Aubri K. Adkins
I was a high school exchange student in Slovakia that had finished high school back in the States the year before. The American Field Service, my exchange program, was willing to send me abroad on condition I still attend school— not enough students were interested in going to a small country in Eastern Europe eight years post-Communism, so they took what they could get.
My host father, a bureaucrat, wrote math and economics into my schedule as he seemed to feel a personal sense of duty in sending me home Slovak educated and a productive member of society. My long-standing fear of math, however, much less math taught in Slovak, trumped my deep-seated fear of breaking rules. Too bad for society my host father had written out my schedule in pencil. I rewrote my schedule with history and languages and turned it in to the school principle, Mrs. Kováčová, on my first day.
She seemed satisfied— there were holes in my schedule, but what could be done? I only knew a few words in Slovak anyway. All I could do was hope to learn some and not be a disruption in my classes.
So, when each class began, I looked furtively at my peers to model their behavior. I stood up as the other students did when the teacher entered the classroom. We would chime uniformly a ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’ and wait to be told to sit down. While I didn’t learn much, this was the most formal education I had ever received.
I took notes in my Slovak style notebook— a flimsy few pages of graph paper folded over and stapled. My notes were just meaningless words copied from the dusty chalkboard, me trying to master the Slovak written language, if not the content of the lesson. Ever trying to stave off boredom, I took pleasure in my disposable fountain pen, the purple flow of ink across the pulpy graph-lined pages. The concrete act of writing anchored me to the moment, so I didn’t float off and out the window. I had no grand or even practical reason for sitting in linguistic isolation in a Slovak history class full of people my age, concentrating on a blackboard filled with names and dates with which I had never come in contact before and, would never after. I was in Slovakia for romance, freedom, and adventure, but stuck in a classroom.
Mrs. Kováčová didn’t provide instructions as to where to go during my free blocks of time when everyone else was studying economics. So, I sat in the hallway.
There wasn’t a chair— no one else had use for one there. I did what I did so many times growing up— I made myself comfortable, cross-legged on the floor. I told myself it wasn’t so unlike all the times I’d entertained myself in childhood. I’d sit on the floor at my mother’s feet and play or color when she attended college lectures. She was a single mother and sometimes there was just nowhere to take me other than with her. I’d sit at her feet at church. I’d sit under my grandma’s kitchen table, the grownups cooking, cleaning, chatting above. Hours seemed to pass and then I’d hear someone ask, “Has anyone seen Aubri?”
I’m right here.
At age eighteen, my friends back home starting college, I found myself passing time alone in a high school hallway in Slovakia. My Discman was back at my host parents’ apartment. I didn’t have any books. I was nervous to leave the school grounds because I was supposed to be at school.
A teacher walked through the hallway and I was involuntarily excited to see her, this matron of secondary education in sensible shoes. Then, I was shocked and confused at her reaction to me. She looked at me sternly, even disgustedly. I didn’t understand what she was telling me in Slovak at first.
“Don’t sit on the ground—you’ll freeze your ovaries,” she repeated.
This is an old Slovak wives’ tale. Despite her apparent education, in her mind, yes, I really was murdering my unborn babies by sitting on the high school hallway floor.
I stood up. The kissing cousin of shame is anger, and I was mad. And powerless. This woman, an educator, had authority and apparently, emotional power over me. Isolated without a common language, I needed friendly contact more than I could admit to myself. She went on her way and I was left standing alone in the hallway with, still, nowhere to go.
I was so good every other day. I had always thought of ways I could possibly disappoint people, so I could avoid them. I made up rules for myself and others about the right way to live so we could all avoid shame and judgment. One major rule was nobody judged harder than me.
Freeze my ovaries???
Screw it. I left.
I walked to a grocery store. I bought orange juice and a spinach roll and then strolled down to the park to feel self-satisfied in my defiance. I chose an empty park bench and watched the mothers pushing their children through the winding paths in their prams. Their ovaries clearly still worked; they weren’t dirty ground sitters like me.
The sky was gray. I was bored.
Then, a man, at least twenty-five years older than me, sat down on my park bench. His thick, brown hair had a sheen of oil on it. He wasn’t a small man, but he was drowning in his frayed and dirty work clothes. For all my loneliness and want of connection I was confused and offended he had sat down next to me. There were other benches. I scooted slightly from him. I was too self-conscious to walk away—I didn’t want him to think I judged him, even though that was all my teenage brain was wired to do.
He seemed hardly aware of me. He was talking, low and steady, to himself. Then, he looked up at the gray sky and I knew he wasn’t talking to himself. He was praying.
He turned to me, looked me directly in the eyes, and started speaking, low. I was taught to look people in the eyes, so I did. This gave him permission; I would listen. His eye contact, the urgency in his voice— it felt like a plea.
“Nerozumiem, nerozumiem,” I said— I don’t understand, I don’t understand. Even if I hadn’t told him in my clumsy Slovak, I’m sure he knew I was foreign. I wore the cotton dress and Doc Marten boots of a teenager that had grown up in the Northwest during the proliferation of grunge, not the vinyl mini-skirt and deadly heels of a teenager that had grown up east of the Berlin wall. I had the wide-eyed look of someone that didn’t belong there. But he kept talking, pleading, pleading for me to listen. He didn’t seem to care I didn’t understand. Was he confessing? There were tears in his eyes, ready to spill out and run through the cracks of his crow’s feet, down his stubbly cheek, and on to his torn jacket.
He talked and talked, and I listened. His voice was higher than it should have been, constricted by his throat. I knew that sound, a feeling of hurt and loneliness. His throat was constricting to choke the pathway between his brain and his heart.
He was telling me about his žena— his wife, that was the one word I understood. He had the viscous spit of a parched throat collecting around the corners of his lips. He gathered air in his lungs to push it past his heart through to his throat to tell me about his wife.
Then, he pulled off the ring from this left hand and extended it to me. I took it and inspected it dutifully. I told him it was “dobré,” it was good. When I tried to hand it back, however, he shied away.
“Nie, nie,” I said, leaning into his bench space, extending the ring back to his closed fists. I can’t take it.
It was just his impulse to give me the ring. Neither of us knew an hour ago we’d end up sitting on a park bench together.
He took the ring, reluctantly, back.
He was silent now. He had stopped crying but kept wiping his face as though he still felt tears running down his cheeks. I sat with him for a moment, but took the stopping of his words, the end of his tears, as permission to leave.
In all the ways I’ve changed and things I’ve put behind me in the last twenty years—less hard on myself, hopefully less hard on others—this is the thing I still feel ashamed of from that day: walking down the path towards the park gate, I turned to look at him one last time on our bench. Then, two hundred feet away, I took my camera out of my school bag and snapped a picture of his back. Like an emotional tourist. Co-opting his pain into my experience of being new and aimless with my future ahead of me. Like I wouldn’t remember him otherwise.
Here I am, doing it again.
About the Author: Aubri K. Adkins is a recovering serial mover who found a home in Detroit, MI where she founded the East Side Reading Series, a series for writers of all genres reading original work. She has published fiction in the Tusculum Review and non-fiction in Stirring: A Literary Collection.