Heading South on 97. We left last evening after a day in Sisters. I like that little town. Spent an early morning waiting for the library to open by meandering on sidewalks. Got a coffee at Sister’s Coffee House —a two story, open wooden lodge with as much traffic on a Tuesday morning as the DMV. The line was continual. But when a drip coffee’s fresh, strong and cheap ($2 for my canteen fill), I’m yours.
I sat outside at one of many dispersed wooden tables to escape the echo of friends catching up and business meetings. Fall had just rolled in the night before. First morning in a while I let the engine run a solid five before heading off to town. The cold of the morning still lingered even as the sun unveiled itself from behind the Cascades’ shadowed faces.
I sat bundled in my thick leggings, a light sweater, a puffy, cozy boots I’ve stored away the past few months. I began transcribing. The cold slowed my speed by a solid 3 words per minute, but I stayed outside, let the coffee edge its way to my fingertips. I love fall. Its transience imbues it with particular charm. I don’t want to miss these mornings, even if it’s at the expense of my dear Rev metrics.
I spent an hour and a half transcribing three separate interviews, each about a students’ experience in an accelerated program for ESL adults meant to provide the required skill-set to interview for and get government jobs. I needed a break. The content was interesting, but also difficult to transcribe. Jargon and acronyms specific to the program abounded and sent me again and again off to the maddening expanse of Google. It took me nearly three times the minutes of actual audio to get it all down in writing.
I also had to fight my tendency to fix grammatical mistakes. The main requirement of this job is to transcribe what’s heard, without correction. You can get rid of fillers and stutters (unless you’re doing a verbatim transcription, which I will NEVER do), but any grammatical errors or misuse of words must be accurately recorded.
As I fought back the urge, or caught myself unconsciously swapping words, I was reminded of all the various quirks of English. Those things I wanted to “fix” were rational slip-ups made by the interviewees—things like “feedbacks”, which arguably makes more sense in the speaker’s context than the singular form. Regardless of sense, it jars the native English ear, for no good reason beyond it sounding unusual, or foreign. All the silly bogus rules, all the grammar patterns and exceptions—I was lucky enough to absorb these before I had to understand of any of it. Because a lot of it’s outside a pattern, or rationale. Inconsistent. As is the case in any language, I guess.
I only know the tip of the frustration accompanying attempts to communicate ones thoughts or feelings in a way that will sound intelligent, knowledgeable, or at minimum, will express what’s intended. The annoyance of having to constantly detangle your tongue from mind, or, in the case of whatever’s not yet rote, to reflect back into memory’s corridors for a pause so you don’t mess it up. To move slow and guarded through befuddled terrain so you won’t get designated as different, or worse: dumb.
My language muddles are generally short term. A few weeks or months in a foreign country, a basic enough understanding of the language to hold a conversation consisting of a few sentences, or to find the bathroom, or to be polite. After enough fumbling around, others eventually switch over to English. The conversation has progressed, as it hopefully always will, into a world beyond introductions, weather reports, and comments about food. My discomfort’s never prolonged or considerable. I’m lucky enough to be a native speaker of what’s been determined the “international language”, a language most know or feel the need to learn.
When the switch goes back, I sit and pretend to listen as waves of unintelligible words drown me, nod my head at any hint of body language in my direction. As the others do what’s only natural—return to communicating the way they feel most comfortable, which isn’t English, I get a little taste of what it’s like to not participate because I can’t.
When I first met Yoav, I was charmed by his accent. I have a thing for an accent. It represents a world I’ve only seen through the lens of another, don’t yet understand, can’t or haven’t touched. What lies beyond the perimeter of my memory. It’s the challenge that comes with not being able to pinpoint or designate, then the slow unraveling, if you’re patient and determined enough, of those infinitesimal glimpses into another’s lived experience.
I guessed he was French at first. He’d only said a few words, and I jumped in, my immediate assumptions ready to peg him somewhere on the map I’d been, somewhere I’d seen firsthand.
He didn’t laugh, but smiled enough to assure I hadn’t offended. Shook his head. “I’m from Israel.” He said it as if we must know, how could we not?—his accent always gave him away before he got any chance at a unique impression.
It’s surreal, thinking back to the time when I didn’t know anything about Yoav beyond his mop of tightly wound curls, his almond eyes that smiled nearly as much as his mouth, his generosity. The latter came up quick and surprised me. I never knew a generosity so vulnerable and oblivious. He wasn’t concerned about what he’d end up with: what would be given in return, or what would be taken without thought. He had a small apple when we first climbed together. Split it in half with his hands and offered the other up as if it grew scored and was harvested for sharing.
He had a massive bag of his own gourmet trail mix: peanut m&ms, espresso beans, cashews, almonds, coconut flakes, white chocolate chips, cranberries, other textured delights I can’t remember. He plopped it in the middle of us without hesitation. E had no problem praising his creation while devouring it in handfuls. I moved slow, picked out bits, thought how expensive it might be while thanking him more than necessary. He smiled at us both in that shy way he does, a look in his eyes entirely devoid of any concern whatsoever over that inevitable decrease of the most prized item he had to eat in his backpack or car. He simply didn’t care. He was so happy, to have found people to climb with in a place seemingly devoid of ungrouped people willing to take someone in. To have found people to have dinner with so it wasn’t another night alone at the start of his big climbing trip, alone. To have found people to share with.
Yoav taught me how to share, that day and all the days still.
Eventually we got to know each other better. I shared my bed and he shared his car for storage. I shared with ebullience all the things about him I delighted in: His massive helmet of coarse hair; his outie belly button and elegant long limbs. His freaky long toes. His courage. His. kindness. And yes, his accent. The way when he spoke in Hebrew, he seemed to transform into someone out of my reach. The way when he spoke English, the most bland words rolled off his tongue rejuvenated, swollen with the Mediterranean sea, sharpened by the guttural timbre of his first alphabet.
He told me he hated it. Hated the fact every time he opened his mouth, to thank the bartender, finish a transaction at a grocery store, request the library wifi passoword, or ask someone at the gas station for directions, it was always followed by the question. Where are you from? Sometimes they asked it, sometimes they didn’t, but it didn’t really matter; if their mouths didn’t form it, their eyes did. I can’t place you. As quick as a regretted word escapes, he became far, far away. An amusement for someone else he didn’t care to entertain. A question he’s no longer patient enough to answer most days. I’m from here; I’m standing right here.
I can never fully grasp his experience. His inability to leave the past and breathe in a full present. To move beyond an identity that doesn’t belong in public records or universal consciousness. His reality, living in a space that will forever associate him with another.
I’ve always tried to express uniqueness. I enjoy finding ways to be different. Surprising people, even surprising myself. Cultivating an air of mystery my aloofness only helps prolong.
I’m inspired by unfamiliar places where I have the accent, I am the foreigner. But even in the instance I become the other, there are few places I’ve gone—or even can go—where my accent is marginalized, or poses a threat, or otherwise digs motes between me and my listener. And even then, I’ve always had the luxury of limiting my exposure, tailoring my experience so that it’s never long enough to be too exhausting, never severe enough to be detrimental to my sense of self.
I crave difference, both in and around me, because I have enough necessary same or esteemed characteristics to provide me ease when I decide I want it. I have the privilege to move about without piquing curiosity or embodying novelty, whenever I want. To say “yes”, “no”, “thank you”, then go about my day as that other person goes about her own, neither of us regarding the other as anything but a face inside a very unremarkable interaction.
I have the freedom to be nameless, without explanation or signage. Someone who doesn’t need to answer questions simply because I don’t arouse them.
This page began in a coffee shop. After a couple hours there, I walked the first bright fall morning of the year for half a mile, back to where I’d parked, at the library. I was reminded how good September feels on the skin. I crawled into the back of the van, fried myself an egg in fragrant coconut oil, plopped it on bread smeared generously with avocado. When you salt and pepper it just right, and cook the egg so the yolks a gel and the white’s supple on the tongue, nothing quite compares. I reheated what was left of the coffee in my canteen. I’m a bit particular about food and beverage temperatures, and yes, do miss the ease of the microwave when it comes to sipping slow. Still, there are ways to make it work and things to consider changing, always.
Restored back to life, I tucked myself up for a couple hours in Sisters’ cozy and immaculate library, where natural light spills on the white walls and warm shelves, makes the dizzying endeavor of finding the perfect book into a pleasant afternoon stroll rather than a chore. I transcribed some more. Filed through Instagram until I reminded myself I hated all the feelings it gave, and stopped.
I left for a run mid-afternoon through sparse tree coverage and that same sharp September breeze. Saw the public park had showers when I got back. Four quarters for two minutes. It had been a week of climbs and runs and dusty desert, and the dirt ring now around my shins and smell of sweat I’d just accumulated made me impatient. I searched through all our jacket pockets, backpacks and random change-collecting nick-knacks. I found four quarters.
It had been some time since I’d taken a shower limited to two measly minutes. Last time was at the Red River Gorge, where the same price yielded the same length of spout exposure. I refreshed the protocol. Have conditioner and soap on-hand. Shampoo, in hand. Put in quarters after turning knob to hottest temperature. Drench hair. Lather in shampoo. Wash off mid-lather, because that’s how much time you get. Slap on conditioner. As it sits and hopefully seeps into all follicles you missed, soap up your entire body, starting with the most private of crevices and working your way out and up. The feet can be managed later, and will at least benefit from the run-off. When you feel as if you’ve just begun, rinse out the shampoo. The water will turn off when you’ve just begun and still have soap on your butt.
And so it went. I left the shower feeling tousled, a bit demoralized, maybe a hair cleaner. Families at the adjacent playground with shrieking little tots eyed me curiously. Hopefully not suspiciously. They probably didn’t even know there were two showers available until I emerged with my towel-wrapped hair and ruddy face. Next time I’ll come prepared with eight quarters. That’s the magic number, I think: Four minutes. But I can’t really complain. For a public park to offer showers at minimal cost is an uncommon amenity, and highly progressive, I think. Free’s the next step, but most people won’t abide free. This is a close second and reasonable for all involved, I’d say.
That was three days ago. My hair’s finally released the perfumed scent of the cheap conditioner I picked up from Groc-Out, which I had the misfortune of not being able to entirely rinse out during my shower from hell. I can’t stand fake fragrance. It was punishing me for my impatience, surely. It followed Yoav and I all night and the following day as we made our way down South, miles and miles away from where I first dared slather it on.
We’re now in Susanville, in one of the most depressing library’s I’ve ever sat, hastily researching a few things we’d like to hit up on our way to Mammoth: A cheap place for an oil change (they’re mega expensive in Bishop); a few Maverick’s to dive (the perfect introduction back into the game is our favorite chain ever, with burritos and breakfast bowls and steak salads and donuts galore. And the first place we ever dove together. Couldn’t be sexier); a shower, too, because the last one doesn’t count and I need to be presentable before I teach a dance class.
Ah, yes. We’re heading back to Bishop. Have I mentioned this? Do I ever mention the big components of our lives? I don’t. We are. We’re going back to what’s closest to home for the both of us, to see if we can’t extend that feeling beyond the usual few months. I’ll start up my dance project, Yoav will find legal ways in which to participate in the community (food bank volunteer work, for sure), and we’ll sleep in a driveway, rather than dare risk spending another night on LADWP land again. And another misdemeanor. I don’t know if I mentioned that, either. Long story short, I’m a criminal on paper. What can you do?