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A yellow bedroom with Venetian blinds and books and coins in a house with banisters and linoleum. A family that sang “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” together at the kitchen table but somehow forgot to teach me to speak. When you were in fourth grade, you remember, don’t you, the girl who never raised her hand in class? Remember the classroom with the smell of old turtle water and how the leg of the chair attached to your desk wobbles back and forth, back and forth? And when the teacher leaves the room for a moment, that girl climbs up on her desk. High above the classroom, she looks around in awe at the tops of the heads of others who function so very normally. The teacher comes back in the room cluttering while the girl still stands up high. “Why I’m surprised at you! It’s just not like you. What do you have to say for yourself?” Of course, I have nothing to say for myself. I sit down in silence. I am still dizzy from that moment. Four years later we move. This house has a basketball net and electric garage door opener. We’ve been there for weeks, and I’m in my bedroom, lying on a pink shag carpet, reading. My sister passes the open doorway, a group of neighborhood kids in tow. I glance up as she squawks, “See, I told you so. I told you I really had a sister.” Even when I become a slender nineteen-year-old, I cannot order Chinese take-out on the phone. I can think the words in my head, perfectly. But cannot get them to come out of my mouth and still breathe. Becoming friends with people is hard when you cannot talk to them. Yet somehow I get married; have children. Despite my own incompetence, they learn to talk. Oh how they talk! I hear my four-year-old going on and on about her day. “Who are you talking to?” I ask. “Oh, no one, momma” she replies, cheerily. “Just talking to myself.” Where did she come from, I wonder enviously. It is two decades before I realize a wordless marriage doesn’t work very well. I can no longer watch the knickknacks grow old as I sit at the dining room table, hoping my mouth will open. It takes me months to learn to say the word “good-bye.” I am quite sure I did not pronounce it correctly. I run away. In Europe, in a city where no one speaks English, finally I feel safe. A man comes up to me and asks in French if I want a drink. It is midnight, twenty-eight years and eleven hours after the last high school French class I ever took. My face can barely be seen in the darkness. At first I am so self-consciously speaking in “French”, but then. There’s a moment when you watch a movie with sub-titles and you forget you’re reading the words and not hearing them. After a few minutes I forgot I wasn’t speaking English, forgot I didn’t know
how to speak at all. The Frenchman and I talk of traveling, weather, politics. I need to pay close attention to understand. I am alternately rapt and garrulous. My drink is done. I need to go. I am flying back in the morning. The Frenchman walks me to my hotel, and there on a street corner in Zurich, he kisses me, speaks: “Tu est belle. Tres belle. S’il vous plait, ne pas aller.” I don’t believe I am beautiful, and I must go. But this much I do believe: that this is the start of the conversation I have been waiting for all my life.