night, like regular, scheduled programming.
Here, we were sent home, after having to watch the T.V. on wheels for the morning. The foreign bus was full of whispers in various languages, those who spoke the same language gathered and laughed and made explosion noises.
No one cried.
I just sat and listened, ready to see my mom again. I pulled out my newest book from the school library, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. All I could think was maybe tomorrow I'll have a Colombian breakfast instead.