Personal essay: Niñita

ninitafinal
Illustration by Nyantee Asherman

The glass separating the pizza guys from the rest of the restaurant lent their work an aspect of performance, which they mostly seemed to embrace. I could remember being small and laughing on a long-legged counter stool as they tossed spinning rounds of dough in the air. They were master mimes, somber and silent, but sometimes they would break the fourth wall to wink in my direction. Childishly I let myself be surprised after much passed time by the fact of their voices when we were introduced for my first day of hostessing. It was the beginning of senior year, and I wanted desperately to speak Spanish, their language. I’d spent the summer studying to pass into the AP course and emerged victorious; that is, my final was over, I had enough flashcards to paper my room, and with effort I could remember most of the lyrics to “La Camisa Negra.”

Even during the emptiest moments, the restaurant’s spoken languages (Italian, Spanish, English) layered over one another thickly enough to mimic the humming ambience of a big crowd. Though my ears had trouble distinguishing specific words, I was easily carried along the familiar dramatic arcs of my coworkers’ small talk. You’ll get the silverware? Excellent… so THEN he… We folded napkins, paused to giggle, sipped soda when there was nothing to say. With a routine established, it became easier for me to tune into the Spanish spoken on the peripheries behind the glass. Its crescendos and sforzandos were largely unintelligible, but they propelled the night in certain directions with the subtle force of a movie soundtrack.

Work conversations were confined and frequently broken by work priorities. There was still a sort of rhythm: talk—wait, sorry. Answer door. Resume: phone rings. Pick up. Wait. Forget what was being said. Fold pizza boxes. Resume. Sometimes I heard only the punch line of a story, leaving its context to my imagination. If I knew my coworkers at all, it was through inference. This was most true with the pizza guys, whose shouted cadenzas throbbed with emotions I could experience but lacked the vocabulary to source. We communicated in earnest platitudes, neither side dextrous enough to achieve irony in a second language. Cómo estás? Muy bien, y tú? It’s a beautiful day. Sí, claro que sí.

Vincenzo opened his restaurant in our small town, a suburb of both Trenton and Philadelphia, in 1977. The success of Italian immigrants in the area is well-documented and evidenced anecdotally by a high concentration of pizza shops; four, for instance, on our one commercial street. There are no comparable monuments for Central Americans, who arrived more recently and oftentimes without any documentation at all. Guatemala was the best-represented country on Vince’s staff. I knew almost nothing of it. Normally I could count on Wikipedia when trying to educate myself, but here the entry wrongly assumed so much prior knowledge that I crashed my web browser opening relevant background articles in new tabs. When I tried again, a quick skim yielded only vague impressions of color and violence.

* * *

A crumpled receipt bounced off the nape of my neck and rolled under the counter. As I bent to retrieve it, two more balls of paper careened over the glass and collided with the other hostesses. In tandem, they swiveled to glare at the pizza guys, who were already doubled with laughter. I threw out the paper and rose to join in the standoff. When he caught my eye, Freddy snapped his teeth over a half-formed giggle and assumed his mime’s neutral.

“Freddddyyyyy…” I couldn’t match his poker face, but he held strong.

“QUÉ.”

“Why are you throwing paper at us?” whined the girl to my right.

He was shocked! “It’s not me, all him—” he pointed to Jorge, who held up his hands in protest. “No, no—that guy! Look—” There was a man I’d never seen before manning the cheesesteak grill.

“Freddy, who is that?”

“Se llama Victor. VIIIIIICTOR—” The man looked up, met our eyes, and quickly turned to face his work. “He’s new.”

We stared at Freddy until he became bored and began to laugh again. He gave an exaggerated papal wave and inclined over his pizza dough. “Bye bye, bitches—”

“Freddy!”

“QUÉ.”

“Don’t call us bitches, nobody answers to bitches.”

He considered, shrugged. “Adiós, bitchitas!”

I rolled my eyes. The other girls snorted and clutched at one another. My boss Luigi chuckled to himself from the front desk. Victor, the new guy, was the only person not laughing. I watched as his knife moved expertly over half an onion, slicing it into mechanically thin strips.

Gradually I was beginning to use my Spanish at work. I’d started the studied-for AP class at school, and with more practiced listening, words began to crystallize out from the syrupy mess of sound. Eavesdropping, I could catch maybe one in every five: “Si quisieras…se mezclan…pasas diferentes…hacer…con aceite…las madres…ninguno…ya sabes…así.” Sometimes I followed long enough to get the gist of a joke. Everything was funnier to me in Spanish because there was so much more to laugh at: the wit of what was said, the novelty of my comprehension, my own brain for its delay between hearing and understanding, the other hostesses’ obliviousness to the exchanges which surrounded them. On the best nights, I left work giddy and riled. I deposited my money and compared my ATM receipts with the prices of plane tickets to Latin America. Qué locura tienes? I asked myself. It didn’t matter.

The worst nights were the ones where suddenly it did seem to matter. What madness do I have? A good question! I rolled silverware and let my thoughts roll too, mostly in circles.

“Hey flaca, no te pongas afligida!”

“Afligida?” I didn’t know the word.

“It’s like, tired, sad. Like suffering.” Afflicted, okay. There’s my cognate.

“I am not afflicted! Don’t worry, I’m just thinking.” A neutral fact.

* * *

Freddy and I were both in one of my afflicted moods. He stood kneading a pizza, world-weary and comic/tragic in his checked pants. I knelt cramped into his habitual nook with my chin on my knees. Our lines of sight were reversed; usually I towered over him. La grandota, gigante. I tried to laugh at these nicknames even when I couldn’t gauge the kindness of his intentions.

He was talking about his son, who was two years old and the most important person in his life. “Mi chiquillito,” he called him, each syllable fully unspooled. He spoke to me only in Spanish because he knew that’s what I craved. You’re a strange girl, he told me.

Why, Freddy?

You watch me the way my son watches me. “Ojos así,” he said, motioning. You might understand, but you never say what you think. “Eres casi muda,” he said. You’re almost mute. “Eres como una niña muy pequeña. Mi niñita.” My little girl. He patted my head. Like his little girl, I lacked the words to respond.

* * *

My major Spanish-learning project outside of Vince’s Pizza was a slow fight through “100 Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel García Márquez. I’d cheated and pre-read the first third of it in English so that I could have a feel for the action, but the entire thing was just a meanly constructed ego challenge. García Márquez frustrated me by using words that didn’t appear anywhere in my Diccionario de la Lengua Española, and even when I could find a definition, it would often include more words I didn’t know. Qué quieren decir? I asked the books, flipping fruitlessly back and forth between them. What do you want to say?

Gradually my hunger to follow the story won out over my desire to imbibe García Márquez’s vocabulary. Without the Diccionario, “Cien Años” sketched a blind contour, unclear but unbroken. Somehow I could follow. The characters were not quite human, but they represented truths so essential and familiar that I felt I barely needed to read to infer what would happen next. All the complexities of human nature boiled neatly down into a universal archetype—a revelation! I kept reading. There were scores of words I’d never seen. I said them out loud until they made sense to me, or until it became clear that they never would; in the latter case they lingered on my ear as pleasant mysteries. Some of them I would look up later, but their meanings almost didn’t matter. Because everything in the book was a symbol, it seemed appropriate that its words should be reduced to symbols as well. Nouns were now suggestions, representing the possible instead of the concrete. These ambiguities had little impact on my understanding of plot or tone, which was mostly verb-dependent—it’s not what you have, but what you do.

* * *

The new pizza guy, Victor, was an anomaly. He could be overheard speaking neat, unaccented English to customers at the front desk, but he never came over to tease or talk to us. The other girls wrote him off as too serious. I was less sure. His clothing choices called my attention: he’d cut his Vince’s Pizza shirt at the neck, breaking its boxy lines to expose a silver cross pendant and a tan slice of skin, and better yet, he alternated weekly between a “Notre Dame IRISH” and a “Banana Republic” baseball cap, which I decided was ironic. He was totally trying to stick it to the man.

We began talking because he knew that I was learning Spanish, but really he was hungry to practice in English. Despite Victor’s good accent, his vocabulary’s narrow scope limited us to pizza shop basics. It became my goal to push our conversations into the more personal, where he would be forced to switch to his native language. I was ruthless in my pursuit of his stories, his opinions. The way he fit his words together delighted me even when I was shocked by what he said. You must always listen to your father, he told me. But you said that your father left your family when you were just a boy! Yes, he inclined his head. He’s still the person I most respect.

Victor worked two jobs, six days a week at Vince’s from 11 a.m. till 11 p.m. and then three days after that at another pizza place in Trenton, 11 p.m. till 3 a.m. He had a wife and a son and a new baby. He wanted to be a state policeman. So how are you going to get there? I asked. He looked despondent. I don’t even have a high school education, he said. Well, you can get a G.E.D. That’s basically the same. That would let you take college classes, if you wanted to. He was unmoved. I don’t have the time or the money. Besides, I don’t know how to look up the classes on the internet. I grinned at him, a starting point in sight. That I can do for you.

His eyebrows rose. You would do that?

It was a rare push back into territory personal enough for me to call on my English. “Of course…You know Spanish and I don’t, so you help me. I have a computer and you don’t, so I help you. It’s only fair.” I hoped that he couldn’t see how ragged this acknowledgment of our differences made me feel.

As it turned out, G.E.D. classes were free and offered in both of Victor’s two languages. I made him a list of numbers to call, which took maybe fifteen minutes. The only task remaining was to corner my Spanish teacher for the final and most important question.

“Señor, will they ask my friend from work about his immigration status if he wants to get a G.E.D.?”

Well. It was complicated. Victor could obtain his G.E.D. unquestioned. However, if he wanted to compile the college credits necessary to become a policeman, he would need his identity verified. Probably it would be best if he were a citizen, and under current circumstances that was not a realistic goal. So…Tell your friend that he should take some time to reevaluate.

I wanted to cry. My teacher offered a sympathetic shrug, and I thought of Freddy patting me on the head. I rose to leave. When I was almost at the door-

“Hey, how do you know this guy, again?”

I turned to face him. “He’s just a friend from my job at the pizzeria. Why?”

His face folded inward with skepticism, and a hand rose to indicate the poster on the wall to my right. Block lettering: CARAS, VEMOS, CORAZONES NO SABEMOS. We see faces, we don’t know hearts.

“Que tengas cuidado… Una jovencita bien guapa como eres tú…”

The thought of Victor wanting anything from me other than some sympathetic company felt silly. He was ten years older and married. Besides, he had much more consuming priorities.

* * *

My friendship with Victor was a curiosity to the rest of the hostesses, who he still mostly ignored.

“Victor, why don’t you ever talk to the other girls?”

“I only like you.” His tone was disaffected enough to muffle any natural alarms which might have sounded at such a statement.

“But you want to practice your English, right? And you and me speak a lot of Spanish. You should try talking to them.”

He curled his lip. “You are different from them.”

“No…” I protested the obvious. “They’re cool. They’re my friends, and they would all like you.”

But we had arrived at an impasse. Victor could force a smile for anyone, but it was only me who got shreds of olives tossed in my hair and only me who caught the follow-up laugh, only me he would take the phone for in busy moments, only me he shifted out of his path with a hand firm on the small of my waist. His eyes followed me across the restaurant as I swooshed tablecloths, stacked plates, slid from customer to customer.

* * *

In “100 Years of Solitude,” the characters’ motion is cyclical as opposed to forward or backward and leaves them prone to terrible bouts of nostalgia. At some point, each person comes to realize that his or her life has long since been decided. My reading experience iterated a proof of García Márquez’s theorem that everything is already written. This was how my provincial thoughts had somehow attained the universality allowing me to infer the significance of words I could not literally understand. I felt what I felt in some preordained pattern. I knew the people around me only as archetypes, because that was all we were.

* * *

Victor had been eyeing me with an aggression I was unused to. When the night began to wind down, I ambled over to the cheesesteak grill, where he was scrolling through his phone. Now that I was so close, he wouldn’t look up. I knocked a knuckle on the glass and he started. Our eyes met unsmiling.

“How does it feel to have an American girlfriend?” Without preamble.

“I’m probably the wrong person to ask,” I told him, still hoping to turn it into a joke. “I’ve never had one myself.”

“I’d like to know.” He stared at me baldly. All pretense was dropped. I felt uneasy under his gaze.

“Well, how does it feel to have a Mexican wife?” He twisted his lips.

“Malo.” Bad? “Peor que nada.” The worst ever.

There were customers at the door. I circled through the restaurant to seat them, from door to table to the waitress writeup in the side hallway and back around past the counter to where Victor waited. He stood blank, insistent in his countenance. He was planted and grown, and I was just an itinerant child.

“What do you think?” he wanted to know.

“I think you’re married.”

“If I wasn’t—”

“You are, though.”

I looked at him. His face was tortured, but not by me, la niñita. He was looking for the American dream.

“Where are you going to college?”

“The other side of Philadelphia. Far.”

“What, an hour in the car? That’s not far. I wait for you. Four years is not so long.”

“Victor, qué locura tienes?” The words to the familiar question were lying in wait as if put together for this moment.

“La locura de ti.” The madness of you. Nobody had ever said something comparable to me in English, and I hoped they never would.

I clarified, as nicely as I could, that I thought he was being ridiculous, and that never in any circumstance could I be convinced to live in Yardley again once I had moved out.

The thought stuck with me, though. Victor saw me as a woman when I still felt myself to be a girl. It was getting on time to grow up; the gravity of what was written was exercising its pull. I could understand my fascination with Spanish as an outgrowth of the same nostalgia which plagued the characters in “Cien Años de Soledad.” The humility required of me to truly listen and learn was something I had not felt since childhood, and something I feared losing once I became an adult. I tried to infer the passage of my own life the way I inferred passages of García Márquez. I could marry Victor and use the money my family had saved for college to rent us an apartment on Main Street. He could hang his mutinous hats on a hook in the hallway and have his kids to visit on the weekends. I could tutor him in the G.E.D. and listen to him speak Spanish and show our eventual children how to make the best of Yardley, PA. I was supposed to recognize the futility of trying to escape from what was constant and settle into a rhythm which spun me back to the start.

But I didn’t—instead I’m here—which is sort of like an extended girlhood, since all my needs are met, but also the fastest I’ve ever been pulled into growing up—and I have yet to infer que quiere decir.

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