Madame Vertu Takes a Walk

Madame Vertu

Along the Quai at Avenue Rapp, Madame Vertu began to worry. She worried that this walk was lasting too long; lately she had taken to wasting time, wandering, heading off in a direction with no destination in mind.

She has lived in Paris with her husband for twenty years. Their children are teenagers. Madame’s French is as flat as the prairie town in Illinois where she grew up. “I’ll always be just a Midwestern gal,” she told two women friends at lunch the day before in a brasserie near her home in the 16th Arrondissement. All her friends are American expatriates; her housekeeper is French.

The chill in the air was changing Madame Vertu’s face. Although she was unaware of it, the perpetual look of disgust she wore was softened by the cool February breeze off the Seine.

“Just a couple hours with no future and no past, just a couple hours of my own,” she thought to herself, “when I can be nobody, when I am not dismal or dull.”

Monsieur Vertu was in London, as he often was, pushing and pushing. “If only he didn’t push quite so hard,” Madame Vertu wished, as a loud-motored taxi zoomed into her daydream. “I could live with a little less stuff,” she thought, picturing the top-of-the-line furniture in their apartment, over used and out of fashion, cocktail-partied to death.

S’il vous plait, Madame,” said a little boy from under a blue baseball cap, handing a saliva-coated sucker to her as his mother dragged him away by his chubby arm.

“Four years old,” thought Madame Vertu, feeling quite ancient. She remembered walking her own boys, in warm weather, a balloon tied to Roger’s deluxe blue stroller as Robert toddled alongside pretending to push. She had been the picture of Parisian motherhood. Now they are almost men, she thought, and hardly needed her at all. “Naturally,” she thought, “Why would they?”

The most interesting things ever said about you, Madame thought, you’ll never hear—-the whispered comments about the way you look, the way you walk and talk, about your face. Funny that you’ll never hear them. “Is the shine in this pantsuit a bit too blue?” she thought looking down at her slacks. “Thin my legs are, just as thin as when I was eighteen,” she laughed,”before the children parted them to come into this world, before Eduoard petted and kissed them open to make me whole,” she thought, smirking. “I’m so tired of being a mother,” she muttered, “Let someone else be the mother, let someone else be the good wife.”

“How long has it been since I was in the Musee d’Orsay? How long? That reception, perhaps two years ago? Yes, lots of champagne glasses, clinking,” she recalled. “Receptions, receptions, receptions. I’m tired of them.”

Madame Vertu was self-conscious about her French. In restaurants, she spoke softly to the waiters, but her effort backfired, forcing her to repeat her request, only louder. No matter, she said to herself, it was good enough to get her what she needed.

Madame Vertu, when single, had been Emma Kolton, born and raised in the Midwest. People always thought it was a French name, but her grandparents were all Polish. There was in fact nothing French about her, until her husband’s work took them to Paris. She soon found the American community at the American Library in Paris on rue General Camou. There, the staff spoke English and helped expats raise their children in American English.

“I’m moving to Paris,” Edouard had said to her one day at home in Chicago, out of the blue really. Their first son had not yet been born.

“Paris? I don’t want to move to Paris,” she had said.

“You’ll get used to it,” her husband had told her. He was still Ed then, having not yet discovered his Frenchness.

The old bookseller stalls along the Quai were open, their green metal boxes offering postcards of Victorian erotica, rare editions, miscellaneous French posters, and old magazines with movie stars on their covers.

“Who buys this stuff? Who even knows who Gina Lollobrigida is?” Emma wondered. “Wouldn’t Americans really prefer a hamburger? Or one of those little replicas the Africans peddle around the Eiffel Tower.”

For more than seventeen years she had been traveling back and forth from Paris to Chicago, less often at first, then more and more as her mother started getting sick.

“Never good enough, never never enough,” Emma said to herself, gazing into the cloudy sky above the Louvre, the d’Orsay.

A man slammed into her as he rounded the corner near the American Cathedral. She did not see him coming.

Pardon, Madame,” he whispered. “I should not be in such a hurry. Aman is my name.”

“You don’t have to tell me your name to say pardon me,” she laughed.

He waved his demibaguette in the air like an eraser and stopped smiling. “Of course,” he said shyly, “of course.”

It was most certainly something in his eyes, some longing, the dark flicker of desire, that made her linger past the safe seconds of apology, two strangers sharing a moment that should have passed quickly, yet didn’t. He flung his neck scarf over his shoulder.

“You are American; let me at least buy you a coffee,” Aman said, pointing to a cafe that was, in fact, her favorite in all of Paris. She loved to sit alone there and munch on salted nuts and watch the chic gentlewomen who came to the cafe at Place de l’Alma to smoke a thin cigar and sip an expensive espresso in the middle of the afternoon.

“And you are not American,” she said, “and I don’t know you, do I?”

“But I introduced myself,” Aman protested and smiled. “I think it is not an accident that I bumped into you.” He was from somewhere in the Middle East, she was sure, but where?

“Emma,” she said, now certain that his gaze was as lonely as hers. She let him walk beside her the short distance to the cafe. He was like a puppy, stumbling along, his big feet splatting on the sidewalk like scuba diving flippers. Aman was dressed in a finely tailored suit, his shoes polished, his face clean and shaved.

“Are you a student here?” she asked disingenuously, scanning his youthful face.

“No, not a student,” he laughed, “but I sometimes teach a course here.”

“My husband teaches a course here now and then as well,” she said, turning her eyes away.

The winter day was warm, enough so that they took their seats outdoors along Avenue Rapp. A waiter rushed over with a little bowl of nuts. “Ah Monsieur, Madame,” he chanted, “bon apres midi!” He seemed to be acknowledging that he recognized them both, but Emma did not recognize him, nor did she ever remember seeing Aman before.

“It seems you have been here before,” Emma said quietly.

“And it seems that you have been here before,” Aman replied.

“I love this place,” Emma said, “I come here for coffee often, but I do not remember seeing you before.”

“I have not been having coffee here very long,” Aman said. “I bought the business only two months ago.”

“I see,” said Emma, trying to mask her surprise.

“Does that surprise you?” Aman said.

“No, no, only that you are so young.”

“Thirty-three is not so young.” He smiled. Emma looked into his brown eyes. “My mother was English, my father was French. My father’s parents emigrated to France from Egypt. They were Coptic. That is my story.”

“I am sure there is much more to it,” said Emma, thinking about the decade that separated their ages.

“Let’s save the rest for another time,” he replied, “as I am sure we will be friends.”

Friends? Emma thought to herself. Perhaps not. She was drawn to him in ways she had not felt in a very long time. She wanted him to touch her, but she pulled her hand back when he reached for it.

“Now you must tell me about you,” Aman insisted.

Emma did not talk about her husband or her sons. For once she felt at liberty to talk about her loneliness, her thoughts about her life as a displaced person. “Sometimes I feel as if I have no one. Even though I have a dozen friends I could call at any given moment, I don’t call them. Instead I take a walk, alone, and watch all the people living their Parisian lives, and then I walk all the way to the Bonne Marche and buy myself something and then I go home and then I read and think about all the things I am not doing with my life . . . .”

Aman listened.

“Forgive me,” she said, “I am talking to you as if you were my psychiatrist.”

“Not at all. You are talking to me as if I were about to become your lover.”

“Oh my God,” Emma said. “Am I that transparent? I feel like a fool.”

“You are a very beautiful woman,” Aman said, “and it is not a disgrace to feel lonely, unfulfilled, to be unsatisfied with the life you have, even though it may be a good life, with good children and a good husband.”

Emma began to feel unashamed. She felt relieved and not at all inclined to wither into a weeping mess. She did not jump up and rush off.

They spent the afternoon that way, talking and recognizing the longing in one another, until dusk began to fall, and Aman said, “Let’s walk,” and Emma said, “Let’s.” She was not afraid, having opened her heart to him, a stranger who seemed, for the moment, to understand her better than anyone she had ever known. He gave his baguette to the waiter.

They walked. They stopped for a glass of wine at the intersection of Avenue de la Bourdonnais and then strolled down rue General Camou to see the dazzling Eiffel Tower. He took her hand. She took his.

“Where did you come from?” she asked, looking up at him.

“I came from your future,” he told her, with his hand cupping her chin. He kissed her, warmly, gently and with an eagerness she had forgotten could exist in a man, and she didn’t care who saw them.

Emma Vertu had never been with another man after she married. In fact, before she married she had had only two unfulfilling and rather unpleasant experiences with boys who didn’t know what they were doing. “They didn’t know what they were doing,” she laughed when she remembered those clumsy encounters, “but they could do it all night.” The word “unfaithful” confused her. How can you be unfaithful to someone who no longer desires you? Who tells you he loves you but never shows you that he does? She had been as faithful as a geyser in Wyoming, following him like a hound dog to Paris, raising his children to be international bilingual sophisticates. And what was she, old faithful, but lonely and filled with constant craving? During her walks in Paris, these were the thoughts that filled Madame Vertu’s head. She knew she should be content, but she was not ready for contentment.

It was natural and unspoken that they drifted toward Madame Vertu’s apartment. They climbed the stairs and closed her door behind them. The same door my husband opens, she thought. The same door through which he exits, the same door the boys dash out on their way to their lives without her.

Their lovemaking was sublime. His dark eyes gazing into hers, then disappearing down her body. He made love to her and expected nothing in return. “Let me make you happy,” he whispered.

Madame Vertu awakened at dawn, as she always did. Aman lay sleeping beside her, naked. She admired his brown body and the boyish innocence of his face, his eyes fluttering with dreams before they slowly opened and he gazed at her. “What were you dreaming?” she said.

“I dreamed I met a beautiful woman and made love to her. I dreamed I met you.”

“That was not a dream.”

“It was a dream come true.”

“And now reality is back. How I hate reality. How I love dreams.”

“The dream will be back if you wish for it,” Aman promised. “When does your husband come home?”

With that, Emma’s dream collapsed. She did not want to think about her husband or the tired way he greeted her as he walked into the apartment or the passionless friendly hug he would give her. And what else should he do, she asked herself. Our marriage is another one of his business deals. It was a solid deal, based on loyalty, and she knew she could never leave him. Yet, she wanted to be angry at him for the way he did not recognize her desire, never spoke of their tired habits and the distance between them.

“My husband doesn’t understand me,” Emma said and felt like a fool. “Of all the cliches in the world, this has to be the lamest,” she thought.

“I know,” Aman said and started to get dressed. “And now I must go to work and I must know when I will see you again.”

Emma wanted to say she would cancel everything for as long as he would stay with her. She wanted to hold him again, and so she did. “I will meet you at the cafe at dusk,” she said. And she did.

“I’ll be there,” he told her, and he was.

When her husband came home, Emma greeted him at the door. He engulfed her in a friendly hug. She made dinner. They dined over tales of his meetings and the cast of characters in his business life. She saw the look of love in his eyes and thought to herself, “I love you. I will never leave you. Why does it have to be this way?”

Emma and Edouard sat in front of the television and commented on the news, on the rise of the National Front, on Muslim face veils, on strikes, on American folly. Then they retired to their separate beds with a loving peck on each cheek, like the friends they were. “I love you,’ Eduoard said.

It was two weeks before Aman called. She was walking near their cafe when her cell phone rang. “It’s me,” he said. “Let’s find a place where we can be alone together.” They checked into a small hotel on Avenue Rapp. They made love for hours and spoke little. Every sweet-smelling inch of him was hers for the moment. She thought of nothing else, only how to please him and the way his mouth seemed to envelope her.

When their love-making was over, Aman turned to her and said, “My wife has returned to France.”

“We will see each other when we can,” she replied, without jealousy, without guilt. She had known there was a wife.

“I have two children, you know,” Emma said.

“And I have two little girls,” Aman replied.

“Then we understand one another,” she said, kissing his hand. “I love being with you this way. You are what I have been missing, what my husband cannot or will not give me.”

“My wife depends on me. She is like a child who needs protection. Like my child. I suppose when the new baby comes, we will be one of those families where the children and the father all call her ‘Maman.’”

“I make no promises and no demands,” Emma said. “I will never leave my husband.”

“I will never leave my wife,” Aman answered.

They saw each other when they could for two years, while Emma’s husband was absent, while Edouard was working, every time knowing it might be the last time. Their lovemaking became more passionate as they grew comfortable with each other’s bodies, as they embraced with a fervor neither of them had ever known. Every time was like the first time, better than the time before. “A trip to the moon on gossamer wings,” Emma thought and smiled.

Emma finally told one of her girlfriends, the same one she had already told that Edouard was no longer interested in making love to her. “You should divorce him,” her friend said. “He loves me,” Emma replied. “He owns you,” her friend countered. “He watches over me,” Emma replied. “He has other women,” the friend said. “He has no other women,” said Emma, “and no men either,” she added before her friend could suggest it, “and it may be hard to believe, I do not want to leave him. Life is not a series of opportunities to start over,” she declared.

The last time Emma and Aman made love, Aman told her that his wife was seriously ill. “She needs me all the time, the girls need me. Our new baby needs me. I love you.”

“I love you too,” Emma said. “Let’s just end it right here.” And they did.
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