Lost in Translation
  Nine Stories by Laura Ruth Loomis
  1  The Sign
2  A Bird and a Picture Window
3  Trying Again
4  Tested
5  The Mermaid
6  Practicing
7  China
8  The Hostage
9  Like Riding a Bike
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  November 2016 Fiction Issue
 
 

Trying Again

Roy

“We need to talk.”

Like most things I’ve said to Julie lately, this is a lie. I’m the one who needs to talk. Julie needs to go on pretending there’s nothing wrong.

She’s standing at the stove over a pot of cioppino. “Roy?” She manages to make my name a question, an accusation, and a plea for silence, all at once.

I need to talk because talking is what I do, usually in several different languages on any given day. If it doesn’t get said, it’s not real. Julie and I have built a life together out of words like family and till death do us part. And out of the silences, when she doesn’t ask where I was, or why I didn’t answer my phone when she called.

Every language denies certain things a name. German doesn’t distinguish between happiness and luck. American Sign Language is uniquely graceful but has no sign for grace in the nonreligious sense. Russian has no verb for have. Instead of I have a wife, in Russian I’d say my wife is near me. Julie and I have shared this house through fourteen years of marriage, yet right now I wouldn’t say we’re near each other.

We met over words, on the debate team in college. She’d joined it to get over her fear of public speaking. I’d joined to sharpen my skill with words, enjoying the way I could make the same facts lead to different conclusions, depending on how I said it. Julie’s nervousness didn’t show up before a debate, but afterward, when she would pick apart every word, always looking for something else she should have said. When we argued the limits of free speech, she said words could not inflict harm, only actions could. I said words are actions. We argued through half the night and a bottle of wine, and she was my closest friend from then on. She appreciated that I hadn’t tried to hit on her.

There must be a word for the way I love Julie. Greek has three words for love: philia, the love of friends, eros, passionate love named for the god of sexuality, and agape, which can mean compassionate or self-sacrificing love, respect, or the grace of God. Agape would be the way Julie took care of my mother after the stroke. Not alone, of course, but I was working long hours running my translation business, and my sister was in and out. Most days, Julie was the one sitting beside the bed.

In the weeks before her death, words abandoned Mom almost entirely, and she could grope for what seemed like hours to force out the ones she wanted. I would try to fill the silences by guessing what she wanted to say. Julie would just sit and hold her hand and wait. On one of her stronger days, Mom whispered, “So sorry. Such a burden.”

Julie told her, “Every day with you here is a blessing.”

At that moment I loved Julie with the purest love anyone outside of heaven could give. It didn’t stop me from committing betrayals that I don’t want to name, don’t want to make real.

At first I tried to make sure my words to Julie weren’t exactly lies. If I said I was working late, I did stay late before I went elsewhere. As if it was somehow less deceitful, leaving out the part that mattered most.

The silence between Julie and me was already there, but she didn’t notice it at first. The day she had the miscarriage, I kept trying to stanch the silence with reassurances, promises, declarations of love. She drank them in, and yet the silence was never filled. Afterward we said we’d try again, as if having a child was an accomplishment. One we’d failed at.

For a long time after the miscarriage Julie couldn’t stand to hear anyone say I’m sorry about anything, because she’d heard it too many times and she needed to go on like nothing happened. I got in the habit of saying it in Spanish: lo siento, literally, I feel it.

There were words that stung me unexpectedly as well. Lost the baby, as if we’d just misplaced it somewhere. The medical term is spontaneous abortion, two words that don’t seem to go together. What happens when a marriage spontaneously aborts?

It matters how things are named. I wanted our first child to have a family name, Andrew or Eleanor. So after the miscarriage, I didn’t want to know if the baby would have been a boy or a girl.

In some languages, like Hebrew, everything has a gender; you can’t even say the or seven without knowing whether it’s describing something masculine or feminine. In Finnish or Turkish, there are no separate terms for he and she. Does it make men and women see each other differently?

Julie and I did try again. When Andy was born I prayed so much, asking to be the father that he needed, the husband that Julie deserved. As if enough words would add up to the thing itself. Sometimes I think that having Andy was something she did for me, or I did for her. Not for him. But Andy has a name and is real and started asking Why? at age three. Now he’s eight and still asking Why?

Yesterday he asked why Mama had been crying. She shushed him and said it was nothing. I hate that I forced her to lie to him, and I can’t do it anymore.

I am late getting home because I’m in love, and not with Julie. It’s philia, eros, and agape, and more. There’s a word for what I’ve done, for what I need to tell her. But it doesn’t exist until I say it. The silence sticks to me like sweat, like dirt, and I want to scrub it off of me.

Julie’s standing there and the cioppino is boiling, little red flecks appearing on her white blouse. “Andy’s spending the night with my parents.” She says it quickly, letting go of her last defense.

I turn the heat down and cover the pot. “Lo siento,” I begin.

Finally Julie finds the words that need to be said.

“Who is she?”

“She’s a he.”

And the wall of words crumbles around us, the wall we’ve spent so many years trying to build into a marriage. The silence is so terrifying that I want to fill it with more words, with some explanation of how I could love her and still hurt her this way. It would be cruel to offer her more lies. I try to fight down the words rising inside me, the doomed promises that somehow I’ll change. That we’ll try again.

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  © Laura Loomis, 2016

   

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