Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 12: Choisir la femme

By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2012, 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

Torn between three French Women, and acting like a fool

“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 skin-tight shimmering magenta silk Oriental dress in which she appeared for my holiday party, my first at 49, rue de Paradis.

After I’d given her my sunflower in November, I’d left a message with my e-mail address for Sylvie at the Theatre de la Bastille, where she worked as an usher. She’d responded, in an e-mail subject-lined “Histoire des tournesols (sunflowers),” with a long letter telling me how strange I was — and suggesting we could meet for a drink if I liked at the Cafe de l’Industrie on the rue Sedaine, also near the Bastille. I’d liked the joint — a cavernous corner cafe with a set of short stairs leading down to a second, subtly-lit level, a refuge filled with vintage pastis signs that made you feel you were in a roomy ship’s hold in the Bay of Marseille — but a month later, by the time of my party, I still couldn’t tell if Sylvie liked me, or was just amused…. So here she was, her deep brown eyes under her bunned dark brown hair gazing directly into mine, the corners of her lips slightly turned up in a smile, her freckled cheeks flush from the brisk December evening. After handing me the pack of cat food, she lowered her eyes as she dipped into her compact Chinese silk 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 and a hand-crafted incense-holder decorated with tiny mirrors. “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 and I was still taking my showers in the kitchen sink. I plopped the cone 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 when used in the context of your home 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?

Moving into – and becoming — the center of the main room, Sylvie looked up at my white mylar ceiling. “It’s very funny,” she said, munching on the latkes or potato pancakes I’d just served her. “It’s like having a mirror above you. It doesn’t give you bizarre 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 I was so dazzled by Sylvie that I was frazzled to have to take my attention away from her to make Sabine a batch of potato pancakes. Sabine seemed to sense this, purposely retaining me as she devoured the latkes. “These crepes de pomme de terre, they’re terrible Paul,” she said, using the adjective 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.” (Sylvie was 29, Sabine 32. I was 40.) As I watched this solid, substantial, and reliable woman 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 might 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 nobler instincts, itched to get back to the more glamorous and dolled-up 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 make a romantic overture to her when I had the chance. It was as if I expected ‘my’ Sabine, ‘my’ (potential) ame-soeur to show up looking like Truffaut/Antoine’s Sabine in “Love on the Run” and didn’t know how to accomodate reality. And yet: Sylvie might turn out to be the butterfly of a night; Sabine could be the help-mate of a lifetime.

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