My mother learned English from her grandfather. He gave her a very tattered Oxford English Dictionary, a relic of his time spent studying biology in Britain, and designed an ambitious plan of study: Every morning, she had to copy a page of definitions letter by letter, and every evening, he would check her transcriptions by reading them aloud. The day he killed himself, she didn’t finish her writing practice, and she dreaded his return from work until she found out it was never coming. A few weeks later, his dictionary was confiscated and burned by Red Guards.
She would repeat this story to us every time we were disobedient. You’re going to kill me, she’d say. Just do the dishes. Come out of your room. Finish your food. Finish your food. Finish your food.
Now she is telling this story again, but for a different reason. “Can’t you see what a good project this is?” Her voice crackles in my earbuds. “A young girl teaching herself English. A small act of insurgency against insurgency. It’s just like what I tried to do as a girl. And imagine how it’ll look on her résumé!”
“But think of how much school she’ll miss.”
My mother scoffs. “One good role can launch a career.”
“I just don’t think it’s right,” I say, and I hang up so abruptly that she’ll believe me later, when I tell her it was inclement weather that interrupted our connection.
Once I get back, the first thing Audrey and I do is walk to the grocery store. Though it’s hardly the most exciting activity to kick off the winter breaks of our respective freshman years, we’ll take any opportunity to get out of the house.
I’m craving macaroni today, and Audrey suggests that we make some together. “I need your help,” she tells me, holding up two boxes of pasta. “Which is healthier?”
“Whole wheat, I guess.”
She moves down the aisle, scrutinizing the rows of tomato sauce. “This one has more sodium but not as many calories.” She analyzes the nutrition labels with such intense concentration that she nearly collides with a shopper in a Barry’s Bootcamp t-shirt. I tell myself I shouldn’t be surprised. There is something about this age that seems to infect everyone with these preoccupations, albeit to varying degrees.
But I want to tell her what it felt like.
“Since when do you care about this stuff, Audrey?” I want to tell her about the hunger beyond hunger, when it is no longer the stomach begging but the entire body. I want to tell her about the wanting, and the punishment for wanting, and the endlessness of each day.
“I have to. For the part.” She lowers her voice. “For the movie.”