It was just past midnight, Washington, D.C.-time, and we wanted to celebrate New Year's Eve. Bad enough that we hit the flight-attendant call button and asked for champagne.
"Non," she said.
"But it's midnight, in America. It's New Year's..." we said.
Tsh tsh tsh. In that weird, almost harsh shush of disapproval. "It's 5 in the morning in France. You missed it..."
"Please," we begged. "We're 19. We can't have champagne at home, but we can on the plane. Just one toast...."
She brought us 2 glasses.
That is when my friendship with Phatiwe began. We were flying to Paris for our foreign study program in Lyon. It was New Year's Eve. She flew from Boston to D.C. Me from Philadelphia. It was the first thing we ever did together. We had mutual friends before the trip. Had spent time together. Parties. What not.
We had found out we were going on the same program in France and decided to fly together. It seemed like the thing to do.
We arrived at 7 a.m. on a frozen holiday morning. Paris was glistening with frost and asleep. Our room was not ready. Others met us, but by the time they arrived, she and I were a thing. Four of us shared bunk beds in a Trocadero Ibis hotel. She took such long showers. Everyone was confused. We ate cheese. We drank wine in cafes. A Nigerian man who said he was on a professional soccer team tried to take me home with him to smoke a shisha.
She didn't let me go.
Always the smart one, that girl.
We got to Lyon and my family, who spoke no English, who took me in to fill avoid in their own family left when their eldest daughter went to college in Germany, they picked me up in a small car. Tossed my suitcase in the back. Were proper. Reserved. Msr. Humbert bumped the shit out of the bumpers on the cars around his when he parked. "That's how we do it here," he said, seeing my shock.
Americans never park like that.
Phatiwe's family luxuriated in her English. They went skiing, they had dinner parties, they were like a firecracker of bravado, mispronounced-English and hugs.
Les Humberts had a wood-paneled receiving room. My bed was remade every day. She ironed my underwear. But every night. At first. We sat with the dictionary at the table. I was their American, and by God. I was going to speak French.
Mme. woke me every morning about five minutes before my alarm (I had told her my wake-up plan...) and told me it was time for my shower. She, meanwhile, went into the kitchen and made me a bowl of chickory coffee and tartines. (After a month of hungry during which I dropped 10 pounds, I also got a peeled clementine. Sectioned. On its own plate.) She would sit in her bath robe, speaking with me in French every morning while I had breakfast before sending me off to class.
I still remember her shaggy robe. Her pixie haircut. Her gentle wrinkled eyes. The way she held her hands while she talked to me. She spoke slowly. It was morning. But it was still her job to teach me.
When she was dressed, she worse skirts, stockings. Cardigans with gold buttons. Scarves. Always lipstick.
One time she took me to get my hair cut, my ability to communicate how I wanted that done was still poor. And I wound up with a fluffy bob. "Tellment feminine!" she exclaimed, showing me off.
Another time their friends came over to play bridge. They paraded me around. "Look, this our American. She speaks so well!" And they made me talk with all their friends.
Pierre-Yves and Pauline taunted me at dinner every night.
This is why I learned French. A very kind family took me in and made me one of their own. Thought it was their job. To make sure I left really knowing. They were wonderful.
We wrote sometimes afterward. But I was a student. I was lazy and felt awkward. Embarrassed to feel things for these people who gave me a home.
I just looked up our old address on Google Street View. We were above a chocolate shop. I came out the gate and passed windows where men made chocolate chateaus, elegant towers, Noah's Ark... out of chocolate. We smiled and waved every morning as I walked off to the bus I took to school.
Phatiwe and I hated the cafeteria. Shitty faux baguettes with thick unmelted slices of brie, pizza with gummy cheese and black olives that Karen (she who would not eat) ate by scraping her long fingernail across the cheese and then licking the nail. It was like watching a train hitting a wall. Watching a hungry girl choose to starve.
She was beautiful though, and we liked her. But we had no idea what to do. At 19.
So Phatiwe, Josh and I went to Moroccan cous cous restaurants and had cheap lunch feasts. We had about $6 a day for lunch (30 francs, back when those were a thing) and for that, when we pooled our resources, we could get a big pot of meat and vegetables to pour over cous cous. On those days we gorged ourselves. Mostly we at the sad baguettes.
A few times, just a few, she and I went to lunch at proper brasseries. A splurge. We had a few 6 franc cafeteria pizzas to afford a 50 franc lunch with croque monsieurs, frites and a pot du vin blanc. One time we double splurged and got more wine.
We were two entirely trashed kids in our French Civilization class that afternoon. We talked. A lot. Everyone knew we were drunk. They were surprised that being that drunk made us so much better at speaking French. Even the professor. We were not in trouble.
Her family, I don't know their name, loved having an English speaker at home, so her French was a mess. They loved speaking English. She was a gonner.
The most she really learned came from our nights at bars. How to order. How to sweet-talk a bartender.
One time a bartender with snowy hair took our order for two double-Baileys.
"Non," he said. "Je ne peux pas."
Each drink would have been about $18. He refused to let kids spend that much. We had reasonably priced gin and tonics instead.
We saw "Microcosmos" one day because we wanted to sneak into a movie that had English. It was microphotography about bugs. No words at all. FML.
And then we saw "The English Patient," which we'd seen at home, with Kevin. Kevin was handsome. I had a crush on him. And he took the "speak only French" mandate very seriously. The only time in France that he broke was at that movie. Because he couldn't understand why it made her and I both wail like babies.
I saw him years later at a midnight screening of "Planet of the Apes." I regret to this day that I was too stoned to really talk to him. Even though he still had the same girlfriend. (She was there.)
But it was Phatiwe who took me to the "Planet of the Apes." And Vanessa and Jason and probably Dan.
I got home from a long weekend in Mexico (yeah, yeah) and they handed me a joint. Smoke this, and we have a surprise for you... I did what they said. MONKEY SPACE MOVIE. BOTH FAVORITE THINGS.
I had good friends.
Why are you reading this. Why this random walk down memory lane.
Something has been brewing in my head. Some mix of love and loss, locked deeply down in my heart and soul inside the dark core of sorrow that I harbor still. Where alive Phatiwe lived. Where dead Phatiwe now lives.
For a long time her absence and what it meant to me was a non-thing. But that's not the case now. I don't know what awoke that sorrow. Perhaps a final, hesitant need to let it go. I started talking about her again recently. And it feels like an imposition. Remember her. Remember my sorrow. Feel my ache. MY PAIN. GOD DAMN IT.
But I can't do it that way. Not anymore.
Her absolute and complete and earnest love of every part of me both proves to me that it is true and convinces me that it is not possible that this thing will ever happen again. That someone will love me so very much. Who I love like a sister. Who doesn't have the burden of being a sister.
"Your person" my aunt said to me, one cold night on the Upper East Side when she came to talk, and we hadn't had time, so she made time.
My person who loved me that way. Who I could say anything to. Any crazy, awful, bloody thing to. And she would ash her cigarette, look and me and say, "It's ok."