Someday I’ll write a short story about the English lesson I gave tonight to the Khmer man who waited till we were halfway through the Monkey’s Paw to tell me about his ex-English teacher. We’d just gotten to the part in the story where we learn that a man has died wishing on the cursed paw.
“You know, my ex-English teacher is died.” he said.
“Is dead,” I corrected, mechanically, too mechanically for the word but it had to be corrected.
“Yes, she is dead. She died of sickness. Can we say that?”
“We would maybe say, ‘she got sick and then she died.'”
“Yes, these books are hers. She gave them to me.”
I looked down at the little stack of adapted classics, made simple for learning readers: Great Expectations, Tale of Two Cities, and the one he held, the one about the family that makes wishes on a cursed monkey’s paw brought back from India — wishing for things like money and a fast car never gets you anywhere, is the moral. Or at least so I gather, based on chapters 1-3.
“Is this the English teacher who slept all the time?” I asked him. I’d heard about his past English teachers.
He laughed but then turned serious again. “No, no, this is a different one. She died of … depression. We think.”
My stomach flipped at the way that he equated sickness with depression — When Kompheak had arrived at our lesson tonight, I was smoking a cigarette, which I never do, and he laughed at me immediately. You can buy cigarettes off a restaurant menu here, so I’d purchased a pack of Marlboro Lights and it’d arrived on a plate, and I was burning through my first one.
“What’s your problem?” he’d asked.
I’d told him that could be considered impolite, and maybe he should ask, “Are you ok?” And then I’d said I was just feeling really useless. Like, why am I here, again? Like, why be here when you have loved ones so far, people who close phone conversations with “I love you” because they just do; they mean it, they’ve known you forever, or at least since you were 18, and they could use a little support and you’re just… gone. Useless.
I was a total ray of sunshine.
As the lesson progressed we read more in The Monkey’s Paw and we got to the part where the family makes their first, naive, cursed wishes. Kompheak put the book down and looked at me seriously. “And what do YOU wish for?”
I made some joke about needing a good night’s sleep but silently rattled them off in my head. Yes, I want to be in Chicago and in Cambodia, I want to get out of this city for more adventures, I want Sunday brunch at Over Easy on Damen, I want to lay in Winnemac Park with Lisa, I want to support myself with writing and to get my own moto and ride it all through the countryside and to be there for the birth of my friend’s first baby and to never say the wrong thing at the wrong time and to know what to do with these next years of my life. Those things. Not in that order. Silently.
And someday I’ll put it all together, I’ll write it down and really capture it, the feeling of holding the book of an English teacher who died of depression while reading about the curse of making too many wishes.