From The Perimeter Dog, published by Libros Libertad in 2011.
The best time to ask my mother for something was around four o’clock in the afternoon when she was just waking up. She was a night nurse and her schedule fixed mine—come home from school, put the kettle on, and take Mom a cup of tea. So far the four o’clock strategy had achieved some fairly major things, including her signature on a cheque for a cherry red Kawasaki motorcycle. I had the money, I just didn’t have a chequing account. And I wasn’t about to go off to the city carrying a wad of cash, jeez, what if I got in an accident?
Fully awake, my mom might have tried arguing against it. She worked emergency and knew. I was only sixteen and therefore passionate about formal justice. I knew only this: Tony has one. Paul had one. I sat there holding out eight one-hundred dollar bills and her pen. I was hell bent.
At seventeen I’d fallen off the bike twice, gotten scraped by gravel. Burned too, by falling under the exhaust pipe. The bandage was barely off when I carried a cup of tea over to the bedside table and suggested to my mother that I get what I couldn’t live without that year—a Spanish-speaking exchange student from South America.
Here’s what she might have done: spilled the tea on herself, thrown it at me, chosen an immediate sleep relapse. She could have slowly put the tea down and explained her take on the request: “I drag myself up that goddamn hill every night to feed the kids I already have. You may not have noticed but your brothers, when they are not killing each other, are going through one loaf of bread a day. Each. Do I look like I need another teenager in this house, especially one who’s seventeen and probably looking for trouble like all of you—and doesn’t speak a word of English?”
Instead she passed the tea back to me, struggled upright, and said, “Hand me my cigarettes.” She inhaled with purpose. I helpfully found the ashtray then immobilized myself, sitting close but not too close, rigid with wanting but not knowing. I looked at the books on her bedside table. She didn’t have time to go to the library, she said, and so read whatever I brought home.
The seventh exhale was the lucky one. She sighed. But she said okay. That summer I went off my motorcycle a third time, rolling stunned and sideways on the road, the Kawi skidding after me like a panicked dog. Rain and traffic pounding in my ears. I sold the bike, to my next-youngest brother. And then I shrugged it off, the ignition, the kick-start, the speed, the abrasions. It was over. But I have Spanish in my tongue and hands forever, part of my body’s memory, an untransferable ownership.
Intercambio. It means exchange but I wanted more—I wanted inside the experience until Spanish and English were interchangeable, inner changing worlds. And now I had a way. Hosting a student now meant I’d get to go to South America a year later when I finished high school. Perched on the edge of my mom’s bed, I imagined a dark-haired girl in summer clothes going to her mother carrying a cup of coffee and a scheme in her heart.