Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Politics of Screaming

The new English teacher was stupid and dressed like surfer, but it didn’t bother Celia except that it drove her brother crazy. Made him yell fuck, shit and anything else he could at the cars on the freeway as they walked home. Phrases she hadn’t heard since they lived in Bakersfield, before they ever started school. The grossest things she’d ever heard. Things men with spotty beards had said outside while she pretended to sleep. Only a piece of wood as thick as a girl’s thumb separating them and the horrible words. Things they’d like to do to a woman. Things that made her never want to be woman. Both Celia and Humberto had one ear pressed down into the thin cots that heir mother had pushed together to make a bed. Their mother’s palms pressed against each of their exposed ears as those men drank on into the night. At first it didn’t work, only made her notice the men getting quieter and then louder again and again until the sun came up to remind them that they better sleep a little bit before it was time to work. But Celia was amazed that eventually, after nine nights, she learned to sleep through it all and had even forgotten the exact words. But not Berto. He never slept, and now he was screaming every word he’d heard at buses, men on motorcycles, even down the sewer. She tried to cover her own ears. Even with her two hands pressing as hard as possible, it was hopeless without her mother around.

The words snuck right in.

Her mother had special powers, because she was an original. So gentle that it constantly reminded Celia that she wasn’t from here or there. She wasn’t from anywhere. Her mother said that she was actually born in America, but had no proof like papers or pictures or skin or money. She just ended up in Oaxaca because her father loved trains and that's where the last one went before she died. But she had made it back North for the twins’ birth. God had given her, a boy and a girl, her own Adam and Eve. Which was His sign that that was all he wanted for her. Then she returned to Oaxaca right as her babies could first walk. Celia’s aunt told her that Celia’s father was a bad man and had hit her mother, made her get stitches on her scalp. But that was almost impossible to believe. All her hair was fine, and she was happier than anyone else in America. She even smiled when she vomited, which happened once. Her voice was like kind music and that’s why rich people fought to have her take care of their children, sent giant bouquets of roses and foreign flowers on her birthday. She was a professional mother, and she never said the wrong thing.

As they walked and the screams got worse, she wished Berto would just slow down and talk to her about the teacher. She had the right things to say. He’s new. He thinks he’s funny. Did you see how big his feet are? He has to walk sideways up steps. That flappy belt that droops down over his fly just means he has bad clothes, bad taste, probably stinking coffee breath. She knew all the words, but she didn’t want any of the anger that belonged to the teacher. She didn’t want anyone’s anger. Anger that would wake up when she was alone in her room as her mother slept or, worse, anger that would turn into pictures as she dreamt. Faces and buildings and terrors that would make her sleep even more tiring than being awake. So she just walked slowly behind him, head down, rolling her eyes up to him if it seemed like he needed her attention. But mostly just making a schedule for homework. Five minutes for each page that needed to be read. Three minutes for each question in math.

When they were a block from their apartment, Berto actually screamed right in the face of a little boy on a tricycle. So close to the meanest thing Berto had ever done. The boy had kept bumping his front tire into a step, going nowhere. It drove Berto insane. He grabbed the boy’s handlebars, turned them straight and opened his mouth. THEN SCREAMED. Why him? He was the saddest little boy she’d ever seen even before Berto’s attack with his lungs. There were no clear words, but it lasted almost thirty seconds, the longest scream she’d ever heard. Berto’s neck shaking as the boy fought himself to not scream back. And now the boy was crying. His mother was never around. No brothers or cousins. No friends. Maybe he had no mother at all, probably just an Abuelita who could barely walk anymore she’d worked so hard. She’d seen that boy watch the other children line up for the ice cream truck, and he seemed to not even understand that with fifty cents he could be in that line too. But now he just laid his tiny chest on his handlebars and wondered why people, big people, men, screamed in his face. And that’s the only time they even care. She wanted to stop, to hug him, whisper noise in his ear. But Berto would take that so wrong, be so mad, scream at her and more people who wouldn’t scream back. So she just lingered hoping that Berto would run ahead, tasting cold milk and cereal on his tongue, feeling his butt planted in front of the TV watching the videos of the music she hated. Music that sounded like fighting with sexy girls thrown in the middle. Girls whose soft, sexy purrs cheered the violence on, made it worth something. But of course, Berto waited. Read her face and got angrier as he had to turn around walk past her and stop over the little boy, who’s tears had now turned into his normal sorrow, a tilted stare at the sky over the world. Berto leaned down and rubbed the boy’s back. His hand wider than the boy’s shoulders. Sorry, he said. It’s not you. It’s those fucking white puntos who like to have cactuses up their ass.

That was even worse than saying nothing.

Berto watched videos till dark while Celia solved for x and y and then read about the best of times and the worst of times. The same sentences over and over, amazed when they finally made sense. Maybe that’s how the teacher would be. Then her mother came home. She heard her sing, “Humberto” and then her name. Such a fine sound it went right through the walls.

Whenever she arrived she rubbed Berto’s head and said, You OK? And he always nodded like it was the most serious question he’d ever heard. She imagined that happening, and then she would come see her. Her mother always checked her work, not for solutions but for sufficient markings, effort, a sense of completion. What does this mean, she might ask and Celia would babble like the teacher had asked a question and she didn’t really know the answer so she spoke until something close came out. She’d let Celia finish and nod like she was exactly right.
But it happened different. She came in with a face that Celia knew was a frown, but to anyone else she was just not smiling. That’s her real sadness.

What’s wrong with him?
The new teacher speaks very fast.
He kept asking Berto questions that he didn’t understand.
Everyone laughed.
Then the teacher started speaking Spanish to him. The worst Spanish you ever heard.
Oh, no.
Yeah, he said dumb things.
Asked him if he liked to dance with horses.
Used every Spanish word he knew. Like fifteen. Said them all wrong.
Oh, God.
After class, Berto was so mad he didn’t talk.
Now, he’s just been like this.
How can I help him?

You can make him not a boy.

And her mother laughed, thank God.
Somehow that night, all Celia’s dreams were fine.


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