I am grateful to be dating a foreigner. With his foreign ears, he cannot hear how ugly my voice sounds. I can barely hear how ugly my voice sounds, but I know it is.
My voice is not exceptionally ugly. But, I say bank too harshly, flushes too slushily, cannon in one sad syllable. And ands get clipped by my throat more than those of even other Americans, my ands only weak uns that sag within my sentences like shit in a diaper. So, I speak almost exclusively in short sentences to avoid any and that might come up. And my voice is too flat. And my pitch is too high. And my tongue gets in the way of making good “r” sounds. When I write, I use as many ands as I can.
I have been dating this foreigner since he arrived from Denmark to study American literature five months ago. I was not seeking out a man that night, but he spotted me in a packed bar and told me he liked my soft chin and bought me a drink, and even though I feel like a failure when men buy me drinks, like they’re hoping to occupy my mouth in a way that prevents language, I took the drink and found that he did not mind talking to me. He looked giddy when he said I sounded American.
After four dates, the foreigner took me to the apartment he was subletting, an ultra-American studio with thin, white, empty walls and a shower curtain caked in filmy gunk and a bed not meant to withstand activity. We had sex and I let my voice be heard. “American sex,” he said after we finished. Then we cuddled on the tired mattress, and I rested my head on his stomach, and we talked. And I told him my theory that aural beauty is more impactful than physical beauty. “Physical beauty,” I said, “can be admired whenever one wants. But, a voice has to be shared with you. It’s rarer. You have to receive it to admire it. That kind of beauty always feels more special to me.” My voice sounded assured, like a standard model. When I’d cuddled with other men, I’d spoken meekly into their chests or navels. But, with the foreigner, I always talked for his ears.
Last month, the foreigner and I went to a party where he was the only foreigner. He introduced me as his partner, and many said they liked how he said partner like he’d deconstructed the word. I had an allergy to voices that night. The pleasing ones nicked my patience like water that is too clear or color that is too pure. And the ugly voices made my throat burn. I said little at the party, thank you to the host, Kathleen Turner to a man trying to think of Kathleen Turner. “Cat got your tongue?” the foreigner asked me at the end of the night. He’d read the phrase in an American book.
At some point between now and when I met the foreigner, I called my sister, and she told me I was fetishizing all foreigners and said to just practice my ands like I used to practice the trumpet until my lips purpled and swelled.
Now, I whisper and and and and and and and as the foreigner talks to his mother on the phone. He says the Danish word for “and” many times. His voice is so rich and textured. When he hangs up, he looks upset and pulls on his tongue. “Hus,” he says, the Danish word for “house.” He says hus and hus and hus and hus. “I hate how I say hus,” he says. His voice is less charming than usual. I say, “It sounds fine to my little American ears.” He says, “I have to move back. My mother just lost her hus.”
Later in the week, I take the foreigner to the airport. The terminal is crowded, so I don’t mind talking loudly. “Your mother is lucky to have a kind and brave and smart Danish son,” I say. “Good luck to you and her and everyone.” My ands haven’t improved at all.
The foreigner kisses my neck and says, “My smart and kind and brave American partner. There are people lucky to have you, too.”
His voice sounds even less charming today, maybe like a meal that’s turned cold, maybe like a class that’s turned boring. But, then I realize what about it irritates me, and I poke at my throat. During the foreigner’s five months in America, he has lost some of his Danish accent when speaking English, not for an American tinge but for an ugly quality like my own. Now, he says kind too harshly, brave too wimpily, partner with less sweetness than he had in the past. And his ands are atrocious. I feel mortified.
“I’m sorry,” I say with an ugly sharpness.
“My mother will be fine,” he says with an ugly cadence.
I have infected him.
I send him on his way. He swings an Ellis Island keychain around his finger as if it had been America that changed him.
I walk out of the airport and say my ands. Without the foreigner, my throat feels smaller and less capable. And and and and and, I say. I move onto less common words and then back to my small ands. I wish I spoke a different language.