James was a senior when I was a freshman at Salem North High School; I fell in love with him when I heard he’d persuaded the principal to let him take French in lieu of music and mixed martial arts at the local community center, in lieu of gym. A man who knows what he wants. Over the course of weeks, I gathered my courage to ask him to Turnabout… He said “No,” and turned away.
Ten years ago?
I remember that now, as we slow-dance to “The Way You Look Tonight”.
Over my shoulder, James, spellbound, takes in the ballroom, the heart of the gilt-and-mahogany court of the King of Songora. (The usual story – the building’s the brainchild of a brilliant local princess caught between French colonizers and local rebels, a Euro-trash adventurer, a disintegrating multinational corporation, and soft-hearted timber smugglers.) Nearby, his majesty – a longtime Yankophile – sways with his wife of fifty-five years. An oil magnate and his mistress, a disgraced British politician and her lover, and Songora’s sole Grammy winner and her boyfriend rock nearby.
James’s sister Audrey and I became friendly in French class, and I followed his adventures. His year backpacking around Europe, his eighteen months teaching English in Thailand, his voluntourism in Central America. I never really gave up.
“This is the life,” murmurs James.
I want to meet his gaze, to see that look reflected back at me…
Instead, I say, “I’m glad you like it.”
When the song ends, the king’s porte-parole thanks the attendees – especially the diplomatic community – on behalf of his majesty. I see James’s eyes flicker over the American flag pin on my dress.
Audrey and I shared an apartment during – and after – grad school. She picked up the phone the day the State Department called with a job offer. James joined us for dinner…
He flew into Reagan every weekend during my training, took me to lunches and dinners, slept on my couch, asked endless questions about the assignments process. I received a tiny Songoran flag and put it in my pencil cup. James invited me on a hot air balloon tour of Virginia’s wine country. “Laura, I – I like you. And – I thought – maybe – you’d like to go overseas – with someone.” A pause. “We could make it official. If you wanted.
I measured those two potential lives, side by side: an off-kilter adventure James –
Or a life without him.
As we move toward the exits, I accidentally tread on someone’s toes with my too-high heel. « Putain ! » hisses the French mining executive, and elbows me hard in the back. I stumble forward; James rights me, wheels around, and plants an efficient elbow in the man’s solar plexus.
“That’s my wife,” he snaps. The exec gasps an apology.
We reach the exit; it’s pouring. James opens an umbrella and draws my arm through his. “I hope you’re all right.”
I’m not ready to let him see my face. Not just yet.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred literary magazines. She received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations in 2020. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.
Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash