We sat in the salon and talked of what went wrong. Heartbreak had happened, for sure, but Candy couldn’t convince me a love life in Paris would be that much better than the mess I left in San Francisco. There, my boyfriend shed me like his head had his hair – unattractively, which left a bad, bald spot in my self-esteem. Now here we were, my sister and I, living in the City of Light. And while she was being romanced by several hot messieurs of good French family, I was certain Paris promised little in the love department for me. Unless. Unless I shed my woe and whooped it up a little. This is what Candy suggested. Bounce back from your break-up and see, she said. You’ll fall head over heels yourself. Why was she so sure? Look, she said, “romance and France go together like…
“Like Michael and I!” I wailed and started to cry at the ex’s mere mention.
“No,” said Candy in the cooing tone she uses on pathetic sisters only. “Like a baguette and butter. Like a boulevardier and his beret. Like the Eiffel Tower and…”
“Stop it,” I sobbed.
On the tiny white sofa in the toile-papered room in the sixth-floor flat on the street in Passy where we lived, the two of us hugged. She continued.
“Really, look around. Here in Paris, everyone is in love.”
“Not me,” I snuffled.
“Kissers are always kissing in cafés, hand-holders are everywhere, strolling. Go to any park like the Luxembourg Gardens…”
“I don’t want to,” I hiccupped.
“…and there they are: smoochers of cheeks, patters of fannies and, sitting on laps by the lawn, couple after couple overcome with the hots who can’t keep their hands off each other.”
True. Paris did seem to carry an air of seduction, whether it was the pink swoony glow of sunset, the merry clink of Champagne glasses in the cafés crammed with people laughing, or our neighborhood at night – its intimate bistros candlelit and cozy, the music soft and low. My tears flowed and flowed.
“Oh, please,” said my sister. “Snap out of it. Paris is the city of love. Why not get in on it. Everyone else is.” She did have a point. And really, I had to wonder, what is it about the City of Light that makes it so conducive to Seine-side strolls á deux, to tête-a- têtes with an Eiffel Tower view – to flirting and fondling and fun? If only I could understand Paris’s predilection for passion and romance! Then maybe I, in time, might find my own fanny patted. By a sexy Frenchman no less.
Just then, the foyer buzzer buzzed. Candy tossed me a last tissue and opened the door to Martine, the coiffeuse from up the street.
“Salut, les filles,” said Martine. The hairdresser was one of my sister’s sexiest French friends and stood there flaunting a big, bouncy bosom in her very décolleté tee.
Martine’s “hi girls” prompted us to reply as one: “Bonjour, Martine.” But it was the woman arm-in-arm with Martine who next spoke.
“Hi, I’m Meg,” twanged the petite brunette, her accent possibly Texan? Meg, fresh from the hairdresser’s chair, glowed with her new auburn highlights; she was invited by Martine to meet us, she said, because we were American, too.
“Hi, Meg,” said Candy, and showed our guests to the salon. Martine flopped onto the tiny, white sofa, Meg dropped into the petite loveseat, and both, when offered tea and some warm apple Tarte Tatin, said oui! oui! And “please.”
“Alors,” said Martine in her native French. “It was so wonderful.”
What was so wonderful?
Launching what looked like a good gossip-fest, Martine asked Candy please to translate for Meg, who spoke not a word of French.
“Okay, sure,” said my sister. “Well, Meg, what Martine just said is, “it was so wonderful.”
“After a very romantic dinner at my place with too much Champagne,” recounted the raconteur in French, “Claude smiled at me over the crème caramel and with that look, you know, said, ‘Martine?’”
Ah, a story of seduction. We all perked-up.
“After a very intimate dinner at her place with too much Champagne,” echoed Candy, but in English, “he smiled at her over the crème caramel and with that look, you know, said, ‘Martine?’” Meg, last to get in on the understanding, lit up brighter than her highlights when she got where the story was going.
“Go on!” she urged, the dimmer knob of her curiosity dialing up.
“‘Martine, your eyes are like azure diamonds so beautifully they shine,’ he said, and I could feel his gaze dissolve me,” the French girl sighed.
“So he complimented her eyes – something about something azure, I think – and she felt like she might pass out,” translated my sister, striving for accuracy. This would be tough, I had to admit, getting right the pretty mix of idiom, proverb and euphemism that Martine’s native French presented. As even the lovelorn like me knew, le français is a romance language – a language no less a prose poem as lofty and lovely as others derived from the spoken Latin: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian.
As Martine talked and the Tarte Tatin disappeared, I flashed on my first breakfast in France years ago. It was then I learned my cornflakes, that bland bowl of blah that begs for spoonsful of sugar, translates into French as a collection of “petals” – the image alone invoking nothing so much as a sweet arrangement of blooms for the cereal bowl. Then there was the label in my hotel bathrobe. This common wrap of terrycloth – at best hot stuff for a slattern or hausfrau – is one step up from a towel in sensuality. But in French, ah in French, the bathrobe is reborn a “peignoir.” It hints of something sexy. Something see-through. Something, perhaps, that flutters ostrich feathers? What’s more, the French do not walk the dog, but, rather, “promenade” with him. Police do not arrest, but instead “invite” lawbreakers to jail. Clearly, when discussion in France turns to love, it has to follow: conversation here is no less frou-frou than ostrich feathers themselves.
No wonder she struggled to get it exactly. I felt for Candy’s coarse retelling of Martine’s erotic rendezvous. Fanciful, flowery French, when translated into casual, slang-filled English that’s all, like, totally whatever, is like a Folies Bergère showgirl come to San Francisco: she’s bound to lose some sequins along the way.
Nonetheless, my sister pressed on with her interpretation of Martine’s developing tale of seduction for the benefit of Meg who, meanwhile, involved herself in the story as eagerly as if she wished Claude were her own and she could give him the, like, totally, whatever.
“So,” Martine continued in a swoony tone, “Claude kisses me with kisses that rain the wonder of rapture on my heart…”
“So he’s kissing her,” came the translation, “and it’s a wonder the rain doesn’t rupture her heart.”
“It’s raining?” interrupted Meg, who spoke no French. She looked confused. But Martine continued.
“He kisses me and sweeps me off my feet in a dance of desire that pirouettes to the boudoir…”
“There’s even more kissing,” said Candy, “and then they head to the bedroom, where his desire is to dance a pirouette.”
“A pirouette?” exclaimed Meg, who spoke no French. By now she was both confused and let down by Claude’s apparent hint of kinkiness. She wore the pout to prove it.
Martine went on: “He places me like a queen on the throne of love and with great reverence he worships my body. In his words of longing, in his fevered touch, I become mistress of the realm where passion enslaves me; I am the goddess of enchantments! And they set my soul soaring on wings of l’amour. Oh, Claude is so wonderfully bad. He is so wonderfully bad I could die!”
“So,” interpreted my sister in her best effort to get the story straight. “He’s got her on the bed, and he’s got this fantasy going where she’s a slave goddess – or something – but something about something long, his fever, I guess, makes her feel like a floozy instead. And maybe she was enchanted once but now? Forget it. Her soul wants to fly elsewhere for love because Claude is just so terrible at it that really, she’d rather die.”
Here, Meg shifted uncomfortably in her petite loveseat. Yeah, her expression said, here it is: another tacky tale of romance gone bad, of love gone to smash. I empathize by recalling my own bungled attempt to get a concept of Happily Ever After. Sure. With that man whose whispered sweet nothings often meant just that, nothing? I wondered if the French girl’s seduction would end up like so many of my own. Would Martine, too, end up feeling like a loser in life’s romance roulette, fated forever to be spun around and around by love until dizzy with disappointment? I hoped not.
Turning back to the unfolding drama both I and Meg were eager for the English explanation of the French girl’s tale, the continuation of which was now delivered in a bored, matter-of-fact tone she accessorized by lighting a Gauloise.
“Alors,” Martine recommenced, exhaling a heart of smoke. “The music of Claude’s caress is becoming the sonata of my heart as he conducts my body like a maestro. And I have to confess,” her voice got husky to confess, “my own body is now an allegro to our love.”
Candy, who looked like she sure could use a French dictionary, winged it: “Now Claude is doing something musical to her body – or maybe there’s music? – and she…she…well, she is having an allegro!”
“An allegro?” said Meg, astonished.
“But then,” dramatized Martine, “just at the moment his animal passion – strong and fierce like the boar, you know? – just at the moment his animal passion became most profound, I begged Claude, ‘Arrêt!’”
“Stop!” erupted the interpreter, obviously startled by the unexpected plot twist of this narration. “Do you believe it? Claude is being such an incredible bore that Marie has to insist he stop!” Here Meg’s face sagged into an expression as let down as I felt the day I got the heave-ho from my ex while I, meanwhile, was as excited as if my own allegro were imminent. That’s it! I suddenly saw.
Why, simply take what in America is called a copped feel, hop the Atlantic to France and fashion it a “caress,” and voila. Love becomes lovelier the second it’s hot off your lips. Yes, love-talk in the States can be as seductive as a slap with its raw, X-rated descriptions. Let’s-have-sex! it also will blurt, bare and blunt. Do you want to…you know? it will ask, bashful – leaving all poetic finesse out of the bedroom. But here in France? Describe even a friendly peck as an “embrace,” casual sex as making love, and love as the moon and stars, and it’s no secret why falling head over heels is so easy and right in the City of Light. People here wouldn’t know a seduction that sounds unromantic if they took one home to bed with them.
I look at Meg, pale with dejection after hearing the English version of Martine’s bedroom escapade. Even her highlights seem dimmed. Frankly, she confided to Candy while the French girl suspended her tale to toy with the last bite of her Tarte Tatin, she could see no more tenderness and promise in this seemingly disastrous date than a USA lay can fancy itself a French “gift of pleasure.” Still, she was curious about Claude and the damper put on the moves he made on Martine.
“So, after all, you guys didn’t actually do it, huh?” she wanted to know and Candy, translating the question into French, turned to Martine and said: “In your evening repast of erotic promise, you and your scrumptious éclair of pleasure never did partake in the sweets of passion, nor indulge in the intoxicating nectar of ecstasy, non?”
“Alors, non,” the coiffeuse sighed. “The delectable dalliance will have to wait until my Claude proves how very good and sensible he is, and will favor me with love’s proper préservatif.
“No.” Candy turned back to Meg. “No condom. Big problem.”
Dead silence. The salon so filled with the promise of love a few moments ago was now so quiet I was sure even my secret sense of despair could be heard. Meg looked at Candy, Candy at Martine, Martine at me: if we didn’t all feel for the couple interrupted, we at least agreed in our silent understanding that romance and France were a tricky affair indeed. I needed to decide. During my time in the City of Light, would I be in, or not? In my own pursuit of love, would I be willing to dance a pirouette in the rain with a bore, or would I, you know, whatever?
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