It is the distinctive privilege of language to be able to hide meaning behind a misleading sign . . . The simplest of wishes cannot express itself without hiding behind a screen of language that constitutes a world of intricate subjective relations, all of them potentially inauthentic.
–Paul deMan, Blindness and Insight
It’s a bit of a dirty trick, the way time disappears behind us. So I haul words from my past like bricks from a deserted building site, hoping to build some vast, coherent edifice within which I’ll understand myself. Ancient rhetoricians used memory palaces to recall their speeches—pulling phrases as needed from the corners of rooms where they’d mentally placed them. I’m trying to reverse the process, reconstructing from words the space and time of their enunciation. But words don’t work like bricks. They don’t rest solidly, one on another.
Imagine a suburb of New York City, circa 1954: a time when the Reds were everywhere (or so the newspapers said), invisible and dangerous as the radiation we were only just learning to fear. My parents were still five years away from separating, seven years away from divorce, but they weren’t getting along. I’m not sure what words can mean when everyone’s either lying or keeping secrets.
For a long time I’d had problems breathing. I would blow out through my blocked nose trying to clear it, making a low, whining, squeaking sound as the air struggled over cartilage and packed mucous. The sound drove my older brothers crazy. I can picture us in the green 1951 Plymouth, me in the front seat, at two or three, and the two of them in the back, five and seven years older. They’re yelling at me to stop, and I’m screaming and scuffing my feet against the glove compartment. Then someone would say, “You’ll only make your nose more stuffed, crying like that.”
I’d retreat into silence, thumb in mouth, long hair held over my face by an extended forefinger. “Gnung,” I’d say. It was a word I’d invented, whose sound I loved, a word made by pressing the back of my tongue against soft palate. It meant something between “screw you” and “sucking this thumb feels really good.” Sounds have a certain integrity. Sneezes, snorts, coughs, and wheezes work both functionally (to clear clogged passageways) and semantically (to express emotion) in a fairly straightforward way. Words, on the other hand, are complicated.
My parents were perfectly nice, upper middle class suburbanites raising three children in the 1950s. But our family was a maelstrom of negative emotions, none of which were ever articulated. When I recently asked one of my brothers what he remembered about our childhood, he had only two words to say: “No one spoke.” I’d add one more: “No one spoke honestly.” Not about what they felt, anyway. There was plenty of conversation about facts and ideas, mostly as a way of deflecting words from any possible emotional expressiveness.
All this made me curious about language itself. I must have been six or seven when I asked my mother, “Who said the first word?” That conversation, too, took place in a car, a white Rambler, as I remember it, trees flipping past as we whizzed along the Bronx River Parkway.
“I don’t know,” she answered, sensibly enough, but I was irritated, thought she ought to.
“Was it a caveman?” I hypothesized, “who screamed because a lion was coming, to warn the others? Or maybe he roared? Maybe he tried to sound like a lion, and the others figured out what he meant?”
She didn’t know. Who does? I still don’t. Once you start thinking about it, it’s unimaginable: how did they think what a word meant, before there were words to think with? That’s my problem now, as I haul out these words heavy with some meaning I didn’t understand at the time. How can you remember a world in which the truth was never spoken? Maybe the closest I can get to my past self is reliving that sense of not quite getting it. I don’t know what really happened when I was little; but I do remember some of the words, in all their opacity.
After my parents separated, in 1959, my mother would sometimes go out to dinner with a man who had, with his gray-haired, sad-eyed wife, been a “friend of the family.” He was loud, vulgar, pot-bellied, but important in his way, head of advertising and publicity for a major movie company. But he was awful: mean to his wife in our presence, and now, he was leaving her behind to go out with my mother. Why my mother went I can’t imagine and never asked. I only asked why, when she went out with him, she wasn’t committing adultery. I wasn’t upset, only curious: at eight or nine, I knew only that adultery was when a married person went out with someone who wasn’t his spouse. My mother might be unmarried, or at least separated, but Larry certainly wasn’t. When I asked her, “Why isn’t it adultery when you go out with Larry?” she only laughed.
Now, of course, I realize that she probably didn’t want to explain because that would mean talking about what sex was; it would mean articulating that narrow but distinct line between having dinner with a married person not your husband, and having sex with a married person not your husband. Unless, unthinkably, her laughter was an effort to stave off confession.
Maybe we’re all cavemen, groping our way toward speech, our experiences always just a shade removed from any word we can find for them. Certainly the words I find come haunted by the dingy, impalpable ghosts of what couldn’t be said.
“That man has wings,” my brother John said at the dinner table one night around 1958. He was talking about one of his high school teachers.
I sat at my end of the huge cherry table, my two brothers across from me. I was mystified.
John must have been fourteen or so—a red-haired, anxious proto-intellectual, with a busy life of homework, track meets and psychiatrist appointments. He was trying to make sense of a teacher whose effeminate manner disturbed him—an insight I didn’t have until much later. I assume the “wings” referred to the standard (at the time) homophobic slur “fairy.” More than the homophobia implicit in the unpronounced word, I think my brother was expressing amazement, with an element of distress, that he had come across what seemed to him so peculiar a specimen of manhood. I was even more amazed. “That man has wings.” The words hung in the air like the glittery scrawl left by Tinkerbelle’s flight.
“Oh John,” my mother said disparagingly, hoping to silence him.
“I swear, that man has wings,” my brother said again.
“Say that again, and you can leave the dinner table,” my father shouted from his end of the table. John’s words—and the silences around them—were weighted with meanings I couldn’t understand. My hands hidden by the tabletop, I shredded my paper napkin, as I did every night, into intricate lacey threads.
Then I blew air out through my packed nostrils, emitting a faint whistle only I could hear.
Ruth Hoberman recently retired from Eastern Illinois University, where she taught modern British literature for thirty years. She now lives in Chicago, where she writes poetry and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in such venues as Natural Bridge, The Ekphrastic Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and [PANK].