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The Month I Spent Living on a Mattress

11/24/2014 12:28 EST | Updated 01/24/2015 05:59 EST
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When I am nine, my parents and I immigrate to Canada from the wet, hot, and hurricane-ridden island of Cuba. Before May 31, 2002, I have never stepped beyond my beautiful little island, have never seen a landscape without palm trees or the ocean, have never smelt air that isn't rife with humidity with a hint of dog piss, sea salt, and garbage, and I have never wanted to.

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I am a loud little girl with big cheeks and big dreams of winning a piano competition and of getting Marlon, the cute boy from school and the topic of all my love letters, to like me. My mother is a former nuclear engineer turned stay at home mom, my father a former nuclear engineer turned computer guy/pool repairman/any-other-job-he-could-get-his-hands-on, and my brother a former DJ turned husband of a terrible woman.

When my parents tell me we're moving to Canada, they spread it out over months and explain it to me step by step. And I have to keep it a secret. I feel like I'm the star in a telenovela: I have to give away my toys, lie to my friends and teachers, and throw a going away party even though most people don't know where or why I'm going away.

On the day we go to the airport, I wear a brand new white cotton blouse and matching pants with a fashionable straw hat that has a flower on the front. We got the whole outfit specially made at a tailor. We're going somewhere new, everyone is coming with us to say goodbye, and I look beautiful. It's a dramatic episode of the telenovela of my life and I am a star.

We're walking along the tiled floors of the airport with our rolling suitcases when my mother stops me and tells me to look back. She points up at a dirty glass window above us. Our family has found a cramped spot to stand in and wait for us to pass by, squeezing in between a dozen other families staring. They knock on the glass and wave.

We are leaving and they are staying behind. Everything is going to change. I cry my little eyes out for most of the plane ride. I think my parents are relieved that I finally understand.

We land at the Pearson International Airport in Toronto. There are signs everywhere that I can't read. We declare all our possessions and walk out onto the Arrivals gate. My parents' friends are waiting to pick us up. There will be a blurry photograph of my father walking forward, opening his arms wide and grinning. We did it. My mother and I are behind him, blocked by the breadth of his arms.

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Everything starts to move so fast, it feels like getting a hard knock to the chest and gasping for air while the world continues to move around me.

A man named Yamian and his family take us in. He is my father's old friend from work, but I have never met him. His family is renting a small apartment in Etobicoke. We move into a small mattress on the floor of their small living room in their small apartment.

We keep our small collection of possessions packed away: some clothing and a pair of shoes for each of us. The three of us sleep on the small mattress each night and pack it up in the morning to leave the living room exactly the way we found it. We're a family invisible inside the home of another family. There is hardly any evidence that we exist.

I join a Grade 4 class two weeks before the end of the school year. I am so cold, I have to wear my brother's hand-me-down all-blue sweatsuit three days in a row. Mr. Blaziak, our teacher, is kind to me. I can't speak much English, so he tells me to sit next to a girl from El Salvador named Crystal. He explains that she speaks Spanish. She becomes my first friend.

There is another girl, Anna, sitting on the other side of me. I don't understand Mr. Blaziak very well, so I think he says that she speaks Spanish, too. I stare at her all day waiting for her to speak to me. When she doesn't, I think she's the meanest girl in the world. It takes me a couple of days to understand that she's Polish and doesn't speak a word of Spanish. Mr. Blaziak only sat us next to each other because we have the same name and he thought we might have gotten along.

There's a piano in the classroom and I stare at it during class. Mr. Blaziak notices and offers me a chance to play for the class. I jump at the chance and play "Conga," a Cuban piece I have memorized from my days of music school in Havana. Everyone applauds when I take my hands off the keys. It's the first time I feel joy in this strange, new place.

Back at our small floor mattress home, my father helps me with my math homework. The Canadian kids are way ahead of anything I had done in school, and they're already comfortable with decimals and fractions. My father sits me down and explains that these new numbers are just parts of a whole. He draws lines and shapes with a black marker on the white tiles of the bathroom wall. I wonder if Yamian and his wife will be angry at him for drawing mathematical graffiti in their house.

We befriend Eric, the neighbour from the basement apartment beneath us, who's also from Cuba. He lives alone and has only been in Canada for a few months. He tells me that he throws out every pair of socks he wears because buying a new pack of tube socks at Wal-Mart is cheaper than doing laundry.

We live on the small mattress on the floor of the small living room in the small apartment for a month before my father can find us a new place to live. My parents help me with my homework and I correct their English.

A few girls are nice to me at school and let me eat with them at lunch. I think they like that I'm something new. My English improves every day and I'm smiling more. One day after school, I see my mom waiting for me on the sidewalk, so I start to say goodbye to my new friend Kate. Back home, whenever you would say hello or goodbye, you would kiss the person once on each cheek. By the time I realize the terrible mistake I'm making, it's too late to stop the uncontrollable force of habit. When I lean in to kiss Kate's right cheek, she lets out a scream and pulls back in horror.

She quickly corrects herself. "Sorry, you scared me! We just don't do that here."

I smile and nod as my eyes well up with tears.

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