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I used to think that houses grew like trees. Reaching, stretching, expanding. Never stopping. I told myself that was why some families had big houses and other families had small ones. For me, that was why in Cuba our house was big with marble floors and glass windows. But here, in America, we had a two-room apartment that we had squeeze the five members of my family into. We had lived in Cuba forever, so our house had grown with our family. But America was new. We were new. So our house was small.
When I went to Kindergarten, I thought that all people were the same. They lived, loved, and died, maybe in variations, but all equally. So I thought that the moment I walked in the door I had the right to be friends with whomever I wanted. We all thought this. My best friend for those innocent first weeks of kindergarten was Bill Kingman. We were the only two kids in the entire class that could already read. So the teacher put us right next to each other for reading group. He was a nice person, maybe a little spoiled, but he had a good heart. We seemed to like all of the same things reading, soccer, and eating chocolate. Alina Marquez and Bill Kingman, the two musketeers, we were the best of friends that is until the inevitable happened on back to school night.
Each of us was to bring their family to school to show them around the classroom. As soon as Bill and I saw each other we dragged our families over to our new friends. But their reaction was not as we expected. At first they just stared blankly into empty unseeing eyes. It was my father who was the first to speak. “Hello,” he said, “my daughter tells us that her and Bill are friends.”
“Yes,” Mr. Kingman replied in a tone meant for a pet dog, “So she says.”
“I am Antonio Marquez,” my father reached out his cinnamon colored hand, “And you?” But Mr. Kingman didn’t reach his hand out to meet my father’s. His hand was a pale rock glued to his side by some ancient invisible force. His blind eyes droned into my father’s forehead as if he was trying to see what lay underneath, though even if he could this wouldn’t change his thoughts.
“Nice to meet you,” said Mr. Kingman in practiced monotone. Then he looked to Bill. “Bill come along”, he ordered.
“But…” Bill protested.
“Now.” Mr. Kingman growled grabbing his son’s trembling arm and dragging him to the other side of the room. Nose scrunched as if he had smelled something bad. I couldn’t help wondering, was that bad smell us?
The next day I ran up to Bill smiling as I usually did, but he did not return the smile. His eyes were in pain and confusion. His mouth a straight line screaming things unsaid. “Daddy says I can’t play with you anymore,” he whispered, “He says you aren’t our class. He says you are different.” Then his face changed, his eyes filled with misdirected anger. His bones filled with immature hate. “Why are you different?” he whined, “Why?” But this was a question that I couldn’t answer.
That fall day in kindergarten changed me. I was no longer a carefree dreamer, I had a mission to answer Bill’s question. I saw everything. Picking out the little details, opening my small eyes to the big ones. I wanted to know why some people had hair the color of bright papayas and other the color of rich earth. Why some spoke English and others spoke Spanish. Why my Daddy worked from before the time the light reached the tips of the spider like city trees outside my window, to the time when I was already in my bed. But other Daddys didn’t seem to work at all, bringing their children to school but being home for dinner every night. I wanted to know why we were different.
Of course this was not the only thing I wanted. I was like every other child. I wanted new clothes, new toys, and ice cream and chocolate all of the time. I wanted all that my parents couldn’t give me. At first, I thought they didn’t think I was worthy as they denied my requests. I saw the lost hope behind their eyes and thought I was the disappointment, that I was the cause of their loss of faith. So I worked vigorously. I would get up early and take out the trash, clean up the house, let my brother and sisters sleep on the bed while I slept on the “floor bed” (a pile of pillows and blankets). And then I would ask again. But still, they denied. So the next week I would work harder. Doing double the work for apparently no reward. For again, I would ask and be denied. And my worries they built up as well. I began to worry about differences and worry what others thought. I saw the way that other people look away when they saw other dirty hands and skinny cheeks. The way kids became afraid to touch my olive skin as if the color might mix and rub off on to them. The way they cringed as they saw my little brother Ernesto and me working behind the counter at the old supermarket. I built this all up inside of me and never told of the silent tears cried after bedtime when I lay awake thinking.
Until the day that it happened, I had no idea what people meant when they said they “snapped”. I thought it meant you broke in half, like a stale cracker. With crumbs and little pieces. I guessed that I was partially right. Because the day I snapped my emotions felt like that stale cracker. It was a Sunday. Sunday December 19th, I will never forget the date. I had been working hard all week because there was a special new pair of pink sparkly snow boots for sale at the thrift shop. This was my pair of boots. I had been watching them go on sale for months as winter approached. I had worked extra hard all year and this was going to be my reward. At least, I hoped that they would be. At that time I was still a balloon about to pop. Overflowed with emotions that I shouldn’t have had to feel at such a young age. On that fateful Sunday I had decided to finally ask my father if he would let the boots be my only Christmas gift. I did have boots but they were old, dirty, and so tight that every few steps I would have to stop and stomp my feet to make sure they were still there.
Daddy always sits and reads old Cuban books before breakfast in the kitchen. Sometimes I sit with him. I like it that early before the birds rise and the sun makes it daily debut. I decided that this was the perfect time to ask him. So Sunday morning I crept carefully out to the kitchen trying not to wake the many sleep bodies that lay on my floor. Finally I came to him. He was a clean-cut statue hunch over a leather-bound book, so calm and peaceful. I gently climbed into a chair next to him. “Morning Daddy,” I whispered. He looked up startled; apparently he hadn’t heard me approaching.
“Good morning mi ángel,” Daddy whispered smiling, “To what do I owe this pleasure?” He tickled my tummy and I giggled. Then I quickly put on my serious face.
“I have a question,” I said.
“Ask away,” he said sitting up and closing his book.
“Christmas is coming,” I said, “and I was wondering if I could have those beautiful pink sparkly boots from the thrift store. They are on sale a lot and I just need them. Oh please, please!” Daddy stared down at the table avoiding my eyes and that age-old face he used to deny me came into view once again.
“You know that you need to get a new jacket for Christmas,” he replied in a wavering whisper, “and also that book for school, I am sorry but I don’t think that we can get the boots this year.” Denied. Again. Looking back I can honestly say I used all the strength that I could to try to keep calm. My fingers gripped pale to the edge of the table. I didn’t know what was happening until after it was over.
“Why!” I shouted jumping out of my chair all the emotions I had bottled up inside spilled out spewing in different directions aimlessly around the room, “Am I really that much of a disappointment. I have worked hard all year and you still give me NOTHING. It’s not fair Daddy. All I want is a pair of snow boots. My old ones are dirty and ugly and tight and I have been watching these boots all year. Its all I want.” Then I sank back down into my chair, cradled my head in my hands, and cried.
“Alina,” Daddy whispered as the pain behind his eyes seeped out into his words. He stood and draped my coat over my shoulders, helping me put it on like I was two again. Then he put on my old boots took my hand and lead me outside.
We walked for a while, just Daddy and me. I didn’t pay attention to where we were headed I just let him guide me. We didn’t talk. But it felt good, calming, and normal. Though I knew that I had hurt Daddy the lingering thoughts inside my head were no longer contained. They were free. Free like those birds I see every morning beyond the window. Free like the innocent thoughts of a young child. I am not sure how long we walked. But Daddy stopped me when we came to the old green bench in the park. He motioned for me to sit down and he kneeled beside the bench. His deep dark eyes looked into my small ones. Putting his hand on my shoulder he said, “Alina?”
“Oh Daddy,” I sighed, “I am sorry, I shouldn’t have said that, I will work harder, I won’t ever disappoint you again.”
“I am not disappointed in you,” he said taking my small soft hand into the darken creases of his, “Don’t you ever think that. I am so proud of you. When I see you help another it warms my heart. I wish every time you did I could tell you some way, give you something to show I care. But I can’t. And for that, I am disappointed in me. I should be able to give you everything. I should be able to make you happy. But I can’t.”
“But why?” I asked, “Why can some people buy so much? Why do people look different than others? Why are we different?” I had done it. I had asked Bill’s question.
“Not so long ago, we were like those others in Cuba. But your Mama and I saw a bad government coming so we decided to leave selling all that we owned so that we come to America with nothing. You were only three then and your brother was just a baby, I had to find any work that I could to get money for you and your brother to get food. Here, I don’t know the culture, I don’t have a good enough education to get a good job. Back in Cuba I never went to school because I knew that one day I would get my Dad’s store so I wouldn’t need anything they taught me. Now I know better. I should have gone to school,” he paused, “But you, you have a chance to get better. That’s why you must go to school, get an education so you can do better. I wish I could do better for you, because I love you, I love you mi bebé.” He looked at me and tried to hold back the tears that were already there.
“Daddy,” I whispered placing my hand on his tired cheek, “I love you too.” Then I put my arms out and he pulled me into a hug lifting me off the ground. Letting me be a bird. Letting me be free. Letting me fly.
Sometimes when I am upset I look back and just think about that day. I think about how much my Daddy loves me. And I think about his answer to Bill’s question. Maybe Daddy was right maybe that’s why we are different. As for me, my answer is that we are all the same. Its not until we are told that we are different, that we become different. What I didn’t understand was that we all had the answer to Bill’s question the day we walked into Kindergarten, that is until the inevitable happens.