Years before I moved to Japan, my parents were themselves brand new expatriates. They came to the U.S. in 1975, newlywed and broke. My mother cried when she saw the run down Brooklyn apartment they were going to live in. My father flipped burgers in a hospital cafeteria. After my brother and I were born, he took a job in Crystal River, Florida. By that point, my parents were itching to escape the northeastern winters. They also figured Crystal River – a small town on the Gulf Coast – would be a good place to raise their children. They rented a house on a street named “Pinwheel” and began to build anew. Again.
They made friends – mostly other Italians and Latinos, with a few Scandinavians thrown in for poos and chuckles. These were our surrogate family members for holidays big and little. We saw our real families about once a year, but for the day-to-day, my parents’ gang of fellow expatriate pals filled in. Sunday dinners. Days on the water. New Year’s Eve parties set to the tune of Juan Luis Guerra and Gloria Estefan. Our Florida family was happy – its members not only proud to represent their homelands, but secure in the fact that they could recognize another countryman in our little town on sight.
I can’t tell you how I suffered as a teen every time my parents began speaking in Italian or Spanish in public. Not that they were speaking the language itself, mind you – it was what they said. Complaining about the food, giggling at someone’s pants, cursing a lazy waitress underneath their breath. It always seemed to be the epitome of rudeness. I was so sure that someday, someone was going to understand them.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” my parents would say as I blushed into my soda. “No one can understand us.” They were so convinced, so secure in their inner circle away from home. They knew every Latino or Italian in Crystal River and should another stumble into town, they could pick him or her out on sight. Besides – why not speak freely in a country where no one understood you? It was the next best thing to being invisible! That was a sense of cozy security I wouldn’t understand until I myself was a stranger in a strange land. It was also a sense of security that would be shattered for my mother one fateful trip home to Italy in 1997: for one split second, she forgot where she was when she decided to ridicule a woman’s outfit, only to be mortified when the woman shot her an enraged glare. It was enough to stun her into respectful silence … until she returned to Florida.
It’s been interesting being here in Florida with my parents this past week and a half. They live in Tampa now, which is not where I grew up. I don’t know this house so when the phone rings, I can’t find it. When my friends come up to visit me, I don’t know where to take them for dinner. I open the wrong cupboard to find dishes and ask my mother if I can have a cracker – seconds before I remember that I’m a grown woman and can have 50 crackers if I want.
We visit St. Petersberg Beach when the weather is nice. The waves are green and warm as soup, lapping up against white sand. Orange-gammed seagulls and thong-clad grandmothers stroll along a surf that stretches towards the massive pink castle-shaped Don Cesar hotel. We choose sunset for our visits and I swim with my parents for the first time in 20 years.
We talk about our family – first the ones in Italy and Guatemala and then the family we’re not related to. After all these years together, the divorces feel like personal betrayals and the deaths make us cry. It was Dom’s 77th birthday this week. Benny’s still giving Lucci and Brada bags as gifts. Jon won a prize for Crystal River’s best Victory Garden. Giancarlo’s new wife is a plastic surgeon so Mitzi and Velma are giddy, expecting VIP treatment.
My parents pause to gawk at a sun-dried old man wading through the surf, just past us. His long gray hair is in dread locks and even though his mouth is closed, we can see he’s toothless. He must be in his 90s. Or his 50s – it’s hard to tell with a leathery pelt like that.
“Isa,” my dad asks my mother in Italian. “Isn’t he part of your swim group?” They both cackle uncharitably.
“I was wondering why the water is so warm,” my mother says. They giggle like impish kids and for one second, I’m back at Peck’s Crab Shack, burying my humiliated face into my pile of garlic crabs. The next, I’m back on the Midosuji, groaning to Sean that if I hear just one more person scream, “えええええ!” I’m going to pull the emergency brake. Maybe then, the train attendants will finally do something other than show off their pretty white gloves.