Twenty-five years of marriage, and Freddie had never once told Ellen she’d had a good idea.
“Not a bad idea,” he’d say, if she suggested two-for-one night at the Taco Palace, or “This isn’t bad at all,” when she served the homemade Shake-n-Bake alternative, the one where you crushed cornflakes with a spoon. Ellen knew he meant well but missed hearing straightforward praise, and the missing was a flame inside her, and she was simmering.
At fifty-three, she’d been simmering for two and a half decades.
The thing is, there was a language barrier. Both of them were native English speakers, but Freddie had been raised by French Canadians. Sure, they’d learned English as children, but some patterns stuck. Freddie still spoke a little French himself, enough to get himself in trouble, he said, but with an accent that made his daughter agonize — “Like you’re talking out of your nose!” she’d said, her freshman year home from majoring in the language.
In French, you’re very stingy with compliments. You say, “That’s not bad, as far as ideas go!” You say, “You’re not a bad writer at all!” Meaning: excellent idea. Meaning: consider a career shift.
But Freddie and Ellen had no way of knowing this. In Freddie’s view, he’d been singing his wife’s praises since the day he’d met her — she was not terrible, as cooks went; she didn’t stomp all over the songs she sang. When she tried on clothes for him, they didn’t look bad at all.
As far as Ellen could tell, she was being starved. Taunted. Mocked.
So when she turned to him, in year twenty-six, on the way in from the car one night, after they’d seen a performance of Kinky Boots downtown, and said, “And have you ever seen a show that was half bad?!” she was reacting to almost three decades of frustration, reacting on behalf of Kinky Boots for all the slights she’d felt since Freddie had wandered into her corner of the library and set down his atlas too hard, so that it flapped the pages of the child psychology text she’d just cracked, her first serious day of studying for the first exam of her Ph.D. program, which she’d abandoned shortly after Freddie had apologized and then, without missing a beat, invited her on his road trip across the country.
Freddie stood outside their home, wide-eyed. He didn’t know what to say.
“Well, have you, Freddie?” she said, holding open the storm door, her key poised above the lock. It wasn’t quite winter yet, but cooling. He could see her breath.
“I—” he said.
“Because I have,” she said, pointing the key at him. “I’ve see half-bad shows and all-bad shows, and I actually think Kinky Boots was good. Better than good. I think it was magnificent.” And here she realized she may have been overstating her case a bit because while the show had been enjoyable, it wasn’t her all-time favorite and now she feared she may be called upon in the twenty-five years to come to defend Kinky Boots against any criticism made of it, no matter how fair, to maintain the validity of the argument she was making right now.
But so be it, she thought.
And Freddie, for his part, was spinning his mind back trying to think of a time he’d called something “good,” trying to think of a movie or a song or a meal or a traffic configuration he’d praised with the simple word “good,” and he couldn’t and so he stood there, one foot stepped onto their porch and one on the sidewalk below it, steam pluming from his half-open mouth.
“That’s what I thought,” said Ellen, and she turned the key in the lock, swung open the door, and disappeared inside.
Freddie followed her, a few minutes later. He locked up, hung his coat, filled a glass with tap water. Climbed the stairs to their bedroom. Ellen was in the bathroom, the water running, no doubt at her litany of nightly ablutions.
In the morning, Freddie said, “This coffee is delicious.” He said, “Such good weather for driving.” He told Ellen he really liked the paint color she’d chosen for the walls, that it set off the furniture nicely. All day he labored, all week. Streams of “good” and “wonderful” and even “splendid.”
Ellen, to be honest, was taken aback. She was not ready for the flood of praise — she didn’t have the infrastructure for it. Sure, she loved Freddie’s compliments, but she found that she missed the old formulation. She longed for the half-conspiratorial tone when he proclaimed something “not bad,” the mock surprise that implied great affection. But not even that — she felt his old way of speaking was somehow actively distant, making a point of being gone forever. And maybe this is fitting, because in French, that’s how the verb “to miss” works: you do not miss things, things are missing for you. The absent thing takes the action. It is a language in which being gone is a notable activity. It is something Anglophones will never get used to.
Brenna Lemieux is the author of two collections of poetry. She lives and writes in Chicago.