Inside the Walls of La Roquette, 1975
I get off the Métro stop at dusk and direct my steps down Rue de la Roquette: a crooked little cowpath once, it winds down from the Bastille’s Angel of Liberty, past the site of the women’s prison to Père Lachaise cemetery, where many who fought for liberty and many who never gave it a thought molder in their graves. At my back, the Angel, glued forever to his pedestal, in certain lights and in certain angles gives the impression of impending flight.
Hurrying New-York-style in Paris is not an option. A light rain is falling, and I don’t have an umbrella; I’m ducking under canopies, peering into shops, a prisoner of the homemade delicacies on display for commuters like me: pickled herrings, carrot and garlic salads, anchovy pizza, quiches lorraines, Alsatian choucroutes, rice pudding pies, and interminable rows of flaky, light, melt-in-your-mouth patisseries whose names I am still trying to master. Mille-Feuille? Éclair? Clafoutis?
In New York, we just say, “Give me a Danish.”
Tearing my eyes and nose away from the delicacies, I come upon a hardware appliance store: TV sets, radios, hi-fi’s, tiny refrigerators, washing/drying/pressing machines; clothes shops, fancy baby dress shops, an Indian shirt store, the U.S. Army Surplus Store; a flower shop; a laundry; and a service center that will bail you out when your mini-toilet jams. I walk on.
Across the street, dozens of cafes, brasseries, tabacs, a restaurant or two, a gas station, a new Vietnamese take-out joint. Unaware of its incongruity or proud of it, Théâtre Oblique squats in the middle of the action, a square white building bringing arts and letters to the marketplace: Strindberg, Kafka, Ingmar Bergman. And not far from the theatre, a little brown synagogue made of Jewish stars sits; its outside walls have been decorated for free by various competing political groups. Nothing vicious, just free speech taking advantage of every available wall space.
Stopping well before Place Voltaire, in this best of all possible worlds, nowhere near the site of the women’s prison or the cemetery, I push the heavy porte cochère door open to enter the courtyard of our hundred-year-old building, turning back to register the scene one more time. How could I forget the horsemeat shop, Kosher butcher, triperie, charcuterie, and the chicken, ducks, geese, and rabbits on display? The cafes, vini supermarché, and the handful of pharmacies, coiffures, shoe stores, and bookstores? Qu’est-ce qui vous manque? Why, nothing. Nothing is missing. You could live your whole life out on this street and lack for nothing.
What am I doing here? I’m a little Jewish girl from Queens. No big deal in my hometown. Sure, I’ve got the impossibly thick black curly hair cascading down my shoulders, the porcelain complexion of most twenty-something women, a wide “come closer” smile, and what I’m told is a certain “glow.” But, you see, I’ve hit the jackpot. I bet not one of those snooty girls in my ninth-grade French class got to marry a Frenchman. Little Lucie Lerner, whose father is a butcher and mother a secretary, whose “bedroom” was the couch in the living room, little Lucie is living in Paris.
I take the spiral staircase on the left, the one that reverses direction after the second floor, to get to our two-room railroad flat on the third. Like a typical Parisian, I’m working on my sixth cold of the season, but luckily not the Big G (grippe or flu); unlike that typical Parisian, I’m going to have to improvise an evening meal. I throw down my handbag, open the window, and take a moment to gaze out in wonder at all the movement in the street. Bus 69 thunders by right on schedule (every quarter of an hour), along with motorcycles, those bikes with motors on the front wheel, Renaults, Citroens and anything else that can add a note to the crazed cacophony of the streets. I take in the throngs of other hungry people, many with a cold too and battle fatigue from the Métro, rushing home to get to their dinner first. I catch a whiff from the coffee-grinding shop downstairs: an aroma designed to delight the soul. Relatching the window, I remain transfixed. This first year in France, everything amazes me.
Look at all those women, pushing imported English strollers made of plastic and spit, shopping, always shopping for the next meal and the one after, never sure of pleasing enough, and the people of all sorts and in all sizes, from all over the world, come to La Roquette—to eat, what else? It’s La Grande Bouffe, the continuous French food orgy and full-time obsession with which wine goes with what.
I spot a homeless man crouched in the dirty alleyway near the Hungarian bar opposite our building. He’s gnawing on a stale baguette. I imagine he’s dreaming of the open market at nearby Richard Lenoir a few days away: the flowers, the cheeses, the jettisoned food, the kindly vendor who might save a packet of meat scraps to give to him.
Oops. I glance at my watch and dash into the bedroom, realizing I’d better change out of my clothes, slip on jeans, and not forget my pantoufles. Wasn’t that what started our last fight? Can’t risk scratching the floors with my heels or catching that which is most feared by the French—a chill going straight to the heart—by walking barefoot! Pierre, my dashing French husband, is due home any moment, he with the long straight black hair parted on one side, the finely sculpted features and perfect Gallic nose. And don’t get me started on the accent!
If it were up to me, I’d simply scramble up eggs, make a quick vinaigrette for the salad greens his mother brought over from her garden, serve cheese and bread and wine, of course, and a little slice of her home-baked rhubarb pie. Would that suffice?
Unsure, I take eggplant, tomatoes, squash, onions, and garlic out of our mini-fridge and throw together a ratatouille; I set it simmering on the stove and slice up fresh bread from the Jewish bakery. Won’t Pierre be impressed?
8 p.m. Pierre is still at the lab. I can’t remember if he said anything about a deadline or a special project. If only we had a phone! Pouring myself a glass of vin rouge, I bring it with me as I step into the tiny living room near the front door, stretch out on the daybed, and leaf through my writer’s journal, back to the beginning, the coup de foudre of love at first sight.
They were both on the point of tears, both not daring to show it,
both turned away towards opposite walls.
When heads turned, eyes locked. For one brief second, souls
leapt out, danced ring-a-round-the-rosy, high jumped in the air…
The air was so still.
Maybe this is it, she thought, daring, not daring.
Maybe this will be it, he wondered, hoping, loving her hair, blinking.
They glanced away, held hands, talked soft.
They would never think of this moment in the years to come.
But now I am thinking of that moment, how fine a moment it was: the overheated room in the upstate university town, the mountains of snow balanced against the bedroom window, our nubile young bodies, sleek with sweat, disentangling with regret.
He had a girlfriend in France: too emotional, a depressive. I’d had a boyfriend I’d chased all the way to Colorado.
The earth opened up, swallowed them whole, held them gently in its maw like a protective mother cat. What happened to one would henceforth happen to both.
Is that feeling still floating around where Pierre and I can tap into it, like a mote of Tinkerbell’s dust?
I close the journal and stash it away to listen to the old woman on the other side of the wall. She’s singing while she readies her bed for sleep: hymns in Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian, lilting airs of peasant girls and princes. A thin soprano voice, a little creaky like her bed, but a good voice, a happy voice. Madame Karol. She taps out a good night. I tap back. I know tomorrow she will laugh hysterically when she sees me. “Did you hear when I said, ‘Knock knock, bonne nuit, mes enfants?’” She’ll clap her hands, doubling up at the idea of such a good trick.
The first time I met her, soon after we moved in, she practically assaulted me as I was pulling out bills and letters from our mail box in the courtyard. In impossibly fractured French, she let me know her husband’s name was Karol, hence her name, and she’d been a widow for eight years. She’d come to France from Poland via the Ukraine and learned her French in the streets, present tense only, if you please. On first hearing, it was incomprehensible, especially to another foreigner like me. That did not slow her down in the least.
That first day, she tugged at my arm to get me to follow her as she darted up the stairs, looking back gleefully every few minutes to make sure I hadn’t run off. She insisted on giving me a tour of her tiny apartment. Everywhere, whiteness and flowers—on the curtains, on the cloths covering the furniture, on seat cushions, on the wallpaper. Plants, fifteen years old, were lined up three deep for the mid-morning sun. I followed her in my boots; she slid along the tile floor on slippers like Pierre’s, looking like an over-age Sonja Henie. A few slides took her into the bedroom where I timidly followed: miniature red-yellow-orange Orthodox Church hand-painted Easter eggs popped up everywhere in groups of three, music boxes with dancing ballerinas, Karol’s strong Slavic face on the wall, his certificate.
“Ah, Madame, he was something. Thirty years on the same job. Can you believe that? Everybody loved him. When he died, a woman in the street asked me if it was an important person’s funeral, there were many, many people and cars. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it’s my husband.’ Everybody loved him. They came to tell me how good he was. And I see that woman on Oberkampf Street. Her husband died, and she married another! They asked me to remarry too. I said, ‘No! What for?’ How can women do that? Not me, I couldn’t.”
Tonight it’s bedtime for my neighbor, but not yet for me. I pull out my copy of Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe and start to read, but almost immediately I hear Pierre’s footsteps coming down the hallway.
I jump up to open the door. “Bonsoir,” I say.
“Bonsoir,” he answers, kissing me on both cheeks. He heads to the bedroom to throw down his clothes, then parades past me buck naked on the way to the shower.
“Show-off !” I yell out as he passes, giving him a light slap on his rear end.
“Help! Au secours! I’m being attacked,” he cries out.
“Oh, go take your shower. I’ve kept your dinner warm.”
When he emerges from the bathroom in the long Mexican shirt he likes to sleep in, with his wet hair slicked back, I smile and say, “You’re too handsome, you know?”
I serve him a heaping bowl of ratatouille. After he finishes, he pulls me onto his lap for a quick cuddle. “That’s nice,” I say. We adjourn to the daybed in the living room, cradling two glasses of cognac. He shows me how to warm it up between my hands. Again.
I attempt a joke. “You weren’t here to ‘cook’ me a salad, so…”
“Admirable work!” he says. He stares into space. The apartment is very quiet. I don’t hear the street noise any more. I can filter it out most of the time now.
“You seem preoccupied,” I venture.
“It’s a problem we’re having, a scientific problem, that’s all.” He squints into space for a few seconds longer, slowly returning to the world of the living. “So how were your classes today? Did everyone talk like this: ‘Ze rain in Spain falls mainly on ze plain?’”
“Exactly. Who told you?” I sip my cognac before continuing. “Actually I had to cover classes for another teacher. I had five classes today, from faux débutantes to advanced. Unreal. I was bouncing all over Paris. I’m beat.”
He’s not listening. I can tell he’s far far away. I decide to give this a try: “You must be tired working such long hours. How about we take a trip this weekend—”
“We’ll see.” He flips through the bills that have come in the mail.
“Or we could eat at that little vegetarian place in the Marais, the one where those stork-like waiters have ropes around their waists instead of belts.”
“Yes, I know you like that place. Problem is I told my mother we would stop by for a visit. She’s counting on seeing us.”
“Not a problem. I bet we could go to Alfortville in the afternoon and return in time—”
“Lucie!” He holds up a hand to stop me from going on. He’s laughing. “Please. Understand I have obligations.”
I will my tongue to be still. No point in arguing when we’re both tired.
We take a last burning swig of our drinks and march off to bed. Pierre immediately falls into a deep sleep. I lie in bed, jumpy, unsettled, unsure of what is happening here.
Just two years ago…
Grad School Intersession, February 1, 1973
For the third night in a row, Gilberto from my comp-lit class invited me to a party at his house. I had good reasons not to bother, excellent reasons. Another snowstorm had blown through Rochester that morning. I had no transportation, was too poor to own a car, and Gilberto’s house was way across town. I had no interest in Gilberto himself. I was really not the party type.
But I also had good reasons to make the effort to go. Twenty-six already, I had no one to love me, though I’d looked in all the obvious corners, venturing as far as Colorado the previous summer to chase a love-delusion. After a “ride” or two when I first arrived in Rochester, I’d quickly tired of the English department’s assembly-line dating game. Picture two moving sidewalks, males lined up on one side facing the females on the other. An unseen mover strikes a gong; the sidewalks slide in opposite directions, lurching to a stop at the sound of the second gong. Kerry is now paired with Kim, Sari with William, Judy with Kevin, Debby with the Chaucer prof. The new couples peel off two by two, rushing to consummate their new-found passions. I was too much of a romantic, too much of a cynic to indulge in this incestuous ’70s sex game.
I paced the house. Saturday night. My roommates were both gone for the weekend. If I stayed I could make more of a dent in Moby Dick, finish comparing the influence of French poets on Robert Browning, or straighten out those footnotes in my Beckett research paper.
I opened the front door and was hit by a blast of Nordic air. I scanned the empty streets. A strange compulsion was overtaking me: I had to go to this party. I slammed the door, grabbed the telephone, and called everyone I knew, finally managing to unearth a ride from an acquaintance of an acquaintance. I rushed to get dressed.
Shaking out my freshly washed, rum-scented hair, I decided that the Indian minidress hanging in my closet, maroon-colored with strands of yellow, green, and red running through it, would wrap deliciously around my petite frame. An occasion to wear my new brown Frye boots! I had no idea what cute guys might be hiding out in Comp Lit.
Fate had pointed her gnarled finger at me. The whole matter, now, was out of my hands.
An hour later I was walking from room to room at the crowded house party, sampling the chili and chips, sipping cheap wine from a Styrofoam cup, alone and a bit awkward. As I paused to admire one of the host’s Colombian wall hangings, I felt a chill run up my spine. A man was following me. I turned to my left and yes, a stranger stood very close, staring at me.
“You must be French,” I blurted out, after one look at his face.
“Pierre,” he said, extending his hand. “Enchanté!”
Look at him: silky black hair almost down to his collar, high cheekbones, a pale oval face set off by his ragged black sweater. With those deep-set brown eyes and mocking expression, I could have said, you must be a poet. Turned out he was both French and a poet. Now, I had been studying French since ninth grade. I’d had a lifelong love affair with all things French. I was a goner.
He led me to a corner of the room and stood very close. I felt drunk breathing in his scent. But within minutes, in the periphery of my vision, I became aware of another presence. A skinny blonde girl, most likely an undergraduate, stood staring at us, open-mouthed, a cup in each hand. “Why is that girl giving us evil looks?” I asked. “Do you know her?”
He glanced over at the skinny girl and made a dismissive gesture. “That is not important now.” He grinned and stroked my arm, filling his eyes with me. He leaned forward and whispered, “I love your knees!”
I tried to focus but couldn’t stop myself from chattering: “Claire’s Knee! Eric Rohmer was the director. What a film. You know, I love French cinema. So sensuous, so…”
He was eating me up with his eyes.
I gulped. “I’m a big fan of Edith Piaf, of course. I guess you could say I worship her.” I don’t remember what else we talked of, but I suspect our conversation included a description of my nuclear family, crazy uncle included, and the time my third-grade book report was sent to the principal because it was so amazing. “And can you believe my mother thought I could be a ballerina? I mean, look at me. I have no sense of balance.”
He did that thing again with his eyes. I’m sure I was blushing. My whole body tingled.
An hour later, when my ride signaled that she was ready to leave, he put his hands on my shoulders—I almost fainted at his touch—and drew me in for a French farewell, four pecks on the cheeks. “A très bientôt!” He’d written my address and phone number on the palm of one hand. His hands were beautifully sculpted, with the long fingers of an artist or architect. Or poet.
I can’t remember the drive home, only the thought that if he didn’t call me, I would die. That very night he wrote me a poem that he carried to me the next day, walking miles in the slush from the opposite end of the city. A poem!
He started stopping by every single day to see me, rarely empty-handed. He’d say, “Look what I brought you today. Mandarin oranges. Good for your health.”
We’d sit up in bed, peeling the oranges, exchanging hot and sticky kisses. “Shall I teach you how to prepare rice pilaf? Very nutritious.”
I nodded, enthralled.
Generous to a fault, he insisted on treating me to a new spring coat with his larger student grant.
Best of all, he danced with me in the shadows of early morning, arms around my waist, spinning me around. We’d stare fascinated at our images in the mirror. So young. So vibrant.
“We make a handsome couple, don’t we?” I said. I knew he agreed. I often caught him staring at me.
One afternoon I was brewing us some coffee in the kitchen when he summoned me to the bedroom: “Come, Lucie, I must show you something amazing. Leave the coffee.”
I joined him in the bedroom. He was sitting on my beloved purple armchair that I’d found at a street sale. I approached and let him draw me onto his lap. “Now listen carefully, cutie. Years ago I drew a picture of my dream woman, ‘Sarah.’” He unrolled a piece of canvas for me. “Look! C’est toi!”
I picked up the profile sketched in charcoal to get a better look. Sarah, with her long black hair and seductive smile.
“Isn’t this amazing?” He was all smiles, all wet kisses. He was actually getting pretty turned on by his own artwork. I went with the flow.
Overnight, I had a boyfriend. A French lover. All mine. Ordered up especially for me.
I am drawn to stories of trapped women: intelligent, beautiful, caring women who fall in love with princes straight out of a fairy tale and slowly realize that they have invited both the frog and the prince to live with them. The Paris Novel, a work in progress, is a very personal tale of New-York-born Lucie’s awakening to the reality of who she is, realizing that her oft-dreamed-of life in Paris is not at all what she thought it would be, and that Pierre is not husband material after all.
Lucie becomes unhappy, unhappier, unhappiest while living with her dashing French husband and little baby in a charming neighborhood in Paris. She blames herself, endeavors to try harder, makes excuses, until the sheer accumulation of insults and crises drives her to take a terrifying leap. Ultimately she gets what she wants and so does he. In her case it’s escape; in his, it’s a telescope in Hawaii.
This is a very personal story, inspired by my life in Paris in the 1970s and my enduring love-hate relationship with all things French. Women readers will recognize their own romantic missteps and empathize with Lucie in her quest first to find the man of her dreams and then, afterwards, to figure out how to live with him.
For years I’ve been a freelance journalist, moonlighting from my day job as an HR professional. I’ve published mainly articles, essays, book, and movie reviews in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, New York Post, Working Mothers Magazine, and trade journals, as well as one nonfiction book, I Need a Job, Now What? But the urge these last few years has been to return to my dream of writing and publishing fiction. I’ve been fortunate enough to publish a score of short stories and poems and a debut novel, Dream Job: Wacky Adventures of an HR Manager, a satire of a hapless heroine and her life in an out-of-control medical center.
Janet Garber lives in Somers, New York. She has earned an MA from the University of Rochester and loves connecting with other writers and inspiring non-writers to “give it a try.” In her free time, she hikes in “The Gunks” with Hubby #2 (a keeper!). Her story recounting their fateful meeting is showcased in Chicken Soup for the Soul’s “Miracle of Love” issue, released this past June. Her debut novel, Dream Job (2016), was a Finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and a runner-up in Shelf Unbound’s Best Indie books. You can find out more about her at janetgarber.com.
Embark, Issue 5, July 2018