Last night was big for me. Life-changing, almost. I submitted a true story to Stranger Stories PVD back in December and was chosen, along with six others, to share my work at the Artists’ Exchange in Cranston. The theme was “Dinnertime,” and I went with a piece that I had posted on this blog back in 2013, titled “Figs.” I made edits and fleshed it out, trying to make it more story-like. I submitted without actually thinking it would be picked.
A big thanks to Jennifer, Stephanie, Cindy, Charmaine (and for the edits/feedback) & Jake for attending. Thanks to everyone else that encouraged me and checked-in. Your support means more to me than you’ll ever know. Thank you to Stranger Stories PVD for the opportunity and making me part of a community I didn’t know I desperately needed. Presenting “Figs:”
The spoonful of white rice is halfway to my mouth when I hear: “Exactamente de que se graduó usted?”
Goddamn. Here we go. It’s been over a month since I graduated college and my father is once again asking questions.
“English. I have a degree in English.”
“So you went to school to learn…English?” he asks, a jar of plump, syruped figs in his hand, a fork in the other. I avoid his gaze and focus on the half-empty glass before him. Such an odd combination, brevas and cold milk.
There’s a pause. “So you got a degree in books?”
I know where this is headed so I try to make a joke: “No me vio con un libro siempre en la mano?” Didn’t you always see a book in my hand? A brief silence and a slight arching of his eyebrow promise that I am not amusing.
“It’s just that when people ask me what you studied or what you do, I don’t know what to say.”
“Usually English majors become teachers…” my voice trails off. I watch as my mother rips off a leg of her fried chicharron and pops it into her mouth.
“Usually? But what about you?”
With a rolling of eyes, I shrug and turn my attention to my beans. The way he slams the jar on the dining room table startles me. His brown eyes are wide and he points the fork with a half-bitten fig towards his chest.
“You see, I’m an electrician. When people ask what I do, I say ‘electricity.’ When you ask the head of a law firm, he says ‘law.’ He’s a lawyer. He has a profession. Entiende?”
I want to say that yes, I understand, but I am afraid to speak because I feel the beginnings of a tremble in my chin. My dad has always had a way of getting under my skin and ever since I can remember our conversations have never been conversations but yelling matches.
“So tell me,” he says, trying to lower his voice. “What is it that you want to do?”
“There are lots of things she could do. Jackie, answer him. What do you like to do?” My mother’s hands are now clasped under her chin. She tries to keep her face calm, but I see a darting nervousness starting to brew. It’s easier to look past her eyes and up at her crimson-colored bangs.
“Nada. I haven’t been able to find a job.”
“Ah. Ya,” my dad replies. Oh. Okay.
I chew my food as my parents turn their attention to the rising costs at the local meat market. I now know he wasn’t trying to pick a fight. He just had a very valid question – what the heck do I do? It made sense to pursue a degree in English because reading and writing were what I loved to do. They were all I was good at. I wasn’t thinking about a career choice or the possibility of graduating at a time when the state’s unemployment rate was at an all-time high. I never thought that I would graduate college without a solid plan.
My father, his figs, and his booming voice make my mind travel to a thought which nearly breaks my heart: I have let him down. I think of him, all of seven-years-old, walking two hours to school by himself and hiding in doorways to stay dry from the downpours. I try to imagine his fear when he stepped onto US soil for the first time, thousands of miles from his warm home. The past 45 years of his life have been dedicated to back-breaking work. And for the last three years he has woken up at 6AM to drive me, without complaint, to the train station as I worked towards my undergraduate degree in Boston. I am ashamed to think that all of his hard work has been for nothing.
But then I think of my own accomplishments. I went from drinking 40s on a friend’s porch for two years to graduating from community college with highest honors. I was then accepted into colleges I never thought could be options for me. I am reminded of the times, during my first episode with major depression, when I would leave Statistical Psychology to cry in a bathroom stall. Although the pain was all-consuming, I would dry my tears and return to class, determined to finish senior year. I, too, made those 6AM trips for three years. I, alone, made the 8PM trips back, packed like a sardine against strangers, body and mind exhausted. And while things haven’t turned out as expected, my hard work cannot have been for nothing. I refuse to believe that our work hasn’t been for something.
“I know!” I say, interrupting their conversation. “I went to school to be una escritora.”
In the middle of dinner, on a chilly September evening, in the midst of my father’s impromptu interrogation and the angst of not being able to find a job, while sitting in my oldest and most comfortable sweatpants, the most fundamental truth of my existence hits me. I say it again, so that he knows. So that I know.
“I am going to be a writer.”
He studies my face, so similar to his own. Eso si. That’s more like it, he answers with a slow head nod as he closes the lid on the jar of figs.