Dawn and Awer-To Moisten, Flow
My mother abducted us from my father every summer. She took us away, to her city, Caracas. At the market, vendors weighed vegetables and gave us their best price, so they said. My mother was a compulsive shopper. She bought everything, anything that could be carried and smuggled back to Montreal, where we lived in the 80s. Her shopping skills were impressive, her language specialized; she was an expert at giving instructions, at bargaining and always obtaining what she wanted.
Dawn, my ESL instructor, claims that “at” expresses a location or arrival in or “at” a particular place or position. “At” is a preposition. I could never tell where my mother was at, but I knew where she wanted me to be. When she fell sick and could no longer travel, she flew me to Caracas from Lebanon (my father’s country) with a list of foods to purchase: guavas and mamones and queso guayanes and tequenos. I wrapped and smuggled everything back across borders, the way she used to, and felt momentarily proud.
Momentarily means, “For a very short time.” It is an adverb. Very quickly, the pride I felt vanished. Today, it bothers me to evoke my mother through food. I want to separate the word “mother” from nourishment. I want to separate the word “mother” from mother tongue. Contrarly to what people think, mothers and daughters rarely speak the same language. “Contrarly,” in Microsoft Word, is underlined in red. I change the sentence to: “Contrary to what people think, mothers and daughters rarely speak the same language,” and the red vanishes.
When people ask what language I write in, I say “this language.” They think that “this” indicates English but they’re wrong. This is not English. This language is called prose. My ESL teacher claims that the pronoun “this” is used to refer to the nearer of two things close to the speaker. “That,” on the other hand, indicates distance. But what if something is both distant and close at the same time? Are those of you sitting nearest to me also the closest?
A few seconds ago, I used the word “prose” to describe this language but, don’t get me wrong, “prose” puzzles me all the time. I read about it, attend academic lectures and literary talks, and I still don’t get it. In the dictionary, prose is defined as “plain and dull writing”. Dictionaries are tools of consensus; they douse the heat of disagreement with final, law-giving words. I’ve learned to not trust them.
“But what is your mother tongue, the language you count or dream in?” People insist. They really want to know. They believe that my subconscious is more reliable than the narrative I am giving them. Uno does tlete arba khamse seis sept tmene nuove diez. I can’t blame them for that. This narrative isn’t reliable; you can trust me on this one.
When I said, “I’ll explain what I mean by this later,” “later” implied a sequence, an order organizing my thoughts. The sentence, “I’ll explain what I mean by this later,” pretends that meaning is separated from the coming-into-being of a sentence, that it can be anticipated. Maybe prose means being in the sentence as the sentence is happening in the room. Alternatively: maybe prose means being in this sentence as the sentence is happening in this room? I can never tell. Pronouns confuse me. They stand for a referent that is no longer here, or there; an object or a subject now elsewhere, in another room, a different sentence.
At the market, in the morning, I clung to my mother’s skirt, hiding between her doughy legs. I wanted people to know that my mother and I belonged together, that her sentences were mine too, even if my understanding of her language was limited. What she hadn’t passed on to me, I would get by standing close, as if physical proximity could remedy the fact that we weren’t one but two. When I tell people that my mother tongue is Spanish, they don’t believe me. I can’t blame them. She, my mother, would also disagree.
I speak of my mother in the third person because she isn’t in this room and no longer in this life. “She,” the pronoun, takes the place of an absent noun. I want to ask Dawn the ESL teacher, “If a sentence contains “she,” where exactly in the sentence is she?”
Dawn says that I should hold on to my question until the next lesson. In the meantime, I should keep practicing, pronounce my words carefully, imagine having an audience. “To learn a language you must be able to hear it,” Dawn says. Sometimes, when I buy vegetables, I can hear myself counting in French.
Awer-To Moisten, Flow
She knows writing is ahead of her, a single step from her mouth. On her desk— a large, white, rectangular table, once the door to a locked room—rests a pile of differently sized books. She lays her head on the pile. Dust travels under the table lamp. She shuts her eyes, orange lipstick on scraps of dried skin need to be bitten off, but she’d rather wet them and paste them back to her lips. She writes a sentence on a piece of paper and reads it out loud: while she waits she stares at the ceiling until the light bulb pops.
Her nose blotches the cover with oil. She observes the paper absorbing her secretions, then steps softly out of the room to boil water on the stove. She grabs the sharpest knife in the kitchen drawer and stares at her nose in the blade for a few long seconds. She then chops an overripe tomato with browning seeds, making sure to extract them from the pulp. When the tomato is diced, her day is almost over. It is four o’clock. She lulls herself to sleep, sonno, naum, instructing her legs to rest in the language she is learning.
“Nous devons êtres plus fortes que ce que nous écrivons.”
She hasn’t had sex in a decade. She hasn’t had sex in two decades. She feels out of joint. Her elbows hurt from leaning on hard surfaces. She is swelled with immense boredom, the solemn siren of a liner about to leave port on a foggy day, silhouettes waving as they watch intently the sea gulping the boat back to its center. Not “center.” “Searching is bending the distance between subject and object. Finding establishes that distance.” She read that sentence at the bottom of a page, at the beginning of a sentence, halfway through a piece whose author’s name she forgot.
She was once in a relationship between the known and the unknown that turned into a sea of floating units bouncing off each other like bumper cars. She never understood the excitement of a willful crash. She stops here. She pauses here. She waters the plants while the water boils.
Her last relationship dates back to her days as a helper in a private zoo home to Athena, a giant octopus with sucker-bearing, unloving arms. “Octopuses grip and let go. They have no internal shell.” If words were like gestures, they would disappear without erasure. No one would love anyone and anyone would love everyone.
When did it change?
She needed money. Her water retention was getting denser. She learned Portuguese and grew fascinated with taxonomies, then with silence. She liked looking at trees that were taller than other trees. She was convinced that the world was full of revelations, the way fireflies light up the bottom of the atmosphere.
So why was her narrative so tight?
She began to suspect it had nothing to do with narrative and everything to do with the way she moved her body in a room. Her triggers were changing. She refused Spanish and Arabic. She felt guilty. She was certainly guilty. The word “coincidence” was close. She had been waiting for it: how to extricate herself from a rebound followed by another rebound?
She doesn’t open. Today her bra feels tighter, bunching her flesh into soft rolls. This is not the first time she is wearing this (blue, laced) bra; she wears it every day. She makes a note, my breasts grow when I write. Corrects it to my breasts glow when I write. She looks under the lampshade, parallel to the trajectory of dust, up towards the ceiling, underneath the sill, between her lap, on her back where her spine curls. She finds tenderness. She stands up, walks back to the kitchen and opens a cupboard. A row of tiny ants is working hard to solve a complicated problem. She resists showering them with milk. She turns off the stove.
Someone knocks at the door.
I should open, she thinks. Instead, she slices a grapefruit in half, peels its thick and spongy skin, and eats it in quarters. Grapefruit is a semi-sweet fruit, she writes down. It is a hybrid.
She remembers when she was eleven and peed in the elevator, on the seventh floor. She doesn’t believe she was once a child. Everybody was surprised. She was not expecting anyone. Yet, someone is knocking. She’s heard someone knock before.
A chubby fly bounces off the mirror, thinking it was a window. She remembers to open the door. She sees no one. The person who was knocking must have left. She walks back to her desk and describes a scene she witnessed this morning:
This morning, I opened the window and I saw a woman dusting a floral carpet from a balcony riddled with bullet holes. She was young, in her twenties, and wore a large yellow headband. She tossed the carpet a few times. As she was re-entering the house, she noticed me, squinted from the dust and the sunlight and shouted that she was ready.
It was a cold morning. She feels better now, sitting at her desk, drinking parsley and pear juice. She wasn’t expecting anyone. She feels an urge, stands up, and urinates on the rosy granite tiles. She then walks in her own pee, a few steps only. It gets cooler very quickly. She feels nostalgic for the warm sensation she experienced only a few seconds ago, at four o’clock. She makes a note and sticks it on the wall: remember to pee.