Learning new words had to be learned consciously, as one learns to swim late in life, afraid to drown, breathing in a new medium, timing the opening and closing of the mouth to each breath. This new skin I was growing did not stretch fast enough to cover my needs. At times I needed artificial fins to aid my stiff body in these cold waters.
Speaking was so laborious that it impaired thinking. Words had to be selected in advance, adjusted, shaped like a piece of bubble gum before being pushed out of the mouth to form that special bubble.
I felt that I was the subject of a painting still in its infancy, still unformed and incoherent. I wanted to be something big and important; I felt impatient, and no longer hopeful.
Every time I met new people, I had a panic attack, a strange feeling that I was inadequately prepared to be in their presence; I didn't belong there.
I was a fake.
At school, as I delivered a lesson, the specific vocabulary necessary for the interaction had to be precise, accurate, easy to pronounce, and easy to spell out. My life depended on the words I chose. I was preoccupied with words.
My life was framed by how I talked. Everything about me was defined this way.
“She can’t know anything; she can’t speak right. What accent is that?” I heard the chatter in halls, at malls, at stores, everywhere I went. People stared and changed subject whenever I entered a conversation. I was an expert in literature and syntax. I knew how to fix sentences and paragraphs. I knew the world’s greatest literature.
But I couldn’t fix how I talked, or how people perceived me.
Theresa and I spoke often about words, accent, construction of sentences. She arrived in the States at an earlier age than I and had more opportunities to interact with regular folks in the family business; appropriate slangs and special expressions came with the territory. She didn’t have to stand in front of a class of rowdy teens and demand attention “speaking funny”.
Her future did not depend on being understood.
I was the foreign teacher, the foreign girl at the apartment, the foreign student in graduate classes, trapped.
When I contacted the Italian Consulate to obtain information about teaching in Italy, they put me on hold for thirty minutes, during which, I watched an entire television show; and when the phone finally went dead before I could talk to anyone, I took it as a sign. My own government hanging up on me couldn’t be good.
Then, Aunt Adele, my mother’s sister, sounding tired and hurried, called from Fresno. I asked her if I could visit for the weekend.
She met me with her carload of kids at the Greyhound Station, late at night, everyone hungry and tired. I squeezed in the back seat, apologetic. JoAnn, the teen cousin, informed me that I could sleep in her bed since she was spending the night at a friend’s. We stopped at a burger joint and shared burgers and fries between conversations with everyone.
“Aunt Elena is moving back to California.” JoAnn said.
"Are you moving in with us?" Carla asked.
"Can you come to my baseball game?" Donny chimed in.
After answering the simple questions, I remembered the Aunt Elena JoAnn spoke about.
“I spent an afternoon with her. She asked me to give her a pedicure. Frankly, I thought it was a bit strange, an unusual request to make of someone she had never met.”
Aunt Adele filled in the details: "She used to live at Ted’s apartment. She is returning to California and you might want to live together, share expenses and all. Anyway, she is coming at the end of the month and needs an apartment rented and transportation from the airport."
“How could she ask this of me? She doesn’t know anything about me! Besides, I could have returned to Italy.
“I told her you were doing well, graduating after just four years!"
“I had a tough time.”
“You’re too hard on yourself. Look at you, you got a job, and a working visa.”
“I make four hundred a month and no medical. A couple of bad molars during Christmas vacation cost me my entire check. I’m broke again.”
“Well, another reason to live with a relative who can be there for you. Everyone has to make some adjustments. We’re having trouble too.”
“My car is giving me trouble and I can’t put more money into it. I can’t pick her up, nor find her an apartment. I’m practically broke.” What I wanted to say was, no way, no-how, this moving back with relatives was not going to happen. I like my new freedom.
Aunt Adele went on about Aunt Elena.“She was nice to us, me and Ted. "
JoAnn jumped in with her own question: "So, how is the school you teach in? Is it strict?"
“Yeah, every thing you say can be held against you.” I said. My fifteen year old cousin had been quite a help to me the summers I visited. She and I became close. It was she who pointed out that I spoke funny. When I asked for help, she jumped right in, showing me how to break my speech pattern with a couple of slang expressions.
I declared that I was returning to Italy, and there was no way I could pick up Aunt Elena at the airport or arrange for her apartment. Aunt Adele had tears in her eyes when she spoke back:“I’m sorry things didn’t turn out the way you anticipated. When I think about it, we should have offered you a place here.”
Yeah, I thought. You should have, but then when Uncle Ted was stranded in Italy you blamed each other. Both of you can keep a whole lot of resentment, and I'm tired. This was my turn to get it all out in the open. I waited until late in the evening before it came out:
“We should have come as a family. My Mom and Dad and brothers. What I have now is half a life.” I said, changing the subject, “My parents are still alive. They always thought their destiny was here, reunited with both you and Uncle Ted.”
“You wouldn’t understand. Did you think Ted and his wife were harsh with you? You have no idea the life we had in your house. Your father was terrible. Then, I came here, everyone thinking I was in heaven. Your family couldn’t understand my life with Uncle Jo. You’ll never know how hard my life was.”
“I guess everything is complicated.” I murmured. I was not learning anything new. Uncle Ted had hurled complaints about how my father had treated him. I was sick of it.
“I can’t talk you out of this decision?” Aunt Adele asked.
“I want to feel at home. " I said firmly and gave her a hug on my way to JoAnn's room.I was not patient or hopeful anymore. I was angry and defeated.
Whatever was going to happen depended on me doing something.
(pictured above: my brother Luigi, living in Italy, the artist in the family)