Sunday, September 22, 2013

#98: "I Tell You Something" by Jessica McCaughey

~This essay was previously published in Adanna (2011).

            I misunderstand when Ming says, “This is difficult for me.” When I arrive each Monday at seven, she has been studying all weekend with only the help of her pocket-sized, electronic Chinese-English translator. By then, everything is difficult.
            I pull her Child Psychology and Development textbook toward me, noting the chapter heading: Abuse.
            “Yeah, this is sad stuff,” I say, tired from teaching all day, hoping our tutoring will end early as it sometimes does.
            “No. It’s more.” She sucks her lips into her mouth. “I tell you something. I had three children.”
            As I try to sort out the sentence in my head—I’ve met her kids, both of them, right?—she begins, so purposefully that it feels like a monologue. Practiced, although it couldn’t be. 

            There was a baby. Ming was still married, still back in Taiwan, and the older kids, adults now, were then seven and nine. One afternoon, Ming’s friend invited them to spend the day swimming at her family’s estate.
            “It really a nice place. Large.”
            Ming was 30, exactly my age now. 
            The children swam all afternoon. I picture it sunny, but hazy. I imagine the air was quite dry, particularly against the grass where the women sat, next to the cool, clean pool.
            “Nice water,” she tells me. “Fresh… refresh?”
            “It’s ‘refreshing.’”
            “Yes, refreshing. Yes.”
            Late in the afternoon, the children were dressed to head home, hair still damp, when Ming’s friend offered a tour of a new building on the grounds. Ming instructed the older daughter to watch her three-year old sister.
            “The building is a school, large and painted bright colors. Lots colors.”
            When they returned, Ming didn’t see the baby, and the nine-year old didn’t know where she’d wandered off to either.
            Ming pulls the arms of her sweatshirt down over her small hands, like a child, and rests them on the dining room table where we work. I resist the urge to cover my mouth.
            “Baby drown in the pool.”
            I stare at her hands, wrapped in fabric, as I imagine the browning grass, the sharp contrast in the blue water of a tiny, bulky body, floating.
            “There was trial. They say I neglect my child.”
            We both blink and blink and sip our green tea that tastes like dirt.
            I am winded, overwhelmed by how difficult it is to understand our own stories, let alone tell them in a language that forces our mouths open awkwardly, that pulls sounds and inflections from us that at another time in life, would have sounded silly, a squawk.
            Ming says, “Let’s begin reading.”
            Despite her finger moving underneath each line, words stop her. Fatalities. Negligent. Consequences. Each time she pauses for more than a few seconds, I help. Consequences. She repeats the word, and then looks at me for an explanation. It is what comes after, I say, and she nods.

            This essay was initially part of a different, larger piece, and then another, and I kept shuffling it around because I was so attached to the story and to the person/character, a student I’ve worked with for the past five years. I had felt so compelled to write about incident after it occurred because the conversation wouldn’t leave me no matter how much I tried to shift my attention away from it, and yet placing it in the context of something larger (another story, another essay) diminished it. It wasn’t until a year or two after I’d initially begun writing about it that I realized it was most powerful and effective on its own, and with minimal reflection from me as the narrator. This understanding came after many drafts and attempts, again, to make sense of the loss, which, of course, I never could.
Jessica McCaughey teaches writing and English as a Second Language at The George Washington University and George Mason University, respectively. Her work has appeared in The Colorado Review, Phoebe, The Best American Travel Writing (2011), The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, among other publications. She lives in Arlington, Virginia.

1 comment:

  1. "It's what comes after." How that line breaks my heart! Such powerful writing.


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