Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hacking Reality

The train is already moving when a girl slides open the door to the compartment. There's one empty spot, which she eyes with a look of travel-weary desperation. Never knowing with whom to make eye-contact, who should decide such things, she asks the occupants in a sweeping glance if the seat is free. No one assures her it is; however, as no one objects, she approaches it. She drops her backpack on the seat while she removes her pink pashmina scarf and green corduroy jacket, hanging them on the free hook in front of her. She notices that the overhead luggage racks are full, so she lifts her backpack and sits down, placing it on her lap and hugging it against her chest. A coffee-cup shaped felt brooch pinned to the outer pocket of the grey North Face backpack looks to her like it should signify something more though it is mostly ornamental.
The train is a standard Central European intercity train, on a typical journey. Perhaps on a short trip, from a capital to that country's second city. Or possibly it is headed from Budapest to Berlin, stopping at every city of appropriate size in between. It doesn't matter to the girl, who is only on it for an hour. She pulls down the maroon armrest to separate her half of the bench from the father to her left who is trying to get his 3-year-old son to sit down and stop touching the window. She looks down to her right, trying to decide if she has left socially appropriate distance between herself and the girl sitting next to her, who though she is dressed like a teenager, the girl estimates to be only a year or two younger than herself--twenty-two or twenty-three. Across from the two young women sits a heterosexual couple of similar age. While not in formal-attire, they seem out of place in pressed, possibly designer label, clothing. The girl's long necklace of red wooden ovals matches the red of the man's tie. The man leans against the side of the compartment, watching something on his laptop while the girl clutches her purse and sneaks glances at the screen. To her right sits the kind of man one could never find in a crowd.
He looks at the girl to his right, a strikingly beautiful yet modestly dressed teenager, who looks like she could be either his daughter or his sister. The man's build and height are average. His lack of distinguishing features--glasses, facial hair, freckles, wrinkles, or moles, makes him distinctly nondescript. When the dark-haired teenage girl meets his gaze, he quickly looks to the floor, embarrassed to be caught staring at a stranger.
As the train begins to slow down, the father and son gather their jackets and luggage. They exit the compartment as the breaks squeal and the girl sitting near their empty seat takes the opportunity to move closer to the window. She places her backpack in the overhead rack before any more travelers enter the compartment. She sits down but quickly pulls her backpack down again to take out a book to read now that she has space. She replaces the backpack and makes herself comfortable, only to be squeezed into the corner by a large woman who sits next to her a minute later. The book in her hands is a first-grade level textbook for the national language, which she's never studied formally but has been learning through immersion in the year or so that she's been living there. She learns the language mostly from her students at her English-language preschool. She's excited about the textbook, which makes the language much more accessible than any textbooks for foreigner's she's tried to learn from. She likes to think that she's learning the language in a natural way, so it makes sense to learn from a textbook for native speakers.
This is not what the man across from her sees, however. Assuming her to be a native, based on her ability to ask if the seat was free when she entered, he wonders why she would be reading a textbook for seven-year-olds. He figures she must be a teacher, preparing a lesson. But then she begins to mumble to herself, under her breath, pausing for long intervals, and then smiling at the book. She takes much too long on each page to be preparing a lesson. He decides she must be mentally handicapped. But she moves with such dexterity, she travels alone. He leans forward with his elbows on his knees and rests his face in his hands. He tries his best to look like he's casually looking out the window though he is straining to listen. He hears her accent and finally sees the girl as she sees herself. He smiles to himself and makes a mental note to tell his wife about the strange foreign girl learning their language from a children's textbook.
He begins to think about his wife and how best to tell the story. He hopes the simple story cannot be misinterpreted and will distract her from leading questions about his business trip. The girl with the textbook gets off the train one stop but a full hour before the man. Though the hall of the train is full of passengers, no one moves in to take her seat, the view of which is obscured by the woman sitting next to it. The man continues to stare at her seat, weighing his options. The teenage girl to his right keeps brushing her shoulder against his arm, leaving his skin tingling under his grey, wool sweater. If he moves across the compartment, he won't have to bear her touches which, though innocent, fill him with guilt, reminding him of the girl with whom he spent the previous night. It would seem like he just wanted to be closer to the window, he assures himself as he crosses the compartment and sits down. Once there, he realizes his mistake. Instead of being too close, the girl is now in his direct line of sight. He stares out the window for the better part of an hour. He wants so much to be off the crowded train but dreads going home.
When he gets to his flat on the outskirts of the city that evening, he walks in and takes off his shoes, dropping his briefcase and overnight bag by the door and hanging his coat on an already full coatrack.
"Honza, are you planning on leaving those there?" asks his wife standing in a doorway at the end of the hall. He tries to remember what it was like when Klara greeted him with pet names and kisses. Klara, small and blonde with a few wrinkles lining her fair face, disappears back into the living room
Jan knows that the proper answer is unspoken, so he takes his bags into the bedroom while beginning the story, "Today, on the train--"
"--And I told you to put away your fall jackets to make room for your winter coat," she interrupts, a disembodied voice from another room. "There's too much on that coatrack already. It's going to fall off of the wall and we both know you don't have the time to fix it."
"Yeah, okay, I'll do it in a minute. Can I get some dinner first?" he replies in carefully measured tones. He walks into the kitchen where his daughter is coloring at the table. "Hey Little Bunny, is that for me?" he asks. The four-year-old smiles shyly at her father and nods her head. Jan notices how much her face looks like her mother's, especially her big sad eyes.
"What is it?" he asks. She shrugs. "Just a picture?"
"Mhmm," she replies. It seems to him that Verunka only speaks to him in "mhmms" and "uh-uhs" lately. He blames it not on his regular absences from her life but instead on her attending bilingual preschool.
"They're not teaching you English, they're teaching you Caveman at that school, aren't they?" he asks. Sensitive to the subtle anger in her father's voice, Verunka looks down at her paper. Jan is reminded of the story he planned to tell his wife and tells his daughter instead. "Today, on the train, I saw a girl who was like your teacher at school, the one who speaks English. She was trying to learn Czech, but she was really bad! She sounded like a baby! And she was reading a book for children in grade one like it was really hard. I think you could read better, Little Bunny. Isn't that funny?"
"Mhmm," she says with a smile and picks up a roll from the plate next to her paper. She offers it to her father without a word. He takes it and sighs.

The girl with the textbook sits at a table in the corner of the coffee shop, waiting for her friend to meet her for the pumpkin pie flavored latte she's been dreaming about for a month. She is again looking at the children's textbook when her friend comes in and hugs her. She has long, dark hair and a mediterranean appearance that would make her stick out in Central Europe, if her speaking English didn't do it already. "What is that?" she asks laughing.
"Don't laugh! I know it's a first grade textbook, but I think it's actually helpful. It's way easier to learn from this than any actual adult language books for foreigners. I mean, I basically learn like a small child, right? So, why not embrace it? I can read this whole page!" she says pointing at a page covered in pictures of cakes and cars.
"You're not going to believe this! One of my kids told me a story on Monday that was like, 'Daddy is train and is English girl. She have Czech book but book is for children, children is seven.' I'm pretty sure she was talking about an expat reading a first grade English textbook."
"Seriously? Where was her dad going?"
"I don't know, probably Brno or something, she says he's not around a lot. She's the sweetest little girl but her family is obviously screwed up."
"I bet I was totally on the train with her dad."

No, I think to myself. That's too Dickensian of an ending. I set the Czech textbook down on the tray and look out the window of the train. I can't believe how early it gets dark and it's not even December yet.


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