The culture of exile is the culture of loss. Such an equivalence is made abundantly clear to the young exile who, looking back to his origins, sees only the raw edges of a violent tear. One moment you are playing in the backyard as you’ve done every day of your life. The sun beats down on your neck but you are oblivious to it. It is the same sun in the same blue sky that you have known since birth. The houses you know are still there, as are your grandmother’s rosebushes that bloom eternally, offering a bulwark of color and fragrance against the storm of change that has been sweeping across the country. The next moment there are strangers in uniform in your house, taking inventory of everything, from the living room couch to your father’s philosophy books. Two days after that you are on a plane out of the country, convincing yourself that things have not changed, that this journey out of your daily life is a temporary sojourn, “until things settle down” your parents assure you.
The airplane lands you in a place that has pretty much the same sun you left behind and the same feel to the air, fierce and hot during the day, silky at night. You, your sister, and your parents move into a room in a small hotel with an elevator like the monkey cage at the zoo. There are old people sitting in the hotel lobby and a beach across the way. There is a cafeteria around the block where a waitress with buck teeth and a friendly disposition serves you scrambled eggs and buttered toast for breakfast. The days pass slowly with a disturbing sameness. Your father talks to people, goes away, comes back and takes you with him, this time to a cold place with a cold wind that burns your ears. “Three months,” your parents say, “Three months and we’ll be home.”
You begin school, a factory really, a holding pen for future life. One of the teachers recites the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of the period and says the Pledge of Allegiance to a Canadian flag. Another teacher is a budding writer. He cares only about himself. Another is about to retire. She wants everyone to be quiet. Once, during lunch period, somebody steals your only winter jacket in the playground. You run to your shop teacher who is on duty and tell him. He listens, then turns away unconcerned. That afternoon you walk home shivering.
New York accepts you, as it accepts everyone, with complete indifference. Three months become six. The city becomes warm, but it is not the same comfortable warmth you left behind, not the same sun or the same sky, and so you keep one eye focused on everything around you, the buildings, the people, the energy. The other eye, the watchful one, looks behind you to that other sun, that other sky, the backyard where you were playing when you were wrenched away, the smells of onion and garlic wafting from the kitchen as lunch approached, your grandmother’s smiling face, the strange bird that landed on the steps of your grandmother’s house and you tried to shoot with your bee-bee gun, but it chased after you squawking and you, no big game hunter, ran home terrified. All these images, memories and splinters of memories are behind you, twelve-hundred-miles distant and unapproachable in any physical way, but the eye, the one that wants it all back even as the brain says no, still looks beyond the tear and its raw edges. A small voice, ever so soft and crooning, says mockingly to you, it is all gone. It is the voice of loss, and it becomes stronger each day that you stay in the place of your exile.
Someone argues, no. Loss is never absolute. What about the gains? Surely they offset the loss. Yes, of course, the gains you say, and you think about the education, the knowledge, the comforts, the three square meals a day, the house on a tree-lined street from which you are presently writing, the good job at a good university, the books published, the plaudits, the grants, your own American children in college now, the American woman who loves and cares for you as your life sweeps into the mainstream. You think about all that and then, the moment you begin to swoon with satisfaction, you feel the chasm sucking you back to a place where there are only memories, and those memories, stale after so many years, speak to you in a voice which is indistinguishable from that of absence. You realize then that there is no counterweight to loss except grief, that tumor of the spirit, weightier than any substance, that replaces that which you once had and stays with you until death, no matter how much you gain along the way. Although your memories belong to you, you no longer belong to the place of your memories, or it to you.
To offset this knowledge you project outward the signs of your success, as if to prove to the world around you –but you are really proving it to yourself– that though your soul is wounded and weighed down by grief, your belief system is intact. The big house, the fancy car, the expensive vacation, the family, all symbols of achievement in the new society, of your assimilation, become as well the measures that validate your belief system, which struggles to sustain itself above and beyond loss but can never excise it. As a result, your assimilation is superficial at best.
You remember your struggles with the new language, the way words stumbled out of your mouth, mangled at first, in jagged pieces, and your shame kept you silent, and your shame made you practice the words, hours before the mirror, endlessly in the shower or before sleep, until each was perfect in the sound and shape and indistinguishable from those you heard on the street from your friends, in the classroom from your teachers. Mimic you became, parrot, mina bird. You remember your mother’s struggles, how her mouth filled with air, how it pushed out resembling nothing like words, nothing like message, but moans, whimpers, hiccups, and whines, and you remember how her failures made her distant, Spanish her only language, the language of the past, of loss.
All that you remember now is seclusion, a distancing, and a futile attempt to lose yourself in the new language, the language of no loss. If loss brings shame, it brings with it too the urge to replace what is lost, to fill the void. You try in many ways, with many things. You throw in whatever fits, you stuff the hole with clothes, books, movies, pianos, tubas, Milky Ways. You throw art in there as well, and baseballs, footballs, skis and scuba gear. You throw in memberships in country clubs (those that will have you), sleek cars and sleek women (as your wife ages and spreads), a sexual urge that turns you into a wild dog, a woman you follow into a dark room over an empty street; you throw in trips to the Himalayas, hypertension on the highway, yoga classes, vegetarianism, pornographic movies, opera, vacations in Cancún, shopping in Paris, rosebushes, haute cuisine, cellular phones, cholesterol worries, massage therapy, town meetings, political diatribes, television, television, television. You realize at some point that the more you stuff in it, the bigger the hole, the broader the void. You could spend your whole life stuffing it and it would still be bigger than your ability. And so you discover that there is nothing to be done but listen to your mother, or to the memory of your mother, and to accept her loss which is your loss, and to embrace her failure which is your failure. Nothing else will do but recover and make your own the tongue of your loss, which is her tongue.