(first published in Blank Spaces Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 4, June 2020)
My English teacher says there are many words that mean the same thing. She writes examples in her perfect chalk letters, then smiles her knowledge at us.
I like to find my own words. To curl up in the red armchair in the corner of the attic by the window and read. The chair that glows the shade of let blood when the sunset crawls up her arms. If I lay my arm on hers, I glow too.
Tonight, the late summer wind is whispering warnings of the impending fall to the tree outside. She has birthed more children than she can cradle, her arms overflowing with leaves that shake at the wind’s whispers. I have no sympathy; adults should know if they can handle a child.
My mother didn’t, so now we both rattle in the wind.
I was unplanned. Mom’s whole life was unplanned, gramma says. Mom’s “lack of self-worth already shaped me beyond recognition at the age of twelve.” Or so gramma told the court when she tried to take me away, but failed.
Not a fan of defeat, gramma sneaks books to me. So I can experience “another perspective.”
I love them all, but my favorite is the dictionary. Its cover is thick and blue, with gold letters that fade a little more each time I touch it. I started at the beginning, searching for new words. I like to spin them over my tongue until they begin to sound and taste like mine. Whatever novel I’m reading, the dictionary rides shotgun — so I can taste the author’s words better.
When I reached the F’s, I discovered a word that belonged to mom and me. The dictionary proclaimed it “the longest non-technical word in the English language.” It is a word that presumes everything and imagines nothing all at once.
Mom has told me over and over that we are both a waste of breath. She screams of hopelessness, of our pointless existence. Over frozen meals burnt in the microwave, over cereal bowl dinners. Over dreams she cannot forgive. Over me.
This is our word: Floc·ci·nau·ci·ni·hil·i·pil·i·fi·ca·tion. It is a mess of letters, just like us. Impossible to articulate until the third or fourth encounter.
“The action, or habit, of estimating something as worthless. Origin 18th century, from Latin flocci, nauci, nihili, pili (each meaning ‘of little value’)”
I can’t stop looking at it, can’t stop letting its dozen syllables tap-dance across my lips. I’m riveted by those four words fastened into one as if to hammer home their shared meaning.
Who does that? Floccinaucinihilipilification. A chain of worthlessness.
I want to hold this special word close, my mother’s word and my word, so I can control it. So I can decide if I’ll embrace it like her or put it aside. I whisper it aloud each night.
As a reminder that gramma’s right and I still have a choice.
It’s Saturday. Time to go to work.
“Come on, Grit.” I poke my toe gently into my cat’s belly. “Let’s go.”
Mom isn’t Grit’s biggest fan, so Grit tends to tag along with me. Who says dogs are better? Grit is the best gift grandma gave me other than books. A steady hum by my side, reminding me that someone would notice if I was gone.
When we reach the sidewalk outside the coffee shop, the weekend crowd is already buzzing. I place my guitar case on the ground, leaving it open for tips. The case also makes a great bed for a lazy cat.
“This is called A Thousand Pieces,” I say to no one. I lean closer to my guitar, so we can breathe the words together.
You say we’re born strong,
then we all have to choose.
Yet I became weak,
I was lost – I did sway.
See how my center does
waver and splinter.
Watch as ache’s tide pulls,
little bits fall away.
Hear how her words twisted
until they controlled me.
I withered and churned
until my mind strangely spun.
Her judgement tore pieces
and pieces inside me.
Born to one lost,
a worthless heart was begun.
I can’t halt the quiver –
spray yet more splinters of me.
Lost trust bears a price,
forces your soul to atone.
She mislaid my worth,
now I’m shattered in pieces –
Thousand pieces of me
that cannot find their way home.
“That’s such a sad, sweet song. Who taught you to play and sing so beautifully?” The woman stands frozen, half in, half out of the coffee shop.
She lets go of the door, then steps forward to drop a five in my case. Grit carefully paws the bill under her tummy with the others. So much better than a dog.
“Saving up for college someday?” The woman’s head is tilted. She’s smiling, but she’s also staring at my baggy shirt, at the holes in my sneakers.
“Something like that.”
“Thanks for listening, and for the tip. Have a great day!” I pretend to tune my guitar.
I can still feel her gaze. Trying to taste my words. Trying to figure out if I’m something she should worry about…
or if I’m nothing.
When the crowd fades, I splurge on a wrap, wolfing it down after pulling out a few pieces of chicken for Grit. The rest of my earnings will go under the cushions of the bleeding armchair. Until I’m old enough.
“I might write some new songs,” I tell Grit. She purrs her agreement.
I’ve been thinking all day about what my English teacher said — there are many words that mean the same thing.
Gramma says having a choice means believing in the possibility of something different.
Maybe there are things that look the same on the outside but can be different on the inside. Things that sound, taste, and feel different once you dig a little deeper.
Maybe, I’m a different word.