Marie-Claire at the Dinner Party ~ Alan Feldman

 

She was seated at the other end of the table,
but to be polite—or to gain her attention—
I asked what she hoped to study. I’d heard

she was smart. And her lycée taught English.
And our host, a writer in his forties,
was American, and had been coaching her.

But she wouldn’t reply—mumbled, stuttered,
sulked. Pretty, I thought. A forehead
like a dolphin’s, widely-spaced pale eyes

and wispy blond hair, gathered quickly
with a clip, the way the young can look good
wholly by accident. Just fifteen,

her brain still molting, laying down
thought pathways, shedding neurons, weak
on frontal lobe judgment. So when the host

snapped—Je me fâche—for a moment
I was afraid he was threatening to send her
to her room—a burdened parent—but

we knew they were lovers. Embarrassing
how he shamed her. I was being so nice,
“just taking an interest.” But I know I wasn’t.

A guest seated next to me attempted to explain.
An expatriate, he never liked to speak French
with his Parisian wife around. “With some people

you fear their body language.” I tried to see
my body language. The examining schoolmaster.
The frightened waif who can’t answer. The host

both lover and father, miserably, sublimely conflicted,
driving her to a tantrum in rapid French. What
did she say? When we parted in the parking field

her cheek brushed mine—the obligatory double kiss—
and I felt how round and tender her face was, and couldn’t
believe I’d provoked her. I wanted to draw her near

without assaulting her, the way I’m close
to my students—I, with my solicitude, and they
with their youthful beauty. The way the moon

is beautiful not because I’d like to breach its airless
remoteness, but because I’d like to watch it
in its silver grace like a little bowl levitating

above the earth and its disciplinary gravity.
Unless it was more common than that. The jealousy
of a man spying on another man’s lover,

a desire, as I pulled away, to be the one left
in the field, leaning on a car beside her,
the quarrel over, the night sky glittering.