Left Back

Photo by waiam cia/Flickr,  CC BY 2.0.
Photo by waiam cia/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

The clock in the guidance office ticked. People shuffled in and out. The school bell rang, but Miguel stayed seated. He looked around, he twiddled his thumbs, and he glimpsed the secretaries and guidance counselors at their desks, going over papers. He saw some big potted plants in the corners, fluorescent lights in the ceiling, empty chairs lining the wall, and close, cluttered desks. Just about what he expected to see in there. A couple of times, he thought that the people in the office looked at him, as though about to call his name, but they didn’t. They only asked, loudly, who that kid waiting around was. Eventually, the secretary at the front desk received a call. After a couple of “Okays” and “Right aways,” she put the phone down and looked up.

“Miguel Oquendo?” The secretary at the front desk asked. She looked through the empty seats before finding Miguel’s. “Are you Miguel Oquendo?”

Miguel nodded.

“Okay, good. You can go down the hallway behind me,” she said, pointing behind her and to her right.

Miguel got up from his chair and went past the front desk. He looked from her hand down the hallway, then back at her. He opened his mouth then closed it, then opened it again. He wanted to say something, but nothing came to mind. The secretary must have been able to decipher the worried look he had on his face.

“Oh, ah, the third room on the right, dear,” the secretary said, pointing again to the room behind her and to the right.

Miguel nodded, walked down the hallway, and knocked on the door the secretary pointed towards. From inside, Miguel heard a man tell him to come in. He did just that, opening the door slowly. To his left, a man was jotting something down on his desk. He motioned him in.

“You can take a seat,” the man said, pointing to a chair in front of his desk.

Miguel sat down and looked around the room. It was a small room. The desk took up a good fourth of it with a file cabinet to the left. There was another potted plant on the window sill, much smaller than the ones in the office. Eventually, Miguel realized he should be looking at the man. He was still looking down at his desk, writing away. Finishing up, the man continued, “So…” he looked up, “Miguel. You’re here to figure out what grade you’re going to, right?”

Miguel nodded.

“Where’re you from Miguel?” Leaning forward, the man interlocked his fingers atop his desk.

Miguel nodded and said, “Havana.”

“Havana? What country is that in?”

“Uh,” Miguel paused, “Cuba.”

“Oh Cuba? Was that a fun place? Cuba?” The man grinned.

Miguel thought of Cuba. He thought of his father’s job: he was never left wanting for anything. He thought of the friends he spent his time with, of the classes he attended, of his house. He remembered the rebel attacks, the communist propaganda, and his father talking more and more of how Cuba was changing. He remembered his father’s English lessons. His sisters always payed attention but he always thought he had better things to do. He remembered Fidel Castro coming into power and taking what his father called a “victory lap” through the streets of Havana. He remembered his father saying that it was now or never and that his American employers could help. Miguel’s father knew that Cuba would never be the same. He knew they needed to leave if he wanted any future for his children.

“Yes. Very fun,” Miguel said bluntly.

The man nodded, “And how old are you?”


The man raised an eyebrow, “I’m sorry?”

Miguel’s eyes widened, “Uh, fif… fifteen.”

“Fifteen,” the man wrote something down, “Alright, alright… Why don’t you tell me about yourself, Miguel?”

Miguel nodded. “My name is Miguel Oquendo. I am come from Havana, Cuba. I have, uh gotten here with my familia. Er, family.”

The man wrote more in his notes. Looking up, he smiled and laughed slightly, “Please, don’t let me stop you. Go on.”

Miguel coughed and looked around the room before looking down towards the ground.

“Do you have anything else to say?” The man asked, rolling one of his hands.

Miguel thought for a second, then shook his head. He didn’t think there was much left to say.

The man wrote in his notes again. Looking at Miguel, he said, “Well Miguel, it was nice meeting you. I’ll call your parents about where we should place you.”

“Uh, test?” Miguel asked, looking around the desk.

“Huh? Ah, no. You don’t need to take a test. This was enough.”

Miguel got up, shook the man’s hand, and said, “Thank you.”

“We’re happy to have you here, Miguel.” The man said, shaking his hand. As Miguel left the room, he continued, “You can probably start tomorrow. Before the end of the day, I’ll let your parents know what you need to be prepared for.”

Miguel walked home, the streets, the people, and the traffic rushing by. He thought of his school interview, the man’s questions and reactions. He wondered, did he answer the man’s questions the right way? Were his answers worded properly? Should he have said more? Would that have made things worse? The man did seem confused by some of his responses. What would his parents think if he didn’t do well? If their lessons were for nothing? His sisters picked up English well enough, but he never paid as much attention as them. And what if he’s held back a grade because of this? The first thing he does on his own here and it’d be a setback. He’d never be able to live that down. Miguel shook his head and stared at the ground as he continued home.

Eventually, after weaving through the streets of New York City, he made it to his apartment building. He was greeted by the man sitting at the front desk, to his right. Miguel waved back at him, walked across the lobby, entered the staircase, and marched up the stairs. The staircase had an odd smell to it. Climbing two flights of completely average stairs, Miguel made it to his apartment’s hallway. He walked through, noticing scratches and stains he hadn’t seen when they moved in two days before but could have been there for years. Soon, he came upon his family’s apartment. Taking his key out of his pocket, he unlocked the door and headed in.

Miguel looked around the apartment, taking it in once again. To his right was the living room, to the left was the kitchen, and down the hall were the three bedrooms and a bathroom. Just as the apartment had been the day before, the day before that, and most likely the day before they ever set foot in it. It looked smaller than his old home in Havana, but it hadn’t felt like it yet. At least the furniture was newer. oldest sister was on one of the two couches in the living room, the two-person one, reading a book. Miguel figured she was reading something important. Miguel meandered into the living room and sat on the other couch, taking one of the edge seats of the three-person arrangement and turned the television on.

“Hey, Miguel. How’d it go?” His sister asked in Spanish, turning a page in her book.

Miguel kept his eyes on the television. She put her book down and continued, “I asked you a question.”

Miguel shrugged, “I don’t know. They said they’d call mom and dad and tell them what grade I’ll be in.”

“Ah. How do you think it went?”

Miguel thought about what to say. He just sat there as his sister stared at him. His sister sighed, went back to her book, and said “I guess we’ll find out when they call.”

A couple of minutes went by before Miguel looked around the room. “Where’s mom and dad, anyway?”

“Oh, dad’s at work. Second day and all that.” Miguel’s sister thought for a second then continued, “Mom’s doing something important. I forget what. They won’t be home until later.”

From one of the bedrooms, the two heard their middle sister’s voice, “And I’m napping!”

They both turned their heads towards the bedroom, waited for her to say anything else, and turned back to what they were doing when nothing happened. Miguel glanced at the phone then back at the television. Turning another page, his older sister said, “I can talk to the school when they call, if you want.”

Miguel smiled, “Heh, thanks.”

After about half an hour, Miguel’s other sister emerged from one of the bedrooms, rubbing her eyes. She sat down on the same couch as Miguel, taking the other edge seat, and watched television with him.

“How’d it go?” She asked, yawning.

Miguel opened his mouth to answer, but his older sister did so instead, “He doesn’t know. They’re going to call mom and dad later today. Probably soon.” Miguel narrowed his eyes and looked at her. She shrugged and Miguel’s other sister giggled.

The phone in the kitchen rang. “I’ll get it.” Miguel’s oldest sister said, putting down her book.

Walking to the phone, she muttered to herself about something, most likely about being annoyed. Picking it up, she said, in English, “Hello, Oquendo residence. Yes this is her.”

Miguel perked up, looking at his sister on the phone, trying to glean whatever he could from her reactions. She continued, “Yes. Okay. What?”She paused, her eyes widened, “What!? No. No, no, no. You can’t- Listen. You can’t do that! I’m telling you, you can’t- ‘For his own good!?’ What are you talking about?”

Miguel sunk into his seat, bringing his hands to his face. He heard his sister yell, the vague sound of a voice from the phone in answer. His other sister sat there, making jokes to cheer him up, but he wasn’t listening. He was thinking of his interview, how he definitely screwed up every question. How all those lessons his father and sisters gave him were for nothing. He thought about how they wouldn’t let him in if he couldn’t even talk to anyone. He probably wouldn’t be able to start school for another year, if he could even learn by then.

Miguel’s sister hung up by slamming the phone down. Fuming, she strode over to her shoes and began putting them on. “Come on, Miguel. We’re going to your school,” she said in Spanish.

“What, er. What happened?” Miguel asked, moving closer to her.

Miguel’s sister straightened up, “They want to put you in a lower grade. They don’t think you know English.”

“I don’t know, maybe they should.”

“You can understand English? You know what people are saying when they speak to you in English?”

Miguel looked side to side and then at his feet, “Yeah, most of the time, but I can’t-”

“That’s all that matters,” switching her attention to her sister, she asked, “Can you watch the apartment?”

With a thumbs up, Miguel’s other sister said, “Yeah, just lock up.”

“Shouldn’t we wait for mom and dad to get home?” Miguel asked, while tying his shoes.

“Eh, they have enough to worry about. I can handle this just fine.” His oldest sister replied, heading to the door.

Miguel sighed and joined her. As they walked out the door, their sister added, “Give them hell.”

Miguel followed his sister down the stairs, out the lobby, and through the streets. Along the way, she was rambling about how ridiculous the school was being, switching back and forth between English and Spanish. Occasionally, when they reached certain street corners or when she finished her last stream of thought, she asked Miguel for directions.

They reached the school soon enough, Miguel’s sister immediately requested to go to the guidance office. Making it clear that she was there on behalf of Miguel, a new student, the front desk let her through with a nametag. Miguel’s sister said to the secretary, in the calmest voice he’d heard from her yet, “Hello, I’m here to discuss the grade you’ve decided to put Miguel Oquendo in.”

“Ah, yes,” the secretary at the front desk said. “Mrs. Oquendo, correct?”

Bewildered, Miguel looked at his sister. Smiling, she nodded, “Yes that is correct.”

“Okay, you can head on down to that door.” The secretary pointed behind her and to her right, “Oh, third on the right.”

“Thank you.” Miguel’s sister turned to him, “You can wait here, I won’t be too long.”

Miguel nodded and sat in the chair he used earlier. His sister headed of into the room the secretary pointed at. He heard her knock, the door opening, her politely saying “Hello,” and then the click of the door closing.

Miguel kept his eyes on the corner behind the secretary, where the door would be if he could see it. He didn’t think she’d change anything, but he stayed attentive regardless. Soon after, he could just barely make out his sister’s furious voice shouting at his interviewer. As she got louder and louder, the secretary turned towards the door, too. Then some of the other faculty in the guidance office.

“Your mother’s, um, spirited, huh?” The secretary asked, still looking at the door.

Miguel didn’t answer.

After about fifteen minutes, Miguel heard his sister’s voice lower. Evidently, she wasn’t shouting anymore. He focused even harder on the door from his seat. He stayed there, looking at that corner with the door just past it, until he heard it open, his sister thanking the man in the room, and walking back to the guidance office.

Smiling, his sister said, in English, “Alright Miguel, let’s go.”

“What happened?” Miguel asked, getting up.

Heading out of the office, she responded, “They’re letting you into tenth grade. Just like everyone else your age. Let’s go get your notebooks.”

Miguel grinned from ear to ear, “Thanks. I didn’t think you’d… thanks.”

He kept grinning. He kept grinning as they left the school. Even when they bought his notebooks. He grinned as they went home. The smile never left his face.

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Left Back

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