I settled into the dental hygienist chair. Aimee greeted me. “How are book sales going?”
“Great,” I answered flattered that she remembered I was in author mode, appearing at book signings with Cliff Simon for “Paris Nights: My Year at the Moulin Rouge,” which was six months into its publication.
Clipping a paper bib around my neck, and sticking a mirror into my mouth so she could get a look at my gums, she said, “Excellent. I see a big improvement.”
I relaxed. I didn’t want to get a failing grade, and I certainly didn’t want to lose my teeth.
Adjusting the overhead light, Aimee began her work. “I just love to read. I can’t wait to get your book.”
Impossible to respond with more than a happy grunt, I could only listen as she went on. “When we came to the United States from Cuba, I couldn’t speak a word of English.”
Quick break to ask a question: “When was that?”
Coming from Cuba
“1974. The airlift was over so my mother and father and I went to Spain, and from there entered the United States. We ended up in Glendale. My mom had relatives there. We lived in a garage that had been converted into a little apartment. My mom – she was a teacher in Cuba – but the only job she could get here was doing office work at an aerospace company. And my dad, he worked as a mechanic. They also cleaned offices in buildings in downtown Los Angeles at night. It was tough for them holding down two jobs, but they never complained. ”
I just nodded and blinked my eyes to indicate that I was following her story. “I loved to read, but there were no libraries nearby. I couldn’t walk to the library – it was about two miles from where we lived and I was only eight, too young to go there by myself -- so I used to read what was on cereal boxes: the slogans, the ingredients, that kind of thing to practice my English. My older cousin also helped me.”
I held my hand up. “Am I hurting you?”
“No I just wanted to ask you, ‘what about school? Didn’t they give you books there?”
In the Beginning
“Oh, I loved school, but in the beginning I only spoke Spanish. It took me a few months to catch up. I remember one day I needed to go to the bathroom so badly. I kept raising my hand and said, “Servicio,” which is Spanish for bathroom. The teacher asked the rest of the class if anyone knew what that meant. I had to hold it in until the period was over, and then I dashed to the bathroom. I told my cousin what had happened and she made me repeat, “May I go to the bathroom,” over and over again so that my first-grade teacher would understand me. It never happened again.”
“My mom used to make some of my clothes. I had a red and white gingham blouse that I really loved until one of the girls in my class told me it looked like it was made out of a tablecloth, which was probably true. I never wore it again. And then I got clothes from my uncle. He didn’t tell me where he’d gotten them but years later, I found out that he worked in the costume department of a TV show, and they were discards.”
Finished with scraping my gums, Aimee asked, “Do you want to rinse?”
“Sure.” I had a lot more questions I wanted to ask but I knew that my hour was coming to an end. “So, what happened to your mom and dad?”
“Mom died of cancer when I was maybe twenty. I live with my dad, now. I’ve been taking care of him. When I was a kid, I didn’t really understand my father. He seemed so street smart.
He could do math in his head, but he couldn’t read. He’d cover it up, but he never offered to help me with my homework, which gave me a clue that something was wrong. He left that up to my mom. I’ve figured out that he has some kind of learning disability – like dyslexia which went undiagnosed. But he was too proud to admit to anyone – least of all his daughter who was getting straight As in reading -- that he had a problem.
Write what’s right in front of you
In the last few years we’ve gotten close because he’s sick, so I take care of him. He’s proud of me. I finished college as a dance major – that’s why I want to read your book about Cliff’s adventures performing at the Moulin Rouge – and of course, now I’m a dental hygienist. It’s a great job and I love to meet interesting people.”
Aimee applied tooth paste to the electric brush and polished my teeth. I ran my tongue over my teeth and after thanking her said, “You know, you should write a book – a young adult novel or memoir.”
“You think so.”
“Yes, you’re an inspiration.”
Aimee said, “Let’s chat about it when you come back. Three months right?”
We hugged one another. Waiting for the elevator I remembered something a writer-friend of mine once told me when I asked her how she got her ideas for the novels she wrote.
“Write what’s right in front of you.”
I won’t write this novel because it belongs to Aimee, but I’ll encourage her and share this blog with her to get her started. And what I know to be true from my work as a ghostwriter, it’s always better to listen than to talk.