Authors: Camilla Trinchieri
Copyright © 2007 by Camilla Trinchieri
All rights reserved.
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The price of silence / Camilla Trinchieri.
1.Woman teachers—Fiction. 2. Language teachers—Fiction
Trials (Murder)—Fiction. I.Title.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
“The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the
future, too.We all try to lie out of that
but life won’t let us.”
—MARY TYRONE in Eugene O’Neill’s
Long Day’s Journey into Night
Table of Contents
At the courthouse, flanked by my husband and son, I walk
the gauntlet of reporters pressing for personal details they will turn into something vile, unrecognizable.
“What happened in the past has no bearing on this case,” I stop to tell them, this first day of my trial for murder. “There is no link, no inevitability.”
Our lives are like anyone else’s, I have to believe.A simple gathering of facts, of sad little coincidences, with no discernable pattern. Random twists of direction are all anyone can expect, twists that can turn into tragedy and overwhelm you, against which we have tried to defend ourselves by burying them in the basement of our souls, by building a wall of silence to lean on.
Tom wraps his arms around our son Josh and me as the cameras pelt us with flashes.We are a picture of togetherness, a family finally united.
“My wife is innocent,”Tom says.
I stopped being innocent a long time ago.
ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY Hector Guzman, the prosecutor in the Emma Perotti murder trial, which begins today, August 21, 2006, is a short, slim, tight-faced man in his late thirties. He approaches the jury and does a half turn to allow the defendant, fifty-three year old Emma Perotti, and her attorney a view of his profile as he makes his opening statement.
“The evidence you will hear in this courtroom during the following days will prove beyond a reasonable doubt that on April 19, 2005, Emma Perotti went to the loft that, until a few weeks before, she had shared with An-ling Huang, knocked her down, then took a can of insulation foam, stuck the plastic straw of that can of insulation foam down the throat of the unconscious girl and pressed the nozzle, suffocating her to death.
“The evidence will show that Emma Perotti had a good motive for killing An-ling Huang. The evidence will show—”
Ribbons of memory float across my line of vision, blocking out the prosecutor, the men and women in the jury, the courtroom itself:
She slipped into the morning class, my beginner’s class, almost four years ago, just as Eric finished reading the chapter, “What I Miss About My Country,” from the
“What do you miss, Eric?” I asked after a quick nod of acknowledgment to the new girl.
“I miss medicine.” Eric folded the photocopied chapter. The classes are free for newly-arrived immigrants at the Welcome School, where I teach, and the school doesn’t have money to buy enough books.“In China go direct to doctor,” he said. “No call before, get medicine, take care quickly.” Eric’s words came out in a jumbled rush. He wouldn’t slow down no matter how often I asked him to. He claimed it was because of his Chinese name, Jun. It means “a strong white horse who runs fast, ten thousand miles a day.”
All my Asian students change their names—Vicki, Jennifer, John, Charlie.They say their Asian names are too hard for Americans to pronounce. I’m the granddaughter of immigrants and I often wonder if my students aren’t trying to keep their
identities apart. My Italian grandmother refused to speak English, believing that the harsh-sounding words would feast on her brain and make her Italian memories disappear.
The newcomer sat next to Jennifer,my best student.They were a study in contrasts. Jennifer, from Beijing, was small, moonfaced and full of pep.She wore tight-fitting clothes,kept her short hair spiked with gel and was always offering a toothy grin lined with bright red lipstick.The new student was tall, with strong shoulders, hands that were disproportionate in their smallness and stained with paint, protruding from an equally stained, shapeless, navy-blue quilted jacket. Her hair fell thickly to her shoulders framing a triangle of a face with a wide forehead tapering down to a small pointed chin. Her hair fell thickly to her shoulders.She held her back and neck straight,as if she were balancing a heavy basket on her head.Her seriousness,her concentration, made me think of a child faced with a difficult task.
“Welcome, I’m Emma, the teacher.” I handed her a copy of the chapter we were working on. She said nothing and I held my questions until after class, when the other students would be gone. It’s hard to sit in front of strangers and mouth a string of syllables that are senseless and crude compared to the music of one’s own language.To commit to words that have no past, no resonance.“I am happy to have a new student,” I said. Her response was a sweet, gleaming smile that made me instantly like her.“I hope you will enjoy our class.”
She turned toward the large window, which overlooked a small park.On the wet windowsill three pigeons bobbed their heads, eating the popcorn Charlie, from Taipei, had put there. The day before it had snowed four inches in New York City and today the sun reflecting off the snow filled the room with a stark white light.The girl flinched. She closed her eyes.
“It’s too bright in here,” I said and walked over to the window.
“No!” Esmeralda, from El Salvador, protested after I pulled the shade down halfway. “Is nice.What I miss about my country is the sun.”
“I miss—”The new girl stopped, opened her eyes.
“What do you miss?” I asked after a moment. She shook her head. Did she not know the meaning of the word? Or was it simply too difficult to continue?
“Let’s put the chapter away for today and go over yesterday’s homework.” I wiped the blackboard clean. “Jennifer, why don’t you read yours out loud.”
Toward the end of class I set a date for the Christmas party three weeks away and asked my students to bring a dish typical of their country. “I’ll bring lasagna,” I said. Esmeralda announced that she preferred pizza.
“Would you like to bring something?” I asked the new girl. “The school will pay you back.” The truth was the teachers chipped in. “A little something?” She looked blankly at the blackboard where I’d written down everyone’s contribution. Jennifer translated in Cantonese. The girl looked down at her hands. Jennifer, always eager to show off her knowledge, tried Mandarin. The girl’s head stayed down.
“That’s all right,” I said. “You don’t have to bring anything. But please come.We’ll have a good time.”
She looked up, studied my face with what I took to be a curious, puzzled look. Much later she told me that she was staring at the ghost of sadness sitting on my face. I would discover that sadness was something we shared.
After class, I learned that her name was An-ling Huang.
“English bad. Lady Teacher teach me.” I barely understood her, her accent was so strong.
“You help me.” On her face appeared a sudden raw need that filled me with tenderness. “Please.”
“I’ll be happy to teach you, An-ling.”
She repeated her name, gently correcting my pronunciation. The music of the syllables is everything. Same syllables, different sound and the meaning changes. It took me a few tries to get it right.When I did, she rewarded me with the gleam of her smile.
She’d been in this country only three months. Her family was still in mainland China.
“You must miss them very much.”
She played with the wide beaded bracelets on her wrists.
“I have much . . .” Her hands pressed against her chest.
“It hurts,” I said. After teaching hundreds of students, I pride myself in thinking that I understand new immigrants. They come to the States for a better life, but once here they discover that something visceral has been torn from them. A part of who they are—daughter, wife, mother, friend, neighbor—that is intricately tied to their homeland.
“I will help you as much as I can, An-ling. Did I say it right?”
She nodded with a smile.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, nine o’clock.” I handed her a copy of the class schedule.“Welcome to my class.”A quick bob of her head and she slipped out of the room without a word.
In the days that followed, I looked up whenever the classroom door opened, expecting to see her.
Arnold Fishkin, Emma Perotti’s principal defense lawyer, is a short, plump man in his fifties with boyish looks and a gentle manner that relaxes witnesses and wins him points with the jury.
“Emma Perotti loved An-ling Huang as though she was her own daughter. She took this young fragile woman under her wing, shored her up, gave her strength that she desperately needed. You will come to understand that Emma Perotti did not kill An-ling Huang. You’ll come to understand that Emma Perotti is a good person, a highly regarded teacher of English as a second language, a woman who has dedicated herself to giving new immigrants the means to ease their way into this big country of ours. You will learn that Emma Perotti is a loving mother to her fifteen-year-old son, Josh, a loving wife to Tom Howell.
A cloudy August morning. It was only eight o’clock but Broadway was already filling up with parents and first-year Barnard and Columbia students. The parents were dressed formally, some with masks of tight-lipped determination on their faces, some with looks of awed sadness. One father lagged behind, calling to his daughter to notice the sailboats on the Hudson, the graffiti on the newsstand wall, clinging to his vanishing role as teacher, expert in the secrets of life. Next to him, the mother cried into a tissue. The daughter was beautiful in her youth, filled with eagerness to get on with her life.Watching her reawakened an old, numb ache and I hurried to the subway at 116th Street.
Halfway down the steps, I heard, “Lady Teacher.” I turned back toward the entrance. “An-ling!” She seemed surprised that I remembered her name. Surprised and pleased. I was already late for work, but I walked back up the steps. “An-ling.” I repeated. “ ‘Spirit of peace.’ One of my students told me that’s what your name means.”
“Yes,” she said.
We faced each other awkwardly, standing in the subway entrance like two old friends feeling guilty for not having kept in touch. People brushed past us on their way down to work, up to classes. She was wearing a faded black shirt over shapeless black pants and sneakers. Her hair spouted in a ponytail out of the back of a Yankees baseball cap. In one hand she held a large black portfolio. I found myself pleased by the thought that she was an artist, even proud. For no reason at all. “How are you?” The look of raw need was gone from her face, replaced by what I took as a newfound confidence.“You look well.”
She tugged at a shirttail.The same beaded bracelets clasped her wrists. Beautiful, delicate, perhaps a family heirloom.
“I’m sorry you didn’t come back to class.”
“I want to come back, but—” She shrugged, covered her embarrassment with a faint smile. “I find new teacher.
Her accent was almost gone.How long had it been since she walked into my class—nine months? Then I had barely been able to understand her.