by Karen Becker
They moved in syncopation with one another in a way that only long-time couples do. My envy at them spending a lifetime together warmed to the core, and that is what made it so spellbinding.
They were an elderly pair, and perhaps not comfortable with technology. Instead of a phone to guide them, they used a folded paper map. They took a few steps, looked up, around and back, and turned the map every which way. I stared as they scoured the buildings, decorated with gothic and neoclassical façades lining the riverbank, yet must not correlated with where the man kept his finger glued to the map. He cocked his head to the right, gave a pronounced pout and shrugged his shoulders in defeat. His head bent over the map, and when he turned slightly sideways to me, I saw his camel overcoat buckle at the back of the neck, emphasizing the professorial stoop of his shoulders.
The woman faced him. She had a lock of gray hair that repeatedly poked at her mid-cheek, accentuating her sharp, angular chin. As she repetitively pushed the same lock behind her ear with her right thumb, I did not mean to stare, but they were magical to watch. She manipulated a small silver camera with her left hand, bringing it to her eye. It remained for a moment before she removed the camera string from her wrist, and shoved it into her pocket.
The wind picked up, and they both pulled their coats tightly at the neck. She pulled olive-green, leather gloves from her pocket. As I approached, she proceeded to pull the first glove onto her right hand with the left, and then raised her left wrist to her mouth, tugging with her teeth to pull the other one on.
I crossed the street and we walked towards one another. Like slugs slithering across a leaf, they barely lifted their feet from the wet pavement. In a trance, I remained fixated on the pair. They resembled fraternal twins, walking close to one another. The closer I got, the more I found the similarity breathtaking. While I did not like to think of myself in years so far along, I did hope someone would one day look at me and think these same thoughts.
Stepping carefully, they walked in the middle of the sidewalk thus avoiding being whisked to their demise by a car passing too closely to the pavement’s edge. When were but a few feet apart, the man asked in accent-less French for directions, quite obviously assuming moi to be a native speaker. Perhaps it was the head-to-toe black, and the scarf tied just-so that caused me to look so Parisienne. My son, who was of carriage bound age could not reveal that I was not Française. I pursed my lips, said oooh-la-la, and held out my hand for their map. English and French vied for my brain’s attention, like children pounding at the bathroom door for a mother seeking respite.
Silently, I channeled Madame Pinot. Madame who clutched her hand to her gorge-deep, cleavage bahzums (her word) in my 10th grade French class, as she suffered une crise de fois. I did Madame proud. My dream from those early days of Madame, as she stood facing the class resting her hand on top of her bazuhms, was to voyage to a foreign land, immerse myself in its foreign-ness, and experience a different life away from what I knew. And whisked away finally came. From the moment the call came to our studio apartment in Hoboken regarding a transfer to Paris, I felt electricity flow through my veins. My husband, Jean-Paul told me New Jersey fulfilled his rêve of a foreign land and said he did not want to go. Whining about my desire to sip overtly strong coffee, eat a warm hardboiled egg, and consume an éclair from Dalloyau while overlooking the Jardin du Luxumbourg, thankfully won out. Within several weeks we found ourselves crammed into two coach seats with crunched knees, and a baby seatbelt extender holding our offspring securely on my lap.
Opening the map, the man asked, içi, and pointed to a spot between the folds. Non, I replied. Vous etês içi, monsieur. Puffing my cheeks and letting a little rush of air come out from my pursed lips, as red-lipped women often do in Truffaut films, my reply was quipped ever so French-ly. I wore not a trace of lipstick, yet I felt French. I gave my scarf a tiny tug. Enter stage left, and I did. In anticipation of this moment, it was the performance I had planned for in front of my mother’s bathroom mirror. Lips creamily reddened to perfection, my mother’s Chanel lipstick cracked in half, having twisted fully out of the golden tube, I used the broken bit to smudge my pouting lips. Hours of my high school years spent pursing, puffing and poising as I birthed my inner ingénue.
Comment puis-je aider, I asked in the foreign mother tongue. I did not mean to be rude, but I was having my magical moment, and no one knew otherwise. The wind gave a few short, chilly gusts, and dried, brown leaves swirled around the carriage wheels. Shrugging their shoulders, they said nothing. The woman, looked down at my son, and smiled at him. He made a baby noise in return and did not give me away.
Pulling a phrase book from her pocket, she searched for words and phrases fervently thumbing with her glove-covered hands. I could have switched to English, but I would not be the one to crush their adventure. Yet what they requested, I knew not why they wanted to go there, but surmised a waft of homesickness perhaps. In Paris, how could one not crave Rothchilds, éclairs, biftek and frites, was beyond moi, as it was what moi came for and why moi stayed.
My first thought was to send them elsewhere. Direct them to where I wanted them to go. Have the experience I wanted them to have. The sky darkened a bit more as the clouds shifted from gray to a black, billowy mist. I buttoned my own coat at the throat. I pulled my son’s hat back over his ears, as it had slipped up his sparsely-haired head, thus resembling a beanie.
Would you not like a pâtisserie? A boulangerie? Un café or brasserie? I screamed in my head thinking of every place a Frenchman would care to dine, repast or imbibe. Walls, yellowed with Galois-laden air, is to experience the essence of the French, add a Pernod or Cassis, and the memory is sealed.
I glanced across the river at the Musée D’Orsay’s gray exterior. We were in the city of lights and love. In broken French, she asked again. Reluctantly, I replied I had seen the place they requested on the Champs Élysées.
The rain began, and I pointed at the taxi stand across the street. I pulled the clear plastic rain cover over the front of the stroller and reached inside the diaper bag, hanging from the stroller’s handle for my rain hat.
Merçi, merçi they said over and over again, smiling and lowering their heads in gratitude. She fished around in her bag, and pulled out a small burgundy umbrella, removed the cover, and pushed it open. They leaned close to one another, the umbrella being only big enough to shelter their heads, and waited for the little digital, green man on the traffic light with his leg extended, to indicate safe passage across the street. I stayed in place, observing as they crossed the street. I watched as they hooked arms, stepped off the curb and over the puddle in tandem. Still within earshot, I overheard her exclaim, as she grabbed his sleeve, see Harold, they do have nice people, Big Macs and French Fries in Paris. He turned to her, closed his eyes for a moment, and bowed his head forward, slightly. Much in the same way that Jean-Paul looked at me when he caved on moving to Paris, the pair smiled as their eyes met, and he was obviously letting her know she was right.
I waited until the cab started to pull away. I waved, but they did not look up. In the silvery, grainy effect of the rain, they began to fade.
* * *
Kate Becker lives and writes in coastal Maine. Walking daily by the ocean, traveling, and food are her passions and the basis of her short stories. A novel filled with French food is underway for 2021. Creative writing courses at Sarah Lawrence, Fairfield University, Westport Writer’s Workshop, and an MS in PR/Communications (NYU), have honed her skills as a writer. She is a member of MWPA and WFWA. Learn more at katebecker.co and Follow the Food! Bleuberet.co.