I just dismissed a man with a flick of my hand and a sneer. He was asking for money in a language I did not understand until he made a gesture of his own. He rubbed his fingers together. “Nie,” I said immediately and waved him off like I might shoo away an insect or an animal and like I have seen movie characters from bygone eras with more privilege than is right do to their lackeys and those who annoy them. My gesture was not about the man, but about my own exhaustion, frustration, and culture shock. There is no way he will know that he was a metaphor for all that overwhelms me. No way he will fail to feel dismissed and perhaps ashamed, shamed by my gesture. No way to know that I also feel ashamed. “Chora” he had said, “chora.” I just looked it up, and now I will never forget the Polish word for sick. I will never forget what it feels like to dismiss a sick man asking for help. Even if full cognizance was delayed.
My gesture surprised me. It felt like someone else’s arm. I watched myself do it once I realized I was. I did not know I had such a gesture in me. I have never made it before in response to a person. Or, perhaps I have in jest. I can’t remember. I can’t remember a lot. It seems like I have not slept in weeks. My cat is afraid of the buzzer. It sends her behind the stove and under the kitchen counter. I cannot rescue her but must wait for her to feel safe and emerge on her own. To bring her out on my terms would require me to remove the kitchen cabinets. My flat is rented, and this is not an option. Many buzzers have been ringing lately. Workmen for my flat. Workmen for the building. Neighbors because a lock was broken and they could not gain entry to our hall. And just now, this man in somewhat dirty jeans, unshaven for days, and with a stack of papers that did not look like religious leaflets but like the notebooks I have kept with me for years. Writing notebooks, dog-eared and rough on the edges from constant carry. “Chory” he says. “Chory.”
I am in my pajamas when I stand in the hall to tell this man that I do not speak Polish, that I do not understand. The fluency with which I say these things in Polish indicates that I am probably lying. I am not lying. These are two of the few phrases I know. I speak them every day. Nie rozumiem. I do not understand. Nie rozumiem. Nie mówię po polsku. I have answered the buzzer because it might herald something I must understand. A registered letter from immigration, another building workman. I am unprepared to address someone who does not belong. I am stretched too thin.
Before we ever exchange a word or a gesture, I am annoyed and a bit frightened. He rang first my neighbor’s buzzer and then mine. He scared my cat in sequence. This is a sequence I cannot control. Nor can I control its cascade of consequences. My cat is overeating, then vomiting, then crying at night. I am worrying and failing to sleep. If she were a newborn, I might have help. I might not, which would then be worse. I would be very annoyed and more frightened than I care to imagine at the moment a man I do not invite rings my buzzer to speak to me in a language I do not understand in order to ask for money. “Chory” he says, then rubs his fingers together. I will want to crawl behind the stove with my cat. Instead, I will tell the man I do not understand and then dismiss him when I begin to. “Chory” he says, which I do not understand until now.
My cat has come out from under the counter and is purring beside me. She misses her garden. I miss her self-confidence. These are metaphors. I am not afraid of strange men. My cat is not afraid of buzzers. We react without control to things we do not understand and to things we do. To things we cannot control.
originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on November 21, 2013