Cross-Country, a Memoir of France: Chapitre 4, The Return of the Girl in the Green Dress

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                                          Copyright 2011, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

The Return of the Girl in the Green Dress: Wise Love, raté

If I wasn’t already set on moving to France, seeing the five films of Truffaut’s 20-year Antoine Doinel cycle (beginning with “The 400 Blows”) all in one weekend at Jonas Mekas’s Anthology FIlm Archives in New York in 2000 made me determined that I, too, would find the ‘femme de ma vie’ in Paris. So I was more encouraged than surprised that the girl in the lime-green two-strap dress who greeted me and my three cats, Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey at 33 rue Lamartine — one-time demeure of Baudelaire, which I’d be subletting while the girl was off to produce in the Off festival at Avignon — on July 2, 2001 had the same name as the heroine of “L’amour en fuite” (Love on the Run), the last chapter of the cycle, in which grown-up but not yet mature Antoine (Jean-Pierre Leaud) finally finds his true love: Sabine. The significance of this encounter in the scheme of my life is underlined by my still being able to remember that Sabine had just returned from the swimming pool, the chlorine highlighting her brown freckles under still damp auburn pony-tails (the sheen perhaps enhanced by the esteem of memory), that she served pizza royale and chicken salad for lunch, and that she seemed to have an infinite supply of Schweppes lemon soda and apricot nectar to replenish my thirst as I made repeated trips up the six flights of stairs with cats, stereo components, and even a few garments. (French lesson number one: “Escalier” doesn’t mean “Escalator,” but “Staircase.” French lesson number two: “Fifth” floor means “Sixth.”)

Movies are cleaner than life, though (with the casting sometimes adding other layers; ‘my’ Sabine would later inform me that the the Sabine of my dreams, Truffaut’s, was played by the lady of a whole generation of French kids’ nightmares, Dorothée, remembered by them as the insipid host of a children’s show that dominated the after-school air-waves in the 1980s); our story, that of the Sabine played by Sabine, and I, would rarely be simple over the next decade. Sometimes I think I never loved anyone as much as I loved Sabine. More than that, I loved who I was with her — not the moments, too frequent, in which I had to depend on her, including for advice with more fleeting (and flighty) love interests, which must have made her feel less like a woman and more like a mother — but the moments in which we would easily plunge into a comic interplay, often each playing characters, for Sabine was a clown by profession and I was one by vocation, albeit of the tragic-comic variety.

How much did the culture clash play a role in our tumultuously shifting relationship? Sabine would later recount in company (it was news to me) what an impression I made when I arrived with my three cats: oxblood-red Doc Martens, green denim Carhart shorts, sleeveless plaid button-down shirt from Canal Jeans, red paisley bandana, Indian Jones fedora. But there was also my invisible wardrobe, the chips I carried on my shoulder, the heavy anchor of the past weighing down my Doc Martens, the psycho-history of an (oldest) child of divorce shuttled from dad’s to mom’s house every three days beginning at the formative age of 12 and had the impression that he had no right to protest, which would weigh down our relationship. Once early on, in the midst of a heated argument over whether Judaism was a religion (her point of view) or a culture/race (mine), I took advantage of Sabine’s momentary absence from the car (she’d gone into a party supply store to fetch props for a children’s birthday party her clown-self was hosting for her company Fete un Voeu) to flee into the vast urban generic boulevards of the 19eme arrondissement, my ultimately destructive manner of ending and ‘winning’ an argument. (Later I would come to understand that the French way of atoning for what the country had done to its Jews — registering them as Jews based not on their religion but their parentage, making it easier for 74,000 Jews including 11,000 children to be deported to the death camps — was to henceforth teach their children that Judaism was just a religion,  and not a race.) We didn’t speak for at least two years. It would not be my first over-reaction, and it would not be the first time Sabine forgave me, for, above and beyond all women except one that I have ever known, Sabine fulfilled Yeats’s definition of ‘wise love’:

“In wise love each devines the secret self of the other, and refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror in which the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life, for love also creates the Mask.”

There were never any masks between Sabine and I, although there were at times ‘guises’ to overcome, such as mother and child, right up to the moment when I would call her nine years later from a police station at the Gare du Nord — a problem of papers, penultimately resolved in my favor — and ask if she would put me up for the night in her apartment in Montreuil. She put me up that evening, as she had put up with me for the previous 3,705 days – Sabine, a saint of the quotidian.

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