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Becoming

There is no simple verb equivalent for the verb ‘become’ in Spanish.

There are varieties of becoming, all expressed in the reflexive verb form.

My textbook treats physical and emotional changes as temporary, worthy of the verb form ponerse, accompanied by an adjective. Se puso bravo al leer la carta. He became angry when he read the letter.

Spanish treats anger as fleeting and effortless. It distinguishes it from changes that require more intentionality, such as becoming a professional, achieving a certain social status, or building a friendship. Llegamos a ser amigas. We arrived at being friends, literally translated. Se hizo rico. He made himself rich.

I appreciate the honesty of literality — the way in which the precise verb form does not hide the effort.

The textbook continues: For more profound changes, we use the verb volverse. Se volvieron muy arrogantes. They became very arrogant. Literally translated, the non-reflexive volver means to return.

Peculiarly (or appropriately), volverse is also the verb form reserved for insanity: Me volví loca. Anger is allowed to be fleetingly temporary in Spanish; madness, however, is profoundly lasting.

*

The first fluency I lose when I do not soak in a language every day is intimacy. I become stiffly polite, reverting to the formal ‘you’: σας in Greek, usted in Spanish.

The words for oppression and bureaucracies, on the other hand, are the last to abandon me. Seat me in a Colombian bar and the language of enforced disappearance occupies space more readily than the words of leisure. My mother tongue is not exempt from these partitions. I have lived primarily outside of Greece for thirteen years now. Put me on the phone with a hospital administrator there and the words fall out of my mouth as though I had never left. The language for bureaucracies of caregiving lives in a different part of my body than the words that elude me.

It feels ethically irresponsible to intervene in people’s lives with questions about violence and victimhood without being able to readily supply the words for contentment. In an attempt to correct for this imbalance of articulable emotions, I planted myself in a Spanish ‘literature and culture’ class. Twelve years older than the next oldest student, mine was the outsized body in kindergarten.

Week 1: Revisiting the past tenses. The past continuous: for actions that unfold in the background, alongside others, with no noticeable event or interruption. The tense for the dull ache of grief.

Week 2: The subjunctive, the grammar form of my nightmares. Reserved for preferences, wishes, hopes, and dreams. A decade ago, I would rephrase all my Spanish sentences to deliberately avoid using the subjunctive. A dreamless, hopeless phrase was preferable to imperfection.

I sit mutely for the first half hour of each session, arranging prepositions in my head as though they are pieces of furniture that need to be positioned just so if one is to not scratch the walls. My classmates, on the other hand, speak with reckless abandon. They dream–without the subjunctive, but also without the shame that accompanies its absence.

On Week 3, I find myself wishing I had learned shamelessness younger.

Week 4: Reflexive verbs. Dormirse: to fall asleep. Dormir: to sleep. An asterisk in the textbook notes, in smaller font, that some verbs primarily or exclusively exist in their reflexive form. Divorciarse: to get divorced.

I write my in-class essay that week on the topic of amnesties after atrocities. The following week, the professor asks me why I am in the class at all. Mira, ya tú hablas español. 

Sometimes it is easier to find the reflexive words for divorce in another tongue.

My week 5 flashcard holds translations for the following words: to march in formation, to shoot a firearm, to lock someone up, a rifle, the breeze. The first four terms had been familiar. Once the breeze entered my life in Spanish, I knew it was time to set myself free.

*

Ρω, μήπως βλέπεις τίποτα ουρές; 

My father was an unrepentant smoker. I learned at a young age that this was a habit of his that I was meant to cover up, to shield him from the wrath of my mother. It took years for me to learn that she, too, selectively shielded him all the way to the grave. When my third grade teacher gave my class the lecture on the deathly effects of nicotine, I came home with posters portraying black lungs and insisted that they be hung in the living room. My father could not live with the irony of resisting the willfulness of the daughter he had raised to persist.

By the time I came home from school the following afternoon, the posters were gone. My mother shrugged apologetically, saying the washing machine had tragically overflowed. A flood had washed everything out.

My own complicity in my father’s smoking took the form of accompanying him on walks. When I was very little, he would teach me the names of bushes and birds. When we branched out to mammals, I became fascinated with skunks, noticeable by their tails. Every night, we would wander outside for him to smoke and me to look for skunks.

Ro, do you see any tails? 

My father was a fan of flashcards and repetition. My mother’s frugality was essential for curtailing his commitment to my learning. I started squeezing more than one word onto each card. By the time I was applying to universities, it became apparent that the fluency in flora and fauna that he had imparted on me during his life had been limited to Greek. This was especially vexing given that the required standardized tests for admission to US universities seemed to be obsessed with vocabulary for animals and their young. “A calf is a baby cow,” read my English flashcards. Thanks to my mother’s sense of economy, each flashcard became a small farm.

A decade and a half and many exams later, I am a doctoral candidate. Rarely am I quizzed anymore on my knowledge of the English name for a female sheep. Yet, somehow, this summer has brought with it a lamentation for language that is not my own. I do not have the words for the birds that wake me up at dawn. I know them intimately, yet know not how to speak of them.

This is the summer I grew attached to moss. I walk through the same woods over and over and over until they feel like mine, until I am preemptively nostalgic at the thought of leaving them for Colombia, for different moss and different words for it. I become uncomfortable at the idea of my woods, at the transformation of familiarity into a possessive pronoun. The more nostalgic I get, the harder gravity seems to pull me. I spend many days crouching next to ‘my mosses’, sharing them with friends who humor me, hoping they will teach me the words for them in English. A friend peels a strand of moss off the forest and I gasp as though I have witnessed a violation. For her, intimacy lies in touching the moss, carrying it in a pocket, transplanting it into a community of other happy plants miles away. For me, moss has to stay in this forest as an anchor for all the words I have yet to learn.

*

There is a disorientation to seeing the tails without inhaling his cigarette smoke.

On this, my last summer in this home, I become attuned to the seasonality I could not initially name. The peonies give way to the black-eyed Susans that bow to the more majestic sunflowers. By the time the hydrangeas bloom, the first leaves have turned and I preemptively miss the crisp air of the fall I will not inhabit. The bunnies get particularly bold sometime between the appearance of the peonies and the black-eyed Susans entering full bloom.

These are not bunny tails.

I take a few steps back in anticipation of being sprayed, but I also suspect these are not skunks.

One tail emerges, then another.

On the last day of Spanish class, I come home to raccoons kissing in the storm drain.

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8 Comments

  1. Aditya Sarkar says

    Roxanne, you write so beautifully. Thank you for sharing this. Your writing was an inspiration before I came to graduate school and continues to be, after I have left it.

    • Roxanne says

      Aditya, this was an exceedingly kind note. I had no idea, and it is so lovely to read this. Thank you for being good to me.

  2. Magdalena says

    Your writing is always so beautiful, so intimate, so lasting in my mind. Thank you for sharing. I hope to read a book by you one day.

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