芮斯太太的奇妙世界

她向我展示的人生,證明了我可能擁有的未來
Heather Sellers◎撰

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我於一九七○年代在佛羅里達州奧蘭多市郊的一個問題家庭中長大。我們住的社區和周遭其他社區,一律挨着一片日益縮小的橙樹林。在一成不變的屋海中,獨留一座農莊,像座浮島般的牧場,上面有馬、有牛,還有一座大花園。農場主屋是一棟二十世紀初美術工藝運動風格的三層樓建築,不但有寬闊的門廊,廊上還有一架鞦韆。我愛極了那幢童話故事般的房子。

它跟我和母親同住的地方截然不同。我們家總是陰陰暗暗的,對於交友立有嚴格規矩,就是:不准交朋友。母親說,絕對不能和任何人說話。她深受重度憂鬱和被害妄想症所苦;對她來說,光是度過一天,就像打一場仗。

我很好奇,是誰住在隔壁那處世外桃源?有的時候,我會瞥見那家的男主人騎在馬背上,手握套索。還有的時候,我看會着兩個男孩(一頭深色鬈髮)在牧場上奔跑,後邊跟着兩隻邊境牧羊犬緊追不捨。我從未見過女主人,但整個情景就像天堂,我渴望加入那個家庭。

六年級某天,班上來了一位身材嬌小、髮色烏黑的女人,塗着鮮紅的唇膏、金色的眼影,和厚厚的睫毛膏。她是芮斯太太。芮斯太太說她打算辦一個西班牙社團,邀請有興趣學習西班牙語言和文化的同學放學後留下來。

我目不轉睛,緊緊盯着她的玳瑁手鐲和閃閃發光的藍綠色戒指。

下課鐘響,我很驚訝竟沒有人去找芮斯太太。母命森嚴,下課後我必須直接回家,但那天我留連不去。終於,我問芮斯太太社團何時開始。

「如果你願意,我們現在就可以開始,」她說,眼裏泛着笑意,彷彿我們共享了一個祕密。我覺得美妙極了。我覺得我的西班牙語流利,一切都很順暢。我們就這樣在走廊上相聚。當天,她教了我這個問句:「你家在哪裏?」那時,我才知道芮斯太太就住在有男孩和牧羊犬的大房子裏,我夢想的房子原來就是她的家。那天,我學會回答這些問題:我的年齡、我最愛的食物「冰淇淋」,和我認識的每一隻「狗」的名字。我還學到「你明天放學後想不想來我家學做菜?」

Sí, sí, sí. 還有什麼字眼可以用來說好?

但我媽斷然否決。絕對不行。我們絕不能和鄰居混在一塊。

整個夏天,我都纏着母親,對她曉以大義,直到入秋、西班牙社團解散為止。人家邀請我到那棟房子去玩,你非得讓我去不可。我說得一副攸關生死的樣子。的確也是。有時我在夜裏哭泣,深恐我還來不及去上烹飪課、還來不及踏進那棟房子之前,芮斯太太和她的牛仔丈夫、兩個黑色鬈髮英俊男孩就會搬走。

終於,我媽煩不過我。一個週六下午,我騎着腳踏車,朝那座小農場而去。紫紅色的九重葛在他們家門廊蔓延開來,門上有隻大銅手,是門環。芮斯太太隆重地打開大門,迎我進去。

我們坐在她家紅色的天鵝絨沙發上喝茶,她把我的腳趾塗成深紅,教我怎麼為非洲堇澆水;而幾乎每個房間都擺了花團錦簇的非洲堇。那天下午的細節深深烙印在我腦海裏:我們做了酪梨醬,又做了蒜香濃郁的什錦肉醬。我慎重其事地在白紙上寫下食譜,在她說明步驟時一一記錄。大蒜永遠不嫌多。我們用西班牙語交談,我說起西語時聲音響亮、浪漫、堅定。這才是真正的我!我記得當時自己這麼想。

芮斯先生開着巨大的藍色福特卡車回來,停好車就直接去穀倉。跟我同班的泰原本在屋外玩耍,現在也進來了。芮斯太太把一隻手放在他頭上——瞧那頭漂亮的黑鬈髮,和那雙狂野的藍眼睛,另隻手——還有那些閃閃發光的戒指——則放在我背上,把我們倆拉近。Mi novia(我的女朋友),mi novio(我的男朋友)。這讓我不安,同時也感到一陣悸動。

泰跑上閣樓——得爬三段階梯,芮斯太太慫恿我跟上去。她認真而熱烈地點頭,彷彿在說,踏進你的人生吧。但好像有點不對勁。我並不想親吻男孩,我只想烤dulces(甜點)。

我一回家就對媽宣布,我們得立刻去買什錦肉醬的材料。「你身上的味道不一樣。」她懷疑地打量我。我是不一樣了。徹徹底底地不一樣了。

她說不行。「你明知道我不能忍受家裏有大蒜。」她痛恨那氣味。我告訴母親:「芮斯太太用了兩倍的大蒜。」一霎時,所有的委屈、得意、背叛和傑出等感受全湧上心頭,內心五味雜陳。我的腳趾甲就像祕密的珠寶般,在球鞋裏閃閃發光。

我知道,將來我自己家裏一定永遠都會有大蒜;我知道,只要一有機會,我一定會把指甲塗成最深、最濃的腥紅色。我知道,我會學會跳舞,會說一口流利的西班牙語。

耶誕節時,泰送我一條銀項鍊,是他們全家去哥倫比亞旅行時帶回來的。他在學校偷偷塞給我。

從那次之後,媽再也沒答應我去芮斯太太的家,偶爾,我會遠遠看到她在晾衣服,或者打掃他們又寬又深的前門廊。但是四十年過去了,經過無數次搬家,我依舊保留那條項鍊,墜子是個銀色的小人,上頭刻着奇怪的符號。這個幸運符象徵她向我展示的人生,證明了我可能擁有的未來。


The Curious World of Mrs. Reese

I grew up in a troubled home in the 1970s, on the outskirts of downtown Orlando, Florida. Our subdivision was one of many that backed up to a dwindling orange grove. One remnant farm, an island of pastureland with horses, a few cattle, and an enormous garden, remained among the sea of tract houses. The home was an early-1900s Arts and Crafts three-story with a great porch, complete with a swing. I loved that storybook house.

It was nothing like the one I lived in with my mother, a dark place with strict rules about befriending others. As in: Don’t. Never, ever talk to anyone, my mother said. She suffered from profound depression and paranoid delusions. Just getting through the day was a war for my mother.

Who lives on that utopian plot of land next door? I wondered. Sometimes I glimpsed the father on a horse with a lasso. Sometimes I saw the two boys—dark curly hair—running around the land, chased by two border collies. I never saw the mother, but the whole operation looked like heaven, and I yearned to join that family.

One day, in sixth grade, a petite, raven-haired woman wearing ruby-red lipstick, gold eye shadow, and thick mascara was introduced to our class: Mrs. Reese. Mrs. Reese explained that she was starting Spanish Club. She invited anyone interested in learning Spanish language and culture to stay after school.

I could not take my eyes off her tortoiseshell bracelets, her sparkling aquamarine rings.

The bell rang, and to my shock, no one went up to Mrs. Reese. I was under a strict order to go straight home. But that day, I lingered. I finally asked Mrs. Reese when the club started.

“We could begin right now if you like,” she said. She smiled with her eyes, as though we were in on a secret. I felt beautiful. I felt fluent in Spanish, fluent in everything. We met right there in the hallway, and that day she taught me this question: ¿Dónde está su casa? That’s when I learned that Mrs. Reese lived in the mansion with the kids and the collies. The house of my dreams was her house. That day, I learned how to answer questions about my age, my favorite food (¡helado!), and the names of every perro I had known. And I learned, Do you want to come over tomorrow after school for cooking lessons?

Sí, sí, sí. What is another word for yes?

But my mother had been definitive. Never. We could not mix with the neighbors.

I harangued my mother all summer and into fall, well after Spanish Club had dissolved. I have been invited to that house. You have to let me go.
I spoke as though my life depended on it. It did. I wept at night sometimes, so worried that Mrs. Reese and her cowboy husband and those two beautiful boys with the black curly hair would move away before I could get my cooking lesson. Before I could get inside.

At some point, I managed to wear my mother down, and one Saturday afternoon, I got on my bike and rode out to the little farm. Fuchsia bougainvillea ran rampant around the porch. There was a great bronze hand, a door knocker. Mrs. Reese opened the door grandly and ushered me in.

We had tea on her red velvet sofa. She painted my toenails crimson. She showed me how to water the African violets that lived in clusters in nearly every room. The details of that afternoon are etched in my mind: We made guacamole and then a garlicky picadillo. I carefully wrote out the recipes on white paper, making notes as she explained the steps. You can’t have too much garlic. We spoke in Spanish. In Spanish, my voice was loud, romantic, assertive. This is the real me! I remember thinking.

Mr. Reese pulled onto the property in a gigantic blue Ford truck and went straight to the barn. Ty, who was in my class at school, came in from playing outside. Mrs. Reese put one hand on top of his head—those gorgeous black curls, those wild blue eyes. She put her other hand, all those sparkling rings—on my back. She pressed us toward each other. Mi novia, mi novio. It was alarming. And thrilling.

Ty ran up to the attic—three flights. Mrs. Reese encouraged me to follow. She nodded, serious, vibrant, as though saying, Step into your life. But it wasn’t quite right. I did not want to kiss a boy; I wanted to bake dulces.

When I got home, I announced to my mother that we had to get the ingredients for picadillo immediately. “You smell different,” she said, eyeing me suspiciously. I am different. I am completely different.

She said no. “You know I can’t have garlic in the house.” She hated the smell. I felt hurt, proud, disloyal, and brilliant, all at once, when I told my mother, “Mrs. Reese doubles the garlic.” My toenails, secret jewels, sparkled in my sneakers.

I knew I’d always have garlic in my house. I knew I’d paint my nails the deepest, bloodiest red, first chance I got. I knew I’d learn to dance, become fluent in Spanish.

For Christmas, Ty gave me a silver necklace from their family trip to Colombia, slipping it to me at school.

My mother never permitted me another visit to Mrs. Reese’s house, and I saw her only occasionally from a distance, hanging laundry on the line or sweeping their cavernous front porch. But four decades and countless moves later, I still have the necklace: a little silver man, carved with strange symbols, a talisman from the life she showed me, proof of a possible future.

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