By Suzy Beal
This is the 15th episode of a travel memoir that is unfolding, one chapter each month, here on True Stories Well Told. Stay tuned for more of the adventure as teenage Suzy’s family moves to Europe, builds a sailboat, and takes up life on the high seas circa 1961. Click here to read the earlier episodes.
In high school, back in the States, I wasn’t popular with the boys. They never asked me to dance at our school dances. Each time I hoped it would be different. At these events, the boys chose a girl to take through the food line halfway through the evening. The anticipation of being chosen kept me on edge. Watching them pick the popular girls for partners, I wondered what made these girls so different from me. When it became clear, they won’t choose me at all, tears started to fall. I ran to the pay phone and called my Mom to come pick me up. What was wrong with me? What did the boys see in the popular girls and how could I get it? Then, as if by magic, things changed when we arrived in Puerto Pollensa, Mallorca, Spain.
It’s Saturday afternoon and two of my brothers and I are at Brisas Bar & Café with some local kids. In the back of the Café there is an open air dance floor where everyone is dancing. There is a turntable with records piled high, where everyone can put on the records of their choice. I’m never without a partner. Most of the music is foreign to me, except the Beatles’ songs. Sitting with my brothers, a boy approaches. He smiles and puts out his hand. I smile back and take his hand. It is exciting to have his arm around me as we head for the dance floor.
My life seems to have taken a turn for the better, but old insecurities still lurk beneath the surface. I wonder what this boy is thinking, but I can’t to ask him. Does he want to dance with me because I’m an American living here? Is he curious about me? Does he find me attractive?
It’s not enough to just smile and nod my head. I want to know how to talk with him, but I can’t, and he doesn’t speak English. I want to have the words to express my excitement and I want the words to be the correct ones. I want to talk about my experiences and ask him about his. My tongue gets tangled around words when I attempt to say something. He smiles kindly at my attempts to speak and he tries to help me. It is so embarrassing I want to give up, but my family is not going back to the U.S. We are here to stay. I have to keep trying. However, the embarrassment of not being able to speak is so much easier to endure than the embarrassment of not being asked to dance at all.
My day often starts with our maid Catalina saying words to me slowly, so I can understand her. Comida food; lavar, to wash; limpiar to clean – and there is the difference between to wash and to clean. One is to wash clothes or one’s body the other is to clean the house or the table top – that’s all great, but these aren’t the words I want to learn. I want the words of my life. I’m fifteen and need to speak the language of a teenager, in Spanish. I am so voiceless, so trapped by my inability to communicate. Back home I could talk with everyone, but never got to dance and here it’s the opposite.
Soon, almost without knowing it, I can say a few things. Tengo quince anos. I’m fifteen. Soy de Oregon al norte de California. I’m from Oregon, north of California. Everyone knows where California is because of Hollywood. There are about twelve of us that get together each afternoon, including two of my brothers. One boy named Jose speaks some English. Yo me llamo Suzy, my name is Suzy. Como te llamas tu? What is your name? Me llamo José. He helps me to pronounce everyone’s name correctly. Each afternoon when we meet, new words sink into my vocabulary. Quieres bailar? Do you want to dance? Si, Si! Yes, yes!
Today Angelines, Magdalena, and Juanita walk to my house to pick me up. As we walk back to town, they grab my arm and we go brazo a brazo arm in arm for our paseo, walk. We walk past the boys where they are having their afternoon coffee at the sidewalk café. They call out and the girls giggle. I don’t grasp what is being said, but I understand the art of flirtation. As interested as I am in meeting the boys here, I’ve also figured out that the Spanish girls want to meet my brothers, so we can all help each other cross this language barrier. I teach them some English and they teach me some Spanish. Having brothers has turned out to be helpful after all.
There is a custom here that brings all of us closer together. Each day when we meet a friend we kiss on the cheeks. It’s been so confusing for me to learn just how to do this. Now, I think I’ve got it. First you offer the left cheek, then the right. The “kiss” goes out into the air, but the cheeks brush against each other. This has a much deeper meaning if the person you are “kissing” is of special interest. I just need to control the blushing. Sometimes we greet with a handshake, but this is with a new acquaintance that we haven’t met before. The “kiss” happens again as we part from each other at the end of the evening. I love this custom. I see Angelines blush when she and my brother Hank “kiss” good by. This makes me feel more a part of the group. Even Spanish girls blush in the company of the boy they like. I begin to understand it is only our language that separates us.
We all sit down together at the sidewalk café. We order coffee. It comes in a tiny white cup. It is dark and looks almost muddy. I watch the girls put in one lump of sugar after another. I follow their lead and put in two lumps. It is sweet and smells wonderful. The boys are smiling at us. Juan is looking at me and the blood rush to my face. He smiles.
Word by word, brazo a brazo, cheek to cheek, dance to dance, my life.
© 2019 Suzy Beal
Suzy Beal, an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told, has been writing her life story and personal essays for years. In 2016 Suzy began studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com. Watch for new chapters of her travel memoir to be posted! Please leave comments for Suzy on this post.