We were – what’s the name for it – a couple.  But we didn’t need to declare it.  Then a letter stamped with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services seal arrived.  Their declaration, in impressive bold type, was that Cecile’s visa terms had changed and no option of renewal would be available to her, under the circumstances.  We were to think heightened security.  Cecile would be obligated to return to her native France, having been away for a decade.

Encouraged to act the patriot, I still had the blessing of choice.  I questioned what was keeping me at my current job and whether the desk and computer I had there required my presence each morning for the years and decades to come.  I bought language tapes.  I waffled on the value of proximity to old friends.  I measured my bravado against Jean-Paul Belmondo.  I posted a classified ad for my television and my car.  I tried to cherish ice water, side dishes and wide-open spaces.  I culled my savings.  I officially declared us a couple, though not to anyone else but Cecile.  I followed her.

In keeping with the whiz of adventure, I also gladly accepted a new, clear justification for further postponing maturity.  In France, adolescence could be returned to, or in my case prolonged, and I’d have an explanation for my pre-existing condition of being slightly out of step with casual conversation-making.  Cecile on the other hand, had already begun to face a more drastic adjustment to a country she’d known ten years ago, in which contents had shifted.  With French that had stopped at age eighteen, she didn’t know the word for conference call when she began her first day at her new office in Paris.

Knowing none of the others, I disembarked on French soil smiling politely.  The word for both watch and look was regard and, at the movies, you selected not a showing but a séance.   “Which séance should we choose to regard the Cocteau film tonight?”  I would ask to an imaginary future friend.  If I might need to ask why there was a delay, I’d instead demand the reason for the retard.  Even an object as humdrum as a paperclip was now transmogrified into a trombone.

She and I felt displaced together; Cecile in a culture she was supposed to recognize, and I in an oil painting I’d awoken to find myself living within.  Around each corner I turned, I looked ahead to the next, past rows of more forged iron balconies and toward sidestreets that flashed glimpses of just the place I’d been looking for all my life.  The complete dream was always a block ahead.  I worked at catching up by taking my coffee black and brewed to weapons-grade and, occasionally, grumbling about all the tourists.  Saying easy became facile.

Then, Cecile came home with a fresh surprise to spin us into a new orbit of disorientation.  She explained it to me in a language I understood.

“So you did a test?” I asked and fell into bed beside her.  She was chewing on her thumb, while suppressing a sound very likely to leap from her mouth as laughter.

“Two tests.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Fine.  I am more tired.”

“Actually, I mean how are you feeling about it?”

“Well, I wanted to ask you the same thing.”

“Yes,” I said to the ceiling.

“Yes, to what?”

“Yes, I can understand you wanting to ask.”

“You are worried?” she asked.

“Let’s see…”

“It’s ok, I was worried too.”

“Was?”

“That’s right.”

“I thought it would require some planning or, you know, careful concentration on my part.  This wasn’t so thought out.  Of course, there’s no reason to get worried.  Really.”

I looked out of our open bedroom window across the rooftops of our neighborhood, lined with the silhouettes of the small chimneys that together looked like a perforation where you could neatly tear the evening sky away from the buildings below.  From the opposite balcony underneath the dotted line, an old thin woman watered her box plants in the dark.

There was a tendency during the day for me to wonder whether people stared at me in public because I was the barely understandable foreigner or because my attempts to seem like any type of adult weren’t working.  I had the same problem in my home country.  A second one was, when I sighed about it, only a smaller part of my all-inclusive problems with acting like an adult.  This was one of the things I felt I had to resolve in what we’d estimated at eight and a half months.  We would need an area for changing and containing diapers.  We would have to buy those plastic covers for electrical outlets.

I wanted to say more but Cecile had fallen asleep.  The next morning I needed to wake early to drive to the airport because, to sustain the turbulence, my parents and younger sister were flying into town.

From America, a war had been initiated and France had refused any part in it.  An official on the congressional foreign relations committee explained that, after the French stopped being French, there was hope that the country would approve a military intervention.  But being French never abated.

Members of my family, for as long as I can remember, have always made similar pronouncements about a thing or idea being “very French,” theirs meant in terms winsomely positive.  During their visit, manhole covers and the way people left cars unattended in the center of narrow streets were “wonderfully French.” By the end of the week, it seemed my family could point to a cloud in the sky and say “ah…the French.”  I lost completely what it meant.  More precisely, I wasn’t paying attention.

I didn’t notice the clouds or the gargoyles at Notre Dame or the texture and lightness of the baguettes and I realized I had no further interest in my own French word games when my dad pointed out that chariot was the name for a shopping cart.  That would have been once and not very long ago, for me as well, very French.

Cecile and I had gone over methods of delivering our news.  My hesitation to break it to my family was something she didn’t get. “Well, we’re not married and we haven’t been together that long,” I noted to her in private.  My only reasoning that cleared up some of her confusion was, “It’s so American.”  Though that also meant more or less nothing.

These were explanations as to why I pushed the announcement to the very last night.  We all gathered at a traditional, or, very French, bistro the night before their morning flight back.

Within minutes of scooting into our seats, a small man in a dirty Yale Bulldogs windbreaker came in selling red roses to tables.  The other diners waved him away like a fly.  At our table, he went first to my dad, who accepted his offer with a barrage of thank you’s and merci’s.  The flower seller continued feeding him more, the smile of a person reeling in a large fish growing wider across his face, and my dad continued to receive, eventually distributing five flowers around the table before I had a chance to interrupt.

“I don’t know if you want to pay for all of those, Dad,” I said, gassing his sweet impression that in Paris, as in an Ethel Merman showtune realized, everything came up roses.

“Oh.  Right,” he said.  My sister gathered the flowers back up all and foisted them back on the seller.  This was a diversion I would have otherwise spent more time chortling about, but as soon as the man walked out the door looking personally hurt, I quickly remembered again why we were here.

“Now, I have something to say to everybody.”  The semi-circle of faces around me stopped in mid-sentence and mid-bite.  “We, Cecile and I…” I proceeded.  My mom grabbed my dad’s hand.  With this gesture, I understood instantly that she assumed I was about to announce our wedding engagement.  This hadn’t crossed my mind.  It made the nosedive the otherwise light-hearted evening was about to take that much more spine-tingling.

“We are going to have our first baby!” I called out.  I don’t remember why I said first, as though there were already plans for several more.  I don’t remember any immediate reactions beside my sister suppressing a gasp.

“Are you sure?” my mom dropped to a whisper.

“Yep,” I confirmed.  Cecile nodded and smiled, happy with the news and happy with its being made public.  She moved on to ordering chocolate profiterolles for the group.

“What about a job and also your resident status over here?  I thought you needed to live back in the States first before you are here permanently.  And do you want us to tell people back home, I mean…” my mom asked.  I couldn’t be  sure if I’d anticipated this line of questioning because I knew my mom’s kind of apprehension or because these were precisely the same concerns I had.

“We need to find a name that works well in French and English…” Cecile interrupted, bubbling over with other things to talk about.

“Well, I think this is all certainly…” my mom snapped out of her rapidly churning trance “….big news.”  Her color was slowly returning.  My unease burned off into the confidence of irritation directed my mom’s way at not having simply offered a “congratulations.”  I lowered my gaze, trying to impress upon her that she was treating us like teenagers.  But making the announcement had also carried me beyond the insecurity of feeling like one.

“We will be fine,” Cecile said and then launched into the kind of detailed plans that my parents were pleased to accept as reassurance.  “And I feel very well.”

We exited the restaurant and walked along the bank of the quiet Canal St. Martin going back.  We passed under trees that arched over the opposite bank and beside the boats navigating the narrow canal that would lead them into the Seine.  I walked in front, listening for anyone speaking behind me until Cecile caught up and grabbed my arm at the elbow.  Our particular subject had been talked out, at least for the night.

When we arrived to the street corner of my family’s hotel, we reformed into a group.  We discussed plans to the airport the next day.

“We won’t be here to see this ,” my mom remarked with an abrupt regret.  The actual size of things had recalibrated for each of us.  “You’ll send pictures, won’t you?”

“No, Mom, we planned on never taking any photos of the baby,” I responded.  She nodded, biting her lip and leaving my sarcasm alone as she had ever since I’d been old enough to construct a shell over the things to which I never wanted to put in frank terms.  This, though, could have been the last joke of its kind I’d ever make.  “Listen, of course we will.  And there’ll be more travel in all our futures.”

We kissed my parents and sister on the cheek, one peck each, as though we were in Paris and as though that didn’t surprise any of us.  We hugged too, because for my part, I wasn’t yet convinced I could do this without them.  Cecile and I looked back once more after saying goodnight, the two of us waving as they moved on.

The French word for wide, I later learned, was large and for luck, it was chance. There would be sights and moments to regard and words, oceans of them, which remained dense, mysterious music to my ears.  There was still a war being waged.  There were still risks and there were still endless ways for me to feel out of place.

Shortly after the new year, there were still new people being French.  Among all the new choices to be made, it would fall to me to give her a name.

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NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

5 responses to “Foreign Relations”

  1. Jude says:

    Belated congratulations on the birth of your first daughter.
    The lack of congratulations from your mom… “It’s so Human.”

    Enjoyable read.

  2. Marni Grossman says:

    “We won’t be here to see this ,” my mom remarked with an abrupt regret. The actual size of things had recalibrated for each of us. “You’ll send pictures, won’t you?”

    Heartbreaking. But it all worked out, yes? You took pictures and you had daughters and it all worked out. And then you spun the story into a beautiful and melancholy piece of writing.

  3. Thanks for these kind words, everything did work out better than could have ever been planned.

  4. Nathaniel, I really loved this. And I salute you, completely and totally, for making the move to France. This may be somewhat after the fact, given your profile, but congratulations on the birth, too.

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