How Did You Get This Number
By Sloane Crosley
Hardcover, 288 pages
List price: $25.95
There is only one answer to the question: Would you like to see a three a.m. performance of amateur Portuguese circus clowns?
But as I sat in an open-air bar on my last night in Lisbon, drinking wine with my coat still on, I couldn't bring myself to give it. These weren't the universally frightening species of clown, the ones who are never not scary. No one likes a clown who reminds them of why they hate ice-cream-truck music. These were more the Cirque du Soleil-type clown. The attractive jesters found on the backs of playing cards. They had class. They had top hats. And I? I had a pocketful of change I couldn't count. I had paid for my wine in the dark by opening my hand and allowing the bartender to remove the correct coins, as if he were delousing my palm. It was the December before I turned thirty. I was in a place I had no business being. The last thing I needed was a front-row seat to some carnie hipster adaptation of Eyes Wide Shut.
Besides, I had nothing left to prove. When you spin a globe and point to a city and actually go to that city, you build an allowance of missed opportunities on the back end. No one could accuse me of not living in the moment if I opted out of one lousy underground freak show. I had done enough on the risk-taking front just by it being winter and me being the sole American in all of Lisbon. If you had taken a flash census of the city, you might have found a few other Americans, businessmen and women holed up in three-star hotel suites, surrounded by a variety of ineffective lighting options. But I knew in the pit of my stomach that I was the only tourist from my country drifting around Europe's sea capital.
While the emotional sum total of my trip would eventually add up to happiness, while I would feel a protective bond with the few objects I acquired in Lisbon — a necklace from a street fair, a piece of cracked tile, a pack of Portuguese cigarettes called "Portuguese" — hidden between the cathedral and castle tours was the truth: I have never felt more alone than I did in Lisbon. A human being can spend only so much time outside her comfort zone before she realizes she is still tethered to it. Like a dog on one of those retractable leashes, I had made it all the way to Europe's curb when I began to feel a slight tug around my neck.
The problem wasn't merely the total annihilation of English, as if English had taken too many sets of X-rays at the dentist's office and had been radiated to the point of disintegration. I do not roam the planet assuming that everyone speaks English. The problem was I dove headlong into an off-season culture that assumes everyone speaks Portuguese. A delusion that I adopted at first, and that inspired a temporary Portuguese patriotism in me, accompanied by a self-shaming for not being fluent myself. I had traveled to Romance-language regions before, sometimes alone, and found that as much as people like you to attempt communication in their language, what they like even more is for you to stop butchering it. In most cultures, the natives will let you get about four sentences in before they put you out of your misery. In Portugal, I kept waiting for that kindly metaphorical hand to reach across the pastry counter or the gift-shop register, pinch my tongue, and say, "Enough already." I was going to be waiting a long time. How poorly did I have to imitate their infamously irregular verbs before someone squished my cheeks into submission? Was this place not "sleepy," as the guidebooks described, but completely unconscious?
In the time I spent there, I barely heard Spanish or German or Russian, either. My ears captured the clunky tones of English but once — and from an elderly British couple seated behind me on a wooden tram. With a controlled panic in their voices, they discussed the winding route of the tram and the seemingly arbitrary stops. It was a conversation that might not have caused a fight had it taken place on still ground. But their words were becoming heated as the wife's devil-may-care attitude clashed with her husband's conviction that they were being whisked away from the city's center into sketchier pastures. The tiff ended with the husband making his wife unbutton her coat, sling her purse over her shoulder, and put her coat back on over that.
"Just do it, Joan," he said through his teeth. "Don't make a scene about it."
Joan complied, temporarily pacifying her husband. This new costume made her look like one of the ancient Portuguese ladies, their spines bobbing beneath their cardigans as they scaled the city's steep inclines. The jostling act of transformation, of removing arms from sleeves and slinging bags on shoulders, also made her a more obvious bait for pickpockets. In the end she resembled a cartoon of a boa constrictor that had just swallowed a lawn chair. The resulting image is not one of a pregnant snake but of a snake who has just swallowed a lawn chair.
I considered saying something, engaging with them. I was relieved by the sound of kindred vowels. Days of talking exclusively to myself and I was finally ready to take the gag out of my throat and rejoin the land of fluency. Lack of human-on-human communication works like a liquid fast — first you miss the solid sustenance, then for a long time you wonder why you ever needed it, then you miss it so acutely it makes you dizzy. I assumed a symbiotic need for these Brits to break their fast. I could be their conversational prune juice. But when they made their way to my end of the tram in preparation for the next stop, I just stared at them with the passive contempt of a local.
Excerpted from How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley. Copyright 2010 by Sloane Crosley. Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.