“Oh baby,” he asks, “can you get my computer.” The whole house smells like sweet potatoes because my roommates have been dipping them in and out of the oven for the last fifteen minutes. They’re white on the inside. They’re still a little crunchy. They are eager to eat them and nibble at the steaming ends before re-wrapping them and putting them back because they’re still raw. That’s one of the ways it is.
On the way over I saw something dead on the road. I’ll come back to it.
To learn Chinese (she said it would be easy) we start with the pronouns.
“Wǒ is me, nǐ is you.” We sit across from each other before breakfast and it makes sense to point to each other. This requires that we stop holding hands. She is teaching me because someone else is eavesdropping and she wants there to be another way to communicate.
A man crossed the street, thinking it was still alive and he offered to kill it. Three ladies standing nearby asked him why; “we already killed it,” they say. A man comes out of the restaurant to move it away. “It’s really okay. I can kill it for you,” the first man insists. The women laugh.
By the time I got home, my roommates were settling in. They were over-turning cakes onto the sofa, watching Top Chef, just finishing dinner, and starting to snack. One brings me chocolate, nuts, Asian sweet potatoes but I cannot eat. What is wrong with me that I cannot eat? He tells me that he eats through everything– even fights. And I confess the same. There have been so many dinners during disagreements: how can you eat at a time like this, one asks? What do you mean? I want to say: above all, it is dinner time.
“Tā is third person,” she tells me that there is no he or she. And she is right, of course. At that point, forever now, it will have just been the two of us. “To make it plural,” she proceeds, “you just add ‘men’ to the end of them.”
It happened once before. I was crossing my neighbor’s yard behind my sister, and she started shrieking. I froze and she sobbed, pointing down. It wasn’t dead yet. We would need a hoe before we needed a broom. It was reared and bleeding. In my memory it is a cobra.
Us, you-people, them. In Chinese, it must sound different. But in English everything but the first-person plural is delightfully insulting.
I am embarrassed that I don’t need any allegories. It is humiliating to write a post about about literally not speaking the same language when you know that I must mean the whole thing figuratively as well.
The only thing, I had told her, that I was really sad about leaving behind, was the proximity to nature. And now I’m in Brooklyn facing a dead animal I’ve never seen before. On the corner ahead she is waiting, and I turn to watch the rest of the scene unfold. The man sweeps the creature into the street. The three women laugh. The passer-by continues to offer to take care of it. What does he mean? I can’t tell if he’s just ashamed and sticking to his story.
Maybe it is right. I was skittish. I was building slowly. I didn’t have the heart to lose anyone else. I didn’t have the heart to gain and lose a mother. I wanted to be deliberate and slow and respectful. I wanted the way it felt so good to not be a miracle. I needed it to be more mundane than a miracle. I had to learn how to make it, between us, and not just let it abide there. What kind of man continues to offer to help kill a dead animal? I always believed that she could cure me– but knew that if we broke up then the pain would come back and be catastrophic. I have become accustomed to living in this amount of pain. I am scared of it ceasing because I am scared that it must also return. Sorry. I don’t feel that way about any other kind of pain. I promise. It’s just the physical, chronic, debilitating kind that I fear.
Maybe it is the kind of man who thinks that what everyone will be worried about when faced with a mysterious, three-foot long, black snake, thicker than a roll of quarters, on the streets of Brooklyn is what kind of man he is.
I moved here slowly. It turns out: tragically so.
We stopped after the pronouns– not really so that I wouldn’t be overwhelmed with new words but because the man was watching us talk. It was sunny. The summer was ahead. I thought that I had finally learned the right way. I had half a dozen earnest little heartfelt gifts to give. I had gestures of my whole self. I had the letters and had planned everything. I had perfected, I thought, the art of the gesture and was about to amaze. I had started with a small gift when we had barely seen each other.
My roommates are trying to hold me in their love. It is working sometimes. We joke again about the same things and no one spills anything and we break between stories to test out the potatoes again.
Once, on a first date, I said: “you know, we’ve met before.” Because I thought it would be terrible if she found out another way and I’m awful at feigning surprise. But it turned out that she thought the disclosure was as creepy as I was trying not to be.
Are there many snakes in Brooklyn?
I have learned nothing. Across the table I wanted to tell her, but didn’t, the truth. I wanted to confess the half dozen things that I had waiting but thought they deserved their own, unwitnessed moment. I was trying to learn a new way of communicating– I was trying to give love back in ways that felt like love to her. I was trying to master the language of the sweet and heartfelt effort. We held hands until the food arrived. She asked me what I was thinking and I didn’t say:
what has it been: lìu? qi-? ba-? weeks that I’ve been working on it. I wanted to give it to you humbly. I think humbly is the only way to perform a grand gesture. I wanted to be able to say: this is all for you but only because it is the least of what you deserve. But now what? There is no he or she. If there is just me and you then
zhe shi shen me?