Lessons in English

by Sophia Stefanidis Ungert

I looked up at the bulletin board, covered with layers of multi-hued paper. I searched for a spot where I could take down a couple of expired flyers to make room for the notice I had written by hand that morning. There was one for a student drama production that had taken place a month before. It was next to one advertisement for a roommate, yellowed with age and riddled by thumbtack holes—certainly not put there recently. Overlapping these two was a flyer that was written completely in Arabic. I inspected the inscrutable, flowing script for a few moments, and then quickly tore the three flyers down. Hunting for a spare thumbtack on the sheets, I decided that a poster for an organ concert this Sunday did not need two, and removed one. Standing back I surveyed the board, and the placement of my advertisement on it. Satisfied that it was noticeable enough in the field of colors, words, and pictures, I left for class, feeling confident that someone would need my services.

It was my fourth week in Paris on a college exchange program, and I had come to the sudden realization that money was going to be a problem. I had saved what I could over the summer, but had not anticipated the many little expenses I would have, like the monthly Métro pass, the pricey coffee (with no refills) at the sidewalk cafés, or the high cost of cigarettes in Europe. I was going out a lot, to restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, and the taxi fares home in the wee hours of the morning before the Métro was running again—well, those added up. And I was not good at keeping a budget.

I decided to find some way to make money. I was not allowed to get a job on my student visa, so I had to find something that I could do informally. I had seen notices for German and Chinese tutoring at the Sorbonne, where I took literature classes, and decided to try my hand at “English Tutoring.” I listed my phone number, and paused for a moment before adding “50Fr/H,” which was the equivalent of about ten dollars an hour.

The first call came rather quickly. From the sound of his voice, the gentleman on the other end of the phone was quite a bit older. He spoke in English as he gave me his address and directions to his apartment. First arondissement, I thought, with raised eyebrows. Ritzy neighborhood.

“My English is quite fine,” he said. He spoke eloquently, yet tentatively. He was obviously searching for the best phrasing of each sentence. “I was a correspondent for the Financial Times for forty years, covering Paris. But it has been almost twenty years since I have had to write in English, and I have almost no opportunity to converse with a native speaker. Your accent is American?”

“Yes,” I said, and added proudly, “I’m from New York.”

“Well, I would just like to talk with you for an hour or so a week,” he wheezed haltingly, “to loosen my tongue and exercise my brain.”

“I would like that. What would you like to talk about?”

“Do you know anything about politics?” he asked.

“I major in political science,” I announced happily, “and am taking classes at l’Académie des Sciences Politiques.

“That will do. I have a subscription to Time magazine. Why don’t you buy the most recent copy, and read it before seeing me. We can discuss your favorite article.”

How grand! Getting paid to sit with a retired journalist and discuss politics? Oh yes, I was very excited to meet Monsieur Revel. What’s more, a second and third caller made appointments with me, as well, and I had a fourth student lined up within a week of posting my annonce.

On the day when I was to visit Monsieur Revel, it rained heavily. His building, though only a few blocks from some of the most chic shops in Paris, was on a narrow, dingy street. As I climbed the dreary steps to his apartment, the smell of my wet wool coat did little to mask the scents from each door I passed: here was sautéed garlic; there, the smell of cat piss; later, aged varnish and sweaty feet. When I arrived at his door, I pressed the ringer, and could hear the buzzer shriek unpleasantly inside.

Monsieur Revel looked very much as I had imagined him. Close to eighty, with a head of neatly combed white hair, he had a hunched back, and moved sluggishly. He was dressed in a tweed blazer, and wore an ascot.

“Come in, come in,” he beckoned me.

His apartment had high ceilings, and dim lights left the room murky. Books covered every surface—floors, tables, window sills. Here and there were random objects, like a magnifying glass, a marble orb, an ornate wooden box with mother of pearl inlay, a brass serving tray. Heavy red drapes blocked out most of the fading light coming in at the long, glass-paned windows. The air felt stagnant, like the inside of an underground chamber. It smelled of old books, dust, and stale breath. I had the urge to fling open the windows and let in the cold, damp city air.

He led me over to two Louis XV armchairs that must have been quite elegant at one time. The upholstery was threadbare, and the cushioned seat surrendered with little resistance as I sank into it. Monsieur Revel decided on the article we would discuss, one that had more to do with economics than politics, but I remained competent in my repartee.

When our hour was over, he handed me my coat and a 50F bill. Our talk hadn’t been as much fun as I thought it would be, and I left feeling less excited about the prospect of our next appointment than about our initial one. It was only then that I realized with a tinge of resentment that I had already spent 20F from the 50F he paid me for my copy of Time. Also, my round-trip travel to his apartment had taken over an hour. In U.S. dollars, that came to about three dollars an hour for the two hours this job had taken out of my day. The inconvenient optimist in my head, however, reminded me that I was still six dollars richer, and had made a new acquaintance in a foreign city. That had to count for something.

I am, by nature, a very extroverted person. I become animated, even energized, by being around other people. There were quite a few students from my study abroad program in Paris at the same time as me, but they were scattered across the city, and our schedules did not line up. We went out almost every night in our first weeks there, but it had started to happen less frequently as we realized the amount of money we were spending could not be sustained, and classes began, and the weather turned less friendly.

I needed to make new acquaintances, new friends—people to socialize with. After one class at the Sorbonne, I was invited by two girls in bohemian skirts who were sitting next to me to go out for a cup of coffee. We went to a neighborhood café in the Latin Quarter, the Café Le Quartier Général, where we were joined by two other girls they knew. I was the point of interest at this little gathering, and the girls peppered me with questions. Where was I from? How long would I be in Paris? Where did I live? My French was still labored so early in my year abroad, but I was able to keep up with their easy banter. This Tuesday morning gathering, they said, was a weekly occurrence; they invited me to join them whenever I liked.

About halfway through, a rugged, angular fellow, in his early to mid-thirties, walked up to the table and greeted the girls. He went around to each one to say hello, kissing them once on each cheek.

“SO-fyah,” one girl said, pronouncing my name in the French way. “This is Yves. He is a photographer. He meets us on Tuesday mornings.”

Yves approached, leaned over, and kissed each of my cheeks. He hadn’t shaved that morning, and his beard pricked my face. His skin smelled of cigarette smoke, and his gray trench coat carried a whiff of the city. He was lanky under his charcoal jeans and faded khaki t-shirt, and wore black brogues that needed a good polish. He had stubborn hair that he hadn’t combed after waking, but pushed back with his fingers, causing him to appear jaunty, brash. A camera hung around his neck, and he pressed it close to his body as he leaned over.

The girls and I continued to talk about our classes, and bars we liked, and upcoming holidays. I was trying to concentrate on the chatter, but was aware of the charged air between Yves and me. He sat and stared at me, without averting his eyes, even while rolling his cigarette. I would glance over at him, and meet his gaze, and quickly look away, embarrassed that he caught me. He was disarming. Why did he stare at me? He sat at the corner of the table, not taking part in the conversation, or asking me any questions. The entire time I sat across from him, there was a white-hot pulse of energy that shot up from a pit deep below my navel, up through my stomach and chest. It would get stuck in my throat before racing back down again. I took shallow, self-conscious breaths, and hoped that my beating chest was not too obvious.

Yves was extremely curious. Why would someone his age—a good ten to fifteen years older than everyone at the table—hang out with college girls? What was it about him that made me feel so muddled? Visually, I did not find him terribly attractive, but my body disagreed. After about fifteen minutes, he stood up abruptly, and said he was off. He turned to me.

“May I have your number?” he asked me in French. “Perhaps I might take photographs of you sometime?”

“Yes, of course. Okay, that would be nice,” I managed to reply, and scribbled my digits on the back of a beverage coaster. My thoughts lingered on him as I ignored the talk at the table. My breathing returned to normal a few minutes later.

The following day, I visited the second person to phone me about lessons. Omar, an Algerian immigrant, was the proprietor of a cheery little café in the Marais. He looked about forty years old. We sat at a small table outside, despite the cool autumn temperature, and discussed his objectives. He was an intermediate English speaker; not as fluent as Monsieur Revel, but certainly good enough to converse with.

“I have many friends who live in London,” Omar said. “Perhaps one day I would like to live in London. But first, my English must be better.”

I told him I thought that, in addition to speaking English when he could, it would help if he read more English material during his free time. I offered to buy him something that he would not find too taxing, and would try to read it before giving it to him, so that we could discuss it.

I left him without getting paid—this was more of an initial meeting to see how to move forward. I went straight to Shakespeare and Company, the only English bookstore I knew of, and asked the salesman for a simple, straightforward story that an intermediate English speaker could understand. He suggested Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s—fun, and easy, he said. I read it ahead of my next meeting with Omar.

The third person who phoned me was Delphine. Delphine was a student living in a Parisian suburb. It took a half hour to get to her stop by Métro, and her apartment building—one in an array of sober communal apartment blocks—was another ten minutes away from the station by foot. The inside of the apartment building was tiled, and a creaking, steel elevator with flickering fluorescent lights let me out across from her apartment.

When Delphine opened the door, I was instantly rattled by how beautiful she was. Her face, the shape of an inverted teardrop, framed large, sapphire blue eyes, and a full, pouty mouth. She wore a baby blue sweater that hugged her petite frame, and her straight, wheat-colored hair fell over her slender shoulders and the swell of her perfect breasts. During the course of our introductions, she told me she was seventeen years old, and lived in this apartment with her boyfriend. She was studying for her baccalaureate, and was hoping to improve her grades in English.

“You live here, alone, with your boyfriend, although you’re still in high school?” I asked.

She closed her lovely eyes, and breathed in deeply through her perfectly formed nostrils, obviously annoyed by my silly question. “Yes,” she sighed. “Why?”

I was hypnotized by this girl, who—while still in the eleventh grade—was keeping house with someone. The apartment was neat, sparsely furnished, but comfortable. Either Delphine or the apartment was perfumed by a sickening sweet smell of jasmine (or gardenias?). That scent, on top of the exquisite symmetry of her face, left me torpid. She led me into the kitchenette, where we sat at a small table, which fit only two chairs. Next to her, I felt like a giant oaf, a ham-handed peasant, a completely inadequate clod. Here I was, in my third year of college, without a boyfriend, living with my parents when I was not at school. Any confidence I felt with my previous two students disappeared before Delphine.

From her backpack, she pulled out a pristine binder. Her subjects were color-coordinated. She used a fountain pen. Who is this girl? I marveled. She told me to check her work and correct her essay.

I obeyed.

I met my fourth caller in a hallway at the Sorbonne. Daniel was a fidgety guy, around my age. He was tall and thin, and had a shock of red curls on his head. We sat on some couches in the corner of a student lounge. “Why do you need a tutor?” I asked him in English.

“I love English, and I would like to travel more,” he answered in a thick French accent.

“Well, okay,” I said. “Are you taking English here at the university? Is there any schoolwork you need help with?”

“No,” he answered.

“Are you a student here?” I asked.

“Em, no, not right now,” he answered slowly. He started to look uneasy, like he feared I might not be willing to take him on as a student.

“Do you just want to talk in English with someone?” I asked, searching.

“Yes!” he said, his face relaxing again into a wide smile.

“We can do that,” I said. We continued to speak for the next hour, covering a variety of subjects. Our conversation mostly consisted of my asking questions, which Daniel answered. I paused at the end of each answer to allow him the opportunity to ask me something back. He never did. I was glad when the hour was up. I stood and extended my hand. He shot up off the couch and quickly asked, in French, “Would you like to go out with me this Saturday night?”

I was surprised by the question, and immediately thought absolutely not.

“Well, okay,” was my actual response. “Um…yeah. Sure. Where shall we meet?”

“I’ll phone you with the information,” he said with a huge grin. He put a 50F bill in my hand, picked up his knapsack, and bolted.

That afternoon, I had my second visit with Monsieur Revel. He started our conversation by asking me if I would take a short quiz. I tilted my head with a confused smile, and agreed. He wrote a sentence and left out a word. “Do you use ‘farther,’ or ‘further’ in this sentence?” I studied his elegant script, thought about it for a moment, and answered, feeling some confidence that I was correct. He gave me a second sentence, and asked, “Would you use ‘lay’ or ‘lie’ in this sentence?” I answered, feeling even more certain.

For goodness sake, is he testing my English? I thought, incredulously. I was curious about this whole thing, but took it in stride. After all, I wasn’t terrific at a lot of things, but English…I had this.

“Now, if you string up a man to the gallows to die, is he hung, or is he hanged?” Monsieur Revel asked me.

“He is hung,” I answered, to which Monsieur Revel hung his head.

“No, mademoiselle. The past tense of to hang when you are speaking of killing someone by tying a rope to their neck and removing the support from beneath them, is hanged.”

“Are you sure, Monsieur Revel? I should think that such a rule would have come up at some point during my education…”

“Yes, yes,” he said, waving his hand at me. “This is a simple rule that everyone learns in elementary school. Non, non. This will not do,” Monsieur Revel said, closing his eyes and shaking his head. “I really need somebody whose English is impeccable.” With that he stood up and showed me to the door, handing me my coat without a 50F bill.

I looked it up when I returned home. Of course, Monsieur Revel was correct. It is not a mistake I have ever made again, although I have been known to randomly ask friends if a man who has been strung up by the neck to die has been hanged, or hung. Most say hung.

I handed Omar his copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and watched as he turned it around in his hands, as if he didn’t quite know what to make of it. I began to think that the gay bookseller might not have been the right person to help me pick out a book for this quiet Algerian man.

“What is this book about?” Omar asked.

“Well, it’s about a single woman—in New York City—in the 1950s—who socializes with various wealthy men, one of whom is a gangster—like, in the Mafia. She lives in an apartment building and befriends a, uh, well, a neighbor, who is, uh, a gigolo.” I stopped and searched Omar’s face for comprehension. “This neighbor is fascinated by her, and they become friends, but he prefers the company of men, and…” I trailed off, understanding with every word I spoke why this would not be a book that Omar would ever want to read.

We spent the next half hour conversing about Parisian news, and our families, and America’s impending confrontation with Iraq. With twenty minutes still left on the clock, Omar stood up, pulled 50F from his pocket, and handed it to me.

“It hasn’t been an hour yet,” I said.

Omar insisted it was fine, he had to get back to work, we would see each other the following week. But before our next meeting, Omar called to cancel. “I do not have time to talk, too busy! Too busy. Maybe when I have more time, I call you, oui?” I realized then that I would never get back the 75F I paid for Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I hung up the phone with Daniel. He had called to give me the details of our date. He asked me to meet him at the apartment of some friends of his; we would all be going out together.

I had an uneasy feeling about it. I took out my atlas of Paris neighborhoods, and looked up his address. It was way up north, in a scary banlieue. Where did he want to go up there?

It took me only twenty minutes to arrive at Clignancourt. Those who exited the train with me were almost all North African and sub-Saharan African immigrants. I found the building number he had given me, and climbed the steps to the fifth floor. The stairwell was in need of a fresh coat of paint. There were loud noises coming from the apartments I passed at each landing: babies crying, televisions blaring, music pumping, people shouting. The air smelled of frying foods, spices, and burning incense. I knocked at the door of the apartment number Daniel gave me, and a young, dark-skinned African man opened it and stared at me blankly.

Qui est là?” I heard someone inside ask. The stranger at the door never took his eyes off me as he swung the door back so the whole room could see me. In it were about eight young, African men in their twenties, wearing leather jackets and coats, smoking cigarettes and passing around a joint. Two guys were banging out a beat on bongo drums while another, lying down on the floor with his head propped against the couch, strummed a guitar that lay across his chest.

Hé ho! Daniel! Ton amie est ici!” someone shouted into the darkness beyond the front room. Daniel came bounding forward, red hair, big smile and white skin beaming through the hazy air.

“Ah! SO-fya, you are here! We were waiting for you. These are my friends!” He introduced me to the others. “Ca c'est SO-fya. Elle est Américaine!” A circle of disinterested faces looked my way in acknowledgment.

We all headed downstairs, this group of men and I, and out onto the street, where they jostled each other and joked in a thick French patois I couldn’t understand. I could tell that Daniel was very proud this evening, but couldn’t discern if it was of me or of his friends. They were very musical, and sang while we walked. Daniel explained that several of them were Afropop musicians; we were going to a club where there was an open mic night.

At the club, I felt completely out of my element. I was the only white girl there, and the air was suffocating. There was no ventilation, though nearly everyone was smoking cigarettes, or hash, or weed. The place was packed, and every now and again there would be a hand, or a thigh, or an arm resting on me, or grazing me, or pressing into me. It was so dark, I never really knew to whom it belonged. I looked around at the different faces, and could make out the whites of eyes and the flash of teeth, but really couldn’t distinguish one face from another.

Daniel talked the entire night, mostly to the guys in our crowded booth. I could not hear what he was saying, and my French was not good enough to understand anyone over the music, especially not patois. Daniel’s excitement was palpable, and it became increasingly clear to me that he found these guys a whole lot more interesting than me. I looked at my watch and realized I had to leave then if I hoped to catch one of the last Métros back to my place. I leaned over to Daniel and cupped my hands around his ear. “I think I am going to go home now,” I shouted.

“Oh! Erm, are you sure?” he asked.

“Yes, I should get on a train before they stop,” I said, sensing that he had no intention of leaving with me.

“Well, okay then. Are you okay to get to the train?” he asked.

“Yes, it won’t be a problem,” I answered. “Thank you for inviting me tonight. This was quite...a new experience for me.”

C’est formidable, non?” He nodded with a broad smile across his face.

“Yeah. Well, I’ll see you. Call me for your next lesson, okay?”

I walked out into the cold silver of the night, and breathed in deeply, filling my lungs with fresh air. “Shit,” I thought. “Where the fuck am I?” My ears were ringing, and I was slightly dizzy from the beers I had nursed. There was no one else out on the road, and this was not a good neighborhood. I walked to the phone booth at the corner and called a taxi service. I waited inside the phone booth for the cab to come, praying for no further adventures that night, and came to the realization that I had probably just lost my third student, in as many days.

When I arrived at Delphine’s apartment, someone else opened the door for me. He held out his hand and introduced himself as Delphine’s boyfriend, Emmanuel. Like Delphine, he was astonishingly good-looking. He was a proper match for Delphine, but it surprised me that he, too, was so young—perhaps only a year or two older than her. He stepped back and waved his arm for me to pass him into the apartment, as he was on his way out. The nauseating smell of gardenias (or jasmine?) hit me as soon as I entered, and it made my belly ache.

Delphine did not make eye contact with me as we both sat down. She seemed annoyed as she removed her binder, slapping it open on the table. The rings pinged sharply as they sprang open. She carefully removed a paper that had been graded, and placed it in front of me. She raised her eyes, turned the color of lake ice, and glared at me. Her pretty little pout was pursed.

At the top left corner of the paper, her teacher had written the number 12. I stared at it for a moment, trying to understand.

“What does that mean?” I asked. “What is the scale?”

“I get only 12 out of 20! You say you fix my work!” Delphine scolded me.

“I did correct your work, but I wasn’t reading it for content. I didn’t know you wanted more than grammar and spelling help,” I explained.

“I pay you to help me for a good grade!” Delphine folded her hands across her perky bosom. “Perhaps it is your American English that is wrong.”

I was at a loss for words. My mind was in a jumble as I simultaneously tried to read the teacher’s comments in French, address Delphine’s complaints, defend American English, and control the nausea I felt from the bitingly sweet flower smell.

In the end, I just gave up. It was demoralizing to be rebuked by a teenager this way, especially one who, in addition to her perfect beauty, seemed more capable of acting like an adult than I did. I told Delphine that, although my English is excellent (thank you very much), I did not know how it was taught in France, nor did I have a good understanding of what her teacher expected from the assignment, and conceded that perhaps she would do better with another tutor. I offered to take a last look at that evening’s homework, and left without getting paid.

I was ready for the weekend when it finally arrived. I did not leave my room at all that Saturday, remaining in my pajamas until the sun set. Nothing was really turning out the way I had hoped. I had put effort into my English lessons, and had several opportunities to share what I knew; yet, in the end, I probably netted only a few dollars’ worth of francs. I had been unsuccessful at earning money, so now I had to stop spending it. I would stay home more.

I lay on my narrow bed, pulled the heavy duvet up under my arms, and opened the pages of the book I had borrowed from the English library. Reading anything in English—even Time magazine—had become exceedingly pleasurable. To be able to just read and understand—without having to dissect grammar, or look up words, or decipher idioms—felt luxurious. Even though I had mounds of French schoolwork to get through, I only wanted to enjoy that book. Because despite the experiences of the previous weeks, my English was very good, and I was fluent in it.

And then the phone rang.

I looked at it for a moment, and then glanced at the clock next to my bed. It was after eight o’clock. The phone rang again. I lay the book down on my chest and considered not answering. The phone rang again. I sighed and lifted the duvet up, swung my legs off the bed, and wriggled my feet into my slippers. I picked up the receiver before it could ring again.

Allô, oui?” I said.

Oui, allô, So-FYA?” asked the caller.

“Yes? Who is this?” I asked in French.

“Yves! It’s Yves…from the Café Le Quartier Général. The photographer?”

A moment of silence passed before I remembered. “Well, hello! Yes, Yves. I remember you. Yes! How are you?”

“I am doing very well, thank you. I was not quite sure if you would be in tonight. Are you not going out?” Yves asks.

“Actually, no, I was just reading, and…” My heartbeat quickened at his voice, and I pressed the receiver into my ear so I wouldn’t miss a word.

“Well, I have been invited to a party tonight. I wasn’t planning to go out, but I figured I might as well. You know?” he said.

He’s about to ask me out, I thought, and I wavered between excitement, and wariness. He was much older, after all, and he was an artist. Both things seemed dangerous.

“Yes,” I said, wishing he would get to the point.

“Well—and I don’t know if I told you this or not—but, I have a little girl. Her mother and I don’t live together, but I get her some weekends, and this weekend she is at my apartment,” he said.

I remained silent, not sure if I had heard him correctly.

“And, well, at the café you mentioned that you needed money, and were giving English lessons, and so I thought, well, perhaps you could help me out tonight.”

I said nothing.

“That is, if you aren’t doing anything else?” he searched further.

After a moment or two, I said, “Of course. I can babysit for you.”

“Oh, no, no, no, she is not a baby. She is six years old!” he said.

“It’s just a saying. You can babysit older children; they don’t have to be babies,” I said, deflated. “Where do you live?”

“I am at the Métro station Bois de Boulogne, across the park,” he said, giving me his address.

I rose and dressed, moving slowly out of passive-aggressiveness, angry at myself for feeling disappointed. Angry at Yves for leading me on. Did he lead me on? What was happening to me? What had happened to all my confidence? I had never had a problem understanding peoples’ intentions. That discernment served me well growing up in New York City. I could smell trouble a mile away, and was clever at avoiding it. It was what my parents relied on when they gave me all the liberties I had as a teenager. I was always able to give people what they wanted. It’s what made me a good student. Parisians were impenetrable. This was a place where a Frenchman looked down his nose at my English, and a high schooler lived like a married woman, and where the competition for my date’s attention was a group of African men. What was going on?

And now Yves. I didn’t even find him attractive. So, why was I attracted to him? How annoying he was, the way he stared, his unkempt appearance. In my mind, I listed all the things I disliked about him as I joggled along in the Métro car. Creepy old man, I fumed. Hanging out with college girls fifteen years younger than him. Why didn’t he ask any of them to babysit? Bois de Boulogne! Of all places. Like the Meatpacking District in the 90s, the Bois de Boulogne had a reputation for sex traffic, a very specific type of sex traffic. “Just across the park!” he said, as though it were the Champs Elysées.

The gall! To phone me at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, last minute, to ask if I would watch his child. To just assume I had nothing better to do. And to lead with the party he was going to, to get me excited, just to turn the tables on me. I was furious by the time I stood before his apartment.

Yves opened the door, and a little girl in pigtails looked up at me from between his legs.

Ah! SO-fya! Bienvenue. Cette petite fille ici, c’est Clémentine. Clémentine, ca c’est SO-fya.

Bon soir, Clémentine,” I said with a smile.

Bon soir! Vous parlez français? Papa a dit que vous êtes Américaine,” Clémentine said in the adorable patter of a child’s French.

Oui, je parle français. J'essaye, de toute façon…” and with that, Clémentine took my hand and led me to her room, where she showed me her dolls, explaining the origin of each of their names to me.

Yves went to get dressed, and popped his head in after ten minutes to say he was leaving.

“I will not be back early,” he explained in French. “Please lie down if you get tired; there is no reason to wait up for me. You may sleep in my bed if you like, I can sleep on the couch. I do not mind.”

Mm-hmm, I thought to myself. I’m sure you wouldn’t mind.

“We’re fine,” I said. “Have fun.”

Clémentine and I had a tea party, and changed the clothes on her Barbie dolls, and I read some stories to her before she fell asleep. I hadn’t really thought about what time I would be returning home. I went out to the living room and looked through the books on the shelves, and the photographs on the wall. It was actually a pretty nice apartment, even if it was in the Bois de Boulogne. Yves was a good photographer, if these were his pictures. I went over to the couch and flipped through a magazine, and started to nod off. I quickly shot up. No, I did not want to be asleep on the couch when Yves returned from the party. I certainly didn’t want to be in his bed; he’d have to work a little bit harder than that to get me there. I returned to Clémentine’s bedroom, and lay back down beside her, fully clothed, on top of the blanket. I opened a book on my chest, to make it look like I had just nodded off like that, and I closed my eyes.

Hours later, I could hear the key in the lock, and the front door open and shut. I pressed my eyes together and pretended to sleep. I could hear Yves at the doorway. “So-FYA?” he whispered. I did not move. He shut the door.

The next morning, I woke to the smell of coffee. I got out of bed before Clémentine, and walked into the living room. The dining table was set with a steaming coffee press and a basket of croissants; Yves had run out early to pick them up at the boulangerie. Clémentine joined us, and told her father about the games we played the night before. Yves looked at me, and smiled, and asked me if I wanted to spend the day with them.

“No,” I replied. “I should get home and catch up with some schoolwork.”

Yves and Clémentine put on their jackets and walked me to the station. As we traversed the Bois de Boulogne, which was really not all that menacing in the daytime, Yves took photographs of me. I felt very self-conscious, but he told me not to be.

“Don’t pay me any mind,” he said. I tried not to.

And he did not pay me for babysitting.

Sophia Stefanidis Ungert was born and raised in Queens, New York. She studied political science at Tufts University, and spent her junior year in Paris studying French history and literature at the Sorbonne, and comparative European politics at the Académie des Sciences Politiques. In 2005, she moved with her family to Asheville, North Carolina, and has worked at UNC Asheville since 2008. When she is not at work or volunteering in the community, she can be found in her garden with her feet in the dirt, on a couch with a book in her hands, around a dinner table with friends, or not at all—because she is outdoors hiking, or away traveling. She loves meeting and connecting people, and collects lifelong friends from all over the world as a hobby.