Speaking in Tongues

The stranger lifted the wiper and licked the windshield. ”Mommmm?” My twelve-year-old daughter’s voice was high, thin, tight. I was afraid to step on the gas.

It was snowing that morning as we drove to the hairdresser’s, great lacy drops plopping onto the windshield. By the time we turned onto the side street above the salon, however, I had turned off the wipers. Drops still plopped, but they were sporadic.

When I paused to let a car go by before making a left turn into the parking lot, a young man stepped up to our car on my daughter’s side and leaned into the windshield. Clean shaven, cheerful looking, with his black hair and toque and pea jacket he bore more than a passing resemblance to Russell Brand. Thinking he wanted to clean the windshield, I shook my head and mouthed ’No,’ but he just grinned and lifted the wiper. Then he leaned into us and licked the windshield—twice. They weren’t kitten licks, delicate, tidy. They were bulldog licks, sloppy, proprietary: the snowflakes belonged to him. He grinned at us again and licked the windshield one more time. Then he put the wiper down, turned and walked away in the direction we had been headed. I stepped on the gas, overshooting the parking lot and him, and we were well down the long block before I was ready to turn the car around. As he sauntered down the street, he was talking to himself and gesturing in ways that suggested he was in a world of his own. We were no longer in his orbit.​

My daughter and I sat in the car in the parking lot and talked about what had happened, about the need to be alert to one’s surroundings and, sometimes, wary, and then we headed to the salon, putting the incident behind us—I thought. The more time has passed, however, the more puzzled I have become about what happened on that side street. How does one make sense of such bizarre behaviour? There was sexual intimidation, but there was something else too: he had been almost jaunty and, in a very peculiar way, playful. What was he saying to us? What was he saying to himself when he headed down the street? Was he really incomprehensible?

In some corners, speaking in tongues is a sign one will be saved, is, in fact, a condition of redemption, though I am not inclined to believe salvation comes in some split-sky, grave-popping rapture. I think it comes from the effort to make sense of experience, and the more compassion we bring to the task the better. In some very important ways, it seems to me, our lives are less narrative than collage. When we juxtapose moments from the past and the present, paste them side by side, we find meaning in the tension between them. I call it the Elmer’s Glue Theory, and I can’t help but apply it to this strange encounter.​

The young man we met on that snowdrop day reminds me of the two little boys in the newspaper photo that on a whim I hung in a cheap white frame years ago. The boys—they’d be about seven—are dressed in mackintoshes, and they are standing in the rain with their tongues out, trying to catch the drops. I glance at the picture every day, but in a very important way I don’t see it at all: I have grown immune to the charm that prompted me to save it from the blue bin. I must remind myself that I too have stood in the rain and snow with my tongue out, trying to lick heaven. I am less likely now to trust what falls from the sky because nature itself, like that young man, seems addled, but when he was a little boy, when delight was simple, did he wear a mackintosh? Did he speak joy?​

The older I get the more I like to believe I have some insights into some big questions. What is more important, though, is that I am reconciled to the fact that I will never have answers that fully satisfy. Still, when we are mystified by someone’s behaviour, it cannot hurt to take a deep breath and imagine him or her at the age of seven. Perhaps then we can bring the other, the alien, into our orbit, and experience itself can be redeemed.