“Don’t Worry About It. You Still Have Two Weeks.”

Pitou, 1971THE FIRST RULE OF LOVE: when you know you have it, fight for it, sacrifice for it; or watch…as it slips from your fingers. Love is a jealous ruler who seeks unquestioning, unfailing allegiance.

It was Halloween, and Pitou still hadn’t called. Pacing our little apartment, I lamented to Debbie that, in the ten weeks we had spent in Paris, there wasn’t a single other man whom I had met and with whom I’d rather be.

“Well,” she said, “if that’s the case, why don’t you call him? What’s stopping you? Your ego?”

Everything was so simple for Debbie. If you wanted something, you didn’t bitch about not having it. You went out and got it.

“But, what do I say to him?” I asked.

“How about ‘I’m sorry for not appreciating you more’? Or ‘I don’t even know why I went out with that guy in the first place’?”

It took her about five seconds to persuade me to get on the phone.

“How are you?” I asked timidly.

But Pitou wasn’t in the mood for formalities.

“What do you want?” he asked a bit impatiently. “Why are you calling me, Bérénice?”

Had it not been for Debbie convincing me to swallow my pride, I don’t want to think how I might have responded. I had known of the dubious reputation of the womanizer whose dinner engagement I had accepted. Understanding that I had hurt Pitou by, negligently, taking the risk of being abused by another while he had spent weeks attending to me without asking for anything in return—in my own way, I asked him to forgive me.

“I miss you,” I said. “There isn’t anyone else in Paris that I want to spend any time with. Won’t you give me another chance?”

He was silent for a few seconds, but that didn’t stop the smile on his face from traveling straight through the telephone wires. My childlike honesty had caught him by surprise.

“Bon,” he conceded.  It’s a simple enough word which, in French, can be said in so many different ways. This was a “bon” drawn with relief–and I could feel it.

He picked me up a couple of hours later and brought me back to his apartment for dinner. Having almost lost the one man in Paris who, ceaselessly, had fascinated while making me laugh, I now felt irresistibly drawn to him.   Watching as he cooked his specialty—roasted chicken—I kicked off my shoes and made my approach with stealth. The intense look on my face must have startled him.  Staring quizzically at me, he asked:

“Qu’est-ce qu’il y a, Bérénice?”

I didn’t answer. Instead, I put my arms around his waist and gave him the most heartfelt kiss I have ever given a man in my life.  I had caught him off guard, both mentally and physically. With cutlery in his hands, he couldn’t wrap his arms around me.  Still, he had waited so long, so patiently, for a sign of affection that, when it finally came, he wouldn’t let it end.

There is nothing more seductive than a man more interested in pleasing the woman he is with than himself.  Any other man should be immediately ditched, thrown on the garbage heap of forgotten mistakes where he deserves to rot. Women are goddesses; they are to be worshipped.  And if the man in your life doesn’t understand this, get rid of him. If I fell in love with Pitou, it was because he treated me like an orchid growing in a hot house—one that needed a lot of space to bloom. His constant concern for my wellbeing, my emotional readiness, allowed my feelings for him to ripen until, falling from the weight of them, I landed in his lap.

That night, as the chicken continued roasting to a crisp, we made love for the first time.  And, while I can’t remember eating a thing the entire evening, he made sure I was not left hungry. Pitou was an attentive and tender lover who caressed with his eyes, with his words, with his entire being.  Speaking to me in French, telling me how beautiful I was as his body wrapped around mine, my fingers travelled the length of his back.  His skin was like silk, his gestures, soft and gentle.  I held in my arms a man who radiated love.

Hermes tieHe rose at the crack of dawn and the next morning was no exception.  Dressing early in a Saville Row suit, his tie from Hermes, his cuff links from Cartier, he gently shook me awake.Cartier cuffs

“You can stay here” he said, “but I won’t be back before noon.”

Alicia, a young and elegant woman from the Basque region of Spain who came every morning to clean the apartment after serving Pitou his breakfast in bed, stood by with a large tray in hand, draped in linen.

“No, I’d better go,” I answered. “Do you have time to drive me back to my apartment?”

“Time?” he laughed. “Tiens…prends ton petit déjeuner.  We have plenty of time.”

I loved that about him; he never rushed for anything. Dressed a full hour before his first appointment, he had time to sit and watch me while I ate, time to talk of where we might go that evening—time to live.

Thomas Goode, croppedAlicia had toasted thick slices of pain de campagne.  Served on Old Willow china from Thomas Goodes of London, I heaped black cherry jam and fresh butter on to them while Pitou poured me some tea. Watching me, as I made a glutton of myself, he smiled while gently shaking his head.

…et tes fesses?” [1] he asked, worried about the mounds of butter I continued to spread over the remaining slices.

With my mouth still full, I stopped chewing.

“Why? Are they too big?”

“ Ah, ça alors,” he said tauntingly, before breaking into a full laugh. …mes deux fesses reunis font l’une des tiens!” [2]

He wasn’t being mean. In fact, he referred to many of the models he had frequented over the years as “coat hangers” and told me, more than once, that there was nothing more disagreeable than going to bed with “skin and bones.” But he loved to poke fun—just for the sake of provoking a reaction, just to see if I was capable of laughing at myself—something that, at nineteen, I found very difficult to do. Sensing just that, he was letting me know that he wouldn’t put up with it.  And until I learned to, unflappably, ignore his bantering and, instead, reciprocate by demonstrating a skill in that fine French art—la repartie—I would serve as the brunt of many a joke.

He adored passionate people. What he couldn’t stand were the pompous—those misguided souls, with egos as big as a house, who take themselves seriously and, in the process, poison the lives of others. He believed that the first sign of intelligence, and the most important, was “a sense of humor.”

“Laugh, Bérénice. Laugh at yourself, laugh at me, laugh at the world. It is all one big joke.”

I was so inured to the archetypal businessman back home, the symbol of respectability I was taught to admire, to covet for a husband, that it hadn’t occurred to me to look for any other kind. It wasn’t serious.

“Un homme sérieux est toujours un homme drôle,” he responded.

“Who said that?” I teased, refusing to give him the credit. “Somerset Maugham?”

Pitou with Warner, cropped“No,” he grinned, seeing right through me, “Jack Warner.”

“It almost seems like an oxymoron,” I commented, still wondering if my ass was too big.

Pas de tous,  he remarked. “Without a sense of humor there is no humanity. You’re just a dangerous man, masquerading as a serious one.”

As I dressed and Alicia bustled around the apartment, he made his morning telephone calls. Catching a few words in French here and there from the bathroom where I brushed my hair, I sensed that there was another side to Pitou that I would never know without, first, mastering his language.  A change overcame him as he spoke his native tongue. We are what we speak. We are how we speak it.  I could see this as I listened to him.  Pondering the ten months left to me before returning to California, and still anchored to my plans for a future there, I resisted the temptation of following my imagination, of running wild with the thoughts of what life might be with this man.  A creature of habit, resistant to change,  I whispered to myself as he hung up the phone:

“It’s better not to go there.”

But as has been so often the case in my life, God was about to laugh at my plans.  And, that morning, the echo from His roar would rattle my world.

I crossed the threshold of the apartment on the rue de Lübeck anxious to share the tender moments of my evening with my best friend, only to find her packing.

“Another weekend stateside?” I asked.

“Not quite yet,” she answered.

“Debbie…what are you trying to tell me?”

“I can’t take it anymore,” she said. “I’ve decided to go back to New York.”

Should you ever wish to rent an apartment in Paris, do not, I repeat, do not, seek a landlord from the French Consulate—unless, of course, you like being ripped off. The intelligent élite who have access to the bureaucrats at the Consulate know that you are ignorant of their local economic conditions, and they prey on that. The rent Debbie and I were paying for our charming flat was easily twice the rate we would have paid, had we sought an apartment through a reputable agent. There was no way under the sun that I could afford our apartment without Debbie’s help, and she knew it.

“Well…what about me?” I asked. “You know I can’t pay for this place without you. What am I supposed to do?”

“Don’t worry about it,” she said, giving me that “what’s the problem?” look of hers. “I’m not leaving until the 17th. You still have two weeks.”

“The 17th?” I yelped. “The 17th of November? Do you realize what day that is?”

She had already booked her flight.

“Wednesday?”

“It’s the eighteenth anniversary of my father’s death,” I answered. “You know I have abandonment issues!”

Tucking into her suitcase the winter sweaters she knew she would not need before her return to New York, Debbie looked up at me with contrition written all over her face.

“I’m sorry,” she answered.  “But I thought it was better than leaving on the eighteenth. This way, I’ll be gone in time for you to celebrate your birthday with Pitou.”

In a moment such as this, what one truly desires becomes crystal clear. All I could think of was how do I stay? Even if I had wanted to return to the States, I wasn’t scheduled to resume classes before September. I loved my mother, but the prospect of returning home to live with her until then scared the hell out of me.

“You’ve got to help me,” I begged. “You owe it to me, Debbie. Paris was your idea, remember?”

“Oh yeah,” she replied. “Okay… I’ll call Joan. She’ll know of something less expensive than this place.”

Saint Sulpice, antique

Saint Sulpice, click to view

I wasn’t comforted. Joan Lasker was Debbie’s one friend in Paris, a classmate from her days at the exclusive Nightingale-Bamford School for Girls in Manhattan and the daughter of Bernard “Bunny” Lasker, former chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. Landing in Paris a full year ahead of us, she had cinched a job as an assistant at the American Embassy on the avenue Gabriel. Between her work, and the endless invitations she received from society’s notables connected to the ambassadorial world, she was so busy that Debbie had only been able to see her on two or three occasions since our arrival in late summer. On one of their encounters, I got the chance to visit Joan’s small apartment on a narrow street behind l’église de Saint Sulpice. It was a strange little place—with a closet for a kitchen, a curtain that separated her living room from her bed, and a bathroom so small, you could barely sit down to pee.

“Oh, great,” I mumbled. But all I got back from Debbie was her trademark “Don’t worry about it!”

“I’ll call her now,” she said, attempting to console me.

If the thought of Joan coming to my rescue had not comforted me, Debbie’s dialogue with her that morning had me terrified.

“uh, huh…uh, huh… okay—thanks Joan.”

Hanging up the phone, she announced the bad news.

“It turns out that our landlord, the Count, isn’t the only rip off artist in Paris.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well….” she squealed, two octaves higher than her normal tone of voice, “it seems that Joan is paying almost as much as we are. God…can you imagine that?  She suggested that we take a look at the classifieds in the Herald Tribune.”

We picked up the morning edition at a kiosk on the Place du Trocadéro.  That afternoon, as we discussed my options, reality sunk in.

“There’s nothing in here that I can afford, Debbie. It’s not even an option to look.”

Heaving a sigh, she made the one suggestion we both knew was my only possibility.

“Look…you are going back to college in the fall. Why don’t you go and live with Bruce until then? I mean, it’s what the two of you have planned anyway—to live together after finishing school. Why not test the waters before then? This is the perfect opportunity.”

Irrespective of the fact that with one swift twist she had turned a monumental let-down into a once in a lifetime chance opening, the thought had crossed my mind. I didn’t harbor a single doubt that Bruce would come to my rescue.  All of his tapes spoke of how much he missed me, how much he loved me.  As I listened to Debbie, it occurred to me that my seeming misfortune might just have been God’s way of saying: “It’s time to go home, Bérénice.”

That afternoon, I decided to leave Paris at the end of November.

“You can get a job for a few months,” Debbie suggested, “while Bruce finishes his senior year. Then, you can spend the summer together, before you start your classes. ”

Our thought was that I’d keep busy while he was studying.

“Yeah,” I answered. “Maybe you’re right. I mean, I can do the shopping, cook dinner … hell, I can even do the laundry. Just think of the time I’ll save him.”

She was nodding her head in assent. So, why was I so nervous?

Before recording the tape, I rehearsed with Debbie what I wanted to say to Bruce. The next morning, we sent it off by express mail.

WH Smith

For over one hundred years, W. H. Smith & Son has been a meeting place and Parisian haunt for American expats. The quaint bookstore, at the corner of the rue de Rivoli and the rue Cambon, is the largest librarie anglaise in the city, happily and profitably selling its Anglo stock since 1903. Back in the seventies, the second floor of the store, marked by its distinctive semi-circular windows, was a teashop—a quiet enclave where you could spend an entire afternoon reading one of the thousands of books plucked from the store’s shelves, while sipping Lapsang Souchong and munching on apple tarts. It was here that I chose to break the news to Pitou.

“I don’t want to go back,” I told him. “I just got here.”

Mais, mon chou…you don’t have to go back” he answered, while reaching for my hand from across the table.

Among his arsenal of charms, Pitou had a little boy smile—oddly reminiscent of Stan Laurel—one that only popped up when he was intent on enchanting you.  Accompanied by batting eye lashes, it was a puppy dog smile devised to make you laugh—a smile that let you know he was wagging his tail at the thought of winning you over. Flashing it, he remarked:

“You can always stay with me.”

“But, I can’t do that,” I answered, unable to control the laugh he so easily had provoked. “I couldn’t live with you and, then, just leave.”

“Why not?” he said. “You are free, Bérénice. You can do exactly as you please while staying with me—no conditions, no limitations, and above all…no guilt. Ne jamais se sentir concerné, ne jamais se sentir coupable. Ça ne sert à rien.” [3]

“But, surely, if you do something that you don’t think is right…you’re going to feel guilty.”

“Then don’t do it,” he said, as if the answer to my moral dilemma couldn’t be more obvious. “You have a compass. That’s what your emotions are for. If it is wrong, you know it is wrong.  And you won’t do it.   But, if you really want to stay in Paris, why is it wrong to stay with me?  You have an option.  And it comes without any strings attached. What good does it do to feel guilty about that?”

Me 1971, 2ndMe 1971,For the next two weeks he stayed close to my side as he showed me more and more of Paris, each day giving me more and more reasons to want to stay. Before I knew it, he had me behind the wheel of the mini, encouraging me to navigate the streets of the city, as if knowing that, soon, I would have to fend for myself against French road rage.

Aye!” he winced, as shifting into second, I ground the gears. “Ma pauvre voitureIl faut la traiter comme une jeune mariée, Bérénice.[4]

On the weekends, we lunched at the bistro, Benoit, near les Halles where we’d feast on crayfish and  profiteroles.   In the afternoons, we’d take long walks through le Marais around the red-brick façade of the Place des Vosges, once home to Cardinal Richelieu. Sunday mornings, after a walk in the Tuileries, Pitou liked to shop for fresh vegetables and fish at the open-air market along the avenue du Président Wilson. There, while strolling through the tables of nuts and cheeses, of fresh-cut flowers and shellfish, he succumbed to the question that had been on his mind all week.

Tuileries, fall“Have you heard anything back from Charlie?”

“No,” I answered, secretly disturbed by this fact, but intent on not admitting it.

Open Air market“It doesn’t matter,” I continued. “He’s just busy with school, and I know what he’s going to say. I already have everything packed.”

The next morning, when the concierge knocked on our door with our mail, I smiled at the thought that, finally, my wait was over.

 “Il-y-a un paquet pour vous, Mademoiselle.”

Tearing at the brown wrapping paper, I popped the cassette into the tape player while, confidently, calling out to my accomplice.

“Debbie…come and listen.”

How long does it take to feel a verbal slap before it has been given? You know when its coming. You can feel it before it is delivered, just by the tone of the person’s voice preparing to administer it.  And, by the time it hits, you’ve been so stunned that you’re already frozen in place. You don’t need to hear the words that should be the culprits, blowing you to the floor. Their job has already been accomplished by the pauses and the nervous laughs that come just before them.

I don’t remember much of what Bruce said—something about being “responsible” and how his studies were “the most important thing for the moment.”  What remains seared in my mind is how I felt as I listened to him: secondary.

“The best thing for you to do now,” he commented condescendingly, “is to just admit that you made a mistake, Bernie. You shouldn’t have gone to Paris in the first place. So…what I think you need to do is just chalk this all up to a learning experience, and go home and live with your Mom until your classes begin next Fall.  And then…once I have finished graduate school… then, we can see about getting a place together.”

Debbie was sitting on her bed with an ashtray in her lap.  As the cassette player continued to roll over blank tape, she didn’t want to look me in the eye. Crushing her cigarette butt against its porcelain bottom, feebly, she tried to rationalize what we had just heard.

“Well,” she noted, “I guess he just wants to make sure that he’ll be a success. You know… it is in your best interest, right?”

Still stunned, I turned to look at her.

“But, Debbie…where’s the passion?”

Bruce TapeShe didn’t know what to say. Instead, the expression on her face told me that she was in as much shock as I was.

“I get that he wants success,” I continued. “But, in the process, he’s willing to let us slip from his fingers.”

How did I begin this chapter? What did I say about the First Rule of Love?

Rising from the bed, I went to the living room, picked up the phone, and dialed Pitou’s number.

 

[1] “…and your buttocks?”

[2] “My two buttocks combined are the size of one of yours.”

[3] “Never feel personally concerned. Never feel guilty about anything. It serves no purpose.”

[4] “My poor car… She needs to be treated like a young married girl, Bérénice.”

 

Autumn_in_paris-711820

Next Post:  Paris–The Cinderella Years: “Elle Est Bien”

To be taken to the post, click on the dust jacket of the book, below.

Book Cover, Rev

7 thoughts on ““Don’t Worry About It. You Still Have Two Weeks.”

  1. I can feel Pitou’s passion, his inner beauty. Oh, to be courted by a man like that! Debbie did you a huge favor by leaving Paris. And you certainly weren’t meant to be with Bruce, just like Uncle Oscar said. I loved this installment just as much as the others. Keep on rolling!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that you and I both married men many years our senior. I must say…your man worked out beautifully (at least so far in your memoir)……mine did not. I KNEW I should have moved to Paris when I had the chance! Mine was Italian…hmmm? Loving every bit of your story! (and so does Pierre; I am sure!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent writing talent from Mammoth local, Berenice de la Salle. I can’t tell you how much I love reading her blog posts on her most recent book, “Pitou, My Love.” She takes the reader right there with her, to Paris in the 70’s. Her blog is so well done. There is an option to play music that was popular at that time in Paris to play along while you are reading, as well as links to many of the historical places that she talks about and experienced. I think it is better than an actual book because of these features. I am very surprised her previous book Beautiful Riddle, has not been published yet. I highly recommend it to everyone.

    Like

  4. When Pitou “asked a bit impatiently. “Why are you calling me, Bérénice?” — I felt my heart go ‘thump’!! (and I literally gasped!) And when you heard Bruce’s tape, your heart, I am sure, did a flip…emotions are so raw when we are young…You have a wonderful talent for letting us feel as you did in the moment. It is as if we are right behind you, looking thru your mind and seeing what you see.

    Onward…I have more to view!

    Liked by 1 person

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