The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater
© S. Moss-Ward, 2010
All rights reserved. This may not be reproduced, except with permission.
It was one of those parties where people holding frosty alcoholic drinks stood in small groups on a terrace with an awesome ocean view, and when they saw someone they knew there was a lot of excitement in three or four languages, and then they started bear-hugging and kissing the newcomer on either side of the face.
This is what happened to Guy as soon as we walked into party-land. There was a flurry in our direction, and then it was like he was being tackled by a bunch of kissaholic women and a few men. Seriously. I had no idea my dad possessed that kind of rock-star magnetism.
It was definitely eye-opening to observe him amidst his admirers. I mean basically all he does, besides teaching a couple of classes a term, is write. I don’t really get why anyone would find my dad’s work all that thrilling—because no matter how interesting the subject might be to him or anyone else, writing, like reading, is a pretty quiet job, and you wouldn’t expect people to get so fired up about someone who obsessively spasms about two very dead white men like Honoré de Balzac and Henry James.
Fortunately Guy had removed his headgear before it got knocked off by the enthusiastic groupies. I stood behind him holding the pith helmet, which looked like a misshapen basket. Or a bucket. Whatever possessed him to acquire this thing? I mean if he had to wear a sun hat, why couldn’t it be something less gross, like maybe a baseball cap?
The only other person I’d ever seen wearing a pith helmet was Shirley Temple in “Wee Willie Winkie,” an ancient movie I’d watched on tv at my grandma’s house when I visited her, like lightyears ago. Come to think of it, everyone in the movie wore pith helmets, not just Shirley Temple. In some parts of the world it’s normal headgear. But just because it’s normal in India or wherever, why wear it in Rhode Island? It’s like wearing one of those Yassir Arafat head-cloths if you aren’t Palestinian and just happen to live in Cranston. I mean, hello?
I put the helmet on my head.
“Bee, come here,” said my dad, “so I can introduce you.”
I shuffled forward. Guy put his arm around me and gave a slight hug. “This is Barbara,” he said. “My daughter.”
I took off the helmet. “Hi,” I mumbled, looking more at the ground than at anyone in particular, because I felt like totally embarrassed with everyone’s eyes on me. Face it, Bee, I told myself, you are a social misfit, and everyone knows it. They are zooming in with x-ray vision, and see that your underpants are high-waisted and a weird shade of pink because something ran in the wash, and you do not shave your legs because you are strongly opposed to sexist ideas of conventional female beauty.
There were blue flagstones underfoot, and there was a pair of very pointy-toed red stilettos opposite my purple-painted toenails and purple flip-flops. I looked up, my eyes traveling along the legs that belonged to the shoes, and discovered the red stilettos eventually connected to the rest of Professor Chantal Remercier. Her short hair and straight bangs were lacquer black, and she wore a red Suzy Wong dress with a mandarin collar and frog closures, like she was a sex worker from one of those Rhode Island “spas” that are always being outed on the local tv news.
“Allo,” she said. “We have met before, I believe.”
“Yes. How are you?”
“I am very well. And you?”
“Fine, thank you.”
Guy said, “Professor Remercier and her husband return to France next week.”
“Oh,” I said. “Are you happy to be going home?”
“It is always nice to return home,” said Chantal, “but of course it has been a great pleasure to be here, and particularly to work with your father and some other renowned scholars. But let me introduce you to my ‘usband.” Chantal reached behind her and pulled a blazered elbow towards us.
Its owner turned around. I ‘d never seen a man who looked like this before, and maybe I won’t ever again, unless for some weird reason I move to Hollywood, or take a job as a nanny to some major celebrity couple. He was Hugh Grant, Matt Damon, and James Bond all rolled into one, and when he smiled his teeth were super white. His brown, wavy hair was perfectly styled, and his brown eyes were just incredibly expressive. He was, like, totally super gorgeous, and I could hardly believe he was real. I suddenly wanted to touch his beautiful skin, and I could feel my palms sweat and itch. If he talks to me, I thought, I’m going to turn into a babbling idiot.
“Hello,” he said. His accent was British and French at the same time. “I am François Villon. And you are…?”
“Babar,” I squeaked, my mouth feeling horribly dry. Then I felt my face heat up and turn bright red, as if I’d walked smack into a wall, and then I started to giggle uncontrollably. “No…hehehehehe, …I mean…I am…hehehe…Babará….hehehehe,” pronouncing my name with the accent on the last syllable, like it’s pronounced in French.
I looked at Guy who was looking at me wide-eyed, with his mouth slightly open, as if he had a cold and couldn’t properly breathe.
“It is very nice to meet you, Babar,” said François Villon, who apparently hadn’t heard me in full. He, too, looked somewhat puzzled, but he was also smiling. “May I find you a drink? I was just going to get myself something.”
“Yes please,” I gasped. After the giggle spasms, my voice sounded like an accordion that had been totally squeezed out of air.
“And what would you like?
“Uh…a Shirley Temple?” I said. “Or whatever you’re having?”
“Uh…a Shirley Temple?” I said. “Or whatever you’re having?”
François said he would be right back, and moved off to the edge of the terrace, where there was a bar. While he was away, my dad was in rapt conversation with Chantal and several others, some of whom I recognized from past department socials, all of whom ignored me, which was fine because I just wanted to curl up in a little ball and die in some obscure hole.
Congratulations, Bee, I told myself. You have once again opened the mouth and inserted the foot. How could I have said such a thing to this Movie-Star Hunk? (There were, like, no other possible words except such fanzine clichés to describe him.) And why hadn’t Guy told me that Chantal was married? I could just imagine his answer, though. “Because you never asked me, Bee.” And then he would say, “Why did you tell François Villon your name is Babar? I thought you hated that name.”
If my mother had been in Rhode Island instead of in Maine, I thought, I would never have gone to this party with Guy, she would have gone with him, and this amazingly mortifying slip of the tongue would never have happened, and I wouldn’t have been perceived as such a pathetic loser. Well, whatever. Seeing as there was an abundance of alcohol at this festive get-together, I decided to find out, for the first time, what it was like to drown my sorrows in drink.
François approached me with a tall glass of something that looked like tomato juice in his hand. “Here, Miss Babar,” he said, smiling hugely with his amazing teeth on full display. “I hope you like it.”
“What …is it?”
“It is…how do you say…a ‘virgin Mary.’ Which is, I believe, a Bloody Mary without the vodka. Because I think you are under the legal drinking age, yes?”
I nodded, unable to deny the humiliating truth. We were standing at the terrace’s edge, leaning up against a railing, looking towards the ocean.
“You know,” François continued, “if I were you, I would not call myself Babar, ma chère.”
“It’s really Barbara,” I gulped. “I don’t know why I said that. I felt like my mouth froze.”
“Your mouth, it is frozen?” François looked at me quizzically for a few seconds, pondering. Then he continued: “No, I would call you, maybe, Celeste, because she is the queen of Babar’s realm.”
“Oh. Thank you.” I felt my face go scarlet again.
“Not at all. Except right now you are not quite the queen, because you are so young. In France we call someone like you une jeune fille en fleur. In fact, I would call you a princesse rather than a queen. Now what was the daughter of Babar called, do you remember?”
“Flora, I think.”
“Ah yes, that is correct.” He raised his gin and tonic to me. “A ta santé, Princesse Flora,” he said. “It has been a delight to talk with you.” We both sipped our drinks and then he joined the disciples around my dad.
For the rest of the party, I wandered around the terrace (grabbing hors d’oeuvres from strategically-placed platters); I walked on the beach, I returned to the terrace, I went inside to the bathroom, I came outside and grabbed more munchies on the terrace, and I finally started giving my dad signals to convey my extremely deep level of boredom. But it was like he didn’t get it—like, maybe sometimes he’d wave over someone’s shoulder if he saw me, or lean over as I passed by to whisper “how are you doing?” and when I mimed yawning or going to sleep he’d smile as if he understood, and then he’d keep right on talking. He was behaving in a way I’d never seen before—so charming, so charismatic, so wise and witty and profound. I wondered if this was the person my mom had married, so many years before I was born.
Finally it got really dark and buggy outside; people started to drift away, even though mosquito candles were burning in glass lamps that twinkled on the terrace railings. Finally Guy found me and said, “Ready to go, Bee?”
“Uh huh. I’ll meet you at the car.” I sat there and dozed for another half hour while Guy made his farewells to the Europe-bound Europeans. Finally we were on our way back to Providence.
“It was a good party, don’t you think?” he asked me.
“I’m sorry if you were bored. I understand. There wasn’t anyone else your age.”
“I should have brought some knitting.”
“Hmmm….knitting. I’ve noticed you haven’t been doing much of that lately. Is it because your mother’s not around?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Well, I’m thinking about my next project.”
I turned and watched my dad’s face as he drove steadily towards home. Broken stripes of light washed across him as the car moved past intersections and down thinly illuminated streets.
“I’m trying to decide,” I said, “if I should make an afghan for Ben to take to boarding school in the fall.”
My dad didn’t say anything for a while. Then he said, “I had the feeling you and Ben have cooled it a bit.”
“Yeah, well, that’s true,” I admitted. “He’s working every day this summer, at his father’s office. He’s kind of scarce.” But I knew that was only part of the story. Ben was scarce because he wanted to be.
“Well here’s my two cents,” said my dad. “Don’t.”
“Ok. Why not?”
“Because, my dear, the truth is that guys don’t know how to deal with presents like that. It’s too…it’s very…complicated. I don’t have to tell you, of all people, what a big deal it is to knit a present for someone. Giving him a hand-knitted anything—well, he just can’t reciprocate or even acknowledge it in a way that’s proportional to the present itself. Especially somebody Ben’s age. Especially someone who’s just a friend, not a relative.”
“Oh.” I felt somewhat relieved to hear this, as if my dad had given me permission to, like, totally give up on the mitred-square afghan, which honestly I’d never felt right about, for reasons I couldn’t completely express.
Then I said, “Dad…thanks for taking me to that party. It doesn’t matter that I was kind of bored. It was interesting anyway.”
“That’s good to hear. I was a bit concerned.”
“It was interesting to see you…um, to see you….to see you…”
“…without Maxine?” He finished the sentence for me.
“Yeah. That’s it. Because seeing you alone gave me this idea that you are, and maybe everyone is, like a cube, like one of the dice from the Monopoly set.”
Guy chuckled. “Go on,” he said. “This is an amusing comparison.”
“Like there are different things on each side of the die, but you can only see some of them, depending on how it’s placed. Or how you approach it.”
“Nice analogy,” he said.
“So tonight I saw some sides of you that I’ve not really seen before, because I never see you at work. And when we’re staying in the house together without Mom, I see other sides of you—like the side that leaves empty pizza boxes all over the diningroom table—that would never show if she were there.”
“Undoubtedly,” he agreed. “Although you could take it upon yourself to chuck the boxes, if they bother you.”
“But they don’t,” I said. “They only bother Maxine.”
There was another silence as we drove along. By now we were almost home, and I didn’t want the ride to end because I felt that once we left the car the conversation would pop, like a tiny bubble of soap.
“Listen, Dad,” I said, all of a sudden. “There’s something I really want to ask.”
He pulled into our driveway, and we sat there, in the car, listening to things plink and click under the hood as the engine began to cool.
“What is it, Bee?” He turned and looked to me in the gray-black dark.
“You know that sweater Maxine made for you when you were in college? The one you always wear at holiday parties to make her feel good?”
My father nodded, and then he sighed. “Indeed I do,” he said. “That sweater has…” and he didn’t finish the sentence.
“That sweater has what?”
“Um….it doesn’t matter, honey. I’m not going to wear it any more, I think.”
“Is it too tight?”
“Yes, you could say that. At any rate, it definitely doesn’t fit me. And maybe it never did. Even when it was the right width, the sleeves were always too long.”
We went inside. The house was cool and smelled of air conditioning. It was a totally comfy mess of discarded newspapers, half-read magazines and books, empty pizza boxes, a kitchen heaped with dirty plates, glasses, and silverware; an upstairs of unmade beds, dusty floors, and slobacious bathrooms.
Tomorrow we would have to clean like maniacs, because Maxine was supposed to return by the evening, and if she saw how everything really was while she’d been away, she’d hit the roof. I thought how free we’d been, my dad and I, these past two weeks, without her, and how, really, we hadn’t missed her at all. The two of us had been like truants or rebellious…I don’t know…prisoners, maybe. And we’d had so much fun.
And then I thought how crazy it was that you could love someone like your mother or your wife, and yet something could definitely change in your feelings, so that it was like a stepping away from the rules of how you were supposed to be a daughter or husband. Because as soon as Maxine left to do something for herself, a new kind of space had appeared in our lives. I mean, how strange was that? It was like some door had been unlocked, or some spell had been broken, and I just knew in the very deepest part of me, that there was totally no way things could ever be the same as before.