Stéphane flirted with Margaret on a French train. Margaret was still queasy months after the bad oysters from that damned Normandy coast, where it rained all the time, anyway, where forty years later they were still blaming the Americans for not liberating Caen fast enough. Now she was leaving on vacation to Spain, where people had to be warmer and friendlier. Valencia was full of ripe oranges. Or so she hoped.
Stéphane had that Parisian face. The black hair, the square jaw, the body compactly packed into a ribbed sweater and a leather jacket. He wore a cap, and probably smoked, though he did not smell of it. He wore black shoes and jeans and too much cologne, and chewed gum. He did not hesitate to sit directly facing Margaret when the train started.
Margaret flirted, too. She had been in France long enough to know what he was doing, and she was willing to play along. He was handsome, after all, and she was on vacation. He hit a bold serve, remarking that French girls do not wear their skirts that short (which was a blatant lie), and she never missed a shot, alternatively looking out the window, then smiling back at him as she insulted him, still pulling down her skirt, but much meaner at this verbal ping-pong in French than she ever would have dared to be back home. She understood fully how indecent his words were, but was detached enough from the language still to avoid taking them very seriously.
And besides, it was all a part of the game, including his comments that all seemed to indicate, in typical French male fashion, that he was in love with her and wanted to spend the rest of his life making passionate love to her.
Valencia could wait. When Stéphane invited Margaret to leave the train and walk with him through the Tuileries, she said yes. She knew it was a bad idea, but let him kiss her for a moment as they cut across the grass. “Défense de marcher sur l’herbe,” Margaret pointed to the sign and ran from him, laughing about the gendarmes who would clearly lock her in the bastille for the rest of her life if they caught her. And rather than correct her, he pushed her against a wall and kissed her longer. “Défense d’afficher.” She walked hand in hand with him back to his father’s apartment, where she waited outside, because he told her to. She thought he was being a gentleman. He came back downstairs with a note.
Stéphane said that he needed to run an errand. As he led Margaret quickly through the short cuts and side streets, Stéphane explained that he had been a paratrooper, risked his life in the army, those bastards. And there were a few problems, admittedly. He had been fired from his job now, and the reason he had gone to Normandy was to look for summer work. A resort would hire him, in the kitchen, and, incidentally, he could see her when he was there. They could go out and walk on the beach, simple things. He had been a boxer, and he had a few scars. He showed her. There were more that she would see later. But for now, the important thing, he said, was to make his appearance and explain his absence from Paris.
So Margaret waited on the steps of the Préfecture, thinking it so strange that Stéphane knew all the street vendors along the Boulevard Haussmann by name, so strange that he laughed with them at the gullible shoppers with their gaping open purses and general air of confusion. Stéphane’s friends invited them back for a crepe when he finished. Margaret wanted one now, but could not come up with the right words, which was strange, too. She was fluent in French, but it was strange this French they spoke. Nearly a year in the country, and she could barely understand them. Verlan. L’envers: she had heard some of this backward speech, but it seemed like another game, and it was disorienting, trying to work puzzles constantly just to figure out what was happening. It was strange the way Stéphane conjugated things, that he said “ils croivent” and not “ils croient” when he was telling her what exactly the French police believed that he had done. It was something involving his fists—that much she made out.. Stéphane said he had not done it. Margaret was not quite sure she believed him. But for some reason, she was not shocked, and not afraid. He said he loved her, in a more ordinary sort of French, and it was Paris and springtime, and she was on vacation and no longer quite so sick or quite so miserable.
Margaret glanced at her watch. The last train south was leaving in an hour. She could make it. She could leave right now, and be in Spain by morning. She looked at the streets, and remembered that she was here now, in Paris. In Paris, where she had dreamed of living for nearly all her life. She was in Paris, and she was twenty-five years old, just this once. Once in her life.
Stéphane walked with a bounce now, smiling. He and Margaret laughed and held hands down the streets and up the cracked stairs back to the empty apartment. He was relieved. She could see that, but everything in this world was sad, still. She trusted him in his cracked world. He looked in the refrigerator and found little food: some eggs, merguez which probably could not go bad, anyway. Margaret had not eaten all day, and watched him slice the sausage, his sinewy body never relaxing as he sawed. Stéphane cleared a space for two plates at the kitchen table, picked up some snapshots and threw them back. “Bah…” he said, with a disgust that only a Parisian can adequately express.
A woman in a corset sat on a man’s lap. Her nipples peeked out above the satin, and she held a champagne glass in her hand, toasting the camera.
“C’est dégueulasse,” he scoffed, telling her the stories about his father and his alleged debauchery. “C’est pas ça l’amour!” Stéphane’s father used to leave him—an eight year old –alone in unknown sections of Paris, banlieues “plein de beurs,” he said. Stéphane said he was grateful to his dad for this, though. He said he had learned how to trust his instincts, how to survive.
Stéphane took the empty plates, and dumped them into the sink. He turned, smiled, then turned off the light and sat down on his father’s couch. He motioned to Margaret. “Ici.”
Margaret was incapable of witty banter in French now. She was tired, and alone. It was dark and late, and she sat down hesitantly, wondering why she chosen this over waking up in Spain.
Stéphane stroked Margaret’s hand gently. He smiled at her in the near-darkness. “I am sorry,” he said. “You are so soft, so pretty. I know this is not what you are used to.”
Margaret felt the tears well up. No. This was not what she was used to. She was not a spoiled rich girl, but she never knew this sort of world. She was broke beyond the train ticket, had worked hard just to be here this year. She was tired, so lonely, looking for the sun in Spain in desperation. And now she was here, in this flat, here where life was even sadder.
“But we are the same. We are both outsiders.” Stéphane held her hand a little tighter, his eyes now misty in the dim living room.
Margaret’s heart pounded as he reached for her, her desire suddenly blooming, the only thing soft and colorful in this grey world. He kissed her as he rolled his sleeves up to reveal more scars. His battered hand wandered beneath her delicate blouse and into her heart, as she imagined this new world that she had only read about, the real France, she was sure, the one that no textbook or professeur à l’Uni was about to show her. She was Edith Piaf today, at a port, in the streets, in the gritty world of a Zola novel. She was the heroine, giving happiness to her hero, a miserable French man in a miserable apartment with dripping faucets and peeling wallpaper, the Arab violins frantically blaring from a radio upstairs. She was making love to a man, a real man, a soldier, a common man, a criminal. She knew he was lying to her when he said they would stay together, but she believed he meant it, all the same. For this one moment, she was not afraid of him or of a life like this. She was making love in a shabby apartment that smelled of spicy sausage and diesel fuel and coffee and yeast, a world that was just like Paris.