An original memoir written in CW 352: Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Summer 2010
“My Life in Color(s)”
I can close my eyes and see every moment like I am still there, suspended in time, the bright glare of the sun forcing me to furrow my brow as I hop around the pool in the late morning of a summer day. Beads of sweat much hotter than the glinting water of the pool form on my forehead as, stinging my eyes as they drip down. I chase lizards through the heat. My nimble six-year-old fingers out maneuver any of the little brown reptiles and catch them, heedless of the tails coming off that will soon be placed in my plate as a prank thanks to my Uncle Diego.
As I stand for a moment in the dead humid air I can look up through squinting eyes at the blue sky through the black screen above the pool held up by white supports. Clouds scattered about the sky shy away from the sun as if it could burn them from ninety-eight million miles away. I stop for a moment to wonder why light takes eight minutes to reach the earth (a fact which I had just recently learned). I look across the pool through the screen to the backyard sloping down beyond it, filled with the rough grass that seems to only grow in Florida. At the end of the backyard a short barbed wire fence stands between any hungry passerby and a seemingly endless grove of juicy, sweet Florida Oranges. I remember many a time that my grandmother, still in her fifties, would step down on the fence for me to crouch through so she and I could pilfer some of the delicious fruit.
Walking back to the doors of the house, my bare feet enjoying the rough and rocky pool deck made of pebbles, I feel the shade suddenly sheltering me from the white hot sun which had been baking me alive in my Lion King pajamas. The cool shock of air conditioning and the freezing white tiles immediately begin to lower my body temperature. Inside it is dark after the harsh light of the sun. My grandparents have not yet moved down from New York at this point in my life, but my maternal grandmother spends many weeks at my house and my aunt on my mother’s side lives only an hour away. This particular morning my grandmother is here and so is my aunt. I call my grandmother Mita (she explained “Mita” follows this logic: Grandma, Grandmita, Mita). I call my aunt Titi, as it is common in my family. They sit at the kitchen counter (still too high for me to see over) and chatter in Spanish.
I cannot yet completely understand the language, but something about just listening to them is comforting and when they laugh I laugh. I think of how I can only understand Italian and English. I wish that I had learned both. I feel somehow like I missed an opportunity. I do not know that it’s just because my mom doesn’t speak to me in Spanish as much as my father speaks to me in Italian.
I run and leap onto the green leather couch across the tile and carpet and settle on its smooth surface. I lay down feeling my heart pounding in my ears after finally coming to rest after lizard-chasing and taking that running leap. I try to enjoy the coolness of the leather before my body heat inevitably warms it up and I have to move. As I lay there I look at the green rug on the floor and recall the time I rolled myself in it and nearly panicked at not being able to move my arms and legs.
I look up at my three family members sitting around the kitchen counter. I think back to a time that I now know was at least four years before. I was around two years old and it was winter in West Virginia. I walked in from the bright white world outside into the warm, wooden, and cavernous staircase. At a table at the top I could see my mother, Titi, and Mita. In my hands I held a snowball shaped by my father. It is massive to me. When I carried it upstairs and sat at the table with the three of them one of them-I can’t remember which-told me I could eat it. So I did.
I am on the dark burning sands of a beach in Calabria-the land my father says is our real home. Well it doesn’t feel like home, but the superheated summers here are a fantasy to me at nine years of age. My brother and sister, twins, are six and hold hands in the surf under the watchful eye of my mother who holds her People magazine between her thin fingers topped in a French manicure. I can hear my sister scream shrilly with delight as the cold water nearly knocks her over and my brother laughs. He holds her with his left hand and his right is in the air in a fist clenched against the frigid surf.
I look down into the yellow mask. I swish around my mouth to get the gooiest gob of spit I can and then it goes flying onto the inside of the lens. I immediately stick my fingers in it and wipe it all over the lens, making sure to get every inch covered with my saliva.
“Ugh, that is so disgusting!” my mother exclaims.
“But mom!” I try again for the millionth time, “It stops the mask from fogging up!”
“I don’t care. It’s still gross.”
I shrug my shoulders and turn to the water flickering and roaring in front of me. I brace myself with a few deep breaths before the plunge. I run forward ignoring as best as I can the goose bumps rushing up my body. I take the last two steps through the surf before I feel its deep enough and my feet leave the rocks. After my head breaks the surface I am in a different world. Quiet blueness extends forward into nothing. Giant rocks the size of my body litter the bottom that slowly slopes downward for a few yards before dipping down about twenty feet. It is this edge that I swim towards. Once I am there I turn over and move as quickly as I can to the bottom. I grab a hold of a rock that I can carry and use it as a weight to let me walk along instead of floating. It is red and oval shaped. In the cool water I stand for a moment and look at my surroundings. The surface sparkles with sunlight. It is the last barrier between this watery world and the garish one above. In the silence I feel at peace and for as long as my lungs can keep me down here I stay.
I step over the other rocks slowly as I walk through the cool landscape. I can feel the need for air growing slowly in my chest. I have precious few seconds before I must leave the clear water for a breath. I take one last look at the wondrous empty world around me. When I turn my head to the right I discover it is not empty. No more than a foot from my mask, drifting with its lazy attempts to swim, is a jellyfish. It’s a foot and a half across—wider than my head by a lot—and probably two feet long. It’s mostly white except for a dark purple ring around the circumference of its head. I drop the rock and push away. I jet backwards and up, bubbles shooting out of my mouth and nose just before I come back to the breezy sunny air above and take a sharp breath.
I swim as fast as I can towards shore. I pull off my mask when the water is waist high. It is at this point that I fail to see the danger behind me. When I feel the water rushing back against me so hard that I cannot walk it is too late. I turn to see the wave above me. Covered in foam like a great white monster it smashes its front against me and I am plunged into chaos and swirling sands. I try to right myself but am twisted in the tumbling waters and my face is smashed against the hard bottom. My body is pulled up over my head and my neck twists at an odd angle. I wonder, is this breaking your neck? Finally friction gives way to sheer force and my face is wrenched from the sand.
I sense that I am face down for a second and the wave is calming. I push my hands and feet down into the sand and force myself up and forward. I come out into the world, my vision wavy and my ears ringing. I see my mother standing with her eyes wide. I take a few steps out of the water and stagger. I try to breathe in. I can’t. I take one more step, throw my head back and forwards with one great breath out-like a sneeze. Rocks and sand fly out of my nose and I breathe in the sea air with relief. I take a moment to realize that I’ve just shot beach out of my nose and, despite the fear only a few seconds ago, I laugh.
I am seven and I stand on the cool stone of a balcony in the early morning. Down below me is the tropical landscape of Puerto Rico. The sun is climbing up between the bright green hills shaped like ovals stood on their sides. The misty morning is slowly giving way to the clarity of day and I can feel the air becoming too hot and humid for the clothes I am wearing. I lean against the cement railing and look down at the field below, across a dirt road leading up to the mint green house.
I think of breakfast, pancakes with syrup, thick juicy pineapple grown right beneath the kitchen window, and the slippery slices of sweet mango so dark orange on the inside with tropical goodness. I haven’t eaten yet and I stand listening to the chickens and the dogs going about their early morning routines. The screen door opens behind me and I can hear my great uncle Diego walk up behind me. He leans against the railing, towering over me. I look over to him. He’s old, his head covered with white hair and his face, dark from the tropical sun, sports a thick grey mustache. His face creases with a smile and I listen as he sings quietly about Davy Crockett in his thick accent in the morning air like he always does.
He may be old, but he’s still so full of life and strength. He reminds me of Captain Quint from Jaws but with the greatest personality any uncle could have. He’s a professional at making funny sounds like cats screeching or roosters crowing. He doesn’t know what I’m thinking, but sure is amazing at guessing. I remember the countless times he would open a Heineken with his bare hands and then fold the cap in half with two fingers in a second like it was aluminum foil. Then he would tell me to try and unfold it. It would take me forever.
I look down at the fields again. I have just seen The Lost World and recall the scene when the main characters run through tall grass and are attacked by Velociraptors. I want to go run around the field. I ask him if it’s safe or if there are snakes. He tells me it’s safe. Of course he does. If he’s answering me it’s always the answer I want to hear. I think of when I might want to go down to the fields. I don’t think we have any plans today and I am sure my brother or sister would like to come with me. I become lost in thought.
The sun pulls itself over the hills; a blue car passes in the distance on the main road. A little brown dog runs up the dirt driveway. His name is Bobby, but everyone here has Puerto Rican accents. They can only say “Booby,” so that’s what I call him. I shout his name and his ears perk up. He yips and barks with excitement and my great grandmother downstairs yells in Spanish for him to shut up. He still looks as excited as before. I wonder if dogs can learn commands in Spanish as well as English.
My stomach rumbles with hunger and breakfast wanders back into my mind once again. The sounds of my great aunt (I call her Titi Elida) in the kitchen make the morning feel less secluded. I hear her shuffling around in her slippers. Pans and cooking utensils clang as if no one in the house is sleeping. The morning loses its stillness and the day is becoming hot. The sun over to my right is no longer blocked by the strange hills and burns brightly. The wide leaves of banana trees shine in the light and plantains are visible hanging in green clusters. Breadfruits hang like giant green golf balls and mangos swing on their long vines below dark leaves.
Wind rushes through the grass and gusts up to us on the balcony, weak from its trip across the fields, but still enough to bring some relief from the growing heat. I hop off the railing and walk towards the screen door. I don’t make it two steps before Uncle Diego grabs my attention by speaking.
“Nick, do you know what Cackoomachu is?”
“Oh good. Me neither.”
He smiles, dark wrinkles around his squinting eyes.
I am between six and ten still. I am on the aged wooden floor of Mita’s house on Long Island. The lights in the house are dark and the only light comes in sideways through the screen covering the open front doorway. It is a summer day, but not like the white hot summers at home in central Florida. I am not sweating. My bare feet are comfortable on the cool smooth surface shining with the pale sunlight. Out the front door I see the sky veiled by a healthy layer of clouds. The white couches, leather, are cool as well. I know because I have spent any afternoons lying on them loving the drop in temperature I could feel as soon as I spread myself across them.
I can hear my friends, siblings, and cousins playing outside in the driveway. I had been outside with them on rollerblades and bicycles, but was inside taking a break. My oldest friend, Lexie, is outside as well. We have known one another since we were two weeks old and on my visits to Long Island we are inseparable. We spend entire days splashing in the pool, racing, and bickering like real siblings.
I turn around and look into the small kitchen. The warm colors of dark wood frame the kitchen in the form of cabinets and counters. The gas stove sits, black and immobile, next to the sliding door to the backyard. Through this door I can see the bright green trees above the silky grass, all waving in a gentle summer breeze. This was nothing like central Florida where the pine trees and palms all looked drained of such a vibrant emerald sheen and the grass is always rough and itchy.
In my hand I hold a piece of lasagna, just the pasta, hard and uncooked. It is a habit I have never shaken to every once in a while wander into the kitchen and grab some raw pasta to begin crunching on-lasagna is my favorite. I bring it up to my mouth and enjoy the deafening crackling noises filling my head. The ruffles on the side crumble satisfyingly between my teeth.
That’s when I hear the scream. I whip my head around to the front door, my mouth still full of cracked lasagna. A shadow blocks the sunlight streaming in the doorway. My Uncle Waldo, a giant barrel of a man-over 300 pounds-bursts into the house. Cradled in his arms like a wailing ragdoll is Lexie, the rollerblades still hanging heavily on her feet. I try to make eye contact, but her eyes are shut while her mouth is open expressing nothing but pain.
Her forehead is shiny with blood. I know immediately she has fallen on the uneven and rocky driveway. It’s seamless from her eyebrows to black hairline and drips down around the outside of her face. My uncle hurries around me and I am left standing there just as I was only a few seconds before, but with so much more on my mind now than raw pasta. He sits her on the counter in the kitchen and in a few moments he has her calm, but I am already out the front door in the cloudy summer sunlight. I walk awkwardly down the rocky driveway on bare feet to where she must have fallen.
I see the driveway is uneven and parts of it are almost sharp. Her older brother, James, points to where she hit her head and takes the blame for her injury. I look down near my feet at the blank driveway. There is nothing; not a mark or spot of blood to show where it happened. I wonder why such a grisly looking injury left no signature. I lift the last bit of lasagna to my mouth and crack it between my teeth.
I don’t know how old I am. I walk into my house with my backpack pulling down on my shoulders, heavy with books and homework. I am taller than I was when I went to Puerto Rico because when I walk into the bright house I can see over the counter tops to my mother sitting in a kitchen chair. She holds a phone in her hand, but the screen is dark. I walk over to her. Her normally tan face looks grey despite the late afternoon glow shining off the beige cabinets. The house is quiet except for her breathing and my own because my brother and sister are not home yet.
I ask what is wrong. I don’t even have to guess that she’s feeling unwell. She’s not hiding her grief, which means it is my grief as well. My mother would never share something that bothered only her.
“Uncle Diego is sick,” she says this with the cold whisper of despair she used when she told me that the World Trade Center had been destroyed by terrorists.
I want to ask if he’ll be ok, but I already know he won’t only by the sound of her voice. I cannot yet let go of the innocence of childhood yet and so I ask, “will he be ok?”
“I don’t think so,” I see my mother struggles with the same issue. In this moment is it better to shelter me or tell the truth? She eventually tells me he has cancer. He is dying.
I say nothing. What can be said? My eyes do not feel hot with tears. There is no lump in my throat. I feel nothing, only a feeble attempt to accept that the last time I saw him will stay the last time. I didn’t tell him he was the funniest person I’d ever known or that his nonsense questions were what made life make sense sometimes. I never told him that he was the uncle I wanted to be to my nieces and nephews. I realize that any jokes I remember, any lessons I can recall, are all I have left and I must never forget them because he is gone. These are the things I want to bring to my younger cousins and future generations when I am as old and grey as he is. I still cannot fold a bottle cap in my fingers like aluminum foil, but maybe one day I will be able to.
For now he is gone and I have nothing from him but memories and a few old photographs in my Titi Elida’s house in the hills in tropical Puerto Rico. My mom’s eyes well up with tears and as they drip down her face they catch mascara, pulling long trails of black behind them.
PURPLE & ORANGE
I am eighteen. I hold the purple paper in my hands. After years of saying that I wanted to go to New York University and being met with disbelief and doubt I hold the little envelope. Inside, in black print against an off-white page, is the acceptance letter. As a fourteen year old I would have never guessed that setting such a goal would result in me achieving it. I smile at the bittersweet nature of the moment. I look down at the orange shirt I am wearing. In big blue letters it reads: “FLORIDA GATORS.”
The state school that I am already enrolled in now feels like a jail. The envelope and its contents are useless now. Five feet down the hallway there is a bathroom with a trashcan, but I do not want to throw it away. Here I hold something I have earned. It is the culmination of a dream and work—physical, tangible, and beautiful. Dreams are so precious because they are not material or visual. One cannot hold a dream or show it to their friends. Here my dream has descended into the dimensions of the human eye and the human touch.
I place it in a cabinet neatly and close it from the world for now. I look up and out my window to the suburban land beyond. The sun is falling into the horizon down between the darkening pines. The sky, thick with clouds, is glowing orange so brightly that it looks like neon paint has been spread in a streak with two fingers across the sky. Above the orange, hanging neatly without the sporadic appearance of hastily applied paint, the sky is a soft shade of purple in all directions away from the sun.
—written by Nicholas Paola