Mom and Dad all but forced the games on me. It’s hard to believe now. All you hear about these days is how kids don’t want to play water balloons anymore, don’t want to do sack race, how every year there’s an increase in reported grass allergies, and how in just a couple generations we as a society are going to forget we ever knew how to climb trees. Everyone has those apps that track screen time. Everyone’s tried that thing where the whole family stacks their phones in the middle of the table for a weekly distraction-free dinner, or “DFD.” And those First Baptist nutters who were always shouting about computers being the tools of the devil? Well, everyone who once rolled their eyes at them is starting to think maybe they were right.
I was ten when we got our first family computer, a Dell Dimension our next-door neighbor was offloading so he could upgrade to a newer model. He dropped it off one day in the original box and we spent the better part of an afternoon sifting through the tangle of cables and user manuals while my dad explained that the tall, heavy rectangle was the real computer, and the thing I probably thought of as the computer, the thing with the screen, was actually just the monitor. Everything was the ugly beige of a pure white sheet of paper left too long in the sun, a color I haven’t found replicated anywhere since, though some of the tech companies, with their retro nineties nostalgia lines, have tried. My dad held his breath carrying it to the guest room, where he set it down gingerly, one corner at a time, on my mom’s old sewing table. We never had guests anyway, and the only other furniture in there was this horrible lumpy futon that even the cat refused to sleep on. So it didn’t take long for us to rename that nine-by-nine square of peach shag the computer room—as in: no drinks, no snacks, no dirty hands in the computer room.
The Dell smelled like burning plastic from the second we plugged it in, and it raised the temperature of the room a full ten degrees. It was achingly slow and loud and alien, and constantly contracting viruses, which my mom’s humorless, brainy friend George, an IT guy at the community college, came over to fix multiple times a month. Sometimes it would power down for no apparent reason, like it had grown weary of this world’s insatiable demands and was, in a kind of workers’ strike, putting itself to sleep. All in all, I thought the thing was absolute magic.
The first game we installed was Wesley Whale and the Case of the Missing Conch Shell.
The computer came with Solitaire and Minesweeper already built-in, and I didn’t think I would ever tire of them. I could’ve kept clearing those numbered fields, dodging those jagged little bombs forever. But then my parents got the call from school and any games deemed “noneducational” were taken right off the menu.
My English skills weren’t developing as quickly as everyone had hoped—“everyone” being my grade’s guidance counselor and language arts teacher, as well as Severn Elementary’s ESL coach, a soft-spoken, ponytailed woman named Ms. Arnold, who made us sit in a floor circle and who all the kids teased for having a boy’s name for a last name, though I could tell deep down they were infatuated with her and wanted desperately to impress her, so eager were they to show off their hard-practiced “th” and short “i” sounds. One day in the middle of social studies, I was called down to the main office. There, my parents furiously folded their hands this way and that in their laps while the aforementioned everyone told us that if I didn’t improve, they’d have no choice but to hold me back from middle school the following year.
This baffled my parents, who had picked up English at a miraculous rate in the two years since we’d moved from Volgograd. I’d heard them quizzing one another each morning through the vent that connected my bedroom to theirs: common, promise-to-be-useful phrases like “Do you have this garment in a different color?” and “Yes, I would like a sandwich with soda and fries.”
Kids are supposed to be able to learn faster than adults, aren’t they? Languages especially. Something about their brains being more elastic, more receptive, more willing to rewire certain circuits to make way for new information to flow. Mom and Dad told me about the first conversation they ever had with Ms. Arnold, shortly after we came to the States, during an open house for parents considering enrolling their kids in the fall. She said her favorite thing about her job was that children’s minds were like sponges: at my age, they were ready to absorb anything. She had this anecdote about a student who’d become obsessed with the word “dickweed,” the punchline being that the thing about sponges was they tended to pick up the dirty stuff, too.
If the other kids’ brains were like sponges, turns out mine was like a block of crumbling Styrofoam.
Wesley Whale was an animated purple narwhal, a bumbling, sleepy-eyed character who was always getting his tusk stuck in shrubby kelp clusters and the holes of sand dollars. His mouth was a long strip of white with no lines to separate the individual teeth, which I didn’t resist at the time but which I now find terrifying, and thick eyebrows he would waggle while you contemplated how to answer a question or make your next move. He had a sidekick, a wimpy orange fish with fins like a mohawk, not an exotic tropical variety but the boring kind you get at the county fair for two dollars a pop. Together they drank milkshakes and shot slingshots and visited an underwater store that sold cowboy hats, owned by swaggering Manta Ray Jay.
If it all sounds fairly asinine, it wasn’t hard to figure out why. When I dug the game box out of the trash, those enormous bubble letters—AGES 5 TO 7—mocked me from one of the flimsy cardboard sides. Sure, I wasn’t exactly at the fifth-grade reading level, but I could understand that much. The game had a vaguely environmental angle, something about imparting to young children the importance of saving the Earth’s vulnerable coral reefs. But what it boiled down to was Wesley and his unnamed sidekick swimming around while you typed the English words for all the things they passed. If you managed to enter the words correctly, you’d go on to the next level, where the blue background darkened slightly to indicate the three of you had moved to deeper water. If you messed up even once, though, you were back to square one.
The thing with the blowhole was either a whale or a dolphin, the thing with the sails a ship or shipwreck. Beach or shore or sand. Octopus or squid. Any of those or some other word I’d never learned or couldn’t remember. Even if I got through the rest of the words, I’d find myself stumped at the thing that looked like—but couldn’t be—a bed: one shell the mattress and the other an ornate, squiggly-edged headboard. Between them, on a plush pink cushion, the perfectly round, opalescent pearl.
The school made the games seem pretty much mandatory, part of a get-back-on-track plan that would also include an extra one-on-one ESL session with Ms. Arnold each week, but my parents insisted I try to think of them as homefun instead of homework. They were called “games,” weren’t they? Just more sophisticated versions of the ones I already loved. Besides, my mom said, she’d seen me beat Solitaire a hundred times. Wasn’t I tired of watching those cards tumble in their predictable patterns, their cheery, bouncing parabolas, like gymnasts rehearsing the same old routine?
But the new games weren’t exciting, nor were they relaxing, and most of the time, like with Wesley Whale’s oyster, I felt like there was no way I could win. The guidance counselor had prescribed an hour a day, but my parents were like the kids in Ms. Arnold’s class, so anxious to impress—to be the good immigrants, quick studies—that often I would spend entire afternoons in front of the screen, the mouse warm under my fingertips, my eyes dry and blurry and threatening to vibrate right out of their sockets.
Computer games were expensive back then, too. That much hasn’t changed. During our new monthly check-ins at the main office, during which I mostly zoned out and counted the flecks on the ceiling tiles, I would occasionally hear my dad drop a name like “GameStop” or “RadioShack,” suggesting these were the places where he bought his daughter her language-learning games. But we weren’t exactly an MSRP family. Everything we bought we bought secondhand, or more often third or fourth, on deep discount if we couldn’t get it for free. My mom found her beat-up Singer on the curb outside an out-of-business Jo-Ann Fabrics, and all my games came from the bargain bin at the neighborhood Goodwill.
They were all loose variations on Wesley Whale, cheesy concepts with bad graphics that I would’ve made fun of mercilessly if they didn’t always end up getting the best of me. There was the one where you walk around the zoo and type the English words for all the different animals, the one where you walk around a shopping mall and type the English words for all the different toys. Playgrounds, archeological digs, theme parks, outer space. There were the ones that took you through Bible stories and the ones that starred popular Disney heroes. The ones laid out like board games where you had to get from beginning to end by typing the English words for jobs, buildings, household objects, all while—like some sick bonus challenge—navigating trouble tiles that would instruct you, if you landed there, to “Go back to start.”
The worst one was called, I don’t know, something like Mindy Lulu Has a Boo-Boo, in which a little girl visits the doctor’s office for the very first time. She has pink freckles and eyes too big for her head, and when she enters the pale yellow room she promptly takes her clothes off. You’re playing the role of doctor, and to level up you have to type the English words for all her body parts.
I figured out eyes, mouth, neck, armpit all right. But I always got stuck on belly button.
That was the worst one. The girl on the screen couldn’t have been much younger than I was, and still, through the eyes of the doctor, I felt pervy, intrusive, as the game slowly crawled its way down, down. I imagined the doctor-hands out of frame, powdery from their gloves and aluminum-cold.
Now, the best one? The best one was Dizzy Game.
• • • •
It wasn’t called Dizzy Game in any official capacity. The box it came in was a plain, dull black, dented at the corners and unmarked except for half a dozen stickers on the back, the order of which was evidence of increasing markdowns: green, then yellow, then red, Goodwill’s lowest, last-call price. I turned the box around and around, looking for the usual reassuring mascot flashing a thumbs-up-you-got-this, or a manufacturer name like The So-and-So Learning Company. But there was nothing, and no title either. I called it Dizzy Game because that’s how it made me feel the first time I played it: queasy and out of breath like I’d just chugged a whole liter of Welch’s, then gone straight for the park’s loopiest coaster, and there was no end, no air brakes, no bored attendant in sight.
The first thing I noticed: the contrast was jacked. Not that color saturation was amazing in any game in those days, but with this one I could barely make out what was on the screen. It was all gray shapes over gray shapes, larger gray shapes shifting in the background, lighter or darker by marginal degrees. I messed around with the gamma settings for a full ten minutes before I got it even close to workable. Then my eyes adjusted before my brain did.
When the grays gave way to a clear, vibrant image, I was mesmerized. The graphics were crisp and fast-moving, impossibly detailed—a shocking departure from the pixelated animation of campy characters like Mindy Lulu and Wesley Whale. I hadn’t thought the Dell capable of it. Once my brain caught up, though, I crashed back into disappointment. Because the scene before me was a grocery store, which meant I knew how this one went: walk around, try to conjure up the English words for eggplant, onion, all the different kinds of produce. I sighed and settled into the computer chair, an instant backache with peeling leather upholstery and only three working wheels, which my mom had gotten in a howling deal at a recent sidewalk sale. I pulled the keyboard forward and prepared for another long afternoon of failure.
Wiggling the cursor, I drove my character—a stock boy in a green apron and collared shirt—ahead. Immediately, my hand cramped around the mouse and my stomach lurched.
The ground in the game wasn’t the gleaming colorless vinyl I knew from all the times I’d accompanied my parents to Food City, where they let me steer the cart like a racecar through the aisles. Instead, the floor was slippery, gelatinous, made of coils of gauzy hair one minute and wet cobwebs and still-burning lava the next, then suddenly it would harden into these bizarre, spiky formations, like if coral reefs could survive on dry land. But that wasn’t the sick-making part. What did it for me was: the depth perception was all wrong. I couldn’t tell how far back the aisles went, or how close anything on the shelves was. Sometimes it felt like the faceless customers milling about the store were miles in the distance. Other times I thought they might reach out and grab me through the fragile barrier of glass.
I hit pause and laid my forehead on the sewing table, trying to get a grip, breathing evenly to the rhythm of kids’ game, kids’ game—it was only a kids’ game, for god’s sake. But after a few minutes, something dragged my eyes back up toward the screen. Call it the effectiveness of the get-back-on-track plan, or the addictive nature of video games. Call it the work ethic our immigrant parents instill in us—people have, people will. Call it whatever you want. What matters is, pretty soon, I was hooked.
The funny thing about Dizzy Game’s mechanics was they behaved just like your average teacher-approved Scholastic Book Fair “edutainment” for the first fifteen minutes or so. After that, they went totally whacko.
Where the cabbage, spinach, and leeks should have been, there were bins and bins of tiny, milk-white larvae. They squirmed under the misting system, growing plumper and shinier beneath its measured spray. The juice cartons were uncapped and overflowing with some sludgy tan-pink liquid, and behind the deli counter, a fellow “employee”—an older woman with a hairnet and an apron that matched the one game-me was wearing—carved thin strips off a disembodied nose as tall as the slicer itself. It wasn’t all that over-the-top, horror-show stuff either. In the frozen food aisle, a dog with a big red flower for a head lolled contentedly, drool sliding down the length of its bottom petals.
It made me want to ask my parents if we could adopt a puppy. The cat was getting so standoffish anyway.
Aside from the initial contrast issue, Dizzy Game was virtually glitch-free. But my favorite thing about it was that, as long as I played, I was more or less guaranteed to win. The game didn’t ask me to type the words out myself, sending me back to the start the second I screwed up. Instead, it typed each word to me, while a voice—a pleasant, silky alto—spoke it aloud through the egg-shaped speakers. Each word was typed and spoken three times, while a message on the screen prompted me to repeat it. The game could hear me, and all it wanted was for me to practice. If I got a word wrong, it would gently correct me, and I’d try again.
I wouldn’t realize until much later that our Dell Dimension didn’t have a mic.
Those days, I sprinted to the computer room every afternoon, skipping the pointed “So how was school?” talk with Mom and the dino nuggets she’d laid out on the counter for my after-school snack. She looked confused at first, peeved even, but I knew she and Dad must’ve been relieved. Today, people buy into the idea that computers are the tools of the devil. But back then, this was me showing initiative. This was me devoting myself to becoming an A-plus American.
The computer room got so hot sometimes, I could open all the windows and still sweat through my t-shirt into the cracked leather seat.
Dizzy Game’s grocery store had this huge pastry wall, only where there should’ve been cinnamon bundt cakes and day-old donuts, there was row after row of oversized fishhooks.
I reached out with game-me’s arm for one of the fishhooks, barbed once on the curved point and twice more along its metal shank. It was weird the way I felt when I looked at it. It didn’t register as something designed to pierce a prize salmon on some wholesome family fishing trip, but as something I knew—with a heady, buzzing certainty—I would one day extract from the meat of a human eye.
the speakers said clearly.
I dutifully replied.
• • • •
Could it have been that I didn’t realize it at first? That I thought Dizzy Game was just teaching me a more advanced version of English, a level I hadn’t yet reached in the dumbed-down games, or in ESL with Ms. Arnold twice a week? Maybe I assumed that after we mastered conjugation, definite and indefinite articles, homophones and animal idioms and phrasal verbs, we’d have a whole unit dedicated to this other aspect of the language, the slithering and guttural register that ran your throat raw. After all, English is notoriously difficult for non-native speakers to learn. It has so many rules, and as many exceptions to them. I was new to it then. There was a lot I couldn’t have known.
Or is it more likely that I did realize it, that it didn’t even take me that long? I was falling behind in school because I was at a major linguistic disadvantage, not because I was stupid. Would you believe I had a strong early suspicion, but I was willing to push it aside? Because I was good at Dizzy Game—new-high-score-every-time good—in a way I hadn’t been good at anything in years. It was patient with me, forgiving, and playing got my parents off my back. More than off my back, it got them on my side. Now they joked at the dinner table that my English would get so textbook, pretty soon I’d be qualified to teach language arts, and I could take sour Mr. McNamara’s job. In the computer room, Wesley Whale and the others formed a sad tower under the futon, reaching for its wooden frame like a gray hand through a cemetery plot. Like the pathetic, dead-to-me things they were.
One day, my dad came in, wheeling our unwieldy Hoover behind him. I paused the game but didn’t swivel around, sitting stock-still so my head would stay blocking the screen. If he thought I was acting suspicious, he didn’t say it. That’s standard preteen-girl stuff anyway. I would do the same thing later with my instant messages, which were dull stuff, not the least bit damning, but which I gleaned from the other kids simply weren’t the sort of thing parents were meant to see.
I heard his knees creak as he knelt down. He tapped one of the plastic cases. “Finished with these already, Uly?” he asked in English. I caught the smile in his voice.
Eager to get back to the game, I grunted an affirmative over my shoulder. He laughed, scooping up the discarded CD-ROMs. He always said he was trilingual, fluent in the nonverbal language of disinterested daughters.
Had I made a habit of speaking Dizzy outside the computer room, no doubt things would have turned out different. But the words in the game were so specific, so peculiar—fishhook, coagulate, mammon—so not the stuff of everyday conversation that, honestly, they never came up. How often did the discussion turn toward coagulation in your elementary assembly hall?
Either that or I had spoken Dizzy, but only once, and that’s all it took for me to learn my lesson. It would’ve happened during recess. I would’ve been sitting in the shade of the tallest jungle gym tower, watching this kid Jacob run fast laps around the geodome climber. Jacob was always doing that kind of thing, treating recess like some one-man military training camp. He was a loner like me, only for him it was by choice; I got the sense he wasn’t trying to make any friends at Severn that wouldn’t later follow him to Annapolis or West Point. He had a camo-print backpack that he never took off, not even during lunch or paint days in art class, and I remember he was wearing it when he sprinted straight toward me on the jungle gym that day.
He veered right at the very last second and proceeded to do twenty back-and-forths on the horizontal ladder, crossing his feet at the ankles so they didn’t touch the wood chips. Then he scrambled up and sat next to me, on the other side of the tower’s bright yellow support beam, and started examining his monster calluses. He took them between his fingers and squeezed, so by the time he was done, his palm looked like the back of a stegosaurus. He seemed proud, like the kind of kid who would appreciate me appreciating them. So, without thinking, I murmured:
I know “calluses” now, but back then the Dizzy word was the only thing I knew to call them. Jacob must not have seen me after all, because he freaked—leapt to his feet and immediately lurched backwards off the side of the structure. It wasn’t far down. He got four stitches on his hand and later bragged to the class that he didn’t really need them, but his mom said it would put her mind at ease.
After that, the same part of me that knew I had to keep my dad from seeing Dizzy Game on the screen also knew I couldn’t speak the words again to anyone. It wasn’t any of their business, for one thing. And it would be a betrayal, I decided, to have been taught—no, to have been chosen to be a student of—this precious tongue, just to go indiscriminately passing the code sheet around. Every time I thought about it, I was overcome by this tingling sensation, like spider wasps in the bloodstream, that those outsiders, those foreigners, they wouldn’t get it anyway.
Like spider wasps:
In the bloodstream:
I’m rusty, you see? But I’ve been practicing.
• • • •
Wrapped up in their own lives though they were—my mom worked as a receptionist at Twin Skies Real Estate, my dad for a local carpenter who specialized in beetle-kill pine—my parents weren’t oblivious to my preference for Dizzy Game. “Preference” isn’t quite it; I’d reached a point where I refused to play anything else. They promised to keep an eye out at the Goodwill, in case it had a sequel. Often these kinds of games did, and I’d played a lot of them. Wesley Whale and the Case of the Stolen Starfish. Wesley Whale and the Case of the Crystal Bay. Wesley Whale and the Case of the Buckaroos of Brackish Cove. In the last one, the narwhal’s mohawked sidekick was replaced by a surfer-dude-voiced shark in aviators.
They never did find a Dizzy Game 2. What would they have looked for, anyway? Another unmarked box over an unmarked sleeve, and when you pulled the disc out, the strangest thing: its thin silver film bubbly and peeling, like no way it should’ve worked when you slipped it in the drive. It didn’t have the right colors either. All the other CD-ROMs glinted rainbows when you tilted them left and right, threw psychedelic patterns on the walls if they caught a stream of sun through the window. Dizzy Game, though—it’s like it swallowed the light.
Didn’t really matter about the sequel, though. Something in Dizzy Game’s software caused it to upgrade automatically, so it never ran out of levels. Not that I’d call what it had “levels,” exactly. What I mean is that it didn’t have an end.
The computer room got so, so hot sometimes. I’d sit there roasting, stripped down to a tank top and my day-of-the-week underwear, which I grabbed from the drawer at random, ignoring the embroidered words at the hip that for so long had meant nothing to me, and so I always ended up wearing the wrong day. I’d beg my parents to let me take meals in there, but they were fanatical about keeping crumbs from getting stuck in the keyboard. So sometimes I’d pretend I wasn’t hungry, even when the pangs felt like my stomach was buckling, twisting itself into a pretzel just so it’d have something to eat.
When we first got the Dell, our old cat—the one we always joked was too good for the futon—liked to curl up on my lap while I stacked Solitaire decks. Later he stopped coming into that part of the house entirely. He took to padding nervously at all hours in a corner of the living room, wearing circles in the carpet around our fake bird-of-paradise plant.
These days, you can’t go a week without stumbling into an article linking video game violence to adolescent aggression and overly stylized characters to unrealistic beauty standards among impressionable teens and tweens. Even the most innocent titles come stamped with warnings about carpal tunnel and tennis elbow, eyestrain and poor posture and this curve of the neck people outside the medical profession have taken to calling “gamer’s hump.” And they’re probably onto something—I’m not saying they’re not. But it was hard to think of Dizzy Game as having negative consequences, because, the thing was, after I started playing, things got better.
Better for all of us, I mean, not just me. Once I installed it, the Dell stopped contracting viruses—or, rather, it would look like it was about to get one, then the screen glitched out for twenty or thirty seconds before magically ironing itself out. His IT services no longer required, George took on the project, in his off-hours, of teaching my mom how to drive, and she’d slip in from their outings looking happier than she had in years. Dad, for his part, got a fast series of promotions after two of his coworkers put in notice, one after a bad fall off a wraparound deck and the other following a gruesome accident with the company’s massive circular saw. Even though it meant that guy had two and a half fewer fingers, and even though it meant Dad was spending less time home with us, we couldn’t see it as anything but a stroke of luck: another month’s rent covered, another bill paid off. I was even glad about George, since Mom needed the company, even though he was too serious for my liking.
The only one of us who had a bad break was the cat, who’d stopped eating and had progressed to yanking up large swaths of fur around his paws.
As for me? I was blowing the get-back-on-track team’s benchmarks out of the water.
Because at the same time Dizzy Game taught me its singular vocabulary, it helped pretty much everything else fall into place. It was like when the final Lego piece clicks in, and all at once you see not just the castle before you but everything that has the potential to be there, if only you pick up the expansion packs: the moat and drawbridge with horses, the princess waving from her turret in the clouds. Suddenly I was light-years ahead of everyone in Ms. Arnold’s class. Hitting the “th” in the happy birthday song? Piece of cake. Maneuvering through different “e” vowels? Sweet, no sweat. I was acing every reading test, every science lab, every question about Mesopotamian burial practices. The guidance counselor was talking about nominating me for this elite math camp and bumping me up to algebra in the fall.
The other kids could tell when school stopped being such a slog for me. They hadn’t wanted to associate themselves with the fall-behind kid, or invest time in a friendship when I’d just be held back a year while they moved into a new building across the street. Then a switch flipped, and I became one of them. I got more invitations to pool parties and arcade Saturdays during the spring of fifth grade than I had the entire time we’d been in the States. In these shiny, unfamiliar environments, my cheap stirrup leggings and too-big, too-worn t-shirts felt shamefully out of place. Friends who took pity on me let me borrow their trendy plaid jumpers and velour sweatpants, one-shoulder tops with ambiguous phrases like “WANT IT” and “FREE” scribbled across the chest.
In the car, I groaned at my parents’ ancient Russian CDs, with their shaky, operatic crescendos, and turned the radio to American Top 40. In the mornings, I pushed aside my usual bowl of kasha and asked my mom if next time she’d pick up a box of Trix. Wanted to trade my glass of kompot for Sunny D.
I was starting to fit right in, and my parents responded to my sudden acclimatization the same way they had to Dizzy Game: with a raised-brow skepticism that quickly gave way to an easy and resigned gratitude. Even with my newly packed social calendar, I always made time for it. An hour a day, right? Guidance counselor’s orders.
When I was twelve, the same year I was voted seventh-grade princess at Severn Middle’s winter formal, my grandma—Dad’s mom—came all the way from her beach town on the Black Sea to spend three weeks living with us. I don’t remember much about that visit. A few of the other girls had gotten inline skates for Christmas and we were spending most of our time at the Carl’s Jr., whose back lot’s center grass median made it the perfect, donut-shaped roller rink. What I do remember is Grandma unpacking her suitcase on the guest-room futon and me standing awkwardly in the doorway, working to wrap my head around what it would mean for her to occupy this space—my computer room, my Dizzy Room—for the next twenty-one whole days. Dad had bought a bunch of blankets full price, special for her arrival, trying to trick the futon into being more comfortable than it was.
She didn’t seem to mind it. She sat there pulling out one neatly folded blouse after the next, and after those, the gifts she had brought us from Sukhumi: lacy kitchen linens for my mom, Dad’s favorite liquor-filled chocolates. And for me, a small menagerie of delicate glass animal figurines, which I recognized as the kind she collected in her own china cabinet, and which I’d admired longingly when visiting Grandma’s house when I was little.
I made a face without realizing it. The animals, though pretty, smacked of some other me, some buggy, outdated version I wanted deleted from everyone’s memory. Still, I shouldn’t have done that in front of her. Should’ve played the thankful granddaughter, let her call me the Russian word for bunny or kitten, and been done with it. This trip was the last time I would ever see her. So I could’ve at least done that.
But it wasn’t my reaction to her gift that bothered her, and it wasn’t the shirts I had taken to wearing, which that day, I remember, commanded in sparkly thread: “CALL ME.” What got to her was that I had more or less forgotten her language.
I was surprised myself. It had been a while—we’d transitioned to speaking English at home, another important pillar of the get-back-on-track plan—but I expected it to be one of those things that comes back to you when you need it. It shouldn’t fall away so easily, I thought, being built as it was into my very sequencing.
She pointed at the first figurine, an owl, and said what I assumed to be the Russian name for it. Then she pointed to the next one, a walrus, and waited, tipping her head slightly forward. It was my turn. I searched the quicksand of my mind for Wesley Whale and his missing conch shell. There had been a walrus in that one, hadn’t there? I struggled to recall how I’d thought it in my head before trying, and failing, to translate it to the keys. But I couldn’t materialize it. Even as I try to think of it now, it vanishes into ghostly tendrils that don’t take the shape of anything. To my grandma, I just said, “Walrus.” She smiled and shook her head no, tapped the needle-like tusks. She’d had a smudge of pink lipstick on her front tooth all day, but we’d all silently agreed we’d better not tell her. I repeated, “Walrus,” then, like some plea for forgiveness, worked my way down the line: “Walrus, camel,” then expertly, “peacock, fox, owl.” The smile slid from her face. The pink disappeared.
She shook her head again, appalled, and made the sign of the cross over her chest. She was rearing back like she might spit at me when my dad appeared in the doorway, fluffing a spare pillow.
That night, my parents told her to go on and leave it alone. That I was just growing up, and frankly it was about time I got used to my new surroundings—or so I gathered from their hushed, borderline-amused tones, the way they shrugged and steered her gently toward the living room sofa, where they’d flipped all the sun-faded cushions so they looked brand-new. Because they spoke Russian to her, I couldn’t make out the details. Maybe it was just our crummy incandescent lighting, but from my snooping spot in the hallway, she seemed much older than she had earlier that day. She was pale, rubbing her forehead and worrying her lower lip. She looked like she’d seen the devil himself. She said something that, judging by my parents’ shocked expressions, must have been a curse. Though I couldn’t, and still can’t, be sure.
She spent three weeks shuffling around in her house slippers, touring the local art and history museums, sweeping my dad’s hair out of his eyes, then died on the return flight to Sukhumi. It wasn’t one of those freak accidents you hear about: engine failure, windshield blowout, high-flying geese, so-called force majeure. Just a pulmonary embolism, somewhere over Sweden. Doesn’t get more natural causes than that. She liked whole milk, fatty meats. She was old. Had looked so old, I remember.
• • • •
I never understood why I had been chosen, what it was about me the game had liked. Just that I was that person for eight good years, a glad and faithful student, and then, around the time I started reading for my college entrance exams, the game abruptly stopped updating. I remember the exact day it happened (a Tuesday), and the weather (first hail of the season), and what I had in my backpack (an SAT prep book). I even remember what I ate for lunch: two single-serving bags of Lay’s Classic, which the school had deemed healthier than Doritos or Cheetos just because they didn’t leave orange dust on your hands. I remember those things because I’ve been over them a thousand times, trying to work out if anything I did might’ve caused it.
I was devastated. I kept coming back to the game, quitting and restarting it, hoping there’d be something new for me there the next time. I begged my mom to have George come take a look, even though I didn’t like him tinkering around in there; we’d gotten a new Dell the previous year, and I was beginning to suspect its operating system wasn’t compatible. But George said he couldn’t find a single issue. And the next week, for the first time in all that time, a virus popped up on the screen. The new computer came with an external mic—probe-y with a long beige neck—and the moment I saw it was the moment I realized our first Dell hadn’t had one. It was an extra slap in the face that the game had picked then to withdraw. It was set up to hear me. It just wasn’t listening.
For a year, I seesawed between fits of unfocused anger and a sadness so complete and siphoning I swear there’s no word for it in any dictionary. All this, plus the new habit I’d developed of chewing my knuckles until they bled, my parents blamed on application-season stress.
Then one day I woke up and decided it had all been a misunderstanding; god knows I wasn’t new to those. It wasn’t over. Dizzy Game had simply taught me all it had to teach me, and now it was time for me to do my part. It would come back, no need to worry. When I was ready. When I’d proven myself.
Even now, I can feel it on the air sometimes. It’ll be subtle, a whiff of cherry blossom that flashes me back instantly to that dribbling supermarket mutt with a flower for a head. Other times it’ll be so overwhelming, I have to pull out the mini garbage can I keep under my desk at work, I’m so certain I’m going to empty myself out right there.
And when a coworker peeks over the wall of my cubicle and asks if I’m all right, I say yeah. And when they ask if I want to go to the boozy college tailgate, the Simpsons trivia night, the marathon of Spielberg war films at the local Cineplex, the illegal fireworks show, I say yeah. You bet I do.
I’m popular at work because I’m a good time. I’m amenable. Insouciant. I fit right in. I say all the right things. Yes to their silly little sins. Yes to everything.
“Count me in,” I say. What I don’t say is: “For as long as you’ve got me.”
Because you’re coming, I know it. You wouldn’t have trained me then stranded me. Brought me into your world of grays on grays for nothing. Your game had a logic. It wouldn’t make sense.
For my part, I’ll be ready.
I try to make the cubicle as hot as I can, hot like we like it, though it’s not easy with the three and a half short walls, the way one of the sales guys, who’s always on his feet, pacing, insists on leaving a window open. But two sweaters and a space heater, and it almost feels like home.
I still keep your secrets, you know. That camo-print kid from Severn, Jacob? He looked me up a while ago, sent me a message about the word he’d heard me use on the playground. Said it had really changed things for him, made him think about the world differently. I looked him up, too, and you know what? He never went to West Point, and he’s into some wild stuff these days. Was in the news for a hundred-page manifesto he staplegunned to a church door. About the word, he asked if I could repeat it. Just once, could I repeat it? He sent message after message: please, please, please.
Silly rabbit. Trix are for kids.
I wish I could say I knew the Russian word for it. It’s right there on the tip of my tongue, like always, then it scurries back to the underside. Language-learning programs have advanced in leaps and bounds since the days of those old CD-ROMs, and sometimes I think about picking one up: Russian for Heritage Speakers 6.0. I could surprise my parents at New Year’s dinner with their words for “Pass the soup, please,” and “I’m sorry, I forgive you,” and “Do you remember when we used to eat dino nuggets with kompot?” Of course, that would require me to go home for New Year’s in the first place. Sit through the poisonous quiet of my dad’s sparse bachelor pad, the happy clamor of the apartment Mom shares with George on the opposite side of town.
No. Better to stay focused. To prepare for whoever, whatever, you send for me.
Better to give the Dizzy word for it, then.
So you know that I’ll be
The English word? I think you know it. Wise and many-tongued as you are, I think you know it! But you prompt me. Oh, you test me! So for you, I will say it. Flawlessly, on the first try, and without hesitation.
The English word for it is waiting.
Spread the word!