Cover image for The language of good-bye
The language of good-bye
Fischer, Maribeth.
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Publication Information:
New York : Dutton, [2001]

Physical Description:
343 pages ; 24 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Author Notes

Maribeth Fischer is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, the Smartt Family Prize, & has been twice been mentioned for a notable essay in "Best American Essays". She has taught creative writing & English as a second language in Baltimore for nine years. Her creative essays have appeared in "The Iowa Review", "The Yale Review", & the "Pushcart Prize XX: Best of the Small Presses". She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

It is difficult to know when reading this artfully realized first novel whether language is a metaphor for love or love a metaphor for language. The two are that tightly entwined. Faithfulness, commitment, truth; adjectives, agreement, prepositions are pieces of the life that Annie leads. She and Will have left their spouses for each other and the overwhelming passion that has swept them away. As an ESL teacher at a local college, she endeavors to infuse her students with the essence of language, while her life is enriched by their stories. Sungae, a Korean student in Annie's class, struggles with the nuances of language and the delicate balance of sorrows and duties. She works for Will's ex-wife and can observe the damage caused by her teacher's choices, choices that echo events from Sungae's Korean past. A painter, Sungae records, examines, and comes to closure through her art, although the words of Annie's lessons are the conduit of her revelations. Great happiness is punctuated with betrayal, loss, and grieving but leads to peace and self-knowledge. There are no pat answers or easy endings in this excellent novel of real people and strong emotions. --Danise Hoover

Publisher's Weekly Review

Loss and new beginnings are the burdens of essayist Fischer's courageous, gently affirmative first novel. Annie Helverson has recently abandoned the safety of a marriage to her childhood sweetheart, Carter, for the uncertainty of an affair with Will Sullivan, who has left his own long marriage and beloved five-year-old daughter, Brooke. Annie finds herself empathizing with the recently arrived immigrants in the English class she teaches, as she too is alternately bewildered and delighted by her new life and surroundings. Will's wife, Kayla, is devastated by his betrayal, but she also senses his ambivalence, while Carter seems mired in anguish, self-doubt and obsession. Their spouses' reactions profoundly affect Will and Annie, as the new couple discovers that living with the decision to leave can be as devastating as being left. Their struggle is reflected in Sungae OhÄone of Annie's students and, coincidentally, an employee in Kayla's bakeryÄa Korean-born painter who has lived in the States for 17 years without learning English. She is afraid to articulate the pain she feels over her lost homeland, her own loves and infidelities and the daughter she left behind. As Annie encourages her to speak and to paint her past, Sungae taps into a rich talent, finding self-forgiveness and her way back to a marriage she had thought beyond repair. The story is told from all five of the main characters' viewpoints, and sometimes their internal monologues tend to bog things down. But it is Annie's griefÄover the pain she's caused Carter, the untrustworthiness of her emotions, Will's ongoing relationship with his family and her own infertilityÄthat dominates the narrative, and her growth that drives the story. Fischer is a strong new voice in women's fiction, and her book should rise above its unfortunate jacket to find a receptive audience. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Annie set the phone back into its cradle, the side of her face warm from holding the receiver to her ear. She loved his voice: Have a great day. Everything will be fine . She believed him.     The phone rang again and she laughed, assuming it was Will, who'd forgotten to tell her I love you. I adore you . But it was a student trying to reach the registrar's office. She transferred the call and felt her mood transfer, too, shifting toward work. Already she was anxious.     She paced slowly back and forth in the narrow office, reviewing the list of student names to make sure she pronounced each one correctly: Sungae, Shin-pin, Farshad . For a moment, she faltered and lost track of the name she was reading. What if this were her last semester here? she wondered. What if they didn't hire her back? She couldn't imagine not teaching in a university, or what autumn would be like if she weren't in a classroom. She suspected that it would be similar to the autumn four years ago when she had been told that she would never have children. As the leaves in the Blue Ridge Mountains changed from green to yellow to brown, everything had hurt: TV commercials for the back-to-school sales at Sears, Halloween costumes, the sight of a yellow school bus. Like wanting to have children, teaching had always been a part of who Annie was--only with teaching, it would be the feel of chalk on her fingertips she would miss, the burnt-nut aroma of the vending-machine coffee her students drank, the silence in a classroom just before she returned a graded essay. Annie closed her eyes, ordered herself to stop thinking this way, then returned to the list of student names: Ahmad, Sacide, Ba . They had to like her, she thought. So much of the next four months hinged on today. The way she walked into the classroom and said good morning (Did her voice shake? Did she look her students in the eye when she called the roll?) made a difference. Her clothing mattered: black skirt, white T-shirt and sandals, a bright red scarf looped around her ponytail. Understated without being serious; artistic without being flashy. Nothing too young, nothing too old, nothing pastel--which would make her look too vulnerable.     Outside, the sky was the smudged gray of an empty chalkboard. Burgundy and gold flags--the university's colors--fluttered from the porches of the stone and brick houses across the street, where various administrative offices were located. The banners read, 100 YEARS: AN HONORS UNIVERSITY.     Annie found herself thinking that if she lost her job, grief would fill her like water flooding a boat. There would be nowhere to go; she would capsize and drown.     Annie taught English as a second language to international students. Many of them, sponsored by local churches and charity organizations, had arrived in Richmond from war-devastated countries; others, having emigrated to the United States in hopes of receiving a better education, had settled in Richmond because of the city's renowned Medical College of Virginia, one of the oldest and largest medical schools in the country. They came to Richmond because they had relatives living here--a lot of Koreans, a growing population of Ukrainians--and they came because Richmond was close to Washington, D.C., only a two-hour bus ride if they ever needed to get to their foreign embassies. Annie stood at her desk, holding her coffee mug to her cheek for warmth. Perhaps, she mused, they also came to Richmond because in this city of Civil War battlefields and monuments to Confederate war heroes, her students somehow sensed, as she had lately, that this was a place where people understood better than most how to relinquish loss and rebuild their lives.     She hadn't always known this. How could she have, when she hadn't been marked by her own losses yet, when she couldn't fathom that loss--like so much that mattered--was a choice? Many of her students had chosen to leave their children behind, promising to send for them as soon as possible; they had chosen to fake cheerful good-byes to aging parents knowing that "as soon as possible" would not be soon enough. And now, a word at a time, they were struggling to translate both their histories and their futures into a new language, as if words were all it took to create a new life.     Years ago, when she'd had more confidence, when she hadn't yet received the third set of below-average teaching evaluations and a probationary letter from the dean, Annie, too, had believed that starting over could be this easy: a matter of determination and desire. On the first day of class, when she would ask her students to fill out an index card with their major, their native country, and their hobbies, she used to also ask for a nickname, telling them, "You can be anyone you want here. You can write Superman or Beautiful Woman , and that's who you'll be." They smiled when she said this, some of them playfully heeding her advice. Brilliant and Handsome Scholar , a Chinese student wrote a few autumns ago, and the first time Annie called him this, he stood and bowed as the students laughed.     She smiled, remembering. She had been so comfortable, so sure of herself. "How do you do it?" a colleague once asked. "Your students have some of the highest improvement scores, and yet every time I pass your class room, all I hear is laughter!" The students had trusted her, Annie knew, in part because she had trusted herself.     Abruptly, she turned from the window, another wave of grief pushing against her chest. Nina, Keyuri, On-Aree . The foreign names were like exotic foods she tasted only tentatively. Korkut. Yukihiko ...      Please , she whispered silently. Please let this semester be better . Not like the last one when the Russians and Turks had argued with her all spring, one young man arrogantly tossing his notebook at her feet and storming out of the room. "You think we have time for games?" he shouted. Or the semester before that when the Asian women had sat with their heads bowed, giggling into their cupped palms whenever she asked them a question; and the boy from Kenya had sat apart, his eyes dark with accusation. An impossible, segregated group and, in the midst of her own separation from her husband of nine years, Annie hadn't had the heart or the energy to salvage either--the marriage or the class.     She glanced at her left hand, at the pale band of skin where for nine years she had worn a wedding ring. She missed wearing it, which surprised her because there were more important things it seemed she should miss--the condominium on Grace Street she and Caner had begun to refurbish, their monthly trips to New Jersey to visit their families. She should have missed trying new restaurants with him, ordering too much of everything--even the waitresses laughed as they set plate after plate in front of them. She should have missed him . But it was her wedding band. In idle moments she often found herself holding out her hand and staring at her fingers as if seeing them for the first time. She felt like a toddler discovering herself in the mirror and finally making the connection: This is me .     But what Annie felt when she stared at her bare ring finger was the opposite: This isn't me . Perhaps because she remembered too easily lounging with Carter on the balcony of their hotel in Saint Augustine the second day of their honeymoon. He'd slipped off his ring, shown her where the absence of sun had created its own pale band on his skin. "Like we've been married for years," he said.     "Years? So you'll give me a blender instead of lingerie for our anniversary?" She'd lit a cigarette and squinted into the sun, one hand shading her eyes.     He traced his finger around her tanned kneecap. "I'll never give you a blender if you promise never to give me socks." He traced higher.     She had shivered despite the midsummer heat. Already she wanted him again. "No toaster ovens, either," she laughed, trailing her hand along his leg. "Or gardening books ..." The kind of gifts their parents gave each other. How easy to joke about these things then: At twenty-three, neither could imagine a time when their love would be any less passionate, when one of them wasn't waking at two a.m. and drowsily rolling toward the other, rising out of sleep into the gentle rhythm of lovemaking before they were fully conscious.     Nine years later, her wedding ring sat in an envelope in a filing cabinet. What had happened? It seemed impossible that love could simply disappear. It should have been something huge that killed love, something cataclysmic. Not the subtle erosion that it had been. Now only fragments remained: the silly cards Carter used to hide in her book bag or under her pillow on her birthday and on Valentine's Day; a snippet of song--"Please come to Boston for the springtime"; that afternoon in Saint Augustine when she glanced at Carter in the fading beach light. She had known Carter since she was four years old, and when she looked at him something quieted in her, like the settling of an old house at night, things shifting, falling into their right place. My husband , she had thought, wanting to say that phrase over and over: my husband, my husband, my husband .     No wonder then, that when Annie left him last April, Carter had believed (as had her mother and her in-laws and, at times, her closest friend, Lois) that Annie was having some kind of a breakdown, a delayed reaction to the news that she couldn't have children--as if by leaving Carter, she could leave behind her inability to conceive. Some days Annie herself longed to believe that it was this simple. Sobbing in the bathroom before class one morning because of a run in her stockings, crying inconsolably when she spilled coffee on a new blouse or got a speeding ticket or misplaced a paper, she had willed herself to fall apart. A breakdown was so much easier than the truth: She loved someone else, and her love for Will Sullivan called into question whether she'd ever really loved Carter at all. And she didn't know what terrified her more--the possibility that she hadn't loved him all these years or the probability that she had loved him and, in the end, it wasn't enough.     Is it worth it to give up so much? she had wanted to ask her foreign students last semester as she watched them struggle over basic grammar exercises. And for what? A second chance? A hope? The questions had seemed flimsy and insubstantial to her then--like bright paper kites that would be torn apart with the first strong wind.     Despite her happiness with Will, what she often felt--in the midst of making love with him or teaching a class or standing in line at the supermarket blankly reading the headlines of the National Enquirer --was grief. A word whose root meant heavy or burden . Grief. Annie felt as if she were pushing it around in front of her like the shopping carts the homeless wheeled. All the bundles and rags and scraps of her life, her past.     Until this autumn, she hadn't truly understood that who you are is a matter of who you have been. Her students knew it, though, even the seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds. Learning verb tenses, they would become confused, unable to distinguish past from present. When she wrote an example on the board, "I knew him a long time ago," past tense, someone always asked, "But don't you still know him now? How is it possible to stop knowing someone once you have met?"     She glanced once more at the class roster, at the names of people from Turkey and Korea, Vietnam, Iran, Russia, Palestine, the Philippines. Annie knew that if a student posed that same question this autumn, she would think of Carter and she would understand her student's confusion. Even if she didn't see Caner for ten or twenty years, she would never say she had stopped knowing him. She would always use the present tense. Copyright © 2001 Maribeth Fischer. All rights reserved.