My new piece entitled “A Dictionary of Tomatoes” appears in Aromatica Poetica. This literary forum focuses on work which appeals to the senses – olfactory, auditory etc. “A Dictionary of Tomatoes” details my relationship,as a language teacher, with a very special student.
A Dictionary of Tomatoes
The summer language classes are free, but Rabka insists on leaving payments on my desk. Slippery eggplants—aubergines--swaddled in a dish towel like purple babies. Ripe tomatoes cradled in a woven bag. Cookies, sweet and wheaty, pregnant with raisins. Moist, glistening farmer’s cheese, twisted like a rune.
I try to return the towels and the tidy bags, carefully stitched from recycled nightgowns or a baby’s shirt, a towel from Canadian Tire.
“This is a useful bag,” I say. “You should take it back.”
Rabka shakes her head. The bags, like the foods, are a gift. She beams when she gives them to me.
I can’t tell how old she is. Some days she looks twenty, with naturally red lips and dark black hair that curls with the humidity and frames her cheek like a hijab. The Muslim women from Syria cover their heads, but Rabka is Syriac Christian. She can walk around the town bare-headed and wear whatever she wants. Sometimes she comes in bright red toreador pants. I wonder if the men look at her at the bus-stop.
She told me that her oldest daughter is fourteen so I know she can’t just be twenty years old herself. Her youngest is six. And there are twin boys who are nine.
I’m big mother, she boasts.
I think she means she has a lot of children. She’s certainly not big in stature. She comes up to my shoulder. Even when she’s wearing those little green sandals with the heel that she found at the friperie, the second-hand clothing store on Rue Belvedere.
If she misses the bus and has to walk across town, the green heeled sandals are not very practical. She arrives out of breath, wrapped in sweat, her feet bony and aching. At those times, when she sits down on the metal folding chair, even if she’s wearing the red toreador pants, she looks like a fifty-year old, maybe older. A grandmother, even.
We always sit face to face, close enough so we don’t disturb any other students. I can smell anise on her breath and the faux- flower scent of cheap deodorant. She smiles at me and calls me Professeur Madame, or sometimes, Madame Professeur.
I apologize for the sweltering church basement. Not my church. Just a church.. A neighborhood congregation which allows us volunteers to teach French to immigrants, refugees, people off the street, no questions asked.
“I’m sorry it’s so hot in here, “ I say.
Syria is much hotter, she says.
She arrived in Quebec, three years ago, during a February snowstorm. Alone, with her four children. No one had told her about Canadian winters.. The shock of ice underneath her feet, the numbness of her fingers in the cold. Her children, jet-lagged, but giddy, dared to touch the snow, roll in it. They shrieked and laughed and learned the word “neige” from the refugee coordinator. And soon they acquired the French words for “snowball” and “melt” and “hot chocolate”. This was the new life their mother had promised.
I am very lucky, she says. No complaints. Hot or cold.
We study vocabulary. At the doctor’s. At the dentist’s. In an emergency.
911, she says and pretends to dial a phone. Then she gives her address slowly and clearly, as if she is reciting a prayer. Maybe it is a prayer.
She often tells me how happy she is to be here. In North America. In Quebec At this table in the church basement right now. She brings a little paper dictionary with her and consults it throughout the lesson, searching for the words she needs. She writes down idiomatic expressions in a little notebook, like a schoolgirl.
The grammar is hard. The words don’t roll off her tongue. But she knows she needs to learn French in order to get a job, go to conferences at her children’s school, to speak to the neighbors who water their geraniums on the shared balcony. Rabka herself grows tomatoes in buckets, tying the lusty vines with string to the wrought-iron railing. She tries not to encroach on the neighbor’s side of the space. The refugee coordinator has reminded her several times.
For a reading lesson, I show her a newspaper article about a woman whose shed was struck by lightening.
That’s very sad? How can we help her? Should I bring her aubergines? Tomates?
I explain that the story is old. The shed is probably rebuilt by now. We don’t know the woman. It’s just a lesson.
Rabka looks as if she wants to tell me something else, but she doesn’t.
We role-play going to the pharmacy.
Rabka pretends to have a rash, a headache, a broken foot. She’s a good actress, When she acts out a bout with poison ivy, scratching her arm like a kitten, she looks twenty years old again. She pretends to buy some antiseptic, Tylenol, cough drops.
“Do you need anything else? “I ask, as if there were really attentive salespeople in the local Pharmaprix.
We both know that the drugstores are self-service.
I am sick, she says, here, pointing to her heart.
I give her specialized words: heart attack, nitroglycerin, crise cardiaque and things like that.
She shakes her head. Not that kind of heart, she says.
She lowers her eyes, lets out a sigh. I don’t have all the words I need, she says.
“I know, but you will someday,” I say.
During our sessions, there’s always the hum of the dehumidifier, the whirling of a small fan. The weeks pass; the summer is exceptionally hot. Sweat seeps across my neck, trickles down my back. After an hour, I start to stick to the folding chair. When I sit forward, my tee-shirt stays attached to the metal for a second and makes a little sound when it comes undone, like a wet towel thrown against a tile wall. Rabka wipes her forehead with a handkerchief, but she never complains about the heat.
She does her homework. She tries to speak. If she can’t think of something to say, she runs her index finger in and around the dents in the wooden table, rubs the film of grease left over from the fried chicken suppers at the church.
No matter how much I protest, she never arrives empty-handed. When her tomatoes ripen, she brings two full cotton bags onto the bus, all the way to the church basement. A few of the tomatoes crack open and ooze in the heat, bleeding seeds into my hands.
Keep the bags, she says. You can wash out the stains.
Then one day, we’re both feeling faint from the heat. It’s too hot to study. Her hair has curled in massive waves across her shoulders. Her eye make-up is smeared so it looks as if someone has taken a crayon and melted it across her eyelids. My tee shirt is sticking to me, front and back. I abandon the idea of a lesson.
I end up just showing her personal photos on my phone: a tree swing, the day lilies growing in my yard, one of my children sitting in a wheel barrow, my husband at the barbeque grill.
Rabka stares hard at the photos. And something seems to burst inside her. Her memory explodes, grenade-like, and words tumble out as well.
In Syria, I had a house too.. With flowers and a terrace. Just like you. Before the war.
I give her the word “rubble.” She makes a note in her notebook.
And then she keeps talking. Asking for words for civil war, bombs, loss, horror, burial.
She cries, but keeps looking for words. She tells me about a day in Damascus when she was a little girl, remembering the sound of her grandfather speaking French.
He’d been a child when Syria was a French colony, she says.
Is that why you chose to come to Quebec? I asked.
I didn’t chose. It just happened. From the agency. It could have been Ontario. That other place, even. I can’t pronounce. Sasaska ….Saskachutan? I didn’t know about French. I thought all Canada was English.
I stare at her. She no longer looks twenty. She looks decades older. There are tiny black hairs on her cheeks like a cat. I notice small double nicks on her chin, as if she once fell against a fork. Her dark eyes are wet and brined like olives.
I grab her hand and she keeps talking.
It’s so hard, she says. Losing all that.
I put my arms out and Rabka falls into them, like a young child, soft and fragile. I imagine I can smell cinders in her hair, sulfur, smoke.
For the rest of the summer, Rabka keeps bringing me tomatoes. And I keep feeding her new words and expressions, snippets of grammar, all the small seeds of language to grow a new life.