by Susan Beale
Marcy split the deck and shuffled with the standard riffle technique she learned from her grandpa. The cards purred in her hands. She dealt two piles of seven and placed the remainder face down in the center of the small conference table. Her student, Fabrice, watched with a wide-eyed admiration that pleased her. Shuffling and dealing cards was, admittedly, not much of a skill, but her praise-starved spirit soaked up the recognition as urgently as her body might have sucked up water after a long walk in the desert.
“You were saying, Fabrice, that your wife is an optometrist?”
“Yes,” he replied, “my wife, Sandrine, she work for an opthalmologue, in Waterloo.”
“Oh, Sandrine works for an ophthalmologist in Waterloo,” Marcy replied as she inspected and organized the cards.
“Yes, my wife, Sandrine, works for an ophthalmologist in Waterloo.”
Op-thal-mo-lo-gist. The word on its own was the equivalent of a gymnastics floor routine for a French mouth. Full points for effort. Most of Marcy’s students just nodded at her corrections, as if the burden of understanding naturally fell on her. Fabrice was different.
“Very good,” she said.
He was considered a rising star at this pharmaceutical firm where they met for lessons each week, and Marcy had no doubt that he would fulfill his potential. He reminded her of Evan fifteen years ago.
A decade, perhaps.
Not that they were the least alike in appearance. Fabrice was stocky with an abundance of curly dark hair, whereas her soon-to-be-ex-husband was long-limbed and Nordic, but they had the same eagerness to please and determination to excel, the same attention to detail – generally irritating character traits that somehow became endearing when infused with their puppy-like earnestness.
“You start, Fabrice.”
“Okay, Marcy, “’ave you any trees?”
“No, I’m afraid I haven’t any threes,” she replied, articulating carefully. “Go fish.”
Card games were a nice way to close out a lesson, great for illustrating nuances of the English language. The casual chit-chat Marcy injected into the mix gave students practice in juggling different conversation threads.
“Optometry must be an interesting job,” she remarked.
“Yes,” he nodded. “She like… no, she likesss, it very much, but it is difficult because the children are so small.”
The children. That would be Matilde, two-years-old and “always dancing,” and Louis, three months, who had “a little bit of the colic.” Undoubtedly, life with small children was hectic – no matter how hard one worked, how efficient one became, the pieces of life’s puzzle never clicked into place the way they did on television or in magazines. Too few hours in the day; too many moving parts. Sandrine wouldn’t be the first, certainly, to blame herself for struggling to square the circle.
“Fabrice, have you any kings?”
He pulled one from his hand and passed it to her.
“Please,” he said.
She arched an eyebrow.
“Non, non, non,” Fabrice corrected himself. “What I mean to say is, ‘’ere you go.’”
“That’s right, Fabrice, good catch,” she said. “Thank you very much. Do you have any fours?”
“Go fish, Marcy.”
“If we have a third (turd) then maybe Sandrine stay at home,” he said.
Ah, yes, the Mommy Track. Difficult for any woman to ignore its siren call when presented with the choice. She wouldn’t think of it as a permanent career switch – she isn’t looking that far down the road. She just wants a little relief to the constant, untenable stress.
“’Ave you any jacks, Marcy?”
“Go fish. And so you think that, if you have a third and Sandrine stays at home, then that will make things easier?”
“Yes, certainly. If it is possible, financially,” Fabrice nodded. “That is my hope, anyway.”
“And Sandrine? Does she want to stop working?”
Fabrice furrowed his ample brows and pushed out his lower lip. “She is very tired.”
Marcy understood tired; feeling like a hamster on a wheel, always running to get nowhere. Sandrine might discover that she liked being at home, as others had before her. It wouldn’t cross her mind that she’d wake up one morning in a world exploded, mentally hanging by a thread in a foreign land, an ocean and half-a-continent away from family, the weight of financial responsibility crashing onto her shoulders and fifteen prime earning years lost to the wind. Not in her wildest dreams could she picture herself in the clichéd role of first wife kicked to the curb, or that the doting father of today would evolve into the man too busy with business trips and meetings and work dinners to attend his kids’ art shows, science fairs and parent teacher conferences, who thinks of fatherhood as a costume to don at birthdays, holidays, and every other weekend except when something more important comes up.
“Marcy,” Fabrice said, “do you have any tens?”
With robot-like movements, Marcy handed over a pair. “There you go, Fabrice.”
“Tank you, Marcy.”
In her world, post-apocalypse, would Sandrine answer Fabrice’s phone calls hoping every time to find, on the other end the line, the man she married, the dear one, instead of the stranger who had removed the load bearing walls of her life, watched it crumble and then blithely declared, “I never meant for this to happen”? Would Sandrine need fifteen minutes of chanting and meditation after each call just to flush the anguish and disillusion from her system?
“Do you ‘ave any sixes?”
Anguish and disillusion: the things left on the table when Evan walked away after more than twenty years in the game. Winner take all.
It wasn’t as if Marcy played her hand badly. She was good at cards. Her fatal error had been parochial, bush league: playing by the wrong rules. She thought it was bridge when it was high-stakes poker, and the person she believed to be her partner turned out to be her opponent. Tough luck; sucks being you.
Her breath was shallow and quick – as if she had been knocked off a boat into icy waters. At least she recognized the signs. That was an improvement. If she knew she was falling, she could catch herself before she slipped under. She tried to recall what the yogi said: who is thinking these negative thoughts? She was. She was the one letting them in. These thoughts are not a part of her. She can tell them to leave. She can shut them out.
Past is past. She could not change it. Look instead to the future. It was not the future she chose or wanted but it was the future she had, and she must make the best of it. She would embrace this foreign country as her own and teach her children to live in it like Belgians. It would be a different life from what they had known up to now, to be sure, but that didn’t mean it had to be a worse one. Some things were more important than money. Love was more important than money; humanity was more important than money; integrity was more important than money.
“Marcy? Marcy? Yoo-hoo, Marcy? Anybody’s home?”
“Huh? Oh, uh, sorry, Fabrice. Now what was it you…?”
“’Ave you any sixes?”
“Any sixes, any sixes,” she stared at her hand, frantically blinking tears from the corners of her eyes, wanting so much to give him her cards. She wanted to give everything away. Her possessions were weights tethering her to the past, holding her back. Lose them and she would feel light and free.
“No, I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I haven’t any sixes. I haven’t got any sixes at all.”
Susan Beale grew up on Cape Cod but has lived most of her adult life in Europe, primarily in Brussels. Her writing has appeared in The Casserole and won awards from Caravan Press and the Mid-Somerset Festival. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University in Bath, UK.