Ambushed

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Babes

Without fail I can identify when I notice someone for the first time. “Noticing” someone isn’t the same as meeting them — that’s when you hear a name, shake hands or exchange greetings at some social function or introduction. Of course then you become aware of someone’s existence.

But “noticing” is different. For me it’s when some individual’s feature — usually a facial expression, a sparkle in the eyes, a raised eyebrow, maybe even a shapely collarbone — first enters my attention and grabs it firmly. It is almost like the lens of a camera coming into focus. The moment when that person becomes fully alive, interesting, someone to pay attention to.

Conversely, it almost never registers when I am first “noticed” by someone else. I am always taken by surprise. And usually it is because it is for the wrong reasons. Someone, usually a guy, staring at an unbuttoned section of my blouse, trying to catch my attention at a tavern or a pub, eyeing my hair or my neck, or worse.

And I know then that this sighting has probably been going on for far longer than it should have, and of course I have no control except by deliberately ignoring it, and even then sometimes there is unpleasantness.

But this time I was acutely aware of when I was first “noticed.”

It was my first-semester semantics class in an overheated, over-fluorescently lighted classroom at MIT here in the Boston metropolitan area last autumn, and I had raised my hand.

“Ms. Coolidge?” acknowledged the instructor, a Mr. Herman. He was old school, last names only, an anachronism for all of us, at least forty years older than anyone else in the room. Tweed jacket, wire-rimmed glasses, at least he wasn’t wearing a bow-tie.

“What you said doesn’t exactly parallel the ideas put forth in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.” This had to do with the notion that the specific characteristics of the words in a language have an effect on the speaker’s thought-process.

It was then that I became aware of a pair of eyes on me. This in and of itself is hardly unusual. Anytime you say anything publicly in grad-school you are going to be examined.

But at the corner of my vision I saw this other student, Rebecca, I believe was her name if I remembered correctly from the class roster, although I had only heard her called by her surname, “Ms. Raustenbaum,” by Herman. Her eyes were intent on me, and my thoughts, clear a moment before, now become a bit confused.

Herman responded reasonably enough, indicating that Sapir-Whorf had come under considerable discredit, suggested some further reading I might do. I had one, rather lame, follow-up question, keenly aware of Rebecca’s focused gaze on me during the whole proceeding.

After class I looked for her, but she had exited already. Her unruly dark hair swayed as she walked down the corridor, her slender frame in a long, hip-hugging lavender dress.

This event, or non-event really, troubled my thoughts for the next two days until the class met again. Far more than one might have imagined. What could have piqued her stare? Her interest in the conversation? I realized I knew nothing about her, she wasn’t in my cohort of new, freshly-arrived graduate students.

The next class I looked for her and took in her presence more thoroughly. Dark hair, what would have been a Prince Valiant cut if it hadn’t been so wavy — not quite reaching her shoulders — pronounced cheekbones, a clear look in her deep-sunk eyes that did not return my gaze. The kind of European nose that my Asian friends always described half-jokingly as “three-dimensional.” Taller than I, on the slender side, today with a long, neutral patterned skirt and a plain, buttoned, pale rose-tinted blouse.

The class lecture and discussion was uneventful, yet I was surprised to see Rebecca wait for me on the way out.

“You raised an interesting question last week,” she began.

She saw me pause.

“Sorry, Rachel Raustenbaum,” she said, extending a hand, warm and firm. I had been wrong on her first name. “I only know you as ‘Ms. Coolidge.'”

We both laughed.

“Yes, I think this is the only class I have where I only hear last names. You can call me Amelia.”

“I can call you Amelia, or are you Amelia?”

“It’s Amelia. My family’s pet name for me was ‘Ammie’ and the joke was that if they had made it ‘Amma’ then I would have been a palindrome.” I stopped, feeling suddenly quite foolish, blabbing away what was surely too much giddy information.

“Fair enough. Normally I would ask if you would agree to share a cup of coffee with me, but I have to dash off to another seminar right now. Might I catch you after our next class, next Tuesday? I am free afterwards.”

“That would be lovely.” I was intrigued.

I was walking to town the Saturday following, passing the sports fields at the edge of campus, when I spotted Rachel. An Ultimate Frisbee contest was in progress, against RISD, and she was not only in uniform, with red track-shorts and a light gray tee-shirt, but dashing down the bahis firmaları field to retrieve a long toss. She fielded it cleanly, spun to the side and shot a straight level pass to a teammate.

I stopped to look, enchanted. She was quick, deft in her movements. Her chest was larger than I might have imagined from the loose blouses she favored in class, but it was her legs that drew my attention, as her thighs rippled athletically in long, loping runs.

I wanted to stay and watch, but then was curiously overcome by a desire not to be seen, not sure why. I continued on my way, registering another facet of my new acquaintance’s life.

The next week after Tuesday class we sat at one corner of the campus cafe, at a window overlooking the quad. While she had coffee, she noted that I ordered Darjeeling.

“A tea drinker, are you?” She arched those dark expressive eyebrows of hers.

“Yes, the habit took when I had my junior year-abroad at Cambridge. You took tea at eleven, then everyone took another tea-break, never coffee, again at four in the afternoon. It was entirely civilized.”

“Which college? Girton? Like Yashmeen Halfcourt?” She looked amused, the corners of her mouth teasing upward.

“No, not Girton. Along with Newnham those two indeed were the original colleges at Cambridge for women, but eventually, I think the last holdout was late seventies, all the colleges now accept women students.” Again I was conscious of blabbing away. “I was at Jesus College. But who is this Yashmeen?”

“A character in the Pynchon novel ‘Against the Day.’ Fin de siècle, Yashmeen was quite the Cambridge character — bold, decisive, brilliant. And like you say, not many college choices then if you were female.”

“She doesn’t sound anything like me. No, unfamiliar with the novel I’m afraid.”

“But here we are in the ‘other’ Cambridge.”

She looked at me. “Jesus College, eh? As someone of Jewish heritage I might have found that name a little awkward as my college’s name.”

We stared at each other and had that short silence that tends to linger too long between the newly acquainted.

“What will you do after grad school?” I asked, anxious to start a new topic.

“Two possible paths.” She was sure of this. “Computational linguistics is in high demand. Especially in the Silicon Valley out west in California. Plenty of work in big data, Latent Semantic Indexing and all that.” I was aware of this myself.

“Or?” My eyebrows arched.

“Poverty. Maybe write a novel. A cheap cottage in the back-lands, maybe northern New Mexico, or a garret apartment in New Orleans to grind away at some writing project, utilizing my high-priced linguistics degree to its maximum.”

We laughed.

I found out she was from Vermont, in the country. Her father was a CPA in Burlington.

“You had siblings? Brothers? Sisters? Some company growing up?”

A melancholic smile. “I was the middle child of two and a half. Katherine is two years ahead of me.”

My eyebrows furrowed in confusion. “What can this mean? ‘Two and half?’ A half-sibling followed you? A step-brother or sister?” It made no sense.

She looked at me evenly. “Are you ready for a sad story?” I was not sure but nodded anyway.

She looked away. “Max was a year younger than me, the smartest of us all. He always tagged along after his sisters of course, we hated that, having to bring him places with us, having him interfere with our friends and entertainments. He’d ask question after question, always interested in girls, our friends, it was more than moderately annoying. He looked a lot like me, dark curly hair, the nose, pointed chin. And then…”

“What happened?” I held my breath.

“He was always climbing trees. He was good, agile, maybe a little too daring but quite adept. He was fifteen, just at that expansive age when so many adult things enter one’s awareness — politics, social issues, the various ills and deficits of the local and national communities, literature, the wide world. Girls.”

I waited for her to continue.

“He fell out of a tree, landed on his head. It wasn’t even on our property, but a neighbor’s a bit down the way.”

“Oh no…” My voice trailed off.

“Max sustained a head injury, in a coma for two weeks, never fully recovered. Took him six months to learn to walk half-way smoothly again. He is present for some things, can still make jokes and talk, but … he is not fully functional. Can’t live independently. He’s in his old bedroom at home with Mum and Dad, reading, doing word puzzles, some simple gardening in the yard, about all he is capable of. So I regard him as only half a brother, which probably is not quite fair.”

“What was he doing up in the tree?” I wasn’t sure why I asked.

She looked at me oddly. “A friend of mine lived in the house there. She wasn’t always very careful about either drawing her curtains, or having much in the way of clothes on in warm weather. The tree was maybe twenty-five feet directly across from her bedroom window. kaçak iddaa And Max was fifteen, with the sort of young male interests you might imagine. It was summer, late in the afternoon.”

“You think he was trying to spy on her? Catch a look of her, a thrill?”

Her eyebrows moved uncomfortably.

“Almost certainly. He was at an age. And the forbidden lure of a glimpse of a girl’s bare skin? Almost irresistible.”

The silence that followed went on far too long. I had no idea of what to say.

“Life’s strange, isn’t it? So little goes according to plan…” she finally ventured. She waved a hand.

Then looked away.

“Might we talk of something else?”

Her voice was flat, I was relieved for a prompt to take the conversation in a different direction.

“What about you? Your family? Siblings?” She was earnest, a little too eager.

“New Haven, my father was a lawyer, my mum stayed home. One older brother, Trent, who claimed he broke all the rules to make it easier for me.”

“Did that help?”

“No,” I laughed. “Quite unnecessary. I was a diligent girl, rule-abiding, all the way through high-school. My father was wonderful, a very bright man, besides his law practice he taught a seminar every spring at the Yale Law School in his specialty. It was from him that I learned the value of words. ‘In law,’ he always used to say, ‘words are not just vital, they are everything.'”

“So that’s how linguistics came into play?”

“Only indirectly, from the back-door. I initially did political science at the University of Virginia, somehow thinking that the business of word-crafting national policy documents might make a difference in the world. But my career efforts were unsatisfying after graduation, the entry level positions in DC, which is a horrible place, were numbing, the long road of career appeared endless. So thus onto grad school here at MIT, Plan B.”

She nodded quietly. “How did you decide on UV?”

“I could have gone to Yale, I am sure my father would have found a way to get me in, and I probably would have been accepted without any help, but I wanted distance, new surroundings. It’s funny, you know how I ended up choosing Virginia? It might not have entered my awareness otherwise.”

“Yes?” Her brown eyes were so expressive, beckoning.

“Daddy said he would pay for anywhere within a six-hour drive, he had to be able to visit me in a day’s time, any further was just too distant. He even got a map out, and a compass, and traced what he thought a reasonable six-hour circle from New Haven.”

“That could have meant the University of Vermont, then. I might have met you there.” Her smile was teasing.

“I did think about it. But Virginia, well, it was just beyond the arc of his compass, past DC. I managed to talk him into it, he gave me some leeway. I needed a different ‘V’ state.”

She laughed. “‘V’ for ‘Victory?’ ‘Virtue?’ ‘Venus?'” She looked at me keenly.

I was unsure of her drift but played straight. “I’d settle for ‘Variety’.”

She looked amused and I thought for a moment she might say something else, but didn’t.

We met again after class the next week, mostly talking linguistics.

“I think I saw God in the hallway the other day,” I said, too casually.

She looked at me strangely, then smiled, she knew I meant Chomsky.

“Right, Noam, despite his emeritus status, does come around from time to time. Always a bit of a start when you see him, the veteran celebrity. He doesn’t receive the adulation from his colleagues the way one might expect.”

“Of course,” I replied. “Rivals after all, in a cutthroat academic discipline. Almost as bad as anthropology. The semanticists look down on the syntax folks as simpletons, who in turn flick the phonologists and phonetics people off their lapels like bits of dust.”

She laughed. “Right, and there is that fellow, Everett I think? Who has challenged Chomsky’s notion of Universal Grammar? Hard to believe a specialist in one Amazonian tribe, one language, one culture, could think he could take on The Man.”

“But if you are making a grandiose claim, proposing a Grand Unified Theory, one counter-example is all you need to refute it,” I pointed out.

The tone lightened and we talked universal grammar, recursion, Chomsky fame, intricate theoretical research, and ended on a facetious note, each of us mockingly pledging to develop some absurd but not-yet-conceived-of theoretical concept.

“The Phonological Constant!” I ventured.

“Allomorphic Supersymmetry,” she returned. We laughed, pleased at our obscure witticisms.

We agreed to meet again.

I left even more intrigued with Rachel than before. She was smart, quick-witted, and our discussions made me feel like my tentative cognitive musings and doubts were worthy, not silly or outlandish or too far flung.

We met again the next week; again the conversation veered all over the map.

I had a morbid curiosity about her brother, but made only the vaguest, timid approaches kaçak bahis to finding out more, circling around, hoping she would amplify matters on her own. I well know that tragedy can strike anyone, at any time, but in upper middle-class America it often tends to be removed one step and not discussed, limited to grandparents decaying and dying too soon, most of the rest of the disasters of the world more or less at a distance. And of course, graduate school is also a bit of an isolation.

I did get her to crack open her armor a couple times, tell me about dealing with Max post-accident. She insisted her relationship towards him hadn’t changed, but it was clear that communicating with him was fractional, her own sense of wholeness and hope clashed with his cruelly circumscribed world. Despite her denial and a certain amount of evasiveness, it was clear that feelings had changed, could not possibly be as before.

“How do you talk with someone of tomorrow when he barely has a sense of today?” she asked me once. I didn’t know how to answer, and I doubt she expected me to.

“The one thing it has done,” she spoke directly, “is affirm for me the need to take advantage of opportunities. There is no guarantee that any life-window will stay open very long, for anyone.”

Her words were softly spoken but had an edge.

The semester wore on until the first November frosts came, and the air drew cold and damp, raw to exposed skin. For several weeks Rachel and I had had met after every Tuesday class, and in our conversations, for every question I posed to her, ten more emerged, and I found myself quite taken with my new colleague.

Sapir-Whorf was a near ubiquitous topic during our little get-togethers. Once Rachel commented that I seemed “obsessed” with the theory; the understatement made me laugh. She usually took a devil’s advocate position, arguing against my evidence, which I assumed was just to provoke me, continue a lively discussion, but on more than one occasion she gave me the benefit of the doubt.

“I’ve read some of the stuff on Whorf, I admit more since I met you, and I agree that it may have some validity. My instinct says your terminology does shape how you think, that words may have cultural overtones that reinforce or inform thinking.”

“I cannot but believe that words, those specific tools in the tool-belt of the hunter-gatherer in New Guinea as well as the upper echelons of the academy, don’t affect thinking,” I responded. “All the gradations of meaning, shades of nuance, distinctions for what is important to the speaker’s world are reflected in one’s words.” I sometimes felt like an evangelist.

“The old ‘Eskimos have fifty words for snow’ business?” Her eyes sparkled.

“I dislike that cliché, but yes. And it’s ‘Inuit’ not ‘Eskimo,’ Think of all the subtle understandings shaped by a particular time or place in the world, then reflected in words. How repressed the English Victorians were with all those contrived terms to use for otherwise unmentionable things or actions. ‘Limbs’ instead of ‘legs.’ Absurd.”

I saw Rachel’s eyebrows edge upward.

“The value of distinctions? That shadings of meaning make sense for the most important, the most salient things?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“You perhaps know Yiddish has a thousand words for ‘stupid’ or ‘stupid person’? ‘Yutz, shmendrik, amoretz, prostak’ — all different flavors of idiocy. What do you suppose matters most to Jews?”

“Intelligence. Hence the contempt for the opposite?”

She smiled.

“Then there’s that word in Finnish, their particular word that means getting drunk in your underwear: ‘kalsarikännit.’ If the presence of that word, and all it entails, doesn’t tell you something about Finnish culture, their long winters, approach to angst, I am not sure what would.”

She continued. “You know how in life there are so many odd situations that happen, someone is rude, or you are confronted with some insult or hostile behavior? And you don’t think of the right thing to say then, but only that night, or a week later, that you come up with a brilliant retort?”

“Of course. Happens all the time.”

“In Yiddish there is the term ‘trepverter’ for that, translates as ‘staircase words,’ meaning you don’t think of them until you are going down the staircase from the site of the unanswered retort.”

“I like that. ‘Trepverter,'” I said softly.

We talked not only terminology, but language structure. How odd it was that some languages had built verb tenses into their grammar that suggested truth values.

In Hungarian or Turkish if you said “John went to the store” you would employ a different verb suffix if you had witnessed John going to the store rather than someone telling you he went. In the first case you “knew” it, had empirical evidence, in the second the truth was second-hand, potentially hearsay. Maybe John was even lying to you! Even a simple sentence for those cultures had that loaded piece to it, fascinating.

I left each meeting with a strong desire to see her again. I continued to be pleased, although a bit mystified, at her own tolerance for my confused ramblings, chalking it all up to the enthusiasm that grad-school intellectualizing produced in motivated students.

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