The Monolinguist

How not learning a foreign language saved my life

Text by Tod Wodicka

Illustrations by Sara Lai

The growth began a few days after my German girlfriend of six months announced she was pregnant. We were both living in the Czech Republic, where such things weren't supposed to happen. I had thought that my well-curated inattention to detail and responsibility shielded me from details and responsibility. The real world kept at bay. Not speaking the language was kind of the whole point of moving to Bohemia: to disappear up my own ass. I was young.

Looking back, it's tempting to see my growth as competition. The anti-pregnancy; a bachelor party of selfish cells determined to give their boss a little last-minute attention before that other growth became too human to ignore. That I first noticed it while watching Mike Leigh's abortionist drama, Vera Drake, should be noted.

I couldn't get comfortable in the cinema seat. It was as if someone had placed a hot coal in my back pocket. I felt it again in the evening while showering: a ball beneath the skin on my backside, dead centre, down near the tail part of my tailbone. It was not pleasant.

The next day, it was the size of a golf ball. It felt red. I became feverish, and I could no longer sit down. It was pulsing, but not at all in time with my body's pulse, as if the growth had a fully operational, pumping heart all its own.
I called my pregnant German girlfriend and explained the situation. Part of me enjoyed being in terrible pain.

"C'mon, it's not that bad," she said. "Be a man."
Manfully, I explained the nature of the emergency.
She said, "You do not have cancer."
"On my ass."
"It's a pimple, Tod," she said. "Look, I've got to work. I'll be home in a few hours, OK?"

Soon, I couldn't move without enraging the growth. How startling, the suddenness with which your body can turn on you. It was a huge, leaden pressure pushing outwards, but also pulling in everything around it, my thoughts included. I couldn't read or listen to music or think about anything but the searing, inflating berserker on my backside: its gravity took in all. There was a black hole growing on my backside and I was getting sucked down into it. I lay on my stomach, on the floor, weathering gusts of cold sweat and spasmodic, laugh-like fits of agony.
I think it was the third or fourth call that finally got through to my pregnant German girlfriend.

"I'll be there as soon as I can," she promised.
I moaned.
"Cancer doesn't hurt, you know."
"Of course it does. Mine does!"
"Tod, I'll be right there. I'll take a taxi, we'll pick you up outside and take you to the hospital so they can look at your pimple."

I could not bend over to put my shoes and socks on. I could hardly stand up or walk. I managed a pair of slippers, but otherwise I wore only pajamas. Once out of the elevator, and out of the building, I moved slowly, skiing my slippered feet through the snow. Standing was nearly impossible, but sitting was unthinkable. I waited. The only vaguely comfortable position would have been prostrate in the snow, face down.


My pregnant German girlfriend pulled me towards her taxi and laid me out on my side. If the Czech taxi driver spoke German, what he saw and heard must have been chilling indeed: a luminescent, pregnant German woman looking back at a sobbing, hospital-bound foreigner while lovingly whispering,

"Tod, Tod, Tod…"
Death, death, death.
Never had the bilingual implications of my name been more apt. Der Tod in Prag.

I half listened to my pregnant, multilingual German girlfriend speak to the driver in Czech. Their voices were music. Meaning clear and concealed - and I was safe there in my pain cocoon, an infant again, pre-language, lazing in the back of a stroller listening to the adults, their words comfortably indissoluble from the world that formed them.

"I'm scared," I said. Each bump of the taxi was absorbed by the growth and spit out again as a scream.
My pregnant German girlfriend was frightened, finally, but I was too gone to properly enjoy it. "I don't understand," she said. "This just happened? Just suddenly, how is that possible? From a pimple?"
"Cancer," I moaned.
This time she didn't contradict me.

The first doctor we encountered was not pleased to see us. He glowered at my pregnant German. He pointed at my feet, aghast, his Czech slowly spitting itself into tirade. It was inconceivable to him, it offended every principle he stood for: why try and save the life of someone so stupid? Slippers in the winter? A waste of their time.

The doctor shouted at my pregnant German girlfriend and she - bless her Teutonic soul - shouted right back at him. It was like watching a thunderstorm.

Could he save me? Did he even want to? The doctor began explaining the facts. A good monolinguist learns to differentiate facts from other groups of words by the inhuman way they never quite get lift-off. If another language, heard by a monolinguist, can sometimes be compared to music, even soul music, then facts are cold music. Facts are Kraftwerk. They come from some objective elsewhere and are meant for immediate dissociation from the fact-giver. Don't blame the messenger. Which, of course, didn't stop the doctor from presenting the facts of my preposterous and life-threatening emergency with what was clearly an evil and satisfied finality. (Monolinguists also make ideal lie detectors: often the truth of a statement can be heard in the voice, not the words the voice produces.) Whatever it was, it was bad and going to get worse. Slippers in the middle of a snowstorm. Well, what else did we fucking expect?

"Tod, listen to me, we have to go to the Emergency Room," my pregnant German girlfriend explained, holding me up. "You might need an operation."
"But isn't that where we are?"
"Another hospital."
"An operation." Now that sounded official. That sounded like a great idea! "But what's wrong with this hospital?" She said, "Well, I think that this one is closing."
"Hospitals don't close."

Lights began to flicker, than clap off, one by one. I would have loved to laugh. Somewhere, seriously, behind one of those doors, a dog began to bark. Then whine mournfully. Then stop.
My pregnant German girlfriend cheered me up with a rap of delicious German profanity. I was kissed.

"It's not cancer, anyway. But he wouldn't tell me what it was, said I wouldn't understand. He said he didn't need to tell me. Arschloch. This is Prague, so he was probably expecting some graft." "Are you kidding me?"
She slung my arm around her protective shoulder. Was I disappointed it wasn't cancer? Well, at least it was serious.
"Is the other hospital nearby?" I asked.
"There's a bus, apparently."

There was not a bus. There was a bus stop and there was snow - there was the indefinite bank of some Czech highway sending up plumes of brown slush, my slippers like wet rolls of toilet paper, my entire lower body a shape-shifting realm of anguish. The growth, I knew, was nearing its endgame. The pain, once so unintelligible and heavy, seemed to be developing a personality now. It was reacting to me, proto-linguistically explaining its likes, its dislikes, all its hopes for our future together. He liked when I didn't move, he liked when I sobbed. Screaming, more so. He didn't like me at all, however, and hoped that I would join him soon in wordless oblivion. I thought about my unborn European child, now probably the size of the growth, its human twin floating somewhere safely in the body of the German standing next to me. I needed Vera Drake.

The next hospital was closing, too. We were told there was yet another hospital, some miles away, that was still open.

Doctors examined my growth. I closed my eyes. Many voices or maybe only two - I followed my pregnant German girlfriend's Czech through it all, like you might follow an airplane taking off, an airplane with your entire family aboard, all of your friends, lovers, colleagues, everyone you ever knew and cared about as well as your stuff: books, albums, memorabilia, your computer and unborn children and condoms you promised to use but for some reason didn't. I followed her voice and willed it to stay aloft. Keep me up there for at least a little while longer, please, just long enough to fly me the hell out of here...

"Tod," she said, finally.
I waited.
"Tod, the doctor says it's a pimple."
I watched the plane disappear into storm clouds.
"A pimple," I said.
"Well, like a pimple." She knew I was disappointed. She might have been disappointed as well. She held my hand.
"A pimple."
"I don't know," she said. "I think they have to pop it. Remove or drain it. It's going to be OK."
"This," I said. "No, no. This is not a pimple. Ask them again. Are these people even doctors?"
"Maybe a cyst in English?"
"Thank you. That's better. I'm dying of a fancy pimple."

I tried to turn over to see her, to see them all talking in Czech. If only I could see their faces, I thought. By their faces I would know my fate. But the movement only made me scream, again.

"What's going on? What's wrong, tell me!"
"Shhh, it's OK. Listen to me. It's not a pimple. I think it's on your spine," she said. "Your tailbone. It's deep down there. They have to operate, Tod. If it gets any bigger it could be bad, if it bursts it could get up into your brain. The infection. Do you understand?"
"I could die."
"You won't die."
"You don't know that!"
She touched the back of my head. "Will you listen to me?"
"People drown in bathtubs all the time."
"What?" "These are Czechs, not doctors! People die of all sorts of stupid shit. Ask them."

I was embarrassing. I was not a plucky European man, and she was tired, and accidentally impregnated, and she was worried. I had a choice, she explained. They could either operate in 12 hours, with total "antithetic", or they could operate immediately, in a few minutes, with something she called "local antithetic". I understood this to be like Novocain that dentists punch your cheek up with: a small wasp-kiss shot in my backside and I wouldn't feel a thing. Or not that much, anyway. What choice did I have? "Now," I said.

She didn't like the sound of that. I did not like the look on her face. She conferred again with the doctors.
"Tod, they've asked me to wait outside."
"I'll be right outside." No, I did not like the look on her face at all. Something was very wrong.

I was linguistically isolated. The doctors and nurses began preparing: and now I felt as if I were the airplane, or a passenger on an airplane, preparing for take-off. It was out of my control. Human flight, the cutting and rearranging of human flesh, all the inexplicably scientific things we give ourselves to with the tacit and almost touching trust of infants. More nurses came in, male ones. Four or five. Orderlies? The word floated into my head. Orderlies. And these reassuring nouns arranged themselves around me, ceremoniously, holding down my arms and my legs, applying the promise of pressure to come. I waited for the sure-to-be excruciating shot of Novocain. Just to touch anywhere near the growth now, just the lightest touch on my lower back, sent my body into black spasms. The needle would be unbearable. I knew that. But that would be the worst of it. I trusted science.

They spoke to me in Czech.
"The shot, I know. Big pain. I'm ready."
More Czech.
"Just do it already."

I felt and heard what could only have been hairspray being sprayed against my growth. Not hairspray, no, I thought, but perhaps some sort of disinfectant? The grips suddenly tightened around my legs, my arms, and my back.They said something informal and preparatory to me in Czech. Something, I imagined, like, "This might prick a bit …"

Which brings me to how not knowing a foreign language can save your life. Because what happened next, if I had known, would not have ended as well as it did. The hairspray, it turned out, was the 'antithetic': some kind of lightly numbing cold spray. Nothing, basically. The only way I survived what happened next was that I simply didn't know that it was about to happen. If I had known, I would have tensed. I would have thrashed and the knife they plunged into my growth would have bit into my tailbone instead, or gone too deep and burst the growth, infecting my spine, then my brain, or any other number of dire outcomes all leading to a corpse cart.

Tod Wodicka, 1976-2004, killed by a fancy pimple.

But because I only spoke one language, because they got me unaware, in one fierce, sacrificial motion they were able to stab down and slice into the growth, opening it like a mouth. My pregnant German girlfriend said that my scream was more animal than human. It felt sourceless, she said. People around her stopped. She told me her first instinct was to hold her stomach, fearing for the life of our unborn child.

Ten minutes later, I was on my feet. The fever broke. Perhaps my body decided, finally, to give me a gift of endorphins, but I was in a giddy, stoned sort of state. I was laughing. The pressure had been relieved, the growth had been aborted. I was shown the straw-like tube that they had rammed into my backside to vacuum-up the growth. I could hardly walk, but the pain now was normal, the kind you'd have if someone took a large knife and stabbed you in the arm. Repeatedly. It was mine now, a part of me. It was gorgeous. I couldn't wait to take it home and sing it to sleep.

Later that evening, my pregnant German girlfriend, relieved enough to be angry with my monolinguality again, told me the whole thing would have gone so much smoother if I would have spoken Czech. If I'd made even the smallest attempt in the many years I'd been there to learn a single word of Czech.

I insist otherwise.

If I had spoken Czech I wouldn't be here right now. Truly, I believe that. Bilingualism, then. An example of the kind of stupid shit that people can die from.

  • The Monolinguist