` In his little Renault, Olivier and I chugged to Giverny and Monet’s gardens, an hour’s drive from Paris. The weather was perfect; the water lilies, irises, and wisteria (the same purple as the jacaranda trees in L.A.) bloomed under the warm sun, and I walked on flower-scented air, hand in hand with Olivier as if in a dream. We took pictures of each other on the bridge, by Monet’s little boat in the lake, under the weeping willow, in Monet’s jonquil-yellow kitchen. Monet! And just a few hours ago I was in Los Angeles.
The next day I went to Olivier’s apartment for lunch. His seventeenth-century building in the Marais had no elevator, and I walked up five flights of worn varnished wood stairs. He was in the kitchen when I arrived, wearing an apron, sautéing and stirring something that smelled of garlic and rosemary. The table was set with damask linens, large heavy European silver flatware placed upside-down (to me) beside the old, cracked porcelain dinner plates.
Olivier’s apartment was not at all what I had expected. Far from the little artist’s studio I had envisioned when I mooned over him last year in French class, it was in fact huge, especially for Paris: five large rooms with four fireplaces, ancient red tile floors, a modern washer in the roomy bathroom, an antique stove in the kitchen, computer on his heirloom desk, Asian artifacts mixed with modern art and oriental rugs, American jazz (Ella) on the stereo, a black cat. The whole effect was like that of a movie set, or a dream. I wondered how much of the décor his wife had done, and I chose to overlook the bottles of perfumes and framed photographs.
After the simple meal, he took me to see two more Parisian gardens. It was spring, Paris was in fragrant flower, and I was over-dosing on sensuality. The song "April in Paris" was not written for nothing.
Perhaps it’s true wherever there are four seasons, that in spring the sap moves in the trees, and the blood moves in the people. In Paris that afternoon in May at the Château de Vincennes, people of all ages were dancing frenetically to a loud samba band. Packed into a tent, they were out of control, under the dominion of music and springtime. I guess I went out of control myself. When Olivier and I were resting in each other’s arms on the grass in the Parc de Fleurs I blurted out in French, “You know that I love you, Olivier, je brulais d’amour, that I’ve burned with love for you since we met fifteen months ago!”
In response he kissed me, a kiss without time.
Olivier was expressive and expansive and filled the air with his words. I was hypnotized beyond reason by his voice. As for my French, things I knew very well escaped me entirely. I threw together verbs and nouns and bad pronunciation and he probably didn’t know what I was saying at all. I told him I loved him. He understood that. It felt good to say it, I guess that’s why people do. Of course he said nothing, I knew he wouldn’t.
When Oliver took me to the bedroom that first evening and switched on the light, several small lamps came on at once illuminating the large wooden art nouveau bed in one corner, surrounded by built-in wooden floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with what looked to me like every book ever written in every language on Tibet. There was an ornate fireplace with an old mantel on which sat a bowl of fresh hydrangeas reflected in a cracked gilded mirror. The two large French windows giving onto the street were covered by red draperies that would in the morning cast a rosy glow on our bare white bodies in the bed under real linen sheets hand-embroidered with lace.
Olivier had the most beautiful body I had ever seen. How could it be that a man who was almost fifty had such white perfect skin without a blemish on it? To be still so naturally strong and muscular? By the lamplight, he looked deep into my eyes the whole time he made love to me, seeing, I imagined, my soul.
He slept silently and peacefully beside me that night. I didn’t sleep at all. The trains of the Métro rumbled through vast tunnels far below, making the bed vibrate like small earthquakes far away in Los Angeles, or maybe it was my excitement. Once in a while in the dark, the small black cat, Minette, padded across my stomach. We slept late on Sunday. And we stayed in bed even later.
The morning had almost vanished when we found ourselves facing each other over the kitchen table having breakfast. “We must hurry,” he said, “the market closes soon and we have nothing for dinner.” In France, unlike L.A. where you could buy food or television sets at all hours of the day and night, seven days a week, here people had to plan ahead. There were strict laws about what shops could be open when, and Sunday afternoon everything was closed. If you had nothing to eat at home on Sunday you went hungry or to a restaurant.
To get to the market—I thought we were going to a supermarket, like Safeway—we walked through quiet Sunday- sleepy neighborhoods with no signs of life, him pulling the shopping cart with one hand and holding tight to me with the other. Suddenly there appeared an ornamental arch of verdigris cast iron heralding the bustling little market street of Rue Montorgueil. For pedestrians only this morning, the gray marble cobblestoned street had the ambiance and gaiety of a village fair.
At Le Paradis des Fruits he bought a box of tiny fraises des bois. On to Aux Fins Herbages Normands for delicate lamb chops, Le Temple du Fromage (owned by a defrocked priest, Olivier explained) for cheese. At the blue-tiled fishmonger’s, Aux Ecailles d’Argent, the staff, in rubber aprons and high rubber boots, served their customers amidst the displays of magnificent whole fish posed on seas of ice. We looked in the window of La Fontaine au Chocolat to see a fountain of flowing chocolate surrounded by chocolate sculptures of butterflies and ladies’ high-heeled slippers. All these—to me— exotic delicacies with French names in shops that were more interesting than any museum. Exquisite, glorious food!
When the shopping cart was full, he asked if I wanted a coffee at the café in the middle of the street. I flashed him a grateful smile as I realized that was just what I wanted. We got the last little table on the cobblestones, and sat there side-by- side, like at the theater, with tiny cups of espresso.
We watched the street life as if it were a play: the young mothers with strollers, the old ladies with little dogs, the teenagers in smoky packs, the beggars, the elegant women with long black-stockinged legs, the old men with their cigars, an accordion player—all the movie clichés were real. Off to the right was a display of stacked boxes of fruit juice and a noisy vendor who, like a carnival barker, loudly and comically tried to convince shoppers of the incredible bargain he offered. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he had launched the boxes of juice high into the air and juggled them. Olivier and I looked at each other and laughed.
“La Bibliothèque Nationale, et VITE!’ If I had known how to say “and step on it!” in French, I would have. The driver understood my anxiety, especially when I told him there was romance involved and I was to meet a man who had waited for me too long the last time. We seemed to fly across Paris, cutting through the traffic like a hot knife in ripe Camembert, arriving in fifteen minutes. Olivier was there, leaning against the high stone wall of the library. I said, “Le voilà!” and threw a fifty- franc note to the driver over the back of the seat and dashed across the street, heedless of the cars.
Olivier and I embraced and kissed while the taxi driver watched; I could hear the motor idling. Finally we broke apart and I sneaked a look at the driver, who waved and smiled as he drove off, content, I supposed being French, that he had helped along the course of love that day.
Later over coffee we talked about the exhibit we had just seen—Le Printemps de Génie—at the National Library. And then he invited me to the Titian exhibit at the Grand Palais on the Champs D’Elysee. It was wonderful to be with a man who knew and cared about art, and of course, to see so much of it in Paris. But I was troubled about becoming too comfortable, too happy.
“Olivier, maybe not. Maybe we just shouldn’t go any farther. I am getting a little afraid of my feelings.” I thought I might be up for an affair with someone, but not for falling in love with a married man. I needed some pleasure and fun, but not more pain and heartbreak. My feelings for Olivier were already running deep.
“Bien, if you do not care to go...I understand. Perhaps it is better.”
So we left it like that.
I wanted privacy from curious Madame who always eavesdropped on every call her roomers made, and so a few days later I phoned Olivier from the Métro. I had been agonizing about what to do, whether to proceed, and couldn’t sleep until I made a decision. It was so noisy I couldn’t hear or understand him at first. I said I would very much like to go to the Titian exhibit if he still wanted to. I had refused his invitation out of fear of being hurt, that this situation was too hot for me to handle. I never wanted to love a married man.
Olivier was waiting for me at the Grand Palais, reading at the top of the elegant staircase. I could see him from a distance as I walked from the Métro. I felt like the setting sun shone only on me. I wanted time to stop, the anticipation so intensely delicious that I wanted to freeze the moment and just enjoy it as long as possible, revel in it, luxuriate in it.
He seemed hesitant, almost shy. When I hugged him and kissed him as before and looked into his eyes and smiled, he said, “J’étais heureux que tu m’as appelée,” I am happy you called me. (thinking about it later I figured it wasn’t exactly that, it would have had to be in the subjunctive.)
Afterwards, we went to Café Beaubourg in Les Halles. Looking down at my kir, I asked him, “Are you angry, do you forgive me, for saying I couldn’t see you anymore?”
He said he couldn’t understand why I had been afraid. I told him one reason that I was afraid was because I loved his apartment so much. (I didn’t say I could see his wife in it everywhere, or that I could see myself living there with him.) When he told me he had designed and decorated it himself over a period of sixteen years, I admired him even more. So now at the café I tried to explain a little. “Since I came to Paris wanting to see you, it does seem stupid not to make the most of these two weeks.”
He replied that after all, I did know he was married.
“Yes,” I said quietly, looking down at my hands folded in my lap, “but by the time I found out it was already too late.”
“Tu sais, Cherie, I have not been happy for many years.”
“We just drifted into getting married in the first place. We were living together and Delfine wanted legal property rights, although the apartment was a gift to me from my father long before we married.”
“Were you in love? Did you ever think of separating?”
“I do not think we ever really loved each other, it was just convenient to be married. I never felt the way I feel about you. Now I have decided I want to divorce. I want my freedom and obviously she wants hers too, because she is always away from France. If she contests, and she will certainly as she wants the property, a divorce can take seven years.
“Seven years? I don’t believe it!” I said.
“And I could lose everything if the judge has sympathy for her. It is very complicated in France. And it means my friends must write testimonies about the marriage; who is right, who is wrong. But I will take the risk.”
He kissed me a lot right there in the café, then. I didn’t know what it meant to kiss so much in public. Was it him or just very French?
That night I dreamed I was on a boat on the sea, and I knew a strong wave was going to swamp the deck so I braced myself for it. When it came, it hit me with such cold violence, it woke me up. Then I lay there, frightened and anxious, on my back with my eyes open in the dark, feeling Olivier sleep quietly next to me as the trains rumbled toward their destinies in the dark passageways far below.