If there is one benefit to a Brooklyn upbringing, it’s a loud, booming voice.
You learn to be heard in the schoolyard–if not the cradle. In a world where sidewalk territory was conceded square-by-square, where insults were merely the foreplay of torment, I developed a knack for exposing secret shames.
Bully bed wetter? You can’t hide that smell up close.
Vet older brother caressing lampposts in the twilight? I’m not worth the risk.
My verbal abilities became protection and rescue from the neighborhood, and they served me loyally through college. Then I trailed a lover to Switzerland, home to four languages not my own. In that strange land of starched traditions and tight-lipped disapproval, words failed me habitually, publicly, until they sputtered to a complete stop, even on the page, in English.
The overarching Swiss aesthetic is one of attainable perfection. I couldn’t order bread without being marched through pronunciation and grammar lessons, my baguette dangled outside my reach as I repeated phrases a dozen times or more.
Je voudrais du pain, s’il vous plaît.
Non! Je voudrais du PAIN, s’il vous plaît.
Alors, JE voudrais du pain.
My enthusiastic attempts to communicate blighted their ears, and even my partner, his native traits emerging on home soil, suggested I focus on pronunciation over vocabulary, as if a thing that wasn’t said elegantly wasn’t worth saying. This implication cut as deeply as any comeuppance I’d ever inflicted.
I didn’t fight this notion like the rebel I’d always believed myself to be. Instead, I channeled Bartleby, refusing to engage in daily corrections with my neighbors. I pointed at items I wanted in shops, and relied upon my honed urban glare when challenged. I grew more and more mute until I spoke rarely, at home, among friends, or otherwise. When I finally fled the Swiss, I found my silence a difficult habit to break. I had lost sight of words as my gift.
I was home a week when I learned about a “master” class given by Margaret Atwood. I believed my favorite writer, a Canadian concerned with the silence of being from that other country, could guide me back to my former place of surety. I had missed the submission deadline by one day, but I went to the program office to plead for consideration. In my mind, Switzerland was a nation of torment, yet invoking my time living abroad didn’t elicit sympathy or an extension from the program staff. I persisted, hoping to shake off the rust, to appear worthy of Margaret Atwood’s time.
“I can read you the first paragraph, and if you don’t think it’s good enough, that’s fine. I’ll accept that. The name Ainsley is an homage to my favorite character from The Edible Woman.”
They called security.
I trailed Margaret Atwood through her NYC appearances to promote Alias Grace. If my own words had failed me, hers remained a delight. She made time to read at an independent bookstore, a haven that would not survive the release of her next book. The crowd she drew was larger than the space, so she had fans circled around her on the floor.
The microphone wasn’t working properly. Whenever she spoke, the treble squeaked and bleated, but the noise of the bookstore and the Broadway street bustle meant she couldn’t be heard without it. Twenty minutes into the equipment troubles, Ms. Atwood rested her hand on the head of a young man with wild, shoulder-length curls, and the noises disappeared. The audience whooped. When she moved her hand, the bleating returned, but the big-haired boy scuttled away.
“Was it me?” she joked. The feedback heckled her laugh.
The space around her had widened, and my friend elbowed me. “They’re never going to fix that thing.”
I tripped over my own backpack, practically tumble-salting to her side, but the audience applauded my bravery. Ms. Atwood put her hand on my head, and the mike quieted. She swatted the tech crew away.
For a delicately featured woman, she had a firm, sure touch. I was in the grip of someone in command of more than her words, and I wanted that assurance to seep into me. As she read, her description of 1850s society women— jellyfish ladies—as lovely illusions moved me so literally that the feedback returned. She adjusted my head without interrupting the rhythm of her sentences.
I thought of the women who teetered through my neighborhood, heels high and hair higher. They appeared tough as they sashayed for attention, but that attitude was its own lovely illusion. They were modern jellyfish ladies desperate for rescue, and I longed to write them beyond such outdated notions. As my left hand itched for a pen, I wanted to sweep Margaret Atwood up and dance the mad-jig of inspiration. Part of me thought she could do this without missing a word from the chapter she was reading. She had powers, that one. I believed.
After the reading, she took my hand in hers and mouthed, “Thank you.”
I beamed my reply. Words didn’t fail me. They were unnecessary.
Valerie Fioravanti writes fiction, essays, and prose poems. Her linked story collection, Garbage Night at the Opera, won the 2011 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction and is forthcoming from BkMk Press in 2012. Her nonfiction has appeared in Eclectica, Silk Road, and Jelly Bucket, and she is working on an episodic memoir of sorts. Margaret Atwood remains her literary idol.
Read an interview with Valerie here.