The hyphen condition

 

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No use denying: the hyphen in Arizona-me is here to stay.

The hyphen is not a mere punctuation mark. It signals both a proximity and a distance. The hyphen brings Arizona close to me but it also separates Arizona from me.

This hyphen-condition is there everyday: when I wake up until I fall asleep. It also inhabits my dreams as if to punctuate the gap. The hyphen is a fracture deep within my soul.  It signifies that there was another me before Arizona. It reveals that this me in Arizona is still a very unstable condition.

Arizona is relentless, cold and scary. It is raw, brute and pretty much like its desert, it can dry you out like a raisin.

I lost my country for you, Arizona. I lost my family. I lost my friends. What do you give  me in return? An unwanted ticket to an unwanted version of myself? The equation does not seem fair.

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Lock, stock and barrel.

She called it the adventure of her life. With a glint in her. Little did she know that it would be nothing short of a revolution. How it would unscrupulously penetrate her pores, melt the walls of her entrails, corrode the established life.

No leaf would be left unturned.

He knew it and he was afraid for her. She was so fragile. Brave, granted. But emotionally flimsy, like the wing of a butterfly. Maybe her intelligence would compensate. Fill the void.

What he didn’t know is how much her sadness would sadden him.

You know we are doing it lock, stock and barrel, right? She smiled her disarming smile, waved her hand and dismissed the question, transfixed by the attraction.

Oxford, thirty years later.

My visit to Oxford after living there so many years ago had a distinct smell. It did not only smell of the three years my twenty-year old self lived there. It was beyond a familiar smell of a place I used to know so well. I took deep breaths there: it was that and much more.

I struggle to put into words what happened to me that day. Going back to Oxford brought back such vivid memories of the place and of what I used to be. My care free days as an English student, the friends I made, the routine at my school, my house at Bardwell Road, the river from which we would go panting on weekends, and, above all, how much that place shaped what I would later become.

I remember I used to skip the drab dinners at school and bike to Christ Church to watch the even songs. The magic of that chapel never failed to transport me to a different dimension.

I consent that I might have been too young for all the tradition.  For the Gothic buildings of the colleges and their vine laced walls. For the way the light transformed everything into a golden world.  There is something sacred about Oxford.

“Oxford still remains the most beautiful thing in England, and nowhere else are life and art so exquisitely blended, so perfectly made one”, said Oscar Wilde. And yet Oxford does not enjoy ostentations or celebrations. It has an elegance that requires you to “tell the truth slant” so maybe I am not yet fit to describe it.

Oxford is built on layers of tradition and learning. It silences you in a rather humble way.

The Cracked Easter Egg.

Easter was the best time of the year for me. Not because of the various grandiloquent religious celebrations, but despite them. I was terrified of the movies that my mother made us watch every year showing the Calvary and Jesus Christ crucified, a crown of sharp thorns perforating his head and nails through his dying body, bleeding little by little, until his last agonizing breath. Suffering, to Catholics, was a spectacle to be ostentatiously displayed and cultivated. But its violence terrified impressionable little girls like me. Besides, if it was true that Jesus had died for us, he made me feel guilty of my sins and certain of my evil. Other than that, during Easter, us children took time off school, played around, and ate chocolate eggs until we got sick.

I was so excited I couldn’t contain myself: I decided I was going to wait up for the Bunny’s visit that night. I loved the Easter Bunny — he was cute, playful, and was not expected to scold you for not having been a good girl, like Santa Claus. Unlike Santa, we never saw the Bunny anywhere except in books but we were told he would sneak in our houses at night and fill our Easter baskets with goodies that I absolutely treasured (and protected, tooth and nail, from my brothers’ greedy hands) like gold.

The Easter basket was a feast for the eyes that never failed to dazzle: we would wake up to multi colored chocolate eggs and other mouth-watering delicacies. My brothers and I would lay our bounties on the floor and trade our favorite candies. The ones that I preferred were the nhá-bentas (chocolate coated marshmallow treats) presented in glossy boxes and several small hard fruit candies that I loved to stick into my mouth until my cheeks hurt and then suck on ever so slowly. But the star of the party was the one large chocolate egg. It was quite extravagant and came wrapped in shiny foil wrappers and cellophane tied with satin ribbons. Inside the egg, there were delicious bonbons filled with raspberry ganache, almond butter or caramel. The bigger the egg, the better your parents loved you, I equated. So I always prayed that I would get really large ones, as big as footballs, which I would save and savor a little every day for weeks.

Around midnight, I heard the door open slowly and from a small hole that I had improvised with the corners of my blanket I expected to spot the Bunny. But whaaaat? I gasped, covering my mouth, it was my Mom gently tiptoeing into the room! Silently, I spied her carefully arrange the treats in my basket and leave my room. It was a bit sad to find out that Easter Bunnies were in fact good-hearted moms but I admit that I had already toyed with that hypothesis. Never mind, I thought, getting up, my sweet tooth speaking louder than my recently lost innocence: I had a ravishing whole Easter basket to explore. The goodies did not disappoint. I inspected every single precious one and finally grabbed the big prize, my beautiful and shiny oversized egg. To my horror, I found a crack to the otherwise immaculate chocolate egg. Mom must have dropped it, I figured. I felt horrified; no one should have a cracked Easter egg! I waited until I was sure Mom had retired to her room. I went back to bed but could not fall asleep. Suddenly, I had an idea: I could exchange my egg with my older brother’s, if his did not have any cracks, that is. I tiptoed into his room and confirmed that his egg was intact. Without beating an eyelash, I swapped the eggs and never looked back.

Why did Mom give me the cracked egg? There was no question she had seen it was cracked so she had had to make a choice and, instead of giving it to one of my brothers, she chose me. The cracked egg became symbolical of my cracked relationship with my mother and what I represented to her. I was the only girl growing up with three brothers. I learned that day that men were always favored, because they would carry the family name and whatever tradition they thought the family had. Girls were merely passive recipients. Except I was not, as I proved to myself at four years of age that night. I still feel proud of myself for doing what I did.

Lock, stock and barrel

His hands rest upon mine, ceremoniously. I release one hand and brush off a stubborn lock of hair from my face, fidgeting in my seat. I drum my fingers lightly on the table, trying to match the off-kilter rhythm of the Bossa Nova melody. “Brazilian music”, I think, “this might be a sign of good luck”. But don’t they all play Bossa Nova in restaurants nowadays?

I averted his eyes for a minute but could not distract my mind. Why couldn’t Disaster, in a rare exception to the rule, be merciful and announce itself before the hour? I still could run away and catch the next train back to oblivion.

The great revelation did not come then. Like the sweet Bossa Nova song that played that ’night, it was intangible. What hour marks the moment of truth? The announcement of a profound change?

I felt I had a baggage that I did not know he could help me carry. I needed certainties beyond words. I needed a sign that would vouch destiny would not be playing the same card again. I could not handle another loss. I needed to still that life. To freeze it and leave it behind in the void of time.

But then there was this thing called love. Not something that one experienced vicariously in movies. But something that required a different transaction. It was there for me, in all its horrors, in all its beauties. Ready to come to life. His small eyes smiled at me. His eyes speaking of dreams. Not his words but rather the tremor of his voice. The tilt of his head. All those signs which I would later recognize as a trademark of his wholesomeness.

There was no announcement, no epiphany. But there were small miracles. The unexpected lantern turned on in the corner of a gloomy room. That steady hand opening doors. These things soothed me. Wrapped me. They still do.

His love was a devotion. Not an accommodating, unquestioning devotion like that to a saint. His was a laborious one, akin to that of a scientist in his life-long search for the cure of an incurable disease. Working at it day and night, out of an unbounded, selfless love for what he does. My husband left a stable job and crossed the ocean, embracing the unknown. In the process, he gained two daughters, learned another language and restored my belief in life – perhaps his greatest achievement.

I told him that night that I needed one day to think about it.

“You know we are doing it lock, stock and barrel, right”? that was my answer, not entirely aware of what that would eventually entail. He smiled a broad smile, transfixed by my answer. I smiled back.

The Mission Ranch

Endless, I thought, looking at the man drinking beer. The legs were so disproportioned to the rest of the body! The silvery grey hair was tied in a ponytail and he was wearing frayed baggy jeans and cowboy boots that had seen better days. Out of one of his Western movies, one would surmise. I thought about telling Bill but then decided no, it could not be Clint Eastwood. The man looked too aged and mundane to be him. Besides, Clint would not have been left alone all the time with so many admirers around. Some people were there just to see him. My mind drifted back to Bill’s words. His small eyes speaking of dreams. It was July 2001. We were at The Mission Ranch restaurant at Clint Eastwood’s ranch in Carmel, California, on a special mission.

There are so many memorable parts to that day. One that remains vivid in my memory is the dramatic scenery at The Mission Ranch. The light filtering the branches of the old oaks in an intricate lace-like pattern. The waves breaking again and again against the coastal rocks in wild bursts of foam. The cypress trees leaning away from the wind. We watched the sun go down and paint the sky in golden oranges, pinks and purples. The first tiny silver stars.

It was not the words but rather the slight tremor in his voice.  The tilt of his head. The steady hand. All those signs I would later recognize as a trademark of his wholesomeness. We drank a Pinot Noir from a local winery which we would frequently revisit on special occasions. His voice was ceremonious. I averted his eyes for a minute. Why couldn’t Disaster, in a rare exception to the rule, be merciful and announce itself before the hour? I still could run away and catch the next train back to oblivion. The great revelation did not come then. Like the slow, off-kilter Bossa Nova played on the piano by an unsuspecting guest, it was intangible.

It is a curious trait of human nature that one’s eyes can trick one’s mind (or is it vice versa?) so easily: it turned out that I was wrong about some things that day. There was no need to be so afraid. I was also wrong about the man at the bar: he was Clint Eastwood, endless legs, old boots and all. I found out at the restroom when I heard a girl on the phone announcing hysterically: “OMG Mom, you won’t believe this but I swear I’ve just seen Clint Eastwood at the bar!”.

OMG indeed.

We go back to The Mission Ranch whenever we are in California and rekindle that day. My innermost fears and hopes, the glint in my husband’s small eyes.  We also try to sit at that same table across from the bar where I saw Clint Eastwood but we never saw him again.

Language

Many years ago when I was studying language acquisition, I learned Krashen’s theory of second language learning. It consists of five main hypotheses.  One of them is the “affective filter hypothesis”, which suggests that learner’s ability is affected negatively when they are experiencing emotions such as fear or embarrassment.

Sometimes I have the impression that my language skills are deteriorating rather than improving.  It is not a matter of aging, but rather the so-called affective filter hypothesis. I still recall that, as a child, I used to stutter when my mom scolded me. I am a grown adult but I still stutter, especially when I feel unfairly challenged. I also speak more slowly and tend to pause at the end of the sentence, as if waiting for the last word.

For me, language is deeply connected to the maternal self. The mother tongue, the mother country. How ironical that I keep wanting to go back to my mother tongue, when I used to be a foreign language teacher.