Language is not a product you buy

You are not like your mother. I keep looking for the teacher in you, but I don’t see it. Lizzi Bauer carried these words with her as she walked down the street in the cool of the evening on her way to her apartment in the suburbs. You are not like your mother. The words should have stung but Lizzi cradled and carrassed them in her mind. Car headlights formed little passing pools of light on the street in front of them as they drove by and the night seemed exceptionally silent and still. I keep looking for your mother in you, but I don’t see the teacher. The pools of light kept merging, disappearing, and then reappearing in new formations on the black pavement. Your mother, the teacher you’re not, I keep looking for.

The lights moving down the street and the muted noises of the city seemed like a blanket of comfort to Lizzi. This was her favorite time, walking alone, the sun long since gone down, and everything cool and quiet. It was always such a relief to leave the stuffy brown building where she was paid to teach English to university-aspiring foreign students. The work drained her, made her feel empty and flat. Language isn’t something you can buy. It’s a vision that comes from inside, and she was tired of trying to create visions for herself and other people. Walking alone in the quiet, Lizzi felt weak and hollow. You’re right, she said to the accusation that had been tossed to her. I’m not a teacher. I don’t yet know my own words – how can I impart to you what I don’t know? Language is not a product you buy.

Her mind pre-occupied, Lizzi walked the mile to the subway station and rode the train home on auto-pilot. She felt faintly nauseous from the futility and inevitability of it all. Each morning she would take that same train, walk that same street, and enter that same chocking building, and for what, why? It felt like an unknown force had put her failure on repeat and prohibited her from breaking out of it. She liked the students some of the time, but she didn’t know her own language yet. How could they ask her to teach when she didn’t have a voice? It seemed unfair, and it made her tired.

The elevator dinged at the 9th floor and Lizzi stepped out. She prayed for strength before entering the apartment. They were both there, sitting on the couch across from the floor-to-ceiling bookshelf, when she stepped inside. She was laying on her back with her legs pulled up onto the couch and her head in his lap, and he had his feet up on the ottoman in front of him. Lizzi knew they had been sitting like that in silence. Ordinarily she would do the polite and appropriate thing – using bland words to create a veneer of normalacy among them – but her exhaustion and the intended accusation of that morning had freed her from the need to create a false sense of reality. She wasn’t a teacher. And she wasn’t responsible for helping others hold onto their own self-or-other constructed realities either. She simply said hello and poured herself a glass of chocolate milk.

That’s so childish and Midwestern of you, Jin Park said. Sometimes I forget how young you are. How young I am, Lizzi thought. You country bumpkins have some, uh, interesting ideas about food, Jin Park said. This one – he pointed to Ellen King, her head resting on his lap – didn’t know what Izumi Dai is. You know what that is right? Or don’t any Midwesterners how anything about sushi?

I don’t really care about sushi, Lizzi said. Ellen sat up. I told you, that’s not how people eat where we come from. We grow corn and soy beans and we eat potatoes. Once I went to a potluck and filled a plate, and when I sat down I realized I had four different kinds of potatoes on my plate. We’re not used to a lot of different foods. Plus because of my dietary restrictions, I never know what will make me sick. I can’t eat everything like you do, Jin.

You can’t eat anything, Jin said. But it’s basic knowledge that Izumi Dai is the Japanese name for Red Snapper. Anyone would know that – unless, apparently, they’re from the Midwest.   

Ellen’s face flushed. What do you want me to do? I can’t eat like you. A lot of food makes me sick. You know how easily I get nauseous. Sometimes I don’t even have to eat anything and I get nauseous. Remember that morning when I had to ask you to check on me every few minutes because I couldn’t stand up, Lizzi? I tried to eat some crackers and threw them up, and couldn’t go to work for two days. And of course the doctors never figured out what was wrong. Do you remember how sick I was, Lizzi?

I remember, Lizzi said.

I couldn’t eat anything for 2 days, Ellen said. I couldn’t work. I’m not invincible like you Jin. She got up off the couch, went into the bathroom, and shut the door.

Lizzi tilted her glass and drained the last of the chocolate milk. It doesn’t make you any better than us, knowing different words, she said to Jin, who had opened his laptop and was looking at something on the screen. She was thinking of her classes and of Ellen and of herself. It’s easy to know a lot of words, she said, but it takes more than words to have a voice.