A look into Everything Turns Invisible
This is the moment in the protagonist’s development where his life changes fundamentally, at least internally. This is when the door cracks open. And once open he can no longer pretend that his past, his adoption, is but an abstraction. Nothing of particular consequence happens yet, but his un-anchoring is now underway. Something has wedged itself between him and his adoptive mother, and that same thing – knowledge, or imagination, or their combination? – has also linked him to a past he cannot remember. The shift is seismic, if unspoken.
Hipólito and Miriam never hid the fact of my adoption from me. Not that they could have anyway, given that I was the lone pistachio in a bowl of cashews. But they weren’t exactly talking about stuff either. Until one day. The great I-wish-it’d-never-happened-but-can’t-erase-it-now day. I was in the laundry room, five years old, playing my bongos in my usual winter spot: my back up against the boiler, keeping warm. In front of me, the deep slosh from the long bank of washing machines.
Miriam was emptying a load of dry laundry into a plastic hamper. And she was singing, making up lyrics to the rhythm.
“A Milo le gustan las alcachofas…” Milo likes artichokes…
“But he doesn’t like ice cream…”
“Mama,” I said, looking up at her and her afro. It was positively colossal and made me think of my own weird, where-you-from-anyway hair. “Was my dad blond like me?” I asked. The air in the room changed.
“I don’t know about your father,” she said. She leaned against one of the washing machines, her arms folded across her chest. She hesitated. “But your mother was blond.”
“She was? And who was she?”
“She was a woman with a hard life.”
“What was she called?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sometimes they tease me.”
“In the park,” I said.
“What do they say?”
“Don’t pay them any attention. My little duckie.”
Miriam kneeled in front of me and put one hand on the bongo, the other on my shoulder. With gestures like that it was like she was completing a circuit. “Sometimes people get into trouble,” she said. “That’s what happened to your biological mother. She was very poor.”
“I don’t know. But she helped me and Hipólito. She probably saved us from having to live in a jail. Did you know that? Your mama was a hero.”
I tried not to smile. A hero!
“And…was she also Cuban?”
“She was from here.”
A hero from here!
“How did she help you to not live in the jail?”
“She invited us to Italy, then Spain, then to play here at Carnegie Hall. Imagine that.”
“What’s that? Where’s Italy?”
“Carnegie Hall is close by. Italy, I’ll show you on a map.”
“Will you show me today?”
“And, and…” My mind was racing. Now that I’d asked the first question, the first ever about this – and gotten an answer of sorts – I had a hundred more all piling into each other. I didn’t want this talk to end. It was a dreadful and exhilarating new feeling. “And then what, mama?” I said. “What did my – she do next?”
“She helped us escape from the people who were trying to control us.”
“And my mama was a hero, mama?”
“She got us to Spain. Then you were born and we adopted you. The last thing your mama did was invite us to New York. It was our chance.”
“Do you have other kids?”
I was running out of new things to say.
Miriam touched my face. “You’ve seen the pictures.”
“Can they come live with us?”
She picked up the basket of clothes. “You’re a hero, too.”
“No, you’re a hero! Why, mama? Why am I?”
She kissed my head. “You helped us to be a family again.”
In the apartment Miriam pulled out an oversized book filled with nothing but maps and showed me Italy, then Milan, the city she’d fallen in love with, the first they’d reached after leaving Cuba on what was supposed to a short, state-sponsored tour, and after which they’d named me. Milan, Milano, meant a new beginning for them, a fresh start, an escape. And I was its enduring symbol.
But sitting next to Miriam, looking at that map, something else inside me stirred. Where everything about my past had been an abstraction, now there was this. The trailhead of a route for my imagination to follow. Even if the route had long grown cold. I could suddenly and for the first time imagine myself traveling the converging, accidental lines of destiny that had led to this very moment, and backwards too, to my conception: New York, Matanzas, Madrid, Milan, … each leg astep closer to the entry portal that no one remembers but which gives everyone such surety. A step closer to the woman who’d given birth to me. Actually seeing her in my head. What an image. What a terrible thing. There was a duplicate of myself, physically the same and happy – happier maybe? – kicking cans around a different housing complex, in a different life, with my real parents and their hard, heroic lives. Forgive me, Miriam. My mom who counted. But how it hurt. It hurt like homesickness. But how could I pine for a place that had never existed? For a person I’d never known? I tried to push the longing away but I couldn’t. I suddenly didn’t want to talk about such possibilities. Here was my mother. I leaned against Miriam’s thin arm, then wrapped it around me to shield myself from the feeling. When that didn’t work, I tried a new trick that’s pretty much kept me on the fucked side of screwed ever since. I flipped my sense of betrayal and the shame over it into anger. A silent, unjustified anger that flamed against my ribs. Burning for any target to make up for my sorry-ass weakness. I aimed it first at the shadow figure of this unknown woman who’d suddenly sprung to life, into my inner life, making me feel for the first time that what I had somehow wasn’t enough. And then at the woman hugging me now. For this lapse in our family defenses. Why did you answer my questions, mama? In doing so you exposed my turncoat heart. I tried to push the anger and confusion away. I did try.Everything Turns Invisable