How do they sound so confident? Is it because they are natives?
I must know.
My high school in Budapest invited American Scout members from Richmond, Virginia, to talk about community work. I’ve been learning English since I was eight, but never encountered natives before.
I am mesmerised by their laid-back yet self-assured way of speaking. Cookies, badges, patches, uniform, parks, community, raccoons. I have the urge to grab a net and catch the words like butterflies. I want them all.
A pinch on my arm drags me back to reality. Sitting next to me, Tamara draws closer and whispers, “Lotti, will you come to Croatia with my family this year?”
I tense up. I’ve been putting aside the horror of bikinis for so long. I’m used to working in the summer breaks to help out mom with the bills, but I’m helpless at executing my teenage duties. Those rules, games, hormones, accessories. No thanks, that’s Tamara’s territory. Yet, I can’t say that I have to work, because mom finally secured a secretary position with a stable income.
Tamara pinches me again.
Then it hits me.
“Sorry, I’m going to learn English this summer.”
Tamara hisses, “What? Are you insane? But you’re full of A-s!”
“Yes, but I want to speak English properly.”
“Excuse my bluntness Your Majesty, but why the heck?”
I hesitate, “’Cause I like it.”
Tamara rolls her eyes, “Nerding on the edge.”
I enrol on an English summer course right the next day. My quest for sounding confident has begun.
The English summer course starts a week after our third year of high school ends.
Arriving at the classroom, the late June heat glues my top and shorts onto my skin.
“Good morning! Thanks for coming. Please take a seat,” a young woman says standing in front of the desks, organising her books and papers. She has a light Hungarian accent, the best English I’ve heard so far.
The classroom is small, almost tight. Five desks form a half-moon. Nonfigurative painting on the grey wall. Probably Ikea.
I sit next to a girl at the far end of the moon-shape. Pen and pencil lying parallel to an opened notebook on her desk. English – Proficiency level, Lesson 1, states the first line on top of a fresh page with attentive handwriting.
“Hello, Enikő vagyok.”
“Hello, én meg Lotti.”
“Switch to English please, after you step over that doorstep,” the young woman says.
We glance at each other with Enikő and smile.
At 8.03 the door creaks and a man, hardened wrinkles on his forehead, shoos a boy and a girl into the classroom. Clatter and scrape fill the tight space as they throw themselves onto their seats.
“Great, let’s get started,” the young woman claps, “Welcome everyone. I’m Antónia and I will help you to become confident English speakers.”
I feel the tight classroom loosening up a bit.
She continues, “By midterm, you’ll have to decide if you would like to take a language proficiency exam at the end of the course. Any questions?”
Enikő and I shake our heads, the other two tap their phones.
“Then let’s start with introductions. Please tell us your names, your goals for this course, and if you plan to take the exam. How about starting with you?” Antónia smiles at me.
A hiccup sticks in my throat.
“Hi, I’m Lotti and I want to take the exam,” I manage.
“That’s great, Lotti. And what about your plans with the English language?”
“My plan is… to… use it? Ha-ha. I mean I… I want to speak like a native,” I blush.
“What an ambitious goal, Lotti! I will do my best to bring you closer to it. What about your deskmate?”
“Hello everyone, I’m Enikő and I’m from Budapest. My goal is to follow my brother to London after I graduate next year. He’s an undergrad there. I will also take the exam,” Enikő smiles at me. I am amazed by her elegant pronunciation.
“Big plans, girls. Brilliant, thank you. And you guys?”
We listen how the other two were forced to come here by their dad, then start the course.
I stay at my desk after class to study. While I’m buried in my workbook replacing words in italics with phrasal verbs, my phone beeps.
See what you’re missing out on? Tamara sent a photo of her feet standing in the sea. Her blood red nail polish burns through the clear and gentle water like ten laser dots.
Beautiful, I reply.
I know. How’s the course?
Good. Studying right now. Still so much to learn. Scared like hell of the exam.
You’re taking the exam? Emoji screaming in horror. You’ve always been good at torturing yourself.
Trying my best. How’s Croatia?
Amazing! Don’t wanna go home. But when I do, I will save you from yourself.
Guess what. There’s a guy, Márk, he and his parents ended up being our Hungarian neighbours here, and when we get home, we’re going on a date! How crazy is that? Three crying-laughing emojis.
I start typing, Tamara please, I don’t want to be the third wheel again. I meant to delete it, but my thumb was quicker to hit send.
I know how that emoji screaming in horror feels now. I’m never this direct with Tamara, she’s my only friend. The popular girl. I cling to her, like an adopted stray cat.
I type, Sorry, I didn’t mean to but the creaking classroom door interrupts me. Enikő steps in.
“Hi Lotti, sorry, I thought no one was here.” She clutches her workbook, “Are you studying?”
“Yes, I’m trying,” I stretch my lips.
“I’m sorry I don’t want to disturb you.”
“No, no, it’s not you,” I raise my phone and put it back down, “Would you like to join?”
“Yes, thank you. I could use some help with these phrasal verbs anyway.”
“Are you kidding? Your English is perfect.”
“Look who’s talking,” Enikő smiles.
“But my accent sounds like a chainsaw.”
She laughs. “No, it’s not. But we can practice together until the exam, if you like.”
My phone beeps again. And again. Then two more times.
“Sorry, forgot to mute it, but I think I should check that.” My fingers approach my phone with caution.
“No worries,” Enikő opens her workbook and starts to write.
I exhale and tap open my phone.
You know what Lotti? That’s not fair!!!!
You know exactly how nervous I am on my dates and you know that I can’t ask Rita because she can’t keep her mouth shut!
All I wanted was a little support from you, that’s all, and now that you abandoned me for the whole summer because being a nerd is more important to you than being a good friend, I thought maybe asking a little favour won’t be too much, but I guess I was wrong.
Maybe I will ask Rita anyway, at least she’s there for me when I need her…
Four messages. Tears gathering in two eyes.
“Are you alright? You’re whiter than the wall.”
“That’s not so hard. The wall is grey,” I squeeze a laugh out of my chest, “I should go. Sorry Enikő.”
“No problem at all. We have the whole summer to sharpen your chainsaw.”
I laugh, “See you!”
I close the door behind me, release my tears, and type in my blurred surrender.
Next week Tamara and I meet at Sweeties, the most expensive ice cream store in Budapest, fifteen minutes before her date, Márk arrives. She makes me repeat The Plan. Stay quiet, always sit next to her, leave right after the movie, and wait for her call at home.
A few minutes after 5 pm Márk walks in, hands in pockets.
“Hi,” he pauses, “Girls?”
His confused look suggests Tamara didn’t follow The Plan and didn’t tell Márk I would join them.
“Hi, Márk. This is Lotti, my friend. She is joining us today.”
“Cool. Nice to meet you, Lotti.”
I smile and nod.
“She desperately wanted to see the 8th episode of Terminator vs. Transformers, so I let her come with us.” Tamara combs her hair back with her fingers.
Something, along with my pure contempt for the movie, rises inside me. “Actually, I needed some time-off from my English summer course.” The original Plan slips out.
Tamara’s eyes burn my skin.
Bitter regret takes over my uprising in an instant. “Let’s get some ice cream guys!” My voice is high-pitched.
“You’re learning English during the summer break? That’s badass.”
Tamara glares at Márk. “Right? She is such a nerd. I’ll go for a strawberry flavour, you guys?”
“No, that’s cool. One of my friends did that last year. Now he is studying in Dublin. You could also study abroad after you graduate, Lotti.”
Words glide out quicker than I can catch them. “Yeah, my coursemate also keeps saying that to me. Her brother is studying in London and…”
“Your coursemate?” Tamara curls an eyebrow.
I swallow, “Ahem, Enikő, we study together sometimes. So one strawberry?”
“Awesome. It’s better to go with a friend. It’s rough out there alone, my friend tells me.” Márk says.
“But studying abroad is way too expensive and Lotti has to help out her mother, right Lotti?”
“She can still apply for a scholarship. My friend also got one.”
I intervene. “We should order something if we don’t want to miss the beginning of the movie. As Tamara said, I can’t wait to see it.”
I glance at Tamara. She raises her chin.
Today is my English language exam and my pulse pumps the Morse code. The fact that today is also the hottest day of August on record doesn’t help me to cool down.
Yesterday, Tamara invited me over, so that she can comfort me today. We didn’t have the chance for another hangout since her date with Márk, so I’m grateful to her.
As I’m sitting on the couch at Tamara’s, I sense something heavy hanging in the air. Maybe I’m hot. The skin of my thighs melts onto the brown leather cushion of the couch.
“I thought I would put a light makeup on you before your exam,” Tamara pours me iced lemonade from a jug, “Looking beautiful could also make you feel confident.”
“Tamara, you’re a genius!”
“I know,” Tamara smirks, “Let’s go to my room, then,” She grabs the jug and takes it upstairs.
The air is heavier in her room, almost stiff. I drain a glass of lemonade.
“Now sit down, close your eyes and relax,” Tamara gestures at her desk chair, also leather.
“Thank you for helping me ease up a bit,” I descend into the chair.
“That’s what friends are for, aren’t they?”
“Yes and I’m glad you’re my friend.”
“Now hush, otherwise I’ll mess up. Close your eyes.”
As I shut my eyelids, I see blood redness for a second. My eyes pop up.
“Why do you keep doing the exact opposite of what I ask? Close your eyes, or you’ll get an eyeliner in your eyeball.”
I obey her. The redness is gone. It must be the heat.
“You will look beautiful, Lotti.”
I trust her. I relax as the brush tickles my cheeks, pads caressing my eyelids, and eyeliners dance around my eyes. I imagine myself as a beautiful lady speaking English without hesitation or frustration.
“Don’t smile! You almost ruined your lips.”
After about thirty minutes, Tamara declares her masterpiece done. “You can open your eyes now.”
My lashes are sticky from the mascara. As I finally lift them, Tamara gasps.
“Oh my god, you look gorgeous! But before checking yourself in the mirror let me snap a photo of you and send my work to Márk real quick. Smile!”
I smile. “Thank you so much.”
“No worries. Picture’s sent. Now admire yourself in the mirror.”
I push myself up, peel my thighs off the leather chair, and hurry to the mirror hanging at the back of the room. The air is hot, but as I peek in the mirror my heart freezes. Feeling dizzy, I stagger back.
Face painted dead white, blue and green stains around the eyes, nose pink, lips huge, blood red. Tamara made a clown of me. Paralyzed, I cannot pull my eyes away. The vision of the confident, English-speaking lady is shattered. A distant, deep laugh crawls in my ears.
She is in tears of joy. “C’mon, it’s just a joke.”
I ignore her. I want to break the mirror.
Tamara’s laugh wears off. “What’s with you? I helped you ease up a bit, now you go mute?”
I whirl around, not looking at Tamara, storm to the bathroom and lock her out.
“Seriously?” Tamara bangs the door.
I run the water full blast, fill my palm with half a bottle of liquid soap, and rub my face. Hard. The dripping makeup colours the sink. After rinsing, I start over. I repeat these actions as if I were stuck in a freaking time loop. When the soap bottle is empty, I study my face in the bathroom mirror. Behind the tinges of hair and drops of water I discover myself. I straighten up and open the door.
Tamara leans against the wall, arms folded. “Jeez, you’re a mess.”
I look straight into her eyes. “I’m leaving.”
My steps hammer into the staircase.
“What? You can’t do this! I’ve always endured your awful jokes, now you’re the one who’s insulted? Who do you think you are?”
I slip into my ballerinas in the hall and grab the handle of the front door. “Goodbye Tamara.”
“Damn’ right goodbye! Run to that other nerd with the brother in England!”
The front door slams behind me.
I label my workbooks for the new semester. Soon I must figure out what to do after graduation. I haven’t talked to Tamara since that clown incident. Who will sit next to me during classes? My heart sinks.
A loud, persistent buzz shakes me out of the tangle of thoughts. My phone illuminates my English teacher’s name on its screen.
I gulp a breath. My thumb trembles as it taps the green receiver icon.
“Hi Lotti, it’s me, Antónia. How are you?”
“Hello, not too bad, thank you.”
“I’ll be quick, don’t hold your breath. Congrats! You are now officially a proficient English speaker with a marvellous 94 percent! You’ll receive a letter along with your diploma of course, but I wanted to tell you the good news first. Well done Lotti, I’m really proud of you.”
My joyful scream vibrates through the phone.
I repeat thank you eighty-four times, then hang up.
I grin, eyes gaze out the window, resting in the distance. Would I be able to sound as confident as those Americans now?
My phone beeps me back to my room. A text message from Enikő.
Can’t say no now Lotti. You’re coming to England with me next year!