I ask students on the first day of class to introduce themselves and say something about their life. I go first and hardly ever vary from my standard of nationality, place of birth, number of children, and years lived in Spain. The students then follow suit. And I mean exactly the same suit, not checked instead of striped or loose instead of fitted. Whatever details I dress myself in, they go for the same. As I listen to how many siblings each has and that they were born in Gijón and have lived here all their lives, I dream of a surprise. Their favorite soup, or the age at which they learned to ride a bike, or the longest day of their life. Next year, if I remember, I’m going to ask them to share three details from categories no one else has used. After other students have exhausted favorite pastimes, years studying English, jobs, and siblings, what will they come up with? “I like Chinese food” or “I have never told a lie” or “The coolest car I’ve ever ridden in is a Porsche 911.”
The coolest I’ve ever ridden in is a Rolls-Royce, from an apartment in Versailles to the Bois de Boulogne and back. I was with my boyfriend, visiting his father and the father’s companion, and we were to be their guests for lunch. There was talk of where to go, either the restaurant at the airfield where my boyfriend’s father kept a plane or the Pré Catelan, a favorite restaurant in the Bois. Also of whether to go in the new powder-blue subcompact Citroën or the antique Rolls, a brownish red I wish I could call burgundy, considering the country we were in, but that was really more properly maroon. The Rolls was rarely taken out, but the father, who had a limp and walked with a cane, was recently recovered enough from a stroke to drive, and he wanted to do it in style. I don’t think he had any notion of impressing his son’s girlfriend with his car. I don’t think he had many thoughts at all for me. I did not intrigue the man. I didn’t intrigue his companion either, but even so she was kind, urging me to try this and that, pour more cream in my coffee, and not worry. She gave me a ribbed, burnt-orange cashmere sweater she said she never used, and I took it, feeling like the poor waif, the impoverished relative. She also pressed upon me the porcelain ashtray from our table at the restaurant in the park. I thought taking it amounted to stealing and balked, but Aileen assured me the price of the meal included this souvenir.
So no, I was not the beguiling American abroad, curiously innocent but worth forming, such as Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady, a book I had recently read. The book was another hand-me-down from my boyfriend’s family, this one from his absolutely gorgeous sister. She wore heels and silky blouses and chic skirts whereas as I wore Birkenstocks, cotton t-shirts, and long, full skirts. It was no surprise to me that I awakened no interest and was paid scant attention in his family. One wished to make them the same return. “We had nothing in common, I hardly remember them, I never think of them,” I’d have liked to answer when they were mentioned. But it’s not true. I did think of them. I was impressed. Rolls-Royce, private plane, and restaurant with no prices on the menu. But especially I remember Aileen, beside me in the back seat of the Rolls, patting the seat as if to say, “Make yourself comfortable, enjoy the ride.” And Aileen, pushing the cream pitcher closer to me. Tucking the ashtray into my pocket. And putting the cashmere sweater into my hands, a cast-off and yet not given dismissively, but gladly. It’s got moth holes now, but there it still is, in my closet. The best way to get a surprise from my students is to offer one myself. Will I name for them, better than the coolest car, an unexpected and enduring gift?
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