EVERYONE KNEW Arrelle Warwick was out of her element in California. The antithesis of the west coast girl from the Sixties, her destiny lay in Europe or, at the very least, on the east coast. Arrelle and I were fast friends in our senior year at Westlake. We ditched study hall together, tearing off to Westwood in my powder blue Triumph Spitfire; crammed together for our physiology tests over the phone until late into the night; double-dated boys from Harvard Military Academy. And, when the time came, we both enrolled at the same New York women’s college—the only two from our class to venture past the Rockies.
On the morning we boarded the plane for Briarcliff Manor, I remember feeling how lucky I was to leave LA with a close friend—one with whom I imagined having all kinds of adventures now that we were free from the constraints imposed by our parents. But my luck didn’t last. Within days of our arrival on campus, it brutally hit me: Arrelle no longer wanted anything to do with California. And that included me.
I tried to stay close, knocking on her dormitory door at all hours. It only annoyed her. My provincial upbringing had not yet worn thin and, adrift from the ties that had bound us in adolescence, our relationship suffered.
As painful as this rift was, I now know it happened for a reason. Had it not been for Arrelle’s indifference, I may have never come to know Debbie.
The administrative staff at Briarcliff—the little old women who decided who should room with whom during that first year as Freshmen—had paired Ms. Beverly Hills with Ms. Fifth Avenue…which meant that Arrelle got Debbie as a room-mate while I got Buffalo and Oklahoma City. On top of that, it only took a few days for the bison and the Southern Belle to join forces, leaving me about as appreciated as a spare wheel.
None of us like rejection; most of us just yearn to fit in. Back then, I was no exception and, fortunately, as I felt myself falling into that abyss destined for the outlander, Debbie was there to catch me.
“You’re a diamond in the rough,” she said. “Anyone can see that.”
A Manhattanite to the core, Debbie and I couldn’t have been more different. On the day we met, I wore old jeans with a ribbed cotton pullover. She, however, wore solid Emilio Pucci, accented with 18 carat gold Trinity earrings from Cartier. With thick, streaked hair, pulled back at the neck, her look was distinctly New York. Debbie exuded Upper Eastside wealth—one of those girls who sent out pheromones, attracting only the most successful money managers from “the Street.”
Her father had astutely accumulated real estate after the War. Somewhat parsimonious, he, nonetheless, provided his wife and two daughters with a life envied by the ninety-percent. A man of acquired wealth, as opposed to the inherited riches so prevalent among the girls at Briarcliff, his oldest daughter had a definite soft spot for him.
“Ughhhh,” Debbie lamented, as she burst through the door to my room early that fall. “My mother did it again…went on another one of her shopping sprees and bought a ton of Guccis.”
“What’s a Goochi?” I asked.
It was the kind of question that had Debbie doubled over in laughter, more often than not with a lit Virginia Slims between her fingers. Burning a cigarette hole through her corduroy pants as she folded her arms over her stomach, the expression on Debbie’s face told me she knew she had her work cut out for her.
Debbie taught me who was who in the City, where to shop and, more importantly, where not to. She taught me what perfume to wear (Norell) and which to chuck into the wastebasket (everything I had brought with me from California). Debbie was the first person to take me to the Hamptons. For that matter, she was the first person to tell me where they are. She gave me confidence. She made me feel special. Simply put, Debbie liked being with me…for all of the reasons Arrelle wanted to flee.
I was so used to following Debbie, relying on her to decide where we would go in the City and who we would see, that our arrival in Paris came as a real shock. In those first few weeks away from home, unexpectedly, a paradigm shift occurred. I related easily to the French; I felt so comfortable with them. But Debbie did not. All of a sudden, I was the one leading.
In the days that followed our dinner at Corinne’s, I sensed her growing frustration. Creating a new social circle is difficult. Why try, when the tribe you have left is where you feel the most at home? I, however, felt a tugging at my heart, a pulling sensation that had me wondering if, in some distant past life, the people of Paris had been my tribe.
To learn French, I enrolled at the American College on the avenue Bosquet. Not only do I love to write but, as anyone who knows me will tell you, I love to talk even more. I view conversation as a participatory sport—definitely not one for spectators—and sitting on the sidelines was killing me. I desperately wanted to speak the language.
It would be the only course I would ever flunk in my life. Months later, I would come to understand why. Conversational French isn’t learned in the classroom; it’s learned in the bedroom. In any event, at the beginning of October in 1971, I was still trotting off to school three times a week, leaving Debbie at the apartment where she sat wondering what the hell she was doing in Paris.
“I’m leaving for the weekend,” she announced one Thursday, as I returned to our apartment after class.
“Where are you going?”
“New Jersey,” she answered, stuffing a shirt from Celine into her canvas and saddle leather bag. “I’m going to see Ruffy.”
“You’re going to Princeton?!? For the weekend?!?”
Taking a drag from her cigarette, she looked at me quizzically.
“I’ll only be gone for a couple of days,” she continued. “I’ll be back on Sunday evening.”
She said it as if she was about to jump into her father’s Mercedes for a quick jaunt to the countryside.
“What’s the big deal?” she asked.
Flopping on the bed with a huff that registered my despair, I tried to reason with her. It was a losing proposition. When it came to men, Debbie didn’t reason; at least, not with her head. That much, we had in common. We both made decisions with our hearts.
“Debbie,” I said, followed by an extended pause. “I know you love Ruffy. But this is the fourth weekend you’ve done this to me. And we’ve only been in Paris for six weeks! In a year, we’ll be back home and you can spend the rest of your life with him! Don’t you want to enjoy the bit of freedom we have now…while we still can?”
In resignation, she responded by throwing her hands up into the air. And, in so doing, I could see that she must have spent the entire afternoon trying to figure out how to break the news to me gently, only to give up on the idea as hopeless.
“I just,” she continued, “I just can’t help it. I’m not made for Paris, Bérénice. Besides…I miss him. Why should I be away from him when I miss him so much?”
She had emptied her half of the French armoire in our bedroom. As I stared at the wooden hangers lying on the red and white toile de jouy bedspreads, I contemplated yet another weekend at our apartment—alone.
“You’ll be fine,” she continued, quite apparently reading my mind. “You can go out with Corinne. You get along with her.”
And, with that, she snapped the lock on her bag shut and carried it to the foyer. The taxi was already waiting for her outside our front door.
I spent the entire next morning staring at the cover of the August issue of French Vogue—a gift left to us by our landlord, le dit comte de Gramont. The face of the red-haired beauty against a cerulean blue background, her locks piled atop her head, will remain forever engraved in my mind. Perplexed by my plans gone awry, I had allowed myself to fall into a stupor, hypnotized by her eyes.
Somewhere around two in the afternoon, I came out of my trance. I couldn’t believe it. The phone was ringing!
Tripping over the edge of a French tapis Aubusson, I dashed for the telephone before its distinctive ring went dead.
“There’s a Steve McQueen flick playing on the Champs-Élysées,” Corinne said. “Do you want to go with me tonight?”
From the Place de I’ena, I could take the avenue Pierre 1er de Serbie straight to the theatre, deviating at the last stretch to walk the rue Marbeuf. I loved the rue Marbeuf. I loved the gold color of the lit store windows at twilight, the smell of freshly roasted coffee beans as I passed the boutique vendor near the rue François 1er, and the hustling sound of les Parisiennes as they bought their baguette and jambon persillé on their way home at night.
I met Corinne in front of the Gaumont cinemas. At a kiosk on the Champs-Élysées, she had just purchased the latest edition of British Vogue. Radiating a warm smile, she glanced up from a page that held a photo of her running across a London street. Corinne was thinking of leaving Paris to live in England, and the prospect of losing my one and only French girlfriend left me wondering if her move would be the last straw that broke me. She must have sensed my fear of abandonment. Yes…I have abandonment issues.
“I know how you feel,” she commented. “I felt the same way during my first year at Mills. The bay area was so vast—so suburban—and I felt so lost.”
As we waited in line to enter the theatre, she talked about her time spent at the small women’s college in Northern California while struggling to remove a slip of paper from the hip pocket of her jeans. Folded in four, she opened it before handing me the page she had torn out that afternoon from a spiral notebook.
“Here,” she said. “This is for you.”
The writing on the piece of paper was in pencil, and it took a moment for its significance to click. It was a list…a list of the names and telephone numbers of ten men.
The shock on my face had Corinne laughing instantly.
“Don’t worry,” she smiled. “They are gentlemen.”
Speechless, I entered the theatre with her, my preconceived notions of the formal introductions I had considered de rigueur now shattered.
I’ll never get the courage to call a single one of them, I thought as, in the dark, I watched Steve McQueen navigate the endurance course at Le Mans.
At home, alone for the next two days, I pulled the list from my bag several times, but could do nothing more with it than stare at the names while wondering who these men could be. Monday morning would change all of that. Opening my eyes to find Debbie in the twin bed next to mine, for once, she was wide awake.
“How was it?” I asked, as I pushed myself, and the down pillows, up against the wooden headboard.
“Great,” she answered. “I think I’m going to marry him.”
Debbie always announced things in a nonchalant, matter-of-fact kind of way; like, “yeah…I think I’ll do that.”
“How was your weekend?” she chirped.
Rather than telling her, I reached for my bag.
“What’s this?” she asked, while perusing the list.
“Corinne gave it to me,” I answered. “She said they’ll show me a great time.”
The third man on the list was Philippe Junot, the handsome, witty and unabashed bon vivant with volumes of conquests, literally, under his belt. Seven years later, he would be the first of three to marry Princess Caroline of Monaco.
The second man on the list was Christian Marquand, best friend to Marlon Brando and a French heart-throb in his own right, who had begun his film career opposite Brigitte Bardot in Roger Vadim’s sizzling hit, “Et Dieu Crea La Femme.”
Choking at the thought of my getting on the phone with any of the ten, Debbie smirked.
“Who are you going to start with?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t got a clue who any of them are. I might as well start with the first guy on the list.”
Looking to see whom Corinne had placed in the number one spot, Debbie read his name out loud.
“Pierre ‘Pitou’ de la Salle?”
Pausing for a second, she then whispered: “Bérénice de la Salle…it works.”
“I haven’t even met the man, Debbie.”
“I know. But you’ve got to admit…it flows. Try him. Why don’t you call now?”
Uncharacteristically, and without any further coaxing, I reached for the phone.
The first thing you noticed about Pitou was the tone of his voice. He had a voice made from velvet that signaled the presence of a truly gentle soul. At least, most of the time. He was also a Cancer, subject to sudden mood swings. But I wouldn’t discover that for years.
Before I go any further, I should tell you that my concept of “true love” is anything but idyllic. I don’t believe in finding the perfect man. He doesn’t exist. I believe in finding the man whom you can love in spite of his imperfections. Loving someone deeply is the most joyous, the most fulfilling experience anyone can hope for. It is also hard work. No one would teach me this more than Pitou.
That morning, when somehow I got the courage to call him, was the beginning of the Cinderella years; a period of my life when one man would take me into his hands and mold me like clay. It doesn’t happen, unless you want it to; and I can’t think of a single other girl from my senior year at Westlake who would have let it happen. But I was the one who grew up without the father and, deep down inside of me, there was a void that I now know only he could fill.
Once again, I found myself practicing my lines as I waited for the telephone to stop ringing. When it did, I got the first of many surprises to come.
“Hello?” I responded, wondering if I had dialed a wrong number. The French pronounce the word as “allô.” He must have picked up on my American accent because he immediately responded with,
“Yes…who is this?”
“I’m a friend of Corinne Buchet,” I answered. “I’ve been living in Paris for a month and, well…she suggested that I call you.”
“You know,” I continued, “she thought we should, maybe, meet??”
“Ah,” he said. “I see….”
As the wheels in his head were turning, I sat biting my bottom lip. This was a bad idea, I thought. But, then, he resumed.
“Dites-moi …are you free this afternoon? Around four?”
“Why, yes, I am,” I responded, happy that he had put an end to the hush but a bit disappointed he hadn’t suggested that we meet in the evening, as in, for dinner.
“Great. Why don’t I pick you up for tea?”
Clearly this guy wasn’t taking any chances. If I failed to meet his expectations, I would be back at my apartment by six.
After giving him my address, and hanging up the phone, I turned to Debbie—a bit forlorn.
“He wants to have tea.”
Picking up on the meaning of that, Debbie didn’t miss a beat.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I mean, look at the bright side. You already know the guy’s not desperate.”
Click on the photo of the Champs-Élysées for a panoramic view of Paris.
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