I’ll tell you about a peculiar evening. We were just Johnny and me taking hits on his balcony. The hour was pleasant enough for the bay. The sun went down easy. There was the ever-present Oakland chill, like a whisper crawling up the back of your shirt. We got to talking about English, the silliness of it. Trough versus through and so on. I asked Johnny when they let him stop taking ESL classes. Dude, he said. I was born here. I never took an ESL class.
It didn’t occur to me that most people I know didn’t learn English. They know it as a birthright, the way I knew Spanish. Johnny told me about his parents, who came from Laos before he was born. They only let him watch, read, and speak American: Sesame Street, Harry Potter, Power Rangers. His mom herself knew only a little English, so the house was mostly quiet while his dad was at work. He started learning Lao when he was 12, after his grandmother said she would stop visiting unless they showed their heritage some respect. I didn’t get to tell her anything worth telling, Johnny said, because she died of breast cancer a year after that. Do they regret teaching you so late, I asked him. He said probably him more than them.
I said, Johnny, I didn’t know you had a grandma. I didn’t even know you had parents, that’s how little about you I know. Johnny didn’t take offense. He’s more private than most–not aggressively private, but he knows that’s how it comes off sometimes. He just turned his head and exhaled, the smoke stacking in the air above his shoulder. Eye for an eye, he said.
I thought for a bit. Okay, I said. Here’s a good one: I was six years old when we got to the U.S. My mom told me not to tell anyone we were from Mexico. She said, if anybody asks, we’re from California. Don’t tell. My expatriate aunts warned her of neighbors tattling on neighbors. They said there would be a knock on the door, stocky men in green jumpsuits, and then–blam!–back to Mexico, quick as you like. Don’t tell, she said. And it was true: neighbors really tattled on neighbors. La Migra really did pull into driveways. Some of us really were deported.
A few months after we got here, mom dropped me off at Edward Kemble Elementary School for my first day of second grade. During recess, Giovanna Trujillo told me about her brother. She said, did you know my brother has three snakes? I asked her how big. She said, two of them are babies, but the other one–she stretched her arms out wide–is this big. I said, well did you know my family’s from Mexico? She said, mine too. No, I said. Like I was born there. Ohhhh. She got it, the gravity of it. I was pleased. I told her, but if anyone asks, tell them I’m from California.
Johnny asked me if I had liked Giovanna Trujillo. I told him I had. She’d had red glasses and a long braid and soft cheeks and a kind face. I didn’t know English, so when I needed to use the bathroom she’d ask Ms. Rochelle for me. I would stand next to her while she got the ok. Then Ms. Rochelle would look at me and nod. I might as well have been sucking my thumb.
He asked if I still talked to her. I didn’t. I moved the summer before fourth grade, then three times after that. The depth of my friendships ran pretty well shallow, I told him.
He said, I can’t imagine that. Living somewhere they don’t speak my language. I said I couldn’t either.
We let that sit for a while, the thought dissipating in the dark currents of concrete airs and bellowing freight trains. I did the zipper on my coat.
Johnny took another hit. It’s out, he said, and spilled the ash onto the bannister. He asked me if I was staying over. I told him I wasn’t. He let me know to lock the door before I left. Then he went inside.
I remembered one day about ten years ago. I was doing homework in my room, in the house where my parents still live. I heard the heavy duty rumble of dad’s truck pull into the driveway, which put me on edge because the sun was still out. Dad usually got home well past 8 in the evening, unless he forgot something. If that happened, he pulled in, opened the garage, grabbed whatever he forgot to load up that morning, and went right back to work. That day he came in through the front door. I heard him walk to the kitchen, to his room, to mine. Ey Beto, he said. Y su mama? I told him she was watering the plants in the backyard. Okey, he said, and left.
One beat. Two beats; shouts. That was mom. Dad doesn’t shout. I heard mom go into her room. I sat at my desk until I heard the truck start, then recede. She wiped her eyes when I walked in. I asked her what happened. She sat on her bed and very calmly told me dad wasn’t getting paid for his last job, at a house he’d been working for almost two weeks. I asked her why. Porque no quieren, she said. Pero no se preocupe. She promised we’d be okay. Ya dios sabra. She told me to go do my homework.
I know why the thought came up that night at Johnny’s. I hope to tell him about it someday, if we get close enough. That most days I understand why they brought us here. But sometimes I think of my dad’s truck pulling in, and my mom sitting on her bed. And I wonder why anyone would want to live in this country.
“Thirty” by David Renteria appeared in Issue 39 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
David Renteria is from Sacramento, and got his B.A. in English from U.C. Berkeley in 2017. He lives in Oakland, where he works as an after school tennis coach and writes short fiction. This will be his first published work.