Perhaps it’s no secret that I think very, very slowly, and have immense trouble understanding when other people speak. Not always–not when I am on autopilot, when I have another mission, when that mission is to tear somebody apart, or to be the life of the party, it’s at those times when it’s far more critical for me to push myself aside and let that other part master me, when I know that beyond all else it’s important to be witty, or to be cruel, or to be perfect. When I emerge from these moments they’re all dreams, and when I look back on them I see them as if they took place underwater, everything is blurry, I remember very few specifics, I become drunk on myself and my thoughts and my power, and others remind me quite frequently of things I’ve said or done that I haven’t any recollection of–thank god they’re generally wonderful, and I wish I could be so wonderful when I’m being myself–though I once had three conversations with a guy when I was in such states, and when he introduced himself to me when I was thoughtful, I had no idea who he was. It’s all a bit horrifying, really. I have suspicions that this is all due to keeping closed-captioning on the television for nearly a decade for no reason except that I enjoyed reading my television shows.
Some of the most important moments of my life, though, I’ve had to give up, because I could not understand what was being said to me, because I have such difficulty understanding English behind any sort of accent except the American no-accent characteristic of Philadelphia. If I was in bed with Humphrey Bogart, I’d have no idea what terms of endearment he’d be calling me, because I can’t understand what he says. And it becomes embarrassing very quickly, to continue saying “I’m sorry…what?” because, well, I have two ears, and if one is pressed against your tummy, you probably suspect that my other one is still working. I could perhaps claim that they’re like my eyes, that one ear can recognizes something is there, but two ears perceive the depth of it. But then I’d always have to keep one ear against your tummy so that I could keep up the lie, the lie being that I can’t understand what you say to me when it’s most precious to me that I understand. I hope someday I understand, that someday your voice becomes one with mine, though right now all that’s been burned into my memory is the exact words on your voicemail, on the edge of exasperation, a picture of polite curtness, “you know what to do” it says, when the truth is, I don’t know what to do, not anymore. Everyone was scolding me for not leaving messages when I called, so I began leaving messages, “hi it’s me. bye.” and everyone was twice as annoyed. “You know what to do.” No, I don’t. And I won’t, there’s no chance that I ever will again, unless you tell me to leave my name, my number, a brief message, and the time that I called, or unless you answer. And the truth is, I’m very self-conscious on answering machines, when I hear people leaving messages I sometimes write down precisely the formula they use, I try to understand it, I find these pieces of paper in pockets, boxes, shoes, and still.
“So,” I am asked, “did you find anything interesting at work today?”
“What did you find?”
“An old lady, born in the 20’s, who signed her name with a heart as the dot over her letter i.”
“Yes? And what else?”
“A man who misspelled the abbreviation for October.”
“How did he spell it?”
“Is that all?”
“Yes, that’s all.”
I’ve been dried up, dried and shriveled like a dried salami. “Do you know what a dried salami is?” I am asked.
“I can guess, Grandpa.”
“Let me tell you. You’d go to the butcher, and they sell salamis, and some of them they take them and–”
“Dry them. Yes.”
“They hang them up, and a few months later, they’re dried, all shriveled up. If you eat one, it has a different consistency than a regular salami.”
“Yes, I think we passed one around at a party once, Scott’s grandmother gave something to him, I think a dried salami.”
“They’re more expensive than a regular salami.”
“I can imagine.”
“Because it takes more work to make them.”
“So if you go looking for a dried salami, expect to pay more for one.”
“And when you speak to the butcher, make sure you specify precisely, a dried salami, not a regular salami, or he’ll give you a regular salami, and you’ll be able to tell instantly, because it’ll be too big to be a dried salami, and it won’t be wrinkled, and a dried salami is darker than a regular salami.”
“Like when you hit puberty your penis is supposed to get darker?”
“I’ll make sure to specify. To the butcher.”
“And only now she became aware of the small, bud-like reticence and tenderness of the penis, and a little cry of wonder and poignancy escaped her again, her woman’s heart crying out over the tender frailty of that which had been the power.”
And it’s this that finally melts her after confessing that she could never love him, finding him clownish in his dirty brown corduroys, a buffoon to turn his back to her as he zipped up his pants, so self-assured in his ignorance, so ugly in his broad common-speak. And she suddenly melts in his arms and comes to love him, first his body, perhaps only his body.
But it’s the language, the language, the language, the language, he knows how to speak a good English, once a bright young man who progressed beyond his place in society, moved upwards through the military, learned to speak in the language of the ruling class, and then, he lapses into his horrid common-speak, that I cannot even fully decode, and he does so at the worst moments, when his clothes are off, when she is wrapped in him.
‘”Goodnight,” she said.
“Goodnight, your Ladyship,” his voice.
She stopped and looked back into the wet dark. She could just see the bulk of him. “Why did you say that?” she said.
“Nay,” he replied. “Goodnight, then, run!”
She plunged on in the dark-grey tangible night.
I reread this part of the conversation a few times and decided that she gave pause over his use of the term “your Ladyship”–after making love, shouldn’t she be addressed differently? Perhaps it’s at that moment she feels somehow as if he is the hired man only performing his role of pleasing those who hire him. Later she gives him reason to suspect that she’s using him in an effort to become pregnant, and he gives perhaps his longest speech thus far:
“Well,” he said at last. “It’s as your Ladyship likes. If you get the baby, [your husband’s] welcome to it. I shan’t have lost anything. On the contrary, I’ve had a very nice experience, very nice indeed! . . . If you’ve made use of me, it’s not the first time I’ve been made use of; and I don’t suppose it’s ever been as pleasant as this time; though of course, one can’t feel tremendously dignified about it.” . . .
“But I didn’t make use of you,” she said pleading.
“At your Ladyship’s service,” he replied.
But I think there’s something more to her pause: I don’t think she’s regarding the term “your Ladyship” and what their apparent relationship is based on that so much as the difference between his language of love and his proper speech. He collapses into his broad accent when he is naked, and that’s how and when he is most honest, speaking in punctuation, and when she loves him, she gives no notice, though there’s no indication of whether she understands or not, as she never answers his broad accent directly, only conversing verbally with his proper English, and otherwise answering physically or emotionally.
So, she tells him she cannot love him. And then they make love. And she wants him again. And so, for a third time, they make love, and here begins the conversation that began all these thoughts of mine:
And afterwards she was utterly still, utterly unknowing, she was not aware for how long. And he was still with her, in an unfathomable silence along with her. And of this, they would never speak.
When awareness of the outside began to come back, she clung to his breast, murmuring ‘My love! My love!’ And he held her silently. And she curled on his breast, perfect.
But his silence was fathomless. His hands held her like flowers, so still aid strange. ‘Where are you?’ she whispered to him. ‘Where are you? Speak to me! Say something to me!’
He kissed her softly, murmuring: ‘Ay, my lass!’
But she did not know what he meant, she did not know where he was. In his silence he seemed lost to her.
‘You love me, don’t you?’ she murmured.
‘Ay, tha knows!’ he said.
‘But tell me!’ she pleaded.
‘Ay! Ay! ’asn’t ter felt it?’ he said dimly, but softly and surely. And she clung close to him, closer. He was so much more peaceful in love than she was, and she wanted him to reassure her.
‘You do love me!’ she whispered, assertive. And his hands stroked her softly, as if she were a flower, without the quiver of desire, but with delicate nearness. And still there haunted her a restless necessity to get a grip on love.
‘Say you’ll always love me!’ she pleaded.
‘Ay!’ he said, abstractedly. And she felt her questions driving him away from her.
‘Mustn’t we get up?’ he said at last.
‘No!’ she said.
But she could feel his consciousness straying, listening to the noises outside.
‘It’ll be nearly dark,’ he said. And she heard the pressure of circumstances in his voice. She kissed him, with a woman’s grief at yielding up her hour.
He rose, and turned up the lantern, then began to pull on his clothes, quickly disappearing inside them. Then he stood there, above her, fastening his breeches and looking down at her with dark, wide-eyes, his face a little flushed and his hair ruffled, curiously warm and still and beautiful in the dim light of the lantern, so beautiful, she would never tell him how beautiful. It made her want to cling fast to him, to hold him, for there was a warm, half-sleepy remoteness in his beauty that made her want to cry out and clutch him, to have him. She would never have him. So she lay on the blanket with curved, soft naked haunches, and he had no idea what she was thinking, but to him too she was beautiful, the soft, marvellous thing he could go into, beyond everything.
‘I love thee that I can go into thee,’ he said.
‘Do you like me?’ she said, her heart beating.
‘It heals it all up, that I can go into thee. I love thee that tha opened to me. I love thee that I came into thee like that.’
He bent down and kissed her soft flank, rubbed his cheek against it, then covered it up.
‘And will you never leave me?’ she said.
‘Dunna ask them things,’ he said.
‘But you do believe I love you?’ she said.
‘Tha loved me just now, wider than iver tha thout tha would. But who knows what’ll ’appen, once tha starts thinkin’ about it!’
‘No, don’t say those things! —’
And he’s absolutely correct. How intelligent Connie is, how sharp and thoughtful, how passionate and able to love, and yet able to play games, to “give him the slip” as he puts it, to say what she feels at one moment, that he takes as truth, and change her mind the next, and then shudder at the way he reacts by closing himself up emotionally, that no matter how she feels he treats her the same, with the same touch, the same temper, whether he is being loved or used, and in love he gives her this language, his truthful language, but also in pain, so long as she is touching him, as it were, to the quick.
I heard an interview with Chinese author Yiyun Li, who said that she had only ever written creatively in English, and so when she created Chinese characters, they spoke to her in English only, and that she would have to give them old Chinese proverbs to speak in, to give us some sense of them as real people. We seem to delegate this or that language to demarcate segments of our lives, and there’s this language of love, that perhaps is the same as the language of pain and of joy, though I’ve heard Céline exclaim “oh shit!” and I myself have said “merde!” at such comparable moments.
And I end the call without leaving a message, and wonder if I’ll ever find my head surfacing from the water again.
So, I am there, longing to my very depths for answers, and I cannot understand a word, and I wonder if I too speak complete nonsense, when I grow intoxicated and begin pronouncing every single letter with infinite gravity, and I am too ashamed to request that you speak to me in Philadelphian English, embarrassed too by my own accent, and when I want to plead, all I can do is cling, physically, emotionally, uncertain above all, hopeful, and trying desperately to be secure in silence.