In the Saturday market, the cheese vendor squeezed both my hands. “My wife and I were in New York City this time last year,” he said, and his wife nodded, her bright rock-star streaks incongruous with her stricken face. “We love you Americans. We mourn with all Americans.”
I hadn’t lost anyone, I assured him when he asked. My son was not in the city, and my friends were not in that part of town.
Andrew had just found out a high school friend had been killed in the Pentagon attack. He was already at work on a portrait to send to the mother.
“How could they do this to a great country,” he went on. “Americans are such wonderful people . . . ”
Were we? Were they? I didn’t know how to feel. I’d left one country for another, the city for the country, the pursuit of happiness for happiness itself—and suddenly I didn’t know where I stood anymore, anywhere. How do you know whether a phenomenon is part of a cycle? America had somehow drawn the fire of powerful hatred. An international terrorist network was out to destroy “our way of life,” as the president had said.
It was not my way of life anymore—but what was?
In Texas, a world of its own, Mom had broken her hip and was moved out of her pretty apartment and into a hospital room in the twenty-four-hour-care unit. Someone told me this was the beginning of the end. She might not have much more than a year. I factored that into my travel plans over the next months and, with equal measures of hope and guilt, into my financial outlook.
My French bank began to call me when my account was overdrawn. The system assumed that, being an American living abroad, you had piles of money somewhere else and all you had to do was flick a switch to transfer some. For me, it was not so easy, and a call like that catapulted me back to the days when I had to pay my mortgage with a certified check. Somehow, anticipating Mom’s death was like waiting for the cavalry to come.
Andrew was having a cryptic conversation on the phone.
“What was that?” I asked when he hung up.
“Jean-Claude wants me to keep his guns for him.”
“He’s afraid he might use them on . . . ”
“Oh my god—Brigitte?”
The divide had begun with the cancer—or maybe before. There may have been a lover. There was definitely verbal abuse—I’d witnessed it. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of her walking in the woods, and some instinct told me to look away, in case she was with someone. Having been this way before, I knew the signposts. The dinners at their house stopped. They each enlisted friends and could be seen huddling with them in the shop or by the fountain. We got a little of that. She confided some things, he confided other things, and Andrew and I were pulled this way and that, losing our hard-won footing in this territory.
When Brigitte finally moved out, our teacher became our orphan. The stress had put him back in the hospital. His sons and daughter lived far away, his local friendships seemed to be strained. We felt duty-bound to visit him—Andrew would have gone and stayed hours every day. I could stand it only a few minutes.
“Ah, putain!” he growled, grimacing with pain. He was in blue pajamas, squatting beside his hospital bed, with a cigarette in his mouth. He was on his way to the window to light it so he could blow the smoke out. “Ça me fait mal!”
“Maybe you shouldn’t be getting out of bed . . . ” I ventured. Andrew and I were sitting on straight chairs across from his bed. There was another bed in the room, but it was empty.
“Or smoking . . . ” Andrew piped up. You couldn’t help it—how could they allow smoking in hospitals! True, officially it was not permissible in the room, but apparently you could smoke by the open window.
I couldn’t stand watching him torture himself, because that was what he was doing. He had an inflammation of a nerve running into one leg and it burned with agony when he moved. He was in the hospital for bed rest, but there he was literally hopping out of bed and doing deep knee bends, up and down, groaning as if being lashed. It looked as if he were trying to work it out by sheer exertion, force of will. And he had to get to the window for a cigarette.
“This might be a good time to quit,” I suggested, dangerously.
“Don’t you want to be free of this habit . . . instead of its slave?”
He groaned louder as he managed to raise himself and take a few steps to the window, where he lit his cigarette and leaned on the sill with his back to us.
“I do not care. I do not care about nothing.”
“Okay, well, we’ll see you tomorrow then,” said Andrew brightly.
In that winter of not knowing, long-term plans seemed useless. Even the short-term was sketchy. I found I had learned just enough of the language to understand how incoherent I was. In this strange suspension, when the light was too low for painting, the wind too high for walking, and the cold felt like an omen of even worse things to come, lunch became an escape, and a bottle of wine a buoy.
Some restaurants closed for the winter, but the mom-and-pop cafés and routers, the truck stops, lit fires and served up the gamey dishes that frightened tourists. Why not? Who knew when Americans would feel safe enough to travel again? Bring on the fromage de tête, the rognons, the pieds et paquets and pichets of rough red vin du pays, nearly black in the glass. The police, the bankers and fonctionnaires, the dusty masons and gritty road workers showed up every day at the sacred hour to take comfort with kindred souls, and we were right there with them.
Andrew ate anything I left on my plate, as usual. Now I was drinking the wine he left.
“We don’t need a whole bottle every day,” he argued. I thought he was sounding a little holier-than thou.
“Well, you don’t have any trouble consuming an ounce of weed when you have a chance.”
This was a guess. He had purposely not smoked marijuana while living here, but he frequently went back to check on the State-side storage unit, which contained everything we’d left behind but wanted to keep—including his inventory of paintings. He would take the opportunity to make the rounds of his family and friends, but he put in long days at “the unit,” sorting through things we might need now, and handling the overseas shipments.
It was an occasion when the boxes arrived, because you never knew what had caught his imagination back there in that dark and stuffy place. We’d open the boxes together and he’d explain what it was about each item that would contribute to our life. He’d dig up forgotten kitchen utensils, tiny mechanical parts of some device I might have, a wind-up hula girl and a man getting a blow job, my white Halloween wig, the cowboy boots my sister gave me.
It was touching to see how he assigned value to different things of mine, but it was clear from his choices that he had stayed thoroughly toasted the whole time he was in the storage unit. The stonerage unit, I thought.
So, I would have my wine when I wanted it, thank you very much. Especially now that I needed more just to feel comfortable. Just enough to keep me normal, as a drinking buddy used to say. And these were abnormal times.
Into the bleakness of that November came a family of Australians, a couple and two grown daughters. Andrew met the mom wandering around the Place de l’Horloge and brought her up to meet me and see our place. They were staying in a village house—the one I’d tried to buy. She invited us over to share some wine they’d bought at a local vineyard.
The husband was an edgy guy who played it close to the vest, but the two beautiful daughters were rambunctiously gregarious. We gathered around the big table in their kitchen, and the daughters started opening bottles of wine.
Our hostess showed us around the house. It was my fourth or fifth time. Odd that we’d be invited by so many visitors to see the house I almost bought. Judging from the patched, water-stained walls, wet bathrooms and rotting doorframes, somebody would have their hands full this winter.
The wife and I had a private chat. Our oddity as a couple often prompts people to get personal. “He adores you,” she said sadly, and then confided that she was miserable in her marriage, both hoping and dreading that her husband would leave now that the girls were on their own.
Long after dinner time the bottles kept coming off the girls’ assembly line. Andrew was swaying in his seat and talking silliness. I felt thick and woozy. The host stood on his head to demonstrate a yoga position, and his wife became aggressive, but the girls were straight, bright-eyed and still pouring when we said our goodbyes and stumbled home.
Now the holidays were approaching, just to add fake color to the gray picture. This year, I wouldn’t have Ben for Hanukkah/Christmas—the first time since he was born. He had decided to make his annual trip in the summer, when there was more to do and see. I didn’t blame him. Last Christmas he’d been so bored he spent hours on the phone every day with his girlfriend in California. The international charges drained my bank account and made some checks bounce.
So we’d have no visiting family or friends this year. Not even the unstoppable Petrovs—who never turned down free lodging. Not even with the incredibly cheap post-9/11 airfares. There were no takers.
But there was our orphan.
He had not brought over his guns after calling Andrew. I decided to go check on him. I didn’t think he’d do anything crazy, but there was an uncomfortable presence of doubt.
The house looked forlorn. J-C opened the door a crack like a hostile recluse. He wore a few unrelated items of clothing. His hair stuck up in back, and he peered darkly at me from under the black ledge of his eyebrows.
We sat by the empty fireplace, surrounded by memories of past fires and festivities. In a photo tacked up in his kitchen, a younger Jean-Claude and Brigitte kiss in a flower garden. Now she lived in a tiny cab anon, a cottage, down in the valley. He could see it from his front porch. He could see her come and go. He could see a car pull up in the evening, and figures in the lighted window. It was driving him crazy.
“She is just . . . there.” He pointed limply.
“What are you doing for Christmas?”
“Will you have a tree?”
“Why? For woo?”
I told Andrew we should probably include him in our holiday plans.
“What holiday plans? “ he wanted to know.
“I guess we’ll have to cobble something together.”
We bought a straggly tree and draped it with our set of lights, which had seven twinkle settings. I laid some greens over the mantel and arranged a few Christmas cards on it. Then we tried to get J-C excited about guiding us through the gros souper, a traditional Christmas Eve meal. We’d enjoy ourselves with oysters and foie gras, and we’d buffer him with the Journus, who had been following the drama and would understand their mission: to add at least some dignity to what promised to be a glum evening.
He was nowhere near excited, but he perked up enough to insist on getting the oysters. We apparently didn’t know how to pick them. Good—at least he was back in the boat.
He brought over five dozen of them, and started the tedious job of shucking. He had forgotten his oyster knife and had to use ours, which was, of course, pas bon.
“Merde! Mer-DEH! Wiz zis knife, just one slip and voilà – hôpital!”
I wanted a drink. I made a batch of American-style hot rum and cider, enough for a small army, or me, whichever got to it first. I gave the men each a cup to sip while they worked.
Guzzling mine in the next room, I overheard J-C muttering to Andrew. “Zis kind of dreenk is only for when it is very cold and you are a leetle bit sick.” He placed his full cup conspicuously on a side table. “Mech too strong. Nst-nst-nst. I would be drunk.” He tapped the offending oyster knife on the counter. “And one slip – hôpital.”
Andrew started to toast some bread. “Non! Nonononono! No toast for foie gras. Never. Pas bon.”
“The foie gras will be sautéed,” I told him.
There was silence.
When the Journus arrived, cheerful and ruddy with cold, Madame presented me with a delicate needlework doily, mounted on velvet and handsomely framed. Her mother had made it long ago.
We sat down to a celebration of sorts. The champagne couldn’t be poured fast enough for me. The oysters, fat and glistening in their shells, were piled voluptuously on our most generous platter. To me, there’s nothing like an abundance of oysters to tell you that things are pretty much okay, if the rum buzz hasn’t already convinced you. I set out lemon wedges and little dishes of red-wine vinegar with shallots to dress them.
“Which vinegar did you use?” J-C asked Andrew.
“Our own.” It was made from the vinegar mother [the starter] Ken gave us and contained his Cajun spices.
J-C pushed it away. Apparently, it was pas bon.
The oysters were delicious, vinegar or no. Smooth, juicy and cold-sea-tasting. We scooped one after another from their shells and slid them down our throats.
“Regardez ça.” said Jean-Claude to Monsieur Journu, with a sneer. He held up one of the cheap fish forks we used. “Les américains ne connaissent pas les fourchettes pour des huitres.”
Americans don’t know about oyster forks. Thanks.
As if he’d been waiting for that cue, Monsieur Journu reached a gnarled hand into the pocket of his natty tweed jacket, pulled out a little fork, raised it in a salute and then put it to work.
He had brought his own sterling silver oyster fork.
For the next course, Andrew and I sautéed slices of fresh foie gras and served it drizzled with a raisin sauce. It was a contemporary presentation, and we were a little apprehensive—especially after the vinegar and the fish-fork faux pas, but everybody liked it, and the baron even complimented us on the Sauternes we’d paired with it.
Our little feast successfully completed, we said good night, wishing each other joyeux Noël. The Journus were going on to the village church for the Christmas Eve mass. J-C was headed back to his lonely house. Andrew and I would fall into bed with relief.
I cleared up the kitchen and finished off the rum and cider as I dried the treacherous oyster knife and the inappropriate fish forks. I heard Andrew strumming his guitar in the atelier:
They’ll pas-bon you when you’re tryin’ to be so good
They’ll pas-bon you just like they said they would
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody gets pas bon’d.
–Marcia Muir Mitchell