To my daughter, sometimes the pulpo is bad, sometimes he is good. When I ask her about him she either looks at me with fear, telling me that he’s outside, on the terrace, wanting to bite her, or looks past me, waving at the darkened glass saying, “Go home, pulpo! Go home with your mami! ‘Night!” and blowing kisses. When I try to anticipate which side of the pulpo we’ll encounter, I get it wrong. Our daughter shakes her head at me as if I have misunderstood her invisible, imaginary octopus and she feels sorry for me. She and her fantasy friend are not bound by the same things I am.
As an adult, I am bound by the visible, the logical; even though I expect things to fit into tidy, organized boxes, easily understood and explained, they never do. Still, I expect this from my history, my present, myself.
A friend mentioned to me recently over dinner, “You know, nobody would guess you’re Spanish.”
“Except the Spanish.”
She smiled, “Well, right. But here, hearing you speak in English, and just looking at you, there’s nothing that screams out your foreignness.”
I knew she sort of meant that as a compliment, but even still, I was a bit uncomfortable. “Except my name.”
My name. In Pennsylvania, people either love it or they throw their hands up at it. It’s been unsuccessfully abbreviated, mispronounced many different ways, and sung to the tune of the “Mexican Hat Dance.” On forms it runs off every line. Part family heirloom, part blessing for the future; an anchor to the country and the family that’s been lost to me. In fact, the only immediately apparent anchor, no matter the crowd.
It bothers me how much of myself, of my story is not readily apparent. If you met me in person, you could tell my approximate age, that I’m married (thanks to my wedding ring), perhaps that I have kids (thanks to a maternity ring); you could see that I wear a medical i.d. bracelet. But, just looking at me, you would have no sense of where I was born, where I grew up, what my family looks like and how it came to be, of my memories. . . of any of the things that are most important to me.
You can’t tell by the way I speak, either. I’ve become a master at code-switching over the years; outside of my immediate family, whatever group I’m in, I can imitate the members’ accent and their speech patterns well. When I’m speaking to a Spaniard, my accent is perfect castellano. When speaking to a Guatemalan, my Spanish is a different cadence, full of slightly different vocabulary. In Pittsburgh, I use “slippy” regularly, though that’s as far as even I can comfortably slip into “Pittsburghese.” And once, on a roadtrip to North Carolina I had conversations with both a tollbooth operator and a Subway sandwich artist in which my Southern drawl seemed so authentic it scared my husband. The chameleon speech has been to my advantage. I know how to put parentheses around different parts of my identity, grouping what I think will go over most smoothly, and putting just that forth for the interaction. It makes people more accepting, more comfortable; it makes it easier to fit in and get ahead.
But while it’s useful to be seen as anyone, not as a representative of a particular place or culture, the downside of not standing out is that few people expect you to own, to carry more than what meets the eye. And although they respond to what you’re putting out there, it’s frustrating, because their response rarely fits who you fully are well enough.
Sometimes I feel like my own invisible friend; that the unabridged, annotated me is something others’ eyes can’t see, others’ ears can’t hear. But still, I insist that that version of me exists.
For our son, his imaginary friend is a kitten he claims lives in the storage room off of our basement playroom. When I go in there to slide out the kids’ plastic picnic table for a craft or a snack, he follows me and points at the rafters, shouting “Aw! Baby cat!” He insists he can hear the cat through the vents. Sometimes I make like I can see and hear it, too, but, in my response, he notices that it’s never as real for me as it is for him.
Only, he doesn’t care. At all. Just like his sister, the most common reaction he gives is an “I-feel-so-sorry-for-you-mami-that-you-don’t-get-it” look. My three-year-olds are both much more comfortable than I am in the companionship of what you can’t see or hear without imagination.
And I used to be, too. Many years ago, growing up as an only child, I had a lot of imaginary friends, the most notable of whom were an American dog named Gogo who suffered an unfortunate accident on a visit to the Grand Canyon (“Why didn’t you save him?” my husband asks, “if it was just a matter of imagining it so?” The truth is that it never occurred to me), a series of magical Spanish snails, a Floridian koala, and a girl named Eriko who frequently accompanied me to French lessons. My imagination was international, without fetters, comfortable with mashing up the known and unknown and never feeling the hunger of needing to explain itself.
“Magic, mami,” my older daughter answers when I ask why I can’t see or hear the pulpo, and the baby cat so well. Her answer is simple yet wide: an open door. What would happen, I wonder, if I stopped trying to explain my cultural identity in one uninterrupted whole? If I stopped worrying about it all coming across, all making sense for other people? If I could learn from my three-year-olds to be simply happy and steady in my own story, whatever the rest of the world can see or hear of me?