FAMILLE ETRANGE

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"We're not married, Darce," his voice echoed around the room mercilessly.

What was I supposed to say to that? No, we weren't married, I knew that. I just expected that after-- that didn't matter, I'd promised him it didn't matter, he'd asked and I'd said, 'it's your life, after all.'

"What about Jane," is what I ended up saying, and cringing prematurely. It was the wrong card to play and I knew it.

He dropped a stack of records into his suitcase with a clattering thud. I knew he was angry when he treated vinyl like that. Ben loved his records almost more than Jane. Scratch the 'almost'. He was actually taking the albums.

"You know, and I know, and Jane knows," we both automatically stared at the wall of shelves that divided us from our little girl, "that this doesn't change anything between any of us."

"Ben, it's only ten more months until we go back to New York, too. Why can't you just wait?" We'd been through it before, albeit more calmly and over the phone, two weeks ago when he'd gotten the call. I'd been out with Jane, getting a baguette, wine and hot dogs, and a few pieces of candy at the three-year-old's pleading.

"Because I've waited for two fucking years, Darcy. Remember when this was a summer internship at the musee?"

"Yeah, back when you were happy for me." I wasn't like this, I didn't say things like that. Sitting on the floor of his room, watching him pack his things, God, he was so materialistic it was almost like he was packing himself into suitcases. I tried to convince myself I was a mother reacting to protect her cub.

He stared at me, which was kind of shocking. Ben never stared at anyone except the pretty little french college students he had the decency to fuck outside the apartment. "It turned into a year, and then two. Jane was six months old when we came here, look at her now."

"You said you wanted to come," I was whining. This wasn't the girl he wanted to be a mommy to his kid.

"I said I'd love to spend the summer in France. I said I didn't want to miss any little bit of Jane. We'd only had her for twelve weeks, what was I supposed to say? 'Take my daughter, please!'"

"You said we were a family." I shrunk back into the corner I was sitting in.

"I was happy for you, I am happy for you, I'll always be happy for you. This isn't always about being happy for Darcy."

"I guess it's time to start being happy for Ben?"

"Well, yeah. There's a band over there that asked for me. Instead of their current producer. This is huge, and all you can think of is who's going to pick up Janie from l'ecole. Have you seen the fucking check, hire an au pair."

"She wants her daddy, Ben. She'll ask where you went."

"Daddy has a chance at his dream, finally! I'll tell her where I'm going, we'll email, it'll be over before you know it and we'll keep being a family."

"I moved to New York for you."

"That was your choice."

"You wouldn't help me get Jane unless I moved up there."

He zipped up the bag and hefted it onto the floor. "You're an interior designer. Don't even start to tell me you only moved to New York for me."

"I'm not an interior designer. I have a degree in interior design. Currently all I design is which way the tourists walk around le fontaine."

"That's just it. Remember when we were tourists, too? God, Janie knows more French than English. She's going to be so behind when she gets back to the States."

"She's already behind here parce que tu ne parle pas francaise dans l'appartement!"

"Elle ce n'est pas French!"

"Still, it drives her crazy when she says 'snack' or 'book' or whatever and her friends don't understand."

"Her first word was 'voila,' Darce, I don't think she's suffering too badly."

"It was not."

"It was an expression."

"It sucked."

"I know." He quit it with the luggage for a moment to come over and kneel in front of me. He was monolithic, blocking out the light and looming over me. It was reminiscent of high school, when I worshipped him and we hung out in parking lots together. We were so platonic it was painful. Our ideas were the same, so it was weird that he had all this ambition and drive and I had a weakness, a desire to love and be loved.

At some point I probably thought I was in love with him. But really, it was always about wanting someone as wonderful as him to love me. It's not that I didn't want Jane with all my heart. It's just that maybe I wouldn't have adopted her at twenty-two, straight out of college so I felt guilty getting a real job. Then the offer to come to France had come, and I snached at it, and asked him later. I told baby Jane about it as soon as I heard. We were going. With or without Daddy, I joked.

"Ben?"

"Darce?" By this time, he was usually just edgily amused by my random philosophically self-pitying outbursts. He knew the things about me that made me his devotee, and I knew the things about him that made him feel the need for me.

"Remember how hard it was to explain to the landlady that we weren't married, but that we hadn't had a baby out of wedlock either?"

"Especially because my French was so horrible back then that I just gave up and told her I was your gay patron? That she understood in English. Figures."

"Yeah, and then she tried to fix you up with her son. Egads, the French invented modern homosexuality."

"Nah, I think just modern gays all act French."

"Same difference."

He had settled back, cross-legged on the floor, and it reminded me of those times up in his room, him playing me mix CDs and me wanting to press the happy glowy buttons that he forbade me. Ben didn't care about anything but image, or being liked. He didn't understand what being loved was because he always was loved. You can't explain light without shadow.

"Ben?"

"Darce?"

"What are we?"

"Homo Sapiens."

"Are we a family?"

"Yes." He was absentmindedly controlling an imaginary turntable in his lap. His head was slightly cocked to keep the imaginary headphone on without it's partner.

"So I'm your . . .?"

"Daughter's mother? Best friend? Roommate?" Ben had this gesture when he was really paying attention to someone, or wanted them to focus, like pulling down a fader in mid-air, to silence his internal soundtrack. "What do you want to be? Desperately? You have to go for what you want, you never do that. That's why when you said 'France' out of nowhere, I said, 'sure, lemme get my suitcase.'"

"You sound like my father."

"And?"

"What?"

"What do you want desperately?"

I couldn't tell him the truth: to be loved unconditionally. To be his not-wife, not-girlfriend forever. For him never to go away. It was selfish, just like France was selfish. Tainted that way. Part of me thought that's why I kept asking for more time here, to find my purpose, so that this wouldn't have been a random self-centered diversion for my new family. Meanwhile, my daughter, our daughter, thought America was as big as her grandparents' houses, and thought Paris never ended. Just because it's what I want doesn't mean it's best for Jane.

"I don't know," I lied. I want Jane to be happy. I want Jane to be loved and never hurt, never hurt at all. But I couldn't raise her under the glass of the city of lights, either. I couldn't raise her away from the boy who loved her since we were fifteen years old and made a pact that when we adopted, we would be the best parents anyone had ever had. She was real to him then, more real then to him than she was to me now.

I wondered if we were better parents because I'd never seen her father naked. Or if he was a better parent because he was comfortable with physical affection. I hugged Jane, but there was something inside me that panicked. She looked nothing like me, the little brown-haired girl from Ukraine, but her soul was like mine, everything but the tarnish.

"Can Jane go with you?"

"I'll be practically sleeping at the studio and living off of take-out."

"I'm sure she'll do better eating pain au chocolat and sleeping on the floor here."

"Why does she sleep on the floor like that?"

"You ask me that all the time, and I always say the same thing."

"You just hope it's not your fault."

I was about to cry. He knew this wasn't idle conversation, why was he doing this? "I don't want her to be like me."

"Too bad. I do."

"See? I want her to be exactly like you." I watched as he started to get up, and I grasped for straws. "Stay," I asked.

He shook his head. The soundtrack was back on. "I have to go." It wasn't firm and angry like before, just resigned and slightly excited. I wanted his France for him. I wanted him to have everything. I wanted everything to include me.

"I'll hire an au pair, then."

"Good idea."

"I promise, just ten months this time. Really."

"Jane's way too New York to be raised in Paris."

"Paris c'est la New York originale, mon frere."

"P'shaw, darling, p'shaw."

It was two o'clock. He was taking a taxi to Orly at three, so now was the time for me to cry while he said goodbye to Jane. I sat in the living room and stared at my paintings on the walls, my feet, the empty CD cabinet except for Disney soundtracks, French children's music, and American pop. There wasn't any character anymore, just the collection of a frazzled museum administrator trying to take care of a child alone. We did this together so I wouldn't have to be alone.

Faintly from her room, I could hear him singing shamelessly to her giggles, " . . . leaving on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again . . ."

Why doesn't ever really matter in the moment, it's all about the What, and the How.

"She's so beautiful, God, how are we going to do this?" he whined rhetorically at me. "Have you been crying?"

"Not so much."

"Good. I made you a present."

I rattled the obvious package playfully. "Lemme guess. Mix CD?"

"Aw, foiled again."

Jane bounded out of her room, wearing a tiara and her I love N.Y. t-shirt. What a coincidence. "Papa, n'allez sans moi!" How did she know what I was thinking, in sloppy three-year-old French?

"Come here, j'ai une cadeau for ma petite chou."

"Q'est-ce? Q'est-ce?" She bounced up and down and grabbed the box from Ben and I laughed.

"Ce n'est pas ouvrir avant je vais, okay?"

"Oui, oui, Papa. Bye-bye!"

Jane only needed a present to go from whining puddle to pushing him out the door.

Mama needed a little more. "Est-ce que you won't find a new famille etrange while you're away?"

"Vrais, Mama. No new famille pour moi, I promise. Now hug."

I pressed my face into his shoulder and bled through my eyes for a moment, and he was gone. France didn't need me anymore. Jane needed her Papa, and Papa needed New York.

"Jane, what did Papa give you?"

"Des livres en anglais."

"Books in English, huh?"

The kid caught on quick. It was serious when Mama spoke straight English. "Yes. What's this say?"

"Eloise. It's a little girl's name, like Jane. She lives in New York, like your shirt, like where Papa is going." It figured that Ben would do that, make me read her New York books.

"Papa said we'll go too."

I hesitated for a moment. I never wanted to tell Jane anything I didn't mean absolutely. "Yes."

"When?"

"Well, for a little visit in octobre for l'halloween." God, Ben was right, I did it automatically. She didn't know months or holidays.

"Can I be Eloise?"

"Why? You don't even know about Eloise."

"Eloise lives with Papa. You'll be Eloise, too, okay, Mama?"

"I want that too, little cabbage." I spotted the CD I'd left on the coffee table. "It's okay to miss Papa, okay?"

"Mama misses Papa, right?"

"Yes. Do you want to listen to the CD he made us?"

She nodded as she turned through the pages of the book, looking at the chapter pictures. If Jane was going to be Eloise, then I was going to be Jane. I was going to imagine Ben producing records in the New York wonderland, not the drugs or alcohol or sex with random strangers. Not him sitting alone at night alienating everyone because he thought otherwise he was forgetting Jane and his little famille etrange back in Paris.

If Papa lived at the Plaza and got ordered around by Nanny, then I'd be okay.

Because, after all, we weren't married.

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Please review me. Tell me you didn't like it, tell me why, tell me you liked it, that it reminded you of your dog or the stuff that comes out. Just please do. I'll find your stuff and review it, too. I really bared my soul with this, and it all just spewed out of me like it really happened. Sort of like dream deja-vu.

Ooh, also, if the French isn't self-explanitory or if I've gotten things wrong, please tell me, I'd love to know.

Okay, check you later,

--Laisse Beton