Language of Love

Art by Lauren Kaelin

The boy I loved in high school wears pink jeans to our twentieth reunion. His blond hair is not as floppy as I remember, but he smooths it back from his forehead with a familiar nervous motion. He holds a cigarette between his bony fingers and he nods in my direction through the crowd of our classmates greeting each other. He later makes his way to me and we hug—I like to imagine that it’s longer than necessary, but it probably isn’t. I try to sit near him during dinner, but he ends up at another table, with the popular kids.

All night I work hard at not sounding like I’ve lived abroad for these twenty years. It’s an effort to speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences, without any ticks from speaking English. In Hungarian, it’s not a “pair of pants” just “pants.” Things like that. I don’t even notice it anymore, unless someone points it out. But I am conscious of how we used to make fun of people who left Hungary and returned years later speaking broken Hungarian—people in my grandparents’ generation who left behind war and revolution. The implication was that if you had forgotten your own language, then you had forgotten your roots. Everything “grown up” happened to me in English: college, jobs, marriage, parenting. I see how easy it is now to slip into another life and how hard it is to translate it back to where you came from.

At the end of the night I bump into him on my way out and mumble something about a flight I have to catch the next day. Like an idiot, I say something about “a big plane” and he looks at me, head cocked. What is it about the heart that ties the tongue, I wonder? He is standing there with two other classmates, drinks in hand, and I feel them looking at me too. I ask him if he could call a cab for me—my cell phone doesn’t work here. He does and he walks me out onto the street like a gentleman and on the ride home I stare at his name on the cab’s meter and think about the afternoons our senior year when we’d get off at the same bus stop: me heading to my babysitting gig in the fancy part of town across the Danube; him heading home. I wanted these walks to last forever—or at least until I was able to get a quick glimpse of his flat, pale stomach under his white t-shirt, his loose jeans hanging just-so on his hip bones—and also to end as soon as possible. I could never think of anything smart or interesting to say.

Twenty years later, I still can’t.

Read the full essay on The Rumpus

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