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Winter 2014

Assimilation

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Miriam Fried

One possibility was that I was becoming less intelligent. Of course I suspect this periodically and usually attribute it to mercury leaking from tooth fillings or too much flame retardant in the carpet, but this time I was losing words. Not long ones like tripartite or evangelize, but the middling, useful sort: cloudy, sorry, small change. I’d grope for the words and then substitute alternatives which, once spoken, became mysteriously inappropriate. Perhaps one day I would progress to helplessness in the face of mere syllables: eat, can, car would finally be beyond me and I would have to go home.

When I’d first arrived in England, after a considerable amount of effort that would have made it ridiculous to fly back so soon, I was worried about a job; I hadn’t thought to be worried about the language, because in my opinion I spoke it. The trouble was that while most of the words were the same, they meant different things, and were put together in inexplicable combinations. Even the simplest questions were subject to harrowing misunderstandings of the type that would be of no significance or even humorous to the person I’ve always unsuccessfully meant to be. As it is, I feel desperate when I haven’t made my point clear, probably due to the fantasy that were I ever to be perfectly understood I would become beautiful, competent, and admired, instead of daily traveling an hour by train to the capital to do a dull job in an office where I was disliked, or perhaps I disliked myself—it wasn’t clear, and meanwhile my vocabulary continued to disassociate itself from me in embarrassment.

On an early morning some weeks after descending into near-mutism, I was sitting on the train drinking something that had been given the name of coffee and making a list of the books the other passengers were holding in their laps. It was a short list since there were usually only about three books that people were reading at any given time. I thought as a last bid at assimilation I might try them myself. The woman opposite me was looking at a fashion magazine, though, which was more appealing. I liked those magazines because the celebrities in them behaved the way words ought to and didn’t: the stars here had different names from the stars at home but the people themselves were exactly the same. I could flip through the pages in a triumph of recognition so different from the dislocating experience of trying to buy a month’s travelcard from the man at the station using the same language I’d been speaking all my life.

Anyway, at the next stop an elderly man got on. He had skinny legs attached to a knee-length tight-fitting coat and wifty white hair fizzing out from under a decrepit brimmed cap. It was what I used to think English people were supposed to look like, so I was glad to see him and felt that he belonged, probably more than I did. Next I saw that he was carrying a small dog, a very sweet-looking dog, and, what was less picturesque, that the man’s black coat was entirely covered in the dog’s white hair. Now, a certain amount of fluff might be attached to any affectionate pet owner, but one does at times brush it off, employ a lint roller, one is not absolutely shoulder-to-knees, front-and-back dog hair. Obviously the man was a lunatic. Still, it was nice to be sitting next to a dog.

I could see that the woman with the magazine was charmed too, at least before the dog turned out to be as deranged as its master. What happened was only that it began to lick at the man’s hand, but this wasn’t an impulsive, puppyish gesture; it was the most intent, insistent, and thorough attention I had ever seen devoted to four square inches of flesh. The woman opposite began to look horrified, thank goodness, because it was conceivable—I was a stranger, remember—that all this, the excess of dog hair and the pornographic intensity of the dog’s tongue, was quite usual and I was wrong again. After a long time, the dog removed its tongue from his master’s hand and applied it to his face with the same air of demented obsession. Then the dog shifted, and sneezed in my direction. I’d have thought nothing of it except that almost at once the woman opposite leaned toward me and dabbed with a tissue at a fold of my green raincoat.

It was the most intimate approach from a native I’d yet experienced and only when the woman sank back in her seat, crumpling the tissue disapprovingly, did I realize what it had been about. She’d been protecting me. She’d been wiping up some disgusting emission from the dog’s sneeze that had ended up on my coat without my noticing. Now she looked annoyed and embarrassed, maybe because, according to my own understanding of local mores, she was supposed to have been pretending that none of us actually existed: not me, not the man, not the dog, and perhaps not even the train. I wanted to be worthy of her gallantry and as usual had no idea what to say.

It didn’t seem possible to congratulate her, for example, on being impulsive rather than attempting first to get my attention and verbally explain the situation, or worse yet ask me if I wanted a tissue. If she’d done so I would doubtless have either failed to understand at first or pretended not to understand so as to gain time to compose a stumbling reply, a reply which might well have stanched the flow of charitable feeling by revealing my nationality or perhaps only the possibility that I was every bit as peculiar as the man in the frock coat. Yet because I miraculously hadn’t thwarted her gesture with typical ineptitude, social integration suddenly seemed within my reach. Already a bond existed between myself and a native, a bond which had not before existed but had been created by the presence of an insane dog and the pathetic weirdo still caressing him. Her kindness to me, after all, was surely intended as a rebuke to the pair of them—“See, look what you’ve done!” (or whatever the local translation might be). I could say “thank you” but then there were a number of dialectical variants on this useful expression and I didn’t want to get it wrong.

She still had the tissue in her hand, a hand that had probably been recently moisturized and had nails painted baby pink. Of course she doesn’t want to put the vile thing in her handbag, I thought, and then I knew what to do. I held out my hand for the tissue, trying to convey with a roll of the eyes both gratitude and conspiratorial disdain for the man who had made me respectable by contrast, superior in my spotless plastic raincoat to his bespattered and befurred self. I put the tissue, symbol of our solidarity, in my empty coffee cup and closed the lid again, and it was gone. It was a successful transaction: she nodded at me, and then we pretended that we didn’t exist.

The man appeared not to have noticed any of it—neither the sneeze nor the implied rebuke—and was serenely having his ear licked. They all got off at the next stop. I watched them walk down the platform, the man clutching happily at his dog, the woman stabbing at the concrete with her heels and quickly pulling ahead. I wondered later if I ought to have tried more words, perhaps even a sentence—I might have done, if the man had departed first and we’d been left in the compartment alone—but it was better this way. Even a single word would have revealed me as an alien, and I was so proud, at that particular moment, to belong. I would stay in my new home, I would get my words back, I would say nothing.



Miriam Fried's stories have appeared in Ambit, Crab Creek Review, and Watchword, among other places. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the City University of New York.
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