Darren in the Van
Darren and I made friends right away. On the first day I picked him up in the school bus I drove, he called out to me from the back.
“Hey bus driver!”
“Yes means no and no means yes!”
“Is that what they taught you in kindergarten today?”
“No, I figured that out myself.”
Sometimes we’d talk, or sometimes we’d just sit silently together in our pointless trajectory across the suburbs.
It wasn’t a real school bus, it was a van. Darren was five, and for some reason his kindergarten program ended more than an hour earlier than the ones at other schools. Once he’d climbed aboard, we headed off across the San Fernando Valley to pick up Josh at 12:30. We’d sit in the van for about twenty minutes to wait there. Then we went back to the private school where I worked. This struck me as kind of insane for poor Darren – all that time in the van with me driving back and forth across the Valley for no reason. I talked to the director of the school about it.
“Cindy, can’t I just take Darren back here at 11 instead of keeping him in the van with me for almost two hours?”
“No. His parents won’t pay the extra for him to have the last part of his kindergarten day here, so this is how I’ve solved that problem.”
It didn’t surprise me. Her husband was a lawyer and they’d set up this school as kind of a large-scale baby-sitting program for their other lawyer friends and some people like Darren’s parents who had the misfortune of happening upon it.
So Darren and I made the best of it. I taught him songs I remembered from elementary school, like “The Cherry Tree.”
White in the sunshine, green in the rain
Leaning out from a hill at the top of the plain
The cherry tree watches the people who go
Down the hill fast, up the hill slow
He’d sing with me. He wasn’t all that into it, though.
I was saving for a trip across Europe and I knew a little French, so I figured I’d practice with him – and that, he loved. “Un! Deux! Trois!” he’d shout, repeating after me. I taught him some colors, too. “Rouge! Noir!” When Josh got in the van, they’d show each other their drawings and talk about their families and their pets and what they saw on TV and what they did over the weekend. Sometimes we even practiced a little French together. The three of us were having a pretty good time.
One day, though, we drove to Josh’s school and waited as usual, but when kindergarten got out – no Josh. I walked into the office to ask about him and the woman there told me she was sorry, she was supposed to have gone out to the van to tell me that he would be off school for two weeks. His parents had taken him on a trip.
Okay, I said to myself. Cindy doesn’t know or she would’ve told me, probably. This means I’ve got two hours to kill every day. If I tell Cindy, she’ll make an issue about Darren’s parents not paying and she’ll find some other scheme to deal with him, maybe even crazier than having him spend two hours in the van. And she’d find something for me to do, too, like wash windows or help serve lunch. I decided hanging out with Darren would be more fun.
So the next day, when I picked him up at his school I said:
“We don’t have to pick up Josh. Whatcha wanna do?”
“I dunno. Shouldn’t we go to school?”
“Well, we could if you want to. But I asked them and they said you weren’t in the program until the afternoon. Tell you what, I’m going to the bank and then I’m going to go say hi to a friend. Wanna come?”
So I took him to the bank. I didn’t think the tellers would notice I had a five-year-old with me, but they knew I was another nineteen-year-old Valley stoner like them, so they did.
“Is that your little brother?” one of them asked.
I explained I was a school bus driver and I had a little extra time so I was running some errands. Then I went up to Mike’s house. He didn’t think there was anything unusual about me dropping by before noon with a five-year-old. He knew I was driving the van and I’d told him about some of the kids. I introduced them once we got inside.
Mike had just woken up and was about to have cereal. He poured a bowl for Darren, too. Then he found a channel still showing cartoons that late in the morning. They watched cartoons and had their Rice Crispies and milk together. I browsed through the copy of Newsweek on Mike’s family room table.
“Do you guys like alligators?” Darren asked us.
“They’re okay,” Mike said.
“I guess I like ‘em,” I said to Darren. “Do you?”
“I love alligators.”
“Because they’re the closest things we’ve got to dinosaurs!”
We killed half an hour or so that way – we talked about helicopters, too, and we all agreed they were pretty great, along with trumpets, pianos and guitars – then I took Darren back for day care with kids his own age and headed out for my afternoon pickups.
The next day, though, I really didn’t know what Darren and I could do to waste time, so we took a drive. We went up to the top of a hill that looked out on a huge expanse of chaparral, an undulating plain covered with brush that would turn into tumbleweeds when summer came. They were going to build a freeway there. It had been a foggy morning, and there was still some mist clinging to the barren landscape.
Darren and I climbed from the van to stand on the ridge and take in the view. We were out of our usual element of storefront-lined avenues and suburban tract homes. It looked otherwordly up there.
“You know where we are?” I asked him.
“This is where people go when they die.”
He looked up at me with wide eyes and an open mouth. A cool breeze blew over us, tousling his hair slightly.
“Is my dog here?”
I felt bad immediately.
“No – ” I was about to tell him I was just messing with him. I didn’t want him climbing out of his window at three in the morning and trying to look for his dog. But before I could, he asked:
“And is my grandma here?”
He was getting intense. I knew I had to calm him down.
“Darren, Darren, I was just teasing. Man. Don’t take me so seriously. It’s just a field. I was just kidding. They’re gonna build a freeway here. That’s why there’s nothing up here. It’s just a field.”
He was still looking at me.
We got back in the van. He was silent.
“You know I was just kidding, right?” I asked him as we drove away.
He didn’t believe me. He thought I’d showed him where people – and dogs – go when they die. He figured I was trying to cover it up.
I pulled over and stopped the van and turned around to look at him.
“Darren, you gotta understand. Nobody knows what happens when you die. Nobody knows. Some people think there’s a heaven. Some people don’t. But nobody knows. It’s a mystery. But one thing you gotta know, guy: That field I just showed you has nothing to do with it. I was just kidding.”
I had forgotten what it was like to be five. And I’ll never know what it was like to be Darren, Mr. Yes-Means-No.
“You believe me, now, right?” I asked him when we got back to the school. He just stared at me. I could tell what he was thinking: “You let me in on a secret and now you’re trying to tell me it’s not the truth.”
When we got back to school, Cindy saw us and asked me where Josh was. I gave Darren a signal to go ahead to his classroom and explained that the woman at Josh’s school told me he went on a trip with his parents.
“Yeah, I just got the note on that. So where were you?”
I had underestimated her attention to detail. One kid, two kids, one hour, two hours – I really didn’t think she’d notice.
“I took Darren with me to gas up the van.”
“All this time?”
“I talked to the guy at the gas station for a while. I had him check the van over. Then we went for a drive. You told me you didn’t want Darren here too early, so I was taking as long as possible.”
I could see the gears working in her lawyer-wife head: “Should I challenge him? What’s the upside? What’s the downside?” She decided to walk away.
A couple of days later, though, she called me into her office.
“I’ve had some complaints.”
“Well, some of the parents said you take their kids to the doughnut shop.”
“Not me. That’s Joan. She used to work at Winchell’s. They give her free doughnuts. It’s a treat for the kids. She told me she does it sometimes. I wouldn’t do it. They wouldn’t give me free doughnuts.”
“And Darren said you took him to a restaurant.”
“Nope. Never happened.” Where’d he get that?
“And to the bank.”
“I stopped at the bank for a minute that day I didn’t have to pick up Josh. I was killing some time. Remember, you told me you didn’t want Darren here too early. Speaking of which, what are you doing with Darren now that I bring him at 11?” She didn’t answer, though.
“He said you brought him to your friend’s house.”
“No. I would never do that.”
I was waiting for the next part. What was I going to say? I was waiting in dread. But it didn’t come.
“Okay,” Cindy said. That was the end of our meeting.
I wonder why Darren didn’t tell her I took him to the place where people go when they die. Maybe he figured she’d deny it, too, like I did. Just another liar in a world full of them, huh Mr. Yes-Means-No? They built that freeway up there. You can’t see that field anymore, so dreamlike in the morning mist. It’s gone. I know. I’ve looked for it.
Youu showed up in Paris with your friend Greg. You were going to ride your bikes to Barcelona. You were twenty years old and you grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles and you’d never been to Europe.
You took the train from London to Dover and the ferry to Calais and then got on another train there and arrived at the Gare du Nord first thing one cold morning at the beginning of March. You made your way across Paris and found your friend Julie’s apartment on the rue St. Jacques, up six flights of narrow, twisting stairs.
Julie was doing her junior year abroad. She’d been studying music, but they’d just fired her teachers in a pay dispute. So she was taking French classes and doing some drawing, but mostly just sitting in cafes and hanging out.
Her roommate, Joan, had lived down the street from you through junior high and high school. She had left Paris a few weeks before.
Julie and Joan had gone out one night and met two Nigerian guys at a café. They got to talking about life in Africa, in France, in the United States. They must’ve seemed like nice guys. So as the night turned to morning and the café was closing, they all went to the Nigerians’ apartment.
Once there, things got tense. The Nigerians wouldn’t let them leave. They thought there’d be sex. But that was not what Julie and Joan thought. Joan got nervous and aggressive with them. One of the Nigerians picked her up and threw her over his shoulder, as if she were a sack of wheat he had bought at the market. He was going to carry her to bed.
Probably the only reason they didn’t get raped is because Julie kept her cool. “Why are you doing this?” she asked them. “Pourquoi vous faites ca?” Good question. Maybe it was a reality check for the guys and it reminded them they were nice girls and didn’t deserve to be hurt. The Nigerians let them go home.
But Joan didn’t feel safe there anymore, so she packed her bags and moved back to L.A. She sent Julie a tape.
Julie played the tape for you the day you got to Paris. Joan talked about her nightmares. She would dream she was getting raped by a Nigerian. You put your hands over your face. “Oh poor Joan!” you said.
Julie’s new roommate was a gorgeous redhead named Lolly. You fell in love with her as soon as you saw her. She took you to bed. Then you and Greg went off on your bike ride to Barcelona. It was spring break so Lolly and Julie hitchhiked to Nice.
Lolly met a group of people on the beach, some young travelers from France and other countries, and some street people. They were squatting in an abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of town, past the Chagall Museum. They’d been pooling their money for groceries but pretty soon they were broke. Lolly left Julie behind at their hotel and moved in with them.
Lolly became a valuable member of the gang because of her striking curly henna-tinged hair and remarkable curves. She would spend the day on the beach with the travelers and the bums. Men walking on the path above would lean over the wall and shout down to tell Lolly to take off her top. When they threw enough coins, she did.
A British busker named James was a member of the gang, and Lolly was sleeping with him. One night he got food poisoning and crawled out of their sleeping bag and walked to the hospital. That was the last she saw of him.
Marco was the leader of the squatters. He asked some of the other Brits and Belgians and French guys if they wanted a job. They said yes. He told them to follow him.
It was 2 a.m. They walked up the road, heading out of the city. They arrived at a house. It was uninhabited for the moment. They broke in. Marco found some pillowcases, and they filled the pillowcases with plumbing fixtures, doorknobs, anything that wasn’t nailed down and some other stuff that was. They carried the jangling pillowcases back to the squat. Marco said he could sell the stuff in the morning.
But it wasn’t morning yet and he was hungry. Looting a house must work up an appetite. There were pigeons roosting in the rafters of the squat. Marco devised a slingshot and killed one of them. Lolly grilled the pigeon and Marco whipped up a sauce from a stick of butter and some flour and thyme and they ate it.
“How was it?” you asked her when you got back to Paris and she told you the story.
“The pigeon was awful,” she said. “But the sauce was really good.”
You and Greg had done your ride to Barcelona and spent a week with a friend, Elisabeth, who was teaching English there. She was sharing her apartment with an American and a couple of Brits. It was spring break, and there was also a guy and a couple of girls from Belgium, too. The night you arrived the whole group went out to dinner. A young Irishwoman named Kaitlyn and her Spanish boyfriend came along. It was a dark restaurant, which was good, because that way when the rabbit came you couldn’t see that it was served with its brains. Greg told you about that later.
Kaitlyn’s hands were slightly deformed, but otherwise she was pretty. She had thinnish light hair and a nice face. The American and the Brits were teasing her with Irish jokes. A Brit said: “The Irish wolfhound chews on a bone all day long and when he stands up his leg falls off.” The conversation turned to the Irishwoman’s boyfriend. He’d recently finished his military service, where he’d been trained as the Spanish equivalent of a U.S. Special Forces officer. But he had long hair and he looked more like an artist than a soldier.
You were standing outside the restaurant after the meal and it started to drizzle. You were telling Elisabeth about the weird wet winter of heavy rains she’d just missed in Los Angeles. Suddenly, you were in the air! The Spanish soldier had picked you up by your thighs and was holding you in some sort of Spanish Special Forces carrying position, straight up, as if you were a tree branch or a flagpole that he’d locked his arms around, and he was running down the street, holding you aloft. He plopped you down on the hood of a car and he said:
“Steve, never stay with one woman for too long.”
Then he ran off down the street and disappeared into the Barcelona night.
Two days later, Elisabeth told you:
“Kaitlyn hasn’t seen Fernando since that night at the restaurant. She wants to know if he said anything to you before he ran away.”
“No she doesn’t. She doesn’t want to know what he said. Tell her he didn’t say anything.”
Greg stayed in Spain and you went back to Paris because you decided you were in love with Lolly. But if she’d ever had any real feelings for you, they were gone by the time you got back. You spent a week together, then she ditched you one night to go out with a French guy named Dominique. She came back to the apartment the next night. You said you wanted to take her out for a last drink. So you walked down the street together and went into the Closerie des Lilas. You went inside and she stepped on a Borzoi’s paw and the dog yelped just under the seat at the bar marked with the brass plaque saying that Hemingway drank there. You got a table outside and ordered a beer for yourself and a diabolo menthe for Lolly. You drank together without saying much except goodbye.
You left for Brussels and stayed there with one of Lolly’s friends, Suzanne. You took her out to a bar on the Grand Place and got her drunk. She threw up out the cab window all the way home. You left for Amsterdam the next morning. You spent two days in Amsterdam, walking around the canals and daydreaming. You didn’t go to the Van Gogh Museum. You knew you’d regret that for the rest of your life. And you do.
You took a ferry back to England and checked into the White House Hotel on Earl’s Court Square. The guy working there was a long-haired blond from Santa Barbara, his name was Rick and you knew some of the same people and places. He had grown up in L.A. You were about to book a flight home. But he said he was quitting and was looking for someone to replace him. You figured it might be fun to stay in London for a while so you said you’d do it.
Rick went up to Scotland to visit his friend Perry there. Perry was in prison. He was from Los Angeles, too. When Rick came back to London he told you the story:
Perry had been hitchhiking around the U.K. He met a girl in Edinburgh. She introduced him to her friends. They asked him if he’d come along with them on a job. He said yes. They drove out to the country in the middle of the night and broke into a mansion. He was the lookout. They came back out carrying candelabras, silverware, paintings, anything and probably everything else of value.
A couple of nights later the Edinburgh crew took Perry out on another job. They drove him up to the gate of another country estate, gave him a crowbar, told him to break in and come out with everything he could carry. So he did. But they weren’t waiting there. The police were. The gang had tipped them off and pinned the previous looting on him, too. That was to keep the cops off their trail. Perry told the cops everything, but the gang had skipped town by then. He got a three-year prison sentence.
A guard brought him out to the cafeteria to meet Rick.
Rick told him the prison didn’t look very secure. It was rather isolated, but still ….
Perry explained: The access to the road was tightly controlled. But there were no walls or fences. In every direction, the prison was surrounded by moors covered with thorn-bushes and bogs. People tried to escape now and then, Perry told Rick. The lucky ones came back after a few days, starving and with their arms and faces and chests and legs ripped to shreds by thorns. The unlucky ones? Sometimes they’d find a body. Sometimes they wouldn’t.
He leaned over to Rick and said “Get me out of here. Get me out of here.” Then he started sobbing and crying.
“How?” Rick asked. “How can I get you out of here? I can’t get you out of here! You know that!”
“I know, I know,” Perry said, composing himself. “I know. I’m sorry. I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask.”
Rick went back to the gate and got into his rental car and drove back to the train station.
You and Perry and Joan and Julie and Rick and all your friends grew up during the last years of the Vietnam War, in the comfortable, safe tract-home suburbs of Los Angeles.
You picture those thorn-covered moors, stretching out into the distance and fading in the mist.
It was 1980 and if you could get out of Hungary, you did. Katia could, so she did.
I was 22 and I’d traveled around Europe for a little more than a year, then happened upon some work teaching English in Paris and stayed. I rented a room from a playgirl named Roselyne who lived in a luxury flat near the Arc de Triomphe. But the young British sculptor she was having an affair with dumped her and she went back to an oil company executive named Henri she’d been seeing before the sculptor came to town. Henri and Roselyne decided I wasn’t a good ingredient in the mix anymore so I needed to find a new place to live.
I could’ve gone back to Los Angeles at that point but I’d signed up for a year at La Sorbonne so I wanted to stay.
Philippe, a guy who ran a language school where I’d been working as a substitute every now and then, told me his friends were leaving a great place in Saint Cloud, a ritzy suburb outside Paris, and I should take over the lease. So I did.
It was an empty apartment, with one bare light-bulb hanging from the ceiling in the hallway. If I’d been smart I never would’ve tried furnishing it at that point in my life. It was a project way beyond my means. First step: I went to a flea market to get some kitchen basics – a salad bowl, a few plates, some cutlery, some cups – but the rest of the necessities, the bigger stuff, was more of a challenge.
Henri was nice enough to drive me out to Argenteuil, a distant suburb north of Paris where his parents had just died, and we picked up their stove. But it was half gas and half electric, and the apartment didn’t have an outlet that fit the plug, so I could only use the two gas burners. Oh well. Then I saw an ad for a used fridge, bought it and carted it home, but the motor zapped and fried when I plugged it in. The woman who sold it to me gave me my money back, so I went to a used furniture depot and bought another one.
After I’d paid my first month’s rent in cash, the woman at the real estate agency said: Okay for this time, but you’ll need a to write a check from now on. Signing a lease was traumatic enough. Now I’d have to open a checking account. That meant keeping track of my money, something I’d never done before, nor even conceived of, until then – I’d always operated on a strictly cash basis. So there I was in France at 22, with a checking account I didn’t know how to manage and an apartment I was having trouble furnishing.
It had two bedrooms and a living room, and the rent was $200 per month. Philippe said he could find me a roommate to make it even more affordable. His girlfriend Marie had a brother named Pascal and it turned out that Pascal’s wife needed a place to stay for a while. I assumed Pascal was traveling because I’d heard he’d been around the world a few times. I didn’t know why else his wife would need to rent a room from me.
Maybe I should’ve asked.
Philippe brought Marie over to look at the apartment one night to see if it would be suitable for Katia. Marie was studying for her doctorate in physiological psychology. I told her that I’d studied the brain in college, and the most amazing thing I’d learned was that you could cure epilepsy by cutting the connections between the right and left brain – the corpus callosum. This didn’t disable a person as much as you’d think. There were strange results, though, because different sides of the brain controlled different senses. With a split brain, if one eye sees a sign, it can send that information to the brain, but the part of the brain that received that information might not be able to transmit it to the part that controls speech. So the person would not be able to say what was on the sign.
Marie paused for a moment, then said:
“Not many people know that.”
Marie must’ve approved of the apartment – maybe because I knew how the brain worked? – and Pascal brought Katia over on Sunday afternoon with a couple of suitcases. We chatted briefly and Pascal explained that he’d pay the rent for Katia as soon as he could. I helped Katia set up her room. Roselyne had given me a box spring and a mattress; I put the mattress on the floor of my bedroom and slept there, and gave Katia the box spring and some blankets. I grilled us a steak for dinner and opened a can of green beans and heated them in a pot. We sat on the floor in the living room and ate. I made us some tea – a Swiss concoction called “tisane” – and then I went into my room.
About 10 minutes later, I heard Katia laughing. She had gotten undressed and walked into my room in her nightgown. She was a pretty blonde. I was in bed. She was holding a piece of paper.
“I just got this letter yesterday and because I was packing and moving, I didn’t have time to open it and read it,” she told me. “It’s from a Hungarian girlfriend. I had written to tell her I’d be moving in with an American boy. So she wrote back and said she had met an American guy in Paris when she was here and they went to a hotel and made love for three days! So she said I was going to have a great time with you!” Katia laughed.
I smiled and said “Yeah, that is funny.” Katia laughed again and walked out of my room and into hers.
Was I supposed to follow her? Maybe. But then I’d be some other guy. Not me, not with my new flatmate, not with a married woman whose husband was supposed to be paying her rent. Even if she weren’t married, I’m not sure I would’ve. Business first. If we had a love affair that went bad, I’d have to see her every day. That would’ve been a situation pretty high on the list of things I didn’t want.
When I got back from classes the next afternoon, Katia was waiting for me.
“You made me tea last night,” she said. “That was very nice. Could I make some for you now?”
“Yes, of course.”
She poured boiling water into two bowls, mixed in spoonfuls of tisane and carried them into my room. I was sitting cross-legged on my bed. She sat down next to me and we drank together. She looked straight at me.
“You haven’t asked about me being here with you even though I’m married to Pascal. Is it because you don’t want to know?”
“No. It’s because I didn’t want to pry.”
What I actually said was something closer to “I didn’t want to invade your private life,” because I don’t think there’s a word for “pry” in French. Or if there is, I didn’t know it. You formulate your concepts and choose your words based on what you can translate. That’s how you start “thinking” in a foreign language. I didn’t speak Hungarian and Katia didn’t speak English, so we were communicating in French. Or trying to.
“No, you wouldn’t be invading my privacy. We live together, you know.”
I could tell she wanted to tell me.
“If you want to tell me, you can.”
So she told me.
Pascal had been traveling. He passed through Iraq and Turkey then stopped in Hungary. I never knew what he was doing. Maybe Katia had already explained all that and I forgot, but maybe she didn’t. In any case, it was a long trip. He had been on the road for months. He got sick in Turkey, or Iraq. Ate something or drank something he shouldn’t have. Had some bad disease that had started eating up his liver and kidneys. Recovered enough to head home, stopping in Budapest along the way. That’s where he met Katia.
They got married, which meant Katia could come with him back to France. As soon as she got her exit visa. But that would take months. So Pascal went back to Paris to get treated for his illness. And Katia waited for her visa in Budapest.
She had a friend named Olga who had a student visa for France. Olga asked Katia if she could stay with Pascal when she got to Paris. Katia said yes. That was September, the year before I met Katia. In July, Katia’s visa finally came through, and she got on the first train out of there. But when she showed up in Paris, Pascal and Olga explained to her that they were together and she would have to find her own place. That’s where I came in, with my barely furnished apartment in Saint Cloud.
I sympathized with Katia, I really did. I’d been rejected before. An American girl I fell in love with when I first got to Paris left me for a French guy. I knew how it must’ve felt.
“That’s really sad,” I told her. “Should you go back to Hungary?”
“You don’t know what it’s like there.”
“I guess I don’t.”
I could tell from her body language – she turned sideways, gazing at me over her shoulder – that she wanted me to take her in my arms and comfort her. But I wasn’t going to. She sighed when I didn’t respond, and stood up.
“That’s really sad. That’s really a sad story. And I feel really badly about what happened to you.”
“But, I’ve gotta ask. I know this sounds bad, that I’m only thinking about myself, but -”
“Are you sure he’s going to pay the rent for you?”
“Oh, but he has to. You understand. I came here. And he kicked me out of his house! And we were married!”
“But really, when you think about it – he doesn’t have to do anything.”
Here’s what was going through my mind: This guy was brazen enough to trade out his Hungarian women, even though he was ill, even though he was married to one of them. And now I’m supposed to count on him to come through with Katia’s rent money? Sure.
“Oh, he’ll pay,” Katia assured me.
“What if he doesn’t?”
“He will. You don’t have to worry.”
“Okay. I’ll count on you to get him to pay.”
“He’ll pay. Don’t worry.”
“Okay. I won’t worry about it, then.”
The next day I called Philippe from a pay phone at Censier-Daubenton, the bunker-like college complex in the 13th arrondisement, during a break from my classes there.
“So Katia told me the story of Pascal and how he dumped her for some other Hungarian babe,” I said.
“You didn’t know? I thought I told you.”
“No, I didn’t know. You didn’t tell me.”
“Marie didn’t tell you that night we came over?”
“No, I would’ve known. I wouldn’t have been surprised.”
“Is he going to pay the rent for her?”
“That’s the deal.”
“Well, what if he doesn’t?”
“If he doesn’t, I’ll get Marie to intervene.”
That’s what I was hoping to hear. At least I’d have someone to turn to.
Pascal and Olga came over that weekend. Katia and I were sitting in the living room. They brought Katia some packages her family had mailed to her from Hungary. Olga had taken the same French classes I was taking, so we compared notes on the teachers. Olga asked if I had Mademoiselle Visninski for grammar and I told her I had Madame Visnin. She said she must’ve changed her name and changed the mademoiselle to madame so people wouldn’t think she was an old maid. “Vielle fille” in French.
They didn’t sit down with us. Pascal handed me an envelope with Katia’s first month’s rent. It was a pretty uncomfortable scene. Olga was a stocky, short-haired blonde, not very attractive at all. Why did he pick Olga over Katia? Maybe because he was ill and wasn’t in any kind of shape to run his life. Maybe Olga just took over.
They left and Katia asked if she could put on some music. I said yes and she popped a cassette into the tape player in her room. It was Phantasmagoria by a group called Curved Air. I had loved the album when I was 15 – seven years before. It started with two bold strokes on the violin, then a descending pattern of eighth notes with an echo effect. It was dated, but it brought me back to my younger days and my life in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Katia took a picture of me. A few days later, I was passing her room and I noticed she had developed the film and put my photo in a plastic cube on her desk. I thought this was odd, being that I lived there. The other sides of the cube were decorated with pictures of other people – friends, I assumed.
One of my students had loaned me an antique Underwood typewriter so I could write the short stories I’d wanted to write when I came to Europe. The ribbon would fly out of its black metal brackets whenever I hit a capital letter, though. I fixed that problem by cutting two sticks of cardboard into thin posts and taping them onto the brackets, adding enough height so they’d keep the ribbon in place.
One afternoon when I got back from class, I started typing away at a story I’d been trying to write for a long time. The story was about the day before I moved from Los Angeles to the suburbs when I was 12. That morning, my friends Richard and Gary met me behind a restaurant and we went climbing on rooftops along a busy street. The story was a farewell to my life in the city on the last day of my childhood.
A friend of Katia’s came over. He was another student and he was also taking French classes. He was older and called himself Jules even though he was German. Katia took him in her room and I could hear them getting it on as I typed. I stopped typing and put on my Billie Holiday cassette so I wouldn’t have to listen. I can’t say I liked the idea of her having sex in the next room on a weekday afternoon, but I couldn’t complain about it, either. After all, she had offered herself to me first. And her marriage, at that point, only existed officially, for visa purposes.
On Saturday morning I went grocery shopping. When I came back, Katia called me from the shower.
“I’m stuck in here. I forgot a towel. Could you get one from my room and hand it to me?”
So I did. She reached her arm out from behind the shower curtain and said thank you. Then she stepped out of the shower with the towel wrapped around her and walked past me to her room.
So there I was with a beautiful, naked young woman, fresh out of the shower, in my apartment. I was a healthy young man with a normal sex drive. But I followed my rule: no relationships with the roommate. She was married and I needed the rent money. I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t tempted, though. But I just put the groceries away and made us some lunch.
That afternoon, Jules came over with Gyorgy, a friend of Katia’s from Budapest. Gyorgy had wild, frizzy yellowish red hair and he was a filmmaker. He saw one of my books, Blood Letters and Bad Men: An Encyclopedia of American Crime, and got really excited.
“Can I read this?” he asked, wide-eyed. Sure, I told him. I explained that I used it to teach English, photocopying the entries on Billie the Kid and Bonnie and Clyde so that my students could read and discuss them with me. I stayed away from the gory stuff in class, but I showed Gyorgy to the entry on the cannibal killer Albert Fish. Gyorgy loved it.
“What are you doing in France?” I asked him. “Are you making movies?”
“No, I’m a political refugee.”
“Oh really? You had to leave because of a film you made?”
“Well, one I was making. There were some people I was working with. They were in trouble. The government wasn’t pleased with them.”
Katia walked into my room and joined us. She spoke a sentence or two of Hungarian with him. The mood changed.
“I already told him that he didn’t understand what it was like there,” she said, in French, to Gyorgy. Then she turned to me and said: “We had a good friend who disappeared.”
“Gone. One day he was just gone,” Katia said.
“The police got him? The government? Did anyone see him get arrested?”
“No,” she said. “No one ever does.”
Maybe it was their rudimentary French, or maybe I didn’t know how to ask the right questions, or maybe it was too frightening or painful for them to explain, but I still wasn’t getting the full picture.
“Did he do anything wrong?” I asked. “Was he a criminal? A drug dealer? Was he leading a revolutionary group?”
They both shrugged.
“We were students,” Katia said.
They were trying to tell me that it could’ve happened to anyone. At least I think that’s what they were trying to tell me.
Katia went into the kitchen to make us coffee. Jules, Gyorgy and I went into the living room. Gyorgy grabbed a small platform that the previous tenants had left behind. It was a wooden box made from pieces of particle-board with carpeting wrapped around it. I was using it sometimes as a coffee table, sometimes as seat. He stood it on its side and sat on it.
“Hey, if you want to sit on that, fine, but not on its side,” I said. “It’ll break. Look at the way it’s put together.”
Gyorgy laid it flat. But Jules decided to give me a hard time about it.
“It’s funny how people are in Europe,” he said. “When I was in the United States, I stayed with some friends and they let me drive their car. I was amazed at how open and generous they were.”
He was implying that I was being stingy and controlling with my carpeted box.
“If you came to visit me in the states, I’d let you drive my car, too,” I told him. “The car’s insured. That’s my only piece of furniture and I don’t have insurance for it. So if it breaks, I have to throw it out. Then I won’t even have this pathetic little thing I can use as a coffee table or a chair. I’ll have nothing in my living room. I’d be upset.”
Katia brought us a coffee pot and cups and served the coffee.
“And I’m looking around at the four of us and I don’t see anybody going to buy a replacement coffee table if it breaks.”
“You’ve got a point,” Jules acknowledged. “But you will also acknowledge, that the mentality is different in America.”
“I will acknowledge that,” I said. It was an easy enough point to concede. Mentalities are different country to country. I’d met enough people in my travels to have learned that. United States, Germany, Hungary, England, France – things are really different, everywhere and when things are different, people think differently.
We drank the coffee quickly. It was winter and the days were short. The light in the sky was already fading and the apartment was getting darker every minute. I went back into my room and tried to work on my story. Katia and her friends left.
Before Katia moved in, I’d been seeing Brigitte. She came over to see my apartment one night. My bedroom walls were covered with black fabric. The other bedroom had wallpaper with garish purple flowers, floor-to-ceiling. I told Brigitte I’d have to paint it white. She said, no, it would have to be blue. I said I didn’t think that would work, being that the ceiling was purple. She said if I painted it blue, she would help. Promise? I asked. Promise, she said.
Once Katia had moved in, Brigitte came over for coffee one afternoon and met Katia and Jules. I had already explained to Katia that I had promised Brigitte she could help paint the walls blue. Katia said she wanted them to be white. I said fine, she could paint them white after Brigitte and I painted them blue. Katia said that was absurd. I explained to Katia that I had made a promise to Brigitte and I wanted to keep my word. Katia wasn’t happy.
The next night she came into my room.
“You know, I was talking to Jules about painting the room,” Katia said. “And we think -”
“Yeah, I know, you want it to be white. I think white’s better, too. But -”
“That’s not what I was going to say.”
“Oh? What were you going to say, then?”
“We think – well, we think Brigitte’s too young for you.”
“And is Brigitte going to move in here?”
“No plans right now.”
“So why should she decide what color the room is? It’s my room.”
“I told you before. I promised. If you hate the blue, paint it white afterward.”
I bought the blue paint. I peeled off the wallpaper, which was a huge mistake. I should have left it and just painted blue over the purple flowers. The plaster had never been spackled, so smoothing it out was another huge job I hadn’t foreseen. I did a minimal amount of spackling, just enough to cover the worst slices and holes in the plaster, and got ready to paint.
Brigitte didn’t show up. I took out my anger by painting all night. I had bought her a rose and I left it on my mantelpiece to remind me of how she stood me up and that I shouldn’t ever make a date with her again. Over the next few weeks, Katia acknowledged that the blue paint turned out okay, although we agreed that white would’ve been better. The rose shriveled up and turned black, and I stopped seeing Brigitte.
Pascal didn’t pay Katia’s rent.
“He’s very sick. He’s in the hospital,” Katia told me.
“I still have to pay the rent, Katia. I need your share. You promised he’d pay.”
“Yes, but he’s in the hospital.”
“I can’t tell that to the people at the real estate agency. They won’t care. They need the rent. When will you have it?”
“I don’t know; whenever he gets out of the hospital.”
“When is he getting out of the hospital?”
“I don’t know.”
“Will you ask him?”
“I don’t want to talk to him. You can call him. Here’s the number.”
So on Saturday morning, I walked down the street to the pay phone and called Pascal at the hospital. The switchboard operator connected me to his room and he answered the phone.
“This is Steve, Pascal. You know, I’m at the apartment where Katia’s living.”
“How are you?”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Are they taking good care of you?”
“Well, you know.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
“Things don’t look good.”
“Wow, that’s terrible. When do you think they’ll let you go home?”
“I don’t know.”
“Look, I hate to bother you, with you sick like that, but I’m calling about the rent.”
“You’ll get the rent. Don’t worry.”
“Great. Thanks. It’s just that it’s due now, and I was wondering when I’d have it.”
He got angry and yelled at me:
“Look, I told you you’ll get your rent and you’re going to get the rent! You’ll just have to wait!”
“Oh, OK, sorry man, I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just trying to find out when.”
He was still angry.
“I told you YOU’LL GET YOUR RENT.”
“Okay, okay, I said it was okay. I know you’re ill. I feel bad for you. I was just trying to explain why I was calling. It’s okay. Not a problem. Hope you get better, soon.”
“Thanks,” he said dryly.
We said goodbye and hung up.
* * *
That was pretty much the end.
“Did you talk to Pascal?” Katia asked.
“How is he?”
She didn’t ask me about the rent money. She probably knew. The next two weeks were awkward between us. She knew I needed the rent money and she didn’t have it. I called Philippe and he told me he’d talk to Marie about it.
I came home from class one day and Katia told me she’d be moving out. I felt really bad about it because I thought she was leaving over the rent problem. But it was something else. Some complex story that I barely understood. She was going back to Hungary. But only for a while. She told me the reason, but I didn’t understand it. Some family problem? Some visa question that she could only take care in Budapest? In any case, she didn’t want to ask me to keep the room for her. It was late November. Great, I said to myself: I didn’t get November’s rent money and I won’t get any for December, either. I knew it would take me at least a few weeks to find a new flatmate.
Katia and I kissed goodbye one afternoon and that was the last I saw of her. Philippe got the November rent from Marie, and I swung by his office in Saint-Michel to pick it up one afternoon.
“Did you hear?” he asked.
“About John Lennon?”
“He was killed.”
I didn’t believe it. I thought it was a hoax. Who would kill John Lennon?
“It’s probably some radio prank,” I said.
“No, it’s true! It’s on all the radio stations!”
I still didn’t believe it. Some publicity stunt, maybe? Why would anyone want to kill John Lennon?
A few weeks later, Philippe invited me out to a party at his house in Versailles. I brought him a Tom Verlaine record and he served snacks and wine and there was a lot of talk among the crowd of his friends, mostly other English teachers like me, about American politics. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president. Sometime during the party, Philippe asked me:
“Hey, did you hear about Pascal?”
“He died?” It took a second to register. “When?”
“Oh, a few weeks ago.”
“You mean, right after I talked to him?”
“I don’t know. When did you talk to him?”
“About the rent. Early November. Before I saw you. Before John Lennon was killed.”
“A little after that.”
Here’s what that meant: That day at the pay phone, I was hounding a man on his deathbed. For a few hundred bucks. Katia’s rent.
“What about Katia?” I asked. “Does she know?”
“Oh, she knows. She’s living at his parents’ house.”
“She’s back from Hungary?”
“Did she go to Hungary?”
“That’s what she told me.”
“Maybe. I guess. I don’t know. Marie told me, but I didn’t understand. In any case, she had a marriage visa, but it was provisional. Now that he’s dead, she’s no longer allowed to stay. She’ll have to go back.”
Katia went back to Hungary. But a year later, I was chatting with Philippe at another one of his parties, and he told me that she found another Frenchman in Budapest and married him and they moved back to Paris. So Katia finally got what she wanted.
Pascal and Katia were in my life for just a few weeks that fall in Paris, when Reagan was elected, when John Lennon was killed. We had just a few conversations. Pascal and I exchanged just a few sentences; Katia and I a few dozen. But I’ll always remember them both. Why is that? There are people I’ve known who’ve played bigger roles in my life, but they fade into the fog of my memory, emerging only upon some prompt, when I find some trace of them somewhere, somehow. Not Katia. She’s always there. I wonder if she still has that picture of me. Maybe it’s true, what Crazy Horse believed about photographs: Maybe they do steal your soul.