Ch. 1 – The Decision to Go
“Bonjour! Je m’appelle Claudine LaFleur. Je suis etudiante a L’Universite du Sud-Ouest de Louisiane.” I faltered. “Or is it ‘L’Universite de Louisiane Sud-Ouest’? “
“What do you think you are doing?” I thought in panic “You can’t speak French – much less, speak French well enough to convince a panel of judges to give you a scholarship to study in France!”
In truth, my grade point average sucked – courtesy of my 3 short semesters at Louisiana State University (LSU). That’s what I planned to say to my interviewers: I have been an exemplary student since I had entered the French program at USL.
“Une etudiante exemplaire!”
That was what I said to myself as I sat in the waiting area at Southeast Louisiana University (SLU) in Hammond. It was definite that I was going to Angers, France for an academic year at the Universite Catholique de L’Ouest. This interview was to determine the size of my scholarship. I barely remember meeting my fellow competitors, as I was concentrating so hard on what I was going to say. I was familiar with the students who came from my alma mater, but there were at least 20 students in all traveling to France to go to school. They were from different colleges and universities throughout Louisiana.
The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana was offering the scholarship, and would be a big help in paying for my year abroad. On the one hand, I had no business considering a year in France. My father and mother were recently separated. My mother had struck out on her own with a new interior design business and my father was struggling in the oil business, which had taken a downturn in the recent years. The program was recommended by one of my French professors, who encouraged me to apply. I did so, and here I was for my interview!
Today was a warm day in April, and it was hard to believe that I was actually going to live in France for a year. On the other hand, I thought to myself, this was perfect timing for a big change. Things were not going smoothly for me and my boyfriend of two years, and going away for a year would make the break up easier. At the moment, the true implications of my decision to study abroad had not sunk in. Alan was still talking about how “we” would weather this time apart. While I was in France, he was making plans to go and work overseas in Saudi Arabia. Alan was a helicopter dispatcher who worked in the oil business. In his mind, we were destined for marriage.
I wasn’t so sure. I had a lot of misgivings about marrying the first boy I had ever seriously dated. I was a late bloomer, never dating in high school, and I had an idea that I shouldn’t give up when I was in my prime! As it was, I found that my state of being “taken” added to my cachet, and had been flirting around at school. I was very close to having the “let’s date other people” talk. I had never felt so attractive to other men before! As I sat in the pre-interview room, I considered the “prospects” before me.
My fellow USL classman was named Robert – Bob, for short. He was a tall, gangly guy who seemed serious, but could turn goofy at a moment’s notice and cackled with a maniacal laugh. He had dark brown eyes and thin, brown hair. Another man definitely made an impression. His name was Charles, and he was from New Orleans. We called him Chuck, for short. He cut a dashing figure in his blue and white striped seersucker suit with a straw fedora. He was a swarthy blonde, of stocky build, with a darker blonde mustache. He also had a strong, booming voice that carried. There were other guys, but I don’t remember them very well.
Needless to say, my outgoing nature took over, and I did fine in the interviews. I usually interview well – it’s the follow-though that was difficult! One month later, I received a letter informing me that I had won the third place scholarship for my school: $800. I had no idea where the other money was going to come from. I had applied for a student loan, and I assumed that my grandparents would help out. I also planned on taking a job during the summer to save up money.
In the weeks that followed, I and the other scholarship recipients met for an orientation and had our pictures in the paper. I also had to make arrangements to get a passport. There was a meeting planned in August in Baton Rouge to meet the previous year’s participants, and to answer questions that we and our parents would have. It all seemed very unreal to me – it was too far away to contemplate: September!
What seemed more real was my life in Louisiana. I had definitely made a break with my boyfriend, Alan. I made arrangements to work as a cocktail waitress at a Mexican restaurant for the summer. I was also working part-time at my mother’s interior design office and living at home with my dad. My mother lived and worked in a house near downtown Lafayette. My sister had flunked out of school and was working as a bartender at the local Bennigan’s restaurant, and had met the man she was going to marry.
My life in Lafayette was a full one. I had finally realized a dream to begin horseback riding lessons, and really enjoyed that. I was also enjoying success as a student. The biggest challenge was in my romantic life. Hormones running wild, I was man-crazy, instantly attracted to every new man I met. I was constantly writing in my journal about new men I met, and the experience of being attractive to many men was new to me! As I prepared to leave all of this, I was constantly plagued by whether or not I was making the right decision. At the same time, I was aware that this decision was a big part of my new attraction!
Ch. 2 – Escape Velocity
In Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, the theory of “escape velocity” is presented. It seems that, whenever you have made a big decision to change your life, many little tests will present themselves to you. For example, if you decide to leave a bad relationship, suddenly that man will begin to shower you with the things that you were missing from that relationship. To pass the test, you must go through with your plans, even when you have second thoughts.
Once I made the decision to go to France, my life did not suddenly become charmed. There were still a lot of problems. My parents were divorcing and were trying to sell the house that we had lived in during my high school years. I didn’t know what to do with the dog that I had kept – one of the mixed breed puppies from our Brittany spaniel named Muffin. I also managed to get in two car accidents before my trip. In one, I had “bumped into” a cyclist as I was turning into a friend’s driveway. The second fender bender happened shortly before I was to leave: I rear-ended a man who did not turn when I thought he would.
Although I had made the decision to be friendly with my ex-boyfriend, this was not going as planned. For one thing, I made the poor decision to make a play for his best friend. I knew at the time that this was a really stupid idea, but couldn’t help myself. This guy was my best friend’s brother, and I had had a crush on him all through high school. Since he was showing interest, I decided to see if anything would develop.
Never mind that he was a pothead! I was full of romantic notions! I thought that I could change him! I know: I was a fool! As I said before, I was very full of myself and of my feeling that I was finally attractive to the opposite sex. I had dated a DJ that was in my French program, and had even managed to be at a high school reunion where he was with an ex-girlfriend. This was all before I broke up with Alan. Poor guy! I was terrible!
We took a trip together to New Orleans – Alan and I. My goal was to firm up passport plans and to visit my good friend, Peter. Alan was going to take an aptitude exam. He had decided against going to Saudi Arabia, and was going to go back to college. He was supposed to take a test to figure out what course of study he should take. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was ultimately a disaster.
I had a ball in New Orleans – Peter and I always had such fun. Peter was working during the day, and Alan was taking his exam, so I took advantage of that time to go shopping. I still remember going to the exclusive Yvonne La Fleur boutique, where movie stars shopped, and letting drop the fact that I was shopping for my “year abroad.” I had Yvonne herself waiting on me! I bought something inexpensive, and on sale, and passed on the gorgeous black rayon dress that seemed so expensive.
I also spent time in the French Quarter. I decided, on a lark, to go into the Tea Cup Fortune Teller room (or maybe it was the Voodoo Shop?), and have my fortune told. I was sequestered behind curtains with this old man, who had blood-shot eyes and a large, vein-streaked nose.
His first words to me were, “Don’t tell me anything.” So, I sat there, waiting to have him tell my fortune.
The next thing he said was, “You will be traveling over a body of water.”
Excitedly, I jumped in, saying, “As a matter of fact, I am going to France…”
Whereupon he yelled, “I told you not to say anything!!!” I don’t remember anything else he said.
When I returned that day from shopping, I had a great time telling Peter about my adventure at Yvonne La Fleur’s shop. He proposed that we go out for drinks. Alan was not back from his test, yet, and we really didn’t give him much thought. When we returned, he was sitting on Peter’s porch, with a bottle of champagne. In typical victim fashion, he looked accusingly at me, and asked why we hadn’t waited for him. He had come back to celebrate the results of the test. He was going to major in Electrical Engineering.
I felt even worse when he then decided that he wanted to go home right then and there. We had planned on leaving the next day. I had no choice but to leave with him, as he was my ride back. As I was packing up my things, I sang along with the radio. I have always been self-conscious about my singing, and, although Alan and Bob and his friends would play guitar and sing at their house, I would never step up and participate. We had dated for over two years, and he had never heard me sing. As I left the room, he looked at me in astonishment.
“You can sing!” He said.
It was like an accusation, as if I had been hiding the one thing that could have saved our relationship. That compliment softened my anger a little, and we had a good conversation on the way home. Still, I learned my lesson on the “friends” proposition. We were not friends. I was the girl who had won his heart, who had won his family’s heart, who had been there during his mother’s first bout with cancer and chemotherapy. It was hard for any of us to accept that we were not, in fact, going to be married.
Ch. 3 – Summer of Insanity
During the summer before my departure, I worked as a cocktail waitress at a Mexican restaurant called El Torito. I shunned my eyeglasses, wore a one-piece costume that had off-the-shoulder ruffles and a short skirt with a slit. My sister and her boyfriend would walk in, fresh and wholesome in their khakis and polo shirts from Bennigan’s, and my sister would knit her brows and pull my ruffles back onto my shoulders. I would readjust them, and assert, “You don’t understand – I am a really bad waitress. I need all the help I can get!”
In truth, I was a pretty bad waitress. I have always been a methodical, linear thinker, with great concentration skills. It was difficult for me to adjust to the basics of good service, which were to be all places at all times! Too vain to wear my glasses, I would often miss the subtle eye contact that customers would give me. I also would get flustered if I was swamped with orders. Eventually, I learned to handle most things with a good attitude, but I was aware that there were many others that were better than me!
One thing I had no problem getting used to was the party culture that went with working at a restaurant. Generally, we worked at night. Being on our feet all night usually required some winding down time, and this time was usually spent at a neighboring bar, bartering for favors with other bar people. Our favorite hangout was my sister’s place of employment, as they stayed open later. We would go there, where my sister and her boyfriend would serve us drinks. Bartenders had all the power! I did a lot of drinking that summer – strong, fruity caloric drinks with names like Long Island Iced Tea and Burnt Toasted Almond.
The first night I worked, I met another Robert – a waiter who immediately showed that he was interested in me. He seemed so self-assured, in that way that only the experienced waiter can, and I was flattered by his open admiration. He was big friends with Sam, my busboy, and they asked me out for drinks that night. I had to say yes, because I was afraid that I would not be asked again!
I was starry-eyed at the prospect of working with all of these glamorous, efficient people who knew how to have a good time. With them, I went dancing at after-hours bars until all hours of the night. We went to grocery stores and bought great big steaks and other foods to cook and eat at 2 o’clock in the morning. I went to bed some nights at 4:30 AM. At that time, I was living in the house with my dad and my sister. Dad was gone on business a lot of the time, so we had a lot of freedom to invite people over. Since we had matured a bit from our high school days of illicit parties, we could be trusted to clean up after ourselves and to make sure our guests behaved.
I was infatuated with the Latino waiters and bartenders who populated our restaurant. I considered myself a citizen of the world, now that I was going to live abroad. I had traveled to Mexico quite a few times, and felt comfortable throwing around some of the Spanish phrases that I knew. Many of our employees were not, in fact, from Mexico. We had people from Venezuela and Nicaragua as well.
One young man who had caught my eye was named Pablo. Pablo was from Nicaragua, seemingly from a privileged family who was forced to leave Nicaragua after a military coup. He had an air of relaxed confidence, since he was an experienced bartender. From the beginning, he was not very patient with me, since I was slow and new. Eventually, I gave back as good as I got, and he learned not to pick on me so much. He was a bookish looking guy, with soft black hair, and laconic brown eyes. He sometimes wore glasses, and often gave thoughtful, condescending answers to questions. He irritated the hell out of me at first, but we grew on each other.
One of the bartenders’ favorite pastimes during slow nights was to take their hand-held seltzer spouts and drench the fronts of the cocktail waitresses costumes. I got so fed up with this that I plotted revenge. One afternoon, I came in after horseback riding armed with squirt guns, which I passed around to the other cocktail waitresses and the busboy on duty. When I walked up to Pablo, I could tell he was suspicious, but it was too late before he armed himself. We had him surrounded and opened fire. Man, that was fun!
Our friendship grew around all of the other irons we both had in the fire. I was winding down with Robert number one, after a particularly embarrassing vigil wailing outside his apartment door one morning at 5AM. Drunk? Yes, I was. Lucky for me, he didn’t answer. At the same time, I was dating Robert number two, and a classmate from USL. I had my ex-boyfriend pining for me, so I felt pretty much like hot shit. Surely one tall, thin Nicaraguan was no match for me! Okay, I was 3 for 4 – the first Robert affair was nothing to be proud of…
Pablo definitely knew how to play the game. We would hang out, being friends, while he would talk to me about other girls that he was interested in. Since I was dating another co-worker, this worked out fine for him. But I was hooked. Why was he talking about other girls in front of ME? He was so serious that it was hard not to mock him. He would talk about this girl that he liked, and say that he would be happy just to talk to her, hold her hand, just kiss her on the cheek and go home. How romantic, I would think – what about ME?
Still, I was having so much fun, going to bar parties, hanging with the bar crowd – we had great times. I took a trip to New Orleans with Robert, the guy I was dating from the restaurant. He was a nice guy, but I didn’t seem to be interested in nice guys that were interested in me. I wanted the elusive, romantic wiles of my new Nicaraguan buddy.
Eventually, we did spend some time together. He would take me to his apartment, which he shared with his brother and cousin, and talk to me about his favorite musician, Julio Iglesias. You heard me. And I, who would never deign to listen to such drivel – I was a rock and roll girl – a disco girl! – would swoon when he said that “All of You,” by Diana Ross and Julio, was going to be “our song.” Suddenly I was a big Julio fan!
He would also quote Pablo Neruda poetry, and fix me with a thoughtful gaze. “Bay-bee,” he would say, and tell me his dreams. He planned on moving to Venezuela in the future, to go into business there. Would I be comfortable living in another country, far from home? I had no problem with that, especially since he was just talking “hypothetical relationship” stuff, here. Whenever I would get too secure, he would find some way to set me off in our next meeting: the mention of a girl he still would like to date, talk of moving to Maryland. I couldn’t really object, since I was leaving at the end of summer anyway.