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I first strung together consonants and vowels, looking up at the advertisements above the windows of the Asylum Avenue bus. My nondriving mother was a passenger for life, and the bus was our set of wheels. On those bus rides east, towards literacy and Downtown Hartford, I created semblances of words – amorphous sounds I eventually wrestled into recognizable language. I elongated vowels, chewed on consonants until I read world-building sentences. I puzzled out the phonics paired with a drawing of a sad boy – all shadows and lines –until I blurted out the question – “Why does Johnny Wet the Bed?” I cringed and asked in a whisper: “Why Do I Wet the Bed?”
The 1960s –era of secrets and shame.
As I was learning to read, my Cubana mother, a castaway in Connecticut, slogged through Don Quijote de la Mancha, to earn her master’s degree in Spanish literature. Arriving on our doorstep from Spain, it was the thickest book I had ever seen and the hardest my mother had ever read. And so it was that my mother translated Cervantes’ antique tales for me at bedtime. It helped us both – my mother made decent progress on her homework, and I collected dozens of stories about the bumbling knight trapped in a fit of madness, or, as my mother said, una pesadilla – a nightmare. Don Quijote rode off into sunsets on Rocinante his noble steed, who in truth, was half-starving; the horse’s skin barely upholstered his ribs. He traveled with his illiterate squire turned sidekick, Sancho Panza, who was ample in body and spirit and remained ever so practical in a world that was al revés – upside down.
I took my mother’s version of Dulcinea to heart; Don Quijote’s dama was only beautiful to him. Fea, fea, fea –ugly, ugly, ugly – said my mother, who always needed to have the last word. Years later, I understood that Don Quijote’s swooning over Dulcinea acted out the well-worn aphorism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. When I read parts of Cervantes’ novel in college, I was glad my mother had not told me that Dulcinea is offstage for the entire novel and that she was a figment of Don Quijote’s imagination. Or maybe my mother’s reading of Cervantes was not close enough, and she didn’t know.
I moved on from listening to stories of Don Quijote to reading lessons in Spanish with my mother. Spanish is straightforward; it’s read how it sounds. I quickly put together the consonants and vowels. My mother bought me an illustrated book of Spanish vocabulary, hoping my skills would translate into fluency. A es Para Arbol. A is for Tree the book began.
Reading arbol and other words in Spanish hailed a new era for my mother and me in which she thrilled to watch me absorbing her language. A few years later, I learned to read Hebrew’s serious black letters, which reminded me of squat, stern old-world grandfathers. In Hebrew, my reading life quite literally became al revés as I stumbled over the words written right to left. Like the Inuit, who have a hundred words for snow at the ready, it felt as if Hebrew had a hundred words for God.
In the end, I never learned why Johnny wet the bed. I never knew why I wet the bed. Many years later, a therapist told me nocturnal incontinence was a protest against my mother taking refuge with me in my twin bed after another explosive fight with my father. In the wake of those rows, I felt as if I were choking on smoke and suffocating under ash.
Ashes, ashes we all fall down.
I went on to devour the Scholastic Books I so loved ordering through school, and my mother had finally ceded privacy to me at bedtime. I stopped wetting the bed. I was never a kid who read under the covers with a flashlight. Too claustrophobic. Too airless. Instead, I begged my parents to leave the hall light on at night. They left my door ajar, thinking I was afraid of the dark. But after everyone went to sleep, I opened the door wider to bask in a sliver of illumination as intimate as candlelight. I read crisscross applesauce on my pink shag carpeting for hours.
The Asylum Avenue bus still heads east, and passengers wait at the same stops. The new buses are sleeker, their engines purring – no more wheezing like a chorus of those orderly squat stern grandfathers. No more plumes of black exhaust trailing the bus. Maybe another little kid sounds out the words of new advertisements on those quiet buses. Or perhaps the buses lull them into a sleep in which they dream expansively, romantically, like Don Quijote de la Mancha.