The day after Christmas, the sidewalks were slippery with snow and ice. Wei Wei took my arm as we started across Kneeland Street to Tyler for dim sum. At first I didn't know why she would hold on, not until I looked down, making sure my feet were on safe ground and I saw she wore bright yellow summer shoes, like ballet flats, but with hard soles.
The air was bitter cold, but scented with ginger and sesame, and ginger-and-sesame-flavored noodles were what we ordered, both of us pointing to the same thing on the menu, the “Number 12” translated into English for me. And we laughed at what we had in common; certainly language wasn't it.
I knew nothing about Wei Wei then not even that she had worked as a doctor in China's largest hospital. I only knew that she didn't like the cold, that she was afraid of falling and that she wanted very much to learn English.
--Published in City River of Voices, Denise Bergman, ed., West End Press, NM, 1992
The train stops at Porter: a group of children, a field trip from a day care center, board and immediately start counting aloud for their teacher — one,two,three,four...-- the number of station stops on the subway map.
This is ordinary, yet I can't help smiling or noticing the man next to me, smiling, too. I think: he has not lived in the city long, is too open, looking right into my eyes. He is not afraid of asking either: How do you call that—what they are doing?
Numbers,I say. Do you speak Spanish? Numero? Isn't that it? No,he says. Portuguese. We say, ‘contas’ what they do.
Oh! Counting. They are counting, I say. Or you can say, ‘They count.’
The man feels sure he may ask now for other words, words more pressing for him at the moment.
Also, for example, he begins, I go to meet you and you are not there. How can I say this?
So, it is about a missed connection, someone's disappointment—his own-- or his excuse for being someone else's that he wants to talk, to know proper form, the right words, to smooth things over.
Always, I would rather imagine than ask for context, so I invent that a woman is involved. I don't wonder if he stood her up on purpose-- not that—he is too concerned with getting it all just right.
You can believe what you want: that he missed an appointment with his doctor, lawyer, or someone he had hoped to work for. I perfer to believe that he owns no watch rather than that he was afraid of some meeting.
The children keep on practicing their numbers, finding everything in the world can be counted: how many tunnel lights flash past their window, noticing that several passengers are wearing hats, that some do not have a seat, revising all the time, for our world is in flux. And when the train emerges from underground onto Longfellow Bridge, they begin a census of sailboats on the Charles.
The Portuguese man is leaving. Goodbye. Nice speaking with you, he says. Silent after, yet his lips keep moving just as if he's praying, only I think instead he is going over words I gave him, practicing repeating in his mind, so he won't forget, saying, When I got there, you were gone. --First published in Red Brick Review, Spring, 1992
English Lesson Plan: Present Perfect
1. The Roz Chast cartoon in The New Yorker shows a goofy mother, father, and children seated all in a line, pressed tight together between the sofa arms, staring at the TV: The Lintners, the caption says, Stuck on the Sofa since 1987.
I show it to the class, thinking: will they laugh? The clipping is an example I use to illustrate the present perfect tense. It gets passed around. Everyone nods, very very serious about learning the present perfect tense.
Q. How long have the Lintners been stuck on the sofa? A. The Linters have been stuck on the sofa since 1987. 2. Stuck on a sofa, hypnotized by TV...brings up new vocabulary. I explain to be in a trance. This leads to sleepwalking, then to daydreaming, and finally to hallucination.
Hallucination inspires Margarita to tell a story: her last job...the State Hospital...there was a man who had lost his mind when he lost his wife. Whenever he got angry, says Margarita, he would hallucinate that he was still in Cuba, still in the hot sun. He would mime cutting sugar cane with his machete. 3. Someone is using the word cuckoo. I must explain that it is the name of a bird, and not the right word to describe someone who is ill. The Haitians think I'm talking about the owl, a bird that frightens them, its face—the face of a cat, the eyes-- When they say nocturne I know-- their mistake, draw an owl on the chalkboard. 4. And the lesson for the day ends this way, me saying, It is an owl, not a cuckoo. Haven't you ever seen a clock shaped like a house and a little bird comes out of the upstairs window saying Cuckoo! Cuckoo! the exact number of times to tell the hour? The present perfect tense, like time goes on and on, or like the Lintners, or the man who has been cutting sugar cane ever since his wife died, or the owl that has been awake all night long, hooting. --Published in Hanging Loose, 50