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First words 

Careful what you ask for

I'm not all that proud that one of my first words in Italian is "maggot." You'd think I'd come up with something a little more useful -- like "help." But I've been here two weeks and I still don't know that word.

My problem is I keep searching through the dictionary for basic words of immediate use -- like "need" or "have" -- and I get all caught up with phrases I see on the way, like "acid test." I see that, and I suddenly think I cannot possibly communicate with Italians without knowing how to say "acid test." (It's such a useful phrase!) Or "zombie" or "polyunsaturated." Seriously, these words are so universal, and I want to make it a point to learn words that matter.

For example, I remember years ago when my older sister's Argentine ex-boyfriend, a busboy who could barely speak English, once used the word "compensation" in a sentence. It can be an impressive word when it's the only decipherable one in a slew of words being spewed forth by an angry Argentine demanding restitution for having slipped in the alleyway behind his apartment building. It was a good performance, too, seeing as how he himself had unscrewed the bulb in the building's exterior lamp to ensure there'd be insufficient lighting when he ventured back there.

Yes, this man bypassed all the lesser words of the English language and cut right to the one everyone respects. I hear he owns a car dealership now.

So I always figured that would be a good way to absorb other languages -- just pick the words that scare people and say them over and over until you own a car dealership or something. But I think you have to be a certain kind of person to recognize those words readily -- not a person like me. For example, I'm not satisfied with knowing how to say a simple "thank you" in another language. I want to know how to say it in the most officious way possible. I want to know how to say, "I'm delighted by your kindness," or "Your generosity amazes me," or "I am humbled by the bounteousness of your humanity."

People are generally flattered by my method, but I don't see any of them clamoring to give me car dealerships. Even so, I like being able to thank people in pretty ways just the same. Sometimes I don't even say it to anyone in particular. I just say the words because I like the way they sound.

My mother always told me I spoke my very first word when I was a few months shy of 2 years old, and that word was "cigarette." In actuality, though, the word was just "get," but since I was indicating my mother's cigarette with my hand when I said it, she thought I wanted to try a hit. "A kid after my own heart," she said proudly. Then she sat me atop the ironing board and put her lit Salem menthol my mouth.

I coughed so violently I can actually recall the incident -- it's flapping around in my head like an escapee from the compendium of memories that are supposed to be locked in the subconscious of your first years, along with what if felt like to be born and whatnot. I remember sitting there on the ironing board, hacking my lungs out like a veteran, while my mother patted me on the back as if a good burping was all I needed to get me breathing again.

My father interrupted his own puffing to castigate her for a minute, telling her she shouldn't share her cigarette with a 2-year-old, taking care to part his own cloak of second-hand smoke so she could see he was serious. "She's gotta know if she likes it," my mother said. "The earlier the better."

By the time I was 13, I had a pack-a-day habit. Then suddenly that same year, I'd decided I'd had enough and simply quit. Looking back, I guess 13 qualifies as an early age to determine if you like smoking or not. If my mother were here, I'd thank her very officiously for getting the wheels rolling so soon in that regard. I would say something in Italian perhaps, something like, "Your compassion is a vast ocean among mere puddles."

But I can't. Those chances are past. Now I have my own little girl, Mae, and her first words emerged about a year-and-a-half ago, like a foggy picture finally come into focus. Weeks beforehand, those words just sounded like the cooing of a pigeon. "Hoo koo. Hoo koo," Mae would trill, always while handing you something. Then the sound evolved into "Hank hoo," until one day it came out clear as a bell. "Thank you," she said as she handed me the torn label from a can of cat food.

At her words -- her first words -- my heart almost clawed its way out of my chest, so desperate it was to attach itself to her like a lovesick squid. I held her for 500 years after that, or at least I wish I could have.

"Thank you," she said as I clutched her like a life preserver, inhaling her vanilla scent. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," I said, my eyes shut tight.

Only this time I wasn't just saying the words because I like the way they sound.

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