The woman got on the Q train at Canal St., shuffled into a seat, and sat with her knees pressed tightly together. Around her, tourists crowded together in clumps, hot with vacation sweat and proud of themselves for buying big, counterfeit purses in Chinatown. Those who noticed the woman might have wondered what it was like to be her – an Asian woman in the almost-foreign country of New York City’s lower east side. Most of the tourists, however, either didn’t notice the woman or pressed her so tightly behind several hundred other vacation memories that they never thought of her again.
In her lap, the woman held a small spiral-bound notebook. It was the kind of notebook little girls fill with stickers and the meaningless scribbles they pretend are words. In the pages of the notebook the woman copied and recopied the strange new English letters, training her hand to remember the way they felt. On its pages she carefully drew the vowels and consonants, stitching them together into something like language. Over it she whispered the clumsy new words that felt big and sticky in her mouth. The notebbook was her private rehearsal space, where she practiced the sounds she couldn’t yet say and studied the words she didn’t yet understand.
On those days, it’s easy to notice the notebook in the small Asian woman’s lap.
There, on the blue lined page, printed in too-neat letters, he couldn’t help but notice that the woman had written:
I won’t let you control me anymore
You’ve made my life a misery
Do not telephone me
The woman’s lips moved slowly as she studied the words. Like a child trying to read the Sunday Times to her father, she furrowed her brow in concentration.
Won’t let you control me… Life a misery… Stay away
Obviously, these weren’t sentences the woman learned in a language guide. They weren’t the rote “practical English for non-native speakers” phrases that are recited in dingy community center classrooms.
“No,” the man thought, “someone helped her form these thoughts. Someone helped her craft this syntax, this story.”
As he scanned the lines on her page, the man felt (what?) for her. Sadness? Regret? Pity? After all, these were phrases a person shouldn’t have to rehearse in another person’s language. These were phrases that should slip easily off the tongue like fire, hot and rampant. Unchecked. Yet here the woman sat, silently mouthing the words. Studying.
Control… Misery… Stay away
But the man understood… or he thought he did.
Like most people, he was familiar with the ache of not just speaking words like these, but planning to speak them. Rehearsing them. Anticipating them. He knew what it was like to sit in stammering frustration as the right words lodge stubbornly in your chest.
Do not telephone me
He guessed that in a week, or a month (or maybe more?), the woman would finally feel confident enough to step off the train and say those lines to someone. But to who? Who was the person she had apparently lived with in love (and then frustration) for so long that she could no longer bear being not understood? Who was this man she couldn’t talk to – this person she had been intimate with, without being intimate? And how long could she ride the train with that notebook in her lap, waiting to tell him?
The man turned his head and pretended not to see.
The woman looked up from her notebook and saw her friend board the train. The friend stood in the doorway for a moment, scanning the car, apparently looking for the woman. When she saw the woman, the friend tilted her head sympathetically. The woman’s eyes filled with tears and closed, pressing heavy drops down her cheeks. When she opened them, the friend was standing in front of her, looking down with both concern and an anger that’s the truest sign of loyalty.
“甜美的花，我不明白。那个混蛋对你说了什么”, she asked. (Sweet Flower, I don’t understand. What did that jerk say to you?)
“我不知道 “ (I’m not sure) the woman replied, and handed her friend the notebook.