At the produce markets that populated Church Avenue, if someone cut in line or pushed her while trying to squeeze past, my mother would hurl the harshest obscenity that came to mind, “Fuck!” It was in fact one of her favorites because of the effect it had on people. That one and ‘cocksucker,’ which she had added to her repertoire after an elderly patient had used it to insult her for refusing his sexual advances.
That day she came home upset and told me someone had called her a name, had insulted her. She was unusually reticent to tell me what it was that hurt her so bad.
She whispered, “conch sucker.” I didn’t know what she was talking about and laughed because I thought it wasn’t a curse. A conch sucker was one who sucked on a conch shell and, as Haitians, we would feast on the conch shell’s meaty insides. It dawned on me later when she told me that this happened, during bath time. Choking his penis, he had actually said, “C’mon why won’t you suck my cock, cocksucker!”
My mom would make up ways to use the two curses; it didn’t matter that the situation called for something milder or that the combination of words wasn’t idiomatically correct. She’d say, “go fuck” instead of “go fuck yourself!” “You cocksucker fuck,” where a simple “fuck you” would have sufficed. I used to try to correct her quietly so as not to embarrass her while she was publicly staging a fight, but then she’d say in Creole, “Tout, se mem, tande.” It’s all the same; the sentiment is clear if not the phrasing. In Madrid, where they didn’t speak either of my native languages, I was becoming her.
I was studying abroad in Spain for six months and, after spending six years studying the language, I never dreamed that college would make it possible for me to go and live there practically for free. It was like getting a visa para un sueno.
Before the trip, my cohort had a couple of meet and greets where we did silly icebreakers, addressed important visa/passport stuff, and talked about culture shock. My eyes always glazed over a bit because this wasn’t my first time away from the United States. I had spent plenty of summers and winters in Haiti and knew that while it might be shocking to be in a place where there was no English spoken at all, I had faced more alarming scenarios. I dealt with blackouts, the suffocating stench of outhouses, and had bought rice from a vendor covered in flies. This trip was going to be a cakewalk in comparison, a chance at a college experience similar to my white classmates; sleeping in late, drinking, and sometimes bookending these activities with homework.
Looking around at others in my cohort, I realized that I was one of three minorities. While the other two were native speakers, I had a strong command of the Spanish language and my grammar was impeccable. I would recite Hail Mary’s—“Dios te salve, Maria. Llena eres de gracia…”—and practice common phrases to train my tongue, to avoid thinking when looking for the bathroom or for a street. I was prepared for conversing with people and finding my way around. I was prepared to order the right glass of wine with seafood. I was prepared to be very friendly when speaking to my host family, but I was not prepared for the way that Spain would react to me.
At an outdoor dinner on one of our first nights in Madrid, an olive-skinned, curly-haired waiter saw me sitting among my American friends, and shouted, “Africa!” He then pointed at me and said it again while passing by with a tray of food. I didn’t know what to say. My friends looked back at him and looked in my direction, over my head, wondering if he had seen something past me in the distance.
I contorted my face in confusion and settled on my default feeling. This was a racist act. He thought I was African and was calling out “Africa,” a synonym for nigger.
One of my friends asked if I wanted to leave and I assured him it was all right. I was going to serve the waiter when he got to our table. He approached our table smiling and I pounced in my best European-accented Spanish, “¿Por qué me llamaste asi?
“¡Porque yo soy de Africa, también!” he said with a plain smile and a hunch of his shoulders. Was he was trying to give me a shout out?
Still unsure and feeling defensive, I gave him my diasporic history. I told him about my Haitian parents, my Americ—being born in New York City. I had trouble saying that I was just American so I claimed a region.
He smiled as if not really caring about the details and said, “I am from Morrocco! I see Africa in you.”
I didn’t know what else to do. A fist had been rattling inside of me that lost its fervor and tapped in a tiny thump in my throat so I mirrored his smile.
Once, I argued with an ATM machine that processed my €50 request but then did not produce money. I banged on the machine and grabbed my receipt. I banged on the glass and howled, “¡Jode!” I was trying to get the attention of two attendants at the end of a shift.
“Esa puta maquina, me lo robaron. ¡Aquí! Yo tengo el recibo pero ¿dónde está mi dinero, anh? ¡No puede ser, non! No puede ser. Esa maldita injusticia eso es porque yo lo voy a cambiar mi banco. ¡Ya ves!
It was a glorious, lilting feeling, speaking out about my injustice and all boiling down to, “Give me my money!”
They unlocked the glass door, apologized, and gave me my money. I thanked them with a lispy, “Gracias,” at the end. It was genuine.
One night, I had trouble finding the right curses. I was walking through Madrid, stubbornly refusing to pay for a cab and determined to prove that I could find my way. The streets seemed familiar and I was particularly ballsy because I knew I wasn’t that far from the apartment. Anyway, there wasn’t much to rush to at my host family’s place. The family had two dogs, a tiny white one and a tiny black one. The black one would lose his doggone mind when I came in from my late night drinking. The first night while he was repeatedly ascending and descending my shins, my host mother appeared, surprised to see me home just after 1 am on a school night.
“¿Nina, no te divertiste? Son la una.”
I stumbled but managed to say, “El metro, ehm, se cierra a las dos.” The train, it closes at two am. Apparently, I was expected back after the trains re-opened for service at six.
I had some leftovers from my dinner waiting for me but that dog would start begging as soon as he heard the ding from the microwave. A whining dog, leftovers, and a low twin bed were waiting for me at the apartment. That bed was lonely but at least it was up against a wall so I could pretend it was someone’s chest against my back as I slept. I imagined a bigger bed made smaller by this person sharing it with me. Sometimes I’d place my two pillows along the length of it and sleep on crossed forearms. I’d wake up with a crick in my neck but at least my back was kept warm by the cushioning.
There were some boys on my trip but they were interested in sleeping with white girls or Spaniards with big butts and smoking habits. I had the smoking habit down but even that was subpar; I could only smoke three a day, any more and I’d feel sick. I was invisible to most of the straight men in Madrid. My friend, Jose, even deemed that my ability to attract gay men on the dance floor was better than his. It was like I was a good time, a person they could create a kitschy spectacle with. They’d often challenge me to dance during one of my favorite hip hop or reggae songs, either copying my every move as if this were a lesson or trying to outdo me with some outlandish dance that no one had ever seen before.
I was a good wingman for Jose. After the dance, he’d sweep right in. Instead of offering a hand to initiate a dance, he’d offer his pelvis and the guy would usually start doing the bump with him or a slow grind. I would slide away and find my two-step, the same one I did on campus basement parties when my girlfriends were summoned away by the gyrations of a fine brother.
I had to stop walking after a while because the streets were playing games with me. I chose to walk down one of the cross streets that I knew led to the apartment but it seemed to be taking too long for me to get there. Had I walked in the wrong direction? With doubt infecting my earlier confidence, I fumbled in my coat pocket for money. I had recently discovered a hole in one of the pockets. I made sure to dig my index finger in it and sure enough found another coin. I had six Euros which would cover cab fare if I was close to home. If I was farther than I expected then I’d have to ask the cabby to wait for me while I ran and got more money. Either way, I had to cave in and hail a cab because the balls of my feet were burning with each step. I waited for less than a minute before a cabby stopped right in front of me. I almost felt a bit lucky.
I rattled off my address and made sure to listen to myself. My accent was always the best when I was repeating things like my address or the name of the university I attended. It was like my brain kept them on an id card that I flashed at people. It never even felt like I was talking; it was effortless, as effortless as my dreams where I danced in between Spanish, Creole, and English.
“¿De dónde eres, guapa?” The cabby was an old Spanish man with gray hair in his ears. I wondered why he was still working at his age, let alone working the night shift.
“Soy de Nueva York y Haití.” I entertained his small talk because it was good practice and because I was happy I’d gotten a cab so quickly. He was looking at me through his rearview mirror. He began to tell me about a trip he took to New York when he was a young man and all the fun he’d had in Times Square. I smiled and allowed my head to lean on the cool window when I realized I was close to home. If only I had kept walking I would’ve made it. He continued in Spanish,
“Why is such a pretty girl like you alone tonight? Don’t you have a boyfriend?”
I didn’t quite know where this was going but I decided to be honest and not make up a boyfriend like I usually did to avoid the weirdos.
“I don’t have a boyfriend.”
His eyes locked with mine in the rearview mirror and I saw him smile to himself as if he was about to make a clever joke.
I continued, “But I like being single.”
As we pulled up to the building, I also added for good measure, “And I am not alone. I have friends.”
He put the car in park as if finally freed from the task of driving. I was reaching in my pocket for the money and he placed his fat, old hands on my thigh.
“Some friends can take away the loneliness. You need more friends like me, morenita.”
The leg that he touched was paralyzed but my hands, they were frantically digging in my pockets. I had stupidly put the money in the bad pocket and was now making the hole bigger in my haste. I shoved it in his face, as if this money was going to release my thigh.
“¡Aquí tienes, toma!” I had no curses for him. I just wanted out. How could I curse him out when it was my fault? I suddenly remembered my mother and that old patient. She had blamed herself for playing cards with him earlier in the day and making him feel comfortable. She made small talk with him and answered his questions too. Then around bath time, she thought she’d simply talk him through the movements, “Lift your arm, turn your head.” Small phrases, small movements that he’d need help with but still giving him enough dignity to let him attempt. Until he reached for his dick.
The cabby wouldn’t take the money so I dropped it in his cup holder. This released my thighs, and I leapt out of the cab.
As soon as my feet touched the ground they immediately began to hurt, but I ran to the door to get it over with. The cab driver was just sitting in the cab watching me. My keys were a lot easier to find than the money was. I opened the door and, out of habit, I turned around and waved to let him know that he could go on now. I was safe.
I ran up the stairs, and when I opened my door, there was the dog waiting for me.
“Jode,” I sneered, anticipating his barking and rise up my leg.
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