No priest remembers being a sacristan. I looked up that last word, years back, and found that a sacristan is a church official – but since I didn’t grow up with that title, I’ve always imagined that the priest forgets what it was like to be an altar boy (one of my favorite words in Spanish – monaguillo). At any rate, the point is that with the exception of U.S. politicians, who boast about their humble beginnings to the point of absurdity, we try to leave behind our lesser, unsure selves. That’s why immigrants are often rude to more recent arrivals. We don’t want to be reminded of our own past, fumbling, vulnerable. We want to stay protected by the acquired knowledge that makes us feel at home and in control, even when we are not.
On my first day in San José when I moved to Costa Rica in 2004, I got hopelessly lost in a bad neighborhood. I got off the bus from the sleepy town where I was staying and, finding that no one could tell me how to get to the newspaper office where I wanted to ask for a job, took off at my usual brisk pace for my first of hundreds of walks across the city. I walked past strip clubs and adult theaters, huddled addicts on the sidewalk, and emerged, still lost, into the district where the Judicial Branch looms high in nondescript beige buildings. I walked along the block where I would soon be hired as a reporter, past the hospital where you, my daughter, would one day be born. For the first time, I trod the sidewalk I would cross thousands of time on my way to and from work, or to and from appointments at the fertility clinic – the sidewalk where I would take my last steps as a non-mother. It is strange, today, to imagine ever being lost in a neighborhood I would come to know so well, one that would bring you to me in more ways than one. But no priest remembers being an altar boy.
On my second day in San José, I took a bus to try to find the boarding house where I’d end up living. I asked the driver to tell me when we reached the rotonda the landlady had told me to seek out, but he didn’t. I stayed on until the depot and sheepishly found my way to another bus starting its route back down through the pouring rain. I was the only passenger; the driver struck up an uncomfortable conversation with me. At one point he asked to shake my hand and, when I warily extended it, planted disgusting kisses on my indignant wrist. My arm snapped back to me like Elastigirl’s and I thought: am I going to be raped on a public bus? What do I do? Thankfully a reassuring señora got on at the next stop, my savior in a sweater set, and I scampered back to sit near her, sure I’d escaped from certain doom.
Nearly ten years have passed, and I now know these streets far better than any of my childhood roads. Your grandmother and her sister used to scrunch down in the back of their parents’ car on the way home from the market, closing their eyes and trying to figure out where they were on the familiar journey from Concord to Dunbarton, New Hampshire, feeling every curve and turn. I can do the same now, but in a far-away city that would have seemed very strange and noisy to those young New Hampshire girls, or to an earlier version of me. I suppose this makes me proud.
And yet. One night, six months pregnant with you, I rode my usual bus home late from work, texting with a colleague. I didn’t notice that I’d missed my stop. The bus rumbled on to the end of its route. I had no idea where I was and am embarrassed to say that I even called your father in a momentary panic as I walked the dark streets in bemusement. I soon came out onto the main road and saw I’d been less than twenty feet from my usual running circuit, fifty from our supermarket. That is the fate of the foreigner: no matter how long we stay, how fluent we become, how assiduously we memorize local shortcuts and shorthand, we are only one block, one stop, one unfamiliar slang word away from being lost once more.
Sandra Cisneros said it best: “When you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven… You feel like you’re still ten. And you are – underneath the year that makes you eleven.” Our previous selves are still inside us, nested like Russian dolls. I find this very comforting. It means that when you, my girl, are big and too cool for me, I can at least believe that the nutty toddler I know now, and the sweet, determined baby who came before that, will still be in there somewhere. Within the priest is the sacristan and the altar boy, awkward, new. Within the not-lost gringa is the lost gringa. Our old selves are just below the surface, and all it takes is a nudge, a glance, a taste, a sudden memory, a missed bus stop, to rearrange us. This is usually humbling. With a little luck and grace, it does not have to be shattering. Life is easier if we can learn to smile upon the ten- and twenty- and thirty-year-olds who pop up to the surface unbidden. Life is easier if we can remember our nesting dolls, our forgotten altar boys, and extend a hand to them as old friends.