"Bargaining" by Lane Fisher
Bargain for language with it clutched in your hands. Pass them your own words, fish them from your pockets and wallet, and catch what they give you between your teeth, roll it off your tongue, taste it. Commit it to memory. Trade words for understanding.
I hold Arabic in my hands like the msemen my host mother has placed, pointedly, in front of me. Marveling at generosity, a gift, the hard work behind it, but afraid it might not fit in my mouth, that there may be no room for it in my overflowing body, already stuffed with new sounds.
I sip Arabic like the tea the street merchant has poured for me. It scalds my tongue so I gingerly trap the glass between my forefinger and thumb, holding it where I can understand, where my fingers do not burn, refusing to let go. The sounds, like sugar, coat my tongue and lips, and I mouth the words again, sip after sip.
I find Arabic tucked into corners of the street, filling corner store ‘bodegas,’ the language stacked in perfect orders and filling every crack. I trip over it on the sidewalk. I discover new words that fall from the coats and bags of passersby. Arabic rides by in the taxi’s, flashes of knowledge handed over like loose coins.
Arabic cooks with tagine, in the oil of sfenj, in the steaming pile of couscous. It fills us, messy expressions scattered across the table. The language, cooked to perfection, falls apart under scraps of khubz, divided into patterns and sounds, too much to consume. But we will try.
I bargain for Arabic and try to hide how badly I want it, offer them their own words in exchange for a better deal. Language seeps into fabric, stains that don’t come out in the wash, that are hung up to dry dripping question words and “how do you say”s. Language drifts through the air, and we inhale breaths of confusion with exhales of misunderstanding. We wrap ourselves in it, pull it towards us, work hard for that ‘student price.’