Cross Country / A Memoir of France, 14: If the hat doesn’t fit, comment trouvée l’amour?

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

For the love of a tuba, rendez-vous raté

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“Whadda ya mean, the hats are in Germany?”

“I got a call from a delivery service in Wiesbaden and they’re being held up because of a strike. They won’t be here for at least another ten days.”

“But it will be too late then; the hat show will be over. Let me check into it.”

I’d met Laura Daly when she was managing a dance company in Connecticut. Discovering that she also designed hats — and had a whole line of them, most of which looked to me chic-ly French, particularly the berets but also the accoutrements attached to some of the larger chapeaux — I offered to host a show for Laura in my Paris flat on the rue de Paradis, which as a street lined with crystal and porcelain shops already promised a certain caché. The problem was that we were in April 2002, and in one of the many nonsensical security measures installed by the American government after September 11, it had been decided that any package over two pounds destined for Europe would be routed through a private company as soon as it got out of the U.S. – a strategy to which the sender was not alerted. So the bulk of Laura’s hats were stranded in Wiesbaden, and the stock for her show was reduced to the single box she was able to cart with her on the plane. I invited my own reduced stock of Parisienne candidates d’amour: Benedicte, with whom I’d broken off (“I thought American boys were serious!” she’d scolded me, a mild rebuke compared to the more vituperious ones my Yank forebears like Henry Miller – see “Quiet Days in Clichy” —  had endured from Benedicte’s ancestors) when Sylvie stole my heart; Sylvie, who’d essentially rebuked me by pretending the stolen kiss in my apartment didn’t happen; and Gillian, a tres chic new candidate. Sabine and I weren’t speaking since I’d answered her suggestion that Judaism wasn’t a culture or race but just a religion (in my opinion a concept instilled in her by a France repentent for having deported non-practicing Jews) by escaping from her car (in which we’d been having this debate) while she was in the laundry retrieving her clown costume. This is a bad habit I have; ending the argument by escaping it. (Because then I of course ‘control’ the situation… a need no doubt another residue of the post-divorce circumstances of my childhood in which I felt I had no control over being shifted from one parent’s house to the other’s every few days.) (If I keep bringing this up, it’s not because of any residual ire towards my parents, but because I’m convinced that my experience was not unique, and that we all trip over our past as we stumble towards our future. And because if this particular post-divorce domestic arrangement – my two brothers and I going from house to house every half week – was a result of changing mores in the U.S. which recognized that dad might want to fully share custody with mom, customs were also chanigng in France at around the same time. In the 1979 “Love on the Run,” the final film of Truffaut’s 20-year Antoine Doinel cycle, reporters surround Jean-Pierre Leaud (as Antoine) and Claude Jade (a.k.a. “Peggy Proper,” his love from “Stolen Kisses” and wife from “Domicile Conjugale”) as they emerge from their divorce proceedings, because it’s the first no-fault divorce in France.)

“My head is too petite,” Sylvie said with a humorous smile, looking up with her big brown eyes at the magenta bonnet which made her head, at least, seem Lilliputian. Laura was content that some of her hats had at least been tried out by some chic French women who knew how to wear them, so her and her husband offered to take me and Benedicte, who turned up for the second showing, to dinner at the Verre Volé, the wine bistro located on the rue Lancry where it hits the Canal St.-Martin, and where Benedicte and I had had our first dinner date, the one that terminated in my bed. (In a gesture atypical for scorned French women — see above reference to Miller — Benedicte had forgiven me; we’d warmed up to each other after an evening in which, running into each other among mutual friends, we’d banded together to defend “The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain” when the intellectual friends started disdaining the film as unrealistic.) Laura wasn’t especially keen on the andouillette, which too gamey for American tastes; “This is nasty!” Back at my apartment on Paradis, it took Benedicte and I about two minutes to fall back into each other’s arms — she may have looked like the banker she was, but she still had those sultry bedroom eyes and that alluring way of undoing her “Peggy Proper” hair bun — and we again stopped just short of home plate. Then I did something to her that I was more used to other women doing to me. Unable to sleep, and preparing to depart for New York, at two in the morning I asked her if she wouldn’t mind leaving. Sitting up in her underwear, she was very understanding and called a cab.

I sent Benedicte a note of apology from New York, — “This is not a good way to treat someone” — to which she responded, “It’s okay, don’t worry. You are a funny boy though!” After I returned to Paris — I knew I was home when the cab driver from De Gaulle insisted on reading a motorcycling magazine while driving on the freeway, and I was so sublimely ecstatic to be see my neighborhood, now my home, in the 10th arrondisement near the Canal, even the dreary Boulevard de Magenta glowed resplendently in my eyes — I saw her once at the Cafe Deux Moulins in Montmartre, where Amelie worked in the film. Benedicte was amazed to learn that Amelie’s cafe was real, and once we got there, sitting in the booth where Amelie’s would-be amour had awaited her while Amelie stood surreptitiously behind him — we’d held hands all the way up from my place on Paradis — she looked at me through those goggle glasses and shook her head whimsically. “What?” I prodded her. “It’s funny, you and me; we’re not at all the same.” I was a California hippy chick, she a conservative French banker. “What’s that around your neck?” I asked about the oblong silver object that looked like a swizzle stick. “It’s for champagne, to test the bubbles.” I hoped she didn’t try to use it on me, and discover that the fizz was fading.

A week later — I hadn’t called Benedicte — I had plans to check out an improvisation match between a tuba and the organ at Notre Dame when she phoned. “It was a horrible day at work, it’s very important that I see you.” I typically find it hard to say no, so I said “Sure,” but after we hung up, I realized that I didn’t want to cancel the tuba-organ concert (I could see Benedicte any night, but how often can an American in Paris see a tuba engage in a duel with the Notre Dame organ?), and left a message for her saying I couldn’t make the date. She never forgave me. A year later I ran into Benedicte on the rue des Petites Ecuries (in ancient times lined with fur boutiques; Camus had also lived there after the war), wearing her clumpy blue down jacket and having an intense conversation with a male, apparently a colleague. I pinched her jacket lightly as a way to say “Hey!”, whereupon she spun around, arched her back, and shouted viciously at me “Que vous ne me touché pas monsieur!!!”

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