Scheme Magazine is currently featuring my story “The Good Sport.“ My piece is kicking off the second run of their series on cultural identity “But where are you really from?”
Excerpted from the original story
I still remember the bright yellow menus, the ubiquitous TV screens and the lingering smell of chicken wings in my hair. As an undergrad, I spent many nights serving tables and scouring my apron for extra packets of dill sauce.
A sports bar may seem like a strange entry point for a reflection on race, so I should mention that my ethnicity came up all the time. My customers asked“where are you from” about as often as they asked about the actual hotness of the hot wings. When they tried to guess, they would point to all kinds of obscure indicators, like my ethnic-looking earrings or my vague resemblance to a friend of theirs from Peru, India or Lebanon. I was the kind of server who wore a smile as if it were part of the uniform, entertaining customer curiosity without question.
The first time I played this guessing game at the restaurant, I was serving a table of four men.
“How are you guys doing over here?” I asked in my patented chirp. We engaged in light banter as I collected their empty pints and ravaged nacho trays.
“Just curious,” said one man.
“We’ve been wondering–where are you from?”
Although there was no game on that night, these men still seemed like they had their wagers set. I scanned the restaurant, which wasn’t too busy, and stood there holding a non-committal grin.
They placed their bets: Persian? Brazilian? Filipino? Portuguese?
“I speak Spanish,” I hinted, “and I was born in a small country in Central America.”
One man responded with a tentative, “mmm-Mexico?”
“El Salvador,” I finally said, “I was born there and moved to Toronto when I was two-years-old.”
This brief explanation felt worn-in like a well-read novel. I had shared it for as long as I could remember, and I didn’t feel much of anything when I repeated it.
Over the years I had somehow internalized that this was a geography game, not a history lesson, and that talk of the civil war and my fleeing family wasn’t good repartee. Particularly when on the job, I’d never say “Canada,” “Toronto,” or some other version of “here.” I’d let customers indulge in distancing my Canadian-ness: I would be agreeable and they would be satisfied. I admit, by temperament, habit, and job-description, I wanted to people-please. And I usually didn’t mind playing along if the customers seemed well intentioned. In fact, if they asked about my last name, I’d even mention my far-flung Italian roots.
I was loath to think this laid-back attitude was anything less than a personal choice. No big deal, right?…
If you enjoy the following excerpt, you can read the rest on Schema’s website.
You can also check out other stories in Schema’s “But where are you really from?” series.
I am a child of El Salvador. That’s where I would have grown up and built my life had my birth not coincided with a civil war. When I was a toddler, my parents sacrificed everything for my future, but for years they never told me of their past.
It wasn’t until I was 22 years old that I asked.
My intent was to spin family history into narrative — to work it into something readable for a literary non-fiction class. As my parents conjured up painful memories at my request, I drew story lines and built narrative arches. I suppressed my own horror. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote.
I turned my family members into characters and convinced my professor to double my word limit.
Though I often felt I was in a position of crisis, I told myself I could impose meaning on the chaos.
A week before the story was due, I burst into tears and deleted more than half of it.
It was a difficult time to write a difficult story. For months, I’d been focusing on a war that was temporally and geographically distant, obscuring the conditions of my story-telling.
Meanwhile, my parents were getting a divorce.
Asking my parents to focus on the past meant blocking out their present-day lives. My story was supposed to end in a safe haven, Canada, which I’ve come to call home—but when my mom left after Christmas, I witnessed the disruption of my happily-ever-after.
Feeling the absence of the underlying narrative, I wrote in the divorce, I exposed my parent’s pain, and I described my own panic.
I finished the last line a day before the class’ deadline, having included the more proximate conflict between my parents and having allowed the two narratives to cross-pollinate. I called it Civil Unrest.
As an avid reader of non-fiction, I used to think closure came with the release of the final product.
Months have passed since my paper was returned. I impressed my professor but I felt I’d failed my parents. They both read the story—the most important thing I’ve ever written—and offered no feedback. I, in turn, never asked for it.
I now have two blank cards lodged in the back of my drawer, one for each of them. Mothers Day came and went, Father’s day is here… and I—who had feverishly written about my parents for months—can not write to them. I, who have faithfully given them a heartfelt letter every year, can not express my gratitude and guilt.
Papi, today I want ask to you what you thought of my story…ask you how you think the unwritten epilogue will turn out.
Through all this, I hope to come a little closer to understanding myself as an adult-child, a stand-in co-parent, an aspiring writer, and a person in my own right.
My Father, Italo Fabio Carletti. Photo Credit: Jessica Boivin.
Excerpt from “Civil Unrest”
Every work night, my dad moves erratically through the house.
He has a kind of departing ritual that he always adheres to, with slight variations: He grabs his keys from the hook, gathers his tools, makes a coffee, eats a sandwich, forgets his keys somewhere, starts singing a made-up song, looks for his cell phone or jacket or shoes, feeds the dog, and invariably yells, “Where are my keys? I left them on this hook!”
It’s dizzying if you watch him.
“Did you check the bathroom, Papi?” I usually ask. He always leaves things in the bathroom.
He also has the habit of calling me ten minutes after he has left.
“Fabi?” He says when I pick up the phone.
“Did I leave my ID card on the table?”
“Ok, I’ll be back in two minutes.”
Ten minutes later he bursts through the door, grabs his ID card and somehow manages to leave something else, like his keys, in its stead.
A few days before Remembrance Day, I noticed Papi beginning the ritual. I knew he didn’t have much time, but I wanted a digestible amount of information with which to begin my assignment — maybe, subconsciously, I wanted to start small, to avoid being overwhelmed.
“Papi, can you tell me about your first memory of the civil war back home?”
My dad seemed a little taken aback—but he never passes up an opportunity to tell a story.
“Come to the kitchen. I’m going to make a coffee.”
I nodded and followed him.
My dad added milk to his coffee, stirred it and took a long sip. Maybe, like me, he was thinking about how far away El Salvador seemed. Outside, flurries were falling past our window.
“The first time I saw anything serious happen, I was in high school, standing around with my friends and waiting for buses to take us to school,” he began.
“Wait, Papi, when and where?”
“We were in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. I was 18 so it must have been around 1975. Although we were aware that there were protests going on in the city, such issues weren’t on our minds at that moment. We were joking around, talking about girls. It was a pretty typical day,” he said, as if recounting the plot of a movie.
“The buses were taking a long time to come. It looked like the traffic had stopped flowing. Government soldiers started coming into the area, taking positions on street corners. Some of them were younger than we were. We asked some soldiers that looked about 14-years-old if they knew what was happening with the traffic. They simply told us they’d been dispatched to the area to protect the plaza, and that a march was coming our way. We didn’t know it at the time, but a huge crowd of protesters was heading towards us. The crowd was enormous, big enough to have caused the traffic jam.”
“Who were they, Papi?” I asked.
“They were members of El Bloque Popular Revolucionario—The Popular Revolutionary Block—a group which included young people, old people, union workers, grassroots protesters, farmers, church activists … average people. They were citizens united by the belief that the government was corrupt and that the people needed to fight back. Some carried signs. Most chanted ‘el pueblo, unido, jamas sera vencido’ [the people, united, will never be defeated]. We watched them in fascination because, at that point, we weren’t really aware of the danger or of how angry the crowd was.”
“Suddenly,” my dad continued, “some people in the crowd saw the McDonald’s—the only one at the time—and they became very hostile. To them, the golden arches were a symbol of American imperialism, representative of the white men who were training our own soldiers to kill us. They took their rage out on the restaurant: smashing windows, causing ruckus—someone even brought out a cash register and threw it to the ground, with several people ‘punishing’ it for everything it represented to them. That’s when the soldiers started shooting rounds up into the air.”
“What did you do when you heard the shots?” I gasped.
“I obviously started to run! But as the saying goes, curiosity kills the cat. And at that moment, I was a cat. I was still looking all around me at everything that was going on. I hadn’t done anything wrong, so I was only concerned with getting out of the way. Even though I’d heard stories about this kind of thing, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I saw helicopters flying towards us in the sky; I heard a siren blaring from the daily newspaper’s building; I saw armoured vehicles heading in our direction — but it wasn’t until I heard the machine guns that my curiosity turned to terror. The soldiers had stopped shooting into the air; they were now shooting at anyone around them.”
“Even the students?” I asked.
“Everyone. They couldn’t tell the difference between the protesters and the other civilians. Anyone could be the enemy. People started falling like flies. They were targeting anyone who was not wearing an army uniform, especially anyone wearing anything red.”
He gestured toward the poppy I was wearing.
“Red was a dangerous colour.”
My dad took another sip of his coffee, struggling to piece together a sequence of events.
“Oh yes, I remember running and seeing my good friend Chamba just standing there, frozen in shock. Chamba was only 15-years-old and he was both terrified and fascinated. I grabbed his arm and yelled, ‘Run Chamba! The tanks are coming, they’re shooting everyone! It’s a massacre!’ ”
As the word “massacre” left my father’s mouth, something happened that I was not expecting.
His breathing suddenly became very shallow. The memory had triggered his asthma and he went to the couch to sit down. I followed him, but he avoided my eyes.
“Go get me some water,” he said, waving me away.
From the kitchen sink, I could see the couch clearly. As I ran the tap I noticed that he was rubbing his eyes and steadying his breath. Was he trying not to cry?
“Where’s my puffer? I’m dying!” he said in a forced-funny tone. I clutched the cup, realizing that it was really painful for him to do this.
“Probably in the bathroom” I responded. “I’ll get your jacket too. I don’t want you to be late for work.”