rapid italian

A few years ago, I realized I had run out of things to say. This didn’t come to me as some kind of gruesome discovery, like finding a pile of bones underneath the basement floor. It was more of a nagging suspicion that was finally confirmed. “Well, that explains the books flying off the shelf. It was the pile of bones underneath the basement floor all along.” And when that realization hit me, I started to feel self-conscious whenever I spoke, imagining how many times I had already said something.

“I’m off to work!” 8,259 times.

“Be careful crossing the street.” 16,883 times.

It’s hard to explain why this bothered me so much. The closest analogy I can come up with is the autofill on Google search. Type “I need to…” and Google will suggest a list of all the things you need to do.

…lose weight

…make more money

…get a life

All of them are perfectly valid, so just click one. That’s what speaking had become to me: typing the rest of the auto-fill when it wasn’t necessary.

I wondered if, at birth, I was assigned a finite number of things to say — just waiting inside my throat like candies in a Pez dispenser. Tilt my head back and take one. You’ve heard it all before and it’s not going to change your world, so don’t get your hopes up.

For awhile I considered adding some pizazz to my vocabulary. Nothing major, just a new word here or there to freshen things up.

“Much obliged,” I awkwardly told the UPS guy when he delivered a package to my door. Even as the words came out of my mouth, I wanted to apologize. Maybe if he was handing me a jug of sarsaparilla and a spittoon, I wouldn’t have felt the need to.

I was certain I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, as I had recently noticed other people my age trying out new words that seemed very much out of character. “No worries,” said the receptionist at my dentist’s office, sounding like she had just sailed a boomerang into a kangaroo’s head. Maybe she thought I wouldn’t notice, but my eyes did and they sent that boomerang right back at her.

“Cheers,” concluded an email from an old college friend. If he were British, I would’ve been charmed. I would’ve envisioned him raising a pint to me in the middle of a rugby scrum. But this dude grew up in Scranton, so he didn’t get a pass. I understand why these people tried, though. They needed a break from the relentless monotony of saying the same things, over and over. Perhaps this is why enjoy talking like Yoda, people do.

As is often the case with me, I was convinced my version of the problem was more grave than everyone else’s. I wasn’t just tired of hearing myself, I was tired of being myself. Nothing seemed novel or fresh. But how do you become someone else without doing something drastic like faking your own death or using Axe Body Spray? So instead, I just grew quiet, retreating into my brain. That’s where I go when I’m sad or anxious. Here, but not present. At first, I don’t think many people noticed my absence, or if they did, they were grateful for the reprieve. But after a while, Cynthia began to worry.

“What’s going on in there?” she said, touching my head. “It’s like you’ve disappeared into your little turtle shell.”

That was the perfect way to describe it, and it was no coincidence. As a child, I kept a turtle in a tank in my bedroom. Her name was Myrtle, although she may have been a male. When I think back on Myrtle the Turtle, I wonder why I didn’t spend more time trying to determine her sex. Was I the first person to live in a post-gender world? The name I gave her wasn’t particularly clever, but it rhymed, and when you’re a child, that passes for funny. No matter, really. I didn’t like him or her much anyway. I was more attracted to the idea of Myrtle. With the shell on her back, she was always safe at home. When things got scary or uncomfortable, she could tuck her arms and limbs inside, leaving only her scaly elbows exposed. She wasn’t a fighter, and she wasn’t a runner. She was a fortress. Deep inside herself she’d hide until the threat eventually grew bored and went away. To me, that seemed like perfect compromise between a hero and a coward: a Howard. Maybe that would’ve been a better name.

Of course, keeping a salmonella carrying reptile in my bedroom had its drawbacks. Setting aside death from dysentery, she was an impossibly boring pet. Only rarely would she move off the flat piece of shale I used to decorate her tank, and even then, it was usually in the middle of the night with a startling “thunk.”

“You okay, Myrtle?” I’d whisper, and she’d ignore me in her passive aggressive turtley way. Despite her silence, I could never fully forget Myrtle’s presence in my room. Cleaning her tank was too cumbersome, so instead I left it untouched underneath the heat lamp, until it smelled like sewage cooked al dente. Inside, Myrtle would casually fling her own waste against the glass walls of her cell, protesting her wrongful imprisonment. Prisoners do that when they’ve lost all hope.

One day, I came to a realization. What Myrtle needed more than freedom… was a friend. Someone she could share her miserable existence with. Maybe friend wasn’t the right word. Cellmate. On a trip upstate, I found one — a toad that I quickly named Fried Chicken because of the bubbly texture of his skin. After catching him with my baseball cap, I staged a bogus trial on a trumped up charge, and sentenced him to a life without nature. He looked sallow and tired when we finally returned home and I dropped him inside Myrtle’s tank. But that was to be expected for an amphibian who’d been unjustly sentenced. Once the initial shock wore off that he’d never enjoy swimming in a pond again, he’d be good as new.

Feeding a turtle and a toad was another matter. The books suggest flies, crickets, worms and maggots but that was a bridge too far for my mother. Maybe she worried I’d try to keep them as pets, too. Instead, she decided that I should feed them pre-packaged shrimp cocktails from the supermarket. Easy to prepare, yet fancy enough for black tie occasions. I dumped a glassful into their tank, landing with a lifeless plop. Whatever Myrtle didn’t eat, Fried Chicken would shit on, and Myrtle would eat later. The combined stench quickly permeated the fibers in my clothing and the curls in my hair, and soon it was near impossible to sit next to me at the dinner table without retching.

“It’s Mom’s raisin baked ziti,” I told my sister. But that was a lie. Her raisin baked ziti smelled perfectly fine. It only looked, tasted and sounded bad.

Eventually, I was told to eat meals in my bedroom, where I became as isolated from the world as Myrtle. In what can only be described as poetic justice, it was I that became Myrtle’s cellmate. “Let me out!” we both shouted. I shouted louder, on account of turtles not having vocal cords.

Within a few days, Fried Chicken was dead having succumbed to the toxic fumes of Myrtle’s tank. I warned him to stay low, beneath the poisonous cloud, but toads being toads, love to hop.

“You learned the hard way,” I said, as I tossed his lifeless body into the trashcan beside my nightstand. I can’t say I was too broken up about it. By nightfall I had forgotten all about Fried Chicken, even as his decaying corpse added to the fetid gases hovering by my pillow.

One hot summer morning, when the air in my bedroom was particularly ripe with rotting crustacean and reptile refuse, my father decided Myrtle could use some fresh air. Something to remind her of the good ol’ days, before her human overlord brought misery to the Garden of Eden. He carried her tank outside and set it beneath a tall tree. “Don’t worry,” he told my mother, “She’ll be fine in the shade.” My father, being new to this planet, wasn’t aware that Earth rotates on its axis. In a few hours, the sun made its way across the sky and the shade no longer fell on Myrtle’s tank, completely exposing her to the scorching heat of its unrelenting rays. By early evening, Myrtle was dead… baked inside her own shell.

If my father felt guilty about it, he hid it well. “Funny how things work out for the best,” he confided to my mother. The only remaining issue was how to break the news to their delicate son. There’s a good chance that if they simply returned the tank to my bedroom, dead Myrtle and all, I wouldn’t have noticed for a few months. But that would’ve been duplicitous. Involuntary turtle-slaughter was one thing, but conspiracy to hide the crime was another. They decided to be honest with me, mostly because it aligned with keeping the smell of a rotting tortoise far from their own bedroom.

When my father broke the news to me, I sobbed furiously, screaming at the injustice of it all. But they were mostly crocodile tears, a fitting tribute to my fallen reptilian friend. With her stinky-stanky tanky no longer poisoning my room, I was grateful to feel air in my lungs again. And that, years later as an adult, is what I aspired to be when I grew tired of hearing my own words. A turtle.

“You’re not a turtle!” Cynthia yelled at me. “You can’t be in a world full of people and not talk.”

I tried to explain that I wasn’t sending a message to anyone. I just didn’t know how to participate without completely boring myself… and everyone else for that matter. I’m not some great thinker. I don’t have a philosophy worth sharing, or a cure that I’m holding back. Just a head full of words, rattling around like ping pong balls in a lottery machine. It’s possible that Cynthia had more to say on this matter, but I didn’t hear it. I was already deep inside my shell.

At the time, I was writing on a sitcom with a work environment more toxic than my childhood bedroom. That’s not uncommon in Hollywood. Writers are hired to be creative, and forgiven when they’re assholes. The staff consisted mainly of young millennials with no professional writing experience, which might seem odd given the job requirements. The showrunner was only a few years older than me, but he confided that he wanted writers fresh out of college because their dialogue sounded hip and relevant. “Not like us old guys,” he said nudging me. I was 38.

But the young writers didn’t know how to pitch anything usable, unless you consider adding the phrase “and shit” to the end of every line of dialogue as a contribution to the literary cannon. So if someone had a character say, “Let’s go out for tacos,” they would change that to, “Let’s go out for tacos and shit.” The boss was enamored by their youthful irreverence and encouraged them to tear apart everyone else’s script to work their millennial magic. Eventually, the older writers on the show grew dead inside, retreating into their own turtle shells. But at least the pay was bad… and shit.

The hour and a half commute to this job felt cruelly short in the morning, and unbearably long in the evening. I decided that my time sitting in traffic should be spent on something more productive than just shaking my head in disbelief, so I searched online and discovered a few courses that taught Italian in your car. I enjoy languages, and Italian is wonderfully lyrical and poetic. In Italian, you can tell someone they’re so ugly that even death is scared of them, and to an untrained ear, it sounds like a love letter. One of the ads sold it this way: “When you learn a new language, you gain a new soul.”

A new soul. It sounded so tempting. With a new soul, I could be more than just content, I could be ebullient. My old soul never would’ve said ebullient. Within seconds I was paying for expedited shipping.

I chose a British course called Rapid Italian because all the lessons were set to catchy music, which was supposed to make it easier to learn. As the speaker repeated the Italian word cerotti a dozen times, a background singer added jazzy vocals.  Cerotti, cerotti, doo-ahhhh, cerotti. Over and over I repeated cerotti until it flowed effortlessly out of my mouth and I didn’t even know what it meant yet. Finally, the speaker revealed the British translation: Plasters.

“Plasters?” I yelled. “What the fuck is a plaster?!” Was it a type of drywall? Now I had to buy English lessons, too?”

I later discovered that plasters were what the English called “Band-Aids.” But what does a bandage have to do with plaster? I was mad at England for using a word that made absolutely no sense, then forgave them when it occurred to me that our word, Band-Aid, was even dumber.

For months, repeating the language aloud during my commute became routine, and I enjoyed the sound of new and unfamiliar words rolling off my tongue. My days at work may have been dreadful, but at least I could look forward to my lessons. And when the hip millennials held the writers room hostage with their young-speak, I could disappear inside my turtle shell, reciting the most recent phrases I had learned. One day, while walking from the parking lot to the office, one of them caught up to me.

“I saw you singing in your car,” he said, mocking me.

“I wasn’t singing. I’m learning Italian.”

“Oh, yeah? Going to Italy? Does the boss know?”

“I’m not going to Italy.”

We waited in silence for the elevator to arrive, and I recalled Cynthia’s warning that when I don’t speak, people think I hate them. I did hate this guy, so I was sending the right message.

“Do you come from an Italian family and shit?”

“New York Jews,” I responded.

He nodded, pretending to be satisfied, but I knew this was driving him crazy, and I loved it. We stepped into the elevator and I watched the numbers above the door as we ascended, wondering how many would have to light up before he asked his next question. It took two.

“So when do you plan on speaking it?”

“I don’t know.”

This was just about too much for his young head to take, and he laughed derisively.

“Then why are you learning Italian in your car?”

I waited for the doors to open, and when they did, I stepped out first, leaving him behind. “Because I’ve said everything I wanted to say in English.”

A few months passed, and I was ready to replace my beginner level CDs with intermediate lessons offered by other companies. The jazzy nightclub music may have lured me off the street, but if I really wanted to learn something, I had to go into the back room, which was reserved for serious students. There, the doo-aahs were replaced by the mind numbing repetition of a lecturer walking through various conjugation charts. He recited them with the same verve one uses when reading the warning label on a bottle of NyQuil, hours after taking a catatonic dose. But repetition is the key to learning a language and there’s no way around it. New words have to be brutally beaten into your head, over and over, until that one moment… that sublime touch from God… when your brain is able to speak a foreign language without thinking. It took months of daily practice to get there, but when I did, it was like flicking on the field lights to an outdoor stadium. Darkness became bright. I didn’t need to conjugate words into Italian, I could just talk. I was completely amazed. “Who is this person? I don’t speak Italian.”

By June, I was ready to graduate to more difficult lessons, but I couldn’t find any advanced Italian CDs on the internet. So instead, I bought a college textbook, read it into my iPhone, and played it back in the car. It was during one of these lessons that I was pulled over by a cop. The police officer saw me talking in my car, and accused me of being distracted by my cellphone. I told him that wasn’t the case. I was learning Italian, then I played a bit of my recording.

Lo avrei comprato se avessi avuto i soldi. I would have bought it if I had the money. Past conditional tense combined with past subjunctive,” I explained. “That’s some high level stuff.” I was hoping I could be forgiven for missing a street sign when I was concentrating on something as complex as that. But apparently I couldn’t be, and he wrote the ticket anyway. “Vaffanculo,” I muttered.

The ticket was bullshit. I wasn’t speeding. I just took a right hand turn out of Trader Joe’s onto a quiet street. The sign had been put up by the locals because they didn’t want traffic in their neighborhood, and the cops liked enforcing it because it was easy revenue for the city. Glendale is America’s fifth most dangerous city to drive in. Who’s even heard of Glendale? Most of the infractions can be blamed on adolescent men doing 90 in school zones in their white BMWs. Roll down their windows, and a cloud of Drakkar Noire spills out like vape smoke, so yeah I took issue with being ticketed for making a cautious right hand turn.

By the time I arrived home, I had decided that despite being guilty, I would fight the ticket. Maybe I was still under the influence of all the Italian grammar I’d been parroting. Italians don’t take any shit. I didn’t have any evidence to support my case, but I was filled with righteous indignation. That’s a trick I learned from my mother. When I was ten, she drove into a police car and it was completely her fault. But the minute she stepped out of the car, she started yelling at the cops. Just completely unloading.

“What the fuck were you thinking?!?”

The police were as shocked as the rest of us. I mean, who yells at an officer of the law like that? But instead of drawing their guns on my mother, they apologized profusely, promised the city would pay for the repairs, and we returned home having just witnessed a magic trick.

I was hoping that my similar outrage would be enough to convince a judge to toss my case. Just yell. And if that didn’t work, yell louder. I once had a therapist who said that my inflated sense of justice wasn’t making me a happier person. Well, this would show him!

My court appointment was for 1 pm, but I showed up thirty minutes early as a compromise to my anxiety, which had been lobbying for me to camp out the night before. When I arrived, I was disappointed to discover that the courthouse looked like a Soviet era housing project used to warehouse dissidents. It lacked the grandeur that should be afforded matters concerning the law, and I questioned my decision to dress up when clearly the building didn’t bother.

The courtroom doors were locked, and taped to them was a schedule of appearances. Even though I received a confirmation notice for 1 pm, the makeshift sign said that court wouldn’t resume until 1:30. “Damn,” I thought. “I’m already losing.” Looking for a place to sit, I retreated to the cinderblock breezeway filled with other defendants. It reminded me of a certain depressing tank I kept in my childhood bedroom, only instead of a shale rock, there was a row of uninviting wooden benches. But the smell was the same.

I gave one final look around, put on my sunglasses, then retreated deep into the safety of my turtle shell. I would’ve been happy enough to remain there, but something from the outside world caught my attention. It was an elderly couple reading the schedule on the locked door. They both looked confused, and surprisingly, were speaking in Italian. For the moment, I decided to keep to myself. Interacting with strangers is out of my comfort zone, so I glanced around to see if maybe a good Samaritan might step up, as if speaking Italian were the same as helping someone jumpstart a car. Finally, I poked my head out of my shell and gently interrupted.

Non è ancora aperto. Aspettiamo qua.” (“It’s not open yet, so we’re waiting here.) Immediately, she looked relieved. So did I. That wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.

Ah bene,” she replied. “Pensavo che si aprisse all’una.” (“Oh good, I thought it opened at one.”) 

Anch’io,” I reassured her, and I returned to reading my phone. Then she and her husband sat down right next to me, confirming my deepest fear. I was now the guy who gives a puppy some food, and suddenly he’s got a dog following him home. I tried to retreat back into my shell where everything was quiet and comfortable, but she pulled out her cellphone and opened her photos.

“I took a left turn and they hit me with a ticket,” she said in Italian, showing me a picture of the intersection where she was fined. She swiped to the right to show me a few more angles, and then finally another photo of a woman. “That’s my daughter,” she said. “Look how beautiful.” What was I supposed to do now? She had just confessed to a crime, as well as introduced me to her family. That’s pretty intimate stuff. I really had no choice but to pull out my cellphone and do the same.

“This is the parking lot at Trader Joe’s, and this is the sign that says No Right Turn. And this is my wife,” I said, showing her a photo of Cynthia.

Bellissima,” she replied. I smiled, put my phone away, then went back inside my shell of silence. A few seconds later, I pulled out my phone again and started swiping. “And this is my daughter Roxy, she’s studying art in college. This is Lola, she’ll be in college next year. She’s still finding herself, but she’s got time. This is my dog who died a few years ago, I miss her. And here’s a photo of a lightbulb that blew out. I need to buy a matching one at the hardware store.”

“Yolanda,” she said, offering her hand.

“Michele.” I gave her the Italian version of my name, which is who I was at that moment.

As we waited for the slow gears of justice to grind us into powder, Yolanda and I chatted about all things trivial, connecting the way two people are supposed to. At times I struggled with the grammar, trying to recall the correct conjugation of an irregular verb. But she was patient with me, because she appreciated my effort, and soon she was sharing details of her life’s story.

She met her second husband a few years ago in Paris, and was surprised to have found love again so late in life. He was born in Morocco but moved around to other countries, so he spoke five languages but now he was practically deaf. “That’s the key to a happy marriage,” I said. Yolanda told me their relationship was no longer sexual and I laughed, wondering why she felt the need to reassure me of that. The last few years of her career were spent teaching Italian to children at a local immersion elementary school, the same school that a friend of mine sent his daughter to years ago. “Imagine that,” I said. “Just one degree of separation.”

A few hours later, I was standing before the judge presenting the true version of my moving violation… which, unfortunately, was very close to how the police officer described it. Everyone knew I was guilty. Even Yolanda was looking at me sideways. But I did go through the trouble of appearing before the court. “Taking time off from work, finding parking, the horrible benches you make us sit on… it’s a real headache,” I pointed out to the court.

The judge agreed and maybe it was just to get me to shut up, but he offered to cut my fine in half if I pleaded No Contest. That hadn’t even occurred to me. It meant accepting conviction without admitting guilt. Not guilty or innocent, but a third choice. It was a contradiction that could exist only in legal papers and truthfully, it sounded like judicial horseshit. I quickly took the deal.

“I plead No Contest, Your Honor,” accepting my reward for making an effort.

At the cashier’s station, I passed my credit card beneath the thick, lucite barrier that protected the clerk from the world. We were only two feet apart, yet I had to lean into the crack just to hear her.

“We don’t accept American Express,” she barked. For a moment I was annoyed. Now I couldn’t write this off as an illegitimate business expense. Yolanda and her husband were standing close behind when she heard me complain.

Dovresti pensarci come un regalino al governo,” she said, as I gave the cashier my personal credit card. “(You should think of it as a little gift to the government.)” Maybe she was right. A thank you gift.

I said goodbye to her, surprised that I had enjoyed spending an afternoon with someone I’d likely never see again. Unless, of course, we slammed into each other while driving. That seemed entirely possible. But did I really spend the afternoon with her? Michael barely said a word. Michele did all the talking. He was the fun one, extending himself, connecting with a stranger and sharing a few laughs.

The halls were crowded now, with more defendants quietly waiting for their day in court. Some were busy with their phones, others had their heads in books.

“There’s a third choice,” I considered telling them. “You can plead No Contest.” But that seemed like something Michele would say, not me, so I kept to myself and headed towards the door.  As I was leaving, I noticed my reflection in a window and slowed down just long enough to see a smile on my face. “Who was that guy?” I wondered. “Was that the new soul I was promised? And if so, when would I see him again, and what would I do if I did?”