French Letters

“You were living in Paris?” It sounded incredibly exotic and romantic to Megan.

“It’s just a big city.”

“Why did you split up? I mean, Paris!

“I was doing laundry. I cleaned out the pockets of his shirt and found a French letter.”

“A what?”

“French letter. That was the end. I packed up my things and my daughter’s things and we came back to America.”

The college campus was hosting a nature and culture fair and was full of exhibits. Megan and Sue were there to learn something about the local Indian tribe and to find out if they would be interested in a project they were working on, developing an urban wilderness park. The park’s board of directors wanted the local tribe to be involved in the park’s planning and development. The park was on the tribe’s historical lands, lands which included a couple of the tribe’s sadder stories during colonization by the Spanish.

“You were pretty passive back there with that tribal leader.” Sue’s tone was critical. “You don’t need to hold back.

The leader in question was a tribal matriarch, an older slouch of a woman to whom a park might not matter at all, though the history would. She sat behind a folding table with two young women. On the table was a newly made willow basket in which, traditionally, acorns were stored. The women had literature about the tribe and the new casino. Gambling had recently been legalized on tribal lands, and the tribe was busy building casinos on the vast acres of their reservation. They would end up rich, and casino management would become a major at the local university, but those developments were still in the future.

“I wasn’t passive. I gave her the information and told her that we would like the tribe to be part of the project. If I made a good impression, and she’s interested in what she reads, she’ll present it to the tribal leaders.”

“You should have been much more forceful. You’re not assertive enough. I’ve noticed it before, like when we have our volunteer meetings.”

Megan thought for a moment. She really didn’t know much, yet, about the tribe, but life had taught her that people like to make up their own minds, and she didn’t think the Indian woman would make the decision on her own. And the volunteers? They were volunteers. They had to be invested themselves. She had no authority over any of them.

“Sue, there’s going to be a park whether the tribe is involved or not. The board decided they should be involved if they want to be. I wasn’t ‘passive’. There wasn’t anything else to do or say.”

“Well, I thought we were going to talk to her. That’s why I came. All you did was introduce us and give her some papers.”

“Sue, what are French letters?”


One of my readers mentioned that this story is very dense and she can’t figure out who’s speaking. That’s all on purpose. I wanted to write a story about communication, expectations, secret agendas, underlying motives — all the stuff that emerges in seemingly irrelevant conversations. I think when we talk to some of the people in our lives (the more transient people?) there’s a lot going on beneath the surface and the words that come out are the tip of the iceberg. Basically, what Sue is saying to Megan is “I’d do your job better than you do.” Megan isn’t aware of that, she just thinks Sue is interesting and then thinks she’s hypercritical (and possibly ignorant about matters of diplomacy). It’s the kind of encounter we don’t repeat because we leave it feeling icky and confused. Even the Indian woman is inscrutable which is OK with Megan but not with Sue.

There ARE autobiographical aspects (the fair, the Indian elder, the park) but it’s not an autobiographical story. The conversation is a synthesis of several of these kinds of meetings.

14 thoughts on “French Letters

  1. I have wondered about the origin of the term french letter. I do know what they are, but its an interesting semi-archaic term.

        • Definitely. The boys I hung out with back in the day (pre-teenagers who’d had one sex-ed class) called them “Jimmy Hats” which was pretty hard on the kid named Jimmy in the group 😀

            • Ah, “raincoats.” I remember using that euphemism myself with husband #2.

              The most wonderful French Letter in my life was the one I found in my Aunt Martha’s underwear drawer when she was 88 years old, had just been moved into a nursing home meaning all her possessions had to go into my Aunt Dickie’s garage. That meant my two aunts and I had to go through everything and determined the destiny of my Aunt Martha’s earthly life. I am so happy I was the one sent to clean out her dresser because I don’t think my aunts would have appreciated the “French letters” or the thigh high black stockings. I showed the condoms to my Aunt Dickie and she said, “I wouldn’t use them.” 😀

  2. Martha, I did know what a French Letter was, but I can’t figure out who you were talking to re/ the French Letter story and what relationship it has to talking to the native American women. In short, dense in once respect if not the other. Clue me in??

  3. I found this both fascinating and wonderful! Reading between the lines, what was and wasn’t said. It’s true, we often speak in banalities or surface “speak” without actually hitting on the meat of what is meant, but it’s interesting that most often, those included in those types of conversations, usually know what’s being said, particularly if they know the people involved, well. Really enjoyed this! tyvm

  4. I didn’t have trouble following the conversation. I think I write the same way, too and sometimes I have to go back and add names here and there, especially when it’s more than two people.

    I didn’t know what a French letter was either. I thought it was a nude picture or postcard or something like that. Condom is less romantic than my imagination 🙂

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