“To Paris!” I raised my glass, nearly spilling the purple contents. Dave clinked his wine glass with mine. We were seated on the sidewalk terrace of a small brasserie near the Opera, sharing a great bottle of French wine, watching tourists and well-dressed shoppers pass while the wine spread through our blood like magic elixir.
“To 3 successful months in Paris,” said Dave. “To the good life!” We clinked again, drank down, and Dave refilled our cups.
Dave was particularly happy, after our walk in Paris north, all the way to Montmartre and back. These first few months we had hiked the city often, and eaten lunch together at work, as we slowly made acquaintance with our French colleagues. He told me that the SIDA (AIDS) killing cocktail he was receiving as experimental treatment at the new SIDA clinic in Paris really seemed to be working. The sores had gone away and he had more energy. His French doctor at the clinic told him a cure was imminent. Dave’s transfer to France, which got him into this special treatment program, was a godsend. Still, AIDS was tricky in that it knocked down the door of your immunity castle, leaving your body open for invasion.
Whether my transfer to Paris was a godsend remained in question. The issue being that Frances had flatly refused to come with me. Having left her native Mexico only a few years before, smuggled across the border by me to Dallas, having only recently learned a whole new language and culture in the states, she was in no mood then to travel to yet another country and learn a new language. And to top it off, she had a deathly fear of flying.
“I’ll stay here and watch the house and raise the kids. It’s only 3 years,” she told me. She really wanted me to quit and find another job, and stay with her. She didn’t understand what a miracle this was, this offer to transfer to Paris. You don’t say no to a miracle, I told her. And with the bonus we could pay off the house. “Then go,” she told me. “I’ll wait for you. Yo te espero aqui, con los ninos.”
So I went, alone, and struggled to get through each day without her and the kids, trying to keep busy with work and long walks across the intriguing Paris neighborhoods with Dave. I went to the French movies several times a week, to practice my ear, and started French grammar classes at the Alliance Francaise. I learned to savor fresh baked croissants and crusty baguettes, and French and German chocolate. I even learned to drink wine. And I started writing short stories, in a collection I called “My Father’s Lies”, which I shared with only Dave. He liked the stories, which, at one level, were all about the clash of imagination versus reality, how they need each other and form each other, but I told the story on another level, in metaphor as husband versus wife (with kids).
Dave read my stories as soon as I finished them, and encouraged me. He even told me about an ad in the International Herald Tribune (Dave read the paper cover to cover), an ad looking for “Serious writers with a work in progress, to meet regularly in Paris to discuss their work. Send a sample of your work to be considered for this group.” I replied with Dave’s favorite story of mine, “Surviving on Mexican Shade.” Dave also told me about the BBC World Service short story readings, so I sent off the story to them as well with hopes they would read it on the air.
“I dreamed last night in French,” I told Dave, there on the terrace, sipping that good wine, celebrating our first 3 months in Paris.
“That’s a good sign. Your subconscious is assimilating the language. I don’t have the …” and he started to say “time” but changed it to “patience. I don’t have the patience to learn another language.”
“Have you seen the Count lately?” I asked.
“We are dining Saturday night,” he told me, with a bit of pride. The Count was a French blueblood, who Dave met at the clinic. They had hit it off immediately, and as there was no issue that either could get the other sick…
“And your Gypsy?” Dave asked.
“She’s not my gypsy. She’s my Romanian. I mean, she’s Romanian.” I squirmed, the wine collecting in my legs and clouding my words. “We just had lunch together.”
“Twice,” he said.
By definition she was something of a gypsy, I realized, as were all expats, crossing the borders of their homeland, walking through the walls of their culture. To another language, to new music, to new art, and new jobs. To another way of life.
“She’s been here 2 years. She knows all the places I need to visit. The books worth reading, the paintings worth seeing. She’s the one who told me about the new museum, the D’Orsay, with the Impressionists – Monet, Renoir, Gauguin and Van Gogh.”
Dave laughed a knowing laugh. “She’s cute.”
“She’s just a friend,” I told him. “But it is strange. The other day I was walking in the Latin Quarter, near the Seine, and who among the 10 million people in Paris do you think I ran into?”
“Fate?” asked Dave.
“I don’t know. It’s just so strange. You know how I read signs. Meeting her that way was a sign.”
I finished off the bottle of wine and stood and stretched. I said good evening to Dave, and left for the metro and my efficiency apartment above a grocery store on Avenue General LeClerc. From my open window in that tiny modern apartment, I could almost reach down and grab cherries from the outside bin. I closed the window and lay down on my air mattress bed, with the traffic in the street and the police sirens from the peripherique keeping me awake until late. I turned on the radio and dozed off listening to French love songs, Serge Gainsbourg and Bardot, Jane Birkin, Alain Souchon. A foreign ringing woke me. I lifted the clunky corded handset of the black phone on the floor.
“I’ve changed my mind,” she said. I could hear the strain, even over that long distance line. Her voice cracked as she continued. “I changed my mind. Quiero venir. I feel you so far away. I feel I’m losing you. I want to come to France. I want to bring the children. We miss you.”