If you had asked me when I was a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I probably would have said a forensic pathologist. It was a good fit, because I was so shy, I walked behind the other kids in school so I wouldn't have to interact with them. I grew up Catholic, so death was a constant in my thoughts, and you don't have to talk to dead people.
On top of that, although I had been born in the United States, I spent most of my childhood in Spain, so my English was full of errors. I translated everything from Spanish literally: Instead of "Please turn on the light," I would say, "Please open the light." And a phrase like "Me too" became "Same thing I say. " I sounded like a grade-school Yoda.
I quickly became aware of the endless ways I could say or do something stupid. And I watched my Spanish mother deal with it constantly, in a country that wasn't her own. This was northern Virginia, and in our town it seemed like everyone spoke perfect English, so I understood why my mother would sometimes ask me to answer our landline or call her doctor's office to confirm her appointments.
But then there'd be other moments where she'd forget herself, and those times it would be in public. Like when she'd get excited in the middle of JC Penney and yell out at me: "CARMEN, ¿TE GUSTA ESTE VESTIDO? ¿QUE TAL ESTE? ¿¿O ESTE??¿¿CARMEN?? CARMEN, ¿¿DONDE ESTAS??" I would hide behind racks of clothes, waiting for her to stop blabbing in Spanish, because anyone in hearing distance was staring at the weird foreign lady talking to herself. Of course, the fact that she couldn't find me only made her shout louder.
If there was ever the perfect opportunity to hide from anything embarrassing, it came in the seventh grade, when I was diagnosed with scoliosis. Dr. Esposito, my orthopedic doctor, said: "we need to fit you into a back brace," and I started to cry. Like I needed another reason to stick out! Half-Spanish, the tallest girl in my class, and now I'd have a shell of hard plastic on my back. Dr. Esposito said, "Don't worry, you'll STILL date." Who did he think I was dating? It's not like I was talking to other kids even with my spine straight.
I started middle school with a back brace on, and only one thing made sense: to never tell a soul. I grew up with the idea that you're supposed to hide your flaws. I didn't even tell my best friend Alison or her boyfriend, Houston, with whom I spent so much time they were basically my second set of parents. But one day at school, Houston tapped my back, and I must've felt like the man of steel. "What's this?" he said. I replied, nonchalantly, "Oh, it's just a back brace I have to wear … what's up with you guys?," trying to change the subject.
After that, Houston would knock on my brace as if it were a door while endearingly saying: "Knock-knock!," and although it made me feel like maybe they accepted me, something about it still felt off. I couldn't let it go — I couldn't accept the brace because that would somehow mean I was OK with it. And then I might let my guard down! And then what? Bend over and reveal my plastic shell? Let the world discover it and decide it wanted nothing to do with me? I couldn't take that chance.