Sweating and uniformed, they showed up on a buggy, suburban-still summer afternoon. I
was the only one home, a situation which, in my memory, wasn’t uncommon. When we arrived
in the US, it seemed my sister and parents received instructions I’d somehow missed. They
bought new clothes, found new friends, discovered the best radio and TV stations (we had over a
dozen of each, an unimaginable bounty) while I hung back, baffled. They’d invite me along, but
not always, and no wonder: sulky, silent, I was kind of a drag. I wanted to join, and didn’t; I had
the lonely person’s matched desires to be delivered from loneliness and to be hidden completely.
I’m sure every kid feels this way. But while I spent all day, every day, thinking, I wasn’t
thinking much about other kids. I was a skinny, awkward, soon-to-be-9th-grader, with working
knowledge of coin collecting, middling science fiction, and very little else. The larger world was
as much of a mystery as the men on our lawn.
At first I thought they might be police. There’d been grumbling, I’d overheard—
overhearing was my great source of information, partial invisibility my great tool—about
foreigners, strangers on the block. Who knew how these things worked?
But their grubby outfits, the idling scratched sirenless truck behind them, indicated
otherwise. Their leader, a gray-haired white guy with arms thicker than my thighs, stepped up
onto the porch, clipboard in hand. Behind him three black men in baseball hats stood on our
browning grass. This was in Virginia, and I remember thinking at that moment: the Civil War
was fought here. Yet another thing for which I was unprepared.
It would be years before I understood even the outline of the many ways in which my
thinking was off, how my theoretical view of the universe—with me at its center—failed to
encompass reality. A few weeks later, on the first day of school, one of my classmates would mention that her parents were divorced, and I’d respond, “That must have been traumatic for you. Was it?” I thought that I was being both nice and normal.
I stood at the door and played through my internal dramas while the house’s cool air
leaked out around me. “Delivery,” the white-haired guy muttered, sounding to me as if he were
speaking around a mouthful of chewing gum. I’d never heard a thick Southern accent anywhere
“Delivery,” he repeated. The situation called for something other than nerves and
hesitation, but trying to determine what this was made me nervous and hesitant.
“Your daddy home?” I shook my head, horrified. I’d transitioned to calling my parents
Mom and Dad, was experimenting with first names, didn’t appreciate the reminder of my
I gestured him inside. He said something I didn’t get, so fast and slurred that he sounded
to me like a cattle auctioneer, another creature I hadn’t considered might actually exist.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “What was that?” This accent couldn’t be normal, I thought. But what
did I know about normal? What did I know about anything?
He spoke again, irritated; I understood none of it.
The thing was, I was used to being the American. In Tanzania, Malta, Romania, where
my father worked, I’d been, if not exactly cool, still worthy of respect. There was always the
chance that I might know Mr. T or Ronald Reagan, as I’d implied to classmates. But now that we
were back in the US (where I’d never actually lived) I didn’t even speak the language. It wasn’t
just English, it was everything: music, skateboarding, the color of walk signals all baffled me.
“Could you say that more slowly?”
This time, he was slow, and he was loud. I got the word “oven” and “install.”
“Okay,” I nodded; adults rarely got angry if you agreed with them.
“But -” And then he stopped, and his grumpy expression was replaced by a sad smile. I
understood perfectly what he said next. “That’s alright, son.” With an affirming nod, he headed
back to the lawn. I watched him gesture to his crew, point at his forehead and shake his head
while the other men nodded. He thinks I’m deaf, I told myself, to cut off the suspicion that he
thought, and was telling the others, that something else was the matter with me.
I retreated to my basement bedroom and heard them clattering above, figuring out what
they needed to. By the time my family pulled in they were almost done.
In more time than I was happy with, I’d learn to understand a Virginia accent; I’d make a
few friends and become, again, a bit of a smartass. While I hid out in the basement that
afternoon, any of that seemed even more impossibly distant than it did during the lonely months
while it was unfolding. I went back upstairs when I thought they were gone, but the crew leader
was in our kitchen, washing his hands at the sink by the stove he’d just installed.
He wiped his hands carefully on his shirt and gave me a slow nod, the same sad smile as
before. “You be good.”
Again, I understood him perfectly. And what could I do but nod back? This country,
supposedly mine, had shown itself to be kind. In that moment, and for many after, this kindness
felt awfully cruel.