“You mest lairn,” as Jean-Claude said daily. In this environment, more foreign than I ever imagined it to be, every minute from morning to night presented a case you had to crack. Every instinct had to be delicately re-tuned, every assumption had to be examined, every guess second-guessed, every preconceived notion discarded, every impulse from childhood on had to be checked for appropriate response. There was an unknown at every turn.
I had never felt so alive.
My booze-soaked brain felt squeeze-dried and springy like a new sponge. I’d forgotten the excitement of intellectual activity, and the rush of new ideas.
The practice of drinking only with meals might be the key, I thought. Red wine was more like food than the medicinal vodka I used to knock back in a bad moment, or the bottomless carafe of white wine that was my sedative before bed. Here, drinking was an ordained ritual, as expected as Communion wine and wafers, with fewer effects and no embarrassment the next day. Even if you drank more than your share, the good wines didn’t have the sulfites and impurities that make you feel like hell the next morning.
This was my kind of heaven.
On the plateau with Mo one warm morning, I thought of a dream I’d had way back when I was in the thick of my former life.
I’m in a primeval forest, waist deep in a lagoon. Its high banks are festooned with gnarled tree roots and carpeted with moss. The water is tranquil and darkly transparent, revealing my bare skin below the surface dappled with pinpoints of white light. I am washing shards of red clay pots, as if it were a divine assignment. I work lovingly, dipping the jagged pieces in the water, swirling them clean and cradling them against my body.
Someone approaches the bank and I look up. It is a black woman with dreadlocks. She is smiling as she descends through a tunnel created by the tree roots, and in the circular opening above her head I see blue sky. She tells me her name is Arcadia, and reaches out her hand for me to come with her.
Mo and I were following a marked trail of packed earth, part of a system of trails worked out and maintained by a local hero named François Morenas, who’d established a youth hostel and an outdoor cinema. I had a map of these sentiers , which covered a wide area around our village, and I was learning them one by one. They took you past lavender and poppy fields and Roman battlefields planted with arrowheads that rise when it rains; past flocks of grazing sheep and goats, by oak groves where truffles grow in darkness, along old walls and ancient dry-stone shepherds’ huts, shaped like beehives, the bories. I liked to imagine old François himself showing me the way: “Pssst—look there . . . the tracks of sangliers, the wild boars, and here, the Roman wagons passed.”
Over my left shoulder was the sun, and on the other side of the sky floated the pale moon—our father and our mother, or so the ancients believed. I breathed in the spiked perfume of lavender, the spice notes of rosemary and wild thyme, the musky undertones of damp earth. I listened to the buzz of bees, the baaahs of sheep, the happy harf-harf of my dog.
I felt a certain natural benevolence, and I wanted to trust it. I thought: If I were to fall, a breeze would catch me. If I were thirsty it would rain into my mouth. There is nothing living or inanimate in this landscape that isn’t loving and protective of me.
My patient dog was watching me with slobbering anticipation, and I realized I had come to a standstill, hand over heart. The sound of water gurgling somewhere behind tangled vines was what had brought back the dream.
It had appeared one night in my left-behind life, among the images that were the emotional debris of my business days. The dream had created a newly serene space in my mind with its implicit promise of something . . . else. Something that felt more possible here. What was it?
Was there an ingrained munificence about this place, or had something shifted inside of me to attract goodness?
Up on the plateau on a summer morning, these were the kinds of thoughts that came to me, gently moving aside the fears and self-recriminations that were long-time residents in my head.
“What you have now, that you didn’t have before, is time to think,” said Andrew later as we lingered over our lunch on the roof terrace. He wasn’t talking about the pragmatic “how-shall-I-approach-this-problem” kind of thinking. He was talking about the dilly-dallying, daydreaming kind of thinking that is more about poetry than problems.
We had made something of a pact, to each “pursue our art,” as Andrew put it in his oddly archaic way. He was taking a stab at it, having shaken off the grad-school self-consciousness and begun work on a series of big market scenes. The canvases were big and lively with the shapes and colors of produce under bright umbrellas, the jaunty peddler styles, the backdrop of ancient sun-baked facades. He was really on to something, I thought, with some envy. Then again, he hadn’t been sidetracked by the urgency of making money.
As for me, I’m afraid I . . . was afraid. I’d always generated my own income, never taking time off—not even maternity leave. I had organized my entire life into “get the job,” “do the job” and “bill the job.” I didn’t trust any other way. Even on the most beautiful mornings, waking up to sweet air and glorious views, I had flashes of panic when there wasn’t a job on my agenda to be gotten, done or billed.
Oh, but it was wonderful having time to think! On long morning walks my mind pulled themes from family history, from songs and poems, from stories told by lovers and strangers, and spun them into webs that caught a glimmering truth here and there. Each capture made me thrill and shiver, and then I would feel deliciously languid, like after great sex.
I walked Mojo back through the village, stopping at the dépot du pain, for a pat on the head and a baguette from the same. We’d cross the Place de l’Horloge and gird our loins for the steep climb up two flights of stairs. Neither Mo nor I were youngsters, and our hips were getting creaky.
Back at my desk, the merciless trio—computer, phone and fax –ordered me to drop the dreamy stuff and get back to work. I opened my e-mail box and the first messages jumped at me.
In a few days I would have to fly back across the ocean to attend a business convention—a very remunerative event of the kind I’d always disliked and now was beginning to loathe.
“Wow. People pay you just to be there,” Andrew said once when I explained my work to him. He was serious.
I had a contract to create a year’s worth of promotional materials for the annual convention of a building-industry association. My client was a communications firm that specialized in direct-mail promotions like this for some of the biggest associations in the country. The goal was always to raise attendance at the convention year over year, to learn about the latest industry trends. Now, you and I might think people go to conventions to get drunk, wear funny hats and have sex with strangers, but my client’s firm promoted the educational and networking aspects of the event. They sent me to these conventions so I would better understand and communicate the benefits to bosses who picked up the bill for it all. In this instance, it would be builders or homebuilders, as they liked to be called, descending on San Francisco, looking for . . . information and contacts. Oh well. At least it wasn’t Vegas.
I would be meeting up with my long-time client and her deputy, who was already gunning for me. I supposed I couldn’t blame her. Her job was to ride herd on freelancers and make sure they delivered the goods. Here I was, her boss’s golden girl, living the good life in France while she had to deal with deadlines and printing costs and angry clients, squeezing out just enough to make her rent and car payments.
I left for San Francisco with my business clothes and my game face, determined to do the job, bill the job and get back before my beneficent bubble burst.
However, La Belle France has ways of making us realize the futility of such plans. Or any plans at all.
The French air-traffic controllers had pulled a one-day strike the day before my flight. That was not unusual. Andrew got me to the Marseille airport early in case there were the usual after-strike holdups. At the desk, the Air France agent said I could get an earlier flight to Paris. It would take me into Orly Airport instead of Charles de Gaulle Airport, where my San Francisco flight originated, but the agent gave me a voucher for the shuttle from Orly to CDG and said I’d be there in plenty of time to make my connection. So Andrew, satisfied I was on my way to Paris, kissed me goodbye and headed home.
As I stood at the gate with dozens of French business travelers, they announced a fifteen-minute delay. I calculated that, factoring in the shuttle transfer time, I would still make my international flight.
Time passed, more time than the promised fifteen minutes. Way more minutes than my fellow travelers could tolerate. They steamed and vibrated with impatience. I tried to maintain a Zen-like cool by pretending this wasn’t a business trip, but In my head I began to revise my plans and adjust the levels of my corresponding emotions. My bag was already checked, so I’d go ahead with the itinerary. When I got to Orly I’d simply see about getting another flight to San Francisco—or even Los Angeles—something would be available. Getting frantic wasn’t going to get me back to America faster—at least in physical terms.
We landed in Paris at Orly twenty minutes after my San Francisco flight took off from Charles de Gaulle.
I kept myself calm, fixed on the certainty of getting another connection. But at the baggage carousel, there was another hitch. Only a handful of the waiting passengers had gotten their bags when the doors suddenly slammed shut and the belt stopped moving.
The low rumble of human anguish rose to a howl. A detachment of about forty marched toward the baggage office, and I followed. A sweating official came out with one hand waving as if to protect himself from assault, and the other holding a walkie-talkie, into which he shouted over the tiny voice that was shouting back.
I didn’t understand a word. By now, I had succeeded in becoming so detached that I was watching myself in my own head-movie, and it was almost funny.
I waited until the mob dispersed and then asked the official what had happened. He explained in English that there was a “technical” problem aboard the aircraft. The luggage compartment had become blocked, and the remaining bags were trapped inside. They were doing everything possible to free the bags, he assured me, looking over my head. If we would just wait a few more minutes, we could reclaim our luggage.
I didn’t catch the announcement, but I recognized some of the flight’s passengers regrouping at another carousel. Thirty minutes later, lights flashed, buzzers blasted and our luggage began to dribble onto the belt. I dragged my bag to the Air France desk.
“I am sorry, Madame, there are no more flights to San Francisco today.”
The next one would be tomorrow afternoon. That would leave me only one day, one measly billable day, at the convention. Not even enough to cover the expense of getting there.
I had to face it. This trip was scuttled. There was no point in going on. I’d just get a refund, go back home, call my client and suffer the consequences, whatever they would be.
Ten years I’d worked for this client. Since way back when we were both getting started, when her checks bounced and I had to collect my fees in person. Once I took Ben with me. He was two, and when she said she didn’t have the money, he wailed. He thought that meant I couldn’t buy the toy I’d promised him afterward. I’d been dropped and picked up with her revolving staff, my status redefined with every new mission statement.
I went to the correspondance desk where they try to rectify airline screw-ups. I got a form to fill out for a refund, and two free shuttle passes to get me to the Gare de Lyon where I could catch the train back to Avignon. I was to take one shuttle to the Gare Montparnasse, then another to the Gare de Lyon.
The transfer process took an hour and a half, the second bus driver wouldn’t honor the free pass, and when I got to the Gare de Lyon it was too late to take a train home.
Obviously, something wanted nothing less than a full surrender. All right, you win. What do I do now? At least I was in Paris. I might have to say au revoir to this job, to the next one and even maybe my last remaining client. If there were dark times ahead, there was comfort in the City of Light.
I left the Gare de Lyon and walked with my rolling bag until I found a pretty little hotel. The people were pretty too. They had a room for me. Yes, there was a bathtub.
The room—need I say it was pretty? Tall windows looked across at other tall windows through a screen of leafy-green, organized with delicate ironwork, adorned with sculpted garlands. The plump bed was dressed in pinky colors. In the sparkling bathroom was a deep tub and packets of foaming bath salts. The minibar held three tiny Smirnoffs–enough for a mini-buzz.
I called Andrew then, feeling inexplicably guilty. But I should have known what he’d say—that it just wasn’t meant for me to leave.
“France isn’t ready to let you go yet.”
“Well, but . . . ”
“Relax—you’re in Paris! Go have a nice dinner. I’ll pick you up tomorrow and bring you back home.”
I downed a mini and slid into the tub for a soothing soak. Soon I would have to break the news to my client. And she would have to break the news to her client, after going to great lengths to convince the woman that another woman, far away in France, would do justice to the account.
The plug would be pulled and jobs would drain away. What the hell would I do for money? I guess now I had to say, “What would we do?”
Oh what a fragile daisy chain it was that linked me to gainful work. The nervous deputy, my long-time client, the marketing director calling the shots—every one was a woman. Each one holding inside herself, whether she recognized it or not, the limits to which she believes a woman can push.
Can I lead an organization of men?
Can I guarantee my ideas will sell?
Can I keep this job until my husband gets one?
Men don’t think like that, do they? In my experience, a man looks at the thing he wants and sees himself having it. A woman looks and sees the things in her way. All the women’s movements and equal opportunity legislation have advanced us just one lifetime. There are people living today who were born to mothers who couldn’t vote. We’re smart and strong and courageous. Why can’t we believe it of ourselves or one another?
Ahhhhh. I sank down in the warm water and looked at my painted toes sticking out of the foam. Pink—ha! I wouldn’t wear open-toed shoes to a business conference, so why had I bothered with pink polish?
Because I am a woman. I know about life. I have carried it inside of me, and I know that it wasn’t business that put it there.
The restaurant I chose after scoping out the neighborhood was non-descript and the menu nothing special, but the price was right for someone about to be poor. It left me enough for a good wine. Grandly, I ordered a bottle of Nuits-Saint-Georges, partly because St. George was a dragon-slayer, and partly because it was my favorite Burgundy wine. Dining by myself, I’d learned that after a few glasses of wine you’re practically invisible. You can eavesdrop to your heart’s content. And here, I could linger as long as I wanted; nobody would rush me out for the next seating as in, for example, San Francisco.
I was watching an elderly Frenchwoman. She’d had the salad with hearts of palm, the duck confit, the crème caramel, and now she was finishing the rest of her modest demi-bouteille of wine.
She sat erect, dressed in a melon-green linen suit with coordinating scarf, beaded choker and earrings in brandied-fruit shades. Her well-worn Chanel bag hung by its chain over the back of her chair, and a Printemps shopping bag sat on the floor next to her smart pumps. She had discreetly re-applied her lipstick after the dessert course, and now seemed to be in a pleasant reverie.
I think “pleasant” because of the slight upturn at one corner of her mouth. She faced the center of the dining room, but she was looking far away, far away into the past, as if through a tunnel of a hundred windows suspended in the air in front of her. I was fascinated.
The asymmetrical upturn of her mouth, eyes narrowing, a barely perceptible shiver and then a widening smile. I would almost call it sexy. No, I would definitely call it sexy.
She’s remembering a lover, I decided. Surreptitiously I watched the progress of the affair on her face, as her eyes followed pictures of thought. A line appeared between her eyes and deepened. Things went wrong. She looked down at her left hand and quickly away. A separation? Divorce? She shook her head ever so slightly and cleared that thought, then tilted it a little to one side, lowered her eyelids and, after a moment, came an unmistakable smile. Tender . . . loving. Her child. Her body melted into her chair; and she relaxed her arms in her lap. She squinted as if watching some motion, and her smile went firm and satisfied. The child has done well. She is proud. Then there was a sudden ripple—it looked like pain. Oh no!
I couldn’t watch any more. I asked for the check and got up to leave. But I stole one last glance. Her hand was over her heart, but her face was serene. A pluck at her earring told me she had become aware of me, and she looked straight at me, gave me a slight nod and an almost conspiratorial smile. Tout va bien . . . all is well, after all. I walked out into the Paris night, feeling full of her stories.
How will my own stories play over a solitary dinner when I am her age—which is not all that far away? After so many hours, days and years of selling my time to clients for commercial purposes, what will I have left of what is precious to sigh and smile and dream over?
She was right to screw up my business plans, that lady La Belle France. Or whatever force it was that kept me here on this continent today. Now the idea of going back home made me feel clean and wholesome.
I had gotten the job, lost the job and now maybe I would just forget the damn job. There is more, I said to myself. I know there is more, and it is high time that I find it.
–Marcia Muir Mitchell