Of course, she was my mother, I knew that—she kept telling me so—“Soy tu mamá!” But she also seemed a stranger, and all the more so whenever she started to speak Spanish, a language which, as time went by, sounded both familiar and oddly strange to me. I surely understood what she was saying (I always would); her words seemed to have something to do with our apartment on West 118th Street, con tu papá y tu hermano, and, yes, Cuba, that beautiful wonderland, so far away, of love and magic, which I had visited not so long before. Facing me, she’d raise the pitch of her voice, arch her eyebrows as if I would hear her better. She’d wipe a smear of lipstick onto a Kleenex from her black purse, muttering under her breath. I remember nodding at her words; I remember understanding my mother when she said, “Mira aquí!” (“Look what I have!”) as she reached into her bag for a little ten-cent toy; and “Sabes que eres mi hijo?” (“Do you know that you’re my son?”) and things like “Pero, por qué estás tan callado?” (“Why are you so quiet?”) and “Y que té pasa?” (“What’s wrong with you?”) What happened to be wrong with me came down to the fact that I never answered my mother in the language she most wanted to hear, el español. I just couldn’t remember the words, and this must have truly perplexed her, for I’ve been told that, before I went into the hospital, I spoke Spanish as cheerfully and capaciously as any four-year old Cuban boy. I certainly didn’t know much English before then. Maybe I’d picked up some from the neighbors in our building or from my brother, José, who, seven years older than I, attended the local Catholic grammar school and, like any kid, hung out on the streets; but, in our household, Spanish, as far as I can remember, was the rule.
from Thoughts Without Cigarettes, a novel, excerpted in the upcoming Drunken Boat #14.
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