In 1970, we moved from the town of Moate in County Westmeath, Ireland to Oxnard, California. I was ten. After a few months in our new home, I realized that everything about us was different from our Southern California surroundings. Our speech, our hair, our clothes, and most noticeably, our mouths. My family looked like we had spent time with our heads lodged in a hornet’s nest, trying to kiss one of the devils. We each had tiny, pink lips that looked as if they could pop right off of our faces at any moment, and when we smiled, our small mouths housed rather large but strong choppers. My baby sister proved to have the strongest teeth, as we had to replace her mangled pacifier every couple of months. I spent a lot of time standing in front of a mirror, turned slightly, my hands shoved into the pockets of my jeans, and casually speaking to myself over my shoulder. I over-pronounced each word that I spoke, and stretched my mouth to look big and American.
“Wanna play some ball?” I would say, pulling my lips tightly across my fence-like teeth. When I tried this approach at school, the other boys turned away in disgust. I decided to try finding another way to make myself look more American, and I thought that I would start at the bottom.
“My shoes…” I mumbled to my dad one day.
“Your what?” he said. The ever-present cigarette that dangled from his mouth looked like a piece of rubber when he spoke. “Your what?” he responded again and turned his ear towards me for emphasis.
“I’ve got to get the right shoes, Dad,” I said, earnestly.
He took the cigarette from his mouth and pinched it between his thumb and pointer finger, making a shield from the wind with his palm. His head dipped towards his shoulder to favor a clear view of my feet.
“What’s wrong with your shoes?” he asked as he kicked the back of my heel with the toe of his boot, making me lose my balance for a moment. “Why, those shoes are grand!” he said as he raised his eyebrows. I slowly looked down at the ground, and I swear my shoes were so ugly, it looked as if I were walking around with my feet crammed inside of two pieces of black peat bricks.
“I need sandals on my feet instead of these bloody coffins that you call shoes,” I said.
He popped the cigarette back into his tiny mouth. His chin dropped towards his chest to look me in the face while his arms slowly folded in front of him. His words managed to break through the furious puffs of smoke that were coming from his cigarette like a steam engine.
“Do you be meanin’ the shoes where you pay for the holes to be already in them?” my dad asked, sarcastically.
“Sandals!” I roared at him.
The back of my head then stung from the swat of his quick, hard hand.