Paris in Winter
“Why would I want to go to Paris in January? Why do you want to? If we’re going on a trip, think warm. The Caribbean, South Pacific. Besides, I would have to leave Brandon with the kids. Hmm, that might not be a drawback after all.”
Whitney stared out the chilled window to her panoramic view of the Potomac. “Because you get great prices for traveling then, because you haven’t been to Paris and because I watched Something’s Gotta Give again last night.” She could tell that Alicia was weakening.
A sigh. “Sweetie, I know that rat broke your heart, but maybe you shouldn’t be watching romantic comedies right now.”
“You think I should give up on men?” It had crossed her mind. That rotten liar.
Another sigh. “Of course that’s not what I mean. Look, it’s only over the long weekend, right?” She could picture her sister; a slightly shorter version of herself — honeyed blonde hair in a pageboy instead of ash blonde in a feathery short cut, eyes one shade darker green. In profile, it wasn’t uncommon for them to be mistaken for twins. A teeny frown would be creasing Alicia’s forehead.
“More or less. We leave Thursday night and arrive Friday morning. We come back Monday, but don’t land until late. Trust me, I need this and you’ll have a good time. It’s no colder than here and the museums won’t be crowded. Consider it a scouting trip. You come with me and then you’ll know what to do when you take Brandon some day.”
“All right, but I’m not going to eat snails.”
Whitney laughed and they spent twenty minutes discussing what to pack. She moved from the window seat to her computer; the page already bookmarked. Flight, hotel, transportation from the airport, Metro and museum passes; click, click. Done.
Done; her first positive action in days. What an idiot she’d been. Four months with a man she’d begun to think was the one. Those eyes of his, a blue you could lose yourself in — well, she certainly had. That smile; his hands — those kisses. His charm and intelligence; an assistant professor at George Washington University — his love of literature to hers of architect. How perfect. Everyone said so. Okay, maybe she should have wondered why he was never available except Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. She had her own hectic schedule; meetings that ran late; plans that sometimes had to be cancelled at the last moment. But to learn he had two other women on a regular schedule? And his cavalier response of, “My dear, let’s don’t be old-fashioned.”
How about, “Don’t waste your breath telling me how wonderful and unique I am when you’ve probably said exactly the same thing to someone else last night?”
It isn’t as if she was naïve, or that they had spoken of a monogamous relationship. It was…, was what? That she simply didn’t want to share? No, no…., it was that they were adults for God’s sake, at an age when you ought to at least try and see if a relationship had potential and then if it didn’t, break it off in a sensible manner. Bullshit. It was that she hadn’t picked up on the signs — that she hadn’t figured out she wasn’t special enough to him to be more than his Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday piece of ass. Well, what was done, was done, horses out of barns, water under the bridge, and all those other clichés.
Whitney shook her head, tired of picking at the still-sore spot in her mind as if it was a scratch. Leave it alone, dab it with ointment and let it heal. Paris. Paris with fabulous architecture; a city meant for strolling, a place that would fill her mind with sights and smells to push away memories of Lance’s betrayal.
Oh, that wonderful spring semester she’d spent in her senior year. To arrive in Paris in the winter, tourists plentiful without yet being the swollen crowds of summer. To see buildings hundreds of years old in carved stone silhouetted against gray skies, the changing face of architecture over centuries. To watch the city blossom into spring, the Jardin de Tuilleries unfolding in stages until the sculpted, flowering gardens were at their full beauty. To see Paris washed in spring sun and glorious colors bursting from flowerboxes affixed to practically every apartment window. To tuck an umbrella in your bag, prepared for sudden showers that burst from clouds and quickly disappeared, leaving rain-jeweled leaves on trees.
Her fingers poised over the keyboard and she slowly withdrew them. Galerie Moreau in Ile Saint Louie. Was he still there?
“Moreau? Like the novel and movie? Island of Dr. Moreau?” She’d teased him in that first meeting. He was a nice enough young man who seemed a bit shy.
“Ah, oui,” he’d replied, brown eyes serious, curly dark hair needing a comb, or fingers, run through it. “But not so much with the strange creations. We don’t have the modern art.”
His voice had carried a smile and she’d laughed, then turned her attention to much handsomer Philippe who had stepped onto the stage with his saxophone. A jazz café in Paris, blue-white smoke curling about, a noisy crowd of friends — how exhilarating that had been.
Whitney powered off her laptop to remove temptation and wandered into her galley kitchen to brew a cup of tea. Jean-Luc Moreau. An ordinary looking man, although at least not shorter than she was. Quieter than she liked, yet he was often with Philippe and if you were with Philippe, there were merriment, music and wine. Jean-Luc was the introvert of the loose group; the observer, the one who, when you caught your breath and listened, could talk of music, art and the history of Paris. Third generation to work the modest, well-established gallery in Ile Saint Louis, the bridge-connected island that sits in the shadow of Notre Dame. How many times did he invite her to stroll with him through sections of the city she would never have seen otherwise? Along the Seine, of course, and then gently guiding her inward from the river across cobbled streets that twisted into neighborhoods where bicycles and scooters were better suited than automobiles. Was it three or four lovely afternoons of easy talk in his charmingly accented English peppered with her far less polished French? A glass or two of wine at a tiny table afterward, inconsequential conversation as they sat outside watching people pass by.
“Whitney, mon ami, Jean-Luc is crazy about you. Can’t you see that?” Her roommate, Chantal, had introduced her to Philippe, advising that her cousin was the perfect Frenchman to have an affair with. Skilled according to former lovers who held him in esteem, and marvelously fun as long as one did not make the mistake of thinking marriage.
“We’re just friends.” Whitney had barely paused in applying makeup.
“He and Philippe have known each other since they were children. That is the reason he doesn’t say anything to you. But, true, he is not very exciting. So come, let us plan your farewell — you have only two weeks before you leave us.”
Whitney took her tea and returned to the window seat. She’d been convinced that Chantal was mistaken and her last two weeks were busy. Jean-Luc smiled understandingly when she declined his invitation for a final walk and gave her a lovely old book about the architecture of Versailles.
It wasn’t that she had consciously thought of Jean-Luc since those years. She’d recall him fleetingly, as she did others when the subject of her stay in Paris came up. Odd though, how she could visualize him clearly, his eyes shining as they ambled and he recounted tiny details of the city not found in travel books. Philippe’s face and voice had long ago faded to obscurity, his passing, superficial romance like a rich dessert that you occasionally indulge in. The last time she was in Paris; what — had it been almost four years? — she’d gone to the Moreau Gallery. Had it been on a whim, or a desire for something else?
“Ah non, Jean-Luc is in Spain for another week,” the elderly gentleman told her. Would mademoiselle like to leave a message?
She stifled regret, left her card and later received a postcard. So sorry to have missed you. Perhaps I come to Washington some day. If you return to Paris, write me in advance. Always Yours, Jean-Luc
A postcard instead of an email? No telephone number with a suggestion to call? Did the message contain more than mere friendship? It was a lovely sepia-colored card of a street corner, a café adjoined to a small grocery with buckets of flowers on the sidewalk next to wooden crates of fruit for sale. It was a scene from close to his gallery, a reminder of everyday charm rather than one of the famous sites. She had read it again, not certain of what she was looking for. She kept it on her desk for a while and it migrated to a drawer, then to a file. New projects, a promotion, the leap of buying her own townhouse, and enough interesting men relegated thoughts of Jean-Luc to a closed mental compartment.
A poster at a Metro station opened that door. She had struggled her way through an important meeting with a client; her energy level fragile after her breakup with Lance. She had sunk onto a seat with only three stops to Dupont Circle and turned her eyes to a new ad for Yves Saint Laurent. The man smiling beguilingly in his perfectly fitted clothes was better looking of course, although his build, coloring and stance were incredibly like Jean-Luc and memories flooded through her.
The reasons she’d given Alicia for going to Paris were all true. She’d been away too long and showing Alicia the city would be a wonderful distraction. Should she tell her about Jean-Luc? Not yet. It had, after all, been almost four years without a word.
“God, I’m glad you talked me into this.” Alicia nodded when the waiter asked if the ladies would like more wine. “The Venus de Milo is gorgeous, although I did think the Mona Lisa would be larger.”
“Everyone does.” Whitney watched another waiter hurry outside to the stand of cracked ice filled with fresh mussels. He opened a half dozen quickly, providing a momentary show. They had started with mussels as a first course, Alicia having no problem adopting the French concept of a leisurely lunch. Their table at the window gave them a view of the bustling street, the Seine and one end of the Louvre on the opposite bank. The weather graced them with azure skies, scattered clouds and temperatures in the forties. Whitney had curbed her desire for the back streets and taken Alicia for the standard tourist highlights, insisting only on one deviation and that was to be on the Eiffel Tower at sunset. To watch Paris come to light as dusk settled was an experience to be shared rather than described.
“What do we have this afternoon? The Impressionist collection?”
Whitney nodded, Alicia’s question sliding through her thoughts of what else they would have time for in this short trip. “One of the largest. The Musee D’Orsay is an old railroad station that was converted to a museum. It’s a five minute walk from here.”
Their waiter exchanged empty glasses for full ones. The white burgundy had been perfect with her scallops in light cream sauce and Alicia’s herb roasted chicken. Yes, they would have coffee, but no dessert.
Alicia paused in lifting her glass and smiled indulgently. “While I am having a great time, when are you going to tell me the other reason we’re here?”
“What are you talking about?” Whitney wasted a look of guile.
“You mean aside from the fact that I’m your older sister? Too many pensive stares into the distance when you thought I wasn’t paying attention. So, ‘fess up and please make it involve an interesting man. It is Paris, after all.”
How nice that she hadn’t actually fooled Alicia. “It might sound silly.” Their hotel was less than six blocks from the Moreau Gallery and she’d lost count of how often she’d thought of Jean-Luc since boarding the plane. Was she re-making him into an impossibly romantic what-might-have-been figure?
“We haven’t finished our wine and we have coffee coming. It’s a great time for a story.”
The telling was easier than she expected.
“Do you think the gallery will be open after we see the Impressionists?”
Whitney laughed, brightened with Alicia’s understanding. “Yes, it’s only a slight detour on the way to the hotel.”
Three hours later they turned onto Rue St Louis, both sides of the narrow street jammed with shops and restaurants; scents floating from the bakery and chocolate stores that flanked their destination.
The Moreau Gallery looked no different than on her previous visit. Paintings were displayed on easels in the two large front windows and others hung tastefully on exposed brick walls. The scarred wooden floor gleamed with wax and lights were mounted around the rectangular room to highlight the art work — mostly oils and watercolors and one rack of lovely cards. The sleek, tall woman behind an antique desk smiled without genuine warmth and greeted them politely. Black hair pulled into a chignon, dark eyes under perfectly arched, dark brows, flawless makeup, her crimson long sleeve, soft woolen, calf-length dress clinging in exactly the correct manner to a body that could easily be envisioned on a catwalk. How quintessentially French. Lipstick and nail polish were the precise shades to accent her dress.
“What lovely pieces,” Alicia said, admiring one of the larger canvases in a swirl of blues with touches of yellow and cream that evoked a sense of the ocean meeting sky.
Whitney could not see into the office with its door ajar, but she heard no movement. As she worked up her courage to ask for Jean-Luc, she turned and was captivated by a small still life. It was a partially filled bottle of red wine, two glasses waiting empty, a white plate with a wedge of cheese and a faded blue runner on a square wooden table. Sunlight streamed from an unseen window across the table and diffusing into the background of the painting. There was nothing unusual about the scene, yet the colors and technique were startlingly life-like.
“A new artist — Sophie Blanc. She is good, yes?” The woman slipped from behind the desk and stood next to Whitney.
“Very,” she agreed, thinking how perfect the colors and style were for her entryway. “Uh, is Jean-Luc here by any chance?”
“You know Jean-Luc?” The woman tilted her head in question.
“Ah yes, from many years ago,” Whitney said smoothly, seeing something flick through the woman’s eyes. “We were students together.”
“He and Madam Moreau are not in today. Would you care to leave a message?”
Madam Moreau? As in Mrs.? Well, it would hardly be his mother, would it? Damn, no wonder he hadn’t written. He must have been married the first time she visited. Whitney was certain she kept the dismay from her face.
“Nothing special,” she said, determined not to look at Alicia. “You ship, do you not? I don’t have room in my luggage for this piece.”
“You are leaving Paris soon?”
“Day after tomorrow,” she said calmly. “We’re at the Hotel Sainte Helene and it seemed a shame not to stop in. And how lucky that I did. This painting will be all, thank you.”
They completed the paperwork quickly and Alicia waited until they were on the street several paces back to the corner before she stopped and touched Whitney’s arm. “I’m sorry, Sweetie. You okay?”
Whitney sucked her lower lip in briefly and allowed regret to flow into her answer. “I’m not sure why I thought Jean-Luc would never have married. I guess I got carried away with the idea of coming to Paris.”
Alicia’s face reflected the sympathy that Whitney needed and she spoke quietly. “Well, it hasn’t been a complete waste. I’ve loved every minute. Hey, how about if we stop at the café by the hotel for a piece of that beautiful chocolate cake in their window? You know, the one that had like six layers and was topped with raspberries?”
“Chocolate will help,” Whitney agreed. Ah well, at least it was a wonderful painting.
They were in their room later, trying to decide on which restaurant for dinner when the telephone rang. It was the front desk with a package from the Moreau Gallery.
Whitney frowned in irritation. “I thought I was clear about shipping it. I really don’t want to try and jam it into my suitcase. I’ll be right back.” She tapped her foot impatiently as she rode down the elevator and stopped abruptly when she exited into the cozy lobby.
It was as if she had passed through a time portal instead. Jean-Luc stood loosely and his face was hesitant — a smile shimmering around his lips. He was wearing black slacks cut in a very French fashion, a deep green turtleneck sweater and a black blazer. A black wool coat was draped across one arm.
Whitney stepped toward him and paused — his smile now wider, his brown eyes filled with undisguised delight. “I don’t understand,” she said slowly. “How…”
He leaned forward and kissed both cheeks, his scent enticing. “It was not difficult. I saw the invoice and could not believe it at first. I rushed over as soon as I was assured that it was you. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? How long have you been here? How long do you have before you must return?” He smiled apologetically. “I am sorry, it is too many questions at once.”
Whitney inhaled deeply, speaking slowly to keep her voice from trembling. “The woman at the shop said you were not in — you were with your wife somewhere.”
“Mathilde — always so meddlesome,” he said with a grimace. “My wife’s cousin. Please, Whitney, will you come with me for a glass of wine or a coffee so I may explain?”
His expression was pleading, his hand reaching for hers. “Explain what? I, I understand you are married — it was foolish of me to think you wouldn’t be.”
He lifted his left hand — no ring. “But no, Whitney. It was a mistake for me — a mistake I am correcting. We were with the lawyer making final arrangements for the divorce.”
“Divorce?” She felt a smile start.
“I will tell you everything,” he said, grasping her fingers. “Everything you want to know and most of all, I will tell you about how I often think of you.” His gentleness washed over her and he pulled her close, his lips inviting a kiss. “Welcome back to Paris. I hope we have time for a walk tomorrow.”