I made two resolutions this year:
1. Try not to lose things. I tend to misplace keys, wallets, important documents, and telephones.
2. Be more forthcoming with my feelings. Those of you who have read enough of “Peeling an Onion” know that this is not a new affliction for me.
Thinking about the second, infinitely-more-challenging resolution lead me to re-read/revise the following story, “The Foreign Tongue.” I originally wrote this last year, after thinking about this.
For years (no joke, YEARS) in Portland, I was hung up on a particular guy. Each time I consumed more than three alcoholic beverages in rapid succession, I gave my friends the same monologue, tentatively entitled “I am secretly in LOVE with _____, and I swear I’m going to tell him tonight.” My friends graciously encouraged me, even though I’m sure they all knew I was just going to go over to his house and coerce him into drunken sex OR just fall off my bike on my way to his house.
This story is not about him. But then again, maybe it is….along with the small handful of other fellows that have co-starred with me in this same, stupid situation comedy called “we’re friends with benefits and I’ll never tell you how I truly feel about you because I fancy myself a tough modern woman.” Perhaps I’m typecast at this point, but I play my part to an impressive degree of dramatic excellence.
I just counted…that would be a total of four fellows, spanning from Chicago to Portland to Philadelphia. Ack! Okay, read my story…
Some illnesses creep on slowly, with symptoms so minor and simply inconvenient, that one suspects nothing. A runny nose. A stiff neck. A twitchy eye. Time passes, until a raging fever or grand mal seizure forces one to accept that something is terribly wrong.
Other maladies strike without warning. Hindsight reveals no clues.
I can remember the first time I realized something was terribly wrong with me. I was at the bagel shop down the street from work, ordering lunch. The not-so-unattractive boy behind the counter asked me, “How do you feel about banana peppers?”
Ugh. I despised them. I would have preferred to eat a glue stick for lunch. I could feel a scowl creeping across my face. This guy had made no less than 150 sandwiches for me in the past year, and he couldn’t remember this? Was he somehow too attractive to note the preferences of his valued regular customers? I put my hand on my hip, leaned to the left, and opened my mouth, preparing to issue a sassy-yet-flirty answer.
And then I was interrupted by someone else. “Oh, wow…I think they are great. The more the merrier, you know?”
Startled, I turned around to confront the rude stranger with a knack for imitating my voice. The rest of the shop was empty. I wondered if there was a particularly skilled ventriloquist hiding behind the counter, stifling his or her laughter.
I spent the rest of my lunch break picking a seemingly endless supply of rancid pickled peppers out of my sandwich. What had just happened? It seemed like some sort of psychedelic experience. I told myself that I need to get some more sleep. No more late nights drinking whiskey with my co-workers before tipsily pedaling across the Burnside Bridge.
The next day my boss asked me to give one of the sales associates a stern talking-to. I pulled him into the office toward the end of my shift.
“Hey, what’s going on,” he asked nervously.
“Well, listen…you’ve been coming in late a lot lately.”
He solemnly nodded his head.
So far so good. I had issued so many of these verbal warnings in the last few years, that I practically had this speech memorized. I would give him a stern-yet-understanding look, inspired by my tenth grade geometry teacher. Next I would touch on the ways in which tardiness negatively impacted the rest of the team.
The taste of stale coffee was distracting me. I jammed a piece of cinnamon gum in my mouth. Now where was I? Oh, yes, the ways in which tardiness could negatively–
Someone else–with a very familiar voice–joined the conversation. “But you know what? That’s okay. I understand you have a life outside of work, so how can I expect you to arrive exactly at the moment your shift begins? In fact, are you making enough money here to finance your outside endeavors? Because maybe I can get you a small raise.”
Who was saying something so ridiculous? I looked around, expecting to see someone hiding behind the safe. Maybe one of the other managers. They were all a bunch of drunken pranksters. But we were the only two people in the room. And apparently those words had come from my mouth.
The sales associate looked at me skeptically. “Um, I’m confused. Are you being sarcastic?”
“Well, yes, of course that was sarcasm,” I sputtered. “Now stop being late.”
I stormed out of the office, making a beeline for the bathroom. What the fuck was wrong with me? I splashed cold water on my face. I felt fine…well, except for the embarrassment burning up my cheeks. Maybe I needed a vacation or maybe I should just get laid. I had been working pretty hard recently. I deserved a break. Yes, that was it. Exhaustion was affecting my ability to speak and think clearly. I would request some time off at the next manager meeting. I felt better already.
Biking home that night, it hit me: this might be the manifestation of a serious ailment! If I were a character on a prime time medical drama, my inability to control the words coming from my mouth would surely indicate a rare variety of brain cancer. Oh sure, initially it would be dismissed as the product of exhaustion and alcohol abuse. But then, in the last fifteen minutes of the episode, one rogue doctor with a true commitment to his patients would realize that every other doctor had missed a tiny-yet-virulent tumor hidden deep within the darkest folds of my brain. Experimental treatment would be required, perhaps involving lasers.
I was fairly certain that the insurance I received as one of the meager benefits of my job as a professional t-shirt folder would cover neither lasers nor rogue doctors.
Feeling upset, I decided to look for some distraction. So I stopped by the house of a male friend. Well, I guess we were more than friends, since we had been sleeping together for months. And honestly, I considered him the most amazing person in the world. I secretly wished that he would be my boyfriend. I wanted to spend the rest of my time at his house, listening to his records and making out in surprisingly cozy bed.
Unfortunately, I was really more of “you’ve got to hide your love away” kind of person.
I was tough.
He was cool.
So instead, we had been “friends” the whole time. Every once in a while, spells of giddiness made us declare that we were “best friends.” Or my favorite (and this was for truly special occasions, like that time we had sex on the roof of his house): “I love you, you know, as a friend. But really, I do love you.”
But that night, I was considering revealing my true feelings. I would probably need him by my side during my struggle with this almost–but not absolutely–deadly neurological illness. No doubt great-yet-inexpensive advances in medical technology would save me. I would emerge on the other side of it all as a better person. An inspiration to everyone. And we would be closer than ever. At our wedding, he would tearfully exclaim, “I’m so glad you decided to declare your feelings to me on that particular night.”
Yes, I should definitely do it. This had been going on for too long.
He was drinking a beer on his porch when I rolled up. “Hey, what’s going on? You just get off work?”
I nodded my head as dragged my bike up the steps. He handed me a can of PBR as I sat down next to him.
There was some small talk of the “work was stupid” and “my friends got drunk” variety. I tried to make a boring story about a difficult customer seem funny. He laughed out of obligation. And then silence.
I bravely put my hand on his thigh. A deep breath. “Listen, I have been wanting to tell you something for a while. I mean, I have been thinking about it every day.”
This was it. Now was the time I would say all of the words that swirled around the inside of my head as I drifted off to sleep each night.
He sat down his beer, giving me his full attention.
My heart was pounding. I could hear the woosh-woosh of blood through my body.
“Well, I just wanted to tell you that you are not my boyfriend. And I hope you aren’t thinking that you are.”
I watched him pick up his beer and take a long sip. What had just happened? I covered my mouth with my hand, lest any other untrue syllables and sentences wanted to slip out.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, while I replayed my words no less than fifty times. My head was deluged with exclamation points.
I jumped up and grabbed my bike, tripping as I ran down the steps.
I ran back to my house. I didn’t pause to cross streets. I didn’t even take the time to hop on my bike. All I could think about was getting back to my place and hiding my head under a pillow.
Instead, I grabbed a half-full bottle of gin from my freezer. I spent the rest of the night lying in the empty bathtub, alternating gulps of liquor with drags of cigarettes. Something was very wrong with me. And now it was ruining my life. Most likely I would die alone and unloved. I would probably pass into oblivion in this very bathtub. Eventually someone would come to look for me, probably because I hadn’t shown up for work or I owed them money. My poor mom would have to bury me in a cardboard box.
But I wasn’t ready to die! I was still young. Well, young-ish. I mean, I wasn’t a completely dried up old crone. Of course, my eggs were expiring at that very moment. And my closest relationship was with my cat. But still…I had reasons to live! I had a BFA!
With some determination and telephone melodrama, I was able to get a doctor’s appointment the next morning. As I sat on the examining table, crumpling the paper liner with my sweaty hands, I realized that this day could change everything else in the future. I might be too sick to work. Would I lose my health insurance? Would I have to move in with my parents? Oh, god, just telling my mom was going to be really–
“What brings you here today?”
The doctor was examining my chart.
“Oh, actually, I’m fine. I don’t know what I’m doing here.”
He laughed. “Are you sure about that?”
I clutched my forehead. “Oh, god no. There is something very, very wrong with me. I can’t stop saying the opposite of what I’m thinking. That’s what happened just now. Well, not the stuff I said in the last few seconds, but what I said before. You know, when you asked me why I was here? It’s like something else is controlling my tongue. I don’t even realize that the words are coming from my mouth until it’s too late. ”
“A lot of people have that problem. Do you have any other symptoms? Headaches, dizziness, that kind of thing?”
I shook my head. “No, just this. Something is definitely wrong with me. Do you think it might be a brain tumor?”
He laughed. “I’m going to check you for some neurological issues, but I have a feeling this might be more mental than physical.”
This was not what I wanted to hear. Was he implying that I was crazy?
I was putting my faith in modern medicine. I obediently followed the penlight with my eyes. I was silent and still while he checked my blood pressure. I didn’t flinch when he looked in my ears.
“Well,” he said as he returned the stethoscope to his pocket, “I think you’re fine physically. You do seem to have an ear infection, but that is unrelated to your problem. I’m going to give you a referral to a good therapist. I’m pretty sure your insurance will cover it. And I think she can help you work this out.”
I scowled. “Listen, I don’t think you know how serious this is. It’s going to ruin my life. In fact, it already is. My youth is passing me by!”
“Then I suggest that you call that therapist as soon as possible.”
I stomped past the receptionist’s desk with a prescription for an antibiotic (for my ears) and a card for some stupid psychiatrist. I was definitely not going to fork over the co-pay for this visit. Some help! What a waste of time. Maybe I should have seen one of those wacky herbal doctors or whatever! I was definitely suing him for malpractice when I was diagnosed (by another doctor) with that terrible brain tumor!
I was going to have to solve this problem myself. I bought a pink notebook at the drugstore while I waited for my prescription. I would need this to collect data.
For the next week, whenever someone asked me something, I wrote down both the exact wording of the question, along with my response.
I began to notice trends.
If I was asked something that could only be answered with a yes/no response, I always responded correctly.
Do you work on Tuesday? Did you bring your lunch today? Is that a new dress?
If it was not a yes/no question, but it was something I had been asked many times in the past, I could also answer truthfully.
What time does this store open on Sundays? What did you do last night? What do you think of this band?
It was the open-ended, surprise questions that triggered my foreign tongue. And even when I was asked nothing, untrue sentences just slipped out of my mouth unprovoked.
Out of the blue, I told my best friend that I thought her boyfriend was great and she should just learn to live with constant cheating.
“What the fuck? You’ve always told me the opposite. So you’re saying that I can’t do any better and I should just accept it?”
I apologized. “Lately I have had no control over half the stuff I say.”
She hugged me. “Have you been drinking too much? Do you need to talk about something? Have you been taking diet pills? Because you do seem a little thinner…”
No, no. Everything was going to be just fine. But did I really look like I had lost weight?
I began to write down the appropriate responses for various common situations. When I pulled an employee into the office to lecture him about his tendency toward secretly eating fried chicken while working the fitting rooms, I consulted page 49 of my notebook.
“Various policies exist for a reason: so we can serve the customer effectively. For that reason, certain actions are not permitted on the sales floor…”
I mastered the art of “reading aloud while not appearing to be reading aloud.” Everything was coming together. I was learning to cope with my disability.
One glaring problem remained: the boy. No, not “a boy.” Or “just any boy.” THE BOY. I had been forced to change my regular bike route, lest we encountered one another while coasting down Ankeny. I pedaled no less than ten blocks out of the way. I told myself that the extra exercise could only improve my health.
I had not spoken to him for weeks. I was thankful that he did not own a phone. In the past, this had been inconvenient. I had been forced to leave notes at his house or throw rocks at his bedroom window. I had complained about this, calling him a “hippie” and a “petulant teenager.” I had once drunkenly offered to BUY him a phone. Now I was glad that his own hipster pride had prevented him from taking me up on that suggestion. At least I would not be tempted to drunkenly call him. But I was thinking about him all night, every night. He was in the background of every dream, leaning against the wall or sitting across from me on the bus.
Of course I had a plan. I spent nights in my empty bathtub, writing down everything I had been wanting to say to him. Every fleeting thought, every dreamscape declaration. Furthermore, I practiced writing as small–but legibly–as possible. This was an important element of my scheme.
When I finally had put together all of the right words, I printed them as tiny as possible on the back of my left hand. I had so much to say, that the sentences snaked up my wrist, almost reaching my elbow. I used permanent ink.
I practiced in front of the mirror. Reading from my hand was a new method. I didn’t want to seem as if I was staring at my feet. Eye contact would be essential.
I wore a dress and stockings. This would impress him. I brushed my hair 100 times and I sprayed myself with expensive French perfume reserved for special occasions. I even filed my fingernails. “The wrapping is almost important as the gift,” I told myself.
I strolled over to his house on a Tuesday at dusk.
Fortunately he was sitting on the porch. I hadn’t prepared myself for the possibility that I would have to knock on the door and then work my way into his house. This could have derailed my entire plan.
I smiled broadly as I approached him. “Hey, what are you doing?”
“I’m just watching all of the crows in that tree. It’s like every crow in the city is hanging out here. They’ve been coming every day around this time.”
It was true. An army of black birds were blocking out the setting sun, while screaming at one another in glee.
“Do you mind if I sit down?”
He moved to the right, making some room on the step. “Go ahead. I haven’t seen you for a while. What’s that all over your hand?”
I looked down at the microscopic paragraphs. “Oh, that’s just one of those stupid hippie henna tattoos. Someone talked me into it.”
He nodded his head as if he believed me. “Well, you look nice. Big night out?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “My only plan is seeing you.”
Further head nodding.
I cleared my throat. “So listen, I said some stupid stuff to you the last time I was here. And I just want to set it straight.”
He smirked. “Yeah, it was definitely a little weird. But I figured, ‘Hey, she’s always saying something wacky.’”
I blushed. This was probably true.
My left eye consulted my hand–covertly, I hoped–while I looked at his face. Big swallow. And then,
“Remember that weird old-person diner place near work that closed last year? We used to go to lunch there all the time when I first met you. And there was this buffet in the middle of the restaurant that held only condiments and plastic cups of water? You came up with the idea that every time we had to get some ketchup or a napkin, we had to stand up and do a full lap around that buffet thing. I thought it was the funniest thing. I would laugh so hard, that tears would slip out of the corners of my eyes. I couldn’t do the lap with a straight face. But you would just stand up and do it, as cool as a cucumber. And that just made it funnier to me. All of the elderly customers thought we were crazy or on drugs or something.”
My left eye moved to my wrist bone.
“That’s when I started to realize that you are the most amazing person I have ever met. Ever since that first night together in your bed, I have forgotten that other boys exist in this world. And when one of them is brave enough to talk to me, I am just reminded that no one can compare to you in my heart.”
And then the words running along my ulna.
“I don’t know why I said that I didn’t want you to be my boyfriend. Because that’s the exact opposite of my feelings. I want to spend more time with you than anyone else. I want to hear all of your stories and know all of your opinions and listen to all of your dreams. In other words, I love you.”
He was silent. I figured he probably needed a moment to digest what I had just said. This was obviously a really pivotal moment. I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, waiting. I began counting the seconds.
At 148, he spoke.
“I know this is going to sound strange, but sometimes I just can’t hear. And just now, I didn’t here anything you said. I could see your lips moving, but there was no sound. I think I have hearing damage or something. Old age, maybe. It happens at the most random times.”
I sighed with relief. Everything was going to be okay. “Oh yeah, I was just asking if you wanted some gum.”
“Sure,” he said with a shrug. I rummaged a pack out of my bag and he took a piece.
I reached for his hand. We sat in silence, watching the crows caw and carry on, our mouths filling with the taste of cinnamon.