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Cross Country / A Memoir of France
15: Cherche la femme

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak

Torn between three French Women, and acting like a fool

PARIS -- "It's for your cats. I don't know if it's the right brand, but at least it's something." Sylvie shrugged as she said it, only slightly wrinkling the shimmering magenta silk Oriental dress in which she appeared for my holiday party, the first at 49, rue de Paradis. Her deep brown eyes under her tightly bunned dark brown hair were gazing directly into mine, the corners of her lips slightly turned up in a smile, her freckled cheeks flush from the brisk December evening. She lowered her eyes as she dipped into her compact Chinese purse. "And this, it's for you. It's not much but I thought, for your new apartment, it would be good to help with the atmosphere." She gave the last word a dramatic flourish emphasized by a conspiratorial raising of her eyebrows. I unwrapped the tiny package and discovered a box of rose-scented incense cones from India. "I'll burn one right away," I said, ducking into the salle de bain, where the workers had plopped a brand new shining bathtub, even if the water wasn't yet connected. I plopped it on the rim of the tub and lit it. "That's a stunning dress!" I said over my shoulder. "Oh, thank you, a friend just gave it to me for Christmas, it's the first time I'm wearing it," Sylvie said entering the bathroom and looking down at the still dirt floor. "Oh-lah-lah, c'est le bordel ici!" she exclaimed, using the French word for 'brothel,' which someone later explained to me means "mess." As were my emotions; as soon as I'd opened the door to Sylvie and felt my heart jumping, I regretted that two days earlier I'd slept with Benedicte. Why had I settled?

Inside the apartment at 49, rue de Paradis in Paris, Spriing-Summer 2004: On the bed, Alaskan-Siamese Sonia; on chair, San Francisco native Hopey; partially viewed below desk, black and white Alaskan-European Mesha. Above: The mylar ceiling. On table under the capital 'A' in 'Paradis': Sarah Bernhardt's personal mirror. Photo courtesy and ©Christine Chen.

"I'm not quite ready. I still have to take my shower, and I need to do it here in the kitchen as the salle de bain isn't finished yet." It was two nights earlier, and I was taking Benedicte to dinner at the Verre Volé ("Stolen Glass"), a cozy 'cave au vins' on the rue Lancry, which wound from the messy Boulevard Magenta to the eternal Canal St. Martin. Ever the banker, she'd arrived early, covered in a non-descript jacket and with her dirty blonde hair in a neat bun above her glasses and big round eyes. "It's okay, I can wait here in the salle de bain until you're proper," she answered, then, after disappearing into the large bathroom: "It's kind of the bordel here, non?"

I'd been hipped to the Verre Volé on my first one-month sojourn in Paris by a Bohemian Parisian, the friend of a Chinese-French dancer-choreographer I'd met in New York. "You have to try the bio wine," he raved. "No chemicals, so you can actually taste the wine." Two Algerian-French sisters and a North African French young man completed the caravan, which ended with me dancing to reggae between the two sisters at Club Euro, a small club off the Place de la Republique. It was an early Halloween in Paris when the French were just getting into it but hadn't yet got it right -- 2000 -- so the night was percolated by the sisters shouting "Boo" at passersby and other drivers, rather unconvincingly, out the car window. It was also the first time I'd seen the Canal. "The Seine gets rather narrow here, doesn't it?" I'd asked.

Above book table: The cat window between the main room and the kitchen, in which the author took his showers unitl the salle de bain or bathroom was finished. Partially viewed at far left: the hallway leading to the front door, with the bathroom on the left and the kitchen on the right. Photo courtesy and ©Christine Chen.

On this night a year later with Benedicte, celebrating my installation 'pour le bon' at 49, rue de Paradis, I'd splurged, spending 135 Francs or slightly less than three Little Princes -- it was December 2001, and we were in the waning days of the franc, whose 50-note was decorated with Saint-Exupery's hero; the 100 was M. Eiffel and the 200 Cezanne -- on, of all things, a Beaujolais. "Hmmm," I said approvingly after the haughty server who'd suggested it poured, "You're right, Beaujolais is more than the Beaujolais Nouveau. I can actually taste it. Is it bio?"

Whatever it was, it did the work wine will do on both of us; when we got home and sat on the plain mattress which also served as my couch, Benedicte dipped her head and gave me a look from deep behind her glasses whose meaning even dense me couldn't misconstrue. We grappled hungrily, two mismatched souls whose only deep point in common was their desperation for love, escalated quickly to third base and stopped just short of home plate, but I was sated and she seemed content, snuggling her back against me as we fell asleep. (Or she did, anyway; I have trouble falling asleep with a woman.) In the morning I brought cappuccino poured into my two large brown and white Italian ceramic cappuccino mugs from San Francisco's Cafe Trieste to the bed, my hands shaking, and promptly spilled it. "Ouf, you are so nervous! Why do you shake like that?" Benedicte said, rising in just her tee-shirt and panties." Do you have some white vinegar? That will erase the stain." But the coffee stains would remain on the drab blue-gray carpet on Paradis for the next six years, long after our aborted relationship had turned to vinegar....

My relationship with Sabine, however, would prove much more solid, and at the moment -- to take us back to my Holiday party, two days after I'd slept with Benedicte, who was visiting her grandparents near Dijon and thus couldn't be there -- Sabine was asking me to make her a fresh batch of potato pancakes. I reluctantly tore myself away from the effervescent Sylvie, who had moved into the center of the main room and was looking up and marveling at my white mylar ceiling. "It's very funny," she said, munching on the potato pancakes I'd just served her. "It's like having a mirror above you. It doesn't give you funny dreams?" I had been contemplating whether to confide that she was the girl of mine when the doorbell rang and Sabine appeared, coming straight from her work of giving clown parties for children, perspiring mildly in grey corduroy jeans and a tight brown top that followed the mold of her curved belly, which protruded slightly from under it. Normally I'd be joyous to see her, but now I was so dazzled by Sylvie I was frazzled to have to take my attention away from her. Sabine seemed to know it, purposely retaining me as she devoured the latkes. "These crepes de pomme de terre, they're terrible Paul," she said, using the word that in French means the opposite of what it sounds like. "What's in them?" "Oh, potatoes, onions, eggs, flour...." "Paul, Sylvie's very beautiful, non? How did you meet her?" "Oh, she works at the Theatre de la Bastille. She's a dancer." "Ah," Sabine said, once again seeing right through me, "I see. A dancer. How old is she?" "Oh, I don't know." As I watched this solid and substantial woman who worked so hard appreciating the meal I'd made, and making an effort to engage me despite that she had to be exhausted after four hours entertaining sugar-active children while covered in a hot clown suit and painted with a permanent unbreakable smile, and got an intimation of the life she could offer me if she'd have me -- to quote William Hurt's character in the movie version of Anne Tyler's "The Accidental Tourist," it's not how much you love someone, but who you are when you're with them that matters -- and, in spite of my better interests, itched to get back to the more flitty Sylvie, I felt guiltily conscious of my own superficiality, aware that my potential ame-soeur (soul-mate) was slipping away from me because I was too dumb to embrace her when I had the chance. Sylvie was clearly the butterfly of a night, Sabine the companion of a lifetime.

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