His drink? Pernod. His smoke? Gauloises. His car? Peugeot. But his most peculiar passion is wooing.
He is the legendary Lothario of l’amour and every woman wants one: the French lover. Sexier than a Spandex bikini. Able to leap into bed after a single kiss. He is the Superman of seduction and once she’s had him no woman will ever think of love again without recalling Bruno. Bruno Bruno Bruno. Strange, it seems now, how his name, French for “dark-complected,” sounds so unlike the man himself, the name being so hunky, really. Hulking. Better for a bruising bodybuilder who grunts out conversation like dead-lift counts: “Hi, hun. What’s up, huh?” The Bruno she knew would never lend himself to such brutish pursuits. Her Bruno – tall, dark, handsome in the Gallic way of Louvre museum paintings she had seen, those noble-nosed, pop-eyed, aristocrats gone to the guillotine – her Bruno was as fine as that hot August night fate brought them together in Paris. She was a tourist thugs had mugged in the Métro. He was the police detective assigned to her case. His drink? Pernod. His smoke? Gauloise. His car? Peugeot. Bruno’s more peculiar passion would be the wooing of her, but she couldn’t yet know, not as she sat trembling at his desk in the rue Victor Hugo police station, sobbing out the drama of how three teenage yahoos, pressing a filet knife to her throat, tore her purse from her shoulder as she waited for the train to Odeon. Snuffling and teary, her passport stolen, her travelers’ checks gone, she honked into the hankie he offered. “Désolé, Mademoiselle,” the detective said, oozing suave in the low purr of his voice. “I am sorry.” Beneath her snuffles, she was surprised to find her body secretly perked to something in the inspector’s smile. Something vaguely foreign, intriguingly French. He continued: “I am Monsieur Pannetier. Bruno. Allow me to be of service.” Strange, it seems now, how Inspector Pannetier – Bruno – had only briefly to deepen his dimples and she, yet the victim of the horrific subway assault, felt criminally compelled to be subdued by him in an arm-hold, perhaps even frisked. As it was, she soon enough was arrested by Bruno’s romantic advances. Handcuffed by love, as if were. Thrown in the slammer of passion. A first date was made for coffee; a second, for snails; and by the third two cold crôque monsieurs on the Champs Elysées sidewalk kisses stood in for the cheese course and her Passy apartment became the scene for all future rendezvous. From the beginning Bruno proved to be unlike any lover she had known back home, and that included all two. Mornings, for example, the French lover telephoned three, four times before her first double espresso. “Bonjour my little rabbit!” he would trill in English so garbled with French inflection she would be his leetle rrrrabeet, dubbed as such for her fondness for salads of carottes rapées. “Did you have a good sleep, my darling penguin?” She became his “penguin” soon after he saw her run to catch the bus, her dumpling of a derriere waddling, he thought, in irresistibly fetching fashion. Still a’bed and feeling boneless as she held the phone between ear and pillow, she was none too taken with Bruno’s buoyancy well before her wake-up croissant. But he would not take her nodding back off for an answer. “Eh bien, my adorable flea,” he’d say, “will you won’t you will you won’t you join me today at midi?” Noon to two was the French lover’s lunch break, a daily parole from police routine the inspector relished. “Uh,” she managed to grunt in reply before sawing off a snore to settle back into snoozeland. This grunt, however, the French lover took to mean, Yes, of course, mais oui! Oui Oui Oui. Strange, it seems now, how that simple “yes” expressed again and again the months of Bruno’s romancing adjusted the latitude and longitude of her life so dramatically that today she is adrift, directionless, on a riptide of despair. If only once she had said No when, instead, by 10:30 a.m. two, three days a week her home was transformed into a tropic of foliage. A paradise. Sprays of roses, marigolds, gladiolas and iris were delivered in crystal vases; armloads of tulips, tiger lilies, freesia and gardenias were dropped off in colorful pots. Bouquet after bouquet of Paris’s finest flowers often filled her vision when she lurched out of bed for the day, and the overwhelming sight made her woozy. Bruno! “Love and kisses to my darling cuckoo, so cute,” one florist’s card read. “Can’t wait later to cuckoo-cuckoo with you. Bisous, xxxx, Bruno.” Another day, a blue velvet jewel box was hidden within a towering arrangement of Loire Valley wildflowers: Sapphire earrings, set in gold, glittered hello when she opened it. On one occasion, a fantasia of freshwater pearls – necklace, bracelet, hair barrette and ring – arrived with an armload of lilacs in a Limoges cachepot. Was the property hot? she momentarily flashed on the fear. After all, the Paris police detective was only of a lowly functionary’s means. Yet the French lover’s job could offer easy access to spectacular loot, and lots of it, routinely seized in the city’s botched robberies – couldn’t it? Luckily, she was ill-equipped to think further, being logy without caffeine, so she promptly lost the thought when at noon, on the dot, the door buzzer buzzed. The French lover lunged up eight flights of spiral stairs to find her slumped on the sofa like a slattern, demitasse in hand. Her shredding chenille nightie and fuzzy pink socks appeared well-slept in; her bottle blonde bob was a perversion of sticky curls. She was uncombed, unkempt, undressed. Bruno was struck dumb with desire. “My loving duckling, it’s noon and you’re just up?” he cried, toppling onto her for a snuggle. She struggled her hand free to sweep it wanly toward the bathroom, where a tub was running. Lavender suds scented the air and steam swirled in thick whorls out the door. “Ah, bon? A bath before? But of course, my happy hen,” Bruno cooed and scampered off to strip and step into the tub. “La-la-la-laaa, lee-le-le-leeee, lo-lo-lo-loooo.” Splish-splashes sounded above the sonata Bruno sang, slopping suds (she was sure) all over the bathroom floor. The plastic duckie decoratively displayed in the soap dish was forced in (she was equally sure) for a swim. She didn’t know what to think of Bruno’s bathtime jollies, except perhaps…well, did her new lover have enthusiasms beyond those suggested by his earnest detective’s demeanor? Intimate caprices that were completely…kooky? Sexual tralas that were mysteriously, perhaps embarrassingly…she didn’t know…French? Alarmed, she clutched the collar of her nightie closed; she scrunched her pink-stockinged feet more snugly beneath her. And she fought to dismiss the thought. French men, notoriously, are the sine qua non of lovers, no? she argued. The sovereign lords of l’amour. Let’s be frank, she reasoned, Americans, the only men she had known, had yet to twist her knickers with the kind of thrill for which the French are legend with their inbred, in-bed je ne sais quoi, right? Right!? “There, there, now,” she muttered. “There is nothing to fear that a big gulp of vin blanc at lunch can’t handle.” “La-la-la-laaaa,” went Bruno’s song; splish-splash went the bath. Allowing herself to relax, she fell into a swoon of expectancy. Imagine! Soon, a French lover, her French lover would go spelunking through her caves of unexplored passions. Soon, ecstasies as yet unbidden would trip her pleasure fantastic. She quickly doused her arousal with a slurp of coffee. Be cool, she snapped to. Hard to get. You don’t want the detective snooping out clues of desperation, do you? Over 30 and single – still. Pathetic. She reshifted her nightie into a peephole of décolleté. She worked up a passable come-hither expression. Just then, the bathroom door flew back and out he galloped: Bruno! A flash of flesh; a tall, tan blur; the slick, sudsy French lover was on the run, trailing ribbons of lavender-scented steam. “Yippee-yippee-yee-hah…giddy-up!” he hooted, urging forward a horse only he could see beneath him. “Yippee-yee-hah!” He galloped past where she sat paralyzed on the sofa, stunned. He turned and trotted back. A single square of toilet tissue covered his naked zizi, stuck in place with an Ouchless Band-Aid. “Whoa!” he halted before her. “What-ho! A damsel in distress? Dismount, men.” Dismount dismount dismount. If only she had, then and there, gotten off her ride to the frontier of love with Bruno, she might have had a chance. A chance for what was unclear. A lifelong marriage? A stable family? Perhaps. She had come to France fresh from college to perfect her French and prepare for a career perhaps as a professional translator. Love could wait. A proper match made if not in heaven at least in her hometown country club followed by babies planned and paid for was the way; a happily ever after was the why; and anyway, everyone knows lovers aren’t husbands except in ridiculous romantic fantasies. And yet…yet…when Bruno “dismounted” to bend and kiss her hand, his zizi’s square of toilet tissue fluttering seductively, she was hopelessly, helplessly, booked, confirmed, on the stagecoach of desire. There was not a chance of backing out of the trip. “Damsel, allow me to forswear other mademoiselles of marvelousness and love you and you alone,” Bruno murmured. What could she do but submit, her fuzzy pink socks slipping off to unveil to her French lover the mysteries her body held down to the tips of her pretty peach pedicured toes. Bruno in the afternoon soon became a habit, then a passion. Possibly, it was an addiction, as consuming of body and soul as any illegal drug. Tracks of remembered kisses scarring her tender breasts. Wretched in its utter contempt for her better sense. Bruno Bruno Bruno. She had to have him. Six midis per week, seven. “Dear Mom and Dad,” she wrote home to San Francisco. “I have found him. Bruno. I wish to be married within the week.” Her parents, naturally, were aghast. A French detective! No, this would not do. This would not do at all. Friends of friends in France received the mayday message: “She must be stopped!” her family faxed. “Get her on a plane out of Paris, pronto.” Pronto pronto pronto. Strange, it seems now, how haste never did figure in when her plane home to the States lifted off from the airport Charles de Gaulle. Oh-so-slowly she got around to getting the ticket. Oh-so-poky she was in packing. In fact, by the time she actually boarded – alone – weeks had passed. And the snit she was in was as painfully swollen as were her ankles, as out of control as were her Burger King cravings. All the signs told of it: She was pregnant. And miffed. At Bruno. Her French lover, now her bridegroom, had married her at a civil if un-festive city hall ceremony and now was begging-off on the honeymoon – a trip home to meet her family. “But my adorable duckling, I must stay here in France until I find the finest Champagne she ever has produced,” was his excuse. “It is this and only this that will properly herald the arrival of our son.” The sonogram would later confirm it: a son. So while Bruno in his Peugeot on his off-duty hours sped from wine shop to wine shop, his American bride sat in San Francisco nursing her snit as six months passed, then seven. Bereft of job prospects, she had no choice but to move in with her parents. They were more grossly aghast. As the Peugeot – with Bruno – blew through Biarritz and raced through Chamonix, as it cris-crossed Provence and careened through Alsace, she waited and waited…and waited. Within her the baby grew; without, her face fixed itself into a frown of frustration. Where in damnation is that man? she wondered, though he wrote four times a week, or five. “Bonjour Mommy penguin-to-be!” his Marseille postcard read. “I will join my snugly guppy in California just as soon as my boss at the police station unjails me (ha ha).” She didn’t laugh. Eight months passed, nine. “My Darling Wife,” the French lover at last scratched on the back of an Eiffel Tower photo. “The Champagne is found! Our son may now arrive.” Arrive arrive arrive. Strange now to recall how in short order everything would, everything but Bruno: first the baby, then obstetric bills, and finally, panic. “For crying out loud,” her father whined one night when the infant’s wailing shook the house. “Where on earth is that no-show of yours?” But she had only excuses. Bruno is still back in France (she told him as much as she knew of her husband’s pursuits) – painting scenes of his childhood home in colors of the Côte d’Azur sky. Yes, you’ll find him in France (she kept going), planting a half acre of trees at his parents’ place, the cypress and redwoods he loves. At his sister’s in Provence he is paving slate paths, constructing stone walls, tending to olives and growing a garden of sunflowers, string beans, squash. He is carving a cradle from the best French oak with our new baby’s name – William – burnished in gold. By day he is sewing together a set of leather luggage and hand-making a fly-fishing rod; by night he composes sonatas – on guitar. Days off, he grills the wild trout he catches, sun-dries the tomatoes he grows, reupholsters the loveseat he crafted and, sigh, strings a bracelet of fine pink gold. The bracelet’s 12 links, each in the shape of a perfect teardrop, represent, he mentioned, un an de chagrain, the “year of grief” it is to be away from me. Bruno is writing poems, collecting Limoges, drinking pastis and smoking. Weekends, he restores his best friend’s château. Yes, the French lover’s life was so positively plump with projects he scarcely had time for a wife. And yet, she waited. Once the baby was old enough for daycare she took a receptionist’s job with a cable-TV concern. Four months passed, five. Uncombed, unkempt, and stressed, the day the call came – wildly out of the blue – she was on her knees sopping up a pot of spilled coffee. “J’arrive!” squealed Bruno from the airport pay phone. “At last I come to you, my scrumptious sweet.” Oh?! She couldn’t speak. Along with Bruno came a collection of crates and crates…and crates. Nine of them, 10. Stacked at an off-site airport will-call, there were knickknacks, door knockers, lamps and antiques; there were French gadgets for kitchen and bath. The French lover’s accompanying haul from his homeland was no less than all he’d ever owned, or would. “My cuddly cauliflower, it is here, in l’Amerique, I stand!” he squealed. “Will you won’t you will you won’t you quit work and come play with me?” Play play play. Strange, she thinks now, how back then she had no clue that her imported husband was never destined for the role she ached he play. Dress him in a U.S. banker’s tie, a broker’s button-down, or a bond trader’s pinstripes; put him a postal clerk’s shirt sleeves or top him with a restaurant chef’s toque; even fit his fine French physique into the schlumpy duds of a hard-boiled private eye in keeping with his current career: The French lover would be like an exotic creature captured, caged – a creature who suffers horribly to be free. Bruno and the workaday, not-much-pay world simply seemed somehow, sadly, mismatched. Like an exquisite Gruyère soufflé taken with coffee, black. Or a delicate silk charmeuse gown worn with high-top basketball shoes. Bruno, quite frankly, was fashioned more for love. Or was it fun? But because she had no clue, she and the newly-landed French lover, with baby William making them a family, moved into a seaside studio. She went to work, William learned to talk, and Bruno tried to adapt. How far he was from France! Without a job he had days free to launch a hodge-podge of projects. He grew vegetables in the garden and with a trowel made a pond. With lillypads. And frogs. In front of the cottage he planted trees of apple, pear and plum; in back they were lemon and almond. The French lover restored an heirloom armoire, baked berry tarts, taught his son French, studied Italian, stacked wood, cut grass and cooked pâté en croûte from scratch. He made bookcases, a barbeque nook, a cat’s bed, an arbor. With bougainvillea. And roses. “Chérie, let me tend your crabby mood with my grandmaman’s special soup,” he fussed one day among most when she arrived home from work to find his résumé still on the desk (unsent) and the Help Wanted ads (unlooked-at) lining the garbage can. She had staggered in late, rain-soaked and racked with a head cold. In her purse the paltry paycheck that was the buoy of their survival weighted her body with woe. “Suit yourself,” she wheezed and sneezed – and sneezed again – when Bruno, panting with passion, kneeled tenderly to remove her sopping galoshes. “Oh, my only penguin, true,” he said. “I would sell my treasured soul for one kiss hello, perhaps two.” Wouldn’t you know, there were 11 kisses, 12. And later by the light of the moon when Bruno bent in the garden to gather the carrots and onions and squash he would take until nearly midnight to chop, simmer and painstakingly spice into soup, she looked upon her French lover from the kitchen window and gave her brow a good bonk with her palm. “Why, when a quick can of Campbell’s would do,” (bonk bonk) “do I indulge him so, my Bruno?” She mulled over this conundrum the night her Provençal mate barbecued pork ribs in the bedroom fireplace. “My darling, just wait!” he argued when she objected. “They are gorgeous when cooked in the heart of the home.” She examined the conundrum again the day of his interview with the special career counselor when she learned Bruno hadn’t shown. “I can’t get away, mon amour, my guests await!” he said, breathless, when she called from the office to hear his excuse. It was a doozy. Rather than pursue the interview, Bruno was whipping up a make-believe meal of Coquille Saint-Jacques (with snowy heaps of gorgeous garlic potatoes) for William and a preschool playmate; his chef’s accoutrements? A miniature French toy tea set. The question got another going over the morning of the French lover’s appointment with the VIP her father’s people arranged as a favor when Bruno did indeed show – only elsewhere. At the confirmed hour, while the VIP (he later groused) checked his watch, twiddled his stress-relieving whatnot, and waited on the 49th floor of the downtown office tower, the French lover was perched perky and alert on a stool in the art school next door. He was eager for his intro-to-oil painting lesson. “If you must know, my luscious éclair,” he said when she griped about this, yet another ruined employment opportunity, “there is no dearer wish for a man than that he make immortal the intoxicating essence of his beloved as I have done here.” He handed her a portrait of herself conceived in lush orange curves, with big chartreuse hair and a doublewide smile that bore scant resemblance to her current chronic snarl. “Thus your fair, moody beauty is etched onto my heart,” continued the French lover. “It is there, forever, as exquisite as our love.” And she pondered the problem especially the Sunday dusk Bruno, during a commercial break from a 72-hour, John Wayne TV film-fest, charged through the house as – no, could it be? – an Apache. “Me want to take my pretty Pocahontas here, now!” he chanted among Indian warrior whoops as he hopped on one leg, then the other, whooping, through each room. The French lover was ablaze in fiery war paint: hot pink and coral lipstick zig-zagged ancient tribal markings down his bare, hairless chest. A spray of seagull feathers projected askew from his jogger’s headband. Making do for deerskin, a flap of designer paper towel was duct-taped into place – a loin-cloth replete with “Have a nice day!” smiley faces. At first sight she brought her vacuum cleaner to a screeching halt in the hall. “I swear, Bruno…” she stared at her earnest Indian. “You think you are being so…” Before she could expel the “f” in “funny,” the French lover bodily detached her from her Dust Buster, threw her over his shoulder, and, with the baby rattles attached to his ankles rattling, he rain-danced through the den and threw her off onto the living room La-Z-Boy. It was only a minute, or two, before she knew: the Dust Buster would have to idle awhile without her. The day the French lover booked an early flight to France, however, was the day the conundrum demanded an answer. France France France. Strange, it seems now, how the land of baguettes and berets was fated to reclaim as its own, her Bruno. With barely an “á bientôt,” Bruno flew off and settled into a minuscule flat near Paris’s Palais Royale. The next day, his police detective squad welcomed him back with balloons, a banner (“Bienvenue!”) and a bigger, shinier badge. His first morning at work the French lover tacked a photo of William on the wall above his desk next to the “Most Wanted” posters, and dug out of a drawer his favorite CD – a collection of tragic Corsican love songs. As the mournful tunes soaked his office in bittersweet gloom, again-Detective Pannetier opened a file marked “Unsolved Homicides” and, absentmindedly, fiddled with the pistol from which he had been away far too long. Ah, he thought, lighting the first in a chain of Gauloises and letting the tears freely fall, it feels oh, so good to be home. “I love you, I love you truly, I do!” he wrote to her two, three times a week, or phoned. Yet, an ocean away, she was too, too stunned to understand. “Ah, my happy penguin,” he faxed, “how my far-away family fills my fragile French heart with joy.” Unclear, unconvinced, in a dither, she took a poorly-paying job in a chiropractor’s office. Her friends were incensed. “What in damnation happened to that man?” they demanded. She wondered, too. Hadn’t she hoped love – his love, for her – would inspire the French lover to cast off his country like the Mediterranean clams he always so expertly shucked from their shells and come to her culture with charm intact? Hadn’t the baby been enough to bolt him to the grindstone so she could stay home William’s first few years? And really, hadn’t her beloved USA – her home – promised him a life more…well, real than one in which he can gallop around naked on a make-believe steed? As if in a husband that’s normal? Inspector Pannetier – Bruno – has gone back in France (she told them). Yes, you will find him in France. His gallant Gallic heart is so entwined with the daily sights of the Eiffel Tower, his soul so at-home with strolls along the Seine, that the French lover living anywhere but Paris (she suspected) is like the Louvre stripped of its Mona Lisa, the Moulin Rouge removed of its sequined showgirls: incomplete, wanting, wrong. She honked into the hankie one or another offered and wept hot tears of woe. It was some weeks before Bruno wrote on the back of a Les Invalides lithograph: “My charming chicken, to know we’ll be in our hearts together always, laughing and happy, is the inextinguishable light of my foolish French life.” Foolish foolish foolish. Strange, it seems now, given distance, how far and fast she fell for the French lover. The thousand and one nights of passion promised by Inspector Pannetier’s first bonjour now calamitously…kaput. The marvelous French je ne sais quoi contained in her dream of a future as Bruno’s True Love…gone to smash. Nuts, she muttered over the loss of her hopes for a Happily Ever After. I am simply a wretched romantic. And it’s over. After all, this friend or that urged her to follow the French lover to France and become a proper Parisian madame. A mere police detective’s wife. Just think of it! And she did. The rest of her life, her youth gone, he beauty spent, passed in a tiny government-subsidized flat –a hole, really – with a man happiest either dinging pinballs and hoisting pastis at the corner café or nakedly interpreting Columbus’s conquest of the Americas? She shuddered. She knew she never could forsake her bright American future in exchange for a forever under grey Paris skies. Especially since the great effort of speaking French always gave her a migraine. Yet the day she went in for the test and it came back a “yes”, her migraine proved to know no boundary of country or culture. She was pregnant. The French lover had wreaked his romance upon her. Again. She telephoned Bruno with the news, tracking him down at a Marais district bistro where he and 13 of his best police pals were yukking it up over garlic escargots. Through the telephone line the background music boomed, the pinballs dinged and she almost could smell the café’s choking smoke in the raspy voice of her absentee husband. “Ya-hoo, ya-hoo!” he hooted with happiness at word of her condition. “There’s a pee-wee penguin on the way! Champagne for all!” he hooted. Cradling the portable to her ear in the hall of her parents’ home where again she moved she slobbered torrents of tears and soaked to a shred her one woeful wad of tissue. “Je t’aime beaucoup, my little cuckoo,” she heard her far-away French lover coo. “I promise to rejoin you and our wonderful wee ones just as soon…” “For crying out loud!” her father’s baritone boomed from the dining room. “Where in holy hosanna is that man?” With a choke she squeaked “Gotta go, Bruno; goodbye,” and put down the phone. She stood alone with only excuses. Bruno is where he belongs, yes Bruno is back in France (she told him and blubbered into the hankie he offered). Yes, you will find him in France – with plans. He will copy in colored pen the cave paintings of Lascaux to brighten his bare flat walls. He will plant for his mother Monet’s gardens of Giverny, and for his papa prepare steak au poivre. He will make paté, bake croissants and take-up the art of wood whittling. He will attend classes in tango, tap, salsa and ballroom; he’ll hunt for truffles in the forest, and in the Alps he’ll ski. In the Mediterranean Sea he will dive for langoustines, and come fall in Provence he will help harvest his friends’ Chardonnay. And then: he will piece together from pink shells of Polynesia a plaque for the new baby’s cradle. “Thomas” it will read. Yes, the French lover’s life was so positively picturesque that he scarcely had time for a flight. Or so she consoled herself when day after day, week after week, she waited, buoyed by his promise made two times a month or three, that the next Air France jet to touch down in San Francisco would contain him, her very own, Bruno. “Have patience for I will come to be with you for good, my delectable dumpling, just as soon as I….” he phoned, faxed or dashed-off in a note with this excuse, or that. And the months continued to pass. Still, she waited. Within, baby boy No. 2 grew and grew, and just before Christmas was born with Bruno’s bold brow and kooky, crooked smile. Without, her face fixed itself into the picture of complacency. It was a mask perfect for those hundreds of times when anyone asked. So tell me, they’d say, what has become of Inspector Pannetier? “He was and will be always my French lover,” she would say, as practiced. “He was and will be always my dream too special to make real.” “My penguins, how Papa loves you so!” the French lover writes from France two, three times a week, or phones. “When next I fly over to see my flock of happy geese I shall make you giggle with all the best surprises, you know?” She knows, she knows, she knows. * * * Ten years have passed and the official divorce, recently signed and newly final, is on file. In the bedroom of the home she alone acquired, thanks to some startling, unexpected success in the wine business, her new fiancé reads the Wall Street Journal through half-glasses slung low on his nose. When he takes a bath there is no splish-splashing, no suds, no sonata. Naked he is neither cowboy nor Indian but mere businessman – all business. William and Thomas, now nearly in high school, are thriving. Still, when the French lover emails his messages once a day or texts, she can’t help but feel her heart lurch just a little in longing. “Eh bien, my love so true, will you won’t you will you won’t you drop all to come frolic with me?” his email might read. “What, Bruno again?” says her fiancé from the bed. “It’s nothing,” she says and her face betrays her lie. For it isn’t. Indeed, it isn’t really so strange, come to think of it, how Bruno’s every visit, whether it lasts one week or three, brings him back into her heart, however briefly. No, it’s not really so strange, after all, how her French lover forever will mean family, mean home, however fleetingly.