“Stand up straight. Hold your head high. Put your shoulders back. Now, walk like this.”
My very macho, Italian father had my mother’s purse draped over his arm as he swished and pranced back and forth across the living room to show me how to carry myself on a busy street in a not-so-safe city.
“Now, stick your other hand in your pocket and pretend you have a gun in there,” he added.
Why anyone would buy into the charade that a scrawny, 12-year-old carrying a pink patent leather ballet tote was concealing a firearm made no sense to me; but, I followed his instructions.
“Remember, if a man bothers you, kick him in the balls. Got it? Il coglione, figlia mia, il coglione, gabeesh? And point the ‘gun’ in your pocket at any suspicious person who walks toward you.”
I was teetering on the brink of womanhood and starving for independence. This was my first step—to get my father’s approval to let me take the bus by myself to my weekly ballet class. He reluctantly agreed, but would not let me out of the house until he was sure his little princess could morph into Rocky Balboa if necessary.
When I met his requirements, and I was given permission to venture out alone, I gleefully skipped down the street to the bus stop. I could hear my father shouting in the distance, “Don’t show any fear! Crooks can smell fear! Raise your chin! Remember the gun—stick your hand in your pocket!” His voice trailed off as I ran for the bus and my first experience using mass transit.
Eventually, I made friends on the bus, and came to appreciate the differences that existed outside of my own Italian culture. I learned not to touch people or wave my hands in the air as I spoke. I discovered that eating garlic before boarding the bus was not a good idea; and that public displays of emotion were not always appreciated. Even after I got my driver’s license, public transportation remained the School of American Etiquette to me, and my favorite form of early social media. So, it was natural that I would to drift towards riding the trolley when I moved to San Diego.
There are three trolley lines in San Diego: The Orange line, used by many sports fans and aviation types as it loops inland to Petco Park and Gillespie Field; the Blue Line, which heads south through downtown to the Mexican border and carries laborers, artists, musicians, business people and disgruntled lawyers; and the Green Line that runs east to west from Old Town to Santee, which carries those in the retail industry, students, colorful characters, screaming children and florid psychotics.
I ride the Green Line.
That is where I met Teresa. Every part of Teresa was round including her face, which was frozen in a permanent smile. In spite of her girth, she carried herself in an elegant way, swaying back and forth like a queen leading her royal court.
Teresa displayed a poised, calm and dignified demeanor—the exact opposite of mine, which has always been high-strung, nervous and excitable. I came to look forward to her deep, quiet wisdom covering me like a warm blanket on a cold, winter’s night.
I eventually learned that Teresa had two young daughters; and she worked in a kitchen in San Diego, while her husband remained in Mexico. The family spent a great deal of time either separated from each other or shuttling back and forth between the two countries.
Teresa spoke mostly Spanish and a little English. I speak mostly English, a little Italian and hardly any Spanish; but, that didn’t stop me from befriending her. Sometimes, a bilingual passenger named Anna would join us, making our conversation easier. Anna could flip her gymnastic tongue from English to Spanish and back again with incredible ease. This is how I got to really know Teresa.
As we traveled, our discussions revolved around the usual girly stuff like fashion, food and kids. Culture and language barriers would melt under my latest issue of Vogue. No mi gusto I learned to say as I pointed to a photo of something I didn’t like in the magazine. In fact, I felt that mi gusto (I like) and no mi gusto (I don’t like) were very important words, given my highly opinionated personality. Next on my list of words came yo quiero (I want). I would amuse Teresa by becoming animated as I passionately talked about yo quiero-ing this or that thing.
One day on the trolley, the conversation turned to hairstyles. Teresa sported a short-cropped hairdo, while mine was long. She gently touched my hair and said, “Es bonita.” I replied with “Thank you.” Then she touched her own hair and said, “My hair long, but then cut para chemo.”
Chemo? She never mentioned this before. So, I pressed for an answer, “Che chemo?” I blurted in Italian, forgetting the Spanish word for what.
“Breast cancer,” she quietly replied. “I fine now,” she added. The words spun around my head and whistled in my ears, breast cancer. Her life was already more difficult than anything I could ever imagine, and now she was fighting breast cancer too? I became overwhelmed with emotion searching for the right words to say.
“Yo quiero,” was all I could muster before my voice cracked, and tears welled. “Quiero para usted…I want for you…” It got worse. Now Teresa was crying.
I switched to English. “Teresa, I want you…to be well. I wish, with all my heart, that your children will have their strong and wonderful mother long past their childhood. I wish for you to have a better life than cooking in some miserable kitchen. I want your family to be able to live together. I want…I wish…”
Smiling, she whispered, “Everything fine,” patting me on the knee. Her bright face looked like the sun peeking through storm clouds after a torrential rain.
Shortly after that, Teresa stopped riding the trolley, and I didn’t see her for a long time. Then one day, there she was again, getting on the Green Line.
“Teresa!” I yelled, drawing stares, “Teresa!” I was so excited to see her. Her hair had grown a little, and she had it pinned on top of her head.
I rushed to her side, squeezed her arm and touched her hair, “Es bonita,” I said.
“Thank you,” she replied.