The hostess brought out a strawberry cake for reasons I didn’t understand. Everyone climbed out of the pool to circle around the patio table, on which she’d set a stack of plates. The cake gleamed in the mid-afternoon sun. It was thickly frosted and double-layered, sitting in a skirt of yellow cream, collared with berries no bigger than my thumbs. Up until that moment, I had been patting my hair dry, waiting for a moment to leave, but I couldn’t now. I wanted the cake. The hostess tore the tab from a roll of thin chocolate cookies she’d tucked under her arm and passed those around. The pool water heaved from the sudden abandon of bodies. I ate my cookie and waited. But soon the boys slouched back to the hammock, picking at their skin in the sun. Girls flattened on concrete, turning out their bathing suits for a better tan. I sat down, listening only for the word gateaux, but it never came. I watched the cake disappear under evening shadow, untouched.
At night I’d wake to the house shuddering from thunderclaps and have to peel the bed sheets from my sunburn, and get up to shut the window. Daybreaks outside
A day before, the entire family met me at the
Even in the earliest moments of waking, there were formal greetings and departures—whether we were hung over or foul smelling, bonjour, bon nuit, a kiss on each cheek. The mother was stark and darkly featured. She looked like the Mona Lisa, and I froze up in her presence, as I imagined one would by the painting. (The painting, I eventually saw in
Geraniums sat in clay pots on the windowsills of each stucco prefab in
The mothers, in general, were toned, had firm skin and hair, and were very tense, with the exception of feeding times, when they became radiant: radishes with pats of unsalted butter, blocks of sweet, brownish pâté (usually duck), roasts under thin gravies, pasta with bacon, cubes of raw beef skewered for thirty seconds in a fondue pot of boiling water. Most produce came from a farmers market the father took me to on Wednesdays. A ladybug landed on my arm while we were picking out lettuce, and he told me they were called “beetles of God.”
Before I’d left home, I had practiced eating slower under the impression that the French ate at great leisure, disgusted by the way American’s inhaled food, to which end I was always the last to finish, while the family drummed fingers on their cleaned plates. Half of the dinners were served on the veranda, while the other half were served by the television which sat on a lazy-Susan on top of the fridge: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Nanny and a Belgian soap opera were standard fare, and sometimes, on these nights, we had dinners of fries, hot dogs, and beer.
For parties, the parents would buy us a case of Rickard, make reservations for dinner in town, and then come home at dawn asking if we’d had a nice night. Only the Americans would get drunk and the French kids would mock them. The young men were sexless, bare-shouldered and they left their laundry on the stairs for their mothers to do. The girls my age were coy, and often wary when speaking to me alone. They invited me to movies, and took walks around the artificial boat lake in their neighborhood. There were house spiders the size of teacups which caused the daughters to scream, and the fathers to spring forward on their sinewy legs, an auto magazine rolled in their grip. The fathers loved patting their daughters’ hands or hair, saying, Ma fille, to which the daughters would respond darkly, Oui papa, ton fille.
The mother gardened in her underwear, and when the flashfloods came, hundreds of tiny snails flushed from the gutters and all family members ran outdoors, shrieking, to collect them in plastic vats. Plupluplu, the mother said, noticing my confusion. She made a gesture like running water. “What?” I said. Plupluplu. Inside they boiled the snails from their shells, while, lawn chairs and parasols tossed about the lawn in the storm.
We spent my last night in their neighbor’s backyard over the grill (the other teenagers were watching a dubbed Jaws III inside) and when the parents asked me what I would remember most from my time in France, I listed a few things, and then raised my glass high and said, “And the wine!” because I knew it would make them laugh, and it did. Contrary to myth, they were a warm people, but sometimes they couldn’t understand a thing I said, or I them, and we’d just gape and wince and I’d feel no warmth at all.
It was the day before that I’d been sitting by the pool, waiting for someone to cut the strawberry cake. The effects of my longing could still be felt, baffled as to why no one had served it. This strong, sensual desire blocked by an inability to communicate was the moment that exemplified my experience of