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Saturday, August 8, 2009

French Twist by Alice Benson

Taking the class wasn't even my idea. I'd wanted to take Spanish and go to Mexico on our honeymoon. But Natalie had insisted on Paris.

"It's the most romantic city in the world," she'd said. "Perfect for young lovers."

I wasn't so sure, but as usual, I'd given in. Natalie always had such strong opinions about what we should do; I found myself agreeing with her because it was easier than arguing. I knew she was going to win; why fight the inevitable?

Even our engagement had been all her idea. I was perfectly happy with our relationship; we were committed, had agreed that we were in love. I saw no reason to rush into anything, and I truly don't remember asking her to marry me, although she told all her friends that I had. Once wedding plans were made, I got used to the idea, and even started looking forward to being married. It wasn't that I didn't have a mind of my own exactly, but it did seem that with Natalie, I always ended up just "going along to get along."

When one day she announced that she was in love with her karate instructor and walked out of my life, I wouldn’t say I was heartbroken exactly. I was sad, confused, and, I hate to admit, a little relieved. I began to recognize that it was probably better not to marry someone just because I didn’t like conflict. After a time of feeling rejected, I finally realized how lucky I’d been at my narrow escape.

Now, weeks later, I was sitting in a class I'd never wanted to take, waiting to learn French, a language I'd always hated. Maybe I was silly, but the tuition was nonrefundable, and I was too cheap to throw the money away.

Looking around, I realized that Natalie wasn't the only person who thought France was a romantic place. The room was filled with couples. Some held hands, others simply gazed at each other with that expression reserved for those not yet disillusioned by love. I was about to bolt, the heck with the money, when the teacher arrived.

"Good evening. My name is Janine Harkins. Welcome to Conversational French Class."

She was young, much younger than I'd expected. And pretty too. She had that combination of dark hair and blue eyes that I've always found appealing. Small mouth, perfect white teeth. Delicate hands, long, graceful fingers, no wedding ring. No wedding ring? I couldn't believe I'd noticed. I certainly wasn't interested in that.

When I found myself thinking about Janine during the following week, I firmly put her out of my mind. If my thoughts occasionally drifted to soft blue eyes and wavy dark hair, I didn't let them linger. I had my own life to lead, fully independent, no one giving me orders.

Settling into my desk for class the next Tuesday, I told myself that my rapid heartbeat was from walking up two flights of stairs. Not enough exercise lately, that’s all.

When Janine arrived and took attendance, she stumbled a little over my name, and I swear, she blushed. Could she be interested in me? No, she was probably just embarrassed about messing up such an easy name -- Jeff Erickson, not exactly a tongue twister.

Janine moved the class into a simple exercise. "You're lost; how do you ask for directions? In French, please."

As we focused on finding our way in an unfamiliar language, I let my gaze sweep the room, landing on Jim and Sylvia. They'd been married for forty-two years, but looked like newlyweds, sitting with their shoulders slightly touching. Watching them, I tried to ignore the rush of acid bitterness rising in my throat. I reminded myself I was lucky to escape. That gnawing in my stomach was just those chili dogs I'd grabbed on the way to class.

Again I found myself thinking about Janine during the week. I quickly put her out of my mind, but she kept popping back in. The morning sky was the exact shade of Janine's gorgeous eyes. Bowling with the guys I imagined I caught a whiff of her perfume -- spring flowers momentarily replacing stale beer and smoke. How was I going to get over her?

By the last night of class, I finally admitted I wasn’t going to get over her; I was smitten. I really didn’t want to spend the rest of my life alone, and I realized Janine was not Natalie. All relationships did not have to be the same. With Janine, I knew I could share my life with someone special and still be myself. No giving in to get along, no winning and losing; we would listen to each other and plan our lives together.

Now I started to panic. What if she wasn't interested? What if it had taken me too long to understand what I really wanted?

After class, I pretended to gather my papers while the rest of the students filed out. They seemed to take forever, and I felt ridiculous. How long can it take to gather a notebook? Just when I was about to bolt, I found Janine standing in front of me.

My mouth went dry. I looked into her clear blue eyes and felt myself floating away, while my heart hammered wildly against my chest. This was my opportunity, but I couldn't make my voice cooperate.

She smiled, a sweet, open smile that kicked my brain into gear.

"Would you like to have a cup of coffee with me?"

Her smile widened, and she responded with the most beautiful words I'd ever heard.

"I'd love to," she said softly. "I've been hoping you'd ask."

When Janine took my arm as we walked out of the room, my head felt clear, my nerves calm. I knew this was the right decision, and I couldn’t stop a silly grin from spreading across my face as we headed into our future together.

About the Author: Alice Benson lives in Wisconsin where she writes and works for a human service agency. She spends as much time as possible with her lap top but does get out of the house now and then to walk Missy and Sammy, her two Bichon puppies. Alice writes a variety of short stories and is currently working on a novel.

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