Cary Barbor | Longreads | June 2019 | 14 minutes (3,384 words)
My new husband Mike reached into the suitcase open on the bed. He picked up my olive green cotton jacket between his thumb and forefinger. Worn and soft from many washings, it was a favorite. I liked its Mao collar and faux-wood buttons.
“You can’t wear that with these people,” he said.
Mike learned English as a teenager and sometimes uses odd and distancing phrases like that, like “these people,” to talk about people very close to him. The people closest to him.
“My mom; my stepfather. They are formal,” he explained, placing the jacket on the bed. I would need the proper clothes to fit in.
Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” flashed in my mind. Men with top hats and women with parasols. Formal like that? I didn’t have clothes for that. I had met his parents briefly at their apartment in Cannes, in the south of France. I thought I had passed muster. But now I wasn’t sure. And now I was packing for a long stay with them in Cairo, their real home, where I would be even more of an alien.
I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia, and not one of the fancy ones. My father was a chemical engineer for an oil company and my mom, a homemaker and then a secretary. My two older brothers, my older sister, and I went to public school and Catholic church every Sunday. We were certainly never hungry. But there was always a whiff of “not enough” in the house. If we wanted new shoes, we had to show our mother the old ones with actual holes in them. I realized later that was more about her childhood home, with a mentally ill and unemployable father, than the financial status of ours. Still, that feeling hung in the air, getting into the fabric like smoke.