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Bagel – Avery Trinidad

April 20, 2022

 

She didn’t actually know what a bagel was.

She was very aware who Snoopy was — because he was on the cards that her parents would send to her while she was off at nursing school, and because he was in the cartoons she watched as a child, back when her English was fuzzier and the peso was worth something, and he would show up on the sides of the local newspaper. And she was getting around to these American accents, too. The way ask became axe, water became watuh, the harshness of a voice stemming from Brooklyn or Long Island or some other local geography she hadn’t yet secured in her brain.

It was okay, then, she had reasoned, when she occasionally would mix up he and she in her speech, or when she would make references to the behavior of goats or water buffalo to some of the more disoriented patients, and the city-born nurses would stare at her with a sense of amusement and removed fascination.

She had taken care to, at least, eliminate what her grade school teachers told her were the “failures” of the Filipino accent. “There is V and B, and there is F and P.” Consonant differentiation, her husband would say. That sort of thing.

What was her husband doing right now? Writing another letter to send over to the States, maybe. But it was too late over there for that. 8 p.m. here meant 8 a.m. there, except for when it meant 9 a.m. And so she guessed that he was still in the process of waking up, before he headed over to the law firm later that day. Would he be okay leaving that job for her? It paid well enough. Maybe not for an American, but for them, it could buy them a house in the capital. No, he had to be. It’d be heartbreaking otherwise.

She thought that maybe he would know what a bagel was. He was the one who grew up with American literature. Well, they both did, but he was the type of person to use English even over a casual brunch. He was able to navigate Canada with his friends with no problem, so, clearly he was good at it. She was good at it too, English, but he always seemed to be better. A lawyer had to be good at English.

Her working theory was that it was a Jewish thing, a bagel. This was because when she would pass the Jewish bakeries — the ones with the signs she had been told were meant to look like Hebrew — they always listed the price of one. A bagel. The clothing of that one sect, which she would be told years down the line was Orthodox, often caught her attention. It reminded her to whatever extent of her Muslim neighbors when she was a child down south. The sons always had this particular hat on, and the
daughters would always veil their hair. She would only ever veil her hair in Church. She thought about doing it again, if only for the vaguest hint of familiarity in Manhattan.

One of her neighbors was Jewish. That older woman had mentioned it at some point. That older woman was always really quite awful to the Korean delivery men, of which there were many in New York at that time, but was always quite pleasant to her, so she guessed that perhaps her prejudice wasn’t against all Asians. Or more likely, that older woman had mistaken her to be Puerto Rican or something of the sort. That older woman’s daughter, at least, was always unrelentingly kind, and visited often enough.

Maybe it would be better if she actually was Puerto Rican. Because a block from her apartment was the barrio, where they had their barrio fiestas, something she remembered from her childhood. Her Spanish was good enough to try and pretend, at least. And her children — because they planned to have children, why wouldn’t they have children — would then have people who looked like them, or at the very least would have a rationalization to why their last name was Rivera, as opposed to something more “Asian sounding.” And it wouldn’t just be her, in the apartment, cooking for herself and flipping through the limited amount of channels the television picked up, watching the news reports of gang violence a few streets down. That was except for the Sunday mornings when she would go to Mass and see the Filipina woman in the veil, which the Spaniards called mantilla but she had been taught as velo, who always sat so close to the front of the church, who always reminded her so much of her own mother.

But the mug that said “READY TO TAKE ON THE CHALLENGE OF THE 1990S” was in her left hand, and an empty paper plate was in her right. So when one of the other nurses — the one whose last name was MacOwen, and said she was from Brooklyn, and had said that she also had an Italian grandfather — offered her bagel, she nodded, going through the motions of knowing what a bagel was and what wanting a bagel was. She saw her peers smearing cream cheese between their slices, and so she did the same, ever so slightly startled by the warmth of her own.

And when she took a bite, the shell was firm, but the soft insides reminded her of pan de sal and the sandwich spread that her husband liked so much, and all the bits and bobbles of bread that had passed through her childhood. She ate this bagel, and when the nurses’ brunch was wrapping up and the scattered remainders left out for collection, she took some others into a paper bag, planning to take them all home.

Decades later, when her husband and her sons would know what bagels were, she would pass by the Jewish bakery on her way home from the clinic, with a variety of cheese cream to smear and bagels to throw into the toaster oven. And the bagels and the cream cheese would sit on the dining room table, between the Chinese candies and mangoes from the markets downtown, waiting for someone to be eager enough to try.

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