Or the story of a doomed infatuation, fear and Parisian snobs
En amour, écrire est dangereux, sans compter que c’est inutile. — Le Demi-Monde by Alexandre Dumas Fils
I took up French my senior spring in college as a way to keep my mind occupied during the fallout of a harrowing break up. I feared the language for me might always be tainted with memories of profound melancholy, pillows damp with tears and empty, futile embraces with other men, but instead the uptake felt like a renewal, a commitment to a purpose. I relished in the discipline of waking up each day and walking across the campus lawn in the brisk morning chill for a two-hour class that started at 7:45 AM and rattling off verb conjugations, savoring the thrill of a perfectly placed grave accent (è) or a cedilla on a c. It felt right that, as my heart was broken, I might learn a new language to express all the myriad of novel feelings that were spilling out of me. My perception of the world was expanding. I ended French 1 with an almost perfect grade.
Three years later, no longer heartbroken in the traditional sense, rather in the vague, sad way that someone with a professed writer’s heart will always be, I began taking French classes in earnest again. Every Tuesday night on the third floor of a Union Square high rise with a teacher from Brittany named Typhaine and a rotating class of actors — a slim, older Asian woman named Judy who biked the seaside hills of Marin every weekend, a Roman-Israeli woman named Eden who mixed up her Italian and French, a pretty vegan named Lauren who raised bees in Berkeley, another Lauren who wanted to impress her new French girlfriend.
Around the same time, for a five-week span that autumn, I retained a French lover, giving the French education a new depth, a new directive.
We met at a party outdoors. This is where I meet all new lovers, it seems. Over a drinking game, bloated from beer. The host was drinking tequila out of a large cowhide pouch-flask. Some guests ogled at a particularly large, labyrinthine spider web spun between two large oak trees. I forget why the party was happening, or who it was for. How did the French man arrive at this very un-French party? I have forgotten this too. Parties are breeding grounds for tangential friendships. Everyone is a friend of a friend of a friend.
Thibaud* was tall, muscular, from Paris, working in AI and attached to his Juul. He had an accent and perpetual skeptical look that rendered him deliciously mysterious.
I was blinded by his beauty. His face was painfully, alarmingly exquisite. I had never been with someone so attractive. Weeks after we met I invited him to my friend’s birthday party at a seedy S&M-themed lounge. I realized then, watching every girl at the party swarming around him at the bar, how doomed our budding romance was. What a strange phenomenon. I felt like a woman I’ve never had to be, fighting for the attention of a man I just met two weeks ago but whose attention I nonetheless craved.
For a month or two this went on. We smoked cigarettes together outside of bars and danced with our arms wrapped around each other. We drank wine and listened to French club music by his fireplace. He waxed poetic about my dark, emotive eyes. He assured me that all the girls who hit on him constantly were nothing like me, a woman of substance. I fell for it of course. I loved his hot, smoky breath on my cheek. I loved the way he cocked his head when he said my name. When he looked at me across a room, I was absolutely electrified.
In his dim room adorned with only a guitar and a surfboard, he held my face in his hands. “I like you.”
Some nights we kissed for hours. I would catch a car home at 6 AM, absolutely starstruck, warm and smiling. One afternoon he texted me “J’adore t’embrasser.” So giddy that I transcribed the text in a diary — a diary! — like a 13-year-old girl.
Late at night, he would go on meandering philosophical monologues like in scenes from the art house French movies I had seen, the ones where some teenager is always fucking their much older teacher and everyone thinks it’s normal. He wanted to be an actor, because they could embody any emotion and feel the full range of the human experience. He wanted to be a guitarist in some yet to be formed band. He had learned surfing in Brazil, and danced the streets at Carnival. I listened to everything with rapture.
In my actual French language education, I was trotting along. I knew all the major verb tenses. I had an expanding vocabulary and could make intermediate-level conversation, with some expected errors or stammers. I would share with the class all the Parisian slang I was learning from my new tutor — relou, chelou, chiant, meuf, mec. I was the best speaker in the class.
But all this was not enough for my French lover, who lamented that I spoke slowly or barely at all, and that what I spoke was not really French — “you know, how people in France actually speak it.” An impossible and unfair standard, I thought. At least je faisais d’effort.
Brooding and moody, he lamented his plight often to me, that he could never properly express himself to someone who didn’t speak French, that ever since his move to America, half of his identity was missing. His range in English did not allow him to reach the depths which he longed to convey. The poetic dilemma moved me to tears. Perhaps I could never fully understand Thibaud.
Maybe it was because of this fundamental mismatch, and other things like timing, or the fact that he is only 24, or maybe that I wasn’t as substantive as he had initially observed — who knows what goes on inside the head of a boy who wields power like that? — it ended suddenly.
“How to say this? he said, reclined on a beanbag, rubbing his chin, accent billowing out thicker than usual. ”I just don’t see you in, like you know, a romantic way, Jasmine.”
In the end, his often imprecise English had found some precise, cutting words.
“Anyway, I would like us to still be friends. I’m having a birthday party in a few weeks, would you like to come? It is Santa Con themed.”
(I am still trying to find an accurate French word for “fuckboy”)
I cried in the eight-minute Uber ride home. The sympathetic driver patted my hand and told me not to worry. “You will sleep it off and be smiling by tomorrow. And this guy must be some loser, to say no to a beautiful girl like you, right?”
Always nights like this, crying on the way home late at night after some fresh blow to the heart. I hated playing the fool.
Defeat wasn’t easy. This hadn’t been love, but surely some precursor to it. Maybe just hope, shy at first, then resolute. He had pursued me, reached out to me, confessed his feelings to me first. He had leaned in to kiss me first. Where had I gone wrong? Had some unpleasant part of my personality revealed itself accidentally, perhaps while I slept beside him, unaware of the slippage? Did the fog of my allure dissipate, replaced by something undesirable? Or worse, had my French skills that once seemed so promising been so inept — so desperate, so repulsive — that he had no choice but to retreat? I had only wanted to understand him, but I lacked the tools. I felt very stupid about the whole thing.
My French education continued, albeit with a much less romantic spirit. Since then, I’ve completed level 5 of my French School, which makes me officially an intermediate French speaker. I watch my Netflix shows in French. I have a scheduled weekly chat with my Francophone colleague where we talk exclusively in French.
Beyond the romantic disappointment, Thibaud had wounded my French ego, an ego that told me I was great at learning languages, at being passionate about something, that my French was cool and sexy, not awkward and hobbled.
Fluency: the capacity to speak at ease with a native speaker on a range of topics without distress on either side of the conversation. I wonder what it would take for me to be fluent in French. Thirty weeks, according to the State Department’s Foreign Language training guidelines, in extreme immersion. I assume it will take me at least a few more years, at my slowed pace of weekly classes. Sometimes in dialogue I’m still lost, especially fast ones. I need subtitles to watch French TV.
My Spanish teacher in high school had told me that because I grew up speaking Punjabi and Hindi, other languages would come easily to me. That area of my brain was already up and running. What held most students back while learning a second language, she said, was the fear of speaking it, the fear of sounding stupid or nonsensical. Polyglots did not have these fears, or if they did, it was superseded by something more powerful.
Fear of learning something new and not being great at first, of trying for a difficult goal and failing, of letting vulnerabilities be known to others, of falling in love. It’s true that I never had these fears. And I do not want to start now.
* Un faux nom. Es-tu soulagé, chouchou?