Free Friday Fiction: The Foreign Language of Friends, Ch. 8

Good morning, everyone! I’m deeply enmeshed in NaNoWriMo and have drafted more than 11,000 words so far! Yay! In addition, I am nearly done with the layout for the print version of The Foreign Language of Friends, and next week I’ll do yet another round of revisions on Blood & Loam. It’s a full, busy month, but also a lot of fun.

Thanks for coming over for yet another chapter of The Foreign Language of Friends. Last week, Julia’s character sparked additional conversation, and we’ll see more of her story here. Mickey’s troubles are going to assert themselves, and she’s going to project a lot of anger onto Julia.

If you like what you’re reading, I invite you to consider investing the modest $1.99 to purchase the book…and please, I could use some reviews. Many thanks!

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CHAPTER EIGHT – JUNE 27

One by one the students filed in to the classroom. Rita Martin always loved the beginning of the semester, when students still felt eager and hopeful that they could learn a new language. Soon enough they would start to disappear, and she never knew for sure who would last, though some were shaky from the start. But sometimes they surprised her.
Claire arrived first and marched up to Rita. “I’ve made a list of questions,” she said. “I also have ideas about ways to speed up the class. When can we talk?”
“Buenas tardes,” Rita said. “¿Cómo estás?”
Claire frowned, impatient to get to the point, but apparently decided that cooperation would bring the faster result. “Bien, gracias,” she said. “¿Pero, mis preguntas?”
Rita never lost her smile. “Your questions are important, Claire, but part of what I teach here is the culture as well as the language. If you are going to work in business in Latin America, you must do so with good manners.”
“Fine. Muy bien. ¿Y tú?”
“That’s ‘y usted,’” Rita said. “I am the teacher, so you will always use the formal form with me. Now, why don’t you have a seat? We will keep busy this class, I promise you. You will leave tonight with more knowledge than when you arrived.”
Claire took her seat with a sigh, which Rita ignored. Ellen strode in with the bulk of the other students, head down and glancing furtively for the seat most suitable for hiding. Mickey ran into the same desks she’d hit the week before, and Julia brought up the rear, rushing in at the last minute, frantically offering apologies.
“Okay,” Rita said, unperturbed, “Let’s begin.” The din of the room fell quickly to silence, save only for the sounds of books and notebooks opening. “We’re going to go through a lot of vocabulary today, so be prepared for a quick pace. For now, though, let’s practice our greetings.” She strode into the circle as students continued to settle themselves into their seats. From the center of the circle, she turned and pointed at each student at random asking questions. ¿Cómo está? ¿Cómo se llama? Mucho gusto. ¿De donde es? With each turn she became more of a dancer, twirling and animated, challenging each of them, correcting, cajoling, encouraging.
After about ten minutes of this, she said, “Bueno, bueno,” and clapped. The students reacted with nervous laughter, having survived this first test.
“Now, we count. Mickey, why don’t you begin? One to ten.”
Mickey tried leafing through her book, but Rita stopped her. “You can do this,” she said. “Do your best. It’s okay if it’s not perfect.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Mickey said, dropping her eyes. She closed her book with a nervous bang, causing it to fall on the floor. Julia picked it up for her and whispered, “You’re fine. Remember, we studied this on Saturday.”
“You’re right. I can do this. Uno, dos, tres, cuarto…”
“Cuatro,” Rita corrected.
“Sí. Cuatro, cinco, um. Seis. Um.” Mickey looked up at Rita, her eyes wide with terror. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember the rest.”
“Claire,” Rita called.
“Siete, ocho, nueve, diez,” Claire said, her voice mechanical. She tapped her pencil and took a quick glance at her BlackBerry.
“Perfect. Remember, class, it’s the repetition that will help you in the end. The more you practice and listen to the recordings, the more you’ll remember. Let’s keep going, shall we? Who’s next?”
Rita saw students come and go for years, and students like Mickey generally didn’t last long. She always hoped to find ways to keep them from getting discouraged, and sometimes they worked, but more often than not students at Mickey’s level would leave before they could have a breakthrough.
Ellen, shy as she was, participated easily in the next several exercises. Rita expected Ellen to be prepared, but if she had offered a “most improved award” since the previous class, she would have given it to Ellen. At the break, Rita decided to ask her about it.
“We formed a study group,” Ellen said. “Well, Julia did, anyway, and some of us went along with it.”
“Bueno,” Rita said. “Excelente. I can see you already have more confidence. Who else is in the group?”
“Mickey and Claire.”
Rita did her best to hide a look of surprise. Claire didn’t seem like a joiner to her. “Ah, so you have a place to practice,” Rita said, nodding at Mickey, who had started to walk over.
“Yeah, it does help, I have to admit,” Mickey said, then added, “I’m still not sure I can learn this stuff, but it’s nice to have people trying to help you.”
“Sí, sí. Mickey, Ellen, I think this is wonderful. I wish more of my students would do such a thing. Where is Claire, anyway?”
“I think she’s outside on the phone,” Mickey said. “She said she’s working on some big deal and needed to call her assistant.”
“At this hour?” Ellen asked. “Wow, I don’t think I would like that job.”
“Julia, would you like to join us?” Rita asked. “I’ve heard that you’ve instigated a study group.”
Julia walked over, smiling but somehow more subdued than usual. “Guilty as charged. I thought it would be fun,” she said. “But may I ask you something, Señora?”
“Yes, of course, what is it?”
“Well,” Julia said, suddenly engrossed in the carpet at her feet, “Most of the time when my husband and I travel, we’re staying at a resort or a nice hotel, and I’m not really sure how I’ll get to use the language I’m learning. The staff always speaks flawless English. I know Mickey has been on some volunteer trips, and I wondered if you had any advice if someone like me wanted to do something like that.”
Mickey stared at Julia. “You? Really?”
“Why not me?” Julia asked, indignant.
Mickey reddened and looked away. Ellen jumped in and said, “I don’t think she means you’re not the type. We’re just a little surprised, that’s all. If you wanted to do some volunteering, I think that would be great. What do you think, Señora?”
Rita started to open her mouth, but Mickey jumped in instead. “Look, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, okay? I had a horrible time. I didn’t understand anything, and I don’t think I did anyone any good. I wish I could run off and just have a good time at a resort or something. Some people just don’t know how good they have it.”
Julia’s eyes filled with tears, but she said nothing.
Rita put her arm around Julia’s shoulders and gave Mickey a scolding look. “We’re here to explore,” she said, doing her best to keep her voice soothing. “We all have our reasons for being here, and sometimes they change as we go on. We shouldn’t judge each other. Mickey, I’m sure you did more good than you know, though I can understand why you were uncomfortable. That’s why you’re here, ¿verdad? And Julia, if you want to consider volunteering, I have a lot of resources for you to look at. Send me an e-mail, and I’ll help you as best I can. Now, ladies, shall we get back to class?”
Mickey and Julia stared at each other, faces guarded, like fighters in the ring, then broke and took their seats.
Mickey’s outburst had surprised all of them, and Rita wondered how long Mickey’s frustrations had been building. She had seemed so passive before, but the change didn’t surprise Rita. It helped, as a teacher, to have raised children herself, and Rita recognized a phase that her own daughter had gone through, perhaps more as a teenager, but it was clear: the girl was trying to get out from under the shackles of other adults. Rita just hoped she could keep the class intact long enough to get through Mickey’s phase. She also hoped that Mickey would see the other women as helpful support, and not more of the enemy.
The group settled in as the break ended, with one empty seat that Claire filled after class reconvened, offering a quiet “sorry.” Despite her impeccable appearance, her pale skin and puffy eyes suggested exhaustion. The word “haggard” came to mind.
“Now, we learn to tell time,” Rita said. She taught them additional vocabulary, such as de la tarde (in the afternoon) and medianoche (midnight). She explained the use of singular and plural, as in “it’s one o’clock” (es la una) and “it’s two o’clock” (son las dos). She followed her explanations with more rapid-fire review.
As students began to tire, the remainder of class felt disjointed, as though the difficulties that had emerged during the break controlled the rest of the class. Julia’s responses were hesitant, Mickey’s almost nonexistent. From time to time Rita noticed Ellen whispering in Mickey’s ear, and she chose not to confront her about it. Mickey obviously needed calming down. Even Claire, with her spotless professionalism, faded in and out of paying attention and seemed to struggle visibly. By the time it was over, Rita needed a drink. She always looked forward to class, but some nights she wondered why.

***

Mickey stomped out of class as soon as it ended. Who did Julia think she was, anyway? That rich bitch could do anything she wanted. Mickey didn’t know if she felt angrier that Julia lived a life Mickey only dreamed of, or that Julia was stealing onto her turf. The volunteer trip, though difficult for Mickey, set her apart from the others, and she wanted to feel special. She knew in her heart that part of volunteering was to encourage others to work with her, but Julia…well, didn’t she have better things to do, like deliver orders to her servants?
Unaccustomed to the rage that welled up inside of her, she decided to run the path around the campus, even though darkness had fallen. The path was well-lit, and joggers customarily traveled it well into the night. Mickey ran underneath the tree canopy, her nose catching wafts of pine as they fought for their place among the majestic live oaks. She knew that Doug would worry, but she didn’t care. She needed to blow off steam, and she hoped that running would help. Already, Julia’s pained face haunted her as shame rose to match the anger. She’s been nothing but nice to me, Mickey reminded herself. It’s not her fault that I have such a sucky life.
Her anger had arisen well before class, first becoming noticeable right when she got home from work. She had opened the mail to discover a notice that they had exceeded their limit on one of their credit cards. Doug had ordered a few more electronic toys. He never bothered to check with her, or to check the account balance, or to think about his spending ahead of time. He wanted the bright shiny objects, so he bought them, and then left her to clean up the mess. He was more than happy to let her parents contribute to their support, even if it meant following their rules. After just six months of marriage, their arguments about money had escalated.
Footfall by footfall, Mickey admitted the truth, as though she drew it up from the very ground that she ran on. Julia had already proven herself to be friendly, kind-hearted, and generous. She had organized the study group and seemed eager to keep it going, checking with each woman individually after class to make sure she was coming. She did not avoid Mickey after their altercation. At the end of class, she reached out to touch the younger woman’s shoulder and said, “Look, I didn’t mean to offend you, and I’m sorry if I did. I hope you’ll stay in the group.” Mickey had nodded, already ashamed in spite of the anger she still felt.
Running along the path, Mickey felt herself calming. She ran until her legs threatened to collapse underneath her. As she finished, her skin drenched with summer sweat, she felt cleansed, renewed. She was ready to go home and to face the real problem: a life that was not her own.
Doug jumped up from his chair as soon as she came in the door. “Honey, I was worried sick about you! Why didn’t you call?”
Although her anger toward Julia had dissipated, her anger toward Doug erupted with laser focus. She didn’t want to have this discussion. She just wanted all the problems to go away so they could be a happy newlywed couple, and her first words were, “I’m sorry. I should have called.”
“You better believe it! I didn’t know what to do. I even called your parents to see if you had gone over there for some reason.”
“My parents? You called my parents?” Anger turned to rage, and she knew that once again, she would not be able to contain herself. Nor did she want to. Without saying another word, she walked over to the stack of bills and handed him the overlimit notice. “You’re lucky I went for a jog before I came home,” she said. “Care to comment on this?”
He studied the notice, then handed it back to her. “What do you want me to say?” he asked. He didn’t sound angry or challenging. More than anything, he seemed helpless.
Mickey sighed. “Look, we don’t have a lot of money, and we need to stick to our budget. You have to know what’s going on with the bills and not just leave them to me.”
“But you’re the organized one,” he said, his doe eyes soft and pleading. “Besides, that’s part of your job. You know how I am. We men are more about the big picture. You’re the one who needs to keep me on the straight and narrow. We’ll be fine. You just need to relax a little. Once we’ve both finished grad school, we’ll both be making a lot more money.”
Oh, God, she thought, not that again. “I don’t want to start talking about grad school right now. It’s just one more thing that everyone wants me to do. Besides, it’s off the subject. We were talking about your spending habits.”
“Whatever. Anyway, your parents have offered to help us out. Maybe you shouldn’t have so much pride and let them give us a hand. There’s no need for us to suffer. Come on, Mickey, let’s just go to bed and forget about all this. It will work out.” He reached out and pulled her to him.
She melted momentarily once his strong arms surrounded her, but stopped and steeled herself against her attraction. “We’ve talked about that, too, and you know how I feel. I’m trying to have an independent life, and between you and my parents I keep feeling like I’m stuck in childhood. There are always conditions, no matter what they say, and you knew this before you married me. You seem to think it’s going to be different now, that I’m going to change, and I’m not. I want us to stand on our own two feet.”
“Fine,” he said abruptly. “I’m going to bed.” He turned around and left her standing there, still holding the notice.
“Doug!” she called. He did not respond. Don’t go after him, she told herself. He always did this, always walked away when he felt threatened. Over and over she had followed him, begging, giving in to him every time. Every time she did, he won.
When did it become a competition, all about winning and losing? She had seen the signs before they married, but he hadn’t been so stubborn then. He seemed to want what she wanted. She had asked him pointed questions about finances before they married to make sure they were compatible, and he’d always given her the right answers. Now, it seemed, he had changed the rules of the game.
She curled up on the sofa and turned on the television, keeping it low so as not to disturb him. It was always about him and his needs. These things always ended with some sort of negotiation, except that he never seemed to give up anything. He would go to her parents, and they would end up lecturing her. They would write a check that he would deposit before she came home. Was she wrong? Her mother had lectured her about marriage. “The man is in charge,” she said. “The woman is to submit to her husband. I honestly don’t know what we’re going to do with you if you refuse to learn this.”
She fell asleep alone on the sofa, waking once in the night, briefly, to turn off the television. The sofa felt good, and she decided to stay there. She covered herself with an afghan that she kept draped over the back of the couch, a homemade wedding gift from her mother, hoping that sleep would bring happy dreams to counter the nightmare of the marriage trap that was now her reality.

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