Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Mama's slide

Monday and Tuesday are Rachael's days off and so those two day have become our weekend.

Last night, we ate puerco asado at a Cuban restaurant, and the hostess, with her Havana Spanish, reminded me of a woman I knew, once upon a time, in the Florida Keys.

Her name was Elena and she had come to the Keys from Havana, with a short stop in Miami's Little Havana. The experts say that cultural immersion is the best way to learn a second language. Want to become fluent in conversational French? Live a year in Montreal. Buy groceries at a neighborhood store where checkout clerks only speak French; Read Le Journal de Montreal for news and watch Peter Falk mutter, in dubbed French, through a Columbo rerun on CFCM Channel Four. You learn through necessity; sink or swim.

I watched Elena learn English that way during the first months of her year-long stay at Monroe County Detention Center in Key West, where I worked as a corrections officer. As duty officer in Bravo unit during her first week there, I watched her struggle with the language barrier; watched her frustration well into tears. I offered tissue and told her, in my broken Spanish, to have patience. Six weeks later, I was back in Bravo again, and when I came on duty, Elena trotted toward me.

"Off-i-cer," she said. "How are you?"

"I'm fine," I said. "How are you?"

"I am good. Thank you."

I could still hear Havana in her voice, but her words were English. Elena was a quick learner; Three months after arriving in Bravo, she became head trusty, in charge of a team of four, who received certain liberties in exchange for serving meals and cleaning the common areas. One afternoon, Elena came to me with a request.

"In the hall. The metal, it needs cleaned."

She was referring to an aluminum floor strip in the vestibule outside the unit, where trusties parked food carts following meals. I checked and agreed; the grooved metal needed cleaning.

"After lock down," I said. "You and I will work on it."

Five p.m. found Bravo's other residents behind secured doors and the two of us in the vestibule. Elena was armed with a mop, buckets and a green abrasive scrub pad. After the final mopping, she found spots not up to her standards, so she bent at the waist and began to polish with the green pad. She was almost done when her spread feet slipped on the still damp floor and her bottom began a descent to the tile.

I'm not certain who was more startled, her or me; it ended too soon for either of us to react. Elena just had time to glance at me, her eyes wide and her mouth a perfect 'O', before she plopped the final few inches to the floor, performing a split so perfect it would have made a gymnast proud.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

Her eyes were filling with tears; I was certain she was injured, then she laughed and I saw that all that had been injured was her pride. At first, she made little snorts, through her nose, but that dropped into full-bellied giggling. It was contagious. I couldn't hide a snicker as I pulled her to her feet. Her face was pink, but her eyes were bright and a little wild.

"Oh, boy," she said, her English still intact. "That was some surprise."

Then she looked at me. Appraising. Considering how to recapture her lost dignity. She shook a finger at me. Playfully. Slyly.

"Don't you tell no one, okay?" she said. "Don't you tell no one at all!"

And so, I held my tongue; at least until Elena's stay was complete and she returned to the world, mistress of two languages.