Oh, Mexico

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They slept, talked, giggled and then they slept some more. Jenny and Maggie, two 12 year old cousins, were on a 10-hour Greyhound bus ride to the south Texas border town of Brownsville to meet up with their grandparents, Gramps and Kitty. They ate their mom-made lunches out of brown paper bags, and when the bus stopped for a break they ate dinner at a truck stop, paying with money they had earned babysitting. They could not believe their parents let them go on this trip alone. By the time they reached their destination, exhaustion had replaced excitement and they asked Gramps to go straight to the hotel.

In the morning the four of them drove across the border to Matamoros. The shopping excursion in the market was the second time in their young lives – and in the past two days – that they had been trusted to take care of themselves. Given a fistful of pesos to buy souvenirs, they could not decide what to buy from among the dizzying array of merchandise. Maggie exclaimed over gleaming silver jewelry studded with large turquoise stones and Jenny gagged as they walked by butchers holding bloody carcasses.

The girls caught up with Gramps and Kitty in a book shop which provided an oasis from the din outside. A nearby fan cooled them as they watched Gramps haggling with the booksellers for some old maps.

Hot and hungry, Jenny marched up to Kitty, interrupting as she asked, “Kitty, we’re can’t decide what to buy. Can we get some lunch? Is Gramps almost done?”

“No. Can’t you see he’s busy? We came a long way just to talk with this man about his … maps, and Gramps needs to get things settled,” KItty answered in a harsh whisper.

Jenny asked again, this time more politely. “I’m sorry, Kitty. Do you mind if Maggie and I go to that cantina across the way to get something to eat? Please? We can get something cold to drink for you because you look so hot.”

Tossing a few more pesos her way, Kitty said, “Fine. Order Gramps and I each a margarita and we’ll join you soon.”

The girls had never seen Gramps and Kitty acting so strange. And just what made these dusty old maps so valuable? Shrugging their shoulders and rolling their eyes, they ran out of the shop and into the bar across the street. They chose a booth in the back and Jenny placed the order when the waitress approached them.

“Dos margaritas, por favor.”

The waitress nodded and abruptly walked away. Giggling, Maggie looked at her cousin in confusion.

“Did that waitress think those drinks were for us, Jenny?”

Jenny giggled back, “Yeah, I guess kids can order drinks in Mexico. Gramps and Kitty won’t be here for awhile. Let’s us just drink ‘em!”

The drinks arrived with salt around the rim which seemed weird but important. They licked the edge of their glasses and then sucked every drop of the limey drink quickly through the straw. Sitting up straight after their last slurp they noticed a delicious spin to the room. Guilt erased their “let’s get another” smiles when they saw Gramps silhouetted in the door frame. Diving under the table and peeking out behind the tablecloth, they watched him go to the bar, leaning in close to speak to the bartender.

Maggie whispered to Jenny, “What’s he doing? Maybe he’s not looking for us. Let’s be spies!”

They slid out from under the table, crawling along the wall to a place behind the bar where they could see and hear Gramps and the bartender. Only 12 after all, they hadn’t thought this through and the bartender spotted Maggie’s blonde hair and Jenny’s orange top. Huddled together, there was nowhere to go. The bartender scooped them both up from behind.

“Así, ¿qué es esto?”

Gramps blanched and hissed, “Maggie! Jenny! Diego, take them to the back room and we will deal with them there!”

Not expecting such harshness from Gramps, Jenny started kicking and scratching at Diego with Maggie following her lead. They escaped his grasp and ran out into the busy market melting into the crowd, on their own again.

Wearing newly purchased sombreros as a disguise, they headed to the border to catch a bus back home. As they walked, Maggie wondered aloud, “How will we explain this to our parents?”

The Orange

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The outdoor market looked both inviting and intimidating. I had dropped my kids off at their new school and my next goal was to buy breakfast for myself.

I closed my eyes and pictured myself just two months earlier, pushing my cart along the brightly lit aisles of my local grocery store in Rockville, Maryland. I could find everything I needed, even in the produce department. Rip a bag off of the little stand and fill it with apples, oranges, potatoes or green beans, even strawberries in the winter.

I opened my eyes and I stood in a chilly open air market in a foreign country more than 4000 miles from Rockville. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know the process for this kind of market shopping. I didn’t have my own shopping bag. And I didn’t have the kids with me as a buffer to hide my lonely ineptitude for procuring produce in the Czech Republic.

Our little family was not just passing through on a holiday. This country was to be our home for the next few years. I was the Mom, the one who sustained our existence while the Dad was helping the businesses of this former Communist country figure out Capitalism. I needed to get it together before our air shipment of mac and cheese, tuna, pop tarts and fruit rollups ran out.

I picked up a small orange, and like a toddler just learning to speak, I directed a couple of strange sounding words that I had practiced toward the man who appeared to be the vendor.

He shook his head, said something unintelligible and went back to unloading the produce.

Nervous, homesick and trying not to cry, I persisted, asking once more how much for this small orange that didn’t even look that good.

He glared, repeated the (to me) gibberish and kept unloading. On the third try, I held up a coin along with the orange.

Thinking perhaps that I had escaped from some nearby asylum, he grabbed the coin and gestured for me to be on my way.

I took my orange and left. Shame, fear, anxiety and embarrassment flooded through my still jet-lagged body as I realized too late that he was telling me the market was not yet open. I wanted more than anything to find my way back home.

I can hear the fruit guy now, complaining to his wife when he got home that evening. “If she’s going to live here, she needs to learn the language!”

And I can hear those words here. “We need to make English the official language of the United States! If people are living here they better speak English! We shouldn’t have to print instructions in different languages. Tough shit if they can’t figure out how to get a driver’s license! Build a wall! Keep them out!”

Our fear and distrust of those that are different from us seems to be running high these days, at least from some factions here in the U.S. It’s no wonder that Americans bear the label “Ugly American” when they travel outside of their own border. Even away from home we expect people to understand our language. We also expect ice in our drinks and free refills.

What are we so afraid of? I am more afraid of those who fear and despise diversity and anything foreign than those who are different from us. Don’t they know how unattractive their anger, hatred and intolerance makes them? Don’t they get bored hanging around those that are just like them?

I have worn the shoes of a young woman living in a country where she doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t know how to navigate the bureaucracy, where she doesn’t know how to sign her kids up for sports and doesn’t know how to find a doctor who will understand her.

Those shoes are damn uncomfortable.

They don’t have to remain uncomfortable. Those shoes can be broken in over time with care, compassion and bridges of connection, not walls of separation.

 

                                    

Home is Burning — a Review

homeisburningWhen choosing a book to read, I am primarily drawn to two genres: fiction and memoirs. Recently, I read Home is Burning by Dan Marshall which tells the story of a two-year period of Dan’s life during his mid-20’s. Dan’s mother, who had been battling cancer for most of Dan’s life, has a relapse, and his father is diagnosed with ALS, amytrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

While the Marshall family suffered tremendously, I like reading about ordinary people going through extraordinary situations.

Told from Dan’s point of view, obviously because he is the author, he starts the story with his dad’s diagnosis, and ends with his dad’s death. Not a spoiler because ALS is a fatal disease (only about 10% live longer than 10 years). In the preface, he relates the back story of his family and himself.

It is also in the preface that he discloses that there is a lot of bad language in the book. He’s not kidding. If it offends you, don’t read it. I certainly noticed it, and frankly, for me, it was fairly easy to tune out most of the time. Other times, the way he spoke to his parents made me want to smack him.

Dan moves from California back to Utah to help his parents with his other siblings. It is a story of family dynamics, function and dysfunction when faced with a tragedy. Part of the problem I had reading it is that I am not a male in my 20s or 30s. I didn’t find the parts that he was writing to be funny, as funny as he thought they were. His running gag throughout the book was when he was in a particular situation, he would first say what he had wanted to say, and then follow it with what he actually said. It gives insight into his experience, but it became tiresome. Again, I doubt I am Dan Marshall’s usual target audience.

The bottom line? I kept reading until the end because there are more than a few nuggets of goodness in Dan and his family despite the self-deprecating and family-deprecating writing.

And, despite knowing there would be no happy ending, I was rooting for his dad.

 

The Practice Run, Take 2

An update on the fiction piece I entered this week on the Yeah Write grid. I have added a bit to help me, and the reader, know a bit more about Mike, and what was going on in his head at the water park.

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Former pilot Mike Mayes could see for miles from his vantage point at the top of the water slide. Leaning against the curved cockpit-like windows lining the enclosed platform, he was flying again, cutting through the sky, when the whistle of the ride attendant brought him back to earth, or at least to the platform 150 ft above earth.

“Hey, you! Get ready! You’re next.”

Mike shouted back, “OK! OK! I’m ready. Just give me a minute. OK?”

In a bored, I’ve heard this a million times voice, the attendant said, “Sure, dude, whatever. Sit down, cross your feet and cross your arms over your chest. When you’re ready lean forward, take a little jump and let gravity do its thing. Don’t wait too long or I’ll have to give you a  push.”

Mike’s eyes clamped shut. He wanted… no, he needed this ride to be all about the sensations and the darkness. Since being grounded 4 months ago he knew only darkness. This practice run would help him figure it all out. Could he make the jump into nothing, ending his pain? He chose this water slide due to its almost immediate vertical fall. So with the smallest of movements he leaned forward, jumped … and realized that his body was not making contact with the slide. As he fell, a kaleidoscope of images passed through his mind: abusive parents, cold and selfish wife, greedy and manipulative mistress, bottles and bottles of bourbon flashed by like the images Dorothy saw on her way over the rainbow. But scenes with his beautiful children, his desire to fly again, to be sober, a chance to right his own wrongs and missteps and there seemed to be so many; these transported him to a place of possibilities. He needed a do-over.

The misty water falling with him and the cool air soothed his tortured soul. His body finally smacked against the slide as the tube curved to horizontal. Briefly knocked out, he kept going through a series of ascents, spirals and descents before splatting hard into the pool.

The blazing sun greeted him when he opened his eyes and he felt prickly stinging sensations all over his body that began to itch something fierce. He couldn’t remember where he was until he felt someone dragging him out of the way of the next thrill seeker.

He crawled up the steps of the pool, flopped his body onto the hot pool deck and wept, relieved he had taken the practice run. The journey from platform to pool had blown away the darkness, replacing it with an exhilarating lightness and longing for life.

He limped to the stairway, ready to slide again. And again.