It Was UnclearPosted: September 16, 2011
Some stories are simple, yet complicated to tell (or, perhaps, complicated to understand when, like me, complete concentration is a thing only successfully attained by magicians and people who attend private universities). But this story is simple in both idea and degree of difficulty in the storytelling category. It just happens to be about the complexity of communication. The moral (which, I know, is usually reserved for the end but I’ll happily share now for those like-minded individuals who won’t make it past this paragraph) is: if you can’t understand someone, it’s more than likely the case that they also can’t understand you.
Now, allow me to get out of my own way:
I had been asleep at my desk, this being a direct result of having struggled with the 41 Across clue (Spanish shellfish, 10 letters of which the second and last were both a) from the Friday NY Times crossword (two side points: (1) please understand that Friday is so much more challenging that Monday, in the event that Monday’s is the only one you’ve ever tried and happened to complete and (2) the answer was langostina). My office phone woke me up. Racing to add to the potential commission to my monthly tally (and keeping it from falling into the wayward hands of one of my insane/socially unviable co-workers), I un-reclined my chair and—without a thought of who might be on the other end and with a healthy balance of excitement and fear—I answered the call.
I had momentarily forgotten both my manners and the name of my company. So I sat there, clutching the receiver and pressing it against my cheek and ear, stewing in the death of quiet.
“Alo?” a man said into the silence. His voice was one part Spanish and one part Caribbean.
“Yeah, I’m here,” I finally blurted out.
“What?” he said.
“What what?” Now we were both confused.
“It wasn’t clear?”
“What wasn’t clear?” I asked.
“Is that what you said?” he asked. “That is wasn’t clear?”
“What? Are you asking me if I asked you if it wasn’t clear?”
“Umm…no,” I replied. I had no idea what could have possibly been unclear about this conversation so far (other than the point of the conversation itself). And this is where a terrible prejudice of mine came into play. I had always assumed in this sort of situation that if someone couldn’t understand what I was saying it was due to a general deficiency on his or her part. Possible causes: (1) that person was stupid; (2) that person didn’t speak English; (3) that person had been educated in a place where the style of phonics was more important than the substance of comprehension; (4) that person could only afford to live in an area with dodgy cell phone coverage—this last option obviously only being possible when communicating via telephone, but in our modern world it would have been careless to omit.
Wiping the slate of conversation clean (and having completely forgotten what I’d even said to begin with), I continued with my usual introductory spiel and bevy of questions about this man’s current financial needs (i.e. the reason for his call).
It didn’t take long for the caller—who I’ll call Franco because I came to learn that he was Puerto Rican and the only Puerto Rican whose name I can remember is a fictional one from a favorite television show of mine—to both confuse and shock me.
“So you’re engaged to the woman who owns the house, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” he confirmed.
“And you want to get her off the mortgage and put yourself and—I’m sorry—you and who?”
“The mother of my fiancé,” he repeated, which was necessary because the cobwebs of my nap were still fettering my every thought.
The reason why some people did this was to get someone off the mortgage who might not have sufficient credit to qualify for a new one. So to secure a lower rate and earn the right to wear the unbearable coat of financial responsibility that most of us have no place shouldering, it was deemed a reasonably standard practice to find someone else to wear that burden with you—at least on paper (until you realized three years later that this person disappeared like David Copperfield in a house of needles and left you wearing the coat alone like a brown bear fur in the Panamanian jungle). This would have been typical. However, this was not why Franco wanted his fiancé supplanted by her mother on the mortgage. Why then?
“Because she and I are going to get married now,” Franco said.
“You and your fiancé,” I confirmed, unsure why it was necessary to say this since I incorrectly assumed that he and I could agree that fiancé meant the same thing to both of us.
“No! No! No!” His patience was waning. “To her mother.”
“Okay,” I said. “I think I understand. You’re going to marry your fiancé’s mother and you’re going to ditch the current fiancé, right?”
“Right,” I said. “You’re going to get rid of her.”
“Oh, no, sir,” he said. “No one’s going to get rid of her. She’s just moving out.” A common miscommunication for some people, I’m sure.
“Right,” I said. “That’s what I meant. But…why?” This, of course, is the most asshole-ish word in the English language: why. I wish I had never learned it, but we all had to be two years old at some point.
“Because I love her,” he said. “Mirabella is a woman.”
“And that’s…the mother?”
“Yes, sir. She’s a woman, and my fiancé is just a little girl.”
It was right around this point where my skin began to crawl. I wanted to hang up, but there was business to be done (and, having a morbid curiosity, I simply had to meet this guy). So I invited the family to come down to my office where we could complete the required paperwork to get his deal moving forward.
“Does next Tuesday work for you?” I asked.
“No,” he said without any sort of counteroffer.
“How about Wednesday?”
“What day does work for you then?” I asked.
“I will be in Florida until Thursday with my fiancé,” he said.
“Okay,” I replied. A pre-wedding honeymoon, I figured. “A romantic trip with the fiancé?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. I could hear his lascivious smile. “Very much romance.”
We set a day to meet shortly after his return and I gave him one important thing to remember: “No matter what, don’t forget to bring your fiancé.” I said this because I wanted to make sure that the woman he was ditching—yes, getting rid of—was a willing participant in this fiasco. It seemed odd, at best, that she was going to walk away from her home and her man all at once without any sort of fight. I’d seen West Side Story as a kid, and I couldn’t believe any Puerto Rican woman could be giving up that easily.
He said he understood, and we hung up our respective lines. The following week came. At the time of our appointment, I was happy to see that Franco was on time and had a woman in tow. She was old and lopsided and her hair was half black and half burnt orange and her knees, which were exposed beneath her much-too-short yellow polyester dress, were brown and crusty and fatty and circularly layered like a week-old cinnamon bun. Not to mention that while I knew Franco was only twenty-two, she looked to be in her sixties. If this was the fiancé, then I’d hate to meet her mother.
“I am Franco,” he said with a smile so wide it was only outdone by his large, yawning eyes. “And this is my love, Mirabella.”
I was pretty sure at this point that he had brought the wrong fiancé. I led them into a private conference room, and we sat down in black leather chairs along one side of an elongated oval table.
“I thought I told you to bring your fiancé,” I said to Franco.
“Yes,” he said. “Mirabella is my fiancé now.”
I had almost forgotten my manners again. “Hi, Mirabella. Pleased to meet you.” That was a lie. I was shocked and horrified.
“She doesn’t speak any English,” he said for her.
“Okay. But I meant your old fiancé,” I said. Mirabella looked offended, which was odd since she supposedly couldn’t understand a single word I was saying. Her unibrow was raised on one side and began to slightly lift up the other end.
“I didn’t understand. It was unclear,” Franco said. “And there is no old fiancé. Only Mirabella now. Only one fiancé.”
“But I can’t really do this without her,” I said to them both. “I really need the other—her daughter—to be here.”
“But it was unclear!” he repeated, this time raising his voice to a yell. He stood, hovering over both his lover and me. “We must do this now! Why can’t we do this now? Time is very important now!”
“I’m sorry, Franco, but—”
“It was unclear!!!” He was panicked.
“Okay, Franco,” I said softly, trying to restore calm. “I get that it was unclear, and I’m sorry for that. We can work through some of these papers and you can bring her back another time. Maybe tomorrow?”
“Yes,” he said, sitting back down and patting Mirabella’s pancake palm. “I will bring her tomorrow.”
As we went through the fifty or so pages of signatures and warnings and needs-to-know sort of things, I made small talk as I did with all my clients.
“So how was your little romantic get-away to Florida?”
Sometimes time can be a funny thing. An hour can seem like a day, or a day a week. And other times you can take one single second and split it up into individual micro-parts like atoms that can’t be seen or charted or magnified at all. It was during one of those micro-parts of a second that Mirabella leaped out of her seat and angrily wrapped her loose-skinned python hands around Franco’s neck, seeming intent on stealing the last bit of breath from her lover’s body. I also jumped out of my chair, unsure if I should go get help or inset myself between these two people. Again, having seen West Side Story, I knew that there was at least a remote chance that someone might pull a knife on me, so I took a few steps back and let the rage ensue.
“Pero qué coño? Mamabicho!” Mirabella yelled at Franco. I still have no idea what that means, but I have a few guesses. It dawned on me just then—as Mirabella lunged toward Franco, her tremendous weight pushing him out of his chair and onto the ground, and as two of my co-workers, alarmed by the screaming hysterics, burst into the room and tried to pry the powerful yet elderly woman from her nimble lover—that I had been confused about which fiancé he was taking on his romantic trip to Florida. I was frozen, but wanted to do something to fix what I had broken. My co-workers were untangling the mess when Mirabella betrayed her secret knowledge of the English language.
“I’m going to fucking kill you!” she screamed. She wrestled away from my co-workers’ collective grasp and dove back on top of Franco.
He looked up at me from underneath her, his eyes filled with horror and hatred, and said, “You motherfucker!”
“I’m sorry Franco!” I screamed. “It was unclear! It was un-fucking-clear!!!”