When I was in the fifth grade and nine years old, my parents sent me to Paris for 3 weeks. I can assure you of a few things: we weren’t rich, Paris is nice, Paris is far, and nine is really, really young. Oh, not to mention that French is a really hard language. And I was nine. Did I mention that? My older sister had gone as part of the same exchange program—which I am pretty sure my father, as a school administrator, had brought to our school—so when it was my turn, I went. And in all honesty, as hard as it is to write publicly because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, it sort of sucked.
First of all, I was nine. I’m not sure I’ve made that clear. If you look at a nine-year-olds now, they all look like little tramps ready for college, but nine-year-olds in the 80s were not wearing g-strings, that much I can guarantee. Oh, and we didn’t have any idea what oral sex was either. Moving on . . . the whole foundation of the program was to take kids to Paris for three weeks, set them up with families that were as close to their own as possible, put them in school during the week, and show them all there is to see in Paris. Once we returned home, we had a few weeks before the kids that we stayed with came to our town—which was not Paris—and stay with us, go to our school, and see our, er, “city.” Problem number one for me was that my parents had just recently divorced, a trauma that I had yet to recover from at that point. So, when they matched kids up with families, they (I don’t have any idea who actually did this part) thought it would be super to put me with a family that was also divorced. The difference was that I went from my family—which had my father in the primary parent role and my now-stepmother, who was (and is) amazing, in the supporting role (we were dysfunctional but stable)—to a family with the mother in the primary parent role dating a total and complete freakazoid. No, seriously. Not to mention that Leah, the girl that was my “match” was a total A-hole, and her older sister was so much like my older sister that I lived in fear for much of the time I was there.
Let’s take a station break here. Some of you may know my sister. To know her now is to love her and feel so proud of all of the things she has accomplished and is accomplishing. We are friends and I love her. But, dude. When I was a kid? She was a total lunatic with me. She once invented a game that involved her crawling around on all fours, chasing me until she caught me and then attacking me. This included her biting me, and not play biting either. She called this game “Baby Bob Cat” and there wasn’t a single time that I was the bob cat. She used to slam my fingers so hard in the cupboards in our house that I learned how to splint my own fingers. Popsicle sticks and tape—just in case you’re ever in a bind. Whenever we had company, they would stay in my room and I would have to sleep, one eye open, with my sister. I wish to God I was exaggerating, but if I rolled over in my sleep and so much as brushed up against her in my sleep, she would punch me right in the stomach. Or arm. She denies this still, and I am sure that I am remembering it partially incorrectly, but I actually have a memory of her tying me up and putting me in a cardboard box when I was 7 or 8. Now imagine this, in France, with someone that I (1) have never met and (2) can’t even speak to.
But the worst part for me was the boyfriend. Let’s call him Pierre, simply because it sounds French. He was creepy in a way that now, as an adult, makes me wonder if he was some sort of pedophile. The mother had him over a lot, but he didn’t live there, so you never knew when he would sneak up on you. They slept on the floor and had very loud sex, leaving the door open so there really was no mystery.
He was also the kind of adult who loves to tease children, relentlessly so—the kind of teasing that now makes me want to puke. And then, one day, as I was in the kitchen he came in and asked me in really bad English if I liked dogs. I said, “Oui, I have a dog at home named Pita,” and he leaned over and licked me. All the way up one side of my face, barked and walked away laughing. I will never forget it because it was one of the first times in my life that I had ever really hated an adult.
What kinds of choices will I make for my kids that have them writing about it years later? For years I have remembered this story with a little bit (okay, a lot) of resentment toward my dad. This was before I had kids. Now I can add it to the list of realizations that I have had about parenthood. My poor dad, deciding to provide us with this great opportunity, finding a way to pay for it, orchestrating it, and then putting me on a plane and saying goodbye to me. Cute, little me. All these years I have assumed that I was the only one sick for home, but he probably worried about me, and missed me. Beyond that, and knowing him, he simply thought he was providing me with the opportunity of a lifetime. I suppose in a lot of ways it was. Paris is beautiful, and I did see a lot of it. I had my first kiss with a French boy during the spaghetti game (whoot!), I had fun in the schoolyard pretending to be Michael Jackson because my hair had a perm and I thought I was tan enough to be believable. Seriously. The plane ride was cool, I saw my first prostitute, and let me just say that they seriously know how to feed the children in France. We had a seven-course meal at lunch time during school. Seven courses, people! And a few of them ended with chocolate mousse! So, see? It wasn’t all bad.
I just could have done without the licking.