Language is a fluid friend, a fickle friend sometimes. It waxes, wanes and shifts without your permission. I’m on the phone to Grandma, struggling to recall the word for ‘university’, replacing it with ‘school’ instead. With linguistic sleight of hand, the passing days steal my mother tongue from me. The words I surrender bear the weight and wisdom of my lineage, the sweat salt hardship borne by family to forge new beginnings. Memories, nuances, lost.
In the end, I spoke no language better than the one we built accidentally. Constructed from in-jokes, syntax of obscure references, vocabulary based on deliberate mispronunciation. That first weekend at your place we made a tiny life together. Scrambled eggs with bacon, I slice cucumber, avocadoes, half an onion that makes me cry. You pour coffee over ice, I make salad, make fun of you for not appreciating the fine ‘burny’ taste of hot drink. You teach me how to pronounce one to ten, I pop a piece of toast into your mouth, startle myself at the gesture. We’re playing house and dancing around the daisies, you love me you love me not.
This is us but there isn’t an us. It’s deliciously stormy outside so we spend the day in bed streaming episodes of Madmen and screwing to pass time while it buffers. I tell you that you’re a dick sometimes like Pete Campbell so you start calling me Trudie. You create idioms inspired by indie films, frivolous acronyms that others can only begin to guess. I try to argue with you, causing a scene like lovers do on silver screen. It goes round and round until you ‘do a Tommy Wiseau’ and scream YOU’RE TEARING ME APART LISA. Failing to stifle the rising laughter in my throat, I put my arms around you and we start again.
Dinner with your family, I dont know where to look, where to put my hands when you all start to say grace. Weeks later you give me a card with an ink drawing of a table surrounded by six praying manti. I open it, To The Non-Praying Mantis, Happy Birthday. You sneak to the guest bedroom at your mum’s house and each step unleashes an eternity of creak. I ask you how the Long March was, you climb underneath the duvet and laugh, next time we long march it awkwardly into a play half an hour late. Your favourite is the half onomatopoeia, the chug of a steam train becomes a wheezy ‘dessicated coconut’, my yawn a languid ‘Corfu’. I scrape around my purse for the final pennies to pay for a Diet Coke. ‘Times are tough’ observes the shop assistant. Times are tough indeed, we pocket the catchphrase for our private collection.
Maybe we’ll stop talking, maybe I’ll leave you or you me. I can only hear the rise and fall of your breathing, guide you towards me wordlessly. Language this time rendered inadequate. I imagined at first that it would be easy afterwards, it was amiable and drama free. We simply woke up the next day and changed our minds. But the secret tongue dies last, I see you everywhere in the street signs, spanish menus, Tarantino flicks and Bloc Party tracks. You can’t speak to me without slipping into our old dialect, plain speech feels stilted, our normal person names unnatural. I have no problem with you but eventually there’s no reason for us to speak at all, time takes it all away.
When I crave the sound of my mother tongue I ring up Grandma to prove that it still exists within me. Sometimes I think of you, indulge myself and sit on my bedroom floor to sift through your letters. The only written documentation of a language made for a community of two. It’s a bittersweet rendition of our greatest hits, nonsensical palindromes, strange turns of phrase, altered quotes and odd intonation. I walk past the gates of a school as they open and the pupils flood out. Instinctively I bring my fingertips together Mr. Burns style, but there’s no one here to release the monkeys.