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       Unspeakable, p.4

           Erika Rummel
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IT’S FREEZING COLD in the cabin. Luis and I are huddled on the sofa. If we keep silent, we’ll notice how cold it is. We’ll be counting the minutes. Neither of us is sleepy. I’ve slept away the day. And Luis has been sitting around, maybe for days. We are both wide awake.

  “What’s it like living in Riito?” I say.

  “I can’t remember,” he says. “I came here with my parents when I was four.”

  That’s why I say my prayer, because it doesn’t take long to forget.

  “And you don’t remember anything, not even the trip across the border?” I say.

  “I remember the trip,” he says but he doesn’t go on. Maybe the connection between his brain and his mouth isn’t like mine – a steep downhill chute. Maybe his is a gentler slope. The words don’t tumble and roll. They come out slowly and in good order. “We were in a camper with iron bars welded on the windows,” he says. “There were two other families with us, twelve people in all, piled on top of each other like logs, and a coyote driving. I remember feeling sick because the truck was lurching, and dust was seeping in from the road – I remember that: dust in my throat, or maybe just fear. The guy let us out near the border, and we had to walk on from there in the dark. It was rough terrain.”

  That’s an amazing number of words for Luis, who has been so sparing with his sentences until now. It’s a whole battalion of words. I wonder whether he had them marshalled in the back of his mind all along, ready to go if anyone asked the question.

  “My father carried me on his back,” he says. “I had my arms around his neck and my legs clamped around his waist, and we slipped under a barbed wire fence. On the other side, we lay down in the dirt and waited for the coyote to pick us up again and drive us to a safe house. We were afraid the Migra would find us first, but the whole thing came off without a hitch. We didn’t see any patrol cars. We made it. It was my father’s third try, his first with the family. He said I brought them luck.”

  “So you do remember.”

  “Except that my parents have told the story so often, I’m no longer sure: do I remember what I saw or what they told me.”

  “That’s the problem. If you share your memories, they become contaminated with other people’s stories.”

  “I know what you mean, like the photo of my grandfather in the vitrina. Sometimes I think I remember the straw hat he is wearing in the photo, and the vest, even the smell of wool and tobacco, but I’m not sure.” Luis pauses and takes a deep breath, as if he wanted to make a confession. “Something strange happened when I came through the door here,” he says. “I thought I recognized the room. I thought I’d seen it before. I think it was a flashback to my parents’ house in Riito. Suddenly I knew it had a packed dirt floor, and I remembered a poster on the wall, of the Virgen of Guadalupe in neon colours, and a kind of altar with votive candles and plastic flowers in a vase. Nobody ever told me about that, so it must be a real memory.”

  We are silent, contemplating our memories.

  “I don’t even know why I’m telling you,” Luis says softly. “I’ve never talked to anyone like this before.”

  “It’s because–” I say and stop. I want to explain to him about the closeness of bodies and the conversations that come from touch, and look, and smell. A barrier is breached. Every gesture strikes home, I want to tell him, every tilt of the head, every flip of the hair, and suddenly you understand the longings of the other. But it’s too cold, and my mouth refuses to go on. We lie back on the sofa. Luis pulls me on top of him, so I can feel his mountains and valleys, the protrusions and hollows of his body, his shoulder blades and armpits.

  Without me putting any ideas into his head, his crotch bulks up. His fingers are in my hair, stroking. He pushes up against me, or maybe it’s me that’s pressing against him. I feel a catlike purring coming into my throat, but I push it down. We do a rhythmic rub, and he stops with a sigh. Maybe he thinks rubbing up against me is wrong, or he has already worked off his desire, while I’m still waiting for a secret quiver of joy. I wish he’d go on, but he gives me just one more hug and falls asleep with me spread over him like an extra blanket. I roll off, wiggle into the space between his body and the back of the sofa, resting my cheek against his broad back. I think about Luis’ grandfather and his straw hat. My mom’s parents live in Little Rock. I’ve met them only twice. My dad’s parents live a short drive away from us, and I used to see them almost every weekend until the divorce. After that, my mom didn’t want me to visit any more because they were taking dad’s side, and now the two of them are fighting about home-schooling and whose fault it is that I turned out the way I did. Was it my mother’s age or my father’s genes, or neurons gone haywire, or was it the fault of pesticides on the lawn or acid rain polluting the streams? No, it wasn’t that. It was the stun effect of bursting into the terrestrial light like an alien from outer space, with the wrong code in my brain and the currency of limbo useless to me in my newborn state.

  Luis stirs, and I say into the darkness: “Luis, did you go on speaking Spanish after you came to California or did you shut up because you couldn’t understand what people were saying, because the words you knew were useless? Did you ever go mute?”

  “What?” Luis says. He sounds drowsy. I run my hand over his hair. It feels spiky. “Talk to me, Luis,” I plead, but his tongue is sleep- tied. He can only do body language. He shifts wordlessly and takes me into his arms. Even in his dreams he can feel the desperate heat of my words pushing up against him and mumbles “okay, okay” soothingly, indulgently. He says “okay, okay” with a Latino accent. It’s not a strong accent. He just tilts his words a little. You can tell they are not home grown, shaped by the native climate. Like me, Luis had to learn a second language. No matter how hard we try, we can’t get rid of our accents, the shade of before, indefinable like a wispy cloud. I still have my limbo accent, although I worked through the English dictionary, read it front to back, and studied the phonetic alphabet in preparation for my speaking debut. But it’s hard to figure out the pronunciation and inflection of the words when you’ve never heard anyone use them. No one talks like the characters in the books I read. No one talks like a dictionary. There’s a difference between the words on the page and the words coming out of people’s mouths. I don’t know enough about ordinary conversation, because as a kid I wasn’t allowed to watch TV. A neurologist warned my parents that rapidly moving images and on-screen colour flashes were harmful to the brain. In school, no one was keen on talking to me. They thought it was a waste of time to talk to a mute girl. I had to learn how to speak, like a foreigner: word for word, rule by rule. Even now I’m lost when I hear kids talking at the mall. I can’t crack their code, I don’t know the secret password to their minds. It’s impossible to keep up with the newest trends when you have no opportunity to practice conversation. And Luis can’t help me, even if he talked to me all night. He isn’t tuned to the native frequency. He’s tuned to Spanish, to the staccato I heard on his radio.

  I kiss his nape, try for a more comfortable position on the sofa, and fall asleep. Then it’s morning.

  Luis gets up from the sofa. His face is taut with morning energy. He runs his fingers through his hair and tugs at his pants, shakes himself into them. The shadow on his face has darkened and is turning into a beard. In a few days he will look like a mountain man. I don’t know what I look like. My hair is probably a mess. The only mirror I have are Luis’ eyes, and they don’t give anything away. He doesn’t say “Did you sleep well?” or “I love you”. He yawns and says: “What I really miss in the morning is a cafecito.” The thing I was hoping for isn’t going to happen. He won’t ask me to stay. He still expects me to leave.

  After breakfast, which consists of half a bottle of water and three spoonfuls of rice, I am ready to go. I’m too dejected to kiss Luis. He doesn’t look me in the face either. We are afraid of what we might see there. He goes with me to the door and says: “Good luck.” Then he steps back into the semi-darkness, as if he wanted to fad
e from my memory already.

  I start walking in the direction he told me. To take my mind off the morning cold and the gravel rolling away under my feet, I replay my conversation with Luis. I try to recall it word for word because that night is a keeper. I want to remember it always.

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