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Perfectly French MAG
He was just another face. The only thing that stood out about the French transfer student was his name. Guillaume. When he said it, it came out naturally, but when anyone else in the class uttered the foreign name, it either slid out in a strained, brain-dead French manner or in a lazy American way. The situation felt too familiar for Richard to laugh, though he wanted to.
“Gilm,” some said.
“Gee-yalm,” others muttered.
Richard knew they were wrong. At night, he would try to correctly articulate the sounds that matched the French boy's pronunciation. He would keep on until his throat throbbed with pain, straining to sound like a French native.
From around corners, Richard would listen to the French boy speak, noting that he drew out certain words and shortened others. He had a musical way of verbalizing vowels. They had a single sound. The dips in his voice and the thoughtfully placed inflections had become a drug for Richard. Even the foreign curses were coherent, though whispered.
“Excuse your English,” Richard heard a tormentor joke after Guillaume muttered a French profanity under his breath. The whole group of tormentors giggled and, at first, Guillaume did too, but his smile faded a little more each time the joke was made
Eventually, the whole school gave up. It was too much work to press their tongues against the roofs of their mouths so harshly and then pull back to make a heavy short “i” sound. Kids would whisper, “This is America and we don't have names like that in America.”
He was Guy now. Calling him Guillaume was a mistake that would never again be mentioned by a teacher or the French transfer's classmates, but it was still visible in the unsure and uncomfortable way Guy answered to his new name.
It wasn't pity that glued Richard's sight onto Guillaume, but something oddly similar, indescribable. Guillaume still stared at the cafeteria food with uncertainty and ate little of it. When spoken to in slang, he would rarely respond with a definitive answer. He leaned out with puckered lips when approached by female friends, but when they wrapped their arms around his neck and shrieked a greeting, he would instead give them an awkward pat on the back. Richard saw all this, watching and listening silently, rarely spotted by tormentors or Guillaume.
Then Guillaume broke the fourth wall.
“May I borrow a pencil?” he asked Richard during Spanish. Most of the school expected Guillaume to take French, but he chose Spanish. When asked about this decision he replied, “What would be the meaning in learning what I know?”
Richard felt a tap on his back, confirming his fear that Guillaume was actually talking to him.
“A pencil, please?” The “l” sound was light, and “i” was not “ih” but “ee.” The “please” almost came out as “plais.”
Facing forward so that their eyes wouldn't meet, Richard slowly passed a pencil to Guillaume.
He muttered, “Here, Guillaume.”
The French boy's mouth opened slightly with surprise: Someone remembered his name, recalled the way it began with a hard “g” and how the ending reminded Americans of charity.
Richard was glad that such a turn of events happened during Spanish. He hated that class. He hated every “Mi nombre es” and “¿Cómo estás?” or “Odio esto.” Too many things to say. Too much biting down and releasing air through your teeth.
After class, Guillaume destroyed the fourth wall until it was bits and pieces of a thing that only Richard would remember. He shook Richard's hand with a big, bright smile stretched across his face as usual. It was a goofy smile, an innocent one.
Richard gazed up at Guillaume through the shadowy bangs that dangled in front of his dark brown eyes with a frown plastered on his face.
“What is your name?” Guillaume asked. Name was still “nom.”
It wasn't French enough. “Richerd” was too American, too “office worker with a wife, two kids, and a dog.”
Guillaume told Richard how his name would be pronounced in France then gave a small, appreciative laugh, but Richard already knew the “d” would have disappeared.
“Today at cafeteria, sit with me, okay?” Guillaume said. Lunch must have been too alien for him to want to even try, and the “h” in “with” had run away.
Richard could only manage to gulp and nod, hoping the French student would leave and that he would be limited to watching and listening again.
The time until lunch break passed slowly for Richard and when it came, he had the desire to speak again for the first time in a long time.
When Guillaume and Richard took their seats in the cavernous lunch room, the French boy asked Richard if his friends were okay with him leaving them. As always, he didn't give much of a reply, just a mumble, a shrug.
Guillaume complimented the way his name had slid off Richard's tongue in class, and then he started asking him about things like sports and food. Richard's responses were limited to nods and shakes of the head. When he had to speak, it was whispered.
“Hey, Guy, 's'up?” The overt American greeting made Guillaume flinch.
Two girls and a boy appeared, and all three raised eyebrows at Richard, though none of the tormentors asked why he was there.
“This is my friend, Richard,” Guillaume said. The too-American name came out French, perfectly French.
One girl snorted, holding back laughter.
“The kid with the lisp?” the boy said.
Guillaume said a French word and by the inflective tone, one could tell that it was inquisitive.
“Come on, Richard,” the male tormentor said. “Say, ‘Sally sells sea shells by the seashore.”
Richard wanted to tell the boy that he pronounced his name wrong – the “d” wasn't so heavy – but then he thought it wouldn't would matter a fool like him who couldn't manage to summon the phlegm in the back of his throat to produce the right hiss for an “r”? He bet his tormentor couldn't abandon “h”s if he tried.
“Come on,” one of the girls giggled. “Do it, it'll be funny.”
Richard sang the French alphabet in his head, occasionally rewinding it back to “e.”
“Sally sell sea s'ell down by zee sea s'ore,” Guillaume murmured.
The girls swooned at his smooth mispronunciations.
The tormenting boy snickered and then jokingly punched Richard's shoulder.
“See,” he said. “Guy did it.”
The girls took a shot at the tongue twister as well, one messing up the first time around and having to repeat it.
Richard pondered the differences between “zee” instead of “the,” then considered what made one qualified to use the former. He wondered if he would be forgiven by his daily tormentors. He wondered when he would be forgiven. He dreamed of throwing out “h”s and being praised by those who couldn't guess the difference between an accent grave and an accent aigu. To them, “g” and “j” might as well be the same letters, and there was no mistake that “e” and “i” made all the same noises.
He wished he had told them to say it – say “egrec,” say “vraiment,” say “gagner” – but he knew it'd be pointless. He could never picture his tormentors managing to produce something so perfectly French.
Arlington Heights, Illinois
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