“bread fellow, messmate,” from Latin com “with, together” + panis “bread,”
I faked all of my book reports as a kid – I hated reading. I got good grades in my ESL classes only because of some natural ability with words. At least that’s what teachers said. Gifted. But I think my ease with writing had more to do with learning English at age seven when I migrated to The Bronx. Learning a new language that young made me hypervigilant about words, how people said them in speech and how they wrote them down on the page.
My ease with diction and syntax had less to do with natural ability and more to do with my growing ability to adapt. I was surviving.
“What are you looking at?” Those were the first English words I learned, prompted by a classmate in the middle of lunch hour who was teaching me how to be tough in my new environment.
What was I looking at? People’s mouths when they spoke. Every word captioned on television. Perfect scores on my writing assignments, displayed on the bulletin board next to other exceptional students. I should have felt exceptional. But I was interested in other things. Girls, or so I thought. Comic books and anime and an RPG game through which I started developing online friendships, before the dawn of social media.
The only books I reluctantly enjoyed as a kid were the Frog and Toad series. If I were interested in facile meaning-making I’d tell you it’s because of the very subject of this essay – because it is a children’s book series deeply invested in the transformative power of quiet company. Was I feeling lonely, even back then? I’m not sure. It’s possible there was something about friendship depicted in those books which filled me with longing. But it’s just as possible that I liked Frog and Toad because there were pictures and the books were thin. I was a very lazy kid.
Something ended and began between the ages of twelve and thirteen, though exactly what the change was is hard to pinpoint, as with all beginnings and all ends.
I became emotional. With the expansion of my interior world came gradations of feeling I had no words or definitions for. I felt everything deeply, which made me severe, morose, difficult.
There was also my home life. My mother was married to a man who I learned to call my stepfather. His family loved, and I imagine still loves, company.
Growing up, my house was often the site of birthday celebrations, boxing watch parties, domino tournaments. There were always people around, so my mother was always cleaning, cooking, preparing for the next event. It gave her a sense of responsibility, I imagine. But even then I knew the hyper presence of extended family was eclipsing our relationships at home.
We were so good at celebrating, so bad at taking care of each other.
My adolescent rebellion was isolation and quietude. I didn’t want the noise, the parties, the music. I said so in less eloquent words to mami once, when she threw a birthday party for me that ended up turning into a party for the adults (this was common in my family, and I learned later in many families, for adults to use children as an excuse to gather).
In my isolation I turned to books. I read so much that people got worried about me. In the bathroom, at the dinner table, at the top of my bunk bed in our cramped apartment in the projects of the South Bronx, where I obsessed over the pages of The Little Prince and Haroun and The Sea of Stories. I was no tiguere, no girl-chasing casanova as was expected of me in adolescence, but my silence was disruptive enough.
Writers are obsessed with origin stories. We ask ourselves: how did I come to language? Why this obsession, out of all the ways to spend one’s time?
I have heard it said that kids find books, if they do so on their own, to escape, or they go to them to expand their horizons.
But really, I wasn’t looking to detach from my life, and I wasn’t looking for adventure, though I benefited from both. In the face of alienation from my surroundings, there in my search through hundreds of books what I was looking for was to feel less alone.
I came to language looking for company.
Funny, that in words I found companionship.
Funny, that this love for words made me isolate myself even more.
Balm and poison, as it were.
It took me a long time to realize that books are not people. That my love for words and sentences and stories could not replace real life relationships. Because real life relationships are nuanced and challenging and changing. Imagined people and places can’t replace the need for embodied company.
I’m a writer now, most of my days are spent creating and recreating language. But I try, as is my responsibility, to embody the lessons language teaches me by caring for the people in my life out in the world, where it matters most. I go to the birthday parties, the graduations, the family gatherings. I challenge myself and the people I love to show up better and with more intention.
But I also complain about how we only know how to spend time together when there’s an event. A party, brunch, meeting. An Instagram Live conversation with dozens of spectators. It all reminds me of my upbringing. I often ask myself, who are we together, when it’s quiet?
I imagine it’s the same thing I was looking for when I came to language. It’s there in a book written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel I picked up in third grade as I was learning English.
“They were two close friends sitting alone together.”
How ridiculous I must sound, saying “I want to be alone with you.” And yet.
Alejandro Heredia is a queer Afro-Dominican writer and community organizer born in Santo Domingo and raised in The Bronx. He is a 2018 VONA/Voices fellow and 2019 Dreamyard Rad(ical) Poetry Consortium Fellow. Myriam Gurba selected Alejandro’ s chapbook, You’re the Only Friend I Need, as the winner of the 2019 Gold Line Press Fiction Chapbook Contest. The book was published in summer 2021. Alejandro’ s work has been featured in Auburn Avenue Magazine, La Galeria Magazine, No Dear Magazine, and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate at Hunter College.