What I Understand

Anna Denniston - Ecuador


February 1, 2019

Some afternoons, when our mom kicks us out of the house and tells us to go
play, my younger brother and I will trudge up the road and then off into
the woods, where there is a waterless river we like to walk in. We slowly
bumble our way along the riverbed, searching for nice-looking stones and
rocks, ones that shine or have pretty colors. We scan the dry banks for
ones shaped like pistols or hearts, both of which give Danny equal
fascination. He’ll pick one up that vaguely resembles a four-year old’s
depiction of a heart and place it in my hand to take home. Danny piles them
in my palms until he can’t balance any more, and so he slips them in his
pockets instead, more and more of them, as we trod along under the sun.
When we finally climb our way out of the river and cut through the field
behind our house, he has to hold his pants up to his stomach so they don’t
slide down his skinny legs under the weight of all the rocks.

Every afternoon after school, in the heat of the day, Danny and I walk the
half mile up the hill to our house. Alone, it takes me just under ten
minutes, but with a hot and tired boy who also happens to be carrying a
backpack and who also happens, no matter how much he complains of the heat,
to not be bothered in the slightest to speed up his pace, it takes us a
solid 25 minutes. I always ask him how school went and he says good, and
that’s about as far as my Spanish can take me. Danny takes on the roll of
initiating conversations, spending a good chunk of our walks trying to
explain things, using hand motions and taking his stories word by word in
hopes I will be able to follow. He knows which words I do and do not know,
and he can always tell when I’m feigning comprehension.

“Ahhh, yah,” I say in my pretense of understanding his story.

“You don’t understand,” he says, and I shake my head and laugh a little at
being caught, apologizing because he’s right, I’m completely lost. It’s at
these moments that he’ll groan and put his head in his hands, and I see
what it must feel like all the time, living with me, how frustrating it
must be to have to interact with a girl who can’t understand you and who
you rarely can understand. But then he’ll take a deep breath and start his
story again, slowly, patiently, stopping every other word to see if I’m
still following. And it’s at these moments that I feel my chest constrict
with such appreciation and love that I can’t even concentrate on his story
anymore, only on him, this skinny eight year old, with his soft brown skin
and his big front teeth and his long black eyelashes, trudging along next
to me. When he sees I’m not following, he starts again.

A few times, a family member or neighbor with whom I infrequently converse
with will be telling me something, usually in a speed a little faster than
I am used to, usually with words a little more advanced than my basic
vocabulary, and Danny, who will be just off the side playing or eating,
will jump into the conversation.

“She doesn’t know that word,” he’ll say.

“You don’t know that word?” Aunt Juanita will ask, in that way adults
verify with a five-year old that they don’t, in fact, like the brussel
sprouts. I shake my head, and so she’ll start trying to explain what it is,
and I will have gotten no farther in my understanding than I was before
until Danny jumps in again, using words he knows I will be able to follow,
talking slowly, confidently, making references to things only us would
know, like “remember how we did that thing yesterday…” and “it’s like in
Mom’s room…” until it clicks, and the family member can carry on.

One afternoon, we were walking up the street, under the sun, and a car
drove by.

“Annie,” Danny said. He’s the only one who calls me Annie. “Some cars are
small but they’re fast, and other cars are big but they’re slow.”

A lot of the time in conversations, I base my understanding and thus my
response on just the few words that I manage to pick up. I got “small” and
“fast” and for some reason jumped to the conclusion he was talking about my
steps. So I started taking very small, very fast steps. Danny stopped
walking, and began studying me and the odd way I had suddenly begun moving
my feet.

“Annie.” His voice was calm, simple. I like the way my name sounds when it
comes from his mouth.

“Yah?”

“The cars.” Here he stopped to make sure I understood. “Some are small but
fast, and some are big but slow.”

“Ohhhhhh.” I understood now. He could tell. We carried on up the hill.

Danny making his way up the hill to home, using his

Spider-Man backpack to shade his face from the sun

Other afternoons, he’ll take his marbles out of his pockets and we’ll count
them, just to be sure he has the same amount he had when we counted them
the day before. He’ll show me each one, and I’ll oooo and ahhhh and pick my
favorites. Sometimes, he’ll stop at the store, a room no bigger than the
average American’s kitchen but that somehow has everything you could need
stored on its shelves, and he’ll buy us five-cent freeze pops. The rest of
the walk mainly consists of us saying how delicious they are, how cold, how
sweet, and comparing the blueness of our tongues. Some afternoons, when
walking up the hill under such strong rays, the heat will prove too much
for the small boy, so he’ll take his shirt off and balance his Spider-Man
backpack on his head, shading his face from the sun, and in this way he’ll
proceed up the hill. Other days, when it is a little less hot and he has a
little more energy, he’ll swing his backpack up and over his head and try
and slide his little arms through the straps. One these days our walk takes
even longer, because of all the times we have to stop while he picks his
bag off the street, where it fell when he failed to slide his arms through
in time. Some days, though not often, we walk in silence, him taking two
steps to my one, no words beyond the occasional “buenos dias” to the people
we pass.

Danny buys himself and I 5 cents freeze pops

at the local store for our walk home from school.

My mom always has lunch on the stove when Danny and I drag our tired selves
into the kitchen. Every burner has a pot on it, boiling over with sauces
and chicken, potatoes and pasta, and, of course, rice. She’ll place our
plates in front of us, calling us her Queen and her King, always giving us
the best pieces of chicken, or the fullest cups of freshly squeezed juice,
and we’ll scrape our plates clean, except for Danny, who always has a
little left over to put in our dog’s bowl. Stomachs full and the sun still
brutally strong, we stay indoors for the next few hours.

Some afternoons we’ll draw. Or rather, he’ll trace pictures off my computer
screen, usually of XXXtentation, Danny’s favorite singer and absolute icon,
who’s music he blasts from my phone, walking around the house with it and
singing along in his slurred English. I sing with him, around the house, in
the backseat of the car, on walks home from school. Sometimes he’ll be
sitting next to me on the bed or the couch and just start humming, and I’ll
join in, and together we’ll sing along to the vulgar lyrics of the abusive
rapper, nodding our heads to the beat and making rock and roll symbols with
our fingers.

Other times, he’ll trace hearts and roses, which he won’t let me see until
it’s done, and which he then gives me as a gift.

“For you!” he proclaims, and I admire them and thank him, and hang them in
my room.

Danny plays a lot of Fortnite. I would mind all the time he spends on the
iPad except that it’s actually such a social thing between us. Sometimes
I’ll be in my room and he’ll come in and throw himself and the iPad on my
bed next to me, just so that we are together. I’ll read, or close my eyes,
and every now and then he’ll tap me to show me the cool dance move his
player is doing, or to show me how much money he has, or to point out the
butterflies because he knows I like them. It seems like the game is always
loading, always updating, and we spend many hours killing time while
waiting for it to finish, rough-housing on the bed or playing with the dog
or scribbling our signatures on the back pages of my notebooks.

Sometimes, his game will malfunction and he’ll bring my iPad to me with the
expectation that I will fix it; that I will somehow, magically, not only
understand the Spanish that explains what’s wrong, but understand it enough
to get it working again. I usually end up shrugging my shoulders and giving
him my saddest face, to show him how truly sorry I am that I can’t help. He
never gets angry that I can’t solve his problems for him, never seems
annoyed that the older and accordingly wiser person in the house can’t help
him. He simply takes the iPad back and fiddles around with it until he gets
it up and running again, at which he’ll show me, proudly, his success.

Danny really is a clever kid. Not just when it comes to making his Fortnite
work again, but in school, too. Every night, he and I sit around the table
on the plastic chairs while our mom bustles about the kitchen making
dinner, or washing dishes, or just putzing and making things better than
they were before. He has to memorize all the provinces of Ecuador and their
capitals, and he insists that I too memorize these names, names that by no
stretch of the imagination roll of my tongue. And so we take turns reciting
the provinces and their capitals, him getting great joy out of the bumbling
way I pronounce them, our mom letting out giggles from the kitchen. Danny
never just laughs my pronunciation off, though. He’ll say the name, and
I’ll repeat it, and then he’ll say it syllable by syllable until either
he’s satisfied, or he figures it’s a lost cause and tells me to just move
on to the next word.

At 7 o’clock, Mondays through Fridays, is the novella. We usually end up
scarfing our dinner, telling each other to hurry up and eat so that we can
find out what happens to Emma and Rome and Georgia, whose mention makes
Danny make a face, because Georgia is the most evil and we all hate her. My
mom sets the dishes in the sink to be washed tomorrow, when there is no
novella to catch, and we race up to her room, snuggling under the covers to
watch the latest drama unfold. During the commercials, my brother will
begin listing off the provinces of Ecuador and their capitals, my mom
helping him, me repeating the words under my breath for practice in case I
am suddenly called upon to recite them. When he messes up or forgets, he
insists on starting over from the beginning, so he can prove he can do all
of them, in order, from memory. And he does, until my mom tells him to
hush, because the novella is back on.

Then we brush our teeth. Danny always makes sure I don’t skip out on
brushing my teeth. After the nouvella, we’ll climb out from under the
covers and go to the bathroom to brush, Danny making a point to show me his
foaming blue mouth. He likes to use the mirror in my room to watch his
teeth turn blue with paste, to watch himself scrub his tongue, to make
faces at himself and then call me over to see them.

“Annie! Annie!” He’ll shout from my room, and I’ll come in to find him
standing there, his mouth open, blue-tinted spit dripping onto my floor.

“Ew Danny!” And then I’ll get the toilet paper and wipe it up, while he
scurries past to the bathroom to spit, laughing and holding his head back
to keep the paste in his mouth.

Most nights, after saying good night to our mom and before retreating to
our own rooms, Danny will jump on my bed for a bit.

“Annie! Annie! Watch!” He’ll do a front flip, or a handless cartwheel.
Sometimes he’ll just throw himself around. One night he puts my headband
over his eyes and flips blindly. Another night, I take videos of him
flipping and then we watch them in reverse on the snapchat filter. His
acrobatics always end with me carrying his small body to his room and
tossing him onto his bed and telling him to get in his PJs.

Some nights, my mom, Danny and I will go out (missing the nouvella, as
Danny reminds us throughout the night) to a family gathering or a birthday
party or some social event full of bustling, laughing Spanish-speakers,
none of whom seem at all interested in trying to start a conversation with
the gringa sitting quietly off to the side. I don’t blame them. My mom goes
off to help and my brother scurries off to play, and I continue to sit
there, slumped, not unlike a dead frog, scraping nail polish off my
fingertips or feigning fascination with the pictures on the walls. I’ll sit
like this until food, and after food, I’ll sit like this some more, having
no idea of when we’ll be leaving, only feeling my eyelids getting harder
and harder to keep open. It’s then that Danny will appear and slide himself
onto my lap, and we’ll take pictures using the different snapchat filters.
He’ll add heart stickers and sparkles, and shield the screen from me while
he writes Love You Annie, and then show it to me, grinning, and I’ll wrap
my arms around his bony shoulders and squeeze him extra tight.

There is not much here that I understand. My days are just a blur of
moments where I am confused, where I am lost, where I’m not following in
the slightest where we’re going or why we’re going there, days where I have
no clue who these people are moving their mouths at me, and even less of a
clue as to what they’re saying. I shrug my shoulders and shake my head more
often than not, asking for my mom to repeat and then repeat yet again the
basic thing she is trying to tell me. I understand just about as much as
Danny understands of his XXXtentation songs he loves so much. But just like
Danny and his XXXtentation, it doesn’t really matter. The specifics — the
lyrics, the conversations — at the end of the day, those aren’t all that
important. All we know, whether it be rap music, or moments that stretch
into days that have now, somehow, stretched themselves into months, is that
it is good.

Sometimes, though not often enough, I’ll take my brother’s head in my hands
and kiss his cheeks, or I’ll squeeze his tiny body against my own, or I’ll
rub his hair as I walk past, to let him know I love him. And sometimes, on
our walks home from school under the strong rays of the sun, he’ll take my
arm and slowly slide his hand down into mine, and that’s where it will
stay, just long enough for me to understand that it is in fact this boy,
this small eight year old kid who struggles just to keep his pants from
sliding down his skinny hips, that I lean on so heavily and who never, not
once, has let me fall.

Anna Denniston