“Who are you?” said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”
-Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Flashback: Age six. I’m walking with my step-grandmother. I call her “Aunt Nette,” (her name is really Annette) because she doesn’t want anyone to think she’s old enough to be a grandmother. She looks old to me. The beach on Cape San Blas is all blue water and white sand. I keep looking down so I can avoid the tiny beach crabs and, at the same time, keep my bare feet in the froth of the waves. Dewey, the Corgi, runs far ahead of us and then races back barking as if to urge us on. I feel unusually content. I let my guard down. “Aunt Nette?”
“Did you know I am really a bunny rabbit? I think I’m going to let my ears grow.”
Self-portrait. My right ear hasn’t finished growing.
If I never hear the name “Alice” again, it will be too soon. “It’s a rather haunting name, don’t you think?” I asked the lady who brought breakfast to my table. “People named Alice are often haunted.”
“Sure, sure, whatever you say dear.” As a partner in conversation, this server doesn’t quite meet my needs. She always mindlessly agrees with me; I want someone who will listen. And then say something sensible.
Flashback to the beach, I fall backwards onto the sand. Everything goes black like it always does, over and over. I can’t decide if I prefer the black or the daylight. But then, I don’t get to decide. It is decided for me. I open my eyes and can see Aunt Nette and feel Dewey licking my face.
My ears grew so quickly! Wait. Am I a rabbit? My family started calling me Bunny as soon as Aunt Nette told them what I had said. They thought I was so cute: “Precious, the things children think of!” To avoid their laughter, I now wear my ears tucked up into my hair.
Maybe, I want to shout, I wasn’t just thinking. No one believes the truth I speak.
And what’s with the server’s crepe-soled shoes? I hate to be snuck up on. Stilettos. Maybe she’ll take me shopping. I’d buy her bright red stilettos with bows. That should brighten up this lunchroom. They might clash a bit with the orange walls. (They call the color “adobe,” but I know orange when I see it.) The sound of colors clashing would be interesting, as would the accompanying tap, tap, tap as she approaches. As long as I don’t hear tap, tap, tap, shriek, thump as she loses her balance and hits the floor.
Flashback: Age 10. I remember the dining table on Thanksgiving Day. Platters and bowls full of food: turkey, dressing, gravy, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes. In this family, we are nothing if not traditional. I squint at the pie on a platter near me. I think someone has written “Eat Me” on it with whipped cream in a flowery cursive hand. My mind starts to go black and I remember Alice was worried that the bottle and the cake might contain poison. But she ate and drank anyway. I start to reach for the pie, but “If you want a piece, ask politely and someone will pass one to you.”
“What? I’ve told you to stop talking to me! You have nothing interesting to say.” I’m trying not to yell.
Now the server is offended: “I may talk to you if I wish. You use your indoor voice.”
What if I only have an outdoor voice?
“You say the same thing all the time. I already heard you the first thousand times.” I’m still trying not to scream but am not quite succeeding.
“Who are you talking to? I never said anything a thousand times to you.” Now the server wants to listen and to talk.
“Uh, no one really.”
“Well, please talk to “no one” using your indoor voice. If everyone here started yelling all at once you wouldn’t like the sound.”
What did I tell you? How does she know? She can’t hear you. “The sound” doesn’t begin to capture your noise. Cacophony. “A harsh discordant mixture of sounds.” That’s more like it. Or Kauderwelsch. A muddled mix of two or more languages. That’s what we speak at home: a mix of German, French, and English. Maybe that’s why my mind seems muddled at times. I spend too much time falling between the words.
“Suppose I should really be crazy?! (I wanted to shout that!”)
“We don’t talk like that here!”
Oops. I’m talking out loud again. But maybe it needs to be said! How can I figure me out if I’m not allowed to use my own words to describe myself?
Oh, I love words, especially musical ones. But you have to switch languages sometimes to find the beauty. Take “butterfly.” It sounds all right, but I never saw butter fly. Too silly.
“No! Don’t say it again! I refuse to listen. La-la-la-la-la.”
The German word is worse: Schmetterling. Sounds like Schmetterlink when you pronounce it. “K” is such a harsh letter, isn’t it? (I was going to say “don’t you think,” but then there’s that “k” again.)
No, we have to reach for French. Papillon. Soft, evocative, euphonious. Whatever you do, don’t pronounce the “n.” The only letters pronounced at the end of French words are c, r, f, and l. Mlle. du Bois taught me that. I never forgot because I am very careful. “Careful! Get it? The consonants in careful.”
I practice on the woman sitting across the table from me. “Bonjour! Comment ça va?”
“You’re mumbling. I can’t understand you. Speak up!”
“Shut up! You use your indoor voice!” But what do you care? What you say only has five consonants and three vowels (and one of them is silent). Can’t you think of something new to say? Two words. Out of over a million possible words, all you can do is repeat two of them?
“Why me? Why me? Why me? Why me? Shut up!”
Oops. I forgot to use my indoor voice. Another person in crepe-soled shoes is coming towards me.
“I’ll be quiet. I promise.”
But I’m still screaming and can’t make myself stop. I struggle like an octopus even though I only have four limbs. My head almost makes five. But I can’t win. They are stronger. And they have the hypodermic.
“Shhh. This will help you relax. And then you can take a nice nap.”
There’s no such thing as a “nice nap.”
I’m in a wheelchair now and they’re taking me to my room. Already I can feel my mind starting to drift.
A new orderly is wheeling me.
“What’s your name, dear?”
Alice! Stop! Alice! Stop! Alice! Alice! Alice! Stop!
Go away, voices, go away. I’m going to be a bunny again and go to sleep now. Everyone loves bunnies.
An ex-academic in recovery, Constance L. Lieber exchanged footnotes for compelling narratives. Her extensive body of work centers on Martha Hughes Cannon, the trailblazing inaugural female state senator of Utah in 1896. Her book, ‘Dr. Martha Hughes Cannon: Suffragist, Senator, Plural Wife,’ found its publication through Signature Books in 2022. Recent essays penned by them have graced the pages of Rollick Magazine and Heimat Review (April 2023).
Boasting a PhD in Languages and Literature, Lieber is in the final stages of pursuing an MFA in creative writing from Long Island University. Her dual abodes straddle Salt Lake City, Utah, and Frauenfeld, Switzerland, alongside their partner. Their offspring – five children and eleven grandchildren – are dispersed across the United States and Switzerland. With proficiency varying across five languages – English, German, Swiss-German, French, Polish, and Mandarin – she communicates seamlessly.
In the realm of her professional life, she wields her talents as a copy editor. When not ruminating over the distinction between a period and a semi-colon, she finds solace in the realm of retail therapy, armed with her ever-reliable credit card.