Once, when I was seven, a boy kissed me in the bathroom against a brick wall. I tasted metal in my mouth and his teeth, his tongue, his ribs, seemed so much bigger than mine. My back was a tombstone, and he’d covered his hands in dirt trying to dig his way to the bottom; a resting place for his insides, a hard pocket filled with dead words.
My father studied Latin for a living, translated words found on yellowing manuscripts buried in trenches and caves in parts of the world so far away from my mother and I. Sometimes when he left, I waited at the window for the car to come back. I couldn’t imagine someone being gone for more than a little while, but sometimes I’d go so long without seeing him that I’d start to forget the color of his eyes; his aftershave and toothpaste became smells I weren’t used to, smells that made my nose itch. When he came back there was always dust in our home, sand in his shoes and socks that never came out. My mother sneezed when he touched her. I was only seven but I could hear the sounds of a marriage gone stale for the sake of a dead language. My father carried his briefcase like a noose.
His overalls hung like an empty promise. If you say something too much it loses its meaning. My mother and father touched tenderly and often but forgot what love was really supposed to feel like, and I was left like a clay pot yet to be unearthed from my own home.
* * *
When the boy kissed me, he became a poem. His eyes became words like “sometimes” and “almost” and his wet lips fell victim to language. I cut him up with words, his dirty hands folded to fit into my verses and like a blinking light bulb he no longer looked soft against that brick wall.
A language dies when people stop speaking, when they start cutting up the ones they love into pieces so that they fit into metaphors. My father told me that when he left my mother he wasn’t leaving me, he was just leaving her, as if his absence was only a lapse in language and if I looked hard enough I would find him snapping green beans in the kitchen like he used to.
My father studied Latin, spent decades of his life putting together shards of a lost language, but still believed that saying a word too much made it go away. A language dies when the only people who know how to speak it stay far away from each other.
* * *
My father calls from a studio apartment on the east coast. He does this sometimes, fumbles with the telephone even though he never knows what to say. He asks about work, wishes me a happy birthday.
I hear a clicking noise from somewhere far away and at first I think it’s coming from my own head but it’s just my mother breathing on the other end of the line. My father still believes that if he says “I love you” the words will go away.
We sit like that for a while, breathing together over the telephone and I can’t help but realize this is the only way he knows how to talk, that all the words we ever needed are here, sitting in the warm breath of his silence. This is the most honest he’s ever been.