I liked Kasha. She had brown eyes that said much more than any words she ever used. Her eyes could comment on things that could not be said in awkward circumstances. I became intrigued by her eyes during a Medieval History tutorial, and she saw me looking at her. That’s how we met. I had assumed she was English, possibly Welsh because of her dark hair. Her accent was British but that was only because she had spent the early part of her teens in Guildford before her family moved on, but though it was brief it was enough to make her sound British to those she knew.
Her first language was Albanian. Her father had been a junior minister in the Nazi-puppet government during the Second World War, and when the Hoxha Communists took over, Kasha’s mother, father, and eldest sister were given refuge in Franco’s Spain. That’s how the family came by Spanish, but during the war, to appear chic among the powerful members of the political elite, they had spoken Italian at home whenever possible. When they moved from Madrid to Brazil, where Kasha was born, her first language was neither Albanian, nor Spanish, nor Italian, or even Albanian as one might assume, but Portuguese, which she said she spoke terribly, though she often broke into a mixture of Italian and Albanian at home to make herself understood to her parents who had become lost in the household Babel. Her older sisters scolded her in Spanish and she said she had to stick up for herself in Franco’s lingua franca.
I brought her to a family gathering when we had only been dating for two weeks. That was a bad move. My uncle, a very bigoted former air force officer from the war, leaned over to my mother and asked: “She isn’t Catholic, is she?” My mother turned and looked floored at him.
“No,” she said. “She isn’t. I think she’s possibly Australian.” My uncle nodded in relief. My mother hadn’t lied. Kasha was Moslem but knew enough of the Book of Common Prayer from her Guildford days to pass muster with my uncle when he quizzed her on Church of England rites. I intervened. The nerve of him. Interrogating her like that. Later, when I was taking her home, I apologized.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “It’s a big world we all rattle around in. I’m the product of a family that has been shaken but not stirred, as James Bond would say.” I smiled and nodded, and I could see she was happy with my response when I looked in her eyes.
We had begun meeting up. I wouldn’t call it dating. She would call me from her home with strict instructions that I wasn’t to call her at her number. If I wanted to contact her, I had to leave notes at the library sorting desk where she worked part-time to pay her tuition. Her home-life, she said, was something she never discussed with people. When I asked why, she said it was because her family had moved around. Changing addresses was how they stayed safe. Her father had died in Brazil. Her mother blamed the Communists, and said the family would never know peace because of the red terror. But the death of Kasha’s father had made her mother even more of a Fascist than when she had stood at her husband’s side during the war and watched the Axis armies crumble before the partisans.
“And why did your mother want to come to Canada?”
“You’d expect me to say for her children’s education,” (Kasha had three sisters and two brothers, and I wondered what they lived on, let alone how all of them had put themselves through university), “but the truth is she thinks she’s being hunted by Albanian agents.” She must have seen me look askance at her, because she added: “Really. She thinks they’re standing across the street. She thinks they’re everywhere. She might even think you’re one if I didn’t introduce you properly.”
And when I finally met her mother, we were not properly introduced according to the multilingual customs of her home. I had pulled a two-and-half-day essay writing session. It was the end of the term and when I arrived at Kasha’s house – we had planned to go out for ice cream and walk along the Kew Beach Boardwalk which I had never seen – she showed me in to her living room, said her mother was out and that I should wait on the chesterfield while she put on a fresh black sweater. I think I fell asleep.
I woke. Kasha had slipped beside me, draping my arm over her shoulder, and falling asleep against my chest with my denim shirt bunched in her left hand. It was the image of perfect innocence until her mother stepped into the room and screamed. There was shouting. I heard some words I understood and others that were completely foreign to me. Kasha’s eyes were tearing and red as she pointed to me, then her mother, and threw out the palms of her hands in desperation. The mother had intense brown eyes, even more intense than Kasha’s and anger turned them into the dark centres of storms. They wanted to burn a hole through me. I could feel it.
Kasha and I sat on a bench on the boardwalk and stared at the lake. Some gulls were hovering over bread crusts left on the sand at the water’s edge.
“You know, there isn’t really a tide here, at least not much, so I’ve been told.”
“You don’t need to make filler talk,” she said. “I know this can’t go any further. I really like you, but my mother told me that if I didn’t come back in an hour I would not be able to come back at all. My older sister, the one you’ve never met – she never came back. I can’t do that.”
“I’m sorry. I understand, I think.”
“It is more complex than you know,” she said as she stood and was about to bid me farewell.
“Before you go,” I said, “there’s something I need to know.”
“No, it isn’t about us breaking up. It is about while we were on the sofa. I woke up before your mother came in. I was listening to the noise of the street. Some kids were playing down the block. And then you said something. You were dreaming, but you talked in your sleep. A psychology prof I had in first year said that our real language, the one that is our true mother tongue, is the one we dream in. Although there were one or two words you were saying that I thought I could understand – bicycle was one of them – I couldn’t figure out what you were saying, what your heart’s language is. What language do you dream in? It’s an odd question, but I need to know.”
Kasha smiled, though her eyes told me she was broken-hearted. “Me? Inside me? I have made up my own language. I am the only one who speaks it. It is not made of any of the tongues that have shaped my life. It is my own way of telling myself what I feel because I can’t say it, no matter where I am or who I am speaking to. And you, well, you’re the only one, other than me, who has heard and tried to understand.”