In class we’re given a minute and a half to think up a list of emotions. The guidance counselor tells us: “if it makes you feel, you can think of it as an emotion.” In ninety seconds I have eighteen emotions. After classifying them into columns labeled “positive” and “negative”, I realize that thirteen of my eighteen belong to the latter category. For some reason this isn’t shocking at all. When our guidance counselor asks us to read one of our emotions aloud, I am the last one to go. In a sprawling hand, he writes the words my classmates throw at him. “Surprise”, “hope”, “love”, rubbing elbows with sadder counterparts, “melancholy”, “sadness”, “anguish”. It occurs to me that I might choose any adjective I like, as long as it falls into the realm of human emotion. For a brief moment, I consider “joy”. But it’s not a word that belongs to me. In the end, when his eyes turn to me, I speak the truest of them all: “soledad“. Solitude.
The stepmother’s mirror speaks to me: no, no, that’s not exactly right is it, Emma! There’s something else, a better answer. Shut up. For once I am not a liar. In Spanish we do not differentiate between “solitude” and “loneliness”.
Our guidance counselor tells us it’s good to speak what we feel. But I do not.
A few months ago a classmate asked me if there was anyone I could confide in. “Is there anyone you tell everything to?” The question caught me completely by surprise. I suddenly understood that, whether he’d realized it or not, he’d seen through my ruse. Despite my chatter, urchin smiles and exaggerated gestures, all carefully calculated to inspire amiability and a certain degree of tenderness, he’d noticed the inescapable patterns of my behavior. He’d seen how little I shared however much I babbled, how I’d adopted the strategy of “a good attack is the best defense”. In my shock, I answered that I didn’t have anything to tell. I actually said that, in spite of dreams in which I wandered concentration camps bathed in the light of an orange moon, utterly alone, dreams in which I faced dragons and faceless assassins all on my lonesome. “No tengo nada que confiar.” I have nothing I to confide. My God, how is it possible that I was able to say that with a straight face?
In “Madame Butterfly”, Cio-Cio-san kills herself upon the discovery that her precious husband has betrayed her, spitting on the faith she’d kept alive despite years and an ocean’s worth of distance. She covers her baby boy’s eyes and gives him a little American flag to hold. Then, as she stabs herself, we hear the voice of her beloved Pinkerton coming up a hill, crying Butterfly! In these moments, it’s never for Cio-Cio-san, the butterfly, that I feel most sorry for. It’s for the boy blindly waving the flag of his father’s country, a boy she’d named “Dolore”. Dolore, in Italian, meaning “sorrow”.
Dolore and Soledad, we make a pretty pair, don’t we? Sorrow and Solitude, looking down on a sweeping bay on a golden spring morning. But when the opera finishes, I always wish desperately for Dolore’s happiness, regardless of the juxtaposition of emotion there. I press a fist to my mouth and pray he’ll someday be bold and bright. In Act 2, in fact, his mother says: the day Dolore’s father returns, his name will be “Gioia”. When “Madame Butterfly” ends, his mother is dead and his father is no great tiding. But still I hope he’ll be the Gioia he should be, on his own account, out of his own bravery and strength.
Then he’d be Gioia and I’d be Alegría, and we’d be on our own ship, leaving that bay, holding tight and looking forward, pointing at the horizon like children point at flocks of birds. Gioia and Alegría – different languages, but they both mean so much to me. They are both Joy.