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A Real Woman

May 2000

By Patricia Linderman

Elizabeth’s husband, Bob, joined the Foreign Service and was assigned to Caracas, Venezuela. Elizabeth would have been content to remain an insurance adjuster in Louisville, renting videos in the evening, snuggling with Bob on the couch, and going to craft fairs and the farmer’s market on weekends. But she could see how much this new opportunity meant to Bob. And anyway, as she told herself, maybe it was time to shake up her life a little. Try something different.

In the new suit he bought for his swearing-in, Bob looked sleek and handsome. She could already picture him as an ambassador, shaking hands with presidents. Strangely, though, when she tried to imagine herself at his side, all that appeared was a blur. As the movers nailed shut the large wooden crate containing their household belongings, she could feel herself lifting off, cutting the strings to her old life like the tethers of a hot-air balloon.

In Caracas, she applied for the first available Embassy job and continued her accustomed working life, commuting through a strange city in a skirted suit and stockings. Although she didn’t speak Spanish, her dedication to her job earned her the respect of the Embassy’s Venezuelan staff, who called her “Señora Lisa.” Bob, as always, called her “Slip,” his pet name for her ever since someone, long ago, had called her “a slip of a girl.”

She was paid a condescending sum for her work, in light of her past experience, was lavishly praised in her job evaluations, and saw next to nothing of Venezuela.

Their second post was Istanbul. Determined to get something out of the country this time around, Elizabeth ignored the Embassy’s job announcements, joined the international women’s club and went on numerous tours to Turkish ruins and ancient villages. Once, at a club meeting, members were asked to nominate a new president. No hands went up. For some reason, several people in the room looked at Elizabeth. Flattered, she smiled, and was elected in a landslide.

Bob was proud of her and took her to lunch to celebrate. Unlike some husbands he knew, he wasn’t worried about his wife’s lack of income. He planned to advance quickly and soon make up the difference himself. He was glad Slip was so adaptable, so successful in her role as a Foreign Service spouse.

Elizabeth, affectionately called Beth by the other club members, found herself in charge of bake sales, day trips and charitable projects. By the time she left Istanbul, she had picked lice out of orphans’ hair, hauled boxes of used books to fundraising events, and purchased a new washing machine for a home for the elderly. Her picture appeared regularly in the local papers. After her gala farewell dinner, she threw up in the Hilton’s marble bathroom. She was pregnant.

Bob’s next assignment was Madrid. Since the baby, Randall, seemed to demand constant nursing, she hardly found time to wash her hair, let alone cook lunch for Bob, who walked home each day, clean-shaven and looking professional, to tickle Randall in his carrier and chat happily about the various activities and concerns of his Embassy colleagues. When Bob rushed back to work, leaving his dirty plate, Elizabeth would walk Randall around the apartment, singing urgently into his ear, so that his squalling wouldn’t annoy the neighbors in their apartment building.

Bob often invited colleagues and contacts to dinners that began, Spanish-style, at 9 p.m. Elizabeth would cook all afternoon with Randall on the kitchen floor, banging on pots. At night, the baby always seemed to sense something interesting was going on and would resist sleep with unusual passion. Still, she usually managed to set the table, get him to bed and slip into her dress, except for the time he cried so loudly she just had to pick him up again, and he vomited a bellyful of milk all over her, at precisely 8:45.

It was a relief to land in Bridgetown, Barbados, where Bob’s position didn’t require official entertaining, and the mothers with young children got together twice a week for playgroup in breezy, tile-floored homes. Elizabeth was soon nicknamed Liz by the other playgroup members. She found a spot on the beach shaded by palm trees, where Randall worked tirelessly in the sand with his plastic shovels and buckets. At home, a lady with a quaint accent mopped the floors and did the ironing. Elizabeth shared parenting tips with the playgroup moms and applied great energy to craft projects. Unfortunately, however, Bob found the work in Barbados dull, and they moved on after just two years, to Buenos Aires.

This time she was determined to learn the Spanish she had neglected in Caracas and Madrid. She piled up books and tapes and computer CDs, but soon found it more fun to talk to real Argentines. While Randall was in kindergarten, Elizabeth met with friends for coffee. She let her brown hair grow long like theirs and starved herself back into her tight, size-6 jeans. Bob’s work was highly demanding, and he came home tired, rolling his eyes at Slip’s suggestion that they go out and dance. So she would leave Bob and Randall sleeping and go out with her friends. They watched passionate tango shows in smoky bars, and soon her friends’ dark-eyed husbands were teaching her to dance, pulling her tightly against their bodies, their heads alongside hers. They called her Elisa, pronouncing it “ay-LEE-ssa” in a drawn-out, romantic accent.

At four in the morning, Elizabeth would crawl into the Embassy-furnished queen-sized Drexel bed and wake up her husband with urgent caresses. “Oh, Slip,” he would murmur, instinctively responding to her touch. Soon he was wide awake. In the morning he smiled and hummed while shaving. It was one of the best periods of their marriage.

However, people were starting to talk. It didn’t look right that the wife of a prominent diplomat was dancing at all hours without him. When Bob was offered a transfer to Warsaw, he gladly accepted, especially since it was a higher-level job.

They spent several months in Washington for language training, and Elizabeth attended the classes too. Polish was hard, but learning Spanish had given her a head start. She viewed it as a kind of hobby, like solving crossword puzzles. In the evening they practiced simple Polish conversations with Randall. Charts of verb forms and noun declensions hung on the walls of their temporary apartment in Arlington.

In Warsaw, Elizabeth enjoyed astonishing the Poles by addressing them in their own language. Bob’s colleagues were impressed. “You should take the Foreign Service exam,” they would say, bestowing the highest compliment they could imagine. She tossed her still-long hair, laughing. Why tie herself to the Embassy? There were so many other things she wanted to do.

She quickly fell in with a circle of Polish women who gathered over hot, fruited tea on overcast afternoons, reading poems out loud and discussing Poland’s history and literature. “Elizabet,” they would say, “lizzen to zis.”

Sometimes one would bring a guitar, and they taught her folk songs, centuries old, full of love and longing and loss. Randall would shut his bedroom door and go back to blasting alien ships on his computer, as the living room of their rather dull apartment rang with warbling Polish.

After three years, Bob was offered an irresistible job opportunity for a rising diplomat: second-in-command in Haiti. When he told her, Elizabeth felt as if the worn beige carpet had dropped out from under her feet. But she merely smiled, determined to adapt once again. Look how far they had come! How far she had come, from her desk at the insurance office with its plaque that said “Remind me again how lucky I am to work here.”

The house came with the job and was suitably grand, although the high fences and metal window bars detracted from the effect. Her hard-won Polish skills were now completely useless. And six months of French had not quite prepared her for the choppy Creole spoken at the crowded, stinking market. She soon gave up and let the maids do the shopping.

The dinner parties came fast and furious. All her time seemed to be spent in planning, supervising and scheduling. She also helped cook, since if she didn’t, the courses would be brought to the table looking attractive but tasting uniformly dull and somehow soapy, as if they had all been soaked in dishwater. As she cooked, she would often start singing a Polish folk song without being aware of it. Staring out the window at a stand of red hibiscus, she remembered a crape myrtle bush from their small yard in Louisville, and the loss and longing in the folk song twisted her heart, but she wasn’t sure where she longed to be: Louisville or Warsaw, Buenos Aires or Bridgetown…

Bob was promoted, and on the day he was notified, he came home with a huge bouquet of flowers. He told Slip the news and then pulled her close, nuzzling her face with his rough evening whiskers. “I couldn’t have done it without you, Slip,” he breathed. Randall appeared in the doorway, and he pulled them both into a hug. Later Elizabeth read Polish poems while Bob leafed through a stack of cables, initialing each one at the top. Every few minutes he would look up and smile. She smiled back. What else could she do?

One afternoon, during preparations for a particularly large party, Elizabeth developed a severe headache. She left the cook and maid deep-frying plantains in the kitchen and went to lie down for a moment. She fell asleep rapidly and dreamed she was back in Poland, dancing in a traditional red-and-white peasant dress to a lively folk song … or was it a tango?

The flames from a campfire leaped higher and higher. Smoke swirled around the dancers. A piercing sound tried to drown out the music. There was something she should be doing, she knew, even in her dream, but she just couldn’t, she just couldn’t anymore.

The maid had accidentally sloshed the pot of frying oil over the gas stove. Flames shot upward, igniting the cheap plywood cabinets. She screamed and ran out of the kitchen. The cook, Aimée, crossed herself. She thought of Randall, but he had gone home with a friend after school, thank the Lord. The biting smoke was already billowing down the hall. It was too dangerous to go after the Madame. The bedroom wing was a dead end, its windows sealed off with sturdy burglar bars. The smoke burned Aimée’s eyes and throat. She felt her way outside and collapsed onto the carefully-watered green lawn, coughing. Elizabeth never woke up.

Bob decided to hold the funeral in Washington, D.C. In a pew near the back of the church, two women who had been in the Barbados playgroup were crying softly for Liz. The minister invited people to the front to say a few words. A woman who had worked in Caracas praised Lisa’s efficient, professional performance at the Embassy. The playgroup mothers stopped sobbing and looked up, startled.

Someone who had known her in Istanbul described how Beth had selflessly devoted herself to the poor and needy. Bob, sitting with Randall, smiled bravely at this, nodding with pride. Several others shared confused glances.

One of the Barbados playgroup members wiped her eyes and told how much she had learned from Liz’s parenting advice and her skill with crafts. As she described afternoons on a shady Caribbean patio, watching preschoolers splash in a wading pool, her voice broke down completely and she had to return to her seat.

Then an Argentine diplomat posted to Washington and his elegant wife came to the front of the church together. They praised Elisa’s deep understanding of the tango, rare and admirable in a foreigner. The man was visibly affected as he spoke of Elisa’s unique, passionate style.

Embarrassed and bewildered looks were openly exchanged throughout the church. An officer who had known a weary Beth smelling of baby spit-up at late-night Madrid dinners couldn’t restrain an audible snort.

Finally, a lone Polish woman whom nobody else knew stood up. In wavering English, she praised her departed friend’s Polish language skills. The officer from Caracas cocked her head in surprise. The Lisa she had known had spoken miserable Spanish.

The Polish woman continued, telling of Elizabet’s deep capacity for friendship, her wide-ranging interests, the wish she had expressed to go back to the university, to study history or literature. The woman’s voice began to crack. “She vas … a real friend, a real voman. I vill miss her.”

The church was silent. A sudden, prickling fear coursed through the room.

Bob felt panic rising in his chest. As he stared at the closed coffin, he tried to picture Slip’s face. But all that came to him was a blur.

Nothing more.

© 1999 Patricia Linderman. All rights reserved.

Patricia Linderman edits this literary magazine. She has served with her Foreign Service husband, who does not resemble Bob, and their two sons in Trinidad, Chile, Cuba, Germany and Ecuador. Like Elizabeth, she is sometimes aware that she longs to be somewhere else, but she isn’t sure where. She has adapted with frightening flexibility to each different post, but hopes that people would still be able to agree on a description of her.