Mardi Gras in Paris by Cherie Magnus
Alone at Les Bains-Douches, the famous Paris disco in an old Turkish bath, I was unprepared when a tall man made his way over to me from across the room. “May I buy you another of what you are drinking?” he asked in French. Due to the loud music bouncing around on the Turkish tiled walls and floors, and my surprise, I didn’t understand at first. He was well dressed, nice-looking, with a sweet face, and so I accepted a gin and tonic. Even though conversation was virtually hopeless, I noticed that we quickly passed to the familiar verb conjugation, and “tutoyer”-ed each other before I finished my cocktail. We danced a little, and when he finally leaned down to put his lips against my ear and asked if it wasn’t time to go to his place, somehow it felt natural to nod yes.
He actually was a Parisian with a car, and had driven to the disco. Due to the wine, the drinks, the excitement, I incautiously perhaps went with him in his car to his apartment in the 2ème arrondissement. Both his car and his apartment were small, neat and very clean, a good sign I hoped, but I wasn’t sure of what.
We had another drink in his living room, he a cigarette, and then he picked me up and carried me to the bedroom. Despite his smoky breath, his kisses excited me. “Est-ce que tu as des préservatifs?” But I was really surprised that a man like him had no condoms, but after rummaging around in the bathroom and his closet for a while, he finally admitted that he had not. And so we slept six inches apart under his beautiful duvet until his alarm went off in the morning.
After he efficiently made coffee and ironed his shirt, dressed in an elegant suit, he drove me to the Métro on his way to work. Almost as an afterthought he asked for the phone number where I was staying at Madame’s, which he did not write down when I gave it to him.
As I waved to him before going down the station steps, I really did not care if he called or not. It had been fun, and thank God he had been a gentleman. I had never gone home with a strange man in my life before, and by the light of day, realized that just being in Paris, even in the 90s, did not make it smart.
When the telephone rang later that afternoon at Madame’s where I was renting a room, I was genuinely surprised to hear his sexy low voice say, “Bonsoir. C’est Franck.” He wanted to see me again and asked me to go to a movie the next evening. As we arranged the coordonnées of time, Madame’s address and digicode, I guessed that he probably had bought some condoms that day.
And not only had he bought condoms (the large economy-sized box of twenty-four in pink), but also he seemed to almost be infatuated with me. We had a lovely evening at the cinema, and a late supper in the Marais afterward. The next morning, when he drove me to the Gare de Lyon to take the TGV to Evian-les-Bains for a brief stay in my apartment there, he promised to write, to call, to come visit me next summer in Los Angeles, and he invited me to stay with him the next time I came to Paris. Maybe I would, who knew? Anything was possible.
Now many months later here I was back in Paris, this time chez Franck. I just finished preparing the only dinner I remembered how to make without recipes: leg of lamb, tabouleh, rice pilaf, yogurt salad. It was strange to cook in someone else’s kitchen, especially in a foreign country. I turned the oven on to “7”, whatever that meant. I wanted to do my “thankyou” dinner early on as Franck was leaving the next day, Tuesday, on a business trip to Brittany, which I thought was unfortunate planning on his part. He had known for weeks I’d be visiting Paris these two weeks in February, so I was disappointed that the second day of my stay he had to go out of town.
I hadn’t slept at all that night. I lay next to Franck feeling tense with eyes wide open. I was happy to be in Paris again, the third time in a year, but maybe I had been too quick to accept Franck’s invitation.
After he picked me up from the airport the day before, Sunday, we had a lovely day despite the blustery weather--a walk in the Buttes Chaumont, and meeting up with friends Linda and Steve from L.A. who were in Paris after staying in my Evian apartment. They were my next-door neighbors in L.A. and made frequent trips to Paris. I enjoyed sharing the apartment with friends that my late husband Jack and I had bought in Evian-les-Bains on the shore of Lake Geneva, and Linda and Steve had been happy to take me up on my offer.
The four of us went to Notre Dame for an organ recital, and then to dinner at the Cafe Beaujolais. They seemed to like Franck, and he them, but I honestly didn’t know if he liked me at all, and if not, what was I doing here in Paris in his apartment? This was not what I expected when he wrote and telephoned me in Los Angeles, persuading me to come to France and stay with him for two weeks. He promised to show me “his” Paris, and that I would have a good visit before heading off to Evian-les-Bains on the TGV to my apartment and to visit my husband’s grave. Obviously Franck had a change of heart, or perhaps he met someone since we met last year and didn’t have the courage to tell me.
That night when Franck arrived home from work, he acted happy to smell the lamb perfuming the apartment. Usually he had frozen dinners, he said, and this was a feast to him. We ate on the couch in front of the TV, he had seconds, then thirds, and then the phone rang and the conversation was about another business trip the following week. It seemed like he would be gone most of the time of my visit. I wished he had simply told me not to come, or that I couldn’t stay with him. I was trying to be a good guest and friend by not complaining.
When I left Franck’s apartment to go to the market that morning after he went to work, it began to snow. At the brasserie in front of the Métro Gambetta, I had a croque monsieur sandwich and a conversation with the friendly woman sitting next to me in the window, and my mood lifted over coffee, watching the people scurrying in the snowstorm, such a rare and lovely sight for these California eyes.
Early Tuesday Franck left for Brittany. None of my Parisian friends were in town as this week of Mardi Gras and the beginning of Lent was winter vacation in France. I hadn’t thought about that when I planned my trip. And I never expected Franck to disappear for most of the two weeks I would be there, especially after all the phone calls to L.A. urging me to come stay with him since we met at the Bains-Douches last November. Well here I was, alone, in his freezing apartment.
So unlike my happy spirit on previous trips, now I wanted to see, do, eat, buy, absolutely nothing. Unenthusiastic, enervated and depressed, feeling frozen, curled up on the living room couch under the down comforter, I watched TV--tedious American sitcoms dubbed into French and French copies of foolish American game shows. Franck’s apartment was glacial and the heater was a total mystery to me. I drank too much of the huge bottle of Martini I had bought at Monoprix with the groceries the day before.
Depression now hit me upside the head this icy desolate winter morning in Franck’s apartment. I blamed myself for expecting companionship from this stranger who I didn’t know at all. Maybe he became afraid that after cooking the good meal last night I was going to make myself too much at home.
Suddenly I stretched out an arm from underneath the comforter to grab the phone. The shock of its ring jerked me out of my daze. “Cherie, is that you?” It was my friend Nancy calling from L.A. “I hate to ruin your vacation, but your mother fell out of bed in her room at the retirement home and broke her wrist! The resident nurse got her to the hospital, and they have to operate. They need you to sign papers and everything. And I guess your mother is pretty upset and confused. Can you come home?”
My poor mother. I had given Nancy’s phone number to the care home in case of emergency. Of course she couldn’t understand what was happening and was probably completely terrified. I thought about my mother being alone and frightened in the hospital and not understanding what was going on. After watching a loved one die from cancer, in intense physical pain with his mind completely about him, and watching my mother slowly waste away of an evil, mind-rotting disease, causing psychic pain of huge dimensions, I didn’t know which was worse. My husband Jack knew he would die even though he never gave up, my mother couldn’t remember much but she still knew about the hopelessness of Alzheimer’s. Perhaps the loss of one’s mind was the ultimate personal horror, worse than death.
The first available flight was not for two days, I couldn’t believe it. I called Steve and Linda at their Paris hotel to see if I could join them for dinner. I needed to be with someone, and who better than old friends from Los Angeles. But Steve said that he and Linda wanted their last dinner in Paris to be alone, and that he knew I would understand. I didn’t understand. They lived alone in L. A. and they had been alone on their entire trip to France. They had stayed free in my Evian apartment alone for the last ten days! Linda knew I was in trouble, she heard me crying on the phone, but I supposed there was nothing she could do about her husband’s attitude. I didn’t understand what friends were for then, if when you really need them they won’t help you. Or who was really your friend at all.
I took some tranquilizers at night and was washing my face preparing to go to bed, when the doorbell rang. I didn’t answer. An hour later when I was flinging about in the bed, it rang again.
“Qui est-ce?” I said through the closed door. “Who is it?”
“C’est Serge. Franck est là?”
“Non, he won’t be back until Friday night.”
“We would like to invite him for crepes, a petite soirée, a little party,” the man’s voice said. ‘It’s traditional to make pancakes on Mardi Gras.”
“Ah oui, it’s Mardi Gras tonight, isn’t it? Carnaval!” I raised my voice, still through the closed door.
“You’re invited to come for crepes if you’d like,” he said.
I replied, “Merci,” and went back to bed. Then I thought about it. I reapplied my makeup, squirted on some perfume, but couldn’t do a thing about my eight-hour crying jag’s puffy, red eyes.
I left the apartment in search of the crepes, following the aroma and sounds of laughter. Serge hadn’t said which apartment was his, and I went up one flight and rang the bell of the apartment directly over Franck’s. A man, Serge as it turned out, looked surprised to see a strange woman when he answered the door, but he welcomed me in, introducing me to his wife and another couple there in the small salon sitting around a low coffee table. “C’est la copine américaine de Franck,” he explained, Franck’s American girlfriend. His wife warmly shook hands with me, after exchanging looks with Serge.
There was a festive meal of cheese and dessert crepes, salad, with lots of cider from Normandie, and I ate for the first time that day. We played music and laughed, the two couples and me. I had brought up six miniature bottles of exotic tequila—”cactus juice” I explained. We laughed some more and drank it with pleasure. Serge played my Eric Clapton cassette on the stereo and we even danced a little, keeping warm and letting the tequila do its thing.
I went downstairs after midnight feeling better, hoping for a message from Franck. The machine stared at me in unblinking superiority.
I realized I had forgotten my sweater upstairs and when I went to pick it up the next day, I mentioned that Franck had taken his alarm clock with him.
Serge came down then and helped me program the telephone to wake me up in the morning, and also called a taxi on the minitel computer for dawn the next day. He couldn’t believe Franck hadn’t left me a contact number. I think he felt sorry for me alone in that freezing place.
Franck’s apartment was so bare, detached, with such a lack of personal things. His neatness, folding and putting away everything, ironing his clean shirt each morning, no longer struck me as positive, but strange. Maybe he gathered up all the junk and put it in the “cave” somewhere in the building before I got there. Or maybe he had no junk. He owned four videocassettes: two soft porn, two still wrapped blank ones. No music, no radio, even though he was in the music hardware business, or so he said. His apartment was as aloof as he was. Maybe this was his pied de terre in Paris, and he had a house and a wife and family somewhere else. Maybe he went home instead of out of town for work. Perhaps that was the French way.
As I packed in the bedroom, the pink condoms in their silver paper sat in their box by the bed and glared at me. I wondered if they were the dregs of the box of twenty-four he bought last year when we met (and used one.) Then I sprayed my perfume all over Franck’s bed, like a cat.
Incredibly, I was getting on a plane to go home after only four days in France. I thought about my mother being alone and frightened in the hospital and not understanding what was going on. Kind of like me, in a way.
Just as the taxi arrived in the morning, I left a pitiful personal message on Franck’s answering machine. I couldn’t seem to say fuck him! and bounce away to the next adventure. I had told my friends that if it didn’t work out with him—his smoking or whatever—I’d pack my bags and go to a hotel. But I hadn’t. Before the call about my mother from Nancy, I probably would have gone to Evian early instead of trying to enjoy myself alone in Paris. I had thought it would be fun staying with Franck for two weeks, enjoying the fantasy of living with a sexy man in Paris. Obviously his idea of heaven was different. And anyway, God had other plans.