Back home from our visit to the Big Apple, I’m ready to return to a normal daily routine. Today we return to our regularly scheduled programming with another episode from The Foreign Language of Friends. Book Baby has finished converting the manuscript and has sent it off to Amazon and Sony, so the e-book will be available soon!
In this chapter, the women meet for their first Spanish study group, and all does not go well. Enjoy, and have a great weekend!
CHAPTER FIVE – JUNE 25
Julia sat at the coffee shop, checking her watch repeatedly, noticing that only a minute or two had passed each time she looked. She had arrived fifteen minutes early, parking her Mercedes convertible right in front, and found a table with a good view of the door so she could wave everyone inside. She ordered a croissant, fruit, and coffee, her favorite Saturday breakfast. During the week she kept to an omelette made with egg whites, a slice of dry whole wheat toast, and, of course, black coffee, lots of it. She fought the looming middle-aged spread with a vengeance, but a little treat on the weekends never hurt.
She had invited all of the class, but had only heard from three. Claire’s response had come first, much to Julia’s surprise. Julia hadn’t expected her to answer, let alone show up, but Julia operated on the principle that it never hurts to ask for what you want. Claire seemed interesting, especially with all that outer prickliness. Julia felt determined to see what, if anything, lay underneath that tough exterior. She hoped that Claire wasn’t someone who accepted an invitation and then backed out later.
Mickey arrived first. She bounced in, hitting tables along the way like a pinball. She wore baggy, rumpled shorts, and a pink t-shirt with the word “Jesus” set inside a heart. She had pulled her hair back into a tight ponytail, and she wore neither makeup nor a smile. She didn’t even say hello. Instead, she began with, “I wasn’t going to come. I can’t learn languages. But I decided my mom wouldn’t want me to join a group, so here I am. Isn’t that awful of me?” She paused to drink in a huge breath.
“Absolutely,” Julia said, her smile wide and warm. “But I think it’s the job of every young person to rebel now and then, right? Or how else do they know you’ve grown up?” She decided not to ask Mickey why her mother would want her to stay away from a study group. She didn’t want to seem too nosy on their first meeting.
“Thanks,” Mickey said. “That’s good to hear, I guess. Sometimes I feel really bad when I think things like that. Wow, those are some pretty rings.” Her face showed a trace of disapproval. “Do they wait on us here, or do we go to the counter?”
Julia, as if acting on reflex, dropped her hands under the table. She could feel her cheeks getting warm. She had put on the “good rings” without thinking. “Thank you. You get the coffee at the counter and bring it back. Say, you’re a newlywed, aren’t you?”
Mickey offered a faint smile. “Yes,” she said, then, “I’ll be back.”
Julia stirred her coffee thoughtfully. She remembered when she and Larry first married, and how excited they both were. She announced her new status to everyone she met. She was surprised, then, at Mickey’s reluctance to show the same enthusiasm. She smiled at Mickey when the younger woman returned to the table, and they sat in awkward silence.
Fortunately, Ellen walked in shortly afterward and waved on her way to stand in line at the counter. She was dressed in khaki shorts and a baby blue t-shirt, with a baseball cap perched precariously atop her thick, plain waves. Claire strode in right behind her, dressed smartly in white capris, a blouse of tiny white flowers on a mint-green background, and a matching green scarf draped over her shoulders with an air of planned casualness. She removed her Maui Jim tortoiseshell sunglasses and glanced around, giving a small nod to Julia before she, too, stood in line.
Mickey leaned over to Julia. “How many people did you invite?”
“Oh, I invited everyone,” Julia said, “but a lot of people didn’t want to commit. I think this is the total of the group. We’re small, but that could work out better, actually.”
“You don’t say,” Mickey said, glancing at Claire. “Hmm.”
“What?” Julia asked.
“Oh, nothing. I’m just younger than everyone else. That Claire is older than my mother, you know.”
“I like having a mix of backgrounds,” Julia said, chuckling. “If everyone is the same, then the conversation is less interesting.”
“Oh,” Mickey said. She opened her mouth to say more, but by then Claire and Ellen had sat down with their drinks. Claire had black coffee, while Ellen had ordered a fragrant herbal tea.
“Great!” Julia said. “We’re all here. I thought this would be a fun way to study and maybe get to know each other better. Maybe we can chat for a few minutes before we get started, you know, get comfortable with one another, and then we can begin.”
The others nodded and murmured, and then they all fell silent. Great, Julia thought. I’m going to have to drag everyone along. Why can’t people just relax and have fun?
Ellen cleared her throat and spoke first. “I guess I just want to say thanks for organizing this, Julia. It never would have occurred to me, and I think it will help. I hope so, anyway.”
More nodding and murmuring, and then more silence. Julia didn’t know when she’d ever sat at a table of women who couldn’t start a conversation. She had never met a stranger, but she struggled to say something that would keep the group going. “So, what do you think of our teacher?” she asked, grateful to have thought of something to say.
“She’s nice,” Ellen said.
“Yeah,” Mickey said.
Claire studied the other women at the table, her perfectly shaped brows raised lightly in amusement. “I’m not much for small talk. It’s obviously not working anyway. Shall we get down to business? I’m a busy person, and I’m sure everyone else here is, too. Besides, we did introductions in class.”
“Of course,” Julia said, her tone even and controlled. “I’m sure as we start studying, we’ll get to know each other better. Did everyone bring their textbooks?”
Ellen’s face went pale.
“Ellen, are you all right?” Julia asked.
“Oh, I forgot my book,” Ellen said. “I don’t like it when I forget things.”
Julia, remembering Ellen’s remarks about Alzheimer’s in class — and her sensitivity about the class’s laughter — decided to downplay the comment rather than draw attention to it. No sense running her off. “It’s okay, dear,” Julia said, patting Ellen’s arm. “I do that all the time. You can share with me. It’s no big deal.”
Ellen looked uncertain, but nodded her head in agreement.
“Well, then, let’s begin. Shall we run through the vocab to start?” Julia wondered if she was going to get anyone in the group to talk today.
“I’ll start.” Mickey looked around at the group. “But I’m not any good at Spanish. I don’t think I’ll ever be good at it.”
“If you take that sort of attitude, then I’m sure you’ll be right,” Claire said with a sniff. “If you make up your mind to learn something, then you will. It’s that simple.”
“I don’t know about that,” Ellen said. “I do think that some of us are more wired to learn languages than others. Mickey has the advantage of being younger, so that might help her, but I don’t think any of us can say who can learn what. Me, I’m just worried about being able to retain what I’m learning.”
Mickey nodded her head. “I know what you mean. I’ve tried,” she said. “I took Spanish in high school and again in college. I didn’t pick up anything when I visited Costa Rica. I think they thought I was stuck up, but I had trouble with anything past buenos dias.”
“If you’re so hopeless, why did you take the class in the first place?” Claire’s blue eyes bore holes into Mickey, who slumped down into her chair.
“I-I-I-well, I…” Tears formed in Mickey’s eyes. She looked around at the others, her face reddening.
Julia glared at Claire. “What’s the matter with you? Didn’t you ever hear about picking on someone your own size? Or in this case, age?”
Claire shrugged. “She looks like an adult to me. I’m sure she’s quite capable of speaking for herself.”
Mickey reddened but said nothing. She slumped back in her chair and crossed her arms, her face defiant, but saying nothing. So young, Julia thought. She’s afraid to speak up.
They were all glaring at Claire, who promptly burst into laughter.
“I don’t see what’s funny about this,” Julia said softly.
“Me neither,” Mickey said, wiping her eyes with a napkin and staring sullenly at the table.
Claire showed no signs of backing down. “If you could see your faces,” she said. “Mickey, I’m not the most sensitive person in the world. I speak my mind and assume that everyone else will do the same. I’ve had to be that way for my entire career.” She looked around at each of them. “Look, I’m used to working with men in the energy industry. It’s a tough, no bullshit environment. I’m not used to hanging around with ladies, and I can see I’ve overstepped my bounds. I apologize. Though I do think, Mickey, you should develop a bit more backbone.”
Julia cleared her throat. “I appreciate what you’re saying, but if we’re going to help each other, then we can’t be worried that one of us is going to attack another. I really just wanted this to be fun.” She choked on those last words, feeling the loneliness and the longing for friends, and lots of them. She loved her life, with all the travel and adventure, but she wanted real friends. While she always found a tennis or lunch partner at the club, she had found those relationships shallow and lacking the real connection she wanted. This group, though, was threatening to blow up before it even got started.
“You’re right,” Claire said, now flashing a winning smile. Turning to Mickey, she said, “Mickey, I apologize. I have two daughters of my own that are around your age, and I should know better.”
“You have kids?” Mickey asked. “Wow, I’m sorry for them.” Life came into her eyes for the first time as they shone with triumph.
Claire’s smile left her face. “Well, I never…” Then she sat up straighter, obviously composing herself. “Yes, believe it or not, I have two daughters. Heather is a teacher, and her younger sister Anne is, for better or for worse, following in my footsteps in the energy biz.”
“Does anyone else have kids?” Julia asked, seizing the opportunity to return the conversation to normal. “I don’t. It just didn’t happen for us, and my husband travels so much, it just didn’t seem like a good idea.” She didn’t talk about the years of trying. She had refused in vitro fertilization, deciding that having children wasn’t meant to be, but the subject remained sore and private, one of those things that married couples keep to themselves.
Ellen chimed in. “I’m still looking for Mr. Right,” she said. “I’m already thinking that by the time I meet a guy, get married, and spend some time with just the two of us, I’ll be too old to try. I don’t really get out much, either, so hey, if anyone knows someone…”
The women all laughed, and Julia noticed that Mickey’s face had returned to a normal color. Maybe there’s hope for us after all, she thought.
They settled in to their study, stumbling through the vocabulary and trying to string together some rudimentary sentences. Claire’s pronunciation was flawless, Ellen’s only slightly less so. Mickey, true to her word, stumbled over every word, apologizing after each attempt. Julia was moderately better; she’d had several tennis matches and luncheons since the class and hadn’t studied as much as she should have.
Still, an hour of study flew by, and everyone seemed more relaxed at the end. “Well,” Julia said, “That was fun, wasn’t it?”
“Useful,” Claire said. “I wouldn’t mind working ahead of the lesson, though. I think this class is going to go too slowly for me.”
“Oh, God, I can’t work any faster,” Mickey said, “but maybe a study group will help.”
Julia ignored the bemused look on Claire’s face and turned to Ellen. “How about you? Are you game to do this again?”
“Sure,” Ellen said. “Claire, I do think we need to trust the teacher. I checked her out thoroughly before I enrolled. She has a Ph.D., and her former students rave about her.”
“Well, maybe it’s fine for people who just want to order in a restaurant,” Claire said, “but I’m not so sure. I mean, look at this vocabulary. Why do I care about the Spanish word for chalkboard? ‘SMART Boards,’ maybe. ‘Boardroom,’ ‘CEO,’ ‘I want to wring the customer’s neck,’ but ‘chalkboard’?”
“I agree with Ellen,” Julia said. “Let’s give Rita a chance. Besides, I think it would be great for us to get to know each other better, don’t you think? Who knows, maybe we’ll even learn to like each other!” The other women laughed, much to Julia’s relief.
As they left the coffee shop, smiles and laughter all around, Julia turned toward Claire to say something. She couldn’t help but notice that Claire’s alabaster skin seemed pasty, and she suddenly looked older. “Are you all right?” she asked softly.
“What?” Claire asked.
“Nothing, I just…well, nothing. See you in class.” Julia dropped her eyes and found a spot of nothingness on the wall to study with great interest. Something was wrong, she could tell. Julia reminded herself that she didn’t know Claire at all, but she couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding.
“I’ll see you soon,” Claire said.
Julia forced a smile. Looking back at Claire, she blinked in surprise. The pasty color had disappeared. Julia decided she had imagined things and finished saying her good-byes.