First comes the absence of accent. You hear it before its loss registers elsewhere: a flatness, frosty and far, where there were once warm lilts and bends. Your voice was a carousel, your language a whirligig. It’s since sanded itself, become polished and practiced, indistinguishable.
You are hiding your truths in places you will not so readily find them.
It is easy to tell a man you love him, easy to mean it. But over time, it morphs in your mouth, its meaning multiplying, reducing, clouding. Something is always wanting, in the translation.
You are not clear when you articulate love, because you have never understood men as more than audiences. Perform for them, but keep them distant. Perform for them, but know when to leave, when to grant an encore. The performance must be evocative, but respectable. It must titillate but it must also offer insight.
You are less actress than apprentice. You cannot tell if he is on the edge of his seat or yawning. Men, in this way, are mysteries.
But this is beside the point. Audiences owe so little: attention, at best, and in short supply. The actress owes a world.
No, never view a man you love as something to be acted upon. You mustn’t perform. You will always feel you are earning a keep. You will dance till dawn for a bit of applause and feel empty, wanton, when he withholds it.
Women learn this first with inconsistent fathers. When they are with you, you wish to dazzle them — and you do. For as long as you care to, you do. Find his heart, his preoccupations, his passions. Become conversant in them. And you will be clever and interesting because, at first, you are the most flattering kind of mirror. When he is with you, you offer such forgiving reflections. He is younger with you, time has stood still, a judgment day feels far enough at bay that you’ve nearly convinced him he’s invincible.
But he is often gone. And in his absence, you are building calluses over your needs. First it will be hard and hurtful to articulate them. Then, you will not feel the need to do so at all.
What is love, if not knowing when to keep silent?
The beginning of new relationships is when your accent is heaviest. Love leaves your lips easily, and love on his lips takes a razor to every callus.
I want to know everything, you whisper. I want to tell you everything, he responds.
You hope to dazzle him, and you do. But soon, you will want your distance. And in the distance, the calluses crust over.
My daughter’s speech is muddy, a mix of water and silt. It floats out, as if behind gauze or a veil. I understand her, sometimes, but less than I’m told I should by now.
I am not one of those mothers who begs and borrows and steals to acquire the trendiest literacy aids. I do not own an iPad. I believe in board books and conversation and sunshine.
She watches television. (And I realize, at this point in the reading, someone is sending me to the stocks or the noose in old Salem. But understand, at this point in the reading, that if my daughter did not watch television, I could not be writing this. If I hadn’t watched as much television as I did growing up, I wouldn’t likely have wanted to be a person who writes things down.)
Now that she is closer to three years old than two, I am told her speech should not sound like it is being sifted. She should be clear, responding to questions, asking them, forming simple sentences.
Because she is not in daycare, we have both been spared the intense developmental comparisons we’d find there. But whenever she does get to mingle among peers, I am concerned with her insouciant acquisition of language.
She is no loafer. Story is an empath, a firebrand. She is intellectually curious, musical, startling perceptive. She is creative, a gesturer. She cobbles her own expressive roads.
But she does not speak in ways that are easily understood.
Even mothers like me, neither tigers nor minimalists, know when to be concerned about their children. And for us, it is rarely overreaction.
I worry that she has inherited my ambiguities. I do not often know how to speak, either. Perhaps it is just that the words morph in her mouth in more literal ways than they do in mine.
But here is where that similarity ends: my daughter knows exactly how to love. It is not complicated. It is in the eyes, in invented songs, in laughter, in the folding of her bony limbs and skin around mine. It is all the kisses I give her, returned. It is alphabets and gifts of toys, constellations, saying hello to the moon, to her mama’s smiley-face mug in the morning.
It is not confined to the way her words are formed.
Nearly a fortnight ago, in the basement bar of an East Village restaurant, I slid onto a stool, waiting for a lithe, sparkly-eyed twenty-something to transfigure an excerpt of fiction I wrote last year, in a fit of pique. She was first in a lineup of actors cast to read the works of writers, both established and grappling. I am the latter, of course, the non-resident only in New York for a few stolen hours, the sole writer featured without a published book to sell.
In Baltimore, it is easy to forget who you are. It is not so often affirmed. In New York, if you are literary, neither affirmation nor criticism are ever in short supply. You are among kinsmen fluent in the language of representation and publication, professorship and craft. You are among people who amass rejection and do not identify it as masochism, but as love.
I had never heard my work publicly read aloud by anyone besides myself, let alone performed. New York is the only place where I’d want to.
The audience waited for the first line, spoken by a seven-year-old twin to her conjoined sister: “Do you think Mommy loves us?” It’s a play on an age-old theme, a lifelong wonder. Are we allowed to interrogate love? And when we do, will we ever be ready for the result?
The girls are black, sharing organs at the lower torso. One is developmentally delayed, the other fairly precocious. In this scene, they are in conversation. It is difficult to imagine this going well. The actress is white and grown, her body positively un-twinned.
But the language is universal, her interpretation thoughtful and quiet. She draws the attention of our intimate crowd, pulls them toward the words, and for a moment, they are not my own, and she is no longer there. There are only the twins, those susceptible twins, and their questioning of a mother’s love.
My friend Shelly, who co-organizes the event, tells me witnessing this often makes writers as nervous as if they were reading their own words aloud. Indeed, it is a foreign thing to see something intended for silence enlivened. It is strange to surrender a sliver of an incomplete novel to a room, to see the way your own words land on other ears.
This is is what readers do all the time, Shelly reminds me. They take our words into themselves, add their own inflections, superimpose their experience. They gasp, perhaps chuckle, and occasionally, they call into question their loves.
It is risky to be let in on this process. Day to day, we understand the words we write as spores, floating out and off and overhead, but rarely touching down.
Here, I was watching cupped hearts catch them. I could see them sink into the loam.
I had my answer, then, about the way I communicate love. Mine is an adoration mapped with words. For the utterance of a loving word is the loudest act there is.