The first time I met Paula was at a launch party for John’s third volume on the Greeks, this one on Aristotle. Since I didn’t know him when he completed the first two, I felt no obligation to read them, thank God, because only Google and thumbing through some of Aristotle’s Poetics got me through the third and gave me enough courage to attend the party. John had not exaggerated his former wife’s looks. She had dark eyes and one of those rare beauty marks above one side of her upper lip, a small black dot — and it wasn’t superimposed. A glittering silver cord was worked into her hair and the braided black bundle secured with studded hairpins that caught the light as she moved her head in animated discussion. She was standing with three other professors I had met at an event days before where I was quickly outed as a flight attendant, having had nothing to contribute to a conversation about Boccaccio’s Decameron. A moment’s silence and species assessment ensued but John had counseled me of possible reactions to my career — especially from Paula — and now the moment had come for that introduction. Her hand came toward me and I took it, bringing together John’s ex and his talked-about in a slide of palms so fast that only someone pre-focused could have seen it.
It was not Paula’s appearance that made me nervous. I was, as immodest as this is, a rather striking woman myself — all reddish hues in contrast to her raven ones — abundant auburn hair, hazelish eyes tending green, high cheek color and very nice, well, great full lips. We were both tall, she with distinctive proportions, I with flat alignment, but it suited me. No, what made me nervous was Paula’s Ph.D. and the view John said she’d have of my career. She got right to it.
“I understand you’re a flight attendant, Laurie, or … Does anyone say stewardess anymore?”
“Yes, I am. Yes, some people do say stewardess.”
“Which do you prefer?” she said, half-smiling.
“Either, or. It doesn’t matter.”
Before she could continue, a Professor Debané joined us and I was introduced. His name and my agitation in facing Paula spurred me to jump on a possible opportunity and my voice came out like a border guard asking for papers. “Your name is French. Are you French, Professor Debané?” The question was artless and the delivery merited their laughter even though the professor spoke English like an American and could have been. I suddenly felt awkward and way out of my league. The professor responded that he was indeed French and asked if I had some familiarity with the language, without a hint of condescension in his voice or manner. I wanted to kiss him on both of his august cheeks for that and for handing me the hoped-for opportunity.
“ Yes … I speak French,” I said. This declaration from an American is commonly illustrated in painfully accented classroom French, and although John was aware I sometimes used French, in the two months we had dated he had never heard me speak it. I could feel his blood ebb and Paula’s glee.
“Oh, do you? Wonderful! We all speak some French here, so let’s have 15 minutes of immersion. It will be fun, like our summer in Provence, John,” she said and touched his arm. They exchanged a look and John edged closer to my side. “Arnaud hardly needs immersion in French,” he said, nodding toward Professor Debané and taking my hand. “Why don’t we just — ”
“Oh, John, always so rational.” She turned her palms up in appeal to the others. There were no objections and she immediately addressed me in French, asking why I had become a flight attendant when today it was not glamorous and involved such unpleasant work, underscoring her disdain in the phrasing. She raised her eyebrows and tilted her head for my response, and all eyes were on me except John’s. He avoided my glances, shifted his weight, and began to squeeze my hand. Without his support, the professorial surround paralyzed me and I seemed to forget the situation and how I ended up the center of it. “Laurie?” Paula said. Her voice snapped me back, and I saw myself behind a rising screen, about to be revealed to a curious audience, and due to that overexcited image and four glasses of wine, I became autobiographical, beginning with the fourth grade where I first read about the pyramids and Africa’s animals and resolved to see them someday, then soared on to my senior year of college where the fourth-grade resolve still held.
Paula’s dark eyes blinked at me as though trying to focus and John let go of my hand and made a half-turn putting me in his full view. The collective surprise was palpable. All my awkwardness blew away like fuzz on a dandelion leaving behind a sweet confidence, so I went on, rhapsodizing about being able to ski the slopes of Chamonix and Gstaad, meeting people of other cultures, seeing friends no matter where they lived. “All this — and at a discount,” I concluded.
“Mais alors, mademoiselle, vous êtes française!” Professor Debané said. I had emerged from the hoi polloi.
I was not French, as Professor Debané assumed, but no one would think otherwise when I spoke it, thanks to my uncle’s wife Marie-Annick and her role in my upbringing. Americans who speak French with native fluency are accorded a higher status than those who speak fluent Czech, say, or Ukrainian, or almost any other more unique language, and my French went a long way at the launch party in compensating John for my career choice. It did not offend me that people found our relationship incongruous as I knew from the beginning that a 40ish, tenured, scholar of renown would have to squirm a lot with a flight attendant on his arm. On my side, however, presenting John was a delight. He stood 6 inches above me and had Kennedyesque looks and hair, a bonus to what intrigued me and made me proud to introduce him. He was an academic, and I had never before dated an academic.
Several months later, we talked about marriage and it was then that John began to polish me up, and the polishing increased in September when he gave me a ruby engagement ring for our one-year anniversary. He made me aware that I regularly dropped consonants from words and that I used too many clichés. My taste in film was primarily good but some all-time favorites didn’t do me credit, such as Private Benjamin with Goldie Hawn. It seemed I used quite a few words with political overtones — like bork — that some wouldn’t appreciate. And then there was the street where I lived — Goethe. I didn’t pronounce it correctly — that is as he and the Germans would have it pronounced. But a long time ago a Chicago cab driver told me there was no such street as Goethe and when I wrote it out for him said, “Sure, but you’re saying it wrong. That’s Gothee Street.” Who knows streets better than a cab driver? In front of John and friends, however, I thereafter resorted to German.
Throughout this time of our progressing relationship and my upgrading, Paula emerged frequently in conversation and in person. She and John were married seven years so it was only natural for her name to come up, and she was, of course, at many of the academic and cultural events we attended. They still shared close friends from other cities, so we’d also meet for dinner when one of the couples came to Chicago, and Paula would inevitably work in great times the four had shared and get in a remark at my expense. If there was the slightest possibility a conversation might lead to things French, she’d contort it in another direction with admirable aplomb, denying me the one area where I could shine. It was clear she would never forgive me for speaking fluent French without an American accent or for having a job that tainted her former husband’s scholarly esteem. At these encounters Paula always looked stunning, often wearing her long hair straight with one narrow silver-corded braid ornamenting the right side. I couldn’t help but notice she wore John’s favorite perfume, a Dolce and Gabbana fragrance, the same one he had given me for my 31st birthday along with a subscription to The New York Times. Eventually, I asked John to do something about Paula’s jabs, but he said it was best not to stir up trouble — which hurt a bit — and I realized I’d have to stop her myself by responding in kind. In December, I began.
We were meeting a couple from Pittsburgh and Paula and her date Stephen at Tesori for dinner before the symphony. Upon arrival I ran into Paula in the restroom using a hairpin to adjust her silver cord. We made a bit of small talk and, as she was leaving, she called back over her shoulder: “Still flying?”
My body tensed and I rapidly finger-combed my hair while watching her profile in the mirror.
“Yes, still teaching?” I said, echoing her tone.
She stopped short with her hand on the door … and walked out. Still at the mirror, I saw my mouth release a long breath, then come together in a smile which sent me back to the bottom of an Austrian ski slope. I was being applauded by ski bums after completing a run of moguls and smiling a triumphant smile, the same one smiling at me now.
Dinner went well even with politics dominating the conversation, not unusual when persuasions are the same. Their passion in discussing the results of the November elections made it easy for me to be a fringe participator with rare interjections to keep me in and out, as it were. After dessert orders, the Pittsburgh couple went to the lobby to call their children and nanny, and Stephen went to the restroom. There we were — the three of us — and I did it. I used the word “candidate,” sans the first “d”. I blushed, stumbling over the breach, and Paula spoke.
“John said you were working on consonants.”
“Paula — ”
“I didn’t realize you reproduced our conversations, John,” I said, looking at him. An icy anger lifted all embarrassment and the mogul skier took over.
“ Can.di.date … can.di.date. There! Now you two need to work on squirrel. Repeat after me: é. cu. reuil — oh never mind, here’s Stephen. Another time.”
My December defense didn’t sit well with John and he excused Paula on the grounds that she was Paula, but before he could say I overreacted — the sure goal of his mesmerizing voice and rhetoric — I reminded him that I had asked him to subdue her and now it was up to me. It was the first time I had not deferred to him, and it took him aback but not as much as what was to come two weeks later on New Year’s Day. He had become edgy during those two weeks and I felt it related to being unable to rely on me anymore for restraint with Paula. It caused me twinges of guilt because I wasn’t sure if he wouldn’t or just couldn’t restrain her and now he had me to boot. I don’t recall what we were talking about on January 1, but it led to my telling him my friend’s aunt lost her bid for a judgeship. “She was borked, plain and simple.” John exploded — I had used the bork word. Then I exploded — and with encyclopedic recall.
“Not so fast, Professor — by the way, that’s a cliché from Private Benjamin, one of my favorite movies — ” and I went on and on, ending with “ … and all those consonants I’ve been putting in to please you? Well I’m taking them all out again.” I don’t think I forgot a single upgrade and John stared at me and I stared back, both with wide-eyed disbelief.
We hardly saw each other the next few weeks. I had bid my flight schedule in order to be free for a performance at The Logan Center that I had a deep interest in attending. It would be an evening of songs and poems by Robert Burns, a poet dear to my heart, and I even looked forward to drinks afterward with Paula and Stephen and another couple. I could hold my own on Robbie Burns and wanted to. My father used to read him to me, doing the Scottish accent very badly, but I didn’t know it then and thought his rendition fantastic. The weather caused cancellations of several of my return trips and John had a trip himself to Cleveland, but finally we blocked off three days to be together. I spent two of those days and nights at John’s apartment in Lakeshore East, something I rarely did because his one-bedroom apartment did not accommodate my erratic sleep or flying schedules. Things hadn’t jelled for us to where they had been before the recent unpleasant episodes. For one thing, the professor-student side of our relationship was over, and we both knew it, but we were finding a footing and had a wonderful 48 hours. We skated in Millennium Park, wobbling around the ice, and sat in the Park Grille afterwards, drinking wine and watching others skate. We took several long walks on Michigan Avenue braving the cold and wind, went grocery shopping at Mariano’s and ate dinner in, cooking two great ones together. On January 26, the day of the Burns performance, John got up to go to Eggy’s for breakfast with a friend and I lingered, waving good-bye with the ruby-ringed hand that he kissed and placed back under the duvet. Soon after he left, I got up and made coffee and while it perked stood at the living-room window looking out over blue patches of lake that winter couldn’t overcome. On the beach, a bulldog attacked a huge snow sculpture destroying it beyond identification, and two joggers stopped to watch as a couple tried to rein him in. I followed the shoreline up to the planetarium and then came back into the warmth of John’s apartment with its wall-to-wall books and coffee-laden air and breathed in bliss. We had cancelled his cleaning lady the day before so after dressing I tidied up between cups of coffee and glancing at the Times. When I raised the shades in the bedroom and began to strip the bed, something flashed over my eyes. The mattress was down from the rim of the headboard and sunlight rays were interacting with an object behind it. Glitter … glitter … glitter … the silver cord from Paula’s hair.
That evening I stood in front of my bathroom mirror knotting a tartan scarf I bought to wear in honor of Burns and wondering why I couldn’t cry. Before leaving John’s apartment I had readjusted the sheets on his bed, made it, packed my overnight bag, left him a note, and walked all the way to Goethe Street without noticing the cold, my face so numb that I couldn’t return a greeting from the doorman. Inside my apartment I sat on the sofa in my coat and shook from cold and betrayal. I wanted to cry but tears didn’t come.
I took off the scarf, tried it another way, and remembered things, reviewed them, things I hadn’t previously registered. A poem began turning in my mind and I jerked off the scarf and replaced it as it was the first time, then went to my desk for a sheet of old stationery with a picture of me and a sweet old lion, my arm over his shoulders. It was taken in Africa and John said it was one of those “Here I am with someone in someplace” pictures. From a shelf I lifted a book of Burns’ poetry left me by my father and copied the first stanza of a poem.
The Burns presentation was magical and resonated with past and present memories, and the tears wanted earlier came. I brushed at them and John reached for my hand. I let him take it just as I had accepted his kiss in greeting me that evening. It was someone else lending her lips, her hand. After the performance, my plan to plead an early flight, hand him the poem and silver cord and jump into a cab was exchanged for one far better. Stephen had a flu virus and hadn’t come and Raica and Gregory had to leave right after the performance so the three of us cabbed to Michigan and Randolph and ordered Glenlivet in Tavern at the Park. “Ahhh. What an evening!” John said, picking up his scotch and proposing a toast to Burns.
As they sipped their toast, I swallowed all of mine, set the glass down and pulled an elongated silver-wrapped box from my purse. “This belongs to you, Paula.” Their expressions, bemused by my drinking off the scotch, stiffened, and I reached for the poem. “And this … this is for you, John, but it also alludes to Paula.” They were stone quiet as I unfolded the lion stationery and read with the Scottish accent inherited from my father:
TO A LOUSE
Ha! Whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
Your impudence protects you sairly’
I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.
I placed the poem on the table, pulled off the ruby ring to anchor it, and walked away.