by KARA VANDERBIJL
The twins came to the gate when we rang, riding bicycles that they had outgrown. James pedaled furiously, boy-knees reaching comical heights near his chin; his sister, Amy, lagged behind, her long denim skirt tangling around her shins, mousy brown ponytail swinging from side to side. Before she reached us she wobbled in a wide arc, turning back up the gravel driveway to the house while James unlocked the gate. Hailey let up the brake with a slight movement of her thin ankle.
The white car crawled down the driveway behind the eager bikers. Through spindly trees, the house appeared, long and squat. On the front porch, which was really just an expanse of pavement beyond the driveway, the twins’ mother appeared, dressed in colonial garb, down to a circle of lace pinned to the very top of her head. She balanced a white terrier on her hip. We remembered that it would soon be the Fourth.
“Well good morning, y’all!” she called. Like all Texan mothers I had already met and was yet to meet, she seemed larger than life: a caricature, rudely captioned with an oddly-capitalized axiom.
She had brewed coffee for me, although I told her I didn’t drink the stuff. It sat with fraternal sugar cubes, one brown, one white, on a silver tray in the middle of the children’s school table along with an ancient tape recorder and two pencils freshly sharpened. At a look from their mother, the twins sat obediently, notebooks crushed to their chests, blinking behind their glasses. She would not have me begin teaching, however, until I had (just as obediently) choked down the entire cup and refused another.
She only stood by, however, until we had reviewed the previous lesson: several repetitions of the alphabet, altogether too many slurred Bonjours, comment vas-tus and d’ou viens-tus, and a few eager Je m’appelle James, then retiring to the kitchen which, admittedly, was only separated by a piece of wall. Dishes rattled comfortably as I took the twins once again through the rudiments of the French tongue, some of which were new, most of which we had already learned last time, repeated ad infinitum, and committed to a tape for them to memorize in my absence. Upon my promptings, James launched unafraid into the most absurd Anglo-Gallic pidgin, while his sister remained absolutely silent until I asked her a question directly, to which she responded hesitantly but almost always accurately.
When we had exhausted a new lesson by repeating it, loudly, into the cassette, I told them stories (in English) about Louis XIV and Versailles, going to school so early in the morning that I left the house when the boulangers were pulling the first pan of fresh pastries out of the oven, what it was like to learn French at their age for the first time, not as a hobby, not as a mid-morning pastime, but as a necessity. It was this part that I couldn’t (didn’t have time to) communicate to them: the normalcy of it, the regularity of its illogical rules.
You learn quickly, as a transplant, what you must do to adapt. You can spend your time thinking about what you must make do with "now" compared to what you had "there". (As a transplant, then and there become one and the same thing. The past is a geography lesson.) Or, you can absolutely forget whatever you knew before and become someone different, bloom anew. This is easier for children, I think; like pruning a bush back, performing the necessary amputation results in greater growth. If you're young enough, this happens almost unconsciously. The twins were twelve when I taught them, the same age I had been when I left the United States, on that strange border between unselfconsciousness and intense, awkward awareness. Growing into your body, into a new sensual appreciation of the world, you feel each loss physically, as time transforms, too, into place.
The first time I ate in a restaurant in France it was 1999, just after Christmas, and we were in Lyon. My brother and I couldn’t read anything on the menu so we pointed to the word “hamburger” when the server asked us what we wanted. The whole trip has taken on a dreamlike haze but the moment those steaming patties of ground beef arrived on their very white plates — surrounded by rice and nothing else — stands out vividly. I cut into the meat with my knife and the slice pulled away with a squelch and blood seeped out from the raw inside onto the rice.
“Oh!” exclaimed an expatriate, when she saw my face. “I forgot to tell you that you must ask for your hamburgers ‘well done’ here!”
When we had ended our month and a half summer session, the twins’ mother gave me a French press with which to brew my own coffee (“you must love it, since you grew up there!”) and drove me, along with her children and my friend Hailey, to a fancy new French restaurant on the other side of San Antonio. It wasn’t until that visit to Texas, after I had left France for good after living there for seven years, that I first tried snails and frog legs. I smiled bravely over the puff pastry and the butter garlic sauce and the truffle ravioli and the lobster. The waitress offered wine, which my hosts quickly declined, because they were good Baptists and it was Texas after all and not France, not home, not at all what I remembered, familiarly strange.
"Lurk Underneath" - Trouble Books (mp3)
"Dead Bee In A Golden Bowl" - Trouble Books (mp3)
The new album from Trouble Books is entitled Concatenating Fields.