The French Teacher

By on Sep 24, 2010 in Fiction

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Papier mache mask

When Bertrand next arrived, after a two-week hiatus, her French was rustier than usual.  “Je crois que tu as régressé,” he commented.  “And we really must work on your pronunciation.”

“I never claimed to be any good,” she said, not the least offended.  It was a pleasure to see him again and get down to business.

As the lesson wound down, she convinced him to stay for supper.  “Nothing fancy,” she warned, “and probably not the least spicy enough for you, but you can add hot pepper if you wish.”

She served a Caesar salad with broiled chicken, which he consumed with relish.  Topping off his wine glass periodically, her plan was to get him tipsy so he might spill more of his history.  When, after his third glass, he did grow less inhibited, even laughing out loud at a joke, she figured it was time to pounce.  En francais, bien sur.

“So, Bertrand, do you ever get to see any other Cameroonians?”

He looked at her suspiciously.  “Occasionally,” he said.

“Well, like who?  I mean, do you have Cameroonian friends or relatives here?”

He suddenly spoke in English.  “Not generally.”  There was something forbidding about his expression.

She persisted. “I mean, do you hang out mostly with other Africans who have immigrated here or with Americans?  I’m just curious about how people who move to other countries feel and behave.”

He was silent for a moment, lifted his glass, then set it back down.  “Could I have some water, please?” 

She got up to pour him some and returned.  Had he caught on to her trick?

He returned to French.  “I socialize,” he said firmly, “with anyone I like.  It doesn’t matter where they come from.”

Julianne nodded, her face reddening.  “Do you like blueberry pie?” she asked, then rose to get their dessert.


It was now June, and after that embarrassing dinner, there had been no more socializing with Bertrand outside of the continuing French lessons.  One evening, she and Karen and two of their friends met for dinner at Café Dakar.  She immediately spotted Bertrand serving a large party by the front window.  Though his area of duty did not include their table, he eventually walked over.

“Bonsoir, Julianne” he said.  His face was lit, apparently by some pleasant social exchange with one of the other waiters or diners, something she’d never seen during her own interactions with him.   

Julianne introduced him to her friends.  “Bon appetite,” he said cheerfully before zipping away. 

Her eyes followed his movements through the restaurant.  After their drinks arrived and their orders were taken, she noticed that he was deep in animated conversation with two men in the back.  They were dressed like Arabs.

“What are you looking at?” whispered Karen, who turned to follow Julianne’s stare.

 “Those men,” Julianne said.  “Arabs or something.  They look… I don’t know, suspicious.”

“They’re not Arabs,” said Karen.  “They’re light-skinned blacks.  Although they have white features.  They’re just dressed like Muslims.”

Kevin, who’d been listening, leaned toward Julianne and said, “They’re North Africans of some kind.  Maybe Fulanis?  Definitely Muslims, though, with those outfits.”

“Is Bertrand a Muslim?” asked Karen.

“I don’t know,” said Julianne.  “I never thought about it.”  But now she would.

The next time Bertrand arrived for a lesson, Julianne saw him in a new light.  When they began their usual newsy discussion in French (during which he would correct her terrible pronunciation), she asked him what religion he followed.  She thought she saw him wince.

“I am an atheist,” he said.  “Religion just causes trouble in the world.” 

His tone was bitter.  Had there been trouble with his family due to religious differences?   Had he left his religion and upset his parents or perhaps gone the opposite route and become a fanatic, so they’d turned their backs on him?  Perhaps he was just pretending to be an atheist so as not to give anything away.

“Your family,” she persisted.  “Were they Christian?  Or some African religion I don’t know?”

“I don’t discuss religion,” he said firmly.  

And so, reluctantly, she turned to another topic.


Her French, according to Bertrand, was improving.  They were able now to discuss abstract subjects such as American politics, the possibility of life on other planets, and various books and writers.  Bertrand was not shy about expressing his hatred of the current president.  “Il est vraiment un idiot!” he said passionately.

Since she agreed with him, she did not bother to comment.  She felt that she was possibly falling in love with him.  This would never do, as he was probably ten or more years her junior, and she did not know if he had a wife or even wives.  Africans, she felt, could not be trusted in these matters.  While they might be romantic at first, and she did not even know if this were true, she was certain that once they had you, they would, like Arabs, turn you into a humbled slave, locked away in a harem or some isolated mud village, forever hidden from civilization. Even so, she found herself fantasizing about him at night in bed, in spite of her every intention not to.

While he was not classically handsome, he was, she thought, quite sexually appealing.  He stood just under six feet and was slender, though muscular, with a square jaw, aquiline nose and arched upper lip that was almost distracting.  He smelled like peanut oil.  Surely he must have sensed her attraction to him.

Yet, he gave no sign and showed not the slightest sexual or romantic interest in return.  Could she blame him?  She was a middle-aged, single, run-of-the-mill high-school teacher.  Not ugly, but nothing to write home about.  He probably had several women going at once: young, sexy ones.

“Would you like to stay for dinner?” she asked him, her tone tentative.

“Je suis desolé,” he said,” but I have to work tonight.  I am standing in for someone.”

After he left, she found herself slamming drawers and cupboard doors.  It pissed her off, not so much that he didn’t want her, but that she’d been stupid enough to consider it. How could she have been so naive?

Karen asked her to lunch at Café Dakar.  “I’m crazy about their groundnut stew, and I want some to take home,” she said. 

Reluctantly, Julianne agreed to go.  What difference did it make now?  The trip to France was only two months away, and once it arrived, the lessons were no longer needed.  To her surprise, the two Muslims were there as before, and once again Bertrand was animatedly speaking with them.  This time, she fancied that he seemed furtive.

“I am waiting on you even though you are not in my area,” he told her and Karen this time.  He looked pleased to see Julianne, even slightly giddy.  “In two days is our lesson,” he said.  Their meal was pleasant, and Julianne felt better about having come.

“He’s oddly moody, isn’t he?” said Karen.  “Do you think he’s bipolar or something?”

“Who knows?” said Julianne, but she was secretly pleased.

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Margaret Karmazin’s credits include 140 stories published in literary and national magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Mobius, Confrontation, Pennsylvania Review and Another Realm. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Words of Wisdom were nominated for Pushcart awards. Her story, "The Manly Thing," was nominated for the 2010 Million Writers Award. She has had stories included in Still Going Strong, Ten Twisted Tales, Pieces of Eight (Autism Acceptance), Zero Gravity, Cover of Darkness and M-Brane Sci-Fi Quarterlies #2 and #4, and a novel, Replacing Fiona, published by