by Natasha Lvovich
“I looked inside the temple and saw a single monk praying. From his body came several voices…He produced these voices from within his body, offering a sounding board to storytellers who themselves had none…I began to pay attention to these voices as I spoke. Telling stories no longer took the place of listening: rather listening gave rise to stories.
Perhaps the ear is the organ of storytelling, not the mouth. Why else was the poison poured into the ear of Hamlet’s father rather than his mouth?”
Yoko Tawada, Storytellers without Souls, in Where Europe Begins (p.111-112)
I am often asked: How did you learn English so well? What’s the secret? So for about twenty years, I have been searching for an answer, telling tales of language and immigration, which, like childhood memories, never fade and never end. To my own surprise, an embarrassing story has recently popped out of a dusty memory drawer, and it seemed like the best answer ever.
In the building in Brighton Beach where we rented our first apartment in America, a neighbor befriended us. In his early sixties, tall and athletic, with a thick mustache and a patch of hair combed over his bald head, he was loud and exuberant, just like we imagined true Brooklynites, and he constantly spat out a mish-mash of words we were unable to decipher. Since pretty much all speech was indecipherable anyway, it did not make a difference one way or another. His name was Michael.
Michael would greet us in the lobby with a thunderous “How are you" (which we soon discovered was not a question) and would hold us there forever on our way back from the supermarket, shopping bags painfully hanging from our hands. He occasionally invited us for dinner to neighborhood Chinese restaurants, where he rambled, his mouth full, about still-incomprehensible American topics: baseball, Hollywood, TV, food, money, politics, as well as himself. He would go on and on and would get so worked up, bubbling and boasting, that he seemed on a verge of a nervous breakdown. No comments or dialogue were expected, so we just sat there and nodded, acting as a sounding board and painfully longing to go home to exhale the tension of our cluelessness.
At some point during these so-called interactions, Michael confessed to us that he was passionately in love with a young Russian woman he had met somewhere in Brighton Beach. The drama included convoluted descriptions of his encounters with her, his elaborate secret fantasies, and recitations of poetry. To us, there were some practical implications to the matter: Michael wanted to learn Russian to speak to the Love of His Life. He wanted to impress her and to understand her down to the core of her very being, from her Pushkin-immersed childhood to her adult Brezhnev stagnation years--in her native tongue. And he was willing to pay for it.
On my meager $12 per hour teaching, we were struggling to pay our rent. A little extra money would certainly help, especially so close to home--quite literally, next door. Always a conscientious teacher, I started preparing my Russian lessons—only to discover in disbelief that tutoring Michael basically meant doing exactly the same thing we had been doing in Chinese restaurants and in the building lobby: being a sounding board. For the first few weeks, Michael promptly paid me for the “lessons,” but then problems surfaced with the cash flow from the business that he supposedly managed. Still I faithfully showed up at his door every night.
In the spirit of classic immigrant mythology, my then husband, a former jazz musician, was washing dishes in a Russian restaurant, and this injustice deeply upset Michael. So one evening, he slapped his hand to his forehead, suddenly recalling that he had a great deal of useful contacts in various broadcasting companies and recording studios. He promised to help the “good Russian man” get a foothold in the music business, where he rightfully belonged.
Later in the week, Michael produced a piece of paper with a scribbled name on it. The address? OMG! Get it in the Yellow Pages! Phone number or extension? Are you kidding me? Everyone knows this person there, just go and say the name at reception. And don’t forget to mention my name. Wink, wink.
Oh, the comic scene of a heavily gesticulating Russian man, speaking a few English words from the Ray Charles repertoire and showing a crumpled piece of paper to a stunned front desk receptionist at NBC, ready to call security. Oh, those frantic calls home, even more frantic (unanswered) calls to Michael, and the excruciating return to Brooklyn, filled with the inexhaustible reservoir of Russian dark humor…Michael would reappear, several days later, mumbling excuses and pulling out another piece of paper with a name scribbled on it. The saga, amazingly similar in every detail of immigrant gullibility, would repeat itself several times, with the trips to the city, a bewildered receptionist, and a bitter trip home.
Michael’s next philanthropic action was directed to our friends, Sasha and Irina, frequent guests in our house. Sasha, today a reputable doctor, was then studying for his medical license exams, and his wife's job as a receptionist supported them. Dirt poor, they were renting a tiny decrepit attic. Hearing their story, Michael offered one of his apartments—of which he had plenty, all over the city. Of course, for his Russian friends, he would immediately make a gorgeous one-bedroom available, in a brand-new building, with all new appliances. He even took Sasha for a tour so that he could see for himself the friendly neighborhood and the building, and stare in awe at his dream apartment windows--from the outside! The lease was signed. Sasha and Irina paid Michael the security deposit and the first month rent. They started packing, ready to move in, when it occurred to them to contact the super, just in case. The super had no clue. And Michael was not home.
It was only much later that somebody suggested that Sasha file a complaint about that rent money in small court. By that time, we had moved out of the building and Michael had completely vanished. For the next year or so, as we were emerging out of culture shock, Michael’s case became a taboo in our households. One day an older woman contacted Sasha and paid back his deposit, apologizing profusely. She introduced herself as Michael’s legal guardian and explained that he was severely mentally disabled and not responsible for his actions. She also added that he had to be committed to an assisted living facility, since he couldn’t manage life on his own.
And that is how I learned English.
Natasha Lvovich is a writer and scholar of second language acquisition and bilingualism. She teaches at CUNY and divides her loyalties between academic and creative writing. She is an author of a collection of autobiographical narratives, The Multilingual Self, and of a number of articles and essays. Her creative nonfiction recently appeared in the academic journals Life Writing and New Writing, in the anthologies Lifewriting Annual and Imagination and Place, and in many literary magazines, including Big.City.Lit, WHL Review, Post Road, Paradigm Journal, Nashville Review, and Two Bridges. Her piece, Balakovo, was nominated for 2011 Pushcart Prize.