[img_assist|nid=665|title=Hillside by Myles Cavanaugh © 2007|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=150]August 30, 1957. SS France
Whoopee! Junior Year in Paris. Universite de la Sorbonne, here I come.
Arrived in New York Friday, right on schedule. But let me tell you, baby sister, there’s a big difference between Birmingham trains and the trains up north. For one thing, there are no separate cars. It’s whites and coloreds all together, if you please. And no “Mornin’ ma’am.” Just hustle-bustle.
My room at the Waldorf was small but clean. One of the bell boys was awfully cute, in a Sal Mineo sort of way. (Don’t tell Billy I said that.) His name was Tony and he gave me some chewing gum, my besetting sin. I can hear Mother now: “Only cows chew cud, not young ladies.”
So, the next day, THE MOST EMBARRASSING THING HAPPENED. I took a taxi to New York Harbor to meet the rest of the students in my program before boarding the France. Turns out they’re mostly Yankees. I wore my new white cotton with the red polka dots, you know, with the wide red patent leather belt and full skirt. And I tied a red scarf around my hair and knotted it on the side, like Audrey Hepburn. I thought it would be the perfect look as I stood at the ship’s railing, wiping away a small tear.
But oh it was so awful. All the girls in my program, every one of them, showed up in a smart suit, navy blue or black twill, and there I stood in that hideous red polka dot dress and red scarf. The group picture tells the story. I look like a distress signal: dot, dot, dot.
It got much worse.
The crew was instructing us in safety up on deck, you know, what to do when you hit an ice berg. We had to don life jackets and form lines. I was having trouble fastening my straps and a crew member shouted over a megaphone “Attention s’il vous plait, will someone assist Mademoiselle, the one with the red napkin on her head?” Cringe.
From then on, what could I do but make a virtue out of necessity, as Mother would say. I played the role of serious, soulful, mature student who had no time for the others. I sat by myself during the day reading Le Deuxieme Sexe and smoking (don’t tell), while everyone else played shuffle board. They all acted like such children. I doubt those Wellesley girls ever even heard of Simone De Beauvoir. At night, after dinner, I smoked by myself at the bar until almost 10.
We arrive at Le Havre tomorrow and will travel by bus to Paris. I expect I’ll have piles of letters from Billy waiting for me, poor dear.
[img_assist|nid=666|title=Red Muumuu by Martha Knox © 2007|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=210]September 1, 1957. SS France
I am luxuriating on the upper deck, a breeze gently fluttering the edge of my stationary, sea gulls but a distant memory, headed for the City of Lights. By the way thanks, Mother, for taking me shopping for Paris. My outfit created a sensation that first day on the ship. Tres chic. The Captain even complimented me on my red scarf. There are seventy-five students in the program. Our Director seems nice enough, but his one suit is baggy and shiny. Well, he’s from Pittsburgh, so there you are.
I’m fairly popular already, but I try not to spend too much time with my group. They’re a fast crowd (smoking). Instead, I’m preparing for my history courses at the Sorbonne.
I will write again from Paris.
Love, Claire and love to Pops
September 15, 1957. Avenue des Larmes, Paris
Thanks for that recent article on WWII. Hitler was surely the devil incarnate. Now that I’m in France, I feel I understand your experience during the Allied Invasion so much better. And thanks especially for the dough. You wouldn’t believe how tres cher everything is ici.
If you or Mother sees the Hendersons, please give them my address. I think Billy has lost it. Must go now.
September 30, 1957. Paris
Sometimes I wish I were staying at a pension by myself instead of living with a French family. Madame is a widow, always tired and cross because she has to work as a secretary in some government office. She probably finds it intolerable to put me up, but has to do it to make ends meet. She may have once been pretty but too much patisserie has taken its toll and she has a little mustache.
She has five married daughters and one son, Jacques, who still lives with her while he studies to become a doctor. Some might find him handsome. He’s tall for a Frenchman but his lips are permanently pursed. Madame smothers him like he’s an egg she’s trying to hatch.
Anyway, you would be amazed at the dinners chez nous. Madame rolls a cart full of food down the long corridor, past my room as she barks, “A table!” which means “Time to eat,” and I’m to follow her into the dining room. We use the same linen napkin all week long, which can be a hellish experience depending on what is served. Last night, for example, we had what I thought was ham. It didn’t taste bad at all. But then I realized Madame kept referring to it as ‘langue’ as in “Comment trouves-tu la TONGUE!!!!” It was only then that I saw the pink nubby taste buds on the meat and threw up into my napkin. Madame cried out, “Degoutant!” and leaped from the table like her skirt was on fire. Jacques merely smirked and said, “You don’t like tongue.” Brilliant diagnosis, doctor.
And by the way, baby sister, I found a you- know- what in your size and it is completely sheer and oo-la-la. It will be balled up inside the box containing the Colette you asked for. How appropriate.
October 1, 1957. Paris
Paris is a dream come true. I spend my free time promenading along the Seine. I’ve bought you a small sketch of Notre Dame from one of the stands on the Quai. I hope you like it.
Even the shops in Paris are works of art. One evening as I was rushing home from the Louvre, I took a short cut down a narrow, cobblestone street that was completely dark, almost. The front window of a wedding dress shop was lit. On display was a gown, the loveliest I’ve ever seen. Hundreds of pearls sewn into the satin fabric glistened like tiny stars. I wish you could have seen it.
I’m studying very hard and must get back to it now.
Love, Claire and love to Pops
October 15, 1957. Paris
Would you please find out if Billy is mad at me?
October 31, 1957. Paris
I guess you’ve heard the news about Billy. At least he had the courage to tell me himself, that is, after his mother forced him to pick up the phone. We sang several bars of “How’ve you been? How’ve you been?” before he got around to telling me about good old Mary ‘Buck Teeth’ Buchner.
Did you know about them beforehand and just not tell me? Anyway, I don’t care. If Billy had dropped dead instead of dropping me, I would have been sad, but not beyond a reasonable period of mourning. It’s not as though we were engaged or anything, although just as good as. No, it’s the fact that he preferred Mary over me that cuts to the core.
Of course I’m sure it’s because she was willing to go all the way with him, so how could I compete with that? But what if people think I’m used goods or there’s something wrong with me? I truly hate Billy Henderson.
Sometimes I wish I could come home. Ever since I called Billy, I’ve been cutting classes and spending just hours at Deux Magots, all bunched up on a tiny rattan chair, pretending to read and write letters, but really watching couples waltz arm in arm along the boulevard. Even groups of students meet and kiss on the cheek and smoke and laugh like they’re having a good time.
What’s wrong with me? I’ve looked forward to this trip since I was in high school and I know how much it cost to send me. It’s impossible to go home anyway. Birmingham was already stifling my élan. But I think if I could just come home for a week or two. Maybe you could suggest it to Pops.
P.S. My one consolation is that Dicky Price says Mary hums when she makes out.
October 31, 1957. Paris
I am afraid that traveling to Europe and experiencing real culture was necessary before I could appreciate your warning, and you were certainly right: The Hendersons are not quite out of the top drawer. I had to deal the mortal blow and say good-bye to Billy before any more time passed. It was only fair, as I’m sure you understand, but I’m sorry to say that his family is not taking the news with grace and dignity. It’s probably best to steer clear of the Ladies Club for the foreseeable future.
Love, Claire and love to Pops
November 8, 1957. Paris
I’m writing to say how sorry I am for something I’ve done. I’m not superstitious, but I’m afraid if I don’t confess, something terrible will happen to you.
Several days ago, I guess it was the day after my birthday (and merci beaucoup for the extra argen$), I was attending history class. I had chosen the Resistance for my presentation, as you had suggested. By the way Pops, I think it was very wrong for the French to collaborate with the Germans, especially that business about shipping Jews off in sealed, stifling trains to Auschwitz and Dachau. Even children. I plan to visit the Normandy beaches in the spring. Mother says there’s good shopping in Cherbourg.
Anyway, I began to get nervous as my turn came around. My mouth dried up and I couldn’t remember what I was to say. When my name was called I suddenly thought of you, Pops. I stood up and said, “I can’t present today, mon pere vient de mourir.” I don’t know why I said you’d just died. I think I may have been studying about the war too much. And things just haven’t gone well for me lately.
I’m afraid it got worse.
The professor said how sorry he was and asked me to remain after class to discuss leave for your funeral. Oh what a tangled web we weave, as Mother would say, and I don’t think she needs to hear about this, do you? Without thinking, I blurted out that I wouldn’t need leave, that you were going to be buried here, in Paris, and your body was being shipped in ice. The other students seemed to find that funny. I didn’t understand why until I realized I hadn’t said ‘ice,’ I’d said ‘ice cream.’‘Glace’ and ‘glacee’ are quite similar. Even a Parisian could have made that error. I hope you’re not angry with me and that you’re all right.
December 15, 1957. Paris
First, thank you for the wire. It’s gotten so they recognize me at the American Express Office at Place de L’Opera.
Now this will interest you. Jacques, Madame’s son, told a story at dinner the other night about a doctor. Her name is Rochella Schneider. She is much older than Jacques. Anyway, all the doctors had to be inoculated that day and when Rochella rolled up her sleeve, her arm bore a number etched into her skin. Pops, the number represents the order in which she was to be gassed at Buchenwald. Jacques was not surprised by the number, but by the fact that she had not gotten it removed.
She explained. Her sister, also at Buchenwald, was gassed almost immediately because of a limp, which made her unfit for forced labor. These gas chambers, Pops. They would hold the children out, then stuff all the adults in until the chamber was absolutely full, then shove the children in on top of the adults. When the Americans arrived in April 1945, Rochella was freed, but she had nothing to remind her of her sister: she keeps the number to remember to think of her sister. Jacques and Madame think she is foolish, but I don’t know.
Pops, I can’t imagine if that happened to you or Han or Mother. You know best, but I would not mention this story to the others. I wish Jacques had not told me.
December 21, 1957. Paris
It’s snowing! I’m writing at my desk near the bedroom window. French windows are actually glass double-doors. Mine lead onto a wrought iron balcony that overlooks a boulevard. There’s something old but feminine about the buildings in Paris. Right now, the snow has given them a lacy shawl for their stiff shoulders.
Of all people, I ran into Jacques at Deux Magots today. He bought me café au lait and we talked for hours. He told me how he had just lost a patient, a young woman, earlier that afternoon. Leukemia. Her last words were for her lover, he said. His eyes were teary. He grabbed my hand.
I may have misjudged Jacques. It’s not easy studying to become a doctor, the long hours, the tragedies.
Well, thar she blows. “A table!” Must go.
Can’t wait to speak with you on Christmas Day.
January 28, 1958. Strasbourg, France
As you can tell from my return address, I’m on a trip. And you’ll never guess what. I’m in love. Really, truly and everlastingly in love. Here’s how it happened.
Madame’s family has a tumble down chateau near Strasbourg. She invited me (only because she had to, I’m sure) to join her family there for several days. She had to get there one day early to air out the chateau and lay in provisions, but Jacques and I still had classes in Paris. Jacques’ sister, Sophie, was to stay with us and then the three of us would travel by train to Strasbourg the next day.
This must go no further! At the last moment, Sophie could not come. Jacques and I stayed in the apartment alone.
But it was just as well, for otherwise we would not have realized that we’re in love. He told me that I’m beautiful—‘belle.’ He told me that ‘Claire’ is French, which of course I knew, but he said it described my heart as well as my face (‘ton coeur et ton visage’). Isn’t it romantic? Then he kissed me. His lips were made for kissing. ‘Embrasser’ means to kiss. The word sounds like ‘embarrass’? And in turn that sounds like ‘a bare _ _ _’? Tra la! We toasted one another with wine again and again. As the night wore on, my French became fluent.
Of course, under the circumstances of showing up in Strasbourg without Sophie, we had to be circumspect in our behavior toward one another. Even now, Jacques is playing up to one of his cousins, Dominique, whom everyone thinks is the end all and be all. I call her Empress. But I know he’s just putting on an act and when we return to Paris, he will have to say something about us to Madame.
Gosh! It just occurred to me. If I marry Jacques I’ll live in France for the rest of my life. Will you visit me?
February 4, 1958. Paris
Would you be horrified if I told you a Frenchman is quite taken with me? He is studying to become a doctor and though still in his internship, is reputed to be one of the most gifted diagnosticians in Paris, maybe France. He gets called in on the most baffling cases. And he comes from an unusually important family, with connections to the government. You would be quite impressed.
Love, Claire and love to Pops
February 4, 1958. Paris
As for Mother, don’t let her get under your skin.
Now for something serious. I know positively that Jacques loves me. Didn’t he say it in so many words, and such beautiful ones at that? Of course, it is difficult for him to demonstrate affection at home, in front of Madame. She’s such a shrew. He says she’ll cut off his support if he so much as flirts with a woman, since all his energies must go toward becoming a doctor. And of course we can’t meet at a café or one of his friend’s apartments because he works all the time. Oh well, the life of a doctor’s wife is a lonely and frustrating one, so I should practice being patient (ha!). I content myself with gazing at him at dinner, occasionally feigning illness in the desperate hope of a bedside consultation (ha ha!).
March 1, 1958. Paris
I can’t wait for spring, although if I don’t start feeling better soon, it won’t matter. I’ve had a stomach ache for weeks, no doubt brought on by the nervous behavior of Madame. Empress Dominique is arriving soon, the cousin I met in Strasbourg when I was visiting the family chateau. This cousin demands a great deal of attention. I think she’s from money. Madame certainly acts like it. New drapes have been ordered and the back bedroom is being painted.
Much studying to be done before midwinter exams. I’d better hop to it.
March 10, 1958. Jardins du Luxembourg, Paris
I’m so low. I’ve never felt this lonely. I walk for miles, or sometimes I just sit on a bench in the Jardins du Luxembourg, like right now, and toss coins in the fountain and watch small boys sail their boats.
Do you ever feel like giving up, Han, like the future is too awful to even contemplate? Sometimes I feel that way. Mother would advise turning to prayer, but I’m really not worthy of that kind of help. I can’t tell you why. Let’s just say I’ve gotten into a terrible fix and leave it at that.
I’m reading Madame Bovary. Emma never could get it right either. The blasted old story is even drearier in French.
March 30, 1958. American Hospital, Paris
You may wonder what I’m doing at the hospital. Please don’t worry, and please tell no one, since they’re discharging me tomorrow morning anyway. I foolishly ignored my stomach ailment and got very sick. I am perfectly fine now.
The awful part about being in the hospital is the whiteness of it all. The walls, nurses’ caps, uniforms, even shoes, sheets, everything white. I thought white stood for something lovely, like purity and a wedding dress: It stands for sterility and nothingness.
No one has come to visit, of course. Who would? At least my history professor left a card at the nurses’ station, a picture of a man and woman sharing ice cream.
As for Jacques, he has left Paris for Neuilly, which is closer to the hospital where he will train next. I had not realized he was going to leave, nor did he, it seems. Several nights before I was admitted here, he quarreled with Madame. Though they mostly hissed at one another, probably to keep me from hearing, I caught my name along with that of Empress Dominique, whom Madame referred to as Jacques’ affiance.
If Madame sent Jacques away for any reason having to do with me, she needn’t have bothered. Jacques has shown so little interest in me since that one night before Strasbourg. But I should be more sympathetic. How he must have suffered that night when I began to hemorrhage and Madame was not there to help him. His respect for human life must surely have compelled him to call the ambulance rather than let me bleed to death. Then again, he probably tossed a coin.
April 7, 1958. Rue Meilleure, Paris
I apologize for not writing to you myself about my stay at the hospital. And please tell Mother not to worry. I will call you as planned so you’ll know I’m all right. I wouldn’t have even told my Program Director had I not needed to get my assignments. He should spend less time worrying parents needlessly and more time correcting his painful accent. And I’m going to absolutely throttle Han for telling you. Anyway, it was nothing serious, and had my stomach ached in this way at home, going to Birmingham General would have been the last thing I’d do, and that’s the Gospel truth. So don’t worry.
April 7, 1958, Paris
I am certain my Program Director has distorted the nature and extent of my illness to the point that you are fearing for my life. I feel quite all right and my most acute ailment was brought on by not having a proper bed jacket during my hospital stay.
You would be surprised to learn that many American celebrities are treated at the American Hospital. There was a rumor that Grace Kelly was leaving just as I arrived.
Love, Claire and love to Pops
P.S. Madame is having work done on her apartment and while I am completely recovered, I don’t want to risk contracting something new from the workmen. Therefore, I have moved into a pension closer to my classes and the library.
April 21, 1958. Paris
This damn city. Can’t it do anything but rain? And every Parisian has a small dog who makes a mess on the street. Merde.
Now here’s a sight they don’t describe in Fodor’s. Last evening I made the mistake of hopping onto an empty metro car. I was joined by a little man who decided to expose himself. With that giant fleshy rod wagging back and forth, I dubbed him Monsieur Metrognome. At least his approach was an honest one.
If I hear the screech of the metro cars once more I swear I’ll throw myself under the tracks, anything to make them stop. Sometimes I get so desperate to reach my station and daylight, but why? It’s always raining. I might dart into a café, hoping for warmth and cheer, but everything you’ve heard about the condescension of the French is cultivated to a fine art by the Parisian waiter. I used to try to curry their favor with a bright smile and nicely rolled Rs. Now I barely move my lips. I try to look featureless. It gets more respect.
I am now living in a pension near the Sorbonne. When I announced my departure plans, Madame verily jumped for joy and hoisted her sails, until I told her the Program would be seeking a rental refund. You’ve never seen a ship sink so fast.
P.S. I’m still mad at you for telling Mother and Pops about the hospital, but apparently you had the presence of mind to have lost my letter when they asked you for it. Thank you.
May 10, 1958. Paris
I’ve met a person that you might like to meet someday. It all started back at the hospital, on my last day there. A woman doctor came to see me before my discharge. Her face was lined and her hands old with protruding veins and brown spots, but she had a gentle touch and by that time, I sure needed one. When she started to leave, I asked her name, to thank her. It was Dr. Schneider, Dr. Rochella Schneider. Yes, you guessed it, Pops. The Rochella with the number on her arm. What a coincidence. Proof that life is stranger than fiction.
After I was sure of who she was, owing to some gentle probing of my own, I told her how I knew of her. It turns out she was earning extra money by working at the American Hospital during her off hours. She seemed kind and her eyes were so sad. Well, to be honest, I needed a distraction, so I asked if she would talk with me about her experience during the war.
She finished her rounds and came back and sat with me for a long time. She wanted to talk about her sister, who must have been quite nice but naïve, I think, and sometimes foolish. She was about my age.
Just before she got up to leave, I asked if she had lived in Paris ever since the war ended. She said that right after the war, she’d had a brief stay in Germany, settling debts. Now that was an interesting thing for a recent graduate of Buchenwald to say, don’t you think [, — optional] Pops?
May 30, 1958. Paris
Does this sound strange? I’ve made a friend, maybe. She’s much older than I am and she’s a doctor, Rochella Schneider. Pops probably told everybody about the incredible coincidence of our meeting at the hospital.
I think there may be something odd about her. We go to these out of the way bistros, near Montmartre. She asks me lots of questions about what I study and what I do when I’m not studying.
What do you make of this? I asked her how she endured her life in a concentration camp, when her sister died and everything. Why didn’t she just join her? She said she’d thought of it, but in the end, there was still life. Still life. She kept saying that. I thought, “Yes, so what?”
Then she said, “‘Still life’ is such a versatile phrase. It can make you think of artwork, something inanimate, or it can make you think of something dead, like a still born infant. For some it might mean there’s still opportunity to get even. Or it can mean hope. You have to choose what it means.” That’s just like her. She turns things around, sees them from more than one angle.
Do you think she might be trying to recruit me to the Zionist cause? Ben-Gurion Youth or something? Can you see Mother’s face!
June 30, 1958.Paris
You know I travel next month to Normandy and after that, home. Would you please discuss with Mother letting me remain in Paris, at least through the summer? You see, I’ve been recruited. Dr. Schneider says that I could be useful to her in a clinic for refugee women and children. Many of them are beggars. Down in the metro, where the stench is sometimes awful, they sit on the hard floor with their children all day long, filthy hands outstretched for a sou. It is pitiful, Pops. The Clinic is located just across from Sacre Coeur. She says I’ll get paid, though not enough to live on, but I could stay with her for a while. I’m not sure working in a clinic is my cup of tea, but I could at least give it a try. Please talk to Mother. I know she has strong feelings about religious differences, especially when it comes to Jews.
July 15, 1958. Hotel Beau Rivage, Cherbourg, France.
Thank you for suggesting that I read up on the Allied Invasion before my trip, but no book could have prepared me for the cemetery: Row after row, thousands upon thousands of small white crosses and stars of David. Many tourists wandered among them, but there was silence, the only sounds coming from Channel winds gusting up from Omaha Beach.
Guess who’s here with my group? Dr. Schneider, whom I invited, and my history professor, who invited himself. He said he hadn’t been to Normandy since the end of the war. Pops, I’m pretty sure he was in the Resistance, the maquis.
Thanks for the extra money, which will take me on a side trip to Arromanche. There are German bunkers there, all pointing at England. I just don’t understand war.
P.S. How are you coming with Mother and my job at the Clinic?
July 30, 1958. Paris
Hallelujah! Mother said yes! I was so relieved to be able to stay, though I miss you all so. I do think it was fiendishly clever of Pops to tell Mother that the Prince of Wales would be “viewing” the Clinic this summer. After all, HRH’s tour through Paris does include a visit to the Eiffel Tower and who’s to say? He probably will view the Clinic from that height.
In answer to your question, yes, I do still sometimes feel like the future is too awful to contemplate. For one thing, I’m worried about coming home. I’m not good at fitting in anymore.
But Han, the most embarrassing thing happened. I’ve mentioned to you my history professor. Well, on the day classes ended, he asked me to stay behind to go over my final paper with him. We were alone. He cupped my chin in his hand and tried to kiss me. Of course I wanted to kiss back. His rumpled jacket and wavy black hair made me think of Sartre making a pass at De Beauvoir, probably in the exact same spot. But …I demurred. (New word, look it up.) I demurred because of all the times I’d imagined a white knight out of a standard issue jackass. Of course, the fact that my mouth was full of chewing gum also weighed heavily against it.
Lee W. Doty is a lawyer practicing in Conshohocken, PA. She won first place in the 2006 MCCC Writers’ Club Annual Student Short Story Contest and the 2006 MCCC Creative Writing Achievement Award. Her work can be read in Perspectives, and the MCCC Writers’ Club newsletter, Pen & Ink Times. She holds degrees in French and History from Duke University and from Georgetown University Law Center. Currently she is an MFA candidate at Rosemont College.