Short story from Leslie Lisbona

Young woman with thick short black hair in an orange coat standing in front of a stone arched doorway with an old fashioned sign hanging in front.

The French Lesson

I first saw JM at a Caribbean Club Med.  He was French, in his late twenties; full-lipped, tan, and charming.  He was in charge of entertainment, on stage a lot, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. 

I was there with my boyfriend. It was our last trip before I would fly to Paris for my final semester of college.  We had been together for almost five years and my father employed him in his store.  I wanted a break from him but wasn’t sure how to disentangle myself without hurting him.

Walking to our room one evening, I spotted JM slow-dancing with someone to a Peter Gabriel song. I tried not to stare; I thought: if only I could be her. 

During a meal one afternoon, JM came to our table to introduce himself.  He said hello and I became mute.  My kind boyfriend said that I was going to study in France: “She is leaving me next week.”  JM crouched down beside me.  Up close his eyes were the color of caramel.  “Do you speak French?” he asked.  I nodded.  He took a napkin from the table and wrote a phone number on it.  “In case you need anything.” It was the number of his family’s home in Bordeaux.  I slid the napkin onto my lap and put my hand on it protectively.

The day came to leave.  I cried when I said goodbye to my boyfriend.  But when I got on the plane, I was surprised at how relieved and unburdened I felt. 

My older brother, Dorian, joined me on my flight.  There was a German au pair he had gotten to know in New York, and he was hoping to meet up with her while in Europe with me. I was glad not to go alone.

A few days later, in Dorian’s hotel room, I unfurled the napkin like a precious parchment and called the number JM had given me.  The person who answered said JM was in Paris and gave me his direct number.  I reached him, and we made plans to meet the following night for dinner. When I hung up, I wanted to scream, but Dorian was a few feet away watching music videos on the tiny TV.

That night I wore heels. I didn’t usually wear heels, but I also didn’t usually go to dinner with sophisticated and glamorous Frenchmen. 

At the restaurant, JM kissed me on both cheeks.  Only when I opened the menu did I realize we were in a Lebanese restaurant. I ordered all my favorites, the foods my mom made at home: humus, lebne and pita, olives, kibbe, babaganoush, and taboule.  We spoke in a mixture of English and French.  The conversation flowed effortlessly.  He made me laugh and feel charming and irresistible.  His hair looked so soft. I shifted my seat closer.  He smelled good. 

JM asked if I was staying in a dorm.  I said that I was living with a family, the Benchetrits. He paused and said, as if to warn me, “You know, they are Jews.”

Everything slowed down. I didn’t know where to look. My throat suddenly felt like sandpaper. Before he could say anything else, I croaked out, “I am Jewish.”

Disappointment and hurt washed over me.  But I didn’t want to derail this evening, this evening that was going so incredibly well, possibly the most exciting night of my life.  Maybe I changed the subject, or maybe he did.  Despite his comment, I still wanted him, and instead of being angry, I felt ashamed. 

We walked to a taxi stand. There seemed to be no one else around; the clacking of my heels made the only sounds. The skin on my second-to-last toe was gone, the toe stuck to the inside of the shoe. We got into separate taxis.  In the semi-privacy of my cab, I took a deep breath and felt so many things, excitement and despair.  I thought that I might never see him again.  On an impulse, I twisted myself around to get one last look.  In that moment, he had done the same.  He was gazing out at me, and he waved.

For the next few days I thought of nothing but JM. Against my will, the comment he made about Jews would find its way in, insinuating itself. I felt like a boxer, ducking and rolling like Dorian had taught me, to avoid the punch.  I had to keep moving, shuffling my feet, bobbing and deflecting.

I loved Edith Wharton back then and declared her my favorite author.  Had I cringed when I read about Simon Rosedale, Lily Bart’s suitor, the pushy Jew who was sloppy and coarse?  Instead of slamming the book shut or throwing it out the window, I had kept reading.  Maybe I thought that it was antiquated, that these feelings about Jews were from another time, not now, in 1986. Maybe Edith was showing how awful everyone in society was, even the Jewish newcomers.  Maybe it wasn’t even her point of view. I’m not sure why I made excuses.  I must have reconciled that good literature trumped blatant antisemitism.  Maybe JM hadn’t meant what I thought. Maybe I’d read him wrong.

While pondering all of this, I went around Paris with Dorian, ate more crepes, and got ready for my classes at Dauphine.  I didn’t mention JM’s comment to Dorian.  We would have hashed it out for hours as we walked.  Maybe my attraction would have been over then and there. 

One day, about a week later, after Dorian had gone, I received a letter from JM.  I unfolded the thin blue stationery.  It was in French.  He said that he couldn’t stop thinking about me, that we had had such a connection, that he felt this could be something.

It wasn’t long before he came to see me, and we finally kissed. We strolled around the city holding hands. I got to touch his hair. He took pictures of me; we got lost; we walked into a movie theater and saw Legal Eagles or maybe Heartburn. And then he was gone again.

He wrote me letters from Tunisia ­– passionate, consuming letters that left me breathless.  As I walked to school and took the Metro, I whispered his words, words I hadn’t learned in school, saying them over and over until I could say them perfectly, like a French lesson.

After several impassioned phone calls imploring me to come visit him, I used my in-case-of-emergency credit card and bought a ticket to Tunisia.  It was a mistake.  I knew it the moment I arrived.  JM had sent an employee to receive me.  Frederic asked if I was “la copine de JM” and brought me to the resort. 

Meals were at communal tables.  I saved him a seat beside me.  I saw myself jumping up and telling people that this seat was taken, even as time passed and my meal was nearly finished.  He never showed.  I felt foolish and pathetic. 

Was I Simon Rosedale, unwanted and repulsive, pushing my way where I didn’t belong?  He finally joined me. He must have eaten elsewhere.  We went to his room.  On his bed was a movie magazine opened to a page with a photo of the beautiful Emmanuelle Beart, who starred in Jean de Florette.  I said casually that the starlet had been in my house.  “In Queens?” he asked.  I knew he didn’t believe me.  I wonder if he knew that this movie star had a Jewish father who had gone to school with my father in Beirut.  I wanted to go home, all the way home to New York.  The balance was off; I left feeling much more than he did.

Back in my rented room a few days later, I was convinced that I had contracted AIDS from him.  Le SIDA, as the French called it, was graffitied all over Paris, red spray paint on grey buildings, reminding me at every corner that I was in danger.  In a panic, I called my older sister, Debi, from a pay phone.  I told her everything, but I didn’t tell her about the comment.  She calmed me, and a layer of embarrassment formed over my shame. 

During my stay in Paris, I completed my classes and went to lots of movies.  I finally got to see Jean de Florette. The actress who had been in my living room in Queens was blond and perfect, not Jewish-seeming in the least. 

It was time to go home.  My suitcase open on my bed, Les Rita Mitsouko playing on my boombox radio, my eyes fell on the pile of letters on my desk.  I tied them together with string, the only evidence of this connection that had loomed so large, and put them in my suitcase.

After I returned to New York, I got a few more letters from JM, this time from Senegal, and then none. I was relieved.  The grip he had on me loosened and finally dissipated in the face of his five spiteful words and the shame I felt for still wanting him.

I told my boyfriend what happened.  I was sure that he would want nothing to do with me, but I was wrong.  Still, this time I was certain that I wanted us to break up.  I was sorry to hurt him.

A few months later, Dorian married the German au pair.

One thought on “Short story from Leslie Lisbona

  1. This is the best of all the other terrific work you have done. We would l love to meet in NYC.

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