It turns out listening to all that French radio didn’t do much
to dissolve the lump on my tongue that words just
won’t fall through, out of my long-term memory and drifting
under the Atlantic. I know they’re there, though, in scenes
of my mother reading me picture books, hoping to tuck
the sounds between the pages of my lips and save them,
and in the years of classes that steamed the seal off
those sentences until I spoke freely with Gilles
on the phone after school before he went to bed
and my mother would jump in and exclaim c’est formidable,
n’est-ce pas? and he would agree.
But no matter how much you practice, there are some words
you’ll never know in a language that’s not in your blood,
and spread to your lungs like clumps of dirty confetti
that cloud the x-ray. And it takes
a dictionary and six weeks for your letter to arrive,
offering his widow your heavily accented condolences
for the ragged hole in her heart.
It takes two and a half years for the edges of that tear
to knit together again, because that’s when
the phone rings, that Saturday. She wants
to make plans, come visit, stand on the dizzy, spinning top
of the Statue of Liberty. Someone drops the receiver
into my hands, and she’s waiting. We’re all waiting
for me to answer and I can’t.
Two and a half years buried gender and tense under a clutter
of new language: phenotype, parietal lobe, PSAT.
I think I choke out that the Statue of Liberty is closed,
but she pauses and sighs, ma puce,
I don’t understand you anymore.
Rose Mintzer-Sweeney, Age 16, Grade 11, Stuyvesant High School, Gold Key