I wasn’t feeling nostalgic about Francine until my daughter asked me if Fat Francine was actually fat. Of course I laughed out loud. Just another parental moment of realizing that this creature living under my roof is a person in her own right, with her own curious mind and impressionable soul. Kids are really just sponges, absorbing everything around them, good, bad or toxic. That’s why you hope to train their brains to have highly functional filters to spit out all the crap that gets mopped up from the messy world. Because you realize that your children become living mirrors – and you pray that they’ll only reflect you at your best and brightest and most honorable.
Fat. Was she really fat? Who am I to judge? My daughter, Jenny, a 14 year old moralist ready to right the wrongs of the world, would likely indict me if I perpetuated the slander, so I needed to deflect: “No, she wasn’t fat. Per se. She was what they call ‘big-boned.’”
“I hate that.” From across the kitchen I could see Jenny’s eyes narrow.
Uh-oh. Time to blame-shift. “Your mother was the one who dubbed her Fat Francine. She was one of my old girlfriends who Mom actually got to meet, so naturally she labeled her in a negative way. Jealousy is such a cruel trait.” I hoped the high road would leave me unscathed.
“What about that girl Lisa? And Mercedes?”
I put down the knife and slice of bread. I’d been making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for my daughter. I pictured Mercedes and smiled. “First of all, there wasn’t an ounce of fat on Mercedes. Trust me.”
“Sorry. What was the question?”
Jenny came to the counter and picked up the knife and scooped peanut butter onto the bread. “Didn’t Mom know these other floozies of yours?”
About that filter.
“Mercedes was college. Mom has seen only one photo of her. Okay, and her web site, but that’s because she’s kind of like a celebrity in San Diego. Or used to be.”
I took the bread back from Jenny and added jelly. “Lisa and I dated for maybe three months, tops. That was post-college. My first full-time job. Before Mom joined the company. But we all eventually worked together, so Mom and Lisa became friends, good friends, and I got left at the curb like yesterday’s garbage.”
“Do you think that’s the metaphor Mom would use for your marriage?”
“Jen. Didn’t you hear the humorous tone in my voice?” I handed her the sandwich. “Enjoy your lunch.”
“Thanks, pappy. Good times, good times.” She turned and headed for the porch to enjoy her meal outdoors on the sweet spring day, but then was back at me. “So to sum up: you’re a bitter old man because Mom came between you and Lisa, you regret missing out on the SoCal lifestyle with Mercedes, and you pine for big-boned Francine, who probably had a jolly personality. Am I right?”
I could have laughed out loud again, but instead I tossed a dish towel quick enough to catch Jenny in the face.
“Dad! I’ll tell Mom.”
“She’d be on my side.”
Turning to the sink to wash up, I licked a smidge of peanut butter off my thumb. Now that was a food I’d never be serving if I had married Francine. She hated peanut butter. She wasn’t allergic, but she might as well have been. She claimed to hate the smell. But I secretly thought that was bullshit, like a lot of her pronouncements. She was a dyed-in-the-wool Upper East Side high society snob and she considered peanut butter to be an outer borough staple. But I never called her on her phoniness. Why risk deportation back across the Brooklyn Bridge over something as insignificant as peanut butter? So whenever she served me chicken and broccoli stir-fried in peanut oil or if we went out for Thai and she ordered chicken satay with peanut sauce, I kept my mouth shut. Besides I was too busy shoveling in the chow, peanut flavored or not. And we did a lot of shoveling. She was big boned after all. And frankly, she liked me on the rounder side, too.
I put the jar of peanut butter back in the pantry, its aroma still gripping the kitchen air. Francine’s apartment wouldn’t smell like this. So what did it smell like? I closed my eyes and thought back. Gripping the cupboard handles, I swayed slightly as if surfing through time travel.
Potpourri. Unmistakable. The smell of potpourri. Not that I had any idea what that was. First time I entered her apartment a block from Central Park, I noticed a basket on the small table next to the door. In the darkness, I would have assumed it was a candy dish, but once Francine flicked on the light, I saw it was a basket of dried leaves or petals. Whatever. It gave the apartment a spicy floral smell with a hint of fruit. In other words, it was kind of stinky. I soon learned that there were similar baskets throughout the apartment – the living room, the bedroom, the bathroom – but not the kitchen. When Francine got around to teaching me about potpourri, she explained that she associated the smell with cleanliness. I kept it to myself that I associated the smell with a wake. We were 25-year olds, why did she want to live in a funeral home?
I left the kitchen to join my daughter on the porch. I found her there gliding on the swing, engrossed in her PB&J and in her smartphone, of course. Her headphones were in, another ‘of course.’
A memory struck me and I almost said ‘Right’ out loud. But I waited a moment to investigate the possible catalyst for the memory. It wasn’t Jenny. Or her phone or the sandwich. I looked around. My street of suburban refuge was empty. We lived on a dead end so the only traffic, by car or foot, would be neighbors from any of ten houses. But no one was about.
I listened. I could faintly hear music leaking from Jenny’s headphones – not loud enough to announce the song (as if I would know it), but loud enough that it was too loud for headphones.
I closed my eyes. I remembered the name was Paris – that I’d never forget. I don’t think I could pick it out of a sniff test with other perfumes. But why did I suddenly remember Francine’s perfume? Oh yeah, the whole thing about Francine and peanut butter and whether she was fat.
Maybe there was some nostalgia.
“We’ll always have Paris.”
Jenny looked up and popped one ear free from its bud. “Did you say something, Dad?”
“Yep. But never you mind. You go back to studying algebra or whatever you’re doing on your phone. Don’t mind me …” she was already putting the earbud back in place … “I’ll just stumble down memory lane on my own.”
I sat in a cushioned chair and looked down the block, gazing into the full green tree at the corner, the blue sky above it, that white puffy cloud over there. But I was looking through my mind’s photo collection, scanning the whole damn catalog, looking for a particular album labeled “Francine.” Maybe I should look under “Fat.”
There it was, the visual I was looking for. I see my hand holding firmly a calligraphy pen as I gently ink words onto a piece of parchment. It’s Christmas and I’m writing a note to go with Francine’s present. It was a not-inexpensive bottle of Paris. Not something she needed, but something she’d enjoy, and something I enjoyed. I did so love that fragrance. Why can’t I smell it now? Memory delivered taste easily enough, why not aroma? Or was I blocking?
I did not block my memory-sight. My hand had written: “Ilsa, We’ll always have Paris” and I signed it “Rick.” A tip of the fedora to Francine’s favorite film. Then I drew an imagined message to Helen, signed by Paris: “Let’s elope!” A third part of my note to Francine was my serious wish for a beautiful Christmas and a romantic pledge of undying love or some such crap, which is exactly why I can’t remember it clearly. But I do remember quite clearly the thrill from Francine’s smile when she opened the gift and read the note. “Peter, this is the sweetest gift I’ve ever gotten.”
I peeked over at Jenny to see if she had noticed the smile on my face, but she was busy texting with the world. Which was a relief, because I didn’t want to answer about my smile. Because I’m too honest. And I would have revealed that the upturns in the corners of my mouth were sarcastic. Because I remembered quite clearly hearing Francine on the phone just a few days after that Christmas, thanking someone for sending her flowers (her grandmother had died). Francine cooed, “That was the sweetest gift I’ve ever gotten.”
Oh well, tempus fugit when you’re giving the sweetest gift.
I leaned into the porch chair and pushed my fist into my left cheek until it rose up and closed my eye. I was pushing away some emotion I wasn’t nostalgic for in the least. But I stayed with the visual of that Christmas, my last with Francine. The Fat One. I peeked at Jenny. Still oblivious.
Like Francine’s parents. Oblivious by design. There I was, Christmas at the Redmonds’, all decked out in my brand-new Brooks Brothers uniform of blazer and khakis that Francine insisted I invest in. I had presents for both of her parents, though it was only the second time we’d met. Francine trained me that every appearance at someone’s home warranted a gift, at least a hostess gift. For Christmas, she suggested, “Let’s do Mommy and Daddy”. I protested as I surely didn’t want anything from them. (Well, I did, but that wasn’t negotiable.)
The Redmonds welcomed me into their luxurious nine-room apartment right on Central Park East politely, as they would any friend of their daughter, despite my outer borough pedigree, the slight trace of an accent and my father’s undisclosed, therefore suspect, position in the world of commerce. The fact that he had topped out as a middle manager in a second-rate shipping company would never be discussed, and the mere notion that my mother worked outside the home could never be divulged.
Yes, oblivious they were and oblivion is where I resided. They knew nothing of Francine’s carnal co-habitation social experiment with me, because she would never dare reveal to them that she was commingling her fun with someone the Redmonds would view as on par with the help. Okay, I wasn’t that bad. I was gainfully employed, had a college degree and my own apartment (albeit in Greenwich Village, which might as well have been Peoria for folks on the Upper East Side of Manhattan). But none of that added up to enough for Francine to clear her throat at dinner and say, “Mommy, Daddy, I just want you to know that Peter and I hold hands sometimes and right now we’re playing footsy under the table.” No such luck. Instead, I was her “work friend.” Something to amuse their daughter, something that posed no threat, therefore something tolerable though not memorable.
Now that I think of it, she was kind of fat.
Whatever. I didn’t seem to mind then. Maybe I was caught up in the attention. Maybe I was caught up in the lifestyle – which nearly cost me every dime I was making. Maybe I was caught up in the wealth – their wealth, Francine’s wealth. For God’s sake, the Redmonds had a Renoir and a Picasso in their apartment. (Francine had a Norman Rockwell, which I thought was just as cool.)
The Redmonds had two beach houses in the Hamptons. Two. Different towns, naturally, and only one was properly on the beach. But still, two. Could you imagine? I couldn’t. Because I had never been to the Hamptons until I was there. With Francine. My guide, my tutor. Me, her ward, her monkey on a stick.
The first time was in the older house, a cherished near-ancient cottage, just the two of us (how did that happen?). But I was the tutor that night, and as we lied in bed in utter darkness, we looked at starlight finding its impossible way through a shingled roof desperate for repair. She held me like never before, as I pondered on what I had just accomplished for her, wondering when was the last time, if ever, she’d achieved that exhausted giggle.
It wasn’t the same at the bigger house, the newer one. Family and friends all weekend, and Francine and I in separate rooms, of course. All I seem to recall of that weekend is the silverware drawer in the kitchen. It had no plastic tray to divide the flatware into categories, so all the knives and forks and spoons and random utensils were mixed together in one clattering clutter of metal. Whenever you opened the drawer, it was an adventure to find what you needed. And I don’t think there was a single matching pattern among the lot. As if each piece had been stolen from different diners all along the north and south shores of Long Island. Francine made a big comic apology, “It’s the only thing my family allows to be disorganized. But isn’t it fun?” Mismatched forks. Knives and spoons rubbing against each other indecently. And yet, she didn’t think her folks would accept me as a possible son-in-law?
What was she, a pig?
On the rare occasion I would venture into a conversation about her maybe coming clean with her parents – “What’s to lose?” – that one-sided plea would be extinguished with a most disappointed look from Francine. What she didn’t have to say was, “I’d lose everything.”
Including her dignity. Something I had clearly sacrificed.
I would roll out of her bed – that huge king-size bed that I had dubbed the playpen – and fold myself into a lotus, seated in front of her stereo, my hands rifling through her immensely impressive vinyl collection. I’d select some upbeat nugget to convey that I wasn’t disappointed – or ashamed – that I was okay in the moment, rolling with the punches, with no intentions of upsetting anyone’s cart of apples or diamonds or future suitors.
As much as I coveted Francine’s literal wall of records, there was no music that we owned. No particular song became ours. Nothing to dance to that hadn’t already been danced to. Nothing to sing along to that hadn’t already been sung to. Maybe that was a symptom, maybe that was a circumstance. But I’m grateful for that omission, because without music, emotion cannot survive the passing of time.
I suddenly heard a song – nothing I knew – and I opened my eyes to look at Jenny. She had taken out her earbuds, and music was spilling between us. “What?” she demanded.
I guess she was concerned about the expression on my face after all.
“It’s nothing.” I shrugged. “Everything.”
I smiled and breathed in a nostalgia for scented petals and expensive perfume, and felt a longing for the deep comfort of so many soft pillows strewn across an impossibly large bed. But I do not miss any invitation to share that bed. Or to breathe in those airs of pretense. Or to hold onto someone who didn’t want to be held.
Who was too fat for me to get my arms around.
photo credit: Freddy G @freddygthatsme