bookshelf

We Were Happy

Now, when you go out of the house,” I say to my two new American students, “You move your object to the lower shelf.” I put the pewter fish on the lower desk shelf to show them. “You see? Here. I am the fish, so when I leave, I put it here.” The white girl is nodding, but the black one looks confused. Liz. Kiara. I must learn their names. “And when I come home, I put it again on the top shelf, like so.” I demonstrate. “Okay? You understand?”

“Yes, Madame,” says the white one.

The black one looks at her and says yes, too.

Of course, Eloise wouldn’t like me calling them that. She would want me not to notice their color—to say the short one and the tall one, I suppose. Well, then: the short one seems to understand and the tall one not. Perhaps it is jetlag. I will assume her comprehension will improve when she is rested.

“Okay,” I say. I chose their objects before they got here: a candlestick for one and a napkin ring for the other. “Kiara, you are the candlestick, and Liz, you are the ring.” They look at the pewter objects. An idea comes to me. “Because the candlestick is taller, just as Kiara is taller. And the ring is smaller, like Liz.” There, Eloise. “Show me what you will do when you go out,” I say, and Liz, the short white one, moves her napkin ring to the lower shelf.

The black one, Kiara, looks at Liz and moves the fish to the lower shelf.

“Ah, no, Kiara,” I say, moving the fish again to the top shelf. “I am the fish. You are the candlestick.” I hand her the candlestick.

She looks at Liz and puts it on the lower shelf.

“Very good,” I say, this time in English. “You understand?”

“Yes, Madame,” she says in French. “I to understand.”

“Good,” I say, in French. That’s the reason they’re here, after all: to learn our language. Though some of them do, of course, prefer to learn by taking a lover and disappearing for days at a time, which is why I had to invent this system in the first place, because while that is a fine way to learn, it can be troublesome if the parents call. I do not care what they do with their time as long as they can follow the house rules. I can only imagine what Maurice would have thought of my rules. Probably he would think them fussy. Let them live a bit, he might say. But I know what it is to be the person waiting at home.

“Do you have an appetite?” I ask.

They look at each other.

“I have dinner planned for you tonight,” I say. “To welcome you.”

“That sounds magnificent,” says Liz, the ring. She speaks well.

I tell them to unpack a little and I will call them when I’ve made dinner.
They carry their baggage to their rooms and I wonder which type they will be, scholars or adventurers. These are the only two types that study abroad. The scholars prefer the classroom, the pronunciation and grammar. When you talk to them, it feels as if they are taking notes in their head, preparing for the test. They travel abroad because it is the right thing to do when you study another language. The adventurers cannot live without travel. They are not such good students, but they learn as they go.  If you are lost in a strange city, hope that your companion is an adventurer. It is the adventurers who take lovers. The scholars make better houseguests, but the adventurers are more fun. They are better to make a life with.

I call the girls when I have prepared dinner.

“Delicious,” says Liz, meaning the chicken, which is kind of her because everyone knows I am not so great as a chef. “My previous meal was on the airplane.”

“Ah, plane food,” I say. “Even the French cannot do it well.” Maurice hated airplanes, but what can you expect from a Navy man? “When I fly, I eat nothing until I land.” And that is half the fun always, finding a place to eat when you get off a plane in a strange place. At least it was when Maurice was with me.

“That’s smart,” she says. “It was funny, eating all those small things. I had the impression I was a giant.”

“You speak well,” I tell her, smiling. “I imagine you practice.”

“Yes,” she says, blushing. She looks sidelong at Kiara, who is straining forward in her seat somewhat, mouth half open, watching us. “I read my homework assignments aloud.”

A scholar.

“You hear that, Kiara?” I say. “You must do the same. Become accustomed to how the language feels in your mouth.”

“Okay,” says Kiara, though I doubt she knows what I’m saying. It is a shame—some of these students have so little grasp.

“Kiara, what do you study at university?” asks Liz, speaking slowly, and, when Kiara doesn’t answer, “What subject? Math? English?”

“Oh,” says Kiara, nodding. “Fashion and Warnings.”

“No, I don’t think so,” I say. “Fashion and Advertising?”

“Yes,” says Kiara. She looks embarrassed. Eloise would maybe say I am being too difficult on their first day, but if the girl is not told when she is wrong, she will not learn, and if she is here to study our fashion, she will especially not learn. The ones who care about fashion almost never care about verbs.

I smile at her, to show I am here to help. “I remember learning English—so many false friends.”

Liz nods.

“But that’s why you’re here!” I say, gesturing with my fork and knife. “You must ask me questions if you have them. I am here to help.”

“But only when the fish is on top,” says Liz.

You see? Taking notes.

It is always the same, the nightmare: a bazaar, crowded, filled with strange people. The smell of burnt meat and ripe fruit and smoke. A hundred voices and birds squawking, but Maurice is just behind me. And then more people, and he is not. Men looking at me suspiciously from their carts and children pointing. Women turning their faces. They are ashamed for me and I am ashamed of myself. I cannot see properly to look for Maurice; the sun is too bright. I have no money. I do not speak the language. My hair is not covered and men are coming for me, angry.

I wake sweating in the full dark. My breath slows and I wonder which way the walls are. There, and there. Okay. It is not real. But something about it—Maurice. That was real. I pat my hand on the mattress beside me to be sure. I wake more completely: Paris.

I eat lunch with Eloise today at Le Flandrin and tell her of the girls, who have been with me nearly a week. How well Liz speaks, how she studies at night. How Kiara disappoints me, talks to Liz in English. Always too loud. Eloise says that I am too difficult to please.

“Last year, you complained that the students spoke too softly, that you couldn’t hear them.”

“That is a different problem entirely.”

“And who was the student you loved? Michael? Who came here not knowing any French at all and you adored him.”

“Because he learned,” I say. “He talked with everyone he met and bought a radio and by the end we were discussing the elections.”

“Maybe Kiara will be the same.”

But she will not, I can tell. Already. She is here for the clothes.

Eloise gives me a look. “Anyway, why host students at all?” she says. “You don’t need the money.” She cuts her duck.

I tell her it is the closest an old woman can get to playing the ambassador. She gives me the same look she’s been giving me since her twelfth birthday: half resentment and half pity.

But it’s true: when Maurice and I used to travel, people we met were so delighted. They would say that they’d heard the French were cold, rude. And we would explain that we just wanted you to try our language. Just try, Maurice would say: you are in our country, eating our cuisine, drinking our wine, so try one more thing with your tongue. That was his way, knowing how to add just a shadow of the profane, and he would twinkle his eyes at me and we would have our private joke. That is the kind of thing that makes a marriage, the intimate moments that happen outside the bedroom.

Liz can do it, and she did not speak the language until she was twelve, she tells me. And Michael certainly could. Which just goes to show that you can learn something if you put your mind to it, not like these Arabs who walk three abreast and seem to think French a terrible inconvenience.

Eloise is horrified. I should have kept my mouth closed—I did not mean to say that aloud. What I want to explain is how Liz is proof that with a little concentration, French is not so hard.

“You’re going to get yourself in trouble,” Eloise says.

A most unfortunate development: the girls are hanging their laundry in their rooms.

I see it when I go in to check while they are at class—camisoles and skirts and all manner of things hanging to dry over the wood floors. Terrible. That is precisely how you ruin the structure of fine things—this is not some Latin Quarter hovel where the floors are warped and you can have your clothes flapping in the open window for the neighbors to see.

“You must not hang your clothes over the wood floor,” I say when they get home. “You see?” I point to the ground. “They will drip, which will ruin the wood!” I find myself sometimes talking more loudly to make sure they understand.

“I’m sorry, Madame,” says Liz. She looks at the pile of hangers and clothes I have stacked on her bed.

“There is a laundromat down the street,” I say. I write the intersection on a sheet of paper.

Kiara walks down the hall to her room.

“Kiara,” I say, following her. “Do you understand?” In English. “You must not hang the clothing over the floor. It will ruin.”

“I understand,” she says, in French. She is facing her bed, not me. She picks up the blouse on top of the clothes I have piled there and shakes it out.

“There is a laundromat—”

“It is eleven euros to wash a group of clothes there,” she says, folding the blouse.

“That can’t be right.”

“But it is,” she says. “And in the Fifth, it is only eight euros.”

But still—eight euros to do laundry? How much is that in francs? I can’t remember the conversion. But it sounds too high. Perhaps she misread. Or maybe that’s what laundry costs these days. I do not know. I’ll have to ask Eloise. Here, though, it is the principle.

“And what about my wooden floors?” I ask.

She looks down at them, then back at me. “Very nice?” she says. I cannot tell if the quiver in her voice is anger or uncertainty.

“I am asking for an apology, Kiara,” I say. “For being so careless with my floors.”

Perhaps it’s too much: as soon as she has apologized, I return to my room and shut the door. I am embarrassed. I lost my temper. Something about the girl provokes me.

I draw a bath and sit in it, breathing the hot air.

When Maurice and I bought this place, after he retired and I had him all to myself again, the floors had thick white carpets all across. Me, I thought this meant luxury, but he knew better: he pulled them up and found underneath beautiful parquet. He worked for months to restore them, from one corner of the apartment to the other. At night, he was beside me at last, as I always wanted, but would drift off without needing me first, sleep so soundly he hardly moved. I should have known then.

Even in the dozen years I’ve been hosting students, they’ve changed. They bring computers now. They’re somewhat fatter. One night I come in and the candlestick and napkin ring are on the bottom shelf. I replace the fish to the top and place my handbag in my bedroom. I had dinner with Eloise and my daughter-in-law Claudine to plan our vacation to the Lyon house. We stay there every year in August, the whole family, Eloise and Luc and their girls; Paul and Claudine. It is cooler there than in the city, and we have a pool.

I am tired; I am not used to staying out this late. These days, when I come home after dark I feel disoriented. Eloise says this is because I am past a certain age, and I ask what she knows about it, but of course she’s right: it began the day I turned eighty and has only gotten worse.

I settle into bed and sleep at once, but I am snapped awake by a thumping. I sit up. It is inside the apartment, someone stamping around. The guest wing. The girls.

I tie on my night robe and peek out the doorway, and yes: the candlestick and napkin ring are on the top shelf and light bleeds from the guest wing door.

“Kiara,” I hear in a stage whisper, and then something in English I cannot make out. Laughing. Some people are always laughing at their rudeness—I expected more from Liz. Usually she is a slave to the rules. More clunking, then it stops. I retire to my bed and think of making a fuss so they know they woke me, but I do not. Probably the Clement family will speak with me about it when I see them. We are on the fourth floor here. It is not acceptable.

I write a note the next morning and leave it on the table, tamped down by my fish when I go out for the shopping. “Girls,” I write, because I do not want them to think I was spying, that I know it was Kiara with the boots, “Please remember that we have wooden floors and neighbors below. Stamping around late at night in boots is impolite to them. Take off your boots when you arrive home!” It is only when I am halfway to the bakery that I realize I have not heard Liz laugh before.

I never asked for names. In fact, I never asked about them at all—I didn’t want to know. He was insatiable, much more so than I was, and one day, when we had been married two years, he arrived home and I met him at the door and I said, I know it is difficult for you when you are away, and I won’t hold anything against you while you’re abroad. But I don’t want to know of it, ever. And he grabbed my hands and asked me what the hell I was talking about, but I insisted on it, I made him listen. Never while you’re home, I said. Swear to me. And he did.

The days have taken on a pattern. Liz arrives home at six on Mondays and Wednesdays, when she doesn’t have class, and cooks herself dinner. Mostly, she does not go out in the evenings. This is a shame; during summer in Paris, it is light until almost eleven. Kiara gets home much later. One morning, after Liz has left for her internship, I hear Kiara shuffling in her room. I believe she has called in sick; I believe she has a hangover. She leaves the apartment at two o’clock.

When Liz comes home, I invite her out for dinner, try to get her to leave the house a bit. She orders a salad, dressing “on the coast.” I correct her—a very American mistake. I have tuna. I ask her why she stays in her room so many nights.

“You are in Paris,” I say. “You should be going out, getting to know the city.”

She blushes.

“You should be meeting young men.”

“Maybe,” she says, sipping her water.

“Not maybe,” I say. “Definitely. You must enjoy your time here.”

She bites her lips together. “I prefer mornings,” she says, lifting her fork. “I walk by the river on the way work. I enjoy the city every morning.” Perfect accent, but her speech still feels slightly off, a little too formal. She needs to learn our idioms.

“You must do it with others,” I insist.

She smiles, though not with her eyes, and takes another piece of bread from the basket.

“Kiara goes out,” I say. “I believe she went out last night, did not get up for work this morning.”

“Really?” she says, looking up.

I nod and spread my hand to the evening. “And who can blame her? You are here how long? Eight weeks? You can miss a few days of your internship.”

She sips her water. “Yes,” she says. “I suppose.”

But that is as far as I get with her. Frustrating! I want to shake her and tell her to stop worrying about the test. There is no test! But no: this is the test. This is supposed to be the fun part, the part she studied for. When we get home, close to nine, the candlestick is on the bottom and I feel a small swell of pride for Kiara: good for her. An adventurer. Like Maurice.

In early July, I leave for the two-hour ride to Lyon. I like to spend a week preparing the house for my family before our August there. My children say it is a waste; what good is having Marc and Renée on staff if I must go all the way out to make preparations? But they do not understand what it is to have a country house: Marc and Renée are of the old guard, like me: they believe in discussing which vegetables are having a good season and planning menus and airing out rooms.

When I arrive at the station, Marc has a serious air, though his eyes are sparkling.

“A message for you at the house, Madame,” he says.

“From whom?” I ask.

“Care to guess?” 

I settle into my seat. “I’m too tired to talk on the phone tonight.”

“She says she is worried you might be dead. You were not answering your mobile.” He turns out of the train station.

“Ha!” I say. The first mobile phone Eloise bought me, I never took out of its packaging. This one, she handed to me “ready to use,” she said. She thinks I am intimidated, that I cannot figure out its buttons. It is turned off, wrapped in a pair of stockings in my bureau.

Marc laughs when I tell him this, his great galloping laugh that filled so many of our summers, but while I am greeting Renée in the kitchen, I hear his voice low in the entry hall, so I know he has called her back.

The next morning, I call Eloise and she has her patient voice, the one she uses when she has won. She would not have this voice if Marc had not called.

Eloise tells me to get plenty of rest, so I spend the afternoon swimming in the pool, talking with Renée about what has changed with the neighbors since my last visit, how the vegetables are producing. I emerge worn out and lie down for a nap before supper. I wake with a start: I do not remember putting my fish on the lower shelf before I left.

When I am not five minutes back home in Paris, Rita Clement visits to bring my newspapers, she says, but while she is here, she tells me the girls had some friends over Friday night.

“Did they wake you?” I ask.

“No. I was already awake.”

“So it was not very late?”

“No. But I thought you’d like to know.”

“Thank you, Rita,” I say. “I will make sure nothing is amiss.”

She looks past me, into the living room. Probably, she wants me to invite her in for a coffee so she can spread more gossip about the girls. But she is tiresome and difficult to get rid of.

“Anyway, why do you take boarders, Madame?” she asks me. Her eyes rest on the Pakistani rug.

“They are not boarders,” I say. “They are students. They want to learn our language.” I say this to Eloise, too: it is not so bad that I complain about people not speaking French when I am taking steps to correct the problem.

“Hmm,” she says. When she sees I am not going to offer coffee, she fusses back down the stairs.

I dump the newspapers into the waste and make myself a coffee. Probably the party was Kiara’s idea and Liz went along rather than upset her. Probably they drank wine here and then went out to a club and maybe Liz stayed home to read. I shake my head. I hope Rita did not speak about the party to Eloise, who says that if I keep hosting students, they will ruin my beautiful things. Maurice’s things, really, the globe he brought back from Siam and the masks from Tanzania and the wooden carvings from Madagascar. I don’t need presents, I always said. I just want you. But he said he couldn’t resist. He said it was his way of bringing the world to me.

The sign of a guilty man, my mother used to say. Presents. But there can be no guilt when you have given permission. I would not expect him to fast when I was not there to cook him meals. We had an understanding. We were happy. And now all his gifts, all the things that on their own seemed so unusual, so foreign, they form the texture of our life together. I can feel him in this apartment because of them—the carvings, the pewter sculptures. I remember my fish. I look, and indeed I did forget to move it to the bottom. It has been on the top shelf this whole time. I think of moving it to the bottom so the girls know I am home, but that might confuse them further. I move it to the middle of the top shelf instead, so at least it is in a new position.

One night I come home with the shopping and see that Liz (of course) is home and Kiara is out. I replace the fish to the top shelf and think maybe Liz could use a glass of wine. Maybe it will relax her a bit. I knock on her door and she answers. She is reading one of Maurice’s English novels, the ones he kept to practice his languages. He kept Spanish ones, too, and one or two in Dutch.

She smiles, looks at the book in her hand. “I have the impression that I am being unfaithful to French,” she says.

“Would you like a glass of wine?” I ask.

She says yes and follows me into the kitchen. I pour us a Beaujolais. It is eight o’clock, still evening in Paris, and sun pours through the kitchen windows, across the ceramic tiles.

“I see you found my husband’s novels,” I say.

“They are his?” says Liz. “May I read them?”

“But of course,” I say. I explain how he liked to keep them around to practice.

She asks if he spoke many languages, and I tell her he was a career Navy officer, always traveling the world.

“Before we had children, and then when the children were grown,” I say, “We often traveled together.”

“How wonderful,” says Liz.

“And when he retired, we revisited all our favorite places and then we decided to visit all the places we’d never seen.” We had two trips booked when he had his heart attack. Fit his whole life, but something about that floor work—the chemicals perhaps. The heavy buffer.

The front door opens. I look up: Kiara.

“Hello, Kiara,” says Liz, turning. “How was work?”

She steps toward the kitchen. “Tiring,” she says. “Lots of the running to and fro.” Her pronunciation is still horrible, but her words are much more fluid.

“Perhaps you would like a glass of wine,” I say.

Kiara looks surprised, but she smiles. “That sounds divine,” she says, and I can tell she has been talking with her fashion-world colleagues.

I stand to pour. Maybe I can play them off of each other a bit, use Kiara to help me convince Liz to go out more, convince Liz to practice speaking with Kiara. They would be good for each other. I set the glass of wine on the table and Kiara flops onto a seat, dropping her bag on the ground. She slumps, rests her head in her hand. This is the problem with Americans: they hold themselves such that they can make any outfit look like pajamas.

“Now sit up straight so you can get the full flavor,” I say, my pride in her progress smudged. I cannot stand sharing a table with someone who is slumping and slurping.

She pulls her hand back, sits up. She looks at Liz.

“Madame says this is a restorative,” she says, nodding to the wine. “It should make you feel better.”

I sit again.

Kiara takes a sip, holding the glass by the bowl.

“Tell us about work,” says Liz.

But I remember something. “One minute,” I say. “Did you move your candlestick?”

“Oops,” says Kiara. “I forgot.”

“First things first,” I say. “Candlestick up and then the story.”

She looks at me, wineglass halfway to her mouth. She sets it down, stands, walks to the desk, and moves the candlestick.

“There,” I say, crossing my legs. “Now. How was your day?”

Kiara drinks a long swallow of wine, half the glass. “Fine, thank you,” she says. She swallows the rest. “Thank you for the wine, Madame. I am going to make myself some dinner.” She lifts her bag from the floor and leaves the kitchen.

“Well,” I say. “What do you think of that.”

Liz looks into her glass.

The phone rings. It’s Eloise, upset at me again.

“Where are you?” she says.

“You called me at home,” I say. “Where do you think?”

“No, Mom,” she says. “It’s Wednesday. Le Flandrin? Are you all right?”

For a minute, I am blank, then it comes to me: our weekly lunch date. Completely out of my mind. As if it fell through a hole in a seam, like a pebble in the pocket. I have the feeling I get in the nightmare: they are coming for me.

One morning I realize the girls have been here two months; that is as long as the summer term lasts. I ask them when they are leaving and Liz says ten o’clock the next morning; they have hired a van to take them to the airport. I offer them breakfast: it is my tradition with the students. A hearty breakfast before the day of travel. I hate to think of them hungry on the plane.

They awake the next morning at seven. Both take showers and return to their rooms. I am stirring crepe batter and brewing coffee and slicing fruit—the smells of a full family breakfast. They make me eager for the month in Lyon, but also sad, which seems foolish. I hardly know these girls. There will be another set in the fall.

Liz comes first into the kitchen.

“Good morning, Madame,” she says, smiling. She has cut off all her hair—a pixie cut, they call this. It is unexpected. Perhaps she has a bit of adventurer in her after all. And it’s the kind of smile you can’t force—it is from deep inside her. She is happy to be returning. I wonder for the first time if there is a boy involved. These Americans sometimes have serious boyfriends very young.

“Good morning, Liz,” I say, and ask about her haircut.

“Yesterday,” she says. “A place in the Latin Quarter.”

“Do you have an appetite?”

She does and she praises my crepes and fruit, though she does not want coffee. She says she does not drink coffee, and I offer her tea, but she declines that as well. I wonder at first if this is some odd American health craze but then realize that she is so young she has perhaps not yet developed a taste for coffee or tea. A serious boyfriend and not yet a coffee drinker. The world has changed.

“Will Kiara join us, do you think?” I say.

Liz looks at the kitchen doorway and I turn, too. Kiara is there, giant suitcase at her side.

“Good morning, Kiara,” I say. “Do you have an appetite?”

Kiara says she does not, but accepts some coffee with cream and sugar and one crepe. And then another. And another.

“There,” I say. “Now you cannot say they starved you in France.”

The apartment is stuffy when I return from Lyon, as it always is. A hot summer, and the traffic sounds seem louder. I am restless in the city.

I usually have waiting for me when I return a letter from the university about the next round of students, but I find instead a letter noting that I am no longer on the list of host families. I think perhaps there is a mistake; I have been hosting students for twelve years, since Maurice’s death. I call the university and speak with Helen, the American who married a Frenchman she met while she was studying here.

“Hello, Madame,” she says.

“I think I have received the wrong letter,” I say. I explain.

Helen clears her throat. “Actually, no, Madame, that is the correct letter.” Her French is excellent. “We…euh…we have determined that perhaps future students would do better with other families.”

“What does that mean?” I ask. “Have I broken a rule?”

“No, Madame.”

“Then what? Did I not fulfill my duties? My facilities are excellent. An entire wing of the apartment. A separate kitchen. A bathroom.”

Helen sighs. “Yes, I know. You have a lovely apartment. I wish I could have stayed there when I visited.”

But still I will have no more students? I look at the front hall and see I have not yet moved the ring and the candlestick from the bottom shelf, where Liz insisted on putting them on her way out.

“There is more,” I say.

“Yes.” Again, a sigh. “As you know, we consider feedback from both the host families and the students.” Always with this “families,” as if I were more than an old woman in a cluttered apartment. “And some of your recent guests have suggested that you do not seem to want to have the students in your home.”

The words are a kick in the stomach.

“But I do,” I say. “I love the students.” In this moment, I realize it is true. I miss them suddenly, both of them, Liz’s carefulness and Kiara’s vowels loose as unbaked dough. Without the next batch of students coming, the fall goes blank.

“It has been an honor to have you as a host for us all these years,” says Helen. “I hope you will still think of coming to our Christmas party.”

I hang up.

It is never about the rules, after all. There are a thousand ways to kick someone out who did not break the rules and a thousand ways to keep someone in who broke them all. That is life. I’m too old now to be surprised by this.

I walk to the desk and take the fish and the candlestick and the napkin ring from the bottom shelf, return them to the drawer of the china cabinet. How silly. How foolish to think I could track people with pewter ornaments, that I could be sure of someone’s safety by the position of a ring. I am embarrassed: people have mobile phones now. The girls must have thought I was losing touch.

I’m just an old fool. I was a young fool and now I’m an old fool. Poor Maurice. I was so scared, in those early years, that he would find someone better. Someone more beautiful, less tired. I wouldn’t have been able to stand that. It had to be on my terms: I had to be in control.

And now, of course, it’s plain to me that he never would have left. I don’t doubt he had lovers, but they were for him just part of the life away. He always needed women. He needed me almost daily, even into our sixties. And to think there were times I found it tiresome.

It is six-thirty and already beginning to be dark. I walk to the students’ part of the apartment, on the building’s western side. The sun sinks below the apartments across the courtyard. I am tired and sit on the edge of the bed. The room darkens and blurs into itself. Not a thing is out of place; Liz left it exactly as it was, exactly as I asked her to. As if she were never here. The light fails on every side of me until I am stranded in the full dark, the rising warmth from the floorboards the closest thing I have to company.

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