The second day he saw the woman walking her dog by the lake, Brock nodded at her and smiled as they approached each other. She nodded in return, and he wondered if she remembered him from the previous day.
The lake lay in a park beside the apartment he and his wife had rented in the Paris suburb of Torcy. On this second day he had followed the sidewalk around the lake, intending to continue circling it until he saw her.
The wrinkles on her suntanned face led him to guess her age as about the same as his: mid-fifties. Her bob haircut fell just short of her shoulders. The blonde hair looked natural, although he knew she must color it. He found her trim figure attractive. The first day he avoided talking to her because his sweatpants and sweatshirt made him feel tacky compared to her wool skirt suit and silk blouse. He also wanted to speak to her in French, which required preparation. This second day he wore gray flannel slacks and a dark blue pullover sweater over an oxford blue shirt, and loafers instead of athletic shoes.
Once they acknowledged each other this second day he slowed down. When the dog reached him, just ahead of the woman, he bent over and extended his hand, which the dog sniffed. I should have handled some cold cuts before I left the apartment, he thought, so the damn thing would lick my hand.
The little animal came through, though, looking up at its mistress, then back at Brock’s hand, wagging its tail, and glancing up at Brock’s face.
“Mignon. C’est de Poméranie?”
She raised her eyebrows as if surprised, then smiled.
“Thank you. Bonbon likes being called cute,” she said in slightly accented English. “Yes, she’s what you would call a Pomeranian.”
He stood upright, smiling. “Yes, that’s what I would call her. Your English is much better than my French. I guess my accent gave me away.”
“NoYour appearance. You’re very well dressed, but there’s something about the way Americans dress that’s different from Europeans. Your accent is pretty good, actually.”
“That makes me feel a little better. We passed each other yesterday, but you’d already gone by before I could think of the French words to express my admiration.”
She laughed, but in a friendly way. “It’s nice of you to make the effort. Your accent is OK.”
“Thanks. For me the pronunciation is the easy part. Remembering the vocabulary and grammar fast enough to carry on a conversation is the problem. Plus understanding what I hear.”
“You’ll get it with practice. How long have you been trying to learn the language?”
“Since about 1970.”
She laughed again, that same pleasing sound. “Maybe you won’t get it. Do you live here now?”
“No. My wife and I have rented an apartment for the month. We live in the States, in the Washington, DC, area.”
“Your wife doesn’t like to walk by the lake?”
“She’s meeting with some friends in Paris right now, but, no, she doesn’t particularly enjoy walking outdoors.”
“Too bad. The weather is so nice this month. Have you been to Paris yet?”
“I’ve been to the Louvre, and took a bus tour. I want to go to La Chope des Puces tomorrow. Have you ever been there?”
“Where is it?” She screwed up her face as if trying to understand what he said.
“Oh, you mean the flea market.”
“It’s a bar near there. They play jazz there on Sunday. Django Reinhardt style guitar, or so I hear.”
Her face relaxed. “I misunderstood. No, I’ve never been there. I listen to jazz, but more modern.”
“Then I don’t suppose you’d care to go there tomorrow?”
“My husband isn’t here, and I wouldn’t want to tag along with you and your wife.”
“My wife will be tied up again tomorrow with her friends, so it would just be me.”
“Really? In that case I would love to go. Will you be driving?”
“My wife will have the car, so I plan to go by train.”
“Good. I live close to the Vaires-Torcy station. Shall we meet there?”
“Great. Is one o’clock OK? My name is Brock, by the way.”
“Interesting name. I am Danielle.” She extended her hand and they shook.
Bonbon had been straining at the leash, so Brock and Danielle ended their conversation and continued their separate walks.
Back at the apartment he drank a couple of beers as he sat on the balcony looking at the lake. Meeting her by the lake had transpired just as he had hoped, agreeing to a date and clearing the air about spouses. Retrieving his laptop from the bedroom, he researched hotels. He settled on a four-star in Collegien, the area next to Torcy. Rates were more reasonable there than in Paris.
His wife Thuy returned from Paris, wearing one of her Vietnamese dresses and bearing Chinese carry-out.
“I thought we were going out tonight.”
“I already ate with the girls.
“You could have called if you wanted to change the plan. I would’ve gone out already. And I didn’t come to France to eat Chinese carryout.”
“Don’t be such a racist. This Chinese place is very good.”
“It’s not racist to say I want to eat French food when I’m in France.”
He preferred going out to eat without Thuy. She enjoyed giving French wait staff a hard time, complaining about the speed of service, the bread being cold, the food too bland or too spicy. Since they had agreed in advance to eat out that night, though, he exercised his right to be offended at her changing plans without consulting him.
“Suit yourself,” she said. “I’m tired. I’m going to go to bed. Tomorrow will be a busy day. You want to go into town with me?”
“I don’t feel like listening to you and your buddies chattering in Vietnamese. I’m going to take the train into town to that gypsy place I told you about.”
She went to bed without saying anything more. He ate the Chinese food, which tasted great.
The next day as the train left the Torcy station he said, “Have you ever been to the States?”
Danielle said, “I lived there a few years. I worked for a French investment bank that had an office in New York.”
“That explains your excellent command of the language.”
She smiled, as if appreciating the compliment. “In a way. I worked hard at English in school, and watched a lot of American and British movies, and listened to British and American music. I was just a secretary, but the bank needed someone who could speak English on the phone, to deal with contacts in London and New York. That gave me a lot of practice. So when one of the partners was sent to New York to set up an office there, he asked that I come as his assistant. Working in New York gave me lots more practice.”
“Did you ever think of staying there?”
“No. The man I worked for came back to Paris. He asked me to marry him, so I came back with him.”
“Wow, that’s quite a love story.”
“A cliché, really. He was married at the time, and his wife didn’t care much for it.”
“Is your husband a modern jazz fan also?”
“He’s the jazz fan. I prefer rock.”
“I like rock, but I love Django.”
“If you stay here for a while maybe we can take in a rock club sometime.”
“That would be nice. I don’t think my wife has anything lined up that I’ll be going to this week.”
“Let’s hope. André will be away for another month, so I’ll have lots of time.”
“Away on business?”
She scoffed. “Hardly. He’s been retired for fifteen years. He’s visiting one of his sons in Brussels. None of his kids can tolerate me. It’s easier for me to stay home when he sees them.”
Perfect, he thought. No need to go to a hotel. “He must have retired very young.”
She said, “No, he was 62 at the time. Where do you work?”
“I just retired from the Department of Defense.”
“You look too young to retire.”
“I’m 56. American civil servants can retire early.”
“You’re in good shape. I thought you were younger than me. So you worked at the Pentagon?”
“I worked for the Pentagon, but not physically in the building.”
“Were you a spy or something?”
“No, in logistics. Is this our stop?”
They exited the train and took a cab to the bar. The place was tiny and earlier arrivals filled the inside. They took a table on the sidewalk in front and ordered sandwiches and drinks. Outside of the crowded bar they were able to talk as they ate and listened to the guitars playing within.
“What do you think of the music?”
“I like it,” she said. “Cooler than the old big band sound, but more tuneful than modern jazz. I still prefer rock, but this is nice.”
“I couldn’t have said it better.” He remained silent for a few minutes, enjoying the wine and the music.
“How do you like Torcy?” she asked.
“I love it. I heard your suburbs are rough over here, but this particular one is peaceful. I love the park land.”
“It used to be better. When we got married André wanted to settle there because he remembered it from when he was a kid. At the time we moved in the area was already beginning to change. That was twenty-five years ago. It’s continued to change. More and more Asiatics, Africans, Arabs. Not as bad as some neighborhoods, but still not to my liking.”
When she smiled this time it turned him off. He remembered times when new acquaintances would make an offhand remark disparaging Asians. After finding out he had a Vietnamese wife, they would apologize. The discomfort from such encounters led him to make it a point to let people know early about Thuy. He realized now that he’d assumed Danielle would harbor no such prejudice. A stupid assumption, given that he knew the French better than that.
He stayed silent, damming the flow of their conversation. After a few minutes she said, “Who are these friends your wife is meeting with?”
“Her former classmates from the Lycée Marie Curie.” He watched her for some reaction when she realized his wife went to school in Saigon. Danielle showed no embarrassment.
“A high school reunion. Not much fun for you to be among former schoolgirls chattering in French. Which Marie Curie was it, Sceaux or Versailles?”
He hesitated. “I’m not sure. I never realized there was more than one.”
“Oh, yes, that’s a very common name for high schools.”
They talked on about the music, and about France and America, without mentioning their spouses anymore. Her comment about the people of color in Torcy cast a pall over the rest of the afternoon for him.
As their train approached their station that evening Danielle said, “Would you like to come by my place for a drink?”
“No, thanks. I’d love to, but my wife will be looking for me soon.” There was time to hook up before Thuy got back from Paris, but Danielle’s racist remark had dampened his enthusiasm for an afternoon of adultery.
“When will you know whether we can go to a rock club? Weekends would be best for that.”
“I’m not sure. I’ll have a handle on my schedule in a few days. Once I know, I’ll meet you around the lake when you’re walking Bonbon.”
“Good,” she said. “I look forward to it.”
Thuy said, “So how was that jazz club you went to?”
“Great. Amazing musicians. A tiny place, packed.”
“I’m glad you could entertain yourself. I know sitting in a group of us talking Vietnamese would have bored you.”
“Yes, I made out fine.”
“I don’t suppose you’d like to visit Nice. One of the girls invited us down to spend the week with her. We can leave tomorrow on the train.”
“Which girl is it?”
She paused before answering, “Mai.”
Improvising on the spot, he thought. She didn’t expect me to show any interest in going.
“I thought you didn’t like Mai.”
“No, she was one of my best friends.” She no longer lied as convincingly as she used to. Or maybe he knew her too well to believe her. He remembered Mai really did live in Nice, but he also remembered Thuy mentioning she hated her. Some guy whose name he forgot, Bui or Bich or something, lived in Nice, a guy Thuy introduced him to at a Vietnamese party in Falls Church ten years before.
He thought it might be fun to play with her, pretend he wanted to go with her. Not worth the effort, though. “I’ll take a pass. You’ll spend your time with her, talking Vietnamese. I can find more ways to entertain myself in Paris than down there.”
“You said you wanted to see the South of France.” Now she’s playing with me, he thought, pretending she wants me to come.
“Let’s do it another time when it’s just the two of us.”
“OK,” she said, her face relaxing. “You can drive me to the train station in the morning.”
The next afternoon, Thuy long gone on the train to Nice, he sat on his balcony watching the lake and drinking beer. Danielle walked along the path with Bonbon, taking her time, as if looking for someone. He finished his beer and went downstairs to the lake.
© Thomas D. Ray