Spring 2011 — THE POTOMAC

French Lesson
   Michele Ruby

Her itinerary:
Day 1: Despite the broken foot, they fly to Cincinnati and then to Paris. These tickets are non—refundable and this is her anniversary present from her husband. It is supposed to fix things. She hobbles while her husband tries to move two bags, each the size and weight of a Renault, and two carry—ons through the airport. She wonders: if he were swearing in French, would it sound more like love? On the plane she takes pills and tries to elevate her foot and her thoughts.

Day 2: She lands at Orly at 8:45 in someone else's morning. Her foot throbs. She takes more pain pills. She does not remember the ride to the hotel. Her guidebook tells her how to set herself on Paris time: forgo a nap, go out and get sunlight immediately upon arrival. It is raining. Quel domage. She dives into bed.

When she awakens, she discovers that her husband has unpacked her suitcase for her and has arranged for a picnic in bed. They share wine, cheese, crusty French bread. There are now crusty French breadcrumbs in the sheets. Her husband strips the bed, shakes the sheets out, and remakes the bed. Then he strips her.

Being very careful not to further injure her foot, he makes gentle, awkward love to her, murmuring the only French words he knows: quiche, mousse, brioche, camembert, éclair. They hope to conceive while in Paris. They plan to name the baby Paris if it's a girl and Parris if it's a boy. The other baby, the one she miscarried, was going to be named after her husband. They will not use that name again.

Red wine does not go with pain pills. Somewhere after the camembert but definitely before the éclair, she drifts off.

Day 3: Her husband has arranged for a wheelchair. She puts on big sunglasses and swathes her hair and neck with a filmy scarf, like a character in a movie. He pushes her carefully through the streets of Paris, bending to whisper in her ear from time to time. He is checking to see if she's still awake. They stop for a café au lait at a sidewalk bistro. The caffeine trumps the pain pills, and she lifts her chin from her chest in time to follow her husband's gaze down the street to the hip—heavy gait of a young French woman. It is enough to make her nod off again. Later, they pretend to be spies, a movie star and her assistant, a gigolo and a wealthy grande dame. It is more fun being other people than being her.

About the time the wheelchair glamour wears off, it starts to rain. Her husband speeds up on the uneven pavement. Small cars sniff at her chair as if she is one of them. A sudden zag to avoid intimacy with a Citroen lands her on the wet pavement. She shouts, "Merde!" just before she hits concrete. The guidebook claims that the French respond well to Americans' attempts to speak their language. This turns out not to be true.

Day 4: She spends the day in bed, with her reinjured foot propped on a pillow like an indulged pup. Her husband spends the day sightseeing. She rings for room service. She loosens her dressing gown, letting it fall open just un peu. When lunch arrives, she flirts languorously with the garcon. He does not flirt back, possibly because she's ordered a cheeseburger and a diet coke. She passes over the translation of Anais Nin that her husband has thoughtfully provided her and pulls a slim volume of British chick—lit from the recesses of her carry—on bag. While she is out of bed, she checks the inner pockets of his luggage, just a reflex. Paris disappears as she shuts the drapes.

When her husband returns, she discovers that the time apart has refreshed their appreciation of each other's company. She exchanges her underwear for some lingerie, and covers that with a little black dress. She is black and slinky as a Parisian night — all but the cast, of course. Her husband's hopes are high for dinner and afterwards. He takes her to a four—star restaurant, where he has reserved a table for three — a chair for him, a chair for her, and a chair for her foot. Dinner supplies him with more words for love—making: quenelle, thon au poivron, poire belle helene. Dinner supplies her with more red wine.

Halfway through the bottle, she admits that she is jealous of her own foot. It requires constant attention and is never satisfied. She cannot leave it behind and she cannot ignore it. It is ruining their trip. Her foot is like a big spoiled baby. It occurs to her that she will not be a good parent. This realization puts a dent in her eagerness for le danse horizontal.

Another glass of wine, and soon she is asleep in her plate, holding her napkin to her cheek like a blankie. Her husband eats her dessert. On his way to get her wrap, his fingers drag along the back of a chair occupied by a lovely Frenchwoman. A cab is hailed — the French word for taxi is taxi — and she is tucked in it. Her husband does not accompany her; instead he seeks out something in the way of nightlife.

Day 5: She sleeps in. She sleeps in her little black dress. She sleeps in one little black shoe. She sleeps in her little black lingerie. Her husband does not return. She takes advantage of his extended absence to call Air France and manages to book an evening flight for home. Her husband's camera, full of photos of leggy French women, sits forgotten on the nightstand, as he has, she is sure, graduated to the real thing. Before she leaves, she takes a photo of her own legs. On the cast she has written: "We'll never have Paris. Or Parris."

The French word for divorce is divorce.

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