Right to Left


The third class, our teacher doesn’t show. After fifteen minutes’ waiting, the receptionist peeks her head in through the doorway, clutching the wall with one hand. She tells us our teacher has had a family emergency but the session should continue according to schedule next week. Then she disappears. We can hear her heels clicking down the hall.

I’m about to spring to my feet and get out of there, when the young foreign affairs student says, “Well, I guess we could review some of the material on our own?”

We stare at her.

“I mean,” she says, shrugging, “we came all the way out here already, didn’t we? And we’ve all got the packets, right?”

We do.

 “So, why not? Why don’t we just start reviewing day one?” The student has already adopted a new singsong teacher voice.

Maybe that’s why we listen to her. We adopt that same singsong voice, all of us, as we read that first page, which is devoted to introducing Alef and a little dash, combined to make an “ah” sound. The sign for that sound is written dozens of times down the page. “Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah,” we repeat together.

“The pedagogy for this handout is about as old as the language,” says the girl who got lost in Israel, interrupting our singsong. We laugh a little guiltily; we’re still not sure how much we’re supposed to be looking or listening to each other, now that the teacher is not directing and managing our time. But someone knows to say, “Let’s go on,” so we go on together. We read the sound out loud, every time it appears, again and again and again. When we finish the page for the Alef and the dashes and the dots, we move right on to the Bet, without the short breather our teacher would ask for, without the space to integrate. Halfway down the second page, we are hardly reading at all. We are chanting.

When we are done with that page, we again move directly to the next letter, not wanting to break whatever fragile communication we are creating together: a spell, a prayer, a nonsense poem. We stay in that room until our time is up, not speaking, just making sounds.

I go to see my grandmother the next day. She is awake and when she sees me, that moment of clarity occurs again. She looks straight at me and seems to know me well.

I ask her how she’s feeling.

She shakes her head but says nothing.

“Did I tell you,” I tell her, “I’m taking Hebrew classes?”

I can’t tell if she is frowning. I peer at her closely. Again I find in her face that crumpled paper, that pungent caved-in peach, but after a few minutes I think I glimpse something that looks like me. I can’t get her back as she was, but for a moment I can see myself as I am. I look too intently, maybe, because my grandmother starts to make small puling sounds, nearly weeping. “Look,” I say. “Look. I brought something.”

In my bag are the sloppy Xeroxes from Hebrew class. I show her the letters and I say to her the sounds, which really aren’t so different from the sounds she’s making now, the sounds of weird half-weeping. For a brief moment we are speaking nonsense in sync. In my head, it is like yesterday’s class. We are almost chanting.

It’s a rare moment of synchronicity, yet suddenly I want it to be done. I want to move on from the Xeroxed packet. I want to read to her not just letters, not just simple words, but sentences, complex one. I want to tell her stories. But I haven’t been learning long enough. For a time I must forget that desire for complexity. I must move backwards and start at the beginning. I stop reading off the packet.

My grandmother, too, falls silent. Still, I can tell she intends to say something — to herself, to her dead sister, maybe to me, maybe to someone else. I can tell just by the set of her jaw, she is preparing to speak. It will be some time before she has garnered the courage. Both of us sit here among strange alphabets that make us feel like small children. And like small children, we must remember to be patient with ourselves and one another. Together we wait, listening to the tick of the round clock on the wall, to the sound of our aging bodies, to our breathing language. 

Lee Conell is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at Vanderbilt University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, the New York Times, and other publications.