by Sam Bluefarb (March 2015)
“Paris is forever…” –Ernest Hemingway
In this late fall of my life, Juanita and I–she, some twenty-plus years younger than me–flew to Paris. What were the odds of an octogenarian—even a young octogenarian–surviving a one-way, much less a round-trip? Or would I re-enact the fate of that nameless character in Ivan Bunin’s story “The Gentleman from San Francisco”? In the full flush of health, on a tour of romantic Capri, he drops dead.
My companion had no sympathy for my actuarial concerns. “How do you know I don’t go before you? I drive to work every day on the freeway and I can have accident.” (English was not her first language) She had never been to Europe, and for weeks before we boarded that Air France flight, she was breathless at the prospect, “I think of Parees because I can’t sleep!”
* * *
Juanita had brought along a video camera, which she had purchased just for the occasion—”I am so excited about Parees. . . . !”—which of course she had to learn to use “on the job,” so to speak. But instead of drinking in the sights and sounds of the city, she spent precious time at café tables pouring over the video-cam’s instruction manual. I couldn’t help her since I’m an old (unreconstructed, non-digital!) still-camera buff. Before we took off for Paris I’d purchased a point-and-shoot camera for her, which I’d borrow from time to time to take shots of street scenes, façades of cafés, one such from our third-story window across the street from our hotel, with its red-and-white striped awnings; or, as we strolled a boulevard, grab-shots of alleyways leading to mysterious rococo portals. Yes, that point-and-shoot would have served her better, as she would learn on our return to the States, when she compared my results with her video images, raving about the prints–cafés, boulevards, the Seine–while she was hunched over that manual, boning up on the mechanical intricacies of a video-camera instead of enjoying the ambiance, etc.
I was not able to book reservations much earlier than for late September going into October with the weather just beginning to turn, the season’s overcast, occasional drizzle, and the gusty breezes that blew the awnings of the cafés that went right through you. With the summer virtually gone, there were few people out on the terraces of the Dôme, the Coupole, the Rotônde. So I said, “Let’s go over to the Luxembourg Gardens and see a bit of the real Paris.” But she wasn’t interested, “Maybe later. I just see a big department store around corner.” (It was the Left bank’s other, smaller Galerie Lafayette.) And I told her, “You can explore it later, after we’ve seen more special places. We have only a week here. Department stores you can visit back home. We don’t come six thousands miles”—and over three grand, I mumbled to myself—”to check out department stores.” Though in all fairness, part of the fun of travel is buying souvenirs and baubles to take back with you. I’d give her that, because, who could tell, this could be her last time she’d see Paris (I knew it would be mine.) I finally promised her that after we’d checked out some of the Left Bank sights, we’d come back early and she’d have two hours to visit the Lafayette, before it closed at seven. She pouted but agreed. And we strolled from Montparnasse over to the Luxembourg; but every time we came to a church, she’d aim her cam-corder at it and pan it back and forth, back and forth. I suggested that all she’d get would be a rapid sequence of confused and confusing images, as if a drunk were wielding the camera. “But I gotta put in every’ting.” “Keep the camera still, Juanita, and let the natural movements of people walking, talking, do the job. Then aim at another point.”
When we reached the Luxembourg, she smiled, shook her head in happy surprise, drew close, and gave me a buss on the cheek. “Why you don’t tell me how beautiful this place is?” “I tried to.” Then she raised the camera to her eye, and began to pan wildly. I wished the weather were sunny, and that the flowers of mid-summer, now beginning to fade, might have retained the freshness of their summer pinks, scarlets, lemon yellows, and violet blues.
We made a slow circle of the park and she aimed the camera at the Luxembourg Palace, the statues, the miniature Statue of Liberty. . . . Suddenly, I remembered a girl I’d met on that short-lived 72 hours from the front, and remembered how we’d strolled that same pathway, she hanging on to my arm with both of hers as though in need of something more than body warmth in that chill February afternoon. She was originally from Barcelona, a refugee from Civil War Spain, and the widow of a young man who had been killed fighting for the Loyalists. Since then, I always wondered what had happened to her, whether she was still alive. Mais où sont les neiges d’antan? Then the memory vanished when Juanita said. “It is beautiful, this park. I never knew such places!” And I was touched by her being touched. Then we left the Luxembourg and headed for the Boulevard St. Michel. On the way up toward the Place St Michel, we turned into the rue des Écoles and paused at a little park across from the Sorbonne, the Place Paul Painlevé—named after an obscure politician of the early 1930s–with its statue of Montaigne facing a building of the Sorbonne, the small park a quiet island in the middle of the feverish Latin Quarter, but instead of aiming the camera at that island of peace and quiet, she aimed it at the brown monotoned brick walls of that building, no older than the late 19th century, when it was built—a façade that not even a student of architecture would find interesting. And again, the wild panning.
Then back to the Boulevard St Michel. What interested her were the pushcarts with their wares, multi-colored T-shirts with Eifel Towers silk-screened on them, tourist stuff, and she stopped, and picked at one of the shirts, and asked me to ask the prices, and I pointed to the cardboard signs with the Euro symbols (the new currency had just replaced the franc) painted on them. She must have spent twenty minutes going through the stock, unfolding the T-shirts, then tossing aside the rejected—”For my sister and my cousin.” The vender was getting impatient, having to fold the T-shirts back in place and re-stack them. The weather, which had been overcast all morning, now turned to drizzle. I suggested we stop off at the rue de la Huchette, that narrow 13th century street where Elliot Paul had lived in the 1920s and ’30s so that we could stop someplace where I could check a Métro map.
We took a table on the terrace of a café that faced the Place St. Michel. It had turned chilly, but what eased that were the currents of warm air wafting down from huge heat lamps attached to the overhead awning. I focused my attention over the map, connections, destinations, transfer stations, while, again, Juanita buried herself in the camera manual. Once, I glanced up and caught a glimpse of Nôtre Dame, visible above the intervening trees and buildings, and pointed to it. “Oh, I want to go there.”
“No time, Juanita. . . .”
“But I want to see that big church”—she was a pious Catholic—”and go inside and say a prayer.”
“The tour you’re going on tomorrow has it on their itinerary. You’ll have lots of time to go in, even time enough for a prayer. If we go over there now, It’ll take at least twenty—thirty—minutes; and another twenty minutes, maybe more, for you to see the inside and pray; and another twenty to come back. There won’t be time to see places that most tours miss. We only have a few days, so we have to budget our time. You’ll visit the church tomorrow on that tour we’ve booked.”
* * *
That evening, she went over to the Galerie Lafayette, but returned long before they closed for the night, complaining, “Is big. . . . . I was afraid to go in. Maybe I get lost.”
Next morning, the 8-seater came to pick her up for the half-day tour. As I’d assured her, it included a stop at Nôtre Dame. When she asked wasn’t I going to come along, I told her I was beginning to tire, that I wanted to conserve my energies for the next day. I also wanted to catch up on some reading. (I’d neglected to tell her I’d booked this tour for her alone. I had done that while she was fooling around with the video-cam in the hotel lobby). As soon as she left, I would go up to the room and stretch out with The Herald Tribune, The Economist, and Le Monde. She was sore at me for not joining her. “I be all alone!” “No, you won’t, there are seven others in that limo.”
When she got back, she was glowing, confirming my reassurance that the tour had indeed stopped at Nôtre Dame and given her the opportunity to go inside and pray. Then impatiently: “Why you didn’t come? You would like.” I could have answered, I’ve seen those places before, but that would have been inconsiderate if not cruel, even if true. Instead, I could only repeat, “I needed to rest up.”
For the remainder of that week, we did the Bois de Boulogne, Fouquets, the Marais district, the Café de la Paix and the Opéra cater-cornered across from it. . . . Then the week was over. On that last evening, she decided to go down and walk to the Place June 18 1940, around the corner from our hotel. She wanted to video-tape that scene, “because who knows when I come back again.”
I said, “Juanita, not a good idea. To go alone at night. I’ll go with you. “
“No, I go by myself,” she snapped. “You always impatient. Don’t want me to go where I want to go! And you don’t want to go with me on the tour.”
“Okay, ” I ignored the complaint, “but be careful.”
“I be back soon.” So she left, and I switched on the TV and watched the news on BBC.
When she got back, she was breathing hard, scarcely able to catch her breath, her hand patting her heart, shaking her head, visibly distressed, scared.
“You’re back so soon. What happened?”
“Oh, my God! A man see me with my camera. He was lookin’ at me and I know he wanted my camera. I run t’rough all dose peoples, and I am so-o-o scared. I look behind and see him following me. . . .”
“But you’re back, and you still have your camera. . . . You gave him the slip.”
“Because I go into that fast-food place where they sell sandwiches and coffee. . . .I waited until after he go by. After a while, I look out and he not there.”
“Well, you’re back and safe. That’s what’s important. But just don’t go traipsing around Montparnasse at night, aiming your camera in every direction,” her hand still patting her heart, still breathless from the ordeal and said, “Gracias Dios!” Then I said, “Juanita, next time, instead of going down there with your camera after dark, take your wallet, and stand in the middle of the Place, and wave it around and yell, “Ola! Muy dinaro aqui en mi bolsa. . . . !” And she began to laugh and laugh, until she forgot all about that near-miss on the Place June 18 1940.
* * *
After she’d rested up and recovered, I suggested we go down for a snack. I’d mentioned that a favorite snack of mine was the wonderful Paris Crêpes. Yes, she would like that. We’d seen cooks making crêpes for people to take with them and eat while walking along the street. I noticed a neon sign across the street with CRÊPES on it, a café, and pointed to it. “Let’s go over there.”
“But that place too expensive.”
“Don’t worry about the expense. Let’s go over there.”
“No, I wanna buy one at a stand, like we see the other night.”
“I think it would be better to go into that café. It’s getting cold and it’s already beginning to drizzle again.”
At that, she dug in her heels. “No, I go back to hotel!” She was steamed up. I said, “Okay, do what you like,” and she walked off, and went into the hotel just a few yards up the street while I went over to that café and had the best crêpe–honey and lemon topping–the best café au lait. The service in that crowded, brightly-lit matchbox was convivial, happy, the most pleasant I’d been to in that week, the crowds friendly, the lady boss, busy as she was, helpful with my choice of crêpes, and I thought, what a shame she hadn’t come with me. Because I knew it was not just the “too expensive,” but something else that was eating at her.
When I paid my bill and walked out, she was coming toward me from across the street, sheepish, still sulky, and said, “I didn’t want you to spend so much money.” And I came back, “Juanita, you don’t know what you missed.”
“No, you don’t listen to me. Better to pick up. . .” She was still contrary. And I said, “Forget it. Some other time. . . .” She was silent, and the silence grew, and stayed that way even after we landed, back in L.A. the next evening.
When I let her off at her house, she gave me a quick peck and rushed into the building and closed the door. There was no hug as there had been many times before. It looked as if things were off between us, and maybe I figured, just as well, because if such niggling things got her ticked off, what would something more lasting produce—something less lasting? I answered my own question.
* * *
There was no contact between us for a couple of weeks. I figured, maybe she was no longer interested in resuming our—for want of a better word—friendship; and then one day not long after, I received a thank-you card from her. The printed message read:
Is Not Enough
Followed by the usual canned banalities, then the handwritten note, the best part of occasion cards:
Thank you for all, especial from the trip, and your name will forever Be in my heart and Corazon.
Then an afterthought:
Paris, It’s the one place any body loves. Again, Thank you and God bless you.
That evening, I called to thank her for her thank-you card. And from the happy surprise in her voice, I knew I’d set something off, having no idea what I’d begun again, or where, or how, it would end. . .
But it did end—the irrevocable difference between us…in age and time, the time when we first met, and I thought, then, that I was too “old” for her, when out of the blue, on our way to a retirement development south of Tucson, with no preliminaries, she said, almost casually, “Let’s get married.” A flirty smile. She had to be kidding, and I told her so.
But that was fifteen years ago, and now I suffer my own company as well as other geriatric debilities, not diminished by the Christmas card she sent me last Christmas. (She has of course since shared her home for some years now with a man closer to her own age.) Until last Christmas her cards were signed off, “With all my heart—Juanita.”—or something like. Last Christmas, the sign-off read, “With best wishes—Juanita and Joe.”
Magic coincidence? He and I share first names.
Sam Bluefarb is Prof. Emeritus, Los Angeles Harbor College.
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