A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words
a tribute to Milan Kundera
By the time they reach Venice and realize that Shana’s passport is missing—most likely either dropped or stolen on the train from Prague—they have spent enough uninterrupted time together for Shana to realize they not only come from different lives, but have completely different understandings of the most basic things.
To Shana, a party is something that happens in backyards: first your parents’ backyard where you have birthdays when you are young, filled with balloons and water guns and cake; then your friends’ parents’ backyards when those parents are out of town, filled with beer and tank tops and, eventually, the sound of a police siren out front; and finally, your own parents’ backyard again, when you come over for Sunday barbeques after church, and sit in folding lawn chairs, and spend the afternoon laughing and swatting at mosquitos. All of these events have swelling crowds, some of whom are related to you, many of whom might as well be.
To Isaac, a party is something that happens politely around tables: first at the shining oak table in your parents’ dining room, where birthdays are accompanied by dinner and some presents and a grandparent or two; then around small round tables in ballrooms as you move through the life stages of society dances and awards and graduations, each with cards containing money being slipped into your hand; and finally, small dinner parties of people you met in graduate school, drinking wine and discussing things you’ve read and museums you’ve gone to. All of these events involve crystal stemware, or at least stemware that looks like it could be crystal.
The first time Isaac invited her to a party with his friends, she asked him what she should bring, and he shrugged. “Wine or something,” he said. But Shana knew differently. She wasn’t going to be the girlfriend who came empty-handed (and coming without food was as good as coming empty-handed). So she dug through all the appetizer recipes her mom had ever given her and found one she loved: fried pecan okra. She realized her mistake immediately when the host hesitated before taking the dish out of her hands and setting it on the counter, flashing what was meant (Shana thought) to be a reassuring smile before finally adding a spoonful to each plate that was already neatly arranged with food. On the counter were bottles of wine brought by the other guests, and it turned out that none of them had ever had okra before, because while they all lived there then, none of them were from there except Shana. “It’s very interesting,” the host said, taking the first brave bite.
But Shana is a quick learner; it never happens again. By the time they are at Isaac’s conference in Prague and she meets up with his friends for dinner, she knows how to give one-sentence quips on things she really doesn’t know much about, to make her seem personable and invested in the conversation, and when to keep quiet, and to always hold white wine by the stem of the maybe-crystal-ware rather than the bowl, so as not to accidentally warm it.
Shana and Isaac are both the grandchildren of immigrants, although Isaac’s grandparents are quite a bit older than Shana’s. She knows that people were not so nice to Isaac’s family once upon a time, but two generations later, no one shifts uncomfortably to the other side of the street when he walks by, no one ever even gives him a second glance. His family’s story is considered respectable by the American history books, well documented in museums; it is already part of a history that most everyone agrees on.
Shana knows that violence is violence, that danger is danger. Her grandparents left when three different families in their town had been shot in their beds as they slept on humid summer nights—and that was after sons had been dragged into sugarcane fields never to be seen again, daughters raped and raped again, soldiers recruited and converted. You could go out for a drink one evening and come home to sleep, or be shot in the head over the bar, your blood left to the mosquitos. No one ever knew.
Both Shana’s and Isaac’s grandparents have accents, but his grandparents’ accents say Old World Charm and her grandparents’ accents say Not From Here.
(She remembered the first and only time she ever got in trouble in high school, when another girl said that she shouldn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance that started each day, because she wasn’t American. We’ve always been American, you ignorant bitch, she responded. You think America is only the United States? When questioned by the teacher after class, Shana said she was offended because it was an AP History class, and the girl should have known better, and honestly, the teacher should consider kicking her out into regular history class. She probably wouldn’t have really gotten in much trouble at all if she hadn’t turned around and said, What continent is Mexico in? What about the Caribbean? Why do you think they call it Latin America? And Central America? Have you ever looked at a map in your life, or are you too busy being a cunt? Do you even know how to read, cunt? That was when the teacher reluctantly sent her to the counselor’s office, and she and the other girl served lunchtime detention together the next day.)
Some immigrants come from across the world and some come from nearby. Some settle and some don’t. Some are allowed to be American and some aren’t. Why they used the same word for all of them, she was never sure.
Shana had never been to her grandparents’ hometown. Her parents used to go every now and then, but eventually it was decided that it was too expensive and was put off and put off and put off, until it was forgotten altogether. Isaac had twice been to the village from which his grandparents had escaped, each time doing research and tracking his heritage throughout Eastern Europe, filling in gaps of vaguely remembered pasts or partial information until it all made sense somehow.
Throughout this trip together, he tells her about his other trips in detail and laments that they don’t have time to make any detours to show her where he came from. She wonders if he’s ever wondered the same thing about her.
Isaac rarely ever needs to interact with the police, and even when he does, he always gets his way, and he always knows he will—in fact, it never occurs to him otherwise. The police are the people who joke around with you about your parking ticket, who tell you to slow down after sending you off with a warning, who solemnly take down your information when you report your bike stolen from outside the university library. Even when Isaac was underage and stumbling drunk one night, so drunk he sat down on a curb and held his head in his hands until the street lamps stopped spinning, the cops who found him there just asked if he was okay and if he had someone to take him home. When he said yes, they told him to stay safe and moved along down the street.
The police don’t come to the neighborhood where Shana grew up to give warnings and tell people to be safe. They came to look for groups of bored teenagers hanging out after school and other such sinister things. There wasn’t even much crime in their neighborhood, but boy, were there a lot of cops. When the inevitable siren went off at those backyard high school parties, the only thing to do was run, because underage drinking meant citations, maybe handcuffs. To Shana, the police are the people who slow their car when you walk down the sidewalk with your friends and whose eyes follow you at gas stations, the people who called her ex-boyfriend “boy” once at a checkpoint even though they were both almost thirty.
When they go to report Shana’s missing passport to the carabinieri, she realizes that Isaac does not understand that he’s not at home, and that he doesn’t know how to talk to police who aren’t already on his side. He uses big words—look how educated and important I am, they seem to say—and a forceful tone—don’t make me ask for your boss, it seems to say—and swipes his hair off his forehead in frustration because he’s not getting the attention and the answers he wants. The officers look almost amused. Shana tries to step in but is interrupted by Isaac.
“Be nice to them,” she whispers. “Be polite.” He doesn’t hear her. She tries again and puts her hand on his arm until he shuts up and looks at her. “Talking to them like that won’t work.”
“They won’t even file a report,” he says, pushing his hair back again. He doesn’t bother lowering his voice or hiding his irritation.
“You tell us where it was stolen, we file a report,” one of the cops says.
“We already said, it was probably on the train,” Isaac says.
“You said maybe on the train. And that the train maybe wasn’t in Italy then. And that maybe it’s just lost, not stolen.”
“But it might have been stolen,” he says. “Jesus, what is so hard about this?” The police again tell him to contact their embassy.
They do, and Shana is told she can get an emergency passport for their flight in two days, that they can even pick it up on their way to the airport, and then she will have to apply for a new one once she’s home. (Do I really need a new one? When will I use it again? she thinks.) Overall it is not a difficult process: it takes a twenty-minute phone call and a quick fax of the passport photocopy she has for emergencies. Yet Isaac spends the rest of the day grumbling, a dark look on his face, unable to shake the aggravation he felt earlier when talking to the police. That night at the hotel, when he crawls into bed next to her, he apologizes for ruining one of their last days of the trip. She smooths his hair back, kisses his forehead, and forgives him.
To Shana, water means Appalachian creeks and swimming holes, biting coldness and slick rocks, checking carefully for snakes and eating picnic lunches. To Isaac, it means New England coastal marshes, shallow and dense and opaque, a place you walk alongside with your father and the family dog. To Shana it means short, silky moss; to Isaac it means tall, stiff reeds; to Shana it means summer afternoons; to Isaac, it is the closest sense of home he feels. (Shana doesn’t know this about him, and it’s the kind of detail that would remind her of why she loves him, if he thought to share it.)
They wake up early on their last day in Venice, when the sky is still so dark it’s barely blue and most lights are off around the city, and get a taxi boat. The water beneath them is completely silent as they glide through the lagoon: slower than the Appalachian creeks, deeper than the swimming holes; denser and more opaque than the New England marshes. They are quiet and thinking about completely different things, unrelated to one another or their surroundings, but Isaac takes her hand as their driver navigates past the sleepy, colorful islands on the way to the airport, each unaware that when they think the word morning in the future, the perfect, beautiful tranquility of this moment will drift back to them, hanging somewhere around the periphery of their memories.