1994, we’ll say. The voice addressing us is a paper shredder.
—So, with that second Happy Meal, is that gonna be a Boy Toy or a Girl Toy?
The flickering mosaic of women that is my mother tilts her head such that her pillowy right cheek is on full display from the vantage point of the back seat. The front seat is an older sister kind of place.
I am good at silence, but an inappropriate amount of time passes, breaking the social contract we have with the paper shredder. It whirrs.
I never kicked in the womb. Sometimes, Mom can translate the silence.
—A Girl Toy.
Another contract broken.
—Thirteen fifty-two. Pull forward.
Momentarily, bills and coins trade hands, and then a hot, flimsy paper bag housing a perfunctory dinner and two new pupae for us. Maybe they are Disney Princesses. Maybe they are Barbies.
2001. A new state. New states. Still in the obesity years, though. For the first time in a decade, mom is not a single mom—she is a cautiously optimistic newlywed. My sister is uncharacteristically stoic and withdrawn, her effervescence and joie de vivre expended from having raged and clawed for months in a frantic crusade to stay with her high school sweetheart. For the first time, she exhibits silence like mine. I clutch to the notion that my suffering has always been more profound than hers, a habit that I carry with me into the first year of high school. Choices begin to enter my nascent vocabulary of adulthood in a slow march towards becoming functional. Choices of nebulous magnitude, such as my courses. Band eats an elective slot, as will a foreign language for at least two years. Spanish? German? French? Latin?
cogito ergo sum
—Where are you from?
It’s a new form of an old question. As my skin grows lighter and paler over the years, the question moves away from its previous verbiage: What are you? At least the new version doesn’t address me with “what”, a word intended for objects or animals. Both, however, carry an implicit command: Explain your other-ness. Currently, the other-ness is my ability to speak French. I don’t enjoy any of the possible responses, but I give them.
—I’m from Texas.
—I’m from Florida.
—I’m from here.
—What? So how come you speak French? Do your parents speak it?
The United States, the melting-pot born of immigrants and pilgrimages, can sometimes foster an aggressively monolingual mentality. For many, speaking a language other than English is not a possibility they can envision for themselves, so it can become a magical curiosity that requires thorough explication.
—No, I studied it in school.
—Wow! I’ve never heard of anyone who actually remembered anything from high school French! Anything besides bawnjewer! Baguette! HA!
—Well, I didn’t study French until college.
facio facere feci factus -a -um
2001 and 2002, collectively. I choose to take the two years of Latin that are offered at my school to fulfill my language requirement. It appeals to my pseudo-intellectual posturing. Bonus points for not being as mainstream as Spanish or as trendy as French. On some level, I am probably drawn to the idea that no one will expect me to use the language after high school. No real access to failure.
I have some friends in Latin. Elise. Jarrod. Alec. We are goofballs, and the levity is nice. We translate The Offspring songs into Latin: Da id mihi, pupa! Oh, sic! Oh, sic! We ask each other provocative questions: Ubi praedam ponitis?
Elise and I bound into Latin class.
—Happy Rabbit Rabbit Day!
—If you say “rabbit rabbit” as soon as you wake up on the first day of a month, you’ll have good luck all month!
—You should put your faith in the Good Lord, rather than in chance and superstition.
Elise and I are speechless.
Magistra Bornschein is a well-meaning teacher. She is short and wide and has undoubtedly suffered at the hands of her students. Her ruddy cheeks and invariable smile make her look like a cherubim that actually grew up. She is happiest when she brings in her acoustic guitar and we sing in Latin with her. I save her handouts of the Latin lyrics to "O Christmas Tree" and "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" in case I want to look over them in the future. She has my sister in her French class. She likes me, though her religiosity scares me.
—You are so skilled in Latin! French is so easy in comparison: no declensions, no neuter. It would be a breeze for you!
I’m not interested.
From the classroom where I teach high school French, I can hear the few kids taking Latin chanting endings from the classroom next door. I am new. I am the only French teacher here. My students have had a different teacher every year. No one stays for them. I try to convince the children that languages are a way to redefine ourselves in a world that forcefully defines us.
-bo -bis -bit -bimus -bitis -bunt
I am leaving the French family with whom I spent the autumn months. I am in a rush to get presents for each family member. I am stuck on the gift for the 5 year old daughter, who looks at me with the most peculiar, knowing smile—it's as if she's an adult hiding in that little body getting to secretly relive her childhood. I am conflicted that I am buying her dolls—pupae—so obviously a Girl Toy. Why are all the toys in this store so blatantly gender-biased? I tell myself that at least these paper coloring dolls show different ethnicities—different cultures. I tell myself that the depictions of the beautiful little girls in traditional ethnic garb are probably not racist. I tell myself that the coloring aspect will fuel her creativity. I tell myself that my decisions aren't going to affect her perception of self.