Paler

By Sylvanna Vitali

I’m walking with the hot exhaust of the earth upon me, steaming against my damp skin. I can taste it, touch it, listen to palm fronts suck on it. It is sweet and rich and terrible, heavy with the burden of the things it carries.

Stay north of US-1, south of Flagler. All of that is yours.

Little Havana. I listen to whatever it is that’s guiding me. I walk along the city street that leads racing cars through interminable concrete and stumbling people to the stone heart of the area, beating with the music of its adopted Spanish. My feet remember the pavement there, the way they are supposed to tread when I am amongst my people. Some passersby shouts a greeting at me, and I relish in receiving the familiar language. I start to reply, and then I hear something speak within me once again.

Be careful about speaking. You know how to form your words like we do. Banish consonants. You are sure to be found out if you use consonants.

I mutter a timid reply to the pedestrian, unsure of every syllable. Found out? I belong here. Look over there, across the street, that’s the house I was raised in.

You know what I mean. Your soul’s a little paler than your mother’s is, and much paler than her mother before her. Give me any third generation immigrant, and I guarantee they’re a creamy white when you cut them open.

I remember what it was like in those early years, I can still see the paint peeling off of the buildings, barely habitable. I remember being hidden from the people there, the addicts and the impoverished, and I remember the ways in which they were just like me. I remember that I slept at night because the prostitutes and I shared an accent. Don’t tell me I’m white, because you can look back on photographs and see that I looked like any other wild thing here, dry and hardened for the way that surviving drains us of sweetness. It was brutal, but my blood knows that it’s home. To this day, I swear I can honor the part of myself that can make something broken, so long as I can mean the taste of “ours” on my tongue.

I know you’re not as bad as some other little children you know, who speak without a memory of the boat their blood travelled on. I know that, but this is Little Havana, and they won’t like what you are, the way you seem to peer in at us from the outside.

Am I not one of you? I’m still walking, looking at the old house, boarded up and shriveled. There it is- proof of home. I did live here once, under a blue sky, with a long rectangle of grass extending out away from the structure. I lived here, with iron bars on the windows, thick hedges, and deadbolts. The complex next door sticking to our walls, the rotting smiles of neighbors. How long ago was that? I see them repainting the complex, repairing it now that the landlord was finally sent to prison. Was it only 6 years ago? It feels like so long ago that I can barely make contact with the memory.

That’s because you’ve softened. I see it all around you, like your whole being is afflicted.

Isn’t that a good thing? I think I worked to earn that.

Find whatever little piece of memory you haven’t thrown away. Wherever you hide it, that secret you don’t mean to keep a secret- in your heart, in your soul, in your mind- take it and feed it a bit.

You know how it’s done. It is fed with the sounds of our people, hips speaking and mouths dancing. It is fed with every stranger’s guess that you have island blood, every small hint that you belong, the way that the places you can trace home back to are the same as everyone else’s here.

I keep walking, searching for things to draw into myself. I stand here and receive the gift of heat on my face, the stench of it falling to the earth and rising up again. I talk with people under palm trees about the homeland, of Havana and Topes de Collantes and Santa Clara. It’s true. It does grow. I can feel it within me, swelling, and I remember now how Little Havana taught me pride.

Never stop checking in on it. I know full well that you ignore it. I also know that you can feel it dying, and when it lies feeble and almost gone, you nurse it back to a bubbling abundance that pleases us all.

I’m pleased too, seeing the reflection of my heritage in the acquisitions of my people.

Despite your rescue, it’s pitiful that you’ve got to prepare yourself to talk to them- I know you’ve got a script that you smooth over in your mouth beforehand. How ridiculous is that?

Mother tongues are difficult things. It’s hard to be corrected on simple expressions by the people who taught them to you. My cheeks flush, remembering how difficult it is to imagine that it was mine before my English. Sometimes when I’m listening to it, I think that all I’m doing is training my face to look understanding, hoping that they don’t ask me if I’ve understood. Why wouldn’t I have? But I didn’t.

You really haven’t the right to say “Mother tongue”. Don’t go off script.

No, it’s not a part. This is written in chromosomes, sealed in my cells.

Look at your family. Look at the way it’s always a part of your mother, the way she doesn’t have to look for it anytime, her body understands how to dance like everyone else does. She understands things beyond melody. Are you like her? You don’t write in Spanish. Could you, if you wanted to?

I don’t know. I walk up to an outdoor cafe and approach the window. Behind the glass pane, women bustle about in hair nets, screeching phrases that I like to pretend aren’t foreign to one another. Could I transcribe this moment the way that tropical existence is etched on my skin?

Rest yourself on the grimy counter, you’re not too good for it.

I listen to music the cafe is blasting from some cheap speakers, competing with the eternal song of the electric fans. It’s some kind of music that is just familiar enough, but I can’t identify it, nor distinguish it from any other kind of Latin music.

Do you really think that it all sounds the same?

That’s not what I meant, though I realize that the voice is not wrong. One of the hair netted women approaches the window and looks down at me.

Shove your unpalatable whiteness down and look into the woman’s eyes. Just remember that you’re brown, like her, and that’s all you’ve ever been. You’re the same, you two, when you ditch your English and remember your skin which again, I know you forget. Order a coffee. A real one, not that bitter water you Americans drink.

“You Americans.” Am I always an American? I shout my order, slipping into a local character.

If you don’t hear something she says, pretend that you did. If you try to clarify, she’ll take one look at you and your stiff body and think you didn’t understand her.

I shuffle off to the side of the bar like I’m fulfilling a personal exile.

Don’t you ever let her translate what she said. You know the special kind of shame that that is, to be a block away from where you grew up, that same old tan, dirty man outside in his underwear with a thick cigar between his fingers, and people thinking you can’t even order yourself a damn coffee.

I think we all know shame, us Americans.

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