"Well, the headstand is one of the most important postures you can do. Being upside down can turn your life around. It can make you happy."
"See? You're already laughing."
"You win," she said, placing the crown of her head on a folded blanket. "Hoist away."
Within the first week, Wendy was off yoga and onto a home gizmo that looked like a rickshaw with oars. Ruth continued with yoga three times a week. She had found a form of exercise that relaxed her. She especially liked the practice of staying focused, of eliminating everything from her mind except breath. And she liked Art, the bearded man. He was friendly and funny. They started going to a coffee shop around the corner after class.
Over decaf cappuccinos one evening, she learned that Art had grown up in New York, and had a doctorate in linguistics from UC Berkeley. "So what languages do you speak?" she asked.
"I'm not a true polyglot," he said. "Most linguists I know aren't. My actual language specialty at Berkeley was American Sign Language, ASL. I now work at the Center on Deafness at UCSF."
"You became an expert on silence?" she joked.
"I'm not an expert on anything. But I love language in all forms - sounds and words, facial expressions, hand gestures, body posture and its rhythms, what people mean but don't necessarily say with words. I've always loved words, the power of them."
"So what's your favorite word?"
"Hm, that's an excellent question." He fell quiet, stroking his beard in thought.
Ruth was thrilled. He was probably groping for a word that was arcane and multisyllabic, one of those crossword items that could be confirmed only in the Oxford English Dictionary.
"Vapors," he said at last.
"Vapors?" Ruth thought of chills and cold, mists and suicide ghosts. That was not a word she would have chosen.
"It appeals to all the senses," he explained. "It can be opaque but never solid. You can feel it, but it has no permanent shape. It might be hot or cold. Some vapors smell terrible, others quite wonderful. Some are dangerous, others are harmless. Some are brighter than others when burned, mercury versus sodium, for instance. Vapors can go up your nose with a sniff and permeate your lungs. And the sound of the word, how it forms on your lips, teeth, and tongue - vaporzzzzzz - it lilts up, then lingers and fades. It's perfectly matched to its meanings."
"It is," Ruth agreed. "Vaporzzzz," she echoed, savoring the buzz on her tongue.
"And then there's vapor pressure," Art continued, "and reaching that balance point between two states, one hundred degrees Celsius." Ruth nodded and gave him what she hoped was a look of intelligent concentration. She felt dull and badly educated. "One moment you have water," Art said, his hands forming undulating motions. "But under pressure from heat, it turns into steam." His fingers flittered upward.
Ruth nodded vigorously. Water to steam, that she understood, sort of. Her mother used to talk about fire and water combining to make steam, and steam looked harmless but could peel your skin right off. "Like yin and yang?" she ventured.
"Duality of nature. Exactly."
Ruth shrugged. She felt like a fraud.
"What about you?" he said. "What's your favorite word?"
She put on her idiot face. "Gosh oh golly, there are so many! Let's see. 'Vacation.' 'Jackpot.' Then there's 'free.' 'Sale.' 'Bargain.' You know, the usual."
He had laughed throughout, and she felt pleased. "Seriously," he said. "What?"
Seriously? She plucked at what surfaced in her mind, but they sounded trite: peace, love, happiness. And what would those words say about her? That she lacked those qualities? That she had no imagination? She considered saying onomatopoeia, a word that had enabled her to win a spelling bee in the fifth grade. But onomatopoeia was a jumble of syllables, not at all like the simple sounds it was supposed to represent. Crash, boom, bang.
Reprinted from The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 by Amy Tan. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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