El Cuento de un Regalo (The Tale of a Gift)

There was a time in my life when my brain went all crazy and said, “LET’S MOVE TO ORLANDO, FLORIDA!”

I am pink. It is my race. I sunburn if I spend too much time getting the mail. I have no business whatsoever living in Orlando. I belong in Ohio, or perhaps Alaska. If I move to Canada, it’s out of necessity, as my skin burns under fluorescent lighting.

When I decided to move to Florida, I had no real direction in life. I had dropped out of one college, and just stopped going to another one entirely, therefore flunking out. I was stuck in the era of depression in the first few years after my mother died. So, when my best friend Sean asked me if I wanted to move to Orlando to go to audio engineering school, I said, “Why the fuck not?”

Orlando was mostly a good time, I’ll admit. Sean and I shared an apartment together and recorded a lot of music while we went to school. Plus, a gallon of Captain Morgan’s spiced rum was only $16, and the liquor store sold two 2-liter bottles of Coke for $1. So, we got drunk quite often. It was a lot of fun.

Our apartment was on the second floor of a two-story building. About halfway through our stay in Orlando, the apartment below us was rented out to what can only be described as a “countless group of people of some sort of latino descent.” It never seemed like there were less than eight people at that apartment at any time, and I never really recognized a single person as a repeat visitor.

Their apartment window faced the walkway we would use to get to the parking lot, so we often got to glance inside. For the first month, they had no furniture at all. Eventually, a couple of bench seats from an old van appeared in the living room. Then, a “table” appeared that seemed to be assembled from nailing together various pieces of wood fished out from a dumpster. Not much else showed up. It was just van seats and some resemblance of a table in the living room for a long time.

Somehow, they had a great stereo. I know this because they listened to what sounded like mariachi music very often and loud. It was quite funny, actually, because from upstairs, we could only really hear the bass, which seemed like the most random thing. Sean and I would try to tap out the underlying rhythm of the bass line, but it was damned impossible. Especially with a lot of rum and cokes in your belly. Maybe that was the problem. But seriously, the next time you hear mariachi music, keep your ear on the bass. There are never any repeating patterns, I swear. 

Back to the point…our downstairs neighbors did not have a lot between them all, and there was a severe language barrier, so we never really spoke. They didn’t ever even make eye contact with us. I felt bad for them in a way. It seemed like they were constantly working and had nothing to show for it. Sure, they could have been illegal immigrants or something, but I’m not the fucking INS bureau, and assuming anything about anyone just to report them is only something shitty people do. All I knew was that they seemed downtrodden and they worked really hard.

When it came time for Sean and I to move back to Ohio, neither one of us wanted to move our large, terrible couch. It was a shitty couch to begin with, which is why my one friends gave it to us for free. I figured the neighbors might want it, so I planned on just offering it to them.

The only trouble was my Spanish, or lack thereof. Despite about 6 or 7 years of Spanish through high school, I couldn’t hold a conversation to save my life. I asked a Puerto Rican lady I worked with in the mall to translate what I wanted to say and write it down on paper. I told her that I wanted to say something like, “Do you want our couch? It’s free. We don’t need it. If you can move it yourselves, you can have it.”

It was, as far as I was told by her, a great translation. I practiced reading it a few times, and I’m sure my accent was flawless (hardly). The day had come for us to move, so I went downstairs and knocked on the neighbors’ door for the first time ever. The random bass line stopped abruptly, followed by a lot of whispering. I would guess they were trying to figure out whether or not it was worth finding out why I was there. 

The door opened very slowly, and an extremely nervous looking man peeked out. I said “hi,” because I was nervous as well. I couldn’t even manage to eek out an “hola.” I’ve run into this problem in almost every Mexican restaurant I’ve been to. I want to say “gracias” for things when I’m there, but I’m too afraid they’ll think I’m being an asshole for some reason, or worse, they’ll try to talk to me in Spanish, find out I can’t, and then promptly think I’m an asshole.

The man looked at me as though I was going to kick his ass or something. He was afraid. I looked down at the sheet of paper with the translation on it, and I choked. I couldn’t even bring myself to begin trying to pronounce a word of it. So, I figured the best compromise was to hand the sheet of paper to the man. I thought it was a great plan. He would read the message, come upstairs and take the couch if he wanted, and that would be that.

Unfortunately, he took the sheet of paper without looking at it and closed the door.

I waited for a few minutes before going back upstairs. I wasn’t sure what had just happened. I thought he might be getting a few people together or something, and they would be up soon. I wasn’t sure at all. I also realized that the paper never said where we lived, so unless he recognized me, he had no idea where to go for the couch.

Then it hit me.

I realized that there was a chance that this guy might not be able to read. I couldn’t be sure, but it was enough of a possibility that it required me to try again. The only trouble was, he had the only copy of the translation of my message.

I eventually mustered up the courage to try again. Probably after a rum and coke, I can’t be sure. Maybe two. I went down and knocked on the door again. This time, it was a different man who looked twice as nervous. I think I just stared at him for a few moments because I was expecting to deal with the original guy, and I had no idea how to start over with a new guy and no translation whatsoever.

My mind was cracking over what to do. I tried to picture in my mind what any of the fucking translation read. The only word I could think of was “regalo,” which means “gift.”

So, like an idiot, I began motioning this strange latino man up to my apartment just repeating “un regalo!” over and over. He peered at me with appropriate apprhension for a few moments, but eventually emerged from his apartment to follow me upstairs. When he got to the doorway of our apartment, I pointed to the couch, still exclaiming “regalo!” like I was Oprah telling him to look under his chair for a prize. (“You get a couch! You get a couch! EVERYBODY GETS A COUCH!!!)

It seemed to click after a few “regalo’s.” His eyes lit up, he touched the couch, said something with the word “regalo” in it, so I responded with “Si!” and he sprinted downstairs immediately.

About ten seconds later, at least five guys enter my apartment, smiling, saying shit I didn’t understand, and they haul the couch away as though it were weightless. It was like a tornado. I closed the door, happy it all worked out.

A mariachi bassline immediately penetrated our floor. I pictured them having some sort of “new couch party.”

I felt good. It felt good to help them out, and it felt good not to have to move that giant shitty couch.

I’m sure I celebrated with another rum and coke.

I’ll never know what their situation was really all about, and quite frankly, I don’t care. I try to picture myself in a different country with a large group of friends and family all huddled together into a single apartment, pooling our money to try to barely get by, all in the name of improving our situation. I try to imagine what it would feel like to have to take parts from cars and random pieces of wood just to have something resembling a living room. I imagine I would take solace in music and make it a priority as well.

Long story short, if any of you live outside of the United States, and you see a bearded pink man in an apartment below you, huddled closely with other pink members of his family, perhaps around van seats, perhaps listening to Radiohead or Pink Floyd or something, and you want to give us something like a couch that might make our lives just the tiniest bit improved…just knock on my door and tell me you have “un regalo.” I’ll know what you mean, and I’ll be happy to know that you’ve read and enjoyed something that I’ve written.

And I’ll be thankful.

Just don’t be surprised if you hear me blasting mariachi music in celebration afterward.

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