Cross-Country / A Memoir of France, 18: Sarah Bernhardt’s Mirror

By Paul Ben-Itzak                                                                                                                                          Copyright 2016 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Like what you’re reading? Please support the Arts Voyager by donating through PayPal, designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address if you prefer to pay by check or in Euros. Based in the Dordogne and Paris, the Arts Voyager is also currently looking for lodging in Paris or Bordeaux. Paul  is also available for translating, editing, and webmastering assignments.)

Antoine’s Children

 “Ca pique!” Emilie complained before gingerly extracting the chewy Chinese ginger candy I’d offered her from between her pursed lips and tossing it towards the Seine, prompting a momentary flashback of a junior high school field trip to a movie theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown during which I persisted in sucking a dried plum bon-bon that turned out to be unexpectedly salty because it would have been inelegant to spit it out. We were scrunched together thigh to thigh in the back of Pierre’s Lilliputian 1961 tan Renault. I’d whipped out the bon-bon to change the subject from Sarah Bernhardt’s mirror, which I’d procured at a Montmartre garage sale earlier that Saturday afternoon and whose authenticity Pierre had been disputing, our argument no doubt another manifestation of Old World cynicism versus New World optimism – or, as the French would put it, naivité. (A transatlantic combat to which there are exceptions; Camus has been described – albeit by an American scholar — as an optimistic pessimist.) Never mind that Pierre had not yet seen the mirror, encased by a rotating mahogony frame, itself framed by a mahogony border encrusted with abalone shells, in true St-Honoré Belle Epoch style, le tout supported by two feet; nor had he looked into the eyes of the couple of middle-aged Bohemians who’d sold the mirror to me after furnishing a logical explanation of how they’d inherited it. I’d only just met Emilie at Pierre’s bookstand across from the Hotel de la Ville; a friend of a fellow bouquiniste and just arrived from Bordeaux, she was tagging along for Pierre’s 40th birthday party, which I’d volunteered to DJ on his sound equipment, more ancient and decrepit than the Renault. At the moment, though, I was more perturbed by the warmth emanating from Emilie’s thighs, palpable even through our two pairs of Levis.

“Your music is shit!” the skinny 14-year-old son of one of Pierre’s guests, a bedraggled 40-something woman with a pre-maturely weathered visage, had just volunteered (we’re now later, at the party, and, knowing the Frenchies predilection for the ‘80s, I was spinning the Human League’s “Mirror Man”), prompting me to segué into Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and bound over the window sill into the courtyard of Pierre’s building on the rue Capitaine Spalding in the 20th arrondissement, not far from the Place Edith Piaf with its statue of “La Mome,” to complain to the mother.

“Do you know what your son just said to me?” I interrupted the woman’s conversation with Pierre’s 20-something blonde Russian girlfriend, my hands indignantly posed at my waist. “I’m not getting paid for this. I’m DJing as a present to Pierre. I don’t deserve to be insulted by rude teenagers.”

“He’s just a kid,” the mother replied, smiling smugly in such a way as to try to deflect the responsibility back to me for the tenor of my reaction. “Be cool.”

When I returned to the living room and plopped down to pout on the black double-bean bag “chair” from which Emilie had been regarding the scene with an indulgent smile, she watched me with amused tolerance for a moment before observing, “You know Paul, I’m a children’s social worker by training, and there’s something you must understand:  It is very important for adolescents to be able to claim their independence, to find their territory. Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you automatically win their respect.”

“I saw ‘The 400 Blows’ too,” I sputtered out, referring to the Truffaut film. “And Antoine Doinel at least had respect for artists! He erected an entire shrine to Balzac….”

“….And that did not prevent his father from taking him over his knees,” Emilie pointed out, placing her hand on mine for emphasis, “and whipping him with a belt when the candles for his shrine almost burnt down their flat. Those days are gone. We’re living in a new epoch. French children no longer have to submit to the unquestioned authority of their elders and have the right to claim their own autonomy.”

Besides the difficulty of maintaining a serious stance when you’re sitting in a bean bag chair which sends you constantly tumbling into the lap of your adversary, the inclination of my own inner adolescent to sulk was fast losing out (to cop a line from Boccaccio) to the resurrection of the teen spirit of the flesh provoked by the increasing heat emanating through our jeans, so I not so adroitly attempted another segué.

“I’m enjoying arguing this point with you, but I need to change the record. Est-ce que tu peut te liberé pour diner avec moi le mardi prochaine? (Can you free yourself up to dine with me next Tuesday?) Histoire de continue le conversation.” At this Emilie paused, looked me in the eyes, lifted the red ballpoint pen from my pocket, took my forearm between her tiny fingers and wrote her mobile number on my skin. Inspired by this breach, I managed to catapult myself in one leap from the bean bag chair to the record bin and pulled out the Pretenders, cueing up Chrissie Hynde to resurrect Jimi Hendrix:

I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
Well I take my spirit and I crash my mirrors
Now the whole world is here for me to see
I said the whole world is here for me to see.

 

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