Thursday, May 13, 2010
11:39 AM | Posted by Wide Lawns | | Edit Post
I am finished with school now until July. I picked up a business class for the 6 week summer term. I know it sounds odd, but remember, I worked in an office for years before teaching, so I know a thing or two about writing in a business environment and yes, we will have a lesson on not getting caught blogging about your job by vindictive coworkers who try to blackmail you anonymously. Ahem. A lot has been going on in my life and some of it I will not share, alas, but trust me, if you knew, you'd be like, well of course she's not been writing. Except, now I'm writing again as I play housewife for the next two months. I have plenty of time. My sister called me this morning and mentioned to me that I need to post something on my blog and she's right, so here I am. I need to finish the story of my poor french exchange student Clarice.
It has been so long that if you need to refresh, Part 1 is here.
When we last left off, it was the summer between tenth and eleventh grades for me and I had managed to score both my first real boyfriend and a miserable french exchange student named Clarice, who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown from coming to stay with my family for a summer.
I've thought about this a lot - about what Clarice's expectations might have been for her trip to New York and about what she must have imagined America to be. Honestly, I don't really know what image a french girl in the late 80s might have held in her mind of life in the US. Did she imagine a kind of "Pleasantville" or sit-com style reality? It's hard to say. Whatever she imagined though, had little in common with me and my punk rock, pierced boyfriend, a hispanic couple who cooked rice and beans every day, parents young enough to be our siblings, a truck driving, watermelon selling grandfather and a little sister who was actually an aunt.
I knew Clarice wanted to sight-see. I liked sight-seeing myself, so I had my parents drive us to the city on several occasions so we could run around. I took her to the Met and she said the Louvre was better and acted sour about my favorite museum. Now I take offense to this. I have since been to France and when I was there, the Louvre workers were on strike so I didn't get to go. HOWEVER, I steadfastly believe that The Met is better anyway and even if it isn't better per se, it's still a damn great museum and I love it. When I was little I wanted to live in it just like Claudia Kincaid.
After she didn't like The Met, I took her for cab rides and showed her the subway. We ate at seedy Ukrainian diners on the Lower East Side and then I took her to darling cafes in the West Village. We had falafel on Macdougal Street and cruised the junk shops and record stores on Bleecker. We did cool stuff and when she didn't like that I took her to the Upper West Side where it was pretty and fancy. We strolled through the Park and got snacks from street vendors, but still, none of this real, authentic New York experience was what she wanted at all. She wanted Hard Rock Cafe. She wanted tourist trap. She would have wanted Times Square, but this was before they fixed it up and it went commercial. Back then it was still peep shows and junkies.
Looking back, I should have taken her to the top of the World Trade Center. We should have gone to see Lady Liberty, but as a real New Yorker, I didn't do stuff like that and if the tables were turned and it had been me in Paris, I wouldn't have wanted to see tourist nightmares. I imagined a grittier experience of Paris and in fact, when I finally got to go, The Champs Elysee was on my "don't see" list. I guess Clarice and I were just really different. Where I thought I was showing her the real New York on Canal Street and in Romanian steakhouses in the Bowery where the waiters are ruder than those at Cafe de Flore (another tourist trap), Clarice thought she was getting gypped out of Broadway matinees and FAO Schwartz. To me, that stuff was as foreign as, well, France, and it didn't represent what New York really was.
Clarice started to become really withdrawn and depressed. She cried a lot and called her mother sniffling in whispers. She was homesick and disappointed and I felt terrible. What could I do to make her feel better? Again, I tried to imagine myself in her shoes and I thought if I had traveled all the way to America, I'd probably like to see more of it than just New York City and one of its riverside suburbs. We should go somewhere else and I had the perfect means of getting us somewhere else (being that I was 15 and couldn't drive yet). Is there any truer way of seeing America than from the cab of a real tractor trailer? Can you get any more American than Waylon Jennings, cb radios, truck stops and endless miles of highway? Hell no. So I asked my Poppop to take us to Millpond via truck.
New York to Millpond is a fairly straight shot, however, the life of a trucker rarely works in straight shots. My grandfather had loads to haul and if Clarice and I were patient and didn't raise hell, we could ride along and eventually we'd end up in Millpond and from there we could see the Chesapeake and go to some of the nicer Mid-Atlantic beach towns for a good time. We just had to sit pretty for a few days and make nice through Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia while he dropped off and picked up some loads of what I don't remember.
I had always approached riding in my grandfather's truck with a dark and humorous sense of irony. I found the whole experience hilarious and also, I was used to it. Being that I lived on grilled cheese sandwiches anyway, truck stop food didn't appall me. My grandfather cracked me up with his stories and I, always the writer, loved the characters we'd encounter along the way. I kept a spiral notebook with me everywhere we went and scribbled notes and made sketches. I have always been this way.
Clarice was not amused. The truck was loud, uncomfortable and disgusting. She did not find my grandfather's Maxwell House can spitoon endearing. Country music to her sounded like donkeys braying. Truck stops were scary and dirty and she couldn't understand a word of Poppop's stories because of his thick accent and bizarre idioms. Clarice basically leaned against the window and sobbed silently all the way through coal mining country.
"Don't worry, we'll be at the beach soon!" I tried to reassure her.
I am going to go out on a limb her and reveal to you, Dear Readers, the general location of Millpond, my hometown. I really have no reason not to and I think it is important to the story and to understanding my family's culture. Millpond is in the general, southern region around the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It's low, marshy country, puddled with ponds and creeks, surrounded on all sides by water. What isn't wet is farmed and the towns sit far apart, though not as far apart as they used to be. It's country. Everywhere there are farmhouses, farm stands, bait shacks and crab traps. It is so full of its own unique culture and so beautiful and so real, so full of true Americana that I could just weep at its lovely simplicity.
My family has lived in this part of the world for hundreds of years. Most of them were farmers. They speak a unique and peculiar dialect that Clarice couldn't understand. They eat foods particular to that region. They are proud of where they're from and yes, to outsiders, most of them look like weird country folk and white trash, but they're wonderful. And Millpond is a beautiful town full of trees, lakes and old Victorian houses. It has a real Main Street straight out of Norman Rockwell. If Clarice wanted "Pleasantville" then surely Millpond was it.
Except that isn't what she wanted. She didn't like riding bikes with me through town or staying at Mommom Jewel's house out in the country. She even hated her strawberry shortcake, which is just criminal.
"Taste like strawberry on salty bread," was her criticism of the biscuit base that I would kill to have a bowl of right now.
Clarice hated walking on dirt roads ruffled and clumped with wildflowers to the horse pasture. She didn't want to stay up and lay with me in the dewy grass of the backyard to stargaze and listen to the crickets at night. She seemed deaf to the magical whir of cicadas in the poplars and musty perfume of turtle-scented ponds. Everything I loved about both city and country, Clarice hated.
What did this girl want??
I knew that in France her family had a beach house that they went to. It was in a resort town. Ok, we had that. I could give her that. I had my grandparents drive us all the way to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Beach resort towns don't get any better than Rehoboth. It is, by far, my favorite beach town in America. It has a boardwalk, great food everywhere, a big Main Street lined with neat shops and every possible fun thing to do that you can think up, including skee ball. Down at the southern end of the boardwalk there's Funland with rides and carnival games and at the other end there's Dolle's caramel popcorn. Rehoboth is heaven. Surely, that would cheer Clarice up.
I fed her Grotto Pizza and Thrasher's famous fries, which she said tasted like the chips in England (ok kinda, I'll give her that). She didn't care for taffy or caramel corn. Ring toss and skee ball didn't so much as elicit a smile, nor did the cheesy haunted house or the flash and clang of the arcade where all the teenagers hung out. We shopped a little, but she wouldn't buy anything. I took her for a walk along the surf to look for seaglass. She was bored.
My grandparents took us to dinner at Grotto Pizza as a huge treat and right as the server presented our large pepperoni and mushroom, Clarice burst into tears. No one knew what to do. I tried to put my arm around her, but she forcefully pushed me away, then put her head down on the table and sobbed. My grandmother tried to comfort her, but nothing worked.
"She needs to go home. This girl wasn't ready to take a trip like this alone," my grandmother said, "You need to have her call her mother and get her on the next flight back to Paris."
And that is what ended up happening. My grandparents generously drove us back to New York in their Oldsmobile, since my other Poppop's truck was so traumatic.
We'd been gone about ten days and when we got back to New York, I expected that as Clarice packed for her trip out of JFK the following morning, that I'd be doing the same thing. Her leaving early simply meant that I'd get a longer visit to Paris, right? I didn't even mind that Clarice and I didn't share a remotely similar worldview. I'd find my own way around Paris and maybe back on her home turf, Clarice would lighten up some and be herself (because this couldn't possibly be how she really was, could it?)
But I was met with something else entirely.
"You can't go to France," my father told me.
"A lot's been going on and we decided the best thing is for us to move to Florida," my mother added.
"Why?" I asked,"I like it here. I don't want to move to Florida."
"There's more work down there right now. We have to go where the money is," my mother said, "New York is dead. It's over. Florida is the place to be now."
"Well what about the deal, the batteries on the ship? I thought you were going to be multi-millionaires and it didn't matter where we lived," and before I even got it out of my mouth, I knew I shouldn't have even asked. I knew it hadn't been real.
"We're moving to Florida in two weeks," my mother said, and when I went upstairs to my room, I found that while I was gone, my mother had already put half of my things in cardboard boxes. So it was true.
I wasn't going to France. I was going to Florida.
The weird thing is, I didn't go hysterical. I didn't weep and fret over losing my boyfriend or my home and I did none of these things because this was my life. Transient. Fleeting. Nothing had ever really been permanent. I had always kept everything and everyone at a certain distance. I never got attached. The gypsy spirit was in me too, because I was my parents' child. This was just how things were and how they'd always been. People left. I left. Things and places and people came and went, appeared and disappeared. We moved around. This was my life.
So I just sighed and went and tried to talk to Clarice, half in bad french and half in Tarzan English, the way we conversed. I apologized.
"It's better you don't come to France. You would not like," she said.
I knew she was wrong, but I didn't say anything.
"Is there anything you liked from America?" I wanted to know, "Is there anything you want to remember."
"Yes. I want to take back with me something."
"Yes, anything. What?"
"I want the Spam."
"Spam? Really? You want to take Spam back to France with you?"
"Yes. The Spam, I like this very much."
We had one can in the pantry and that wasn't enough. I asked my mother and she, without even batting an eyelash or even laughing or finding the request a bit odd, took us straight to the A & P so Clarice could stock up on Spam. She must have packed 20 cans in her suitcase. I've often wondered what the baggage screeners must have thought.
We took her to the airport the next day, Clarice wearing her stupid black hat that reminded me of Boy George. She didn't hug us, but just said a terse adieu.
"The french must really be as rude as people say," my mother said in the car on the way into the city where we wanted to stop for spring rolls, "Can you believe she didn't even thank us?"
"Well, she wasn't the warmest girl," I said, "I don't think all french people can be that way. She just had different tastes in things, I suppose."
"And Spam, of all things," my mother said.
"Of all things. Spam," I repeated.
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