An Affair to Remember
I lay in the bed, utterly dumbfounded. She stomped across the small apartment, carrying an armload of my clothes towards the door. “She’ll stop now,” I thought. My eyes squeezed tight as I heard the clack of the lock and the rough scratch of the door scraping the floor. “She’s not really going to …” then the muffled thud of my clothes being slammed on hardwood.
It was around 4 in the morning. I was in Paris, somewhere near Montmarte. It was just my third day in town, so the concept of “Montmarte” was still only a vague notion at best. I was buck naked, and my clothes had just been thrown into the hallway.
It was my second day with Elisabeth. In retrospect, I should not have been surprised. I had dated actresses before, and I had vowed never to do it again. And here I was, right back in it. I guess I had brought it on myself.
She stormed back into the bedroom, spewing vitriol in an angry mishmash of English and French as she reached for my backpack. I had had enough. “Don’t … touch … my shit,” I seethed. “I’ve been nothing but kind to you, and this is how you treat me? … Fuck you.” Up until that moment, I had never said words like that to a woman before. Ever. She could do that to you.
We met in a Laundromat on my second day in Paris. Somebody had taken my wet clothes out of the dryer, and put their own in. Given my paltry command of the French language (I knew enough to be able to say “what the hell, lady?” but not enough to handle what would inevitably follow), I quickly recruited the beautiful French girl next to me to translate.
“Traduisez, s’il vous plait?”
By the time it was all over, the Laundromat had erupted into a full-blown 4-way argument, complete with yelling, screaming, accusations, recriminations, finger pointing and name-calling. I said maybe 10 words the whole time, and just kind of drifted into the background, watching the show. Elisabeth took on my case as if it were her own. We lost.
“It zeems as I am more angry about zees zan you?” “Yes, it would seem so. C’est la vie,” I shrugged. After a bit of conversation, Elisabeth agreed to take me around and show me Paris. That night, after walking tours of the St. Germaine district and Notre Dame, and dinner at a bistro in the premiere arrondissement, she invited me to stay with her the following night. Feeling unusually emboldened, perhaps by the wine, I said flatly, “Actually, I would like to stay with you tonight.” “D’accord,” she replied.
And just like that, I blindly stumbled into the wonderful hornets’ nest that is a French love affair.
The French can be disturbingly frank about sex. For them, sex is like a continuation of an ongoing conversation. A transaction. A function. Once engaged (“make love to me now”), Elisabeth was very direct in the expression of her particular desires. The problem was, they changed frequently, from moment to moment, and they regularly conflicted. This led to much confusion on my part. “Put it in. What are you, crazy? Go. Stop. Go. Don’t do that (do what?). Do it again (do what?). Come now (ok, fine … here ya go.) Come again. (What? Listen honey, I’m 35-years old. It doesn’t quite work that way anymore.)” But the sex was good. I just stopped listening to her after a while.
We were calmly relaxing after such a session when she inexplicably went ape-shit and started to throw my belongings into the hallway with great aplomb, and the clear expectation that I would follow. In my exhausted post-orgasmic confusion, I guessed that she was either getting rid of me before she got even more attached, or she was just pure bunny stew material. Either way, I was furious. In the morning I awoke – still fuming – to find her apologetic by way of psychoanalyzing (her word) herself and her desertion complex (my words, generously provided).
It was clear even from the start that she would never let herself be controlled by anybody or anything, especially her emotions. Elisabeth was brilliant, iron-willed, and fiercely independent. And confident. When I met her that day in the Laundromat, I had told her, quite sincerely: “You have very beautiful eyes.” Her reply was a deadpan “Yes, I know.”
She did in fact have deep, dark brown eyes that taught me – for the first time ever – what those dusty poets were talking about in sonnets and odes to their beloved, blathering on about their eyes being the deepest pools of blah blah blah. OK, I get it now, thanks.
Communication challenges were the constant refrain – and one could say the running joke – of our short relationship. Her (limited) English was still far superior to my (useless) French, so the onus fell on her to do the difficult and tiring work of speaking my language. Frustration would occasionally get the better of her, and she would fire off a volley of bitter French, leaving me to look at her vacantly, pause, and gently remind her: “tu sais que je ne comprend pas (you know I don’t understand).” This would lead to another barrage. “Listen, Elisabeth, if I could snap my fingers and speak perfect French right now, I would, I swear. But until that can happen, if you want me to understand you, you have to speak English.” She would storm off. It was broken.
She would speak to me in rapid-fire French when telling me something she didn’t really want me to know. I would gaze at her with a less-than-subtle expression of anger and frustration, tinged with sadness. She would continue to speak quite matter-of-factly as I looked away, fighting my temper. It would especially enrage me when she’d do it during an argument, leaving me struggling to understand, and incapable of responding. She learned to use language as a weapon.
We reached a turning point when I began to make a concerted effort to speak French as often as possible. This was a decidedly painful process in which I would engage in comical linguistic gymnastics to force complex sentences out of the limited building blocks of my French vocabulary. Despite my best efforts, any native French speaker would certainly have wondered why I wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Despite the oftentimes-horrific results, Elisabeth appreciated that I was making the effort. “Bisou,” she would say gently, asking for a kiss as I held my head in my hands in a tongue-tied soundless scream. Let’s see you try to discuss your philosophy on the meaning of art using the functional equivalent of retarded kindergarten English. “Une artiste … vois … le monde … pas comme etre, mais comme ce peut-etre, combinee avec le .. um .. shit … abilite a faire … um … ahh … l’expris?? Shit.” The piercing headache would kick in somewhere around the second sentence.
Well, all this being said, I had planned to stay just three days in Paris, as a stopover between London and Brussels. Without my knowing it, three days became two weeks.
My mornings were spent lounging in her bed, watching the sun make its way across the tiny room while her dark French jazz flowed from the stereo (“Attends-moi: je t’aime. Je t’aime!! Je t’aaaaaiiiiiiimmme!!!!!”). Eventually, I would roust myself and stroll down to the boulangerie for a baguette and cheese, croissants and fresh coffee. Then I’d hop on the Metro, get off at some station or other, and wander the city streets and parks, stopping in shops, museums and cafes more or less at random.
We watched the Bastille Day festivities from the banks of the Seine, with bottles of wine and fireworks rocketing above the Eiffel Tower. We spent a lazy day in Versailles, picnicking in the cool shade of the trees while Paris sweltered in the mid-summer heat. We would scour the city to seek out bistros for mid-day brunches and dinners.
I was living an idyllic Parisian lifestyle, combined with a torrid affair, and to say it was hard to give up would be an understatement. But where was this going, I wondered? Why was I putting myself through this crap? As much as I knew I should keep moving, I just couldn’t tear myself away. I had visions of staying in Paris, living with Elisabeth, learning French (for real this time, not the useless crap they taught me in high school) and, more than likely, eventually going bonkers and killing her.
Meanwhile, the relationship rolled along its mine-laden path. Each day saw a virtual panoply of emotions. We would turn on a dime from blissful contentment to bitter exchanges. The fights were all over the map, and could be sparked by just about anything; they were most often petty and stupid, sometimes just mean-spirited, and sometimes downright vicious. I knew that they were driven by her growing feelings for me. The deeper she went, the harder she fought. She knew I’d be leaving, and she was pushing herself away in hopes of lessening the blow.
And despite all this, she never failed to warm me with her smile, with her touch, with her beautiful “bisou … bisou.” Her heart was pure and sweet, but I lamented that in our situation, it would be impossible for me to see it freed of this shroud of insecurity and fear. I desperately wanted to, but I knew it was impossible.
The morning I left her, she wouldn’t look at me. She wouldn’t get up from the bed, wouldn’t face me. She refused to say good-bye, asking me to leave without a word. I couldn’t. As she lay face down on the bed, I whispered close in her ear “Recontes que je t’aime. Au revoir.” I hoisted my pack onto my shoulders, closed the door behind me, and held my hand to it for a long moment before making my way down the twisting, uneven steps towards the Metro, the airport, and London.