IN THE MIDDLE
of a boring 5th grade civics lesson the school principal opens the door. A small skinny boy with big black eyes walks behind her. The principal says something to the teacher, who looks annoyed. The principal doesn’t look at the boy as she leaves the room. I can tell he’s scared by the way he stares at the floor, holding himself like he’s afraid to breathe. The teacher uses her mean voice. “This is Alfilio. He’s from Colombia. He only speaks Spanish.”
I know what it’s like to be scared and can’t bear to see him looking so little and frightened. I raise my hand like my teacher keeps telling me to do and offer to share my desk. The teacher shrugs. She points to me and says, “Go sit next to Nancy,” but he doesn’t understand her words. I smile to show him that he’s welcome and motion him to come over, but he doesn’t move. I’m afraid my teacher will get mad at me again for disrupting the class. She says I disrupt the class because I ask too many questions. But he looks so lonely I don’t care what she says. I go over to him and take his hand. I smile and point to my desk. I sit down and motion for him to sit in the empty space I’ve made. The boy hesitates, then nods and sits. Tears are wetting his face but I don’t have a hankie. He wipes them with his hand. I wish I could put my arm around him but this might make my teacher even angrier. I wish I could say, “Welcome,” but I don’t know the Spanish word.
After school I go to the library and take out an English/Spanish dictionary. I write down words and phrases for him in English and Spanish: Welcome. Bienvenidos. Thank you. Muchas gracias. I do not understand. No entiendo. Please speak more slowly. Por favor, habla más despacio.
The next day during recess I teach him some words and phrases. After he repeats what I tell him, he says, “Thank you,” in English. He smiles shyly. I wish I knew the Spanish words to tell him that he’s smart. I’m impressed at how quickly he learns. While I’m teaching him, some classmates rush over and call him bad names. They make fun of him. I get mad and tell them to leave him alone. “He’s not dumb. He’s learning English. Why don’t you learn Spanish? Then you could speak to him.”
The boy pulls me away from the children. Two of the bigger boys, their faces filled with hate, threaten to punch him back to where he comes from. They yell at me to stop being a goodygoody. Alfilio is shaking with fear. At home I’m afraid a lot, but not now. I’m too angry. I hate their stupid cruelty so I stand in front of him. “Leave him alone!” They’re not going to hurt him while I’m around. I don’t know what would have happened if the bell hadn’t rung. The boys run away when a teacher tells us to go inside.
My teacher sends a note home to my parents: Nancy is disrupting the class. This must stop or I will send her to the principal’s office. As usual, I sign the note with my dad’s impossible-to-read signature.
Every night I copy phrases from the dictionary to give to Alfilio. I can see how much he wants it so I let him borrow it. He promises to bring it to school each day.
A few days later I take the subway to the city to go to a bookstore. The clerk says the English/Spanish dictionary I want costs 50 cents more than I have. “Please, can I give you 50 cents next week after I babysit?” I tell him about Alfilio and how much he needs the dictionary. I practically jump up and down when the clerk agrees to lend me 50 cents.
I can’t wait to give Alfilio the dictionary, but I don’t want to get in trouble again so I keep it hidden in my jacket. After school, when we’re alone, I give the dictionary to him. He can’t believe it. He keeps handing it back to me. “No,” I keep saying, “es un regalo por tu.” I’m not sure I’m saying it right but he gets the message. He takes the book and cradles it to his chest. He doesn’t even try to wipe away his tears.
“Muchas gracias,” he says. “De nada,” I say, hoping it’s the beginning of a real conversation. Alfilio isn’t in class the next day or the next or the next. The teacher never says what happened to him. My desk feels too big and too lonely.
was forced to give up mascara due to her incessant crying. When her creator died, all of his notebooks and journals were scrutinized, and those containing only minor characters were discarded. Mrs. Margaret Boop, Betty’s mother, was among them.
The overwhelming feeling of hollowness in Betty’s chest and abdomen made her fear that she might cave in. Nothing had prepared Betty to navigate the emotional black sea that now engulfed her. She tried to talk to the nameless men in dark suits and fedora hats who had always filled her world, but all they were interested in was Boop-Oop-a-Doop.
Betty had been a big star in the ‘30s, making over one hundred shorts — dramas, musicals, and comedies. She’d done it all but it was long gone. She needed to think. For the first time in her life, she sought anonymity. She traded in her garter belt for khakis and sweatshirts. No more lipstick, curling iron, or mascara. Swapping her chunky high heels for a pair of New Balance, she began taking long walks through the city that had seduced her 10 years earlier with all its coffee shops. Seattle had offered her endless discrete opportunities to be recognized and adored.
One day, at Pike Place Market, where gorgeous flowers are sold by beautiful Japanese women and fishmongers throw their wares over the heads of the tourists, she watched a jaunty salmon soar through the air and thought that if she’d gone there as a young cartoon she could have hefted her round boobs onto the scales. The dollar-per-pound ratio would have been in her favor. It would have been useful — incredibly useful, she thought — if her headlights had shown the world for what it was, if she had understood how she was valued by the throng.
Betty continued on through the maze of Pike Market, ending up on a bar stool overlooking Puget Sound. While watching the busy boats coming and going she contemplated all those years since her real career had ended — never really working, just being a celebrity, year after year of acting cute. It had seemed like a nice life. She’d loved the attention, despite the men leering at her cleavage or patting her bottom. Now it seemed ridiculous. What had really been so great? What had she done with the past 64 years of her life?
She thought about her friends and now saw differences, where before she’d only seen similarities. Barbie had always been so active. Betty’s wardrobe was limited by comparison. So what if the clothes wore well? Anything you’ve been wearing for over 50 years should go to Goodwill. Barbie had grown and changed — Energy Healer Barbie, CEO Barbie, and Trans Barbie — that woman had really explored her options. Geez, even Minnie Mouse, a married rodent, lived in a cute, colorful environment and had raised hundreds of children.
While sipping her virgin Cosmo she thought about her mom, who’d never gotten out of a man’s notebook. Her eyes misted and her memories took her way back. In ‘33 her film, Boilesque, had been banned. Those were wild days, but after the war things tapered off. Throughout the late ‘50s she’d pounded the pavement trying to get new gigs, but eventually she got used to just being adorable at different functions around the world. And watching a lot of TV. Why had those appearances been enough?
Betty hopped off her stool, having realized that she’d been brainwashed to think that admiration was worth more than engagement. Her mother had been tossed in the trash after a long life spent waiting for the next chapter that never came. It was time to take a boat ride to the islands, feel the cool wind, smell the saltwater, see the fabulous ink-drawn orcas that swam their lives to the fullest. Betty strode out, beginning to imagine quite a day. Possibilities were everywhere. As she passed a music store with a display of woodwinds she remembered her fascination for the licorice stick; she’d been quite a jazz clarinetist once, though on stage she’d preferred to sing because it was more intimate, with nothing between her and the audience but the clothes she wore and the burn of the lights. Singing was more like making love than making music. She could learn to make music again. It only takes practice, she thought. Practice and a swinging band. It could be swell. Or maybe she’d take up drawing, start her own notebooks. Why not? She wasn’t getting any older.