Scarlett in Paris
She’s a small town girl who saves up for a holiday in Paris on her 35th birthday. Romance has passed her by until she comes to the City of Love. Will it stay this time?
Alice Cohen looked round the sidewalk tables of the Montmartre café as though interested in the people, not anyone in particular. He wasn’t there but she continued smiling, a little stiffly.
“Garcon!” she called and ordered filter coffee and a croissant. She opened her Paris guide book and pretended to scan it.
It was the summer of 1972 and Alice’s first trip overseas. in fact, she had not set foot out of Hope, Arkansas. She had never seen Pine Bluff or Little Rock, never been to Hot Springs or El Dorado, and here she was in Paris. She had saved a few dollars every month from her salary as a secretary. To augment her coffers, she baked cakes and cookies justly renowned in Hope. Farmers from as far as 30 miles away, chugged into town to purchase her almond cakes, her blueberry pies and her famous brownies, unparalleled for texture and taste.
Alice was not pretty but she had soft, full lips, a nice figure and a smooth complexion. Her hair and eyes were plain brown, but the hair was wavy and healthy, and the eyes looked out at the human race with naïve defiance.
Her world was full of popular music and images from romantic novels. She could be Rosamund, or Princess Flavia, or Lady Marguerite Blakeney but, most of all, the wilful Scarlett O’Hara. What if no man thought her pretty? Where was the Rhett Butler among the young fellows around Hope? Well – perhaps, Samuel Greening, who came the closest and who would have proposed at that Saturday dance so long ago if it hadn’t been for his stammer. They were sipping punch on the porch when he gazed upon her with that intense look for which she had waited.
“Alice.” He said her name clearly. “Wou…wou…would you c…c…con…”
Sniggers from the hydrangea bushes by the steps leading to the porch followed by voices in mock appeal: “Alice, cou…cou…could you g…g…give m…m…me w…w…one little k…k…kiss?”
Poor Sam turned tail and fled. Two weeks later, he came to her door, took her hand, pecked her cheek and walked away. She wanted to stop him, to tell him she didn’t mind his stammer, that she liked him, but the words refused to emerge. He turned the corner and she never saw him again.
At 25, Alice began to despair. At 30, her despair turned to resignation. She waited in vain for even an Ashley Wilkes to call. Her consolation was the savings accumulating in the bank
One day, in her reading, she came across the saying: “Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris.” Then and there, she decided she would not wait until she was dead. Paris would be a present to herself on her 35th birthday.
And so, that summer of 1972, she came to the City of Love. She strolled along the Champs Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. The squeaky honking of the taxicabs was indeed music to her ears. She wandered happily through the Tuileries Gardens and spent hours, wide-eyed in the Louvre Museum. She gazed at the Mona Lisa with her mystic smile. She loved every minute but an inexplicable lump in her throat refused to budge. Well, to be honest, it was explicable – she had no one to share her wonder and ecstasy.
At dusk, she ambled along the quays under the bridges stretched across the Seine. Tears coursed down her cheeks at the sight of lovers embracing in the nooks and crannies of the walkway. She visited the Notre Dame Cathedral and Sacré Coeur church. To assuage her guilt for neglecting her faith, she went to the Great Synagogue to spend an hour in prayer.
One afternoon, Alice hailed a taxicab and drove to Montmartre to drink coffee at a street café and listen to the laughter of the city’s heart. She spotted a table from which a couple was rising and moved quickly to claim it. She failed to notice the outstretched legs of a man at the adjacent table. She tripped and fell heavily against a chair. The man rose immediately to offer his assistance.
“Sleekha! Sleekha!” he uttered. “Pardone moi. I am so sorry.”
He helped her up.
“That’s all right,” she said dusting her dress.
Waiters and people gathered round babbling in French.
“Are you hurt?” asked the man, in a voice like melted chocolate. “Your arm! It is bleeding. You must allow me to take you to the Pharmacy. In that street there. No, No. I insist. Please do not refuse.”
Refuse? She was looking into sky blue, beseeching eyes, deep-set in a strong face topped with dark, unruly hair that dropped over a broad forehead. At his temples, a hint of grey added to his masculinity. Refuse? She was incapable of doing so, for she was quivering jelly. She left the table she had so violently seized and followed him whither he led.
At the Chemist, he explained to the lady at the counter what had happened. Alice wondered if he were French for he spoke the language fluently. He was too angular, broad of build, with none of the softness of those brought up on ‘cuisine’ and wine. He looked strictly meat, potatoes and salads. His hands were rough and large, but his touch was gentle.
“Are you French?” she asked as the wound was cleansed.
“No, I am not. You are disappointed?”
“Oh, no,” she said at once. “That was my quizzical look, wondering where you’re from. You seem fluent in French and your English is good.”
“I am from Israel. Hebrew is my mother tongue. French is the language my North African parents speak. English, I learned in school and I speak with tourists and business associates.” He held out his hand. “Permit me to introduce myself. My name is Amos Itzhaki.”
Her arm now cleaned and plastered, she took the proffered hand and said: “Alice Cohen.”
“Ah! You are Jewish too.”
“Yes. From one of a dozen Jewish families in Hope, Arkansas.”
“Have you ever visited Israel?” he asked as he paid at the counter. She wanted to remonstrate, but his question hung in the air, waiting to be answered.
“No, but I would like to, very much.”
“Of course. You will be the guest of my parents. They live in Ramat Gan, a city close to Tel Aviv.”
Did he mean it?
She said: “Thank you,” as he led her out into the bright sunshine. How wonderful to be in Paris in the summer, when it sizzles! She would not mind Paris in the winter when it drizzles, if Amos were there to walk with her in the rain. He was no ineffectual Ashley Wilkes, and Rhett Butler would be hard put to match this model of manhood!
“Now, we shall have that coffee you wanted – or was it an aperitif?”
“Thank you,” said Alice, “but you have done all that is necessary. I believe I’m fine now.”
“But I insist.”
Secretly elated, she let him lead her to the café.
They drank coffee and ate petit fours. She described her life in the wilds of Arkansas and the oh, so provincial men there.
“What a pity I did not take a trip abroad long before this,” she said. “How it widens one’s perspective! It fills one’s soul with new energy!”
Her sincerity made her face glow. She was happily aware she was impressing Amos. She asked about life in Israel. Like every young man, he had completed his three years in the army. They offered him a commission if he remained another three years. He was now a colonel in the reserves. He started an import business, supplying electronic products to the trade and the army. He was in Paris for meetings with his French suppliers.
“I escaped my over-indulgent hosts by saying I had to attend to private business, and the French, they are very discreet when it comes to private business. How fortunate I did. We may never have met.”
Alice blushed. “You’ve no need to compliment a chance acquaintance. Save it for your wife.”
Well, she had to know.
“Oh, I am unmarried,” said Amos. “My wife died giving birth to our son.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Alice with a rush of sympathy seasoned with guilty relief.
“No, no. That was 19 years ago. My son’s in the army and able to care for himself. I am in debt to my wife’s parents, who brought him up.”
And so it went, sharing intimacies. He asked if she would care to see the Folies Bergere. She felt comfortable enough by this time to accept. She permitted him to drive her back to her Pension, to change for the evening.
She particularly wanted to show the Americans there she had an escort; especially that coarse New York couple who threw her pitiful glances and pointedly asked her to accompany them on conducted tours. She had refused politely and, as soon as she could, rushed back to her room and sobbed on the bed. She hated their patronising.
She hoped they would be in the lounge when she entered with Amos, and they were. She hoped they would still be there when she came down all dressed up for the evening, and they were. They glared at her as if to say: ‘How dare you not be miserable so we can pity you and do good deeds!’
The man in the dark blue suit sitting opposite them raised his head. It was Amos and he came toward her with dazzled eyes. For the first time in her life she felt beautiful.
When he brought her back later that night, he kissed her outside the Pension and she went to bed on a cloud. Suddenly she sat bolt upright. She had no idea where he was staying and he hadn’t asked to see her again. Well, he knew where to find her.
All morning he did not come. Perhaps his business kept him from her. Should she stay in or go out? If out, it must be to the Montmartre café where, by such very good fortune, she had tripped over his leg.
And there is where she now sat, sipping her filter coffee and neglecting the croissant, pretending to read her guide book while her eyes searched for him.
A minivan came to a halt down the street and some laughing tourists emerged. To her consternation, that awful New York couple were among them. And here she was, alone at a sidewalk café! What snide looks they would give. Where could she hide? What could she do?
She pushed the plate with the croissant to the place on her right and tipped the vacant chair forward so it rested against the table. She adopted a serene countenance and a Mona Lisa smile. The New York couple walked past the café without noticing her at all. That irked her.
“Hello,” said a voice like melted chocolate.
Her heart jumped up and stuck in her gullet.
“Oh, hello,” she replied.
Amos looked down at the chair leaning against the table and then at her, then back again. Alice wanted to kick the chair away and regain possession of her plate but it was all too gauche. How could she without appearing a complete idiot? He turned his disappointed eyes to her again.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I thought you were alone.”
She tried to speak, but had no idea what to say. Her cheeks were flaming red. He bowed and walked away. She wanted to call but was embarrassed by the patrons surrounding her. Soon it was too late. Her heart was breaking. A street accordionist started playing ‘The Seine.’ She grabbed her bag and rummaged for a coin to give him. Then, as if to quieten her tumultuous heart, Scarlett’s final thought came into her mind and she was filled with hope.
‘Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.’