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My mom and I go out to the bar and I try to speak only in French and I fail almost immediately. I had been doing all right with the language app on my phone, but in a human conversation I am immediately drowning. She talks and I concentrate on nodding at the right times. This ability is now what I have left of the communicative skills I have spent my whole life hoarding. I nod, and smile, and make the hmm noise with knitted eyebrows, and laugh a second after she does, and hope it was the right place to laugh.
I’m still in France because my parents are in the slow process of moving here, turning their lives into a different language than the one in which I grew up with them. My mom speaks nearly perfect French after a lifetime of learning it; My dad doesn’t, but he is trying, and he is willing to give up public language because he loves my mom, as though he were a gender-swapped Little Mermaid. I am still determined to learn, but I am older than I should be, and I have spent a lot of time living in French-speaking countries, with French-speaking families, for work reasons during my twenties. By all logic, I should know more of this language than I do by now. But I don’t speak French because I care too much about whether people like me.
Language is about getting people to like you. That’s what it’s for. Writers give interviews about how they learned to write, but very few of these interviews are wholly honest because I have yet to find one that says “I learned to use language this way because I was desperate to make people like me.” I have always understood this as the ultimate function of whatever one could do with words, even when it became clear I should adjust my understanding. I have been willing - in the same dragging, stubborn, reluctant way I am now trying to learn illogical, mouth-laden French verbs - to learn that you cannot change people nor make them feel anything they were not going to feel anyway, that sometimes you have to leave people alone and give up on people liking you. But despite these surface lessons, I still believe that the right words in the right moment keyed to the right delivery will open any door and rewrite all mistakes. Language has always been my understanding of mercy, my access to second chances. It has been the thing by which I apologize and excuse my body, the thing by which my physical self has been allowed to arrive second and to be considered an afterthought. If I can get your attention for half a minute, I can make you laugh and or make you feel seen and you’ll forgive me for my face and my ass. Being able to use language like this is a privilege that I have been wholly unwilling to relinquish, and this unwillingness means that I am equally unwilling to humble myself, to start over at to be and to have.
When I was growing up, other kids seemed an absolute and cruel mystery to me - it was obvious there was a code, but impossible to grasp what that code was. For a while I had what I now realize was an obnoxious obsession with both manners and grammar, because both were literal codes with literal written guides, something where I did not have to guess. I could memorize the rules and then perform them. The relief of any such a thing can’t be overstated. I remember vividly what it felt like to finally reach the point in life where people my own age actually made small talk, and this experience of gratitude is the reason I will all my life defend meaningless pleasantries and extra hollow words, I hope this email finds you well, and utterly pointless back and forths about the weather. A part of me will always understand the longing that motivates the worst type of men to pretend they can turn human relationships into ninth-grade algebra, and why these such individuals might stubbornly refuse the larger necessary lesson, the one that’s the gateway into any real human connection, the fact that people can’t be worked out like an equation.
But a great deal of life, more than most of us would like to admit, is small talk, and since I was old enough for it to matter, it has been the fortress I have built around myself. Not just speaking, but being able to listen, to note the smallest changes in word choice and tone, when someone wants to be left alone and when they want to be noticed, when they want to change the subject and when they want to know more. This is how I know myself. Who I am is my ability to convince others by way of language, to say the right thing, to guess what people want to hear, to fill the silences. Who I am is even my failure to do so, the way that this grasping for words to please people is irritating and counterproductive and comes off grating and desperate. All of this lives exactly at the center of how I find myself familiar. For years my literal job was to teach high school students to use language correctly, to understand vocabulary and grammar. We are all held back by the things we are good at, trapped by whatever it is by which we choose to define ourselves. Being without words - without apology, without flattery, without follow-up questions to keep the conversation buoyantly above the hard ground - feels more like walking outside naked than I imagine walking outside naked ever could.
Thomas is the first person whom I have ever felt confident was still going to like me from one moment to the next without me having to perform any kind of sleight of hand to guarantee it. He is the first person around whom I have ever truly stopped feeling that I was just one small fuck-up away from never seeing him again, that I was not on my last strike or allowed to stay on some stretched-thin mercy that at any moment would snap. He is the first person I have loved without any desire to disappear. Loving him is uncomfortable, itchy, good like getting up in the morning, like doing the things you have been avoiding. Sometimes I forget how to be around other people after long stretches of this; I forget how to crackle entertainment into a room, how to swerve a fast car of conversation into oncoming silences before anyone else sees them. Our love is the opposite of small talk, a safe house for silences.
Outside of this relationship, and before it, language was what I hoped would allow me to disguise anything that would repel people, and artificially exaggerate whatever would draw them in. Thomas and I reached a point where our relationship transcends small talk, but we got there only by means of this same ability. I convinced him to love me by the same process of disguise and exaggeration. Anything that moved beyond these strategies, this language-skill, came after that, and because of it. Loneliness is amplified in high-key here in a place where I am slowly trying to pull myself up to the level of a stumbling four-line conversation about the weather. I have no means by which to know anyone, to convince anyone to turn toward me. In this country, no one could love me, because how could you love someone who has nowhere to hide?
Not speaking the language here is embarrassing for far more surface reasons, too, for the fear of being everything people assume about Americans, bloated and selfish and knocking over tables, reeking in mannerless from the land of endless conveniences, refusing to learn a language that is not immediately about myself, refusing anything where gratification is not immediately apparent, living in the image of the monstrous man in charge. The real reason I have not learned another language is that America has offered me the privilege of not having to do so, and the rotting, habituated part of my nervous system wants eloquent speech to be as easy as placing an order on Seamless. Nothing is this simple, of course - there are plenty of reasons why someone from any country wouldn’t know a second language, most of them entirely outside the individual’s control or culpability, America is not a monolith, France certainly has its own issues - but that’s the problem with lacking language: Even with whole dizzying complement of English verb tenses and adjectives at my fingertips, sorting the nuances of something like this is near to impossible. In French, all I can do is apologize and ask for the bill.
Walking through this town on weekend mornings in the churn and glitter of families, or walking back to our rented apartment at night, I experience the thing that many other people have told me about and written better about learning another language than I have: The gut-punching envy of children. I notice kids calling out to their parents and each other, blissfully unaware that they are learning through osmosis, with the unconcerned ease of a plant turned to sunlight. Their thoughtless existence is far more effective than all my effort and study and dogged self-abasement ever could be. Already a six year old has a more sophisticated grasp of French than I will be able to dream of for years. I am back to how I felt with other kids at that age, back to a place before small talk and guidebooks and cues, cocooned in silence, waiting at the edge of the bright party, unable to enter a dance I do not know.