Every time I open my mouth I offend someone. At the very least, I make them uneasy. The accident, which stole my memories of all the days surrounding it, stole my voice as well. My normal voice. The one that matched up with a thirty-seven year old white woman from Ottawa. Now I open my mouth and the strange jumbled sounds normally heard on a busy Saturday morning on Somerset Street ripple against my teeth and choke my tongue into new shapes. I promise that if I ask you directions or thank you for change at the cash register and the voice of an eighty year old Chinese woman with only pidgin English at her disposal comes out, I am not making fun of you. Or of ancient Chinese women. Or even myself. You will have to take my word for it.
It doesn’t help that my husband actually is Chinese. His grandparents were born in Beijing and emigrated to Canada over fifty years ago. Our children inherited their looks almost entirely from his side of the family. On family outings I am the odd one out, the towering blonde monster, generally mistaken as the nanny. Ben, my husband, now looks at me with a pained expression when I speak, as if to ask why I would do this to him. My children are baffled. When I call Ben at work through his secretary, or call my own colleagues to find out how things are going in my absence, I get hung up on. They suspect prank calls.
Even this is bearable. It’s the in-laws that I dread. They are coming for Sunday brunch. It is Ben’s birthday and this will be our first family celebration since the accident. My mother-in-law, Lily, has never thought of me without mild disdain pulling at her mouth, as if she were sucking on one of Tim’s Sour Patch Kids. Ben’s father, Peter, rarely speaks, though he does it is staccato sharp and loud like a drill sergeant. I never know if he is angry or not and so generally tiptoe around anything he says. Perhaps he was hit on the head too, years ago, and woke up with rifle fire ejecting from his mouth instead of regular speech. The kids adore him, they’re not afraid at all. Ben will have tried to prepare Lily and Peter; I hope it will be enough. Surely a family as multi-lingual as ours – the kids were sent off to Chinese school on Saturday mornings when they were younger and Ben and I are as fluent in French as our civil service jobs require us to be – can reconcile itself to the multi-accented as well?
If I make dim sum on Sunday, would it be the final outrage?
When they arrive, crowding in the front hall like ducks chasing a toddler at the park for her breadcrumbs, I smile, kiss and am kissed without saying a word.
Brunch is waffles, bacon, eggs, toast, fruit, orange juice. For once I can concentrate on the food during a family event and not feel constrained to make awkward conversation with Lily and Peter. I am just pouring myself a second mimosa – an untold luxury – and swatting my son’s fingers away from the bottle of wine, while Ben without missing a beat pours him a glass of plain orange juice. He is nodding along to his father’s monologue. It’s all share prices and Nasdaq and bubbles and I have only the vaguest sense of what it all means, though Ben seems to make cogent enough replies. Seeing him in conversation like this with his dad always makes me unreasonably proud.
Ben didn’t come to the hospital until three hours after the accident. He had been difficult to reach with meetings all morning, each in a different Sparks Street government office. The cell phone dutifully dropped into his pants pocket was as useless as an eraser stub since he had forgotten to charge it the night before. His secretary was finally able to anticipate his route and left an urgent message with the commissionaire in the lobby of the McKenzie building.
I had been unconscious since the paramedics pulled me from the car, whose back end crumpled like aluminium foil upon impact – so Kiera told me later. She had cut out the picture of the crash from the newspaper. I could never have known about Ben’s long absence, it wasn’t really important, he probably wouldn’t have been allowed to see me anyway. But he felt compelled to confess it almost as soon as I woke up three days later. He was like a child fervently confessing this transgression in order to receive some reassurance of love and forgiveness.
I stroked his hair as he held my hand and the little old Chinese woman said, “Iss arright, Ben.”
Lily announces to the room that she saw Tara Hsu in Holt Renfrew last week. Tara Hsu made a small fortune with Corel before the dotcoms flared out and now she is quite the entrepreneur, seeding smaller companies with her capital and having astonishing successes with all of them. She was also Ben’s girlfriend in university. They even came to some of my basketball games together. My team made it to the nationals in that year.
“She looked fantastic, didn’t she, Peter? Tara certainly looks after herself.” This with a sidelong look at me, though in my pink cashmere twin set and the pearls Ben gave me on our last anniversay, I don’t think I’m looking half bad. The small cuts from the shattered windshield that peppered my forehead, cheek and chin have nearly disappeared and strategically applied foundation finished the job.
Clearly the mimosa has gone to my head. “Iss a pity she’s not your daughter-in-raw, isn’t it, Riry?” says the Chinese woman in my mouth, who turns out to be just as acerbic as unlikable as Ben’s mother.
The silence in the kitchen is swift and thick as soup. Tim smirks; I send him a look and he slopes off to the living room. I see Ben redden, glance at me and just as quickly look away.
“You remember, mom, what I told you about Gillian’s condition?”
“Oh yes,” she says vaguely, still staring at me, as if surprised that something so offensive should remain so long in her sight. “Cerebral something?”
“Can’t anything be done?” she asked, with a mou of distaste.
“The important thing to remember is that the accident caused pressure on the speech centres of the brain, which in turn altered her intonation, tongue placement and timing. It’s only our perception that she sounds Chinese. She could have just as easily woken up sounding like the Swedish Chef.”
“But she didn’t, Dr. Toohey, she woke up sounding like this.” Ben gestured towards me helplessly. I said nothing in my own defence. In the first days after I woke up, I was too frightened by the ludicrous sounds I made to talk much. “Maybe talking like the Swedish Chef would be less – insulting somehow.” I think he looked at me apologetically. Or maybe I just hope that he did.
“Not to the Swedes, perhaps. I understand this is difficult, Mr. Wong, and I can’t offer any assurances on this one. She might wake up tomorrow sounding like her old self or it might take years of intensive speech therapy.”
Tim is unable to take the Chinese woman inhabiting his mother’s body seriously when I nag at him to clean his room or get off the computer and do his homework. Ben is forced to stand behind me as my more authoritative echo. But Kiera has taken my defection from normal speech particularly hard. She is only home for a month – I was on my way to the train station to pick her up when the accident happened – but now she never speaks to me if an answer might be required. She’d rather ask Ben to pass the salad down the table than risk me saying “you’re welcome” to her “thank you.” Ben has become the children’s intermediary for most things or Kiera will leave a note on my pillow or by the coffee pot, complete with a blank space for an answer and a pen placed neatly across the page. It’s bad enough having our relationship constantly misinterpreted by strangers – my athletic build and European features next to her delicate raven-haired grace hardly speak of a mother-daughter tie to most people – something I’ve become almost used to over the years. But now I can see her wince with embarrassment in front of her friends when I enter the room in case I open my mouth. It’s obvious how keenly she’s looking forward to returning to Montreal and ballet school next week. And I hate that I’m looking forward to it, too. My fifteen year old girl, whom I hardly ever see. She is absent from brunch.
Peter interjects, “Lily, remember what your mother did to lose her accent? Could that work here?”
I want to interrupt: I don’t have an accent, I have a brain injury, but a sound from the open window distracts me. The low growling moan of a cat warning an intruder off its territory. It sounds close, maybe it is even visible from the window. I can see something small and grey on the driveway. I wish I were out there. When the summer light has completely faded, the kids are in bed and the neighbours have finished mowing lawns and walking dogs, I love to run up and down the driveway, dribbling, practising layups, shooting into the basket Ben nailed above the garage door when we first moved in.
“What do you think, Gillian?” Ben asks.
“She hasn’t even been listening. If she doesn’t even want to try -”
Ignoring his mother’s querulous tone, Ben explains to me his grandmother’s method of ridding herself of her accent when she first emigrated to Vancouver. He has that pleading look in his eyes, that Come on, Gillian, just try it this time look. But I don’t want to give up my afternoons for the rest of my leave from work to reciting Shakespeare alongside Scofield or Barrymore until my diction is Queen’s English perfect, like Lily’s mother did, playing her records thin in the attempt. I certainly don’t want to do it under Lily’s strict benevolence.
I remove the cotton candy twin set and cashmere slacks, replacing them with grey sweatpants and Ben’s old Star Trek t-shirt. Live long and prosper with a giant hand giving Spock’s unmistakable greeting. Lily and Peter are making their farewells to the children while I change, so I linger for awhile, not wanting to endure any more one-sided conversation with them. Lying on the bed, my head on Ben’s pillow, I breathe in the scent of his aftershave clinging to the sheets.
Two car doors slam in rapid succession and I slip down to the driveway just as their SUV turns the corner.
A pair of wings, small, grey, sheared off from a body and edged with red lie on the driveway. They are right in front of the garage door and impossible to miss as I fetch the basketball from inside. They are unfolded, open, like a prayer. Of the bird’s body there is no sign, there are no drops of blood on the concrete, no stray feathers caught in the weedy cracks. It is as if the wings fell from the sky. A cat must be feasting nearby. With a spade from the garage, I scrape up the remains and dump them in the bin. Then I play twenty-one with myself, running up and down the driveway until the street lights come on and the sweat on my arms and the back of my neck starts to feel clammy.
“I was point guard in university.” I write this underneath a note Kiera left on the pad by the bed. Ben reads it over my shoulder.
“I know,” he says. “You were so fast.” Gently he reaches over and tears the paper from my hand, crumpling it into a ball. He tosses it overhand into the wastepaper basket by the bedroom door.
I tear another sheet from the pad and crumple it. On my way to the basket, Ben tries to block me. I feint one way, then the other and just as he tackles me to the bed I release it into the air. It feels wide, but I don’t lift my head to check. Instead I turn into Ben’s shoulder and close my eyes. The smell of his skin, his hand on the small of my back, my fingers trailing into his short black hair. I hope here is a language we both understand.
“Don’t talk, okay?”
Jennifer Falkner has fiction appearing in Paragon Journal and The Fringe and was a semi-finalist in the Summer Literary Seminars writing contest. She lives in Ottawa, Canada.