Alexandra Marshall

"Fluent"

Originally published in The Girl with Red Hair: Musings on a Theme, 2011

I know I'm part French because I can speak it and my progressive elementary school had a theory about that. But which part of me? Not the maraschino hair that came from Galway to Manhattan with my maternal grandmother—her ticket out—along with the matching skin. The cigarette is only a prop, and anybody could buy this cheap sweater. The retro dress doesn't count either, though I let myself get talked into it, didn't I?

The theory goes that in speaking a second language a different aspect of your regular self is activated. It's the opposite of escaping into a foreign identity since you're unlocking a secret compartment within you by suddenly sensing whether a word is masculine or feminine—and if you mean le destin or la destinée—not to mention working the irregular verbs. I probably also have the mandatory intricacies of other languages stacked inside each other like wooden dolls—Gaelic for sure—but I already have enough to worry about. Here's my question: should I stay here in France?

Progressive parents may mean well, but since so many of them including mine are the product of conventional educations themselves, they don't get what it's like to grow up without governance. How smart am I when I've only ever been validated? That I'm sufficiently pretty gets confirmed every time I walk out the door, but am I reliable? I mean, am I too gullible to depend on myself?

The grass is tickling my face, making me smile. That's his plan too, along with keeping both me and the Château de Versailles in equal focus. It's possible that for Jacques the three dimensions are a version of the parts I'm trying to be the sum of (if you'll pardon my presumption in comparing my incomplete self to this architectural masterpiece) since, even with my eyes closed, I can see him squinting to close the gap around that boring middle distance of rented rowboats and scattered ducks. He keeps saying, "Je t'aime," but how much? Is passionnément enough?

It's my Junior Year Abroad, in other words, which means I've got someone else back home waiting for me, a pre-med with the whole rest of his life charted out like a formula that includes me as a central ingredient. His name is Jack, to create a coincidental phonic overlap that I also find annoying. Why should I have to choose who I am on the basis of a boyfriend's nationality?

I'm not the kind of girl who usually feels free to complain about my upper middle class comforts, but the equally random gift of my beauty—ask my Granny—is a fate-changer I could do without. She's had three husbands and is still going strong, though I'm not sure if the latest represents upward or downward mobility. Can you still be a trophy wife at seventy-five? To a semi-retired plastic surgeon?

Jacques only wants to rearrange me in bed, so from here we'll go back to his room in the Cité Universitaire where he'll again try convincing me to let him photograph me naked. He's taken me to all these galleries and museums where the unblemished women are like still-life fruit, their tinted contours seductive, but I refuse him every time until he finally quits and seduces me with his French Kisses instead. The only time I speak English with Jacques is when I'm no longer flirting, to make him understand it's time to put the camera down or else I'll pick my dress up off the floor and disappear behind a curtain of fuchsia and saffron flowers. Today I think I'll demand, "You first," and he'll have to admit, "Touché," relenting. Wouldn't you?

I've come to understand that Jack is simply too busy to bother trying to flatter me into submission, which isn't a fault when you consider that any day now he'll save a life with what he's learning. I'd be the first to admit that we've been quite compatible in this way, so this isn't a criticism either. It's just that I'm now wearing a black pearl around my neck on a chain so fine it's nearly invisible, a semiprecious jewel that throbs like a pulse. "It's a present from my new lover," I'd let my grandmother in on the secret if I could send home this picture, which I can't because of the cigarette that would freak my righteous parents if they knew how many people still smoke here. "Nothing," I'll answer when they ask protectively, "What was wrong with Jack?"

The difference is that 87% of the French choose to vacation in France, a statistic you can look up if you think I'm exaggerating. It's about their being so self-contained that going abroad has no appeal, an attitude I don't share or else I'd still be stuck back at NYU reading Simone de Beauvoir in English instead of discovering the footbridge named after her in Paris. "I am incapable of conceiving infinity, and yet I do not accept finity," she wrote. Other than your average Frenchman, who doesn't believe that?

I always used to wonder what I might have missed out on during any given day, but not here. Now I'm engaged to the max, body and soul, which can sometimes make me feel like a diver dropping to unsafe depths. Check your meters, you might caution me if I knew how to read them.

"You're not on drugs, are you?" my mother will ask.

"Not exactly," would be the truth, but since it's only a red wine habit I've developed, I'll settle for, "No."

"Then why won't you come home when we've sent you a ticket?"

"Because Thanksgiving isn't a holiday here? Because here it's a crime to eat a plateful of food that's all the same beige non-color?"

"What are you talking about?"

"Turkey, stuffing, gravy, the sides."

"So what?"

"It's a culinary offense."

"It's our National Meal!"

"That's what I'm talking about."

"Thanksgiving falls on my fiftieth birthday this year, Amy."

"I'm Aimée now," I correct her pronunciation.

In her sigh I can hear her stifled exasperation.

"I just got here," I'll attempt a different strategy, "so it's too soon to interrupt my momentum."

"It's already been three months."

"That's no time in a place where everything's ancient."

"The Grand Canyon is way older than Paris, so stop acting like a convert."

"A what?"

"A fanatic."

"Just because I'm finally happy?"

This stops her.

Since I'm only imagining our phone call, at least I don't have to witness the way my mom's mouth puckers up when she feels insulted or hurt. She and I aren't accustomed to arguing or even disagreeing very often, and I usually work fairly hard not to disappoint her. But surely she's aware—she's the daughter of that other immigrant redhead—that it can be a fulltime job to become independent.

"Then what about Jack?"

My "Dear John" letter will be a total lie since my not coming home has nothing to do with my academic obligations, but I'll still be shocked when Jack falls for it. I wouldn't expect him to write back "No problem" like I'm merely thanking him for having loved me, but how can all of his time be taken up with the honors version of organic chemistry? Maybe he's found a nursing student to boss around and was never interested in égalité. But if that's the case, why do I care?

Our meeting as freshmen was so generic that it's barely memorable, which is why our being perfect for each other (according to both sides of the aisle, so to speak) seems doubtful. I'm suspicious—aren't I descended from a wild Irish Rose?—no matter that Jack will probably always be the most decent person I'll ever know. Why this isn't enough for me is a big concern for my worried mother, but of course she's married to an insurance executive.

It's all because of how vividly I can still remember the exact moment in first grade when I performed the song like a real little French girl singing "on y danse, on y danse" as if I understood it referred to the famous bridge in a city I never heard of either. The teacher presented it as a game but we rehearsed it a lot, and the verses eventually included the vocabulary for shoemakers, musicians, soldiers, hairdressers, gardeners, and laundresses, the beaux messieurs and belles dames bowing and curtseying all the while. What I'll never forget is the thrill of the applause (in my school that wanted everyone to feel equally appreciated) singling me out as especially cute in my début as a demoiselle. Without knowing what the feeling was, I felt bilingual.

"Viens, Aimée," Jacques will coax, offering a hand to pull me to my feet.

I'll comply, of course, though I already know the palace's famous Hall of Mirrors will make me dizzy. At the end of the afternoon the train back to Paris will give me another good chance to look like I'm asleep, so I'll get another opportunity to rethink everything. I'll still refuse to become Jacques's—or anybody's—nude Muse, but since I could be wrong about breaking up with Jack I probably ought to delay a final decision. And reconsider my mother's fiftieth while I'm at it.

The trouble is that Jack wants me to share his desire—his destiny—to eventually discover something as crucial as the cure for cancer. I want somebody to cure it, don't get me wrong, but what's so bad about requiring everybody to take off the month of August? Sometimes I get a little sick of the constant pressure, which is why I'm content to lie on my back like my Granny, with rien du tout to worry my pretty little red head about. If only I could.