The real side

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A24/courtesy Everett Collection

I’m approaching my third month as an immigrant. I write those words, think those thoughts, and can still hardly believe it. I start wondering when I will. Maybe confronting a few things will help.

I’m pretty sure every middle-class Venezuelan who took the decision to leave, be it forecefully or willingly, has gone through this. You might have been used to a relatively cozy life, in spite of the growing instability around you. You managed to have a semblance of normalcy in your life –going out to the movies, meeting with friends, going to the beach, et cetera– while at the same time knowing that eventually, something will catch up. It might be that you can’t find anything at the supermarket, or be unable to pay for those beers, or someone you know (or you) gets mugged.

In my case, it was simple. In my forties and still living like a twenty-ýear old. No chance of a place of my own, no future in my job, and a loved one way up north (with an even bleaker life). So a decision had to be taken. I sometimes think it was taken for me, but that’s a lie, unless you say the country did it. No, that was quite voluntarily taken. Doesn’t matter how scared I was in the weeks up to the actual leaving date, how depressed I was thinking of all those I was leaving behind. I may have been less than loving in the first few weeks I got here because of that, and now I can say I’m sorry.

I got here being forced to be an adult pretty quickly. I wasn’t on my own anymore, and I wasn’t just a boyfriend, I was also a stepfather. That means that now I have to worry about rent, car payments (we were more or less forced to buy a new car two weeks in, something which we are now grateful for), and school meetings. That means groceries, medicines, new clothes. That also  meant doing things you never thought you’d be doing.

Orlando is a particular city to emigrate to. During the final decades of the 20th century, its economy was more or less held up by Venezuelans flocking to the parks. I know I came here at least once a year in the late 90’s all the way up to 2001. I could always be sure that I would meet several of my countrypeople in the parks, in the malls, in the food courts. I remember coming back with a suitcase filled with books, CDs, DVDs and new clothes. One time I could even afford bringing something for each of my coworkers.

Now I watch Brazilians carry those same amounts of shopping bags. I hear them (and Argentinians, Chileans, a few Colombians) making plans to go to Universal Studios, Magic Kingdom, EPCOT. I pass by the entrance to SeaWorld every day when I go to work, to Universal Studios every time I drop off my girl at the school bus stop. And it’s like it’s a hundred miles away. It’s eerie that a month or so before I came here, the movie The Florida Project opened, about impoverished families living quite literally under the shadow of Walt Disney World in Kissimmee. I haven’t watched the movie yet, but in a very real sense, I can relate.

It’s under circumstances like this that you truly find out what you’re capable of. You want to buy that hoodie but remember you have to make those car payments. You think about catching a movie but you know you have to pick up your girl. You know that there are things you have to consult with the GF because you share a house, and that goes beyond the physical responsabilities. You long for a dog, a parrot, even a bearded dragon, and you have to remind yourself that you can’t take that decision on your own. And even something as seemingly simple as a book makes you think: “Ok, how many btables do I have to serve? How good are the tips? Do we have anything in particular to buy this month?”

And you get by. Of course, there are days when darkness stops by for a visit, just to say hi, just to remind me it never leaves. I take my moment to miss my parents, my brother and his wife, my aunts, my friends. I openly wept when I went to have breakfast with the GF at an IHOP because I would always have breakfast on the first and last day of vacation with the family. I have my brief private moment of sadness when I start considering that it’s been almost three months since I hugged my mother, three months since I had my father besides me, three months since my brother and I had a laugh together.

But you get by.

You get by mostly because I’m quite lucky. I have not one but two female fountains of love only too willing for an outpour when I’m feeling down. Good things consistently happen to me: driver’s license at the first try, approved for a credit card, a good job with good people. A city full of kind people who don’t look down on me. And plans. Oh there are plans. Writing plans. Voice-over plans. So many plans.

And you get by.

Last night, a very nice Argentinian family wished me the best of luck when I finished serving them. Father, mother, baby girl of two, young son of 14. The boy told me he hoped life continued to treat me well.

–How old are you, son?

–Fourteen.

–I like what you just said, and let me add one thing. LIfe is what you make of it. Always make the best with what you have, and always try to make it better.

–Because that’s how you grow as a human being.

–Exactly.

So this is my life, and I’m making the best of it. Here’s to hoping those plans come true.

Five percent of digital sales of The Florida Project between January 30 and February 5 go to an organization that helps families that are either homeless or live in the motels in Osceola County’s 192 Corridor where the film was shot. Rent and learn more about the movie here.

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