My neighbor Juan’s house burned down on Thanksgiving, 2010. The remains of that house are long gone, and now—finally—there’s a brand-new one in its place. Juan’s house no longer resembles mine or anyone else’s on the block. We all have homes built in the 80’s; they are not grand, but most are tidy and well-kept.
Juan’s house looks more like something out of Architectural Digest. I used to live in a house like Juan’s when I was married, but Juan’s is even better than that. It is homey and spacious, inviting and grand. All the colors and arches and rooms come together to say: Enjoy this home, and live well here. That’s the house’s vibe, even without furniture yet.
Because Juan is a generous man who keeps his promises, he came knocking on our doors last weekend, inviting all of us neighbors to come over later for a housewarming. We could wander through the empty house and see its spaciousness, the sparkling toilets, the laundry room (as opposed to what we all have: a laundry cubbyhole.) We could bring our own drinks and a dish to pass, if we wanted.
“Can I bring my kitten Leo?” I asked Juan as we stood on the patio outside my front door. “He’s very well-behaved and the kids would love him.”
Juan considered this idea, then said, “Sure! Bring him over. That will be good.” Then he was off to my other next-door neighbors’, and then across the street.
I showered up and dressed for a hot summer evening: my wet hair twisted into a bun, a presentable t-shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. I ordered a large pepperoni pizza and a two-liter of Pepsi, and when it arrived, I went to find Leo. He had chased his sisters off their bed again and was sprawled out on their comforter, a blue and white Cowboys blanket that’s fuzzy and warm…an artifact, actually, from my ex-husband's life. I think the blanket is mine now, or more precisely, it belongs to my cats.
I gathered together the bottle of Pepsi, the pizza, Leo, and my keys. I let myself out of the house and picked my way carefully over to Juan’s next door: over my plants, over the pavers that separate our property, through the small crowd that had gathered in Juan’s front yard. “Hello!” I said to everyone. “I’m Kate, the neighbor next door.” In the old days, they would have already known that, but these are new days.
I rang Juan’s glorious bell and he answered with gusto, excited and proud to have this house to share. I walked into the fancy kitchen, put my pizza and Pepsi down on the counter, then walked straight to where I saw the children sitting: at a table in a room across the house, away from the grown-up hubbub and tías and tíos, abuelos—it was the kids’ table, like the one I used to sit at. “Who wants to hold the kitty?” I asked. “His name is Leo.”
Everybody, especially the girls, wanted to hold Leo. I left him in good hands. I was enjoying a flavored water in the front yard, getting to know the Willie Nelson impersonator who lives across the street from me and who I'd seen, but never met, when the crowd parted and Juan appeared at my side.
“Kathy…,” he began.
“It’s ‘Kate’, Juan,” I said.
“Yes yes, sorry, Kate, I have to ask you a favor. Can you take your kitten home?” Blood drained from my face and my heart beat faster as I imagined what awful deed Leo had done. “He didn’t pee, did he? Oh my God, Juan—did he do something in your house?”
Juan shifted on his feet, looking back at his beautiful home from the dirt-covered front yard where a bunch of us were standing: me, Nabe, Willie Nelson, Willie’s wife, a cute single dad from a couple doors down who I’d never met before.
“No no, Kathy, it is not that. The older people have allergies. Having a cat around makes them….”
“Uncomfortable?” I offered.
“Yes!” Juan said. “They are uncomfortable. Could you take the kitten home?”
“Of course!” I said. “Right away, no worries.” I went in, scooped up Leo—still playing with the sweet girls—and carried him to my house. “In you go,” I said, gently shoving him through a sliver of open door, turning on my own tail and returning to the gathering of people: the neighbors mostly outside, finally getting to know one another, the family inside, getting to know their new house.
Days later I talked to my niece Shanna on the phone, a catch-up call. My niece is a high school chemistry teacher in southern Arizona: she knows science as well as she knows mixed crowds.
“I took Leo over to Juan’s housewarming party,” I said. “I don’t think he was well-received. Juan asked me to take him home.”
My niece sighed her sigh. Her gears started turning. “He asked you to take Leo home because people had allergies?” she said, not convinced. “How many allergens can a ten ounce kitten produce? I don’t think it was that.” She sighed again and thought some more. “Down here, they say cats are bad luck. It’s a superstition, but still, that’s real for some people.”
We sat in silence on the phone for awhile, letting this idea sink in.
“So at Juan’s housewarming,” I finally said, “I brought over a bad luck cat and flaunted it?”
“That’s the way it seems,” my niece said. “I mean, it definitely could be interpreted as that.” I think of all the right things I want to do in the world—teach students well, travel, continually challenge myself, be a good neighbor—and all I see is my placing a bundle of bad luck in the middle of somebody else’s new start.
You need to learn Spanish, I scold myself later at bedtime, a twenty-year-old scold that gets repeated in my prayers most nights with many other needs. Learn a little Spanish, the sleepy clouds of my brain say. Poquito rhymes with mosquito; they are both very small.
I know huevo, bano, dentista, and agua. I know no, si, gracias, cerveza, and dinero. I know hola and adios. I know that the best way to admit you’ve dropped something is not to say, “I dropped it.” You should say, “It fell from me,” putting the blame somewhere else, not on you.
I love Spanish. It is the language for me.