WHILE I WAS STUDYING the roots of my family tree, Jean-Claude had been hacking away at my perch. He was trying to sell an apartment right out from underneath me—behind my back—to a widow. My friend Cindy.
He’d accepted her hospitality for a two-week stay in the States and got swept up in the round of lavish festivities she’d organized for her daughter’s wedding.
The French don’t spend the kind of money that upper-middle-class Americans throw down on weddings. Only the very wealthy go to such extremes, and then they keep it quiet. J-C came back with bug-eyed descriptions of the dinners, luncheons and cocktail parties leading up to the huge reception, the free-flowing champagne, the bands, the limos, the private excursions and special events that had gone on for days. She had to be rich. So it wasn’t too surprising to learn that he had offered to sell her the apartment on the spot. What surprised me was the staggering price, and the fact that she was even considering it. As a widow with serious health issues that limited her traveling, and no business experience, she’d be safer saving her money. I said as much, and she took it the wrong way, but she dropped it.
It now occurred to me that I was no more secure than Cindy—my health and business sense were both good, but the property was soaking up the money from Mom and the studio sale all year long, while we had only eight good weeks to bring more in.
It was not in our mutual understanding that Andrew would support us. I was the rainmaker, and it was up to me to pool our talents and make something happen. We had gone from leading tours to developing home-based programs like our painting workshops, with Andrew teaching and me preparing the meals. We worked with a trained chef and introduced cooking classes to summer visitors. I occasionally took on weddings—but only those like Kathy’s, with no church and no mother-of-the-bride.
With our talents and abilities, we could keep coming up with entrepreneurial ideas, but they all depended in one way or another on the property. The rooms and suites housed painters who would come for our workshops. Our huge “mess hall” would accommodate large groups for meals, classes or special events. Our caves provided space to show the work of Andrew and his students.
We needed the income from the rooms. If J-C were to sell either of his remaining apartments, we needed a buyer who’d continue with the seasonal rentals and our management percentage. But for some reason, J-C avoided discussing anything with me directly, until one day he dropped by to introduce us to his new girlfriend, a cowering little creature who eyed him like a pound puppy.
He was in an expansive mood—the cock of the walk was back. We chatted briefly and then he announced to no one in particular that the apartment was for sale.
Our hopes for the space had been discussed many times before, and now we asked if we could fix it up in the meantime, at our expense, to attract a more upscale clientele.
“Do what you want,” he said with a noble sweep of his hand. “You can do as if it is yours!”
We lost no time. For years we’d been itching to remove the urine-yellow textured plastic wallcovering in that apartment, and we went at it, pulling the strips off one wall, and exposing the shabby state of the wall underneath that had prompted this lazy-man’s solution. Andrew started his careful work of refinishing the surface while I went down to weed the terrace, which had been neglected all winter and was littered with cigarette butts and dog poop.
J-C showed up for the afternoon, slamming the door of his old Beamer and sprinting past me with only a curt nod as I knelt on the terrace. In a few minutes, I heard him shouting at Andrew. Then he stalked out without even a look in my direction, got in the car and roared off.
I guessed the girlfriend had gone back to wherever she lived.
Andrew was white and shaken. J-C had pitched a fit about the wall. Andrew had had to promise him he would finish the surface to match the plastic covering, paint it the same urine yellow as the others, and leave the rest alone. He took the heat for me, too. J-C was irrationally livid about my weeding the terrace. He said it was his property. I was not allowed to touch it.
As spring drew closer, things got even frostier between us. J-C had veered off the course he and I had established together—with the long-term goal of creating something of a cultural center. The “University of Taste” we used to get so excited about. After all, ours was a historic building, incorporating the ramparts, standing at the ancient portal to the village. To me it was just begging for some kind of educational or instructional function.
With the second guest room, I’d bought two of the four caves, the medieval cellars beneath the building. We’d shared with Jean-Claude the work and expense of clearing and restoring the vaulted stone “rooms.” Andrew had helped dig out the dirt and debris and level the floor, frame the earthen parts in cut stone and fill them the traditional way with smooth pebbles.
Our caves, four in a row connected by arched passages, were part of an underground network in the village, a secret world known best by the village kids until people in the houses overhead started sealing them off from one another and using them for storage. One of our caves had housed a horse, the other a pig. The pig’s stall would’ve been under the little allée by our front door. The trough was in the wall of our neighbors’ house. Opposite it was an exit onto the street on the other side of our building.
Rooms made of stones placed one against the other, arching overhead without structural interruption. Little alcoves for torches, rusted iron rings to tether animals. Vestiges of winemaking and the storage of olive oil and grains. How could a couple of people raised in the American Suburbia even think of using such space for storage?
“Art gallery.” We’d said almost in unison.
Our side had the outside entrance, and Andrew designed curving stone steps from street level to the lowered floor. We installed a glass-and-iron door in the street entrance, and halogen track lights, which bathed the old stones in a warm glow. Not quite aligned, the arched passages from one space to another gave you the feeling of looking into the long, disjointed corridor of history.
With a little money, we could even put in plumbing and add a kitchen and toilet. Then we could make it a place to hold events. With the old stones and arches now bathed in golden halogen light, the space was irresistible. People approached the open door and peeked in, waiting for an invitation to come in for a good look.
Jean-Claude’s vision for his caves was an extension of his boutique. He’d talked about keeping the table linens and pottery upstairs, and bringing the wine and the regional gourmet specialties down to the cave, where he could offer samples and organize tastings. It would be a nice set-up for our gallery to share J-C’s foot traffic and vice versa. Customers would come either from the shop upstairs, or through our street entrance. And since the law required two entrances in a commercial space, we needed each other’s doors.
We inaugurated our caves with an informal reception and invited the villagers in for wine and finger food. Andrew had hung some of his recent paintings in our half of the caves and Jean-Claude had set up a wine-tasting table and placed a few pieces of brocante furniture and accessories that he intended to sell. Neighbors, friends, even tourists just passing through—everyone loved the space and hung around even after the wine ran out. We were all overjoyed with the possibilities.
Now there was no more talk of sharing anything. J-C seemed to be turning toward divesting and extricating himself from things and people. He was still married, albeit technically, and Brigitte still owned half of his property.
She had her own little hobbit house in the valley, where she could roam with her dogs and gather wild herbs, or snails, or heart-shaped stones as she pleased. Her loyal friend The Wild Boar Hunter had converted a tool shed next to his lavender field, just across the road from his own house. For her, he’d crafted a dwelling as snug and compact as a train compartment, fitted out with scaled-down fixtures, a corner chimney, a curtained sleeping loft, and whimsical touches like a flower-shaped window onto her precious garden. She loved the land and all living things in a spiritual way, and it was clear that this place was created from a deep and respectful understanding of her nature.
J-C had rattled around in the marital shell growing restive. He still opened the boutique in the afternoon, in spite of the lack of foot traffic during increasingly sluggish tourist business. He would sit on the terrace smoking cigarettes and reading a book for hours, barely lifting his eyes if anyone approached. Once in awhile some other disaffected local character would pull up a chair and the two of them would deplore the state of things, pausing to glare at passersby as if they’d brought it all on. “J’en ai marre” was his constant refrain. I’m fed up with it.
I stayed out of his way, but Andrew persisted in being friendly. Soon, he was bringing messages that were apparently meant for, or aimed at, me.
“Johnny Marre might have another buyer for the apartment,” Andrew said one day. “He’s been talking to some girl who’s looking for an apartment.”
Selling to an absent friend was one thing, but selling to a stranger who wants to move in was another. The property could become a tenement in no time. That had happened to the old building next door—the one whose co-owners I saw fighting over a chair. It was divided into rental flats and looked more rundown every year. If that happened to our building, the money I’d invested—all I had in the world—would go down the drain. I didn’t have enough to outbid an outsider, and J-C knew it.
Why, oh why, did I buy into this situation in the first place? What kind of boozy thinking was that? All I could do now was hang on and try to find someone to help us by investing in the building. In a panic, I’d even talked to Ben about it, but he was in no position to buy property yet—even for himself.
“Well,” I said to Andrew, “if someone is really interested in buying, I’m sure they’ll ask to meet the other owner, and that’ll give us the opportunity to discourage someone we don’t want.”
Weeks went by, and Andrew’s updates began to sound ominous.
“The girl’s parents were here to look at the apartment.”
“I wonder what that means.”
“I think they might be giving her the money.”
“Still—somebody’s got to come to me before anything is signed.”
I spread the word to friends and started researching French co-ownership laws. In the early days when I had asked J-C about rules and regulations among co-owners he had assured me that there was nothing formal—“juste the word of gentlemens and ladies.” But I was pretty sure that he was bound one way or another, if only by honor, to give me some say in who would own the space on the other side of my walls, who would share the stairway and go in and out the same door.
Then he pounced. He greeted me with phony exuberance, and said he’d like me to meet the nice young lady who wanted to buy the apartment. She was recently divorced, he said, and was renting in a nearby town. She had fallen in love with our village and especially our building, a friendly place for a single girl to live.
“Does she know we run a bed-and-breakfast here?”
“Oh yes, but she doesn’t mind.”
“I see.” No skin off her teeth.
“She is German. Brigitte met her.”
“I see.” Brigitte rightfully had her eye on her half of the proceeds.
“She has two dogs—little ones—and a cat.”
“I see.” My heart sank. I could hear the barking, the scuffling and snorting behind the door as jet-lagged clients, in need of pampering, rolled their suitcases down the hall toward the luxurious retreat they’d paid good money for.
“She is a vegetarian.” He cocked an eyebrow.
Oh, Jesus. I smelled sauerkraut.
I stiffened my back. “Well, I’ll just have to meet this young lady now, won’t I?”
“Here they come—ready?”
Andrew and I followed the sound of their footsteps up the stairs to our door. His was the insistent stomp, hers the calculated steps of someone who is prepared.
The new, exuberant, magnanimous Jean-Claude swept in and stepped aside to present a tall young woman who wore the long limp hair, the long faded dress, the long serious face of a real pain in the ass.
Mona was her name. We spoke in English to establish that we would speak in French. I blanked out and came to as Mona was expressing her wish to close off one of the apartment’s two doors by placing her armoire in front of it. With that I whisked her through our apartment for a view from our terrace and a few quick questions, while Andrew detained J-C with a brilliant extemporaneous electrical question.
I had just enough time to glean that papers had been signed before J-C got away from Andrew and rushed onto the terrace in a stream of hearty chatter.
“Why did you not tell her we signed papers?” Mona said severely.
“But yes, I did! Of course!” He turned to me. I shook my head.
“We must speak about this,” said Mona. He hung his head.
They left, giving us the chance to get back on the phone to Washington and resume our long-distance conversation with someone who might save the day.
Jean-Claude returned that evening, anxious and sweating. Mona had given him a hard time, and I almost felt sorry for him. But I reminded him of his agreement to give me right of first refusal. He felt that he’d fulfilled that obligation by mentioning the possible sale to Andrew.
“Is Andrew’s name on my deed?”
“Non, but . . . ”
“Am I married to him?”
“I feel very, very let down by this. I feel betrayed.”
He looked sad, so I told him the good news.
“We have a Washington friend who will buy the apartment right now, and might even consider your other one.”
That overturned the whole case. We were friends again. He would work things out with Mona. It would cost him something to back out of the contract, but it was the right thing to do, and he would do it. He was eager to talk to my friend in Washington as soon as possible.
“I don’t even like vegetarians,” he confided as he left. “They smell funny.”
Mona wanted to meet with me privately before she let go. I suggested that, instead of my home, we have the rendezvous in the more businesslike environment of our cave, at the desk just a few steps from the street entrance, through which I hoped to see her vanish after a short, decisive conversation.
She was right on time.
“Je parlerai français,” she said, a little sanctimoniously I thought. “I will speak French.” She sat down and squared her chin.
“And I’ll speak the international language of business.”
Fine. I began by asking her if she had bought or sold real estate before. An experienced buyer would have checked into the situation before investing so much money—in cash even. As a veteran of more than a dozen real estate transactions in two countries, I knew it’s a minefield for beginners. I felt some concern for her, a young woman making her own way in another country, nobody watching out for her.
“That is none of your business.”
Fair enough. I tried again.
“You see already that my co-owner misinformed you on one important issue. Other problems could surface. You might not get back the money you put into it if you have to sell within a couple of years.
“I know what I’m doing.”
I was counseling caution, but she saw it as a challenge. There was no light at the end of that tunnel, so I switched tracks.
“You know that we run a bed-and-breakfast here, don’t you?”
“I don’t mind.”
“But we mind. Our clients will mind. And you won’t like living here in the season.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“I’m saying you wouldn’t be happy in a place where people don’t want you.”
Then, as Andrew pictured it later, I chomped down on my cigar and put my cards on the table.
Mona eventually conceded, but her anger had to go somewhere, so she struck out at me.
“I put money down! You must pay me back now.”
“Because you are the one that blocked me.”
“But I’m not the one who took your money. The man who convinced you to make a bad investment is right around the corner in the boutique. I suggest you go talk to him now.”
And it was over.
My new hero, Kathy’s friend Fran, a Washington attorney and fellow Georgia girl, bought the apartment sight unseen. When she came to sign the final papers and get a good look at her new “little nest,” she passed on J-C’s other apartment, dashing his hopes of a booster injection of cash, and re-igniting his smoldering resentment. But Fran and her partner Rich were on our bandwagon now. They both worked with American Indian tribes and were interested in the idea of making our building a place of cultural exchange. They could even arrange for Indian artists to come and show their work in the caves, for example. With that kind of thinking, we could worry about the rest later.
Meanwhile, several square meters of urine-yellow plastic wallcovering needed to be stripped off and demolished. A sagging motel-style bed, flimsy side tables and discount store lamps needed to be hauled away. Looking at the empty space, Fran saw graceful wrought-iron canopy beds, an antique armchair, a muted Moroccan rug and voluptuous taffeta drapes in shades of red and gold.
I saw an angel.
A band of angels.
Comin’ for to carry me home.
Now Andrew was urging me to welcome—not one, but two more residents into our midst. Full-time residents, with no money or skills to contribute to the household.
“Are you out of your mind?” I asked him. A black kitten with a white mask and pink nose clung to his shoulder.
“But we can’t leave his mother out in the cold. She’s sick.”
I’d seen her. She was practically a skeleton, with a wild face and a condescending manner. Andrew had been sucked in again by the femmes who ran the village. When they heard he could sing, they’d recruited him for the local choir. Now, word had gotten around that he was a cat lover.
“Did you do the arithmetic? We have a dog and a cat already. This would make four animals.”
“Mo and the Kittybear will hate them.”
“They’ll get used to them.”
I gave up. We named her Sylvie, and she grew fat in a matter of days. We named him Raoul, because that’s how it sounded when his mother called him. Ra—ooooool. Andrew became his fool. Mo sustained a few scratches. Kittybear sat in her cabinet hating life.
I left Andrew to deal with the turf wars. I had to go check on my own boy..
Just as I feared, Hollywood found my son and crooked her bejeweled finger in his direction. On the strength of a casting video, he had been offered a starring role in a television series. A sitcom.
I don’t mean to belittle sitcoms, but after watching him perform Chekhov, well, my first reaction to the news was . . . ewww.
On the stage, his powerful energy and theatric skill projected his character all the way to the cheap seats, but the camera likes a pretty face and it was only a matter of time before his was captured and sold for the screen. Then his talent would be harvested by the season, packaged and distributed in little snippets, leaving him nothing more demanding than beer and booty to strive for.
It seemed to have happened too soon and too fast—one day he was taking the uptown subway from a shared apartment in the Village to rehearse a few bit parts, and the next he was being flown to L.A. for shooting.
Andrew, the proletarian, suggested that he use the big move as an opportunity to see the country. “He can throw his things on a truck and drive to L.A.—take some time before he starts work.”
“The studio will be moving him. He skipped the U-Haul-It phase”.
I needed a nice long visit with Ben. I knew I would never be able to make up for missing that Broadway dress rehearsal in New York. The one time he had the chance to be Benjamin in “The Graduate,” after two years of understudying the role, and I—well, there was no undoing it. I could only resume my responsibilities as one whose love for him was unconditional, which was what he was going to need now.
His new digs were just off Melrose as it runs westward into tattoo parlors and T-shirt shops—nineteen-thirties garden apartments built around a Spanish-style courtyard with a fountain, unpretentious and welcoming, peopled by other young hopefuls who’d gotten a foothold in “The Industry.”
Ben had furnished his place with a mix of good upholstered pieces and creative flea market finds. He’d had all he wanted of beat-up sofas, makeshift mattresses and piled-up pizza boxes. His new sectional sofa was deep and cushy and covered with plush velour that felt like heaven against your cheek, as I discovered when I crashed out with jet lag. He warned me not to get anything—anything on it when he sat me down for a TiVo marathon of must-see American programs—The West Wing, The Daily Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm—along with watching his critical selection of films and listening to his latest indy-music discoveries. We critiqued sushi bars and taco joints. He took me to the studio lot, introduced me to his co-stars, his director, the all-knowing ladies in wardrobe. I met his manager, his agent, his publicist. We did lunch.
While Ben went about his Hollywood business, I did motherly things like scrubbing his bathroom, planting his minuscule garden and setting up his kitchen so food could be cooked in it. It was our tradition that when Mom visited, she’d put on a lavish spread for his friends, and he had already assembled some transplanted homeys and congenial neighbors by promoting my cooking like a barker.
The Farmer’s Market and The Grove—The One, The Only goes the slogan—were within walking distance of Ben’s apartment, although I seemed to be the only sane person in L.A. who would actually go there on foot. (Ask directions and you get, “Where are you parked?”) I was looking forward to an afternoon of fantasy shopping, perusing the latest hardback books and maybe having a manicure before I picked up some essentials for the dinner.
I knew this part of Los Angeles fairly well. My parents had lived in Bel Air in the sixties and seventies when Dad was a corporate VP at Lockheed. After living as po’ folks in Provence, I felt rich in Beverly Hills. The Grove’s village-y setting seemed a natural extension as far as retail concepts go. You’ve got the usual upscale chains, but you’re outdoors, the fountains dance to music and the atmosphere has a tinge of street fair. I couldn’t afford a real spree, but just cruising along in the stream of pretty, well-heeled people gave me a feeling of privilege.
It was almost dark when I got back to Ben’s. Charged with new input, relaxed by a spur-of-the-moment spa treatment, swinging smart shopping bags by freshly polished fingers, I paused outside the iron gate. There were people and activity in the courtyard.
“There she is–Mom!” Ben was holding his phone to his ear with one hand and waving his other one. Half a dozen other faces turned toward me.
“Where have you been?” he shouted.
“You know…The Grove.” I held up my shopping bags.
“Awwww…yaaay,” cheered various neighbors as Ben hurried to open the gate.
I got it . . . he thought I’d gone on a bender. They were all worried about me. And I hadn’t even thought of drinking.
“Why didn’t you call me?” he said, like a frantic parent.
“I don’t have a phone.”
“You’re getting one tomorrow.”
–Marcia Muir Mitchell