Ilya Mashkov, Self-Portrait with Pyotr Konchalovsky 1910
Brothers, Fathers, Friends and Lovers

A Minimal Pair

Wacław and I didn’t speak much when we made love, but when we did it was in a language we otherwise never used.  On those rare days when we’d eschew the bed for a walk in the city or in the hours before and after we made love, we conversed in the language of our adopted home. In bed we spoke English.

I had never much liked talking during sex. When a man said, “Talk to me,”  I’d become flustered, not knowing if I was supposed to deliver a narrative or a set of instructions. But whatever the genre, I always sensed I was writing a script for a character whose motives I couldn’t quite understand. I felt the same reticence to compose on command that I have when asked to add my comments to an exhibition guestbook or my wishes on a staff birthday card. “Let me think about it first,” I want to say.

But with Wacław I knew how to talk. He didn’t need commentary or directions. He wanted a soundtrack.  The words we exchanged were less dialog than a ground bass to our lovemaking, like the melodic deep trance that played on the stereo during our session. That was our word for our encounters, session, as if we had come together for a few hours to jam or do therapy and would then depart, unattached and out of contact until the next session a week or fortnight later.

I asked him to speak in his native tongue. I wanted him to make love to me in this language of the wind and murmured prayers, to caress me with the hushes and hisses in which it abounded.  I wanted to hear him. I could draw his body from memory. I knew his scent and the taste of him. But I rarely heard his voice in its most natural and intimate embodiment, and never when we made love.

He wouldn’t speak to me in Polish. He said it would make him feel exposed and alone. “Like you’re sitting there with your clothes on watching me jerk off.” And so we spoke in a tongue in which we never conversed, much in the way we met in the borrowed gear of the rebels we  never would be.

Wacław hadn’t learned English at school. His was the last generation to be taught Russian as a second language and what he knew of English he had picked up from porn. But it was enough for when we made love.

We said little. Our vocabulary could fit on a restaurant check. And like the items on the bill of a regular customer who comes in for the same order of ribs or peach pie, it never varied much.

Wacław’s favorite was “fuck you.”

Not fuck me, or ah, fuck. With his head pressed against mine and the warm of his breath on my ears, he’d say to me, “fuck you.”

The words jarred, as if he had slapped  me. But if I recoiled, he didn’t notice. I told myself, he doesn’t know what he’s saying, they’re just words to him, his way of telling you that you make him feel good. But all I could hear was contempt.

Go to hell. Go fuck yourself.

Later, as we stood soaping each other’s back in the shower, the penultimate ritual of our encounters, I thought of telling him. I rehearsed the lines in my head “You know, what you said earlier, the fuck you, well, you see, it’s not a nice thing to say to someone.”

But the words would never be gentle enough. Correcting him in this, his sole and daring foray into a language he was ashamed he never learned would worsen the inequality already present in our relationship. I would become the lead pointing out the bit player’s off notes, or worse, a player turned critic.  And he was so earnest, so pleased with his contribution to the score of our love-making. How could I spurn his gift?

I thought of the kinks in my German and Greek, the oft-repeated errors that, like the imperfections in the stroke of a self-taught swimmer, have become second nature. They sound right to me, and I rarely notice that the native speaker would never say things quite that way. They lie uncorrected and forgiven, for a friend will not be a teacher and the stranger understands well enough.

Wacław’s fuck you was likewise an innocent error that no one had bothered to point out. It was born, I soon realized, of a misheard vowel; his words had been lifted from the commonest of lines heard in porn: fuck yeah. All it took was a rounding of the lips and a slide of the tongue to the back to turn a refrain of pleasure into scorn.

At first I made myself hear the yeah of the original, but the stress was wrong. The spondee always dragged me back to you.

If I couldn’t correct him, I could model the phrase for him. I recast his words when I heard them, clipping the fuck to a brief hiccup and stretching the yeah as far it would go, hoping he would notice the difference. He never did. Maybe he never really heard it, just as I would miss the change in tone that turns a Chinese horse into a mother. You and yeah were just another minimal pair, two words differing in but a phoneme, like the bit and beat or cup and cap that trip up beginning learners of my language.

In the end I came to see it as a harmless affectation, a phrase of pleasure adopted in error but well-intended. It was only a vowel after all, a slip of the tongue, the spoken equivalent of a misspelled subtitle that appears for a few moments on screen and then dissolves as the scene segues into its next shot.

Though I got used to it, I never heard it in the way he intended it. I never found it erotic. Except one night when, in a rare moment of exasperation or on a lark, I can’t remember which, I answered him back in the same way. With you, not yeah.

It sounded studied when I first said it, like a carefully enunciated foreign phrase injected into a conversation. But the foreignness soon receded and in its place I could detect an edge of aggression gathering in my voice.  For a while this felt subtly erotic, as if we were trusted sparring partners trading jabs in the ring or school friends roughhousing. But then the undertone of aggression darkened and the words came faster and louder, the jabs harder, until I thought I heard myself finish the phrase.

Fuck you for making me want you so much. For not letting me love you. For these sessions that end with a shower and a smoke and the door closing behind you, but which mark my days like a Sunday in Lent.


Featured image: Ilya Mashkov, Self-portrait and a portrait of Pyotr Konchalovsky, 1910


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