My father expressed his dismay when I told him that after finally graduating from college I intended to spend a few months in Paris studying French. “Why would you want to do that?” he asked. “What’s wrong with English?”
How do you respond to a question like that?
“Nothing’s WRONG with English. I just want to learn French.”
He looked at me with heavy eyelids, a big man with steel gray hair and a gruff demeanor that we supposed was a result of his experience as a POW during World War II. “Well I’d hope nothing’s WRONG with English, since that’s what you call a major. Ten years to get a college degree in . . . English?”
My father considered me a damn fool for majoring in English, since to him a degree in English was both nebulous and utterly without application, a clear sign that I’d taken leave of my senses. As his last child, born when he was nearly 50, I was the product of elderly, infirm sperm that had reached its biological expiration date. Either that or I’d been damaged by some genetic enervation or toxic exposure that had robbed me of ambition and therefore a future. I stood in shameful contrast to my older and more successful brothers, one a tenured professor at the state university, and the other a newspaper reporter for a metropolitan daily.
“I mean, we already speak and read it, so what’s to study?”
To be fair, my father hadn’t had an easy life after coming back from the war with a Purple Heart and injuries that plagued him for the rest of his life. I understood his reasons for wanting me to study business or engineering, something practical that would provide a more certain livelihood. Here I was at the ripe old age of 30 with nothing to show for my years except a bogus B.A.; and now to make matters worse instead of looking for a job I was running off to Paris to study French and waste a few more precious months.
He shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t go to Paris if I were you. I’d stay away from France, and you should especially avoid Italy and Germany. I wouldn’t go to Poland either.”
I knew my father had been captured in Italy and then transported to a POW camp in Germany, but I had no idea why he added Poland to his list of verboten countries, other than a general distaste for a continent against which he held a personal grudge. His experiences there had been less than enjoyable, to put it mildly. He had come back so traumatized that he refused to talk about the war except with people who’d actually been there and done that, namely his drinking buddies, who grew fewer every year as age and illness took their inevitable toll on their generation.
That turned out to be our last conversation before I travelled abroad. I doubt he even knew I’d gone until he received the first of my postcards from Paris. By then I was ensconced in a cheap hotel on the Left Bank that overlooked the garrets of other cheap hotels and tenement houses on the Left Bank. The size of a walk-in closet, my room contained a single bed, a writing desk, a sink, and that essentially French fixture that so perplexes Americans: the bidet. I’d been forewarned about the bidet, so I managed not to embarrass myself.
On checking in I’d asked the concierge about a bathroom. Two years of university French provided me with the linguistic sophistication to utter: “Ou est la sale de bain?”
His pinched, darkly handsome face glared at me as if I were a little slow. Finally he shrugged and flipped his wrists in the air, which I took to mean the bathroom was somewhere out in the hall and I could damn well find it myself.
Sure enough, I found the bathroom at the end of the hallway, a narrow stall containing a stark industrial strength toilet that no one ever seemed to clean. A chain dangled from the ceiling, and when you pulled it the rush of water sounded like Niagara Falls.
My first few days in Paris I spent sightseeing. Mostly I stood in long lines waiting to buy tickets to get into this or that museum. After several tries I managed to squeeze into the Louvre, where I followed a busload of Japanese tourists and a mob of school children who pulled each other’s hair and bonked each other over the head with their back packs. We ended up at the Mona Lisa, with the Japanese tourists and the school children fighting for position, leaving me an occasional glimpse of the Mona Lisa and her famous smile.
I fared better at the Eiffel Tower and the Rodin Museum, but my two favorite places to visit were Notre Dame Cathedral and especially the Luxenbourg Gardens. I enjoyed sitting on a bench and looking out on the ornate, orderly gardens and pool, where small children came to sail boats and students from the nearby Sorbonne came to talk politics or philosophy or sex.
After about a week I started to feel homesick, so I spent several days sitting like Proust at my writing desk and furiously penning postcards to family and friends back in the States. “Dear Dad,” I wrote, “Paris isn’t so bad after all. I’m sure it’s changed a lot since you were here. For one thing, there are no Nazis shooting at you. I think you might like it now, but maybe not, since the people here do speak French.”
The majority of my postcards went to a gaggle of old girlfriends who had dumped me for one reason or another. I wanted to let them know that I was now living the high life in Paris so they might regret their decisions to eliminate me from their lives.
When my epistles began to sound like sour grapes, exercises in self-pity, I decided to strike out on my own in search of friendship or at least a random conversation with a Parisian. How else would I learn French? So I started spending hours each day walking around Paris and sitting on benches along the Seine or in the Luxenbourg Gardens. Evenings I would spend reading Rimbaud or Baudelaire at one of the student cafes near the Sorbonne. Most of my ‘conversations” consisted of one or two words: “Bonjour.” “Merci.” “Ça va?” “D’accord.”
My first real conversation came one afternoon when a stylish young French woman brushed by me carrying an art portfolio and sat down on the other end of my bench. I waited a few minutes, just to play it cool, and then said, “Bonjour.”
She looked at me askance, over her reading glasses, a dark-haired beauty with a silk scarf tossed casually over her shoulder. “Yes . . . ?”
“Oh, je . . . “ I started out in French but quickly lost confidence.
“What’s the point?” she asked. “You don’t speak French, and I don’t speak English. Voila.”
“But you’re speaking English now.”
She frowned. “I didn’t say I can’t speak English, I said I don’t speak English. Comprendez-vous?”
“Je suis Americain . . . James . . . “ I tried again.
Sighing, she grabbed her portfolio and walked off down the sidewalk.
“D’accord. Au Revoir,” I said, trying to retain some small morsel of dignity.
All I heard in response was: “Merde!”
I had better luck in the cafes, where I could strike up passing conversations with waiters and other patrons sitting at nearby tables. Just for this eventuality I carried a small French-English dictionary in my back pocket, which I could whip out when the need arose. As it turned out the need arose pretty much every conversation, not because I lacked vocabulary but because the Parisians spoke way too fast, as though they were possessed or on some kind of amphetamine high.
The problem with the French, I decided, was that they resented you for not speaking French, and then they resented you when you tried to speak French and spoke it poorly.
Still, I managed to learn enough street French to get by in casual conversations. What I lacked was the ability to transcend basic conversational French and rise to the level of literature and philosophy. I remembered Madame Michaud, my university French teacher, saying that to truly speak French you had to read Flaubert in the original. “You must read Madame Bovary. . . and ZEN you will be like ZA Fran-SAYSA.”
So I bought a cheap paperback edition of Madame Bovary at a book kiosk along the Seine, and every night after returning from the cafes I would climb into bed with my Madame Bovary and my little French dictionary and start the process of becoming Francophonic. On most nights I managed to read a paragraph, sometimes even an entire page, before falling asleep.
Try as I might, I could never find just the right moment during my various café encounters to drop a flowery line of Flaubert prose. It wasn’t as though you could order a beer and then remark: “Sa femme avait été folle de lui autrefois . . . .” So I wrote a postcard to Madame Michaud, explaining my quandary and asking for her advice.
About this time I started receiving responses to my earlier postcards. Surprisingly, none of my old girlfriends mentioned having any regrets about dumping me, even if I was living the high life in Paris and they weren’t. My last girlfriend went out of her way to mention all the guys she had been “dating” in a “whirlwind” of newly discovered sexuality. Just what I wanted to hear! Why couldn’t she have discovered her sexuality with me?
Such was my first heartbreaking lesson that you can’t revisit the past without getting your ego bruised, especially if the past you revisit involves old girlfriends who are now having better sex than they had with you.
In his response my father was as unenthusiastic and laconic as ever: “Glad you like Paris. Would stay away from Germany and Italy, though. Remember what I said about Poland. P.S. Your mother cries every time I mention your name.”
We hooked up one afternoon at a small café near the Sorbonne. I was studying my finances, trying to figure out a way to stretch my rapidly diminishing bank account so I could remain in Paris for another five or six months. Paris might have been a moveable feast (whatever that means) to Hemingway back in the 1920s, but the City of Light was fantastically expensive today, more like dinner at the Ritz.
When she sat down at the table next to mine I couldn’t take my eyes off her. With short dark hair, purple lipstick, pierced nose, and an enigmatic smile, she looked like a punk version of Audrey Hepburn. She wore a paisley wraparound dress that spilled open in front when she leaned forward to sip her glass of wine or turn a page of the book she was reading. It was very sexy, because when she leaned forward her breasts would pop out of her dress, revealing the shadows of her nipples. Before long I found myself entranced by those fleeting shadows.
“Hey–are you staring at my boobs?” she asked suddenly, out of the blue, speaking in English with a French accent.
Embarrassed, I started to deny everything but then decided why bother. She’d caught me red-handed staring at her tits. “How did you know?”
“Because I was staring at YOU,” she said, with a feisty twist at the end, almost a challenge. “Let me guess. You’re English … a student at the Sorbonne. So how come I haven’t seen you in any of my classes?”
“By the way, I’m Emily,” she introduced herself when I didn’t immediately respond.
“James,” I said. “Actually, I’m not English or a student at the Sorbonne. I hate to disappoint you, but I’m … I’m an American.”
“What? Are you sure? You don’t look like an American. They dress like slobs, with big baggy clothes and running shoes. You’re wearing a sports coat and leather shoes. No, I don’t think you are an American.”
I laughed. “No, I’m sure. I’m an American.”
She recoiled in mock horror. “Too bad. I don’t like Americans.”
“Why not? What’s wrong with Americans?”
“They’re . . . how shall I say? Ils sont des cochons!”
“Pigs? Why are Americans pigs?”
“Because of their brutality! Just look at what they did to Vietnam . . . look what they’re doing to the Mideast.”
Though I knew it was against my own best interest, I had to call her on this Vietnam business. The irony was just too obvious to overlook. “Wait a minute. Vietnam is ancient history. And you started it. The French were in Vietnam first, in case you’ve forgotten. We just made the stupid mistake of trying to finish what the French started.”
“Yes, but at least we had enough sense to lose quickly,” she said, her lips pouting. “America is too big to lose, so you never leave, even though you’re never invited in the first place.”
“Hey–we lost too, remember? And anyway, I’m not a typical American. That’s why I’m here trying to learn French.”
Now her expression softened. She looked at me closely. “Non? My room is just down the street. We could have been friends, maybe. If you were an English student.”
I threw up my hands, helpless. “Why don’t we restart our conversation, pretend we just met. This time I’ll just tell you I’m an English student studying at the Sorbonne. What do you think?
She laughed. “I like English students.”
One thing led to another, and soon we were chatting about our lives: hers as a student at the Sorbonne, mine as an American ex-patriot in Paris studying the French language.
Finally she stood up and looked me over one last time, deciding.
I watched as she placed a five Euro coin on the table and grabbed her book, Ensemble, C’est Tout, a popular novel by Anna Gavalda that I’d seen in a bookstore at the airport.
She walked past my table toward the street, then stopped and turned around to face me. “Are you coming?”
I followed her down the street to a cream colored stone building with garrets. Her apartment was on the top floor, a tiny efficiency not much bigger than my hotel room, with a counter that served as a kitchen, a bed, and a desk. As soon as she stepped through her door, she kicked off her sandals and unfastened her dress, which she unwrapped slowly, allowing me to watch as the silk fabric poured like water onto the floor, revealing a diaphanous black G-string and two magnificent breasts, braless.
“Viens,” she said. “Reading Anna Gavalda makes me horny.” With that she threw her arms around my neck and kissed me, darting her tongue into my mouth. The next moment we were free falling onto the bed and into each other’s arms.
After we finished, much too quickly, Emily poked up from under the sheets with her hair mussed and a smudge of purple across her mouth. She propped her head up on the pillow and said, “You’re not a very good lover, yeah?”
“Sorry … it’s been a while,” I said lamely. Now I knew why my ex-girlfriends had dumped me. I sucked as a lover.
She looked puzzled. “A while for what?”
“Since I … fais l’amour,” I said, trying to sound sophisticated, like I knew my way around conversational French even if I didn’t measure up as a French lover.
“We don’t say fais l’amour,” she said, touching a finger to my lips. “Coucher is better but baiser is best, you know. As in baise-moi … plus vite … plus fort … like that.”
I nodded, unsure if I should feel grateful or insulted.
“Because you are not very good at seduction. For that you will need to pretend you don’t care about l’amour. Turn up your nose. Oooof! Why bother with love and sex. Who needs them?”
She shook her head sadly. “And you will also need a better vocabulary.”
“Thanks.” By now I was feeling totally inadequate, hopeless in the arts of love and seduction.
“So … time for your first lesson.” With that she sat up in bed and rifled through the covers until she found my half aroused sex, which she held up on display. “La bite.” Then she climbed out of bed and, standing naked in front of me, pointed to her shaved pubis. “La Chatte.”
I laughed, not having heard it called that before. “Cat?”
“Bien sûr cat. Why not? It purrs when you stroke it … and smiles. But you must never enter without permission, not until you hear ‘viens en moi’ … never before.“ For emphasis she bent over the bed and slapped me lightly on the wrist. “Naughty, naughty!”
When I tried to pull her back into bed, she shook her head. “I’m not finished. The most important thing, you know, is that you must never stop until you hear: ‘Je jouis!” You must satisfy your lover. If not, she will find someone else to satisfy her. We French must be satisfied … we demand satisfaction! Tu comprends?”
I sat up I bed so as to better admire her strikingly beautiful body. “So … what are you, some kind of expert on sex … some kind of philosopher of la chatte?”
This made her laugh. “That’s funny! Le philosophe de la chatte. Yes, c’est moi! You see, you are seducing me at this moment. You have learned your first lesson well, monsieur.”
“There’s more?” I asked.
“Of course. When we meet again, for your second lesson, I will teach you all the bon mots for the female body … and, if you are lucky, the names of the sex positions, from s’empaler la foufoune to l’amour en levrette. Or maybe I will save that for lesson number three. You must know all this … if you want to be a great lover. Especially in Paris, where there are many great lovers. I should know!”
“So you do like Americans, after all…?” I asked, hopefully.
“Maybe a little … but then, you are not a typical American, are you?”
After our third session Emily announced that she could no longer be my tutor, saying she had nothing else to teach me about sex and seduction. When I protested, she pressed a finger against my lips and said, “Tais-toi. Enough instructions. You must now practice with others. To master la baise it must be done every day. You can’t do it every once in a while, as you said when we met. Every day is the French way.”
“Can’t we hook up on occasion, like friends with benefits?” I practically begged.
“No, you must go . . . how you say? Cold oiseaux? Cold bird?”
“Cold turkey,” I corrected her.
“Yes. And plus, you are impostor. You are not an English student.”
Though I begged shamelessly, Emily would not reconsider her decision to cut me loose, and so I found myself back on the streets looking for friendship or connection, a chance to practice what I’d learned from Emily. As before, I found it difficult to strike up a simple conversation, never mind a hookup. Before long I was at loose ends, all sixes and sevens. I missed Emily, and I had absolutely no idea what to do next.
What saved me was a letter from an old friend back home. Mel and I had been enrolled in the same university French classes two years running, which is why I had written him a postcard upon arriving in Paris. In his response Mel informed me that he’d finally managed to graduate after first summer term and as a reward to himself was coming to Europe for the rest of the summer and perhaps the fall. Eventually he wanted to visit me in Paris, but first he planned to spend two or three months in Munich. In fact, he’d already rented an apartment he’d ’found online from a German lady who sounded a little nuts, but how bad could she be compared to old Madame Michaud? He gave me an address on Maximilliansplatz, not far from downtown, and invited me to come for an extended visit. The offer was too good to refuse.
The way I looked at it, staying with Mel for a few weeks would ease my financial situation. After I got tired of Munich, I could return to Paris and finish my French studies. Maybe Emily would have a change of heart in the meantime. Like the saying goes, absence makes the heart grow fonder, although in our case it was clear from the very beginning that our relationship involved different organs than the heart.
So the very next day I checked out of the hotel and carried my backpack all the way to the Gare de l’Est, hoping to catch a cheap afternoon train to Munich. Much to my surprise the only cheap train to Munich departed at midnight. That meant I’d have to wait around for another eight hours for the overnight special, the only train I could afford. My other option was to get in some last minute sightseeing and then come back later, possibly after a light dinner, which seemed like a better choice until I stepped outside into a cold, hard rain. Discouraged, I walked back to the waiting room and settled in for a long day’s journey into night.
The long wait was bad enough, but the train ride was even worse. I shared a compartment with three German soldiers returning home after a weekend blowout in Paris. Already drunk, they passed around a fifth of Schnapps until one of them vomited on the window and the other two fell asleep. I watched vomit streak down the window for a while and tried to imagine being elsewhere, back in my hotel in Paris or my apartment in the States. The compartment reeked of Schnapps and vomit.
Sometime during the night the train lurched to a stop at the French-German border. I woke up to find German customs officials checking passports. Then back to a fitful sleep until early the next morning when the train pulled into München Hauptbahnhof ,or Munich Central Station. I was so tired I lay down on a bench outside the station and slept until nearly noon.
Maximilliansplatz turned out to be within easy walking distance of the train station, so I didn’t bother calling Mel’s cell phone. I thought it might be more fun to surprise him and see the expression on his face. He’d done the same to me on many occasions. In less than 30 minutes I reached the stairway up to his second-floor apartment. I knew from his letter that the landlady lived below him on the first floor.
Feeling energized by the walk, I dashed up the stairs and knocked loudly on the door. No response until I knocked a second time, and then the door opened just a crack. I could see one of Mel’s blue eyes glaring at me from what appeared to be a darkened apartment. Suddenly the door flew open and Mel reached out, grabbed me by the arm, and yanked me inside.
“Shhhhh! Speak quietly! My landlady’s crazy–she doesn’t like any of her tenants to have company, especially me!”
I set my backpack on the floor. “What do you mean?”
“I’m her newest toy! I’m her sex slave!” Mel wailed, smacking his forehead with the palm of his hand. “She expects me to sleep with her every night. I mean, she comes upstairs every night and climbs into my bed and expects me to perform. I tell you I’m worn out! I’m her slaaaaave!”
“Jesus, Mel. How did you get into this situation? Where online did you find the apartment advertised?” Mel had a reputation for being something of a loose cannon, a self-diagnosed manic-depressive, but a situation this bizarre was over the top even for him.
“On Craigslist, under women looking for men, except it was supposed to be for someone to rent an apartment . . . I think.”
“Hmmm. Well, what does she look like?” I asked, trying to look on the bright side.
“Let me show you.”
Mel led me to a window overlooking a back garden, from where we could see the landlady watering her rose bushes. She had pale skin, red frizzy hair, and a cigarette dangling from her mouth. From two floors up she looked to be in her mid to late forties.
“That’s what she looks like, the Bride of Frankenstein!” Mel said. “Her name’s Uta. Have you ever heard of a name like that? Uta?”
I shrugged. “Just a German name, I guess.”
“Let’s get out of here–let’s go get drunk,” Mel said. “Here, hide your backpack in the closet. She’ll never find it there.”
After we hid my gear, Mel and I crept down the stairs and stole away into the busy pedestrian traffic on Maximilliansplatz. Mel knew exactly where to take me. “We’re safe here,” he said. “This is the one place she won’t come.”
“The Hoffbrau Haus?” I asked, looking inside at the scantily clad beer maids carrying multiple liters of foaming beer in each hand, their fingers white with foam. “Why’s that?”
“Some restraining order, or whatever it’s called in German. They won’t allow her to come inside.”
We found seats at the end of a long table, near the front window, and ordered two liters of Hoffbrau.
“I still don’t see how you ended up with someone that crazy–“ I started, then stopped when our beer maid returned with our beers.
“The thing is, I can’t just walk away from the apartment, because I gave her two months rent in advance. That’s all the rent money I can afford. Man, I sold everything to raise money for the trip: my car, my computer, even my books. I was hoping to stay until Octoberfest . . . now I don’t know if I can even make it to September.”
I wasn’t ready to give up. “Have you tried asking for your money back?”
“No, you don’t understand, she’d shoot me! Seriously! She has this pistol she waves around when she thinks one of her tenants has tried to sneak someone into their apartment. She’s crazy!”
We went back and forth likes this until the beer started to kick in, and then we sat there shaking our heads and drinking one round after another. By 10 p.m. we were pissed, so pissed that our beer maid actually shut us off and made us pay the bill, which totaled over 50 Euros, an enormous sum for Mel and I.
So together, arm in arm, we swerved down the street and then with some effort managed to climb the stairs to Mel’s apartment, but once inside we couldn’t seem to keep our distance from nonmoving objects, namely the furniture. When one or both of us stumbled into a side table and sent a lamp crashing to the floor, I knew we were in for trouble. Sure enough, we heard loud footsteps coming up the stairway and a shrill voice: “Mel! Haf you got vimmen in there?”
A moment later she burst through the door into the apartment waving a pistol wildly over her head. “You got vimmen?”
“No! Uta, I swear! No women, just an old friend of mine from the States, James.”
Uta lowered the pistol and examined me carefully from head to foot. “Ya? James? Will he spend za night?”
Mel shrugged, helpless.
“Vell,” she said, her lips curling into a lascivious smile, “In zat case, I’ll be seeing you, zen . . . “
“You see!” Mel said as soon as Uta left the apartment. She won’t let me alone. And now she wants you too. Just wait, she’ll be up here crawling in bed with you, and if you protest . . . . ” He threw up his arms, at a loss for words.
“She’ll shoot me?”
“Who know what she’ll do, she’s fucking crazy!”
“Maybe she’ll shoot both of us.”
“We need a plan,” Mel said. He thought for a moment, unsteady on his feet. “Oh hell, let’s get out of here. Let’s take a road trip. I know . . . let’s go down to Venice and visit the house where Ezra Pound lived for the last twelve or fourteen years of his life. What do you say?”
I knew Mel, a political science major with a minor in English, had an obsessive interest in Pound. Not Pound’s early poems, but the abstruse, impenetrable later work, especially the Cantos. I’d taken English literature classes with Mel where, no matter the historical period or subject matter, he would bring the discussion back to Ezra Pound who according to Mel encompassed all of human history and literature, from ancient Chinese philosophy to Homeric myth to Modernism, which Pound had invented. Mel so loved Pound that he’d actually voted for the dead poet in the last presidential election. “What other choice was there?” Mel said afterward. “Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dum? I don’t think so.”
Given my impaired condition, and given the unnerving situation with Uta, going to Venice to visit the Pound house on the spur of the moment seemed the most rational thing in the world. “Absolutely. We need to pay our respects.”
So while Mel stuffed some clothes and his dog-eared copy of the Cantos into a backpack, I retrieved my gear from the closet, and the two of us lit out for the territory ahead, namely Venice. I have no memory of walking to the train depot, buying our tickets, or getting on the train. My first memory is waking up to Homer’s rosy fingers of dawn with a splitting headache and a stiff back somewhere near Milan on board a train traveling between one hundred and one million miles an hour. Mel was sprawled across the seat facing me, snoring loudly. I kicked him in the leg to wake him, and then kicked him a second time just to let him know that I blamed him for this stupid expedition.
“Whoa . . . occupied!” he said, snapping awake.
“Do you have any aspirin?”
“Yeah . . . shit . . . I think I’m still drunk. Where are we?”
“Not far from Milan. We’ll be in Venice in less than an hour.”
We self-medicated ourselves with aspirin and orange juice, and by the time our train pulled in to the Venezia Santa Lucia train station we were ready to roll. We followed the Grande Canal around to St. Mark’s Square, where we stopped to play tourist and ogle the brightly colored gondolas bobbing on the morning tide. Then we had lunch, Panini and beer, and asked for directions to the Ezra Pound house, which turned out to be on Calle Querini, a short but confusing walk through the labyrinthine streets of Venice. The house wasn’t much to look at: small, brown stucco, with a plaque over the door commemorating Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge, his partner and mistress and a professional violinist of some renown. They had lived in the house together from 1958 until Pound’s death in 1972.
“So this is it,” Mel said, pacing back and forth in front of the painted black door to 252 Calle Querini. “I can’t believe I’m here. This is where he ended up, the greatest poet ever, writing the last of the Cantos, trying to make all the fragments of his poem and all the fragments of his life fit together, right here!” Mel pulled his copy of the Cantos out of his backpack and read: “But the beauty is not the madness / Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me. / And I am not a demigod, / I cannot make it cohere.”
“You’re getting weird, Mel,” I said, noticing the manic look in his eyes that usually meant his bipolar tendencies were about to surface, Dr. Jekyll make room for Mr. Hyde.
Mel continued to pace, waving the Cantos in front of him as though it were a crucifix meant to scare away vampires.
“Aren’t you forgetting that Pound made those broadcasts during the war . . . you know, supporting Mussolini?”
“So? He wasn’t the only one . . . he thought Mussolini was a great man, an intellectual, who would restore the Roman Empire!”
Hours later, over drinks at our hotel bar overlooking the walkway along the Grande Canal, Mel was still rambling on about Pound: part rant, part exegesis, and part philosophizing. Every so often he would pick up the Cantos and read a passage, as though quoting from scripture: “That I lost my center / fighting the world. / The dreams clash / and are shattered– / and that I tried to make a paradiso terrestre.”
“You see, that’s what he was trying to create, an earthly paradise!” Mel protested, on the verge of tears. “To create the final encyclopedic work that would–Oh shit! Look at the woman coming down the sidewalk now, Italian women are the most beautiful in the world, don’t you think?– encompass all human thought, philosophy, and literature, but how do you do that and stay sane, it’s not easy, man–hey, let’s get another drink, maybe some whiskey or vodka, I need to relax, too much stress–I mean, how do you make all the pieces fit together, you can’t, because nothing fits together, our lives are just fragments of experience–moments, thoughts, ideas, dreams, and all the other debris we leave behind–remember reading Sartre and Camus in Madame Michaud’s class?–where’s the goddamn waiter, I need a drink NOW!–I mean, sure, I’m as much of an existentialist as the next guy, and sure, I know life is absurd and meaningless and that you have to make your own meaning–thank you, it’s about fucking time, where were you?–but the idea that you can ever make some sort of permanent, overarching meaning is bullshit–just tell me this, how do you fit Madame Michaud and Uta into any coherent meaning, see what I mean?–Don’t look now but I think those two women at the table are looking at us, do you think they’re lonely . . . ?”
“I think they’re looking at us because you’re talking too loud.”
“No, I’m sure they want to hook up with us,” Mel said, grabbing his drink and heading for their table.
The two women dismissed Mel with a flip of the wrist and a burst of Italian profanity, which sent him reeling back to our window seats. “Nope. Shit! That was cold. Italian women are beautiful, but they can be cruel. I wonder how they are in bed? Have you ever slept with an Italian woman?”
It took a few more whiskies to get Mel calmed down and back to our room, where he collapsed fully clothed onto the bed and fell asleep instantly. I threw a blanket over him and went out by myself for beer and pizza.
By the next morning Mel had cycled down to a more typical state: mute and depressed. Not only did he have another hangover, he had to face the return trip to Munich and the dreaded Uta.
After breakfast we walked in silence to the train station. Mel bought a ticket to Munich, while I bought a ticket back to Paris, where I planned to continue my French sojourn until I ran out of money. Mel’s train departed first, a full hour before mine, so I had some time to collect my thoughts.
Munich had been a big mistake. Now I would only be able to stay in Paris another few weeks before running out of money. My thoughts returned to my former life in Paris . . . and to sweet Emily. If only I could find a way to get back with her. I couldn’t stop thinking about our lovemaking, our dirty French lessons.
Only one thing remained to do before I boarded the train. I bought a postcard at the newsstand and wrote: “Dear Dad, you might be right about Germany. The Germans don’t seem very friendly. I went to Munich to stay with a friend, but his landlady tried to shoot us, so we ended up in Venice, Italy. It’s a long story.”
The desk clerk recognized me as soon as I walked into the Left Bank Hotel where I’d been staying before my ill-fated trip to Munich. “Ah, monsieur . . . le retour éternel?” he muttered, more to himself than to me.
“Nietzsche,” he said, noticing my confusion. “Never mind. I don’t think Americans read Nietzsche, yes?”
I nodded my head, not wanting to tell him that most of my countrymen hadn’t even heard of Nietzsche, let alone read him. Their idea of an intellectual was Larry the Cable Guy.
“Same room,” he said, and slapped the key down on the counter.
If anything, the room looked even smaller than before, but at least it was clean and cheerful, a quiet refuge from the craziness of Mel and Uta.
My first stop, after unpacking, was a flower stand on the way to Emily’s building. I bought a half dozen red roses, their petals moist and spread wide, and carried them up five flights of steps to Emily’s door. She didn’t answer when I knocked, so I sat on the landing and waited for her to return. Just a few minutes later I heard the downstairs door open and close and then someone shuffling up the steps, carrying a heavy load. It turned out to be Emily, practically dragging her book bag up the stairs. She stopped when she saw me. “James . . . Ça va?”
“I think you mean what’s up,” I said, correcting her.
“Okay, what’s up? Why are you here?
“To bring you roses. I can’t stop thinking about you.”
Emily dropped her book bag and accepted the roses. “Voila! You seducer! You’ve become a Casanova!”
I laughed at her sarcasm. “I’ve missed you.”
“Missed me . . . or missed la baise?”
Emily looked amazing, absolutely stunning. She wore her dark hair streaked with red and matching red lipstick that deepened her smile. Out of breath from climbing the stairs, her upper lip moist with tiny beads of sweat, she was incredibly sexy. It was all I could do to keep from reaching out and touching her.
As someone who had lived on life’s surfaces, I could not remember ever being passionate for anything. My entire life I’d managed to avoid committed relationships, permanent employment, anything resembling a fixed life, but at that moment I knew exactly what I wanted: Emily. The realization came as something of a shock.
Emily laughed at the look on my face. ‘ Hey–don’t look so serious, you’re scaring me.”
“Can we talk?” I asked, my throat dry and hoarse from lack of sleep.
Okay . . . are you hungry? Want to get something to eat?”
“I’d like that.”
“First let me drop off my books,” she said, unlocking her door and waving me inside the apartment. I obeyed, waiting while she went into the bathroom, hiked up her dress and peed without bothering to close the door. After washing and changing into jeans, she came back to where I was standing.
I smiled, feeling nervous.
She reached out and smoothed my hair back out of my eyes. “You look so tired, James. What’s happened? Are you sick?”
I told her about my trip to Munich, about my crazy friend Mel and his crazy landlady Uta, who used Mel for sex, and about how Mel and I had gotten drunk one night and on impulse took a train to Venice, where we’d visited the house where Ezra Pound had lived during the last years of his life and then continued drinking into the evening hours until Mel, who was bi-polar, passed out in the hotel room, and how the next morning I’d managed to get him to the train station and on the early train back to Munich, where he had two months left on his lease and two more months of sex with Uta.
Emily shook her head. “Arret! No more! Incroyable, c’est histoire! No wonder you look tired. Better watch out . . . you’re going to lose those boyish good looks, and then you won’t be able to get any French girls into your bed!”
“That’s what I’m trying to say, Emily. I don’t want ANY French girls, I want you.”
She looked at me for a long moment, curious, and then changed the subject. “Shall we go? I know a good Moroccan restaurant on the next street.”
So I followed her down the stairs and around the corner to a tiny mid-eastern restaurant where we ordered lamb and couscous followed by Turkish coffee and pastries that looked like miniature croissants filled with a sweet mixture of dates and figs. Emily avoided eye contact until we were nearly finished eating. “Supposed to be a sex aid, you know, an aphrodisiac,” she said, breaking the silence. She swirled a drop of the sweet filling with the tip of her finger and licked it clean.
“But then, we don’t really need an aphrodisiac, do we?” I said, trying to be cheerful, wanting above all else to return to our former intimacy.
She looked at me finally. “So what do you want to talk about?”
“About us. I miss what we had before . . . don’t you like me any more?”
She blushed. “Like you? You want to know if I like you? Maybe I do . . . a little.”
“Then why did you break it off? I don’t understand.”
“Because I like you, that’s why! What do you think?”
“I don’t understand.”
“James, don’t you see, you’re American, I’m French,” she said, her voice softening. “What’s the point? It’s impossible!”
“Nothing’s impossible. Not if you want it badly enough.”
Smiling, she reached out and touched my hand lightly. “I think we’re making a big mistake . . . “
“Oh, come on, have some more aphrodisiac.” I passed her another pastry.
She laughed. “Hey–it’s not me who needs the sex aids. Who’s the teacher, and who’s the student?”
“I didn’t teach you anything?”
“Well, okay, you maybe taught me one thing . . . but I won’t tell you what until we know each other better.”
So we talked, getting to know each other. She said she was a third-year student at the Sorbonne studying to be a teacher. I said I was a college graduate who’d apparently studied to be unemployed, since I wasn’t qualified to do anything but go to graduate school. She said her family lived in Strasbourg, a city on the border with Germany, where her parents were both retired and one older sister owned a bookstore. I said my family lived outside Chicago, where my father was a grumpy, misanthropic World War II veteran and my mother a saint for putting up with him for all these years, and where I was clearly the black sheep of the family because both my brothers were gainfully employed and successful while I . . . well, while I wasn’t.
“Aha! So you are slacker!” Emily said.
“You too? You’re not even part of my family. Not yet anyway.”
She rolled her eyes. “So if you stay in France, what will you do then? Unless you are a rich American, with a lot of money, you will need a job, yes?”
“That I had a lot of money.”
“Ah well, . . . then you need a job. Did you know that I work part-time at a bakery near the Sorbonne, and there’s a new Starbuck’s opening next door. Maybe they would give you a job, since it’s an American company and you are an American, I don’t know. It’s worth a try. Have you ever worked as a barista?”
“Actually, I have. At a Starbuck’s in Chicago,” I said. “Just for a few weeks, until I got fired.”
“Why did you get fired?”
“I forget. Oh wait, I think it was because I didn’t show up at work for a week or two.”
“ Probably too much sex on your mind.”
I nodded. “Probably.”
“If you worked at the Starbuck’s next to my bakery, we could meet for coffee break, I suppose. But don’t be possessive, I don’t like possessive.”
“And you don’t like Americans,” I reminded her.
“Or American coffee,” she added, making a sour face.
We stayed at the café talking until the owner asked us to leave because he wanted to close for the night. I paid the bill. Emily left the gratuity.
Walking down the street I reached out to hold her hand. She laughed and pulled her hand away, but a few moments later she changed her mind and put her hand through my arm, and together we walked arm in arm back to her apartment where we continued talking into the night. Though we didn’t make love, didn’t even kiss, I could not remember ever being so happy as I was that night.
Three days after I moved in with Emily my father called. I recognized his voice as soon as I picked up my cell. “So . . . we got your last postcard . . . your mother wants to know why your friend’s landlady in Munich tried to shoot you.”
“Oh . . . well . . . it was all a big mistake,” I said, trying to ignore Emily laughing in the background. “She wanted to sleep with us . . . I mean, she was already sleeping with my friend, but I think she wanted to sleep with both of us, you know, at the same time.”
“Great!” my father grumbled. “How am I supposed to tell that to your mother?”
“Tell her not to worry. Everything’s fine now. I just moved in with a fantastic girl. She’s giving me French lessons.”
My father guffawed. “I can imagine.”
By this time Emily had managed to unbuckle my belt and pull my pants down to my ankles. Next thing I knew she was running her tongue in circles around my penis. “You taste salty,” she said. “When was the last time you washed?”
“What?” my father asked. “Washed what?”
“Never mind. I’m just talking to myself. I have to go now. I’ll call you soon. Love to mom. Bye.”
“So . . . “ Emily said, losing interest in fellatio now that I was off the phone. “I’m a fantastic girl, am I?”
“Yes. Don’t stop,” I muttered.
“Fellatio is for teenagers who don’t know how to fuck!”
“I’ll remember that. Maybe you aren’t as fantastic as I thought.”
“More. Plus fantastique!” she said pulling me down on the carpet.
Every day it was the same. Gravity pulled us in, brought us together, heavenly bodies exploding in supernova. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other no matter where we were. We made love two and sometimes three times a day, either in bed or on the floor. Sometimes we didn’t make it past the doorway. When the fever came over us, we couldn’t get out of our clothes fast enough. I felt such desperation, I lived to be inside her again, to hear her moan and and scream, “Je jouis! Je Jouis!”
Once we made love in the bakery where Emily worked. I’d come to the bakery at closing time so we could walk back to the apartment together. Instead, she locked the front door and took me downstairs to a storage room where 100-pound bags of flour were stacked on the floor. We stripped and made love right there, and while we moved together on top of the bags, the air filled with clouds of white flour. By the time we finished our bodies were covered with a layer of white flour streaked with sweat. We looked ridiculous, like a couple of ghosts. We laughed all the way back to the apartment.
By then I’d already started working part-time at the Starbuck’s next door to the bakery. The manager, a sympathetic guy from New Jersey, offered to help me get a work permit so I could continue living in Paris with Emily. I gladly accepted his offer and promised to be a model employee. For the first time in my life I was actually happy to have a job, even if it involved serving Starbuck’s overpriced coffee to homesick American tourists desperate for a taste of home. Most of the Parisians turned up their nose and walked the other way when they saw the Starbuck’s sign. I couldn’t blame them.
We loved our routine. Emily took classes at the Sorbonne in the morning, and we worked at adjoining shops in the afternoon. That left our evenings free for the cafés and clubs, followed by another night of pleasure in our apartment.
After a month of cohabitation bliss, Emily announced one night after sex that the time had come.
I sat up in bed, pulling down the twisted sheet and kissing both of Emily’s magnificent round pink nipples. “The time has come for what?”
“For you to meet my parents.”
I continued kissing her rounded belly down to the moist spot between her thighs. “Why do you want me to meet them now, all of a sudden?”
“Arret!“ she said, laughing. “Why do you say sudden? I’ve talked to your parents, sort of. Don’t you want to meet my parents?”
“Sure, but why do I have to meet them right away? And as I recall, you didn’t actually talk to my parents, you were molesting me while I was talking to them.”
“Oh, so you a prude now?”
“No! You’re the one who just told me to stop kissing you down there.”
Emily gave me a dirty look.
“Okay, let’s go visit your parents. Any time you want, just say when. I’d love to meet them, really.”
“Good, because I told them we would come this weekend. Is that too soon? I mean, why delay? They want to meet you, so we might as well get it over with, yes?”
“Whatever,” I said, not pleased but not wanting to start an argument. “I’ve overheard you talk to your parents on the phone. What have you told them about me?”
“I told them you were nice guy. That I like you.”
Hearing that she liked me enough to tell her parents I was a nice guy gave me the courage to ask my next question. “So what will you tell them about our future? Do we have a future together?”
Emily made a funny face, as though exasperated by a question she had also pondered. “Well, there is one small problem.”
I waited, not knowing what to expect. “Yes?”
“My parents don’t speak English. And they dislike Americans. Even more than me.”
“Did you tell them I’m not a typical American?”
“Great,” I said. “Should be a fun weekend.”
Saturday morning we took the fast train from Paris to Strasbourg, and as the green hills and valleys of eastern France blurred together outside the window of our compartment, Emily told me more about her parents, saying there was “stuff” I needed to know before actually meeting them. Important stuff.
“Well, they’re kind of old fashioned. You know, old school French.”
“Old school French? What do you mean?”
“I mean they live back in the era of De Gaulle. You’ve heard of the slow food movement in Italy and France? Well, my parents might as well belong to the slow life movement. They’re totally disconnected: no computers, no cell phones, no wireless anything. Now that my father’s retired, he doesn’t even drive much anymore. They walk every day to the bakery and the market. They still tend their garden during spring and summer. They live exactly the same way they lived back in the 1970s. When I go visit them, it’s like stepping into a time warp. You know, I just wanted you to be prepared. So you don’t freak out.”
“You make it sound like they’re living in the Middle Ages or something.”
Emily laughed. “Just wait! You’ll see!”
When we reached our destination, Emily and I gathered our belongings and walked outside the train station. I expected to find Emily’s father parked out front in his car, but Emily kept walking around the corner to the Avenue des Vosges, a main artery that seemed to go on forever. “Isn’t your father picking us up?” I asked.
‘No, I told you, he doesn’t drive much anymore. He prefers to walk.”
So we walked, carrying our bags, for eight or nine blocks until we came to a multi-storied brownstone that looked more like an office building than a private residence. Emily’s parents lived on the first level, separated from the rest of the building by a long hallway. Emily knocked on the door, while I stood behind her hiding.
Emily’s mother answered the door, a small friendly woman with dark hair and a twinkle in her eyes. “Bonjour, Emily, bonjour!” she said, hugging and kissing Emily. Then she turned to me and opened her arms wide, saying “Venez!” and kissing me lightly on both cheeks. She took us into the kitchen, ordered us to sit down, and poured each of us a glass of Grenadine. “Vous parlez francais?” she asked when I didn’t immediately join their conversation. I laughed and stammered, “Un petit peu.” She waved me off. “Mais non, vous parlez bien!” This time all three of us laughed. I couldn’t tell if we were laughing at my linguistic limitations or her ironic comment.
Emily asked about her father, wanting to know his whereabouts. “Au jardin?”
“Si, si,” the mother said. “Allonys-y.”
We left our bags in the kitchen and followed the mother. On the way out she retrieved a bicycle from a storage area off the front hallway, and then we were off, her pushing the bicycle and chatting nonstop with Emily, me just trying to keep up with them. The jardin turned out to be a communal garden, where a number of families had small wooden cabanas and garden plots on which they could grow vegetables.
“Bonjour . . . bonjour!” the mother announced as we arrived together, winding down a narrow path that led to the family’s cabana, a ramshackle structure made from sheets of plywood and tin. Out front of the cabana a flagstone patio was bordered by beds of flowers and herbs, with lawn chairs and a chaise arranged in a tight row. On the chaise reclined Emily’s father with his mouth wide open, sound asleep. Stout, gray, and nearly bald, he looked at least 10 years older than her mother.
As we approached we could hear him snoring. There was a bottle of red wine and an empty glass on the table beside him.
“Arret!” the mother said, shaking him awake.
Startled, the old man looked around wildly, expecting pranksters or hooligans until his eyes alighted on Emily and he broke out in a huge smile. “Cherie!”
He hugged Emily tightly and kissed her on both cheeks. “On bois?”
“Si! Si!” the mother said, and brought out three more glasses from the cabana, which she filled with red wine.
Meanwhile, Emily introduced me to his father. He looked at me askance and then grabbed my shoulder and shook it as though wanting to make sure I was real.
“Ah … James,” he said, paused, and then asked, “Vous etes Américain?”
I admitted as much.
“Je suis très désolé!”
“Thanks. I’m sorry, too,” I said.
By this time the mother had raised her glass and made a toast to Emily and I, something about l’amour and le bonheur and who knows what. My French comprehension, always rudimentary, began to break down as soon as the conversation became effusive, but that didn’t prevent me from raising my glass with the others and drinking to love and happiness and whatever.
Not to be outdone, the father then made a toast, and this time we finished the bottle of red wine. The father wanted to open another bottle, but the mother had other ideas. I caught the word “auto” but not much else because they argued fast and furious, gesturing with both hands and pointing at me as though I were an object, a piece of furniture maybe, that they had to get to a certain location by a certain time. Eventually the mother won. I could tell by the way the father flapped his arms at his side and then stomped off down the garden path.
Emily shot me an I-told-you-so look. “My mother wants my father to take you on a tour of the old city. He goes to get the car now. We’ll meet him back at the apartment.”
So off we went, following the father, who by this time had already disappeared into the pedestrian traffic on Avenue des Vosges. Emily and her mother chatted away, while I smiled dumbly, pretending I understood and agreed with everything they said. They spoke so fast the only two words I could make out were ‘papa’ and ‘idiot’, which pretty much told me what they were saying.
Papa, the idiot, was waiting for us back at the apartment, sitting outside in the front seat of his vintage Citroen, which had seen better days. When he saw us approaching, he rolled down his window and banged on the side of the car door. “James! C’est un Citroen . . . un classique! He totally ignored Emily and her mother after they returned from storing the bicycle inside the apartment. Still angry, he motioned for me to sit in the front passenger’s seat and the two women in back, and then, after revving the engine, he eased the Citroen out into traffic for a snail’s pace tour of Strasbourg.
We made it across the river Ile and into the old city centre, the Petite-France district, without incident, but as the streets grew narrower and more congested, traffic started to build up behind us. Soon horns were honking, drivers were shouting, and mopeds and tiny Fiats were squeezing by us and speeding away, usually with a final insult or gesture. “Ta gueule!” the father would shout as yet another angry driver roared past. “Ta gueule!”
Emily covered her face with her hands and slumped down in the back seat, trying not to be noticed.
The father, driving so slow that pedestrians were passing us now, pointed out rows of Rhineland black and white timber-framed buildings, followed by Strasbourg’s famous red sandstone cathedral, and finally the medieval stone bridge known as the Ponts Couvert that took us out of the city centre, each site punctuated by horns blaring and angry drivers shouting insults. “Ta gueule!” the father shouted back. “Ta gueule!”
“Voila,” the father said when he dropped us off back at the apartment. Smiling, a look of contentment fixed on his face, he asked Emily to ask me if I liked Strasbourg.
“He wants to know do you like Strasbourg,” Emily said.
I said I did, except maybe for the traffic.
Once inside, the mother cornered Emily and whispered something not meant for me to hear.
“Ah non! “ Emily snapped. “Le marriage ne m’intéresse pas! Pas du tout!”
Our troubles started about the same time Mel showed up in Paris. Not quite a month had passed since our return from Strasbourg, our weekend in hell, when Mel called one morning and announced he was in Paris. After the lease on his apartment in Munich had expired, he’d said goodbye to Uta and his life as an indentured sex slave. He was flying to London that night but intended to spend his last few hours on the continent sightseeing in Paris and wanted to know if I would accompany him.
“Uh, I don’t know if I can,” I said, immediately rousing the suspicions of Emily, who was just about to leave for the Sorbonne.
“What? You haven’t forgiven me for Venice? Is that it?”
“I suppose I could skip work this afternoon,” I said, avoiding Emily’s disapproving look.
“Okay, meet me at Père-Lachaise in one hour. I have to visit the Lizard King before I go back to the States.”
He hung up before I could get more information.
Emily frowned. “Was that your friend from Munich? The one who took you to Venice?”
I confessed it was. “But he’s leaving tonight . . . he just wants to do some sightseeing before he goes.”
“Well, don’t bring him over here. I don’t want him to know where I live. Understand?” She slammed the door on her way out.
So I called Starbuck’s to tell them I wouldn’t be in that afternoon, grabbed my walking map of central Paris, and headed for Père-Lachaise, the most famous cemetery in the world. Why Mel would want to spend any of his few precious hours in Paris visiting a cemetery on a cold, gray December day was beyond my comprehension. And who or what was the Lizard King?
As I approached the main gate I saw Mel pacing back and forth, alternatively checking his watch and looking at a map of the celebrity gravesites. When he spotted me, he came running up to me waving the map. “Man, you won’t believe who all is buried here! Abelard and HeloÏse, Marcel Proust, Honoré de Balzac, Oscar Wilde, and Isadora fucking Duncan! Oscar Wilde? Go figure! How the hell did he end up here?”
I shook my head. “Are you sure you don’t want to start at the Louvre, or maybe Notre Dame? It’s kind of a dreary day to be walking around a cemetery.”
“What are you talking about? The only reason I came to Paris was to visit his grave. I don’t give a shit about Notre Dame or the Louvre.”
“Jim Morrison! The Lizard King! Follow me, I already got directions.” With that, Mel was off racing down the main thoroughfare until he came to a junction, where he turned right and hiked through the tightly packed graves. On all sides the stones and monuments were a ubiquitous gray color that matched the color of the sky. The trees surrounding the walkways had long since lost their leaves, contributing to the gloomy atmosphere.
“Here it is!” Mel motioned for me to come quick. He stood before a hollow marble slab filled with bunches of roses, mostly wilted. The headstone at the far end read “James Douglas Morrison, 1943-1971.” The nondescript marker was scrunched between a zillion other marble monuments, with hardly an inch of ground separating them. Row after row of nondescript marble slabs, a city of the dead.
“See the Greek inscription below? That means ‘true to his own spirit,’” Mel said, off on another of his tirades. “He was the master, man, the Lizard King. I mean he could just stand up there on stage and read his poetry–he didn’t even have to sing–he was that cool–no way he should have died at the age of 27–what a loss!–heroin overdose–stay away from that shit!–I mean, Jim was the King, man–fuck Elvis!– he could sing blues and rock ‘n’ roll, you name it, he could sing it all, or just stand up there on stage and read his poetry–he was a goddamned poet!”
“Calm down. Don’t fall apart on me, Mel,” I pleaded.
“Just look–“ he said, extending his arms in all directions, surrounded by thousands of graves. ‘Can’t you just her Jim sing ‘The End?’”
“This is the end . . . my only friend . . . THE END!” Mel intoned in his best Jim Morrison voice.
By this time the security guard that was always positioned within eyesight of the Morrison grave had noticed our antics and was heading our way. To avoid him Mel darted off down the pathway, leaving me behind. I followed gamely as Mel stopped at one celebrity grave after another, pausing just long enough to check his map and locate the next attraction. I finally caught up with him in the far northeastern quadrant of the cemetery, where he was kneeling beside a beautiful monument with a sculpted crucifix on top. Vases and urns planted with flowers encircled the tomb like a wreath. The simple inscription on its front read: “Famille Gassion-Piaf.”
“Little Sparrow . . . Little Sparrow!” Mel was mumbling to himself as I approached slowly and touched his shoulder. When he turned, his eyes were filled with tears. “Little Sparrow–“
How would I ever get Mel on the plane to London? I checked my watch. “What time does your flight leave?”
“Seven o’clock, why?”
“Well, it’s already past four, so we should leave now. You need to get there by five . . . to get through security.”
Mel looked at me as if he thought I was trying to get rid of him. I was.
“Okay,” he said meekly.
Fortunately, a subway entrance was just outside the cemetery gate, and though it took the rest of the afternoon to get him to De Gaulle and through security, I managed to put him on the plane to London. Or at least I assumed he boarded the plane after spending over an hour in the security line. Just to be safe, I turned my cell phone off and headed back to Emily’s apartment, hoping she wasn’t still pissed.
She wasn’t, but that didn’t last long. Partly our falling out was due to my misbehavior on New Years Eve. The manager of our Starbuck’s decided to stay open on the 31st, so Mary, one of the other American baristas, brought a bottle of vodka, which we kept hidden in the back room and then used to refill our glasses all night long. By closing time Mary and I were more than a little tipsy.
The incident happened while we were cleaning up and accidentally bumped against each other. Up close and personal I could feel the heat from her body, I could smell her perfume and the vodka on her breath, and before I could restrain myself, my hand reached out and touched her blond hair and then my mouth fastened on to hers. We kissed, slumping back against the counter, groping one another.
“Ah-HEM!” came from the front of the shop.
I turned to find Emily standing in the door. She’d come to meet me so we could walk home together.
“Want some vodka–“ Mary warbled.
Emily stepped back outside and walked away. I rushed after her, trying to explain that she’d seen nothing more than an innocent, drunken moment.
“Don’t talk to me,” Emily said. “You PIG!”
When we got back to her apartment, she proceeded to gather up all my belongings and stuff them into my bag, which she tossed out on the landing. “GET OUT!” she shouted and then slammed the door in my face.
I pleaded with her to let me in, but to no avail. So I spent the night slumped against her door, hoping she’d have a change of heart.
The next morning she found me there, cold and shivering and still hung over from Mary’s vodka. “What are you doing?” she asked, incredulously.
“Please let me in. I’m crazy about you.”
So we made up, sort of, but after that we were never as close as before the vodka incident. She didn’t trust me, and before long I didn’t trust her either because she began spending more time with her friends from the Sorbonne. Whenever I tagged along with them to the student cafes, I always felt left out, like an intruder. I could understand only about half of what they said, and I couldn’t speak French fast enough to join their conversations. I was especially jealous of one tall, dark, and handsome student named Daniel. Emily always seemed to be with him, either with a group of friends or just the two of them. I began to hate Daniel, suspecting the worst: that he was already fucking Emily.
Finally one evening I couldn’t stand it any longer. I stood up from our table and shouted, “Leave my girlfriend alone, you ASS HOLE!”
Everyone at the table looked at me in horror. Then Daniel and the rest of them got up and left, leaving me alone with Emily.
She was so angry her hands were shaking. “C’est fini! It’s finished! You understand? Go get your stuff out of my apartment and be gone when I get back.”
I’d made such a fool of myself that I didn’t even try to plead my case. Instead I did as she wished, got my belongings out of her apartment and walked slowly, dejectedly toward the hotel where I’d stayed before Emily.
The desk clerk recognized me yet again. “Ah bon, c’est vous . . . monsieur éternel retour. Did you get it right this time?”
I dropped my bag on the floor, confused. “Pardon?”
The clerk laughed. “Nietzsche. Never mind. I can tell, you didn’t get it right.”
By the time I made it through security I was cranky and depressed and in no mood for the perky young woman sitting next to me on the plane. I’d seen her in the waiting room at Orly, bouncing around in her seat and singing softly to herself, oblivious to the stares of those sitting around her. Her behavior, though odd, was no crazier than her felt hat, not a sexy fedora or a Justin Timberlake model, but a squashed green pork pie hat that an elderly man might have worn, not an attractive young blonde who couldn’t have been more than 20 years old. As we boarded the plane I thanked my lucky stars that the chances were remote that my seat would be anywhere near hers. Well, guess what? She was waiting for me when I stumbled down the aisle to my seat and stowed my gear in the overhead compartment.
“I switched seats with you. I didn’t think you’d mind,” she said, sitting in my window seat.
I barely had enough time to sit down in my–that is, her–seat before she let out a whoop and pumped her fist in the air three times. “Isn’t it great to be going home!”
“I guess,” I said, not wanting to explain that I was heading home after a failed romance. Maybe she was an American student studying abroad and that’s why she was so excited to be going home to friends and family.
“The good ole U–S–of–A!” she squealed.
“So how long have you been gone … the summer, or the whole year?”
“Since yesterday,” she said, and pumped her fist in the air a couple more times. She still hadn’t removed her pork pie hat, which was pulled down over a wisp of blond hair.
“See, there was a mix-up,” she began, and while we prepared for take-off, I listened to her incredible story. It seems the day before she had flown from Chicago to Paris, planning to meet up with some friends who were renting an apartment on the Left Bank, but when she got to Paris she discovered they‘d skipped town and left no forwarding address. So what did she do? She walked around Paris yesterday afternoon and evening, checked into a youth hostel for one night, and changed her ticket for this morning’s flight back to Chicago. And here she was, sitting next to me in my window seat, now telling me about all the sites she’d seen on her afternoon walk: Notre Dame, the Seine, the Louvre, the Champs Élysée, and the ever popular Eiffel Tower. “I saw everything I wanted to see and more,” she bragged.
“Really? Did you like Paris?”
She shrugged. “It’s okay, I guess, but it’s no CHICAGO!” She whooped again and pumped her fist. I was beginning to wonder if she were epileptic. I could understand why her friends would want to ditch her, who wouldn’t? By this time I was looking around for an empty seat, but the Air France flight was completely full, which meant I was stuck for the duration of the 10-hour flight. Lucky me.
“You’re from Chicago? And you like it?”
“What’s wrong with Chicago?” she snapped back at me. “Chicago’s the greatest city in the world, and that includes Paris. Who needs the French, anyway? They can keep their Eiffel Tower. Gimme Chicago any day.”
I checked again for an empty seat somewhere in the rear of the plane, far away from Miss Chicago.
Suddenly she burst out in song: “CHICAGO! CHICAGO! MY KIND OF TOWN!”
Fortunately one of the flight attendants came to my rescue, telling us to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for take-off (and, by implication, to shut up).
As soon as we were in the air and had reached our cruising altitude, the young woman perked up. “Oh well, let’s make up and be friends. I’m Ellie. What about you? How long have you been abroad?”
“Over a year,” I said.
Noticing the sadness in my voice, Ellie asked, “So why are you coming home now?
“I’m running away,” I confessed.
“A failed relationship. My girlfriend and I split up.”
“She was French?”
I nodded, not really wanting to talk about it.
“Wow! How romantic. Oh well, you know what they say . . . ”
Soon she lost interest in me and started humming to herself, as chipper as ever. Then she buzzed the attendant and asked for a Coke, which she downed in a few big gulps. Ten minutes later she excused herself to go pee. Then she ordered another Coke, which she drank down just as quickly and then climbed over me again to go pee. This went on for about an hour–Coke, pee, Coke, pee–with me thinking all the while that the last thing Ellie needed was more caffeinated drinks loaded with sugar.
Eventually the sugar high passed and left her slumped over and limp, her head bobbing against my shoulder. Her hat, squished between the two of us, rubbed against my bare skin and itched like hell. Now what was I supposed to do, I remember thinking, as I tried to move sideways, away from the slumping young woman who was now snoring and drooling on my shoulder. I moved again, this time a bit too far, which allowed her head to plop down into my lap, her hat falling between my legs and landing on my foot. Without her hat she looked very young and pretty, I couldn’t help but notice. It was the first kind thought I’d had about Ellie, but it didn’t last long.
“HEY!” She jerked her head up out of my lap, awake now. “Are you getting FRESH with me? Are you trying to take ADVANTAGE of me?”
The attendant rushed over to calm the situation. “Is there a problem here?”
“You bet there is, he’s getting fresh with me. I woke up with my face in his lap. HIS CROTCH!”
“That’s because you fell asleep,” I protested, mostly to the flight attendant, who looked at us like we were insane, a couple of loonies. Just like that my warm feeling toward Ellie was gone with the wind.
“Well, please keep it down,” the attendant said, frowned, and walked away.
“Here.” I reached down and picked up Ellie’s hat. “Let’s make up and be friends. I’m James.”
That seemed to satisfy her, at least temporarily. I tried to defuse the situation by keeping busy, first reading the in-flight magazine and then writing in my journal, which I had woefully neglected while in Paris. If I kept myself occupied, maybe I wouldn’t be so annoyed by my neighbor. Maybe I would forget about her altogether. Problem was, she continued to get up to go to the bathroom every half hour or so. Her bladder must have been the size of a thimble.
Finally, after her fifth or sixth trip to the bathroom, she came back shaking her head, which I read as an apology of sorts. “Okay, I’ll admit, I have a bladder infection. My boyfriend isn’t circumcised. You know what I mean?”
I raised my hands to fend her off. “Please. That’s too much information. I don’t want to know.”
She shot me a dirty look.
“How about this. Why don’t we change seats–that way you won’t have to crawl over me every time you have to go to the bathroom?”
Nice try, but Ellie was indignant: “Oh, so you just want my seat? You don’t even CARE that my pee-pee is all red and swollen! Nice guy!”
“You mean MY seat,” I replied, avoiding any comment on her red and swollen pee-pee.
This time the flight attendant looked pissed. “What’s the problem now?” she asked, standing in the aisle with her hands on her hips.
“He’s an ASS-HOLE! That’s the problem!” explained Ellie.
“Please, miss, keep your voice down. We have children on board.”
“Only if he apologizes.”
“Apologize for what?” I asked, flabbergasted, looking to the flight attendant for support.
“For not caring about my bladder infection.”
“You have a bladder infection? Oh, great!” the flight attendant muttered.
“Well … let’s both apologize and make up. Let’s be friends again. I’m Ellie.”
“James,” I said, extending my hand.
The harried flight attendant gave Ellie and I a look of incredulity, shook her head, and then rushed off to attend to other needs.
Before either of us could say anything and violate our truce, which I figured was inevitable, given the volatility of our previous exchanges, I excused myself and walked to the back of the plane, looking for a bathroom or an exit, some way to hide or escape from Ellie. I was that desperate.
The flight attendant caught me as I came out of the bathroom. “Do me a favor, go easy on the girl. She’s only 18.”
So that explained Ellie’s behavior. Sort of. She was still a teenager.
Following the flight attendant’s request, I decided to put on a smiley face and return to my seat with a new resolve to be kind and gracious to Ellie. As it happened I didn’t have to be too kind or too gracious because by this time Ellie had turned toward the window, having decided to ignore me. I took the opportunity to close my eyes and try to fall asleep, but it seemed that every time I nodded off my head would jerk to the side and snap back as 18-year-old Ellie brushed past me on her way to the bathroom, dragging her red and swollen pee-pee over my lap.
Eventually, after hours of fitful sleep, I woke up just as our plane landed in Montreal. About half of the passengers on board exited. Those of us who were continuing on to Chicago had to stay on the plane for what was supposed to be a brief 20-minute stopover. But 20 minutes turned into 40 and then 60, when finally the captain came on over the P.A. system and announced that there had been a bomb threat and that all checked luggage would have to be re-screened. Sure enough, when we looked out the window, we saw dozens of suitcases spread out on the tarmac, where Air France personnel and airport security guards were examining each suitcase with dogs and hand-held scanning devices. Looking for a terrorist bomb.
“Oh, great,” Ellie said. “I hate Montreal!”
Given the situation, I couldn’t disagree.
To amuse herself and pass the time, Ellie suggested we sing Burt Bacharach songs. I declined, not because I disliked Burt Bacharach’s music but because I had the world’s worst voice, but Ellie jumped right in: “What … do you get … when you fall … in love?” And so on. She sang every song in the Bacharach catalogue at least once. Every so often she waved her hat and bounced up and down in her seat as though she were lap dancing.
Two hours later our plane finally took off without exploding in mid air. And we landed in Chicago, three hours after that, without exploding. “Better safe than sorry,” was our captain’s parting comment. I wasn’t so sure it was an either/or situation. I was both safe and sorry.
“Thank you,” the flight attendant said as we made our way toward the front exit, nodding at Ellie and I. The look of relief on her face said it all: she was glad to be rid of us, her two troublemakers.
Ellie was all smiles, doing a little dance step as she stepped out of the plane onto the ramp. Just then her blond curls fluffed out from under her pork pie hat, making her look even younger than 18.
As we exited the plane she tapped me on the shoulder. “Say–you wanna get something to eat, a burger or maybe a pizza?”
I thanked her but said I had to catch a bus.
Ellie looked offended. Again. “Okay, loser! OR–VWAR!
Like Odysseus after the fall of Troy, I drifted for years after my personal fall from grace. Searching for Ithaca, for somewhere to call home, I stumbled through life making a mess of everything. I finished an M.A. in English because I did not know what else to do and then found a job teaching English Composition at a local community college. There I met another instructor, Rachel, who seemed to have similar interests. Our marriage of convenience lasted less than a year before we realized we didn’t really enjoy spending time together, that in fact we’d made a common error, mistaking convenience for a deeper connection, call it love or desire, what you will.
My teaching position was cut to part-time in 2008, a victim of the global recession, which left me far too much time to reflect on my many failures. The following year my parents died, father first and then my mother six months later. My two older brothers and I buried her on a blustery March morning, after a brief graveside ceremony that a few family friends attended. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and then he three of us stood there listening to the hollow sound of dirt echoing on the coffin lid, wondering where we would be buried and if anyone would come to say goodbye. Years earlier our parents and grandparents together had bought a family plot, but the idea of a family plot seemed archaic now in such a transient, disconnected society.
That night we spent talking and drinking heavily at our parents’ house, sharing an intimacy that we had rarely, if ever, experienced. We came from a long line of somber, standoffish males who avoided emotional subjects as if they were taboo, a weakness not allowed our gender. Yet that night as we talked from the heart I found myself weeping uncontrollably, confessing that I considered myself a 40-year-old failure. Much to my surprise, my two older brothers, who’d I had always looked up to and tried to emulate, confessed to much the same. My oldest brother said he’d been having problems with obsessive-compulsive behavior and had to take an unpaid personal leave from his university. Our middle brother said he’d been fired from his job as a newspaper reporter. Sloppy drunk, the three of us wept like babies.
The next morning, embarrassed and with monstrous hangovers, we went out for breakfast at a nearby cafe and then came back to our parents’ house, the only real home we’d ever known. Without much discussion, we called a trash collector to come clear the house, a cleaning agency to clean it, and a real estate agent to sell it. Then we went our separate ways, vowing to stay in touch, as we had done a hundred times before, and knowing we probably wouldn’t.
Shortly after we sold the house, feeling more homeless than ever, I began searching for Emily on the Internet. At first I had no plans other than to discover if she used Facebook or other social networking sites. I found her on the French edition of Facebook, still living in Paris and now teaching at the École Primaire Normandie. She listed her relationship status as “célibataire.”
One night I managed to work up enough nerve to send her an e-mail saying hello and asking how she was doing and if she was happy. Waiting for her response proved excruciating. Days went by, then a week, and still I hadn’t heard. When she didn’t respond, I began to imagine what would happen if I flew to Paris and appeared at her doorstep unannounced. I played out different scenarios in my mind, some ending happily, some sadly. Every night I dreamed of Emily.
Finally I could wait no longer. What did I have to lose? So I booked a ticket on an Air France flight from Chicago to Paris. I arrived on a Saturday morning, taking the subway into Paris and going directly to my former hotel on the Left Bank only to find it transformed into a boutique hotel that cost twice as much as it did a few years earlier. The concierge helped me find Emily’s address and locate it on a map of Paris, warning me not to get caught in the anti-Sarkozy protests planned for the day. Then I hailed a taxi and a few minutes later found myself standing outside Emily’s apartment building in the trendy St. Germain-des-Pres neighborhood. The front door of the building was locked, and there was no response when I buzzed her apartment on the intercom, so I took a seat on a nearby bench and waited.
Several times I got up from the bench intending to walk away before I could make a fool of myself. But I stayed, somehow managing to overcome my fear of rejection. My heart was pounding when at long last I saw a group of people carrying anti-Sarkozy signs coming down the sidewalk. They were chatting and laughing, evidently returning from the day’s protests against Sarkozy, the French president. I spotted Emily well before she noticed me. She’d lost the nose ring and the purple lipstick, but otherwise she looked much the same, just as animated, just as beautiful.
It was when she turned away from the others and began walking toward her building that she saw me sitting on the bench. She took a few tentative steps and then stopped, staring at me as though I had just returned from the land of the dead. “James?” she asked, unsure of her eyes. “Qu’est ce que tu fais? What are you doing here?”
“Remember that time you said I’d taught you something . . . but you couldn’t tell me what it was until you knew me better?”
She blushed ever so slightly. “I never got to know you well enough to tell you.”
“For that, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Emily. For my jealousy, for everything.”
“Why did you come back?” Her voice was flat, a monotone.
“I’d like to know what it was. I really would.”
She looked at me with uncomprehending eyes. “So. Are you married?”
“I was, but it lasted only a year . . . a big mistake. What about you?”
She sighed. “Yes, but mon mari liked his mistress more than me. We’re divorced now. That’s the problem with French men–they like their mothers and their mistresses more than their wives. I think maybe American men are better, after all. Who would have thought,” she said, smiling.
“Yes, one infant, une petite fille. Four years old. She’s with her father this weekend.”
“Why didn’t you answer my e-mail?”
“I didn’t know what to say.”
Neither did I. The 10 feet separating us felt as daunting as the five years we’d been apart, an insurmountable gulf to bridge. But I tried.
“So . . . you joined the protests against Sarkozy?”
“Bien sûr!” she said, as feisty as ever. “He’s a petty little tyrant, a Napoleon. He’s tried to take back the social reforms of the last 40 years . . . reforms working people have fought and died for. Now he wants to take away our retirement age of 60. You know, he wants us to work until we’re 62, and then what? Will 65 be next, or maybe 70? Who wants to work until you’re 70? Next will be our vacation time, you wait and see. No more month of August en vacance. He wants us to become like America where there is no life but work. Life becomes fast food–unimportant, cheap, just something to fill up the time between work. We say no to Sarkozy and his henchmen! Those of us on the Left voted for Ségolène Royal! What? Why are you laughing?”
“I love how excited you get,” I said.
“Yeah? The only thing I like about Sarkozy is that he’s married to Carla Bruni, the chanteuse. She’s hot!”
Laughing had taken away some of my nervousness, so that I was almost prepared for her next question. Almost.
“James . . . why did you really come back?”
Not quite ready to say what I had come so far to say, I joked: “I think I need more lessons.”
She shook her head. “You never needed any lessons. You just lacked self-confidence.”
The time had come; it was now or never. “Okay, the truth is . . . I never experienced passion before I found you, not with anyone before or after . . . only you, Emily, only you.”
“Just you. I’ve never cared for any one else. Ever.”
Nodding, she came and sat beside me on the bench and then placed her hand on my leg. We sat together in silence for several long seconds.
“So . . . are you asking for a second chance? Or is it a third chance by now?”
I laughed. “I lost count.”
“Well,” she said with a big sigh, as if she’d made up her mind. “I suppose I could give you lesson number four. That’s the one you missed, the last one. And I suppose we could use another body tomorrow in the anti-Sarkozy march on the Champs Élysée. The teachers from my school are all going together. Here,” she said, handing me her sign, which displayed a circle with a line through it superimposed over Sarkozy’s name.
“Down with Sarkozy!” I chanted.
She looked at me askance. “If only you were English instead of American.”
“Here we go again,” I said, thinking maybe this time we would get it right.
Emily read my mind. “If Ségolène can be President, who knows?”
Well, Ségolène did not become President, but Emily and I managed to stay together, the three of us living at her apartment in St. Germain-des-Pres. Not terribly ambitious, I’m content to pick up part-time teaching gigs at the English-speaking universities around Paris. Emily refuses to marry me because, as she points out, “Who would want to be married to an American?” I’m fine with that, marriage is not all it’s cracked up to be, but I’m determined to discover what it was I’d taught her when we first got together. Emily smiles every time I ask, then shakes her head.
“Yes, yes, I will tell you. When I know you better.”
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