The French Teacher
Oh, Emily thinks, this is not Paris. The woman ahead of her in the line at Walmart is wearing a bright pink jogging suit in a size XXL, her belly sagging over the tops of her thighs. She is pushing a cart laden with such essentials as potato chips, TV dinners, and air freshener. Her daughter wears low-rider jeans and a cropped top that displays around her midriff the promise of an amplitude to match her mother’s. A tattooed butterfly embellishes the top of her left breast. Emily closes her eyes.
There are days, she thinks.
Walking across the parking lot to her car, she is comforted by the ticktock of her heels, not very high, but quand même. Non, non, c’est pas possible, she thinks, sliding behind the wheel and dropping her purse onto the passenger seat. Let’s see, are we almost out of coffee? Luckily she has time to stop at the Whole Bean on the way home.
No, not Paris. Paris was yesterday, who said that? In her case, it was more like twenty-some years ago, but she still keeps a flame burning in her heart. Well, it is a family joke. “C’mon, Mom, show us your Paris pics again!” “Hey, Mom, how do you say ‘No way, José’ in French?” “Great looking scarf, Mom!”
She smiles. At least she can laugh about it. Don, too. “How’s my favorite French girl?” he likes to say, nuzzling her neck.
Not so bad, really. But still.
Alors—ah oui, le café. Traffic is backed up on the bypass, she’d better cut through on Maple.
Her mind drifts back, as it so often does, even now, to ankle-twisting cobblestones, narrow winding stairs, rickety café tables. Whiffs of perfume and bad drains. Cold air seeping in around the window, light bulbs too dim to read by. Her French family during her year abroad, les Dupins. There was Marie-Claude, just that much older, so chic in her fitted skirts. And Florence, Emily’s age, shy but a surprisingly willing partner in crime, eventually a real copine. (Today she’d be called a BFF, Emily supposed.) There was Madame Dupin, whose Sunday lunch commenced with “un coup de champ” (the champagne bottled near Rheims by a Dupin cousin in such a small quantity that the family drank most of it) and lasted until it was dark outside. There was Monsieur Dupin in his sweater vest, quizzing her about politics, as if she knew anything. And there was the language, always the language, flowing over, under, and all around her, enveloping her like music, wearing on her like the roar of traffic on a big highway nearby, tormenting her like a story she was too young to understand, a seduction and a penance all in one.
Madame Dupin’s cooking aside, mostly Emily lived on croques monsieur and coffee. Mostly she lived at the café across from the school, mostly she lived in a swirl of students, mostly she lived in the delirium of her first real love affair, mostly she lived, oh, she lived.
At the house, she dumps her packages and calls out, “Yoo hoo! I’m home!” Bijou, their nine-year-old bulldog, hoists herself from her nest by the pantry and gimps over to greet her, her toothy underbite and furrowed face disguising the sweetest disposition in dogdom. She was a gift from Don’s sister, a bulldog breeder, who couldn’t ask a top price for the less-than-perfect pup. She is the second of such cast-offs, both named Bijou, the first one long gone but not forgotten, her Guinness Book snores and lethal gas attacks having set a standard that Bijou II is doing her best to match.
Emily stumps up the stairs. “Boys? Julie?” An unholy noise she supposes is music beats against Joey’s closed door. She knocks, not that he could hear it, and peeks in. He’s at the computer, his head bobbing in time to the racket. “Hi, Mom.” She waves and closes the door. Steve’s room is empty, but Julie is on her bed talking on the phone, twirling her hair with her free hand. She signs off with a “Gotta go, talk to you later” when she sees her mother. Julie, the eldest, cut her Wednesday morning philosophy class so she could come home from college on Tuesday, getting a head start on the Thanksgiving break. Emily keeps trying to figure out why she looks different than she did even just last summer, after her freshman year. More cheekbones? Less baby fat?
“Where’s your brother?”
“The one who’s not ruining his hearing with that awful noise.”
“I think he went to play basketball with some guys.”
Well, Emily thinks, the upside of his new driver’s license is that she doesn’t have to drive him everywhere. The downside is he’s a lot harder to keep track of. What guys? Where?
“Mom? Can I ask you something?” Julie rolls off the bed and stands in front of her open closet, peering in as if she doesn’t know what’s in there.
“Sure.” Julie got her father’s hazel eyes but her mother’s fine features and small frame, which Don, a former college fullback, says was enough to convince him there is a God.
Sometimes Emily wonders, don’t teenagers get acne anymore? With their smooth skin and glossy hair, their coltish grace, their flashes of seriousness and hilarity, most of them seem to her achingly beautiful. All wasted, of course, from the point of view of someone her age. By the time Wisdom and Maturity have made their contributions, the looks have had their day and you’re lucky to rate an “attractive.” Obviously it’s nature’s way of propagating the species: pair ’em off before they’re smart enough to think it over. Sometimes, watching her students, she is knocked sideways by a gust of anger. How heedless they are of what they’ve got.
“What would you think if I decided to go on junior year abroad? I mean, I really think I want to,” says Julie.
“Well, sweetie, we can certainly talk about it.”
Ah, oh, oh.
“Where are you thinking you’d like to go?” Emily asks, as if there were some chance of a surprise.
“Well, duh! Where do you think?” Julie cocks a hip, plants a fist, and thrusts out an elbow. No, really, she still has that little bit of baby fat, though she does look like she’s slimmed down, lost some of that freshman five.
Emily smiles and puts her arms around her, butting her forehead against her daughter’s. For a while she had thought Julie’s height would surpass her own, but it now seems they will always be nose-to-nose. “Well, you don’t have to decide yet, do you? You need to think about it carefully.”
Julie pulls back and looks at her mother. “Soon,” she says. “Next semester.”
“Okay. We’ll talk while you’re home. Your dad might have some thoughts.”
“C’mon, Mom, aren’t you excited? Aren’t you excited? All those stories about France!” Julie giggles. “‘Oui, Madame, bien sûr, Madame, je vous assure, Madame—’ Honestly, Mom, no one would believe that story, or the one about your professor who didn’t exist. Or what about the time you—” When Julie gets tickled, she has a tendency to bounce up and down.
“Ça suffit, ma puce,” Emily says, laughing. “That’s enough.” God, why had she filled the children’s ears with all that stuff? She had really just been telling the stories to herself, indulging her nostalgia, assuaging her longing. Well, at least Julie had developed an interest in French, the boys were hopeless. Ma puce—at the age of six or so, Julie had shrieked when she found out that her mother was calling her a flea. Now it’s a shared joke between them. Julie has been taking French since middle school and except for a brief revolt in the tenth grade when she decided that France was no longer chic and China was the future, she has been her mother’s frequent companion in a parallel life lived in France.
“Want to help me make the pumpkin pies?”
“I’m going out, remember? I need to wash my hair.”
“Oh, that’s right, of course. But I don’t remember who with.”
“Just Sally, a couple of other friends. She’s got some guy she wants me to meet.”
“Ah ha. You won’t be late, I hope. Tomorrow’s going to be busy, what with Memaw and Gramps arriving and everything that’s going on.”
“No, he sounds like sort of a dweeb anyway.”
Emily smiles and gives her a brisk hug before heading downstairs to deal with pumpkins, cranberries, and the turkey, which she ordered fresh from the market and which is nearly too big for the refrigerator. Why not a goose, she thinks.
The idea of Julie in Paris. She inhales sharply, fighting down something like—what? Anger? Fear? Why on Earth is that? Shouldn’t she feel pleased? She had to have known this would happen. Hadn’t she hoped this would happen?
In fact, Emily has resolutely refused to think about Julie taking her junior year in France. “There’s plenty of time to think about that,” she’s always said if the subject came up, pushing the question off into the future. She hadn’t wanted to pressure her. What if her hovering mother-interest provoked her into rebelling against the idea? Or, if Julie did decide to go, would it be because of her? Was that something for which she wanted to be responsible?
She imagines her daughter, standing and chattering with a couple of girlfriends in the Métro, draped around a pole like garlands around a maypole, then jostling each other in a flurry out of the Métro car, talking and gesticulating, the belts of their coats fluttering behind them. She pictures her dashing to class in the morning, breath foul with coffee like everyone else’s, wearing heels with her jeans. Sneaking past her French family “mother” to avoid the usual friendly inquisition. Hanging out at the café for hours. Smoking. Oh God, do they still smoke? Flirting with that French guy, the one with the funny laugh and the ridiculous motorbike.
It is all too easy for her to imagine because she has never ceased thinking about it. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to come home and become a French teacher. Even if she had kept her memories warm, making a special place for Paris in her mind, a place she could revisit when she wanted to, it would not be the same as having to speak French to high school kids three days a week and talk about French life, French culture, French attitudes on a regular basis. She would be just Emily Blake, not Madame Bleck, who really is sort of pathetic, with those scarves and her French movies and all that stuff about proper French manners.
She hears Don’s car door slam in the garage, and waits for him to bang through into the kitchen. In the midst of cutting up pumpkin, she tilts her head for his ritual smooch on the temple. His briefcase drops on the bench in the hall, his coat rustles off and jangles onto a hanger in the coat closet. Three, four . . . “Yes, please,” she calls, in answer to the unasked question. Don reappears, wrenches open the refrigerator, retrieves an open bottle of chardonnay. She scrapes the pumpkin cubes into a bowl, wipes her hands, and turns gratefully to take the glass he offers her. He puts the bottle back, snags a beer for himself. He’ll drink wine with dinner, but it is Emily who buys it.
“So?” he asks. “How was your day?”
“So-so,” she says, smiling. “You?”
“Pas mal,” he says, as always, using two of the dozen French words he’s learned in all these years. With Don, it is always “pas mal,” not bad. She has never explained to him that in France it means very good.
She looks at him leaning against the fridge, a solid, big man, the kind of muscled, corn-fed specimen so reliably produced in the Midwest. He looks like good farm stock, handsome as a prize-winning draft horse. With his big masculine frame, he would fit in with the guys hanging around any country store in Dixie, but he was actually born in Minnesota, a fact he flaunts to forestall the ribbing of the local good ol’ boys. He and Emily have lived in the South for nearly twenty years now, and he has earned a comfortable place among the locals. It was Emily who had wanted to bring up their kids in the town where she grew up, a leafy medium-sized almost-city that once had thrived on the textile industry; Don said he could live anywhere. He spends his days in the old five-and-dime store downtown, long since converted to offices and now housing several small businesses like his insurance agency. In winter he wears a hat with ear flaps.
She opens her mouth to say that Julie has something she wants to discuss with them, but changes her mind. Later, maybe. Or Julie will bring it up. Instead, she nudges him out of the way so she can get in the refrigerator. “Butter.”
It is because of Madame Dupin that she’s cutting up fresh pumpkin instead of using canned like everyone else. She doesn’t recall ever seeing a pumpkin chez Dupin, but the idea of canned anything offended Madame Dupin, middle-aged and henna-haired, who devoted an astounding amount of attention to feeding her family, making daily forays to the neighborhood food vendors, never missing the thrice-weekly open-air market on Place Maubert. In fact, Madame Dupin never spent as much time cooking as she did shopping, and never consulted a recipe. Her cooking was simple, direct, not really time-consuming, but it depended on the best ingredients: the fish still bright-eyed if not actually still wiggling, the haricots verts picked the day before, the raw-milk cheeses from family farms, sometimes with straw still sticking to them, calculated to be eaten not just on a certain day but at midday or evening. Nowadays, thanks more to Alice Waters than Julia Child (unknown in France, unknown), the locavore philosophy has caught on in the States, and thank God for that. There was no microwave chez Dupin. To the best of Emily’s recollection, she never even ate anything out of the freezer at the Dupin table.
Well, Emily does have a microwave. And the kids have been known to eat frozen pizza. But in general and certainly at Thanksgiving, she keeps the faith as best she can. It’s easier now that even Walmart claims to offer local produce, although Emily tries to shop at the farmer’s market every weekend.
She sighs and measures flour for the pie crust into the Cuisinart. A French invention, at least.
Julie in Paris. Her stomach knots.
Would Julie have a Jean-Marc?
She would meet him in a gaggle of students around a café table. He would be the one cracking the jokes, causing the uproar, snapping looks at her through those impossibly cool French glasses. He would wear a jacket with his jeans, a wool scarf thrown around his neck. His hair would be slightly long—or nowadays maybe short and a bit spiky with gel? He would charm her onto the back of his motorbike and pepper her with questions about herself over countless cups of espresso, more fascinated, and fascinating, than any boy she’s ever known before. He would propose picnics and vernissages (free wine, en plus). He would take her to hear music late at night, he would take her to see films by directors she had never heard of, he would teach her how to eat oysters. He would take her to bed. He would teach her French.
Jean-Marc had changed Emily’s life, although not in the way she had thought he might. Well, no, she hadn’t really believed (had she?) that she would marry him and become French. Perhaps for a few weeks there at the end when they knew how intensely they would miss each other, but no. He was just part of her adventure abroad. She would never have stayed, even if he had asked her in the end. It is true, she will admit, that there was a spell when she had hoped he would, or at least thought she hoped he would. It could never have worked, she always thinks.
Despite everything, she had known so little. It was only by chance, for instance, that she read somewhere, during her senior year back at home, that you were not supposed to cut your lettuce with a knife. Her heart had jumped when she read that, thinking of the Sunday with Jean-Marc’s family, the coveted invitation at last, just before Easter. They lived in an apartment, substantial without being grand, in the “good” part of the seventeenth arrondissement. Emily by then was adept at eating with her fork in her left hand, tines down, knife in the right, keeping her wrists above the table at all times. But why had no one told her she was supposed to fold the lettuce neatly onto her fork, assisted by her knife, no matter how cumbersome the leaf? Something to do with old knives and how the blades would discolor the lettuce. Had Jean-Marc’s mother noticed if she cut the lettuce? Had she cut the lettuce? Emily cringed in the nearly certain knowledge that she had. Doubtless there had been other rules she never knew she had transgressed. Not that a silly thing like how you ate your salad would have made a difference to Jean-Marc. Or maybe it would have, maybe that was the turning point. She would never know and it didn’t matter now. Still, it’s the little things, isn’t it?
Funny, she was sure his family had assumed they were sleeping together, but that hadn’t seemed nearly as important as the lettuce.
In all these years, she has never been back to France. Except in her mind, of course. There were plenty of opportunities, she could have gone on any number of trips with this or that group. Don had often encouraged her to go, and had even tried to persuade her to plan a vacation à deux. “You know you want to go,” he had said. “C’mon, you can show me all the sights. We can see where you lived and all those places you used to hang out. Just say the word, we can go right after school is out.” But she had always found a reason not to go. The children were too young to leave, they had just bought a new car, who would take care of the dog.
She didn’t think she could bear it if nothing had changed. Or worse, if everything had changed.
“Okay,” Don said finally. “If you change your mind, just let me know.” But she knew he was at least partly relieved. He liked knowing how to do things. Maybe he wouldn’t exactly have minded being dependent on her for everything from ordering dinner to navigating the Métro, but he wouldn’t have enjoyed it either. And for Emily, it was all right at home, he was who he was, but perhaps seeing him in France would affect the way she thought about him?
He is so not-French. Sometimes she thinks that might have been why she married him. It’s true, he would have stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb in her French world. So large, so cheerful, so American. His travels have all been courtesy of Uncle Sam, who paid his way through college, and tended to feature jungle scenery. In France he might have seemed like un plouc, a hick. Which he really isn’t. It’s true he has never been to Europe or studied art history, but he majored in philosophy, for heaven’s sake, and is an obsessive opera fan. He knows his world history. None of which saved him from selling insurance to make a living.
They joke that their marriage sometimes requires high-level diplomatic talks to reconcile their cultural differences. Usefully, Don could always make a joke, and Emily could always take one. It is, thank God, un mariage assez passionné. Pas mal.
In fact, however, the lack of ongoing contact with France has caused Emily some difficulties in her job. She teaches at a small private school where the budget is always under a strain. The Spanish class is more than full, with a waiting list, and Señora Lopez has long been petitioning for another Spanish teacher to help with the demand. Meanwhile, although Emily still has a respectable number of French students, the enrollment is not growing. There is pressure from some of the parents to dispense with French in order to hire another Spanish teacher. Who speaks French anyway? And after all, Emily Blake is not even a native speaker, she has not even visited France since she was a student. Shouldn’t she have sought out some opportunities to reconnect and stay up to date? Are the kids getting what they should from the French program?
Merde! She snatches the pies from the oven just in time.
T’es jalouse, c’est ça? she asks herself. Are you jealous? The thought of Julie in Paris for a year. It squeezes her so hard she has trouble breathing.
When Don comes back in the kitchen, she has to blink hard a couple of times before she can look at him. “Julie wants to do her junior year in France,” she says.
He pulls the carving knife out of its slot in the drawer and reaches for the whetstone. “Well, that’s no surprise, is it?”
“No. I suppose not.”
“So? Well, that’s great, isn’t it?”
She takes a deep breath, gets steady. “Yes, it’s wonderful.”
And for the rest of the year, she and Julie spend hours talking and planning. What she should pack, where she will live. How to ride the Métro, how to order food. “Don’t forget that the entrée is the appetizer, not the main course.” “Always say ‘bonjour, madame’ or ‘bonjour, monsieur’ when you go in a shop.” “Never pour the wine if you are the guest.”
She can’t decide whether to tell her about the lettuce.
All too swiftly the wheel turns, it’s late August, and tomorrow is the day Julie leaves to meet the rest of her group at the airport in New York. They will fly to Paris, where they will have two weeks of orientation before they start their classes. At dinner, Joey and Steve give Julie a hard time, laughing and imitating their mother. “Don’t forget, the Métro doesn’t run all night!” “Whatever you do, don’t take chrysanthemums unless it’s a funeral!” Emily laughs to keep from crying, Don holds her eyes with his across the table. Julie is incandescent with excitement.
Emily thinks, have I remembered to tell her the things she should do? Stand on the Pont Neuf at dusk. Take a book to the Luxembourg Gardens. Walk everywhere. Make a friend of the guy at the newspaper kiosk, the waiter at your favorite café, the clochard on the corner. Watch closely when the plane trees begin to come into leaf in the spring, it will happen overnight. Remember everything.
The next day, the whole family goes along to put Julie on the plane. The boys are in charge of her two big suitcases and straggle behind, banging into each other, making airplane noises. As they enter the check-in area, Julie is trying to act cool but can barely contain herself. Emily is trying not to put an arm around her and hold her tight against her side. Don looks uncharacteristically solemn. At the counter, Julie proudly presents her brand-new passport while Steve hefts her bags up to be checked in. “Just one of you going?” the ticket agent asks, smiling at the clump of people in front of her.
“Just one,” says Emily.
Boarding pass in hand, Julie stands with her family and says, “So!”
“I wish they would let us come with you to the gate,” Emily says.
“Well, we have to say goodbye sooner or later,” Don offers. He puts a hand on each of Julie’s shoulders and tells her, “Honey, you’re going to have a great time. It will be a year you will never forget.”
Emily wraps Julie in a long hug but doesn’t try to say anything, just smiles. She’s already said everything. Julie gives her brothers each a bop on the arm, then she turns and heads toward the security line. She looks back and waves, radiant.
Oh! Emily thinks. My poor child.