Storyglossia Issue 38, February 2010.

How to Learn a Language

by Shanna Germain


Start at sixteen, going on seventeen. Old enough to drive a car but not so old that the insides of your brain have cemented themselves into the permanence of only knowing one language. Or half of a language, as your mom would say, because she doesn't understand how someone can be so smart and still not be able to spell deserve and receive. "What do you need another language for when you can't use the one you have?" she'll ask.

Get a job in a restaurant anyway. The restaurant isn't high-end, like the kind your father takes you to when he comes to visit in the summer, because you've seen the cooks there, they're called chefs, and they're all white boys with pudgy, dough faces. If they speak Spanish, you know it will be Spanish like your friend Amy, who taught herself out of a book and says "ko-mo es-ta you-sted" to everybody she meets who has skin darker than hers.

No, it is one of those low-end restaurants, one that gives your mother a brain aneurism that you want to work there, because it's in a strip mall and the parking lot is not lit at night and there are trucker-men who come in. But you can tell her that your friend Heather works there and she'll give you a ride, no worries. And your mother will not want to say anything bad about Heather, because Heather might be only 16, but she is already accepted at Cornell, and you know that in your mother's mind there is a possibility that riding to work with Heather will give you some kind of Cornell-acceptance osmosis.

When you show up on the first day, they give you a uniform: a blue and white checkered polyester number that zips up the back and makes your boobs bigger and your waist smaller. The skirt barely covers your thighs, and there's a little blue polyester apron with ruffles that you tie around your waist. You wear stockings in "nude" but you're so pale they make you look tanned anyway, and your dress shoes, the black ones with heels that show off the calf muscles you're going to have after all this walking from table to table. You make a mental note to never wear this outfit home, or your mother will be calling the restaurant, ranting about women's rights and fallen arches.

Go into the kitchen every chance you get. This is where the Spanish speakers are, men who are twice your age with dark eyes and dark mustaches. They have wide shoulders from washing dishes and chopping vegetables and when they talk, you close your eyes and imagine where they have come from. Even though you don't know where they have come from—your grasp of geography is about as good as your math, and you can't remember, is Spanish only spoken in Spain? Is that the same as Mexican Spanish? Since you don't know, imagine them where you'd like them to be from: a beach with palm trees, a wind that blows your waist-length hair—you're growing it out, seriously this time—perfectly off your face. You'll own a black bikini by then, one of the ones with all the metal hoops that says, "This isn't really for swimming," but you'll go in the water anyway, dangerous you.

Ask the guy who does the dishes how to say cup, spoon, fork. How to say thank you and how to say how to say. He is across the dishwasher from you, a stack of dirty plates and cups between you, and he has to lean forward a little to hear you. His English is good, but you ask him if you can talk in Spanish to him, and he says , and you feel a little shiver in your belly. When you hear the cooks shouting, "Pinche pendejo," ask him what it means. When he won't tell you, go around saying it until finally he says, "fucking asshole." You think he's talking about you, and then you realize that he is translating, finally.

Get the hang of waiting on tables. It's not that hard: write down the orders, x means chicken, a slashed M means no mayo, wd means well-done. Not that everything's not well-done anyway; it's just for appearances. Learn how to put the perfect sprig of parsley on the side of your plates, the twist of a dried-out orange slice. There is this way you walk, one foot to one foot, that exaggerates the swing of your hips and makes your polyester dress give a swish-swish sound. Have someone show you the secret to carrying five glasses at once. Love the way they feel in your hands, so heavy and full, so near to toppling.

In the kitchen, stand next to the new Spanish or Mexican guy, the only one who is your age or maybe a little older. Say 18. Say 20. Say maybe old enough to drink. He is thin, thinner than you in the hips, and has a gold hoop in one ear. His eyes are brown like coffee, and he has the darkest, curliest eyelashes you've ever seen.

He is the one who dresses the plates, so show him where the toothpicks go into the sandwiches. When he puts a sprig of parsley on the plate, watch his hand. His fingers are long and thin, with dark whorls in the knuckles. Letters tattooed across his knuckles spell a Spanish word. You ask him what it means, in English. He says, Peace. You don't believe him, but when you look it up in your Spanish-English dictionary, there it is: peace. It isn't until later that you see his other hand, the letters smushed across those knuckles. Pinche. Fuck Peace.

Decide this makes him a rebel. Hang out with him in the back of the building while he smokes those natural cigarettes, the ones with the Indian head on the pack. You've smoked once or twice—it was okay—but now you decide you like it. And you take a smoke break every time he does, and you let him light your cigarette with his Fuck Peace hands.

"What's your name?" you ask, as he puts his lighter away.

You have to smoke outside, out back where the people throw their garbage and park their cars. Today it rains and you huddle under the tiny overhang.

"Robert," he says. It seems so boring, so American. In your head, you call him Roberto. You learn he lives with his aunt and uncle, that he came from Nicaragua three years ago, that he drives his brother's Olds. His brother used to work here too, Roberto says, before.

You don't ask, before what? You ask how to say before in Spanish.

"Ante," Roberto says.

It sounds like against or without. It sounds like after. "Ante," you repeat and it tastes of ash on your tongue.

But then Roberto looks up through his long lashes and touches the side of your hip through your apron. "Bonita," he says. And you can't help but know what he means and your mouth waters away all the ash. The two of you suck on your smokes in silence, eying each other in the rain.

The night Heather gets sick at work and has to go home early, tell her to go on, no worries, you'll catch a ride.

On your first cigarette break, you think you'll ask, but you chicken out. It isn't until the third time that you can finally say, "Do you think you could give me a ride home? Heather left early."

He watches you for a long moment, his dark eyes through his darker lashes, and you wonder if he's misunderstood.

"Sí," he says finally. "I would like to."

Your face burns a little. "Gracias."

"De nada," he says. "You are learning."

"I don't know," you say.

"No se," he says. "That's how you say, 'I don't know.'"

"No se." It sounds like silence. Like the inability to speak. Unlike ante, it sounds like what it means.

"You are amazing." His lips say these words.

You laugh, because you are so cold or nervous or you smoked too fast. "I'd better go check my tables," you say, and you leave him leaning against the bricks.

At the end of your shift, you've raked in fifty bucks in tips. You count out five to give Roberto as gas money and slip it into a separate pocket. You are trying to figure out how to have him drop you off without your mother noticing the Olds when he comes up next to you.

"Listo? Ready?"

"Sí," you say. The way you grin is connected directly to something that's happening in your hips; you've never grinned like this before.

On the way to the car, you smoke, blowing your white breath out into the dark night. The overhead lights don't make much of a dent in the darkness. Roberto steps beside you with his Fuck Peace hands, and you wonder, for one small moment as he takes the smoke from his hand and crushes it, if maybe your mother was right.

Then he opens the car door for you, and you slide in. Your short skirt catches on a rip in the seat and slides up your thigh. A small run starts in your stocking, right below the ruffled hem of your skirt. You hide it with your hand.

His car smells like restaurant grease—or maybe that's you.

He leans in to kiss you before you even leave the parking lot. His lips are softer than you thought they would be. His hand—the Peace one—touches your shoulder gently as you lean into him. For a long time, you kiss. Forever maybe. Just lips, until you lose your breath. He pulls away just in time, and you try not to gasp, try to will your heart back into slowing.

"Want to go to my place?" he asks. "Meet my tía, my tío?"

For a single second, your mother is in your head, and then she is gone. You say sure, no worries, but you can't stay for long. He nods. When he drives, he keeps one hand on your knee, not high at all. Down below the run.

His house smells like restaurant grease too, so you know it isn't you after all. Roberto calls for his tía, his tío, but no one answers.

He gives you a mini-tour, fluttering those beautiful eyelashes over his eyes; you're sure they're moving in time to your heart beat, the one you can feel in your wrists.

"Kitchen," he says in English as you go through it. Nothing's what you expect—clean as your mother's kitchen, and you thought no one cleaned like her, so that's one thing. And every space, every thing, looks soft and used, like it's been rubbed hard with someone's hands, the way you've seen the cooks mash spices into a raw chicken breast. Even the metal sheen of the toaster looks soft, and you're tempted to touch it as you go by, but you don't.

"Hallway," Roberto says. And then he says, "Living room . . . " You wonder how to say living in Spanish; you remind yourself to ask, later. Maybe on the way home. It's something that would be good to know.

In the living room, his brother sits on the rubbed-out couch, drinking and staring at a TV set that isn't on. He looks like Roberto, only with more angles and edges.

Roberto says something under his breath that sounds like a swear, but you're not sure. When his brother answers, you realize how little you know of this language, that the words are running together like water or blood and you can't tell where one stops and one begins.

"Sorry," Roberto says to you. "Let's go." His voice lower, "I didn't know he'd be here."

"Robert, don't be rude," Roberto's brother says. "You can sit right here." He has less accent in his voice than Roberto, but he rolls his R's harder. He pats the couch cushion next to him, which is torn like the seat in the Olds.

"I've got to take her home," Roberto says. You know he's speaking English for you, so you'll understand.

"Two minutes won't hurt," his brother says. "I want to meet this girl you've been talking about."

He's been talking about you? You look at Roberto, who's looking at his feet. What did he say, you wonder? In which language?

You pull your skirt down as far as it will go, and then sit down on the edge of the couch cushion.

"That's better." Roberto's brother smiles at you. He has a bad tooth; even in the low light you can see the yellow-grey of it. "Why don't you get your girl something to drink, Robert?

"Would you like something?" Roberto asks. So formal, so clear that you have to wait a moment before the words gather meaning in your brain.

"Bring her a soda," his brother says.

Don't go, you want to say to Roberto, but you can't remember how, in either language. You watch Roberto go out the door, his back smaller and then gone.

In the semi-dark, his brother puts his hand high on your leg, just at the place where hem ends, just where the run is. He slides his finger inside the run. His fingers are hard and rough. They make the run spread down to your knee. You close your legs, move farther away on the couch, but his hand doesn't come loose from your stockings. His laugh is like hyenas you once saw on TV.

He presses his other hand to your lips, so hard you can feel the edges of your teeth. And then he leans forward and kisses you. Over his hand, or through it, it's hard to know, because he is all tongue that tastes of well-done meat. His tongue moves into your mouth and his fingers pull open the hole in your stocking until he can fit his hand in there, on your thigh.

You bite his tongue. It's the hardest thing you've ever done. The feeling of his flesh moving between your teeth, and then you are up, calling Roberto's name. Leaving behind the torn couch and the brother, but not being able to leave the meat of him in your mouth, the pull of his fingers at your leg.

Your stockings are torn open, and you pull your skirt down to try and hide them. Roberto looks up from the open fridge, blinks. He has a Coke in his Peace hand, a Sprite in his Fuck hand.

"I didn't know what you wanted," he says.

He sees your hands, the whiteness of them holding down your skirt.

"What happened?" Roberto wants to know. He raises the Sprite and his Fuck hand in the air. "Pinche pendejo. What did he do?"

"No se," you say. "No say." And then you stand in the small clean kitchen, looking at the soft, battered skin of all that's around you, and you wonder at all the things you don't have the words to say.

Copyright©2010 Shanna Germain

Shanna Germain claims, in no particular order, the titles of Leximaven, Girl Geek, Wanderluster and She Who Fears Spiders. Her work has appeared in places such as Absinthe Literary Review, Best American Erotica, Eclectica, Juked and Salon. As the paperboys by her house yell, "Read all about her!" at

Interview with Shanna Germain