A French Sunday
By Cindy Corpier
Two days before leaving Paris, your group of writers loads up for a day in the countryside. First stop, Giverny, home of Monet. In July, the crowds are thick, the blooms extravagant, and the heat stifling. Columns of visitors press through the beds of anemones, carnations, dahlias, and flowers you can’t name. The pink house with green shutters bursts with fellow tourists and, you fear, clouds of Covid, so you keep to the pebbled paths circling the famous pond dotted with clusters of lily pads and spanned by a bright green bridge.
At noon, you lunch with friends on a shaded patio seated in dainty blue metal chairs beneath a red umbrella. You taste chilled, sparkling cider for the first time and find it a revelation. Maybe you’ve judged day drinkers too harshly. Your meal of salmon rillette followed by a strawberry, basil syrup, and vanilla ice cream confection only deepens your love for the French. Later, at the town of Van Gogh’s last residence, you pay seven euros to visit the museum of absinthe. Fresh anise grows in the courtyard, scenting the air. Inside, the story of the Green Fairy’s association with artists and danger unfolds through news clippings, artwork, and displays of elaborate silver absinthe spoons.
Before boarding the bus to leave, you heed the siren call of passion fruit sorbet coming from a nearby gelato stand. It’s only three o’clock and this is your second dessert of the day. Excessive, even for a trip to France. You tell yourself it’s necessary to cope with the blazing sun and heat radiating from the stone walkways.
On the way back to the city, one of the tour guides, the one with wavy, dark hair past her waist and a Japanese umbrella, begins sobbing and holding her head. Being a doctor, you go to her. You gently ask questions, get a cold bottle of water for her neck, and offer Excedrin. You ponder whether she needs a hospital or a dark room. The other guide arranges a detour to meet the ailing woman’s father.
Once she is safely delivered to him, your bus ride continues to the drop-off point near Rue Mouffetard, a short walk from your hotel. When you reach the Boulevard Saint-Michel, you see people standing, lining the street on both sides. Someone tells you that the Tour de France will pass this way soon. You knew the Tour ends today but didn’t expect their route to the Champs Élysées would bring them so close by. In truth, you question the sanity of people who willingly ride a bicycle over two thousand miles through mountainous terrain for twenty-three days in July’s swelter. But you know this event is worth seeing, if for nothing more than the story. You’re on vacation, your friends are excited, one who is an athlete, another a cyclist, still others who appreciate this feat of endurance, and the final spectacle, a little piece of history. So, you decide to wait with them at the sidewalk near your hotel.
Years before when you were in Paris, you stood at a stone balustrade facing the Musée d’Orsay waiting for the peloton’s arrival and their eight laps around the Arc de Triomphe. As on that day, the waiting crowd is orderly and calm, though smaller. You see the French police, the Gendarmes, in their black uniforms with neon yellow safety vests, scattered along the curbs. You aren’t usually drawn to men in uniform. Not usually.
The cyclist friend reports that the riders are about thirty minutes out. Not long enough to go back to your room, but long enough to buy cold water, return to your spot, and hope you won’t need to excuse yourself before the sighting. You’ve stayed on this block before and know the Jardin du Luxembourg to your right and the little shop selling the prettiest umbrellas to your left. You chat with your comrades: writers, artists, kind, gentle people who are so unlike you and yet so similar, who make you swell with love you’re embarrassed to express. You’re happy because you belong there with them. For those minutes, you aren’t thinking about the war raging in Ukraine, how many more will die in the pandemic, whether democracy will survive, or your sick patients back home.
Instead, you notice the young officer only a few yards away. By now, your senses are heightened by all of it: the building anticipation of the crowd, the day of food, drink, and beauty leading to this serendipitous moment, and you see him not as an anonymous uniformed member of law enforcement, but as a man. His black shirt sleeve snug against his tanned biceps, his jawline, his unblemished skin, and close-cropped hair beneath his side cap. Your eyes move down to the curve of his glutes and your cheeks begin to burn. You mentally slap yourself for being a perv and look away. Before long, though, your gaze wanders back in his direction. He has a body shaped through effort. Maybe he’s a cyclist or a mountain climber. Maybe he’s a skier in winter who lifts weights year-round. After all, his job requires fitness. You’re no longer bored by the wait.
He’s serious while doing his job, scanning the street, not intruding on the tourists and locals except occasionally adjuring watchers to stay on the sidewalk. You see he’s there for safety, not intimidation. Usually, you’re on guard around law enforcement, not that you’re a felon, rather because life in the United States makes you alert to the possibility of violence, of shooting first and understanding later. You know France isn’t plagued by the unfettered gun access in your country, and most of the time in Paris you don’t notice the police. On a trip to the South of France, your husband picked up two speeding tickets via cameras. You paid them online without speaking to a soul. Clinical, efficient. No risk of bloodshed.
You think of Philippe, himself a Paris police officer, how you never saw him in uniform, and you wonder whether he ever watched over such a crowd three decades ago. In those years, they didn’t carry guns. Now, in the aftermath of the Bataclan attack, policing has changed. Philippe is never far from your mind when you come to France. Your high school pen pal who remained a steadfast friend through the tumult of your medical training in the Eighties. He and his twin, François, picked you up at Orly and gave you their tiny apartment in the Marais for a couple of days on your first visit. They showed you the Latin Quarter and introduced you to the Fête de la Musique one June night. They drove you to Alsace to meet their parents, who treated you like family. Now you visit Philippe’s grave when you stay with François and his mother in the same house. His nephew Mathieu, a baby when Philippe died from HIV and a teenager when you last visited ten years ago, is now a police officer in Alsace. Tall and lean, with a hawkish nose like his uncle.
Your attention returns to the officer in front of you and you gesture to your closest female friend. Like you, she’s a spectator with no special interest in cycling and a keen eye for attractive men. She answers with an appreciative nod. You sneak a picture or two of him. Harmless, you tell yourself. About that time, the lead motorcycles and cars roll past. You hear the crowd down the boulevard and get in position for photos and video of those two or three seconds before the riders disappear. For a nanosecond, you fear someone in the crowd will step out, destroy their synchrony and cause a horrible accident. No one does. You clap and yell as they fly past in the peloton so tight you can’t believe the riders aren’t a single organism.
You feel a rush of energy and joy and gratitude for these flawless minutes. That’s when your charming friend steps toward the officer and, with her most beguiling smile, surprises you by asking that he pose for photos. With you. Smiling and blushing, you’re back in ninth grade struck dumb by the gorgeous senior you’d been crushing on for months. You wished then and wish now to be the cool girl riding the moment. But your parents bestowed not a single cool-girl gene on you. You stand there grinning and flushed, unable to utter a word in French or English, while your friend tells him and everyone in hearing distance how much you appreciate French men and what a lovely person you are. She’s working hard to give him a strong pitch without expressly stating the obvious, that you’ve been ogling him for the past half hour.
You see that he isn’t shy, maybe not so young after all. You’re certain he reads your face precisely. He knows without arrogance that he’s handsome. It’s a fact, like the fire that burned Notre Dame and the chestnut trees that provide shade. Not debatable. He promptly sheds his neon vest and comes to stand next to you. You lean toward him. Your arms crisscross with his behind you and yours resting on his back. That day you’re wearing your favorite dark blue boho summer dress and stylish shades. You don’t think too much about how you look until you see the photos. Big smile, rosy cheeks, your face too round, your nose never as narrow and delicate as you’d like. In his brown eyes and natural smile, you see he’s enjoying the attention as much as you’re enjoying giving it to him.
After the photos are done, he asks where you’re from. You manage to stammer something about Dallas, Texas. Then he’s gone. Except he isn’t. In those minutes, you’ve fallen a little in love. He awakened something that won’t go back to sleep. Or maybe, you won’t let it. You traveled alone to be with this group, your husband across the Atlantic, sometimes distant even when you’re next to him. Though he doesn’t share it, he knows of your need to spend time in France, your love of the place, the people, the emotional connection you don’t fully comprehend but cannot deny.
When you turn to leave, another fact presents itself: it’s not that he is so young, but that you could be twice his age. Old enough to be his mother. The possibility knocks the air out of you. The weight of how long you’ve been alive and what you can’t get back might crush you there on the sidewalk of the Fifth Arrondissement. In the city of romance, home to every possible sensory delight, you’re allowed to experience some, but the season for others has passed.
Back in your blush pink hotel room with exquisite air conditioning and velvet drapes, solitude allows space for your imagination to roam. To admit your desire for him. To shamelessly fantasize about being seduced by this much younger, muscular, French man. Puritans taught you lust was wrong. Your body tells you differently. Your secret, deep desire, which he understood, is for desire to be returned.
And that’s the loss you mourn. That’s the poignancy of this interlude. To regret all that you didn’t do when you had the chance. To forgive men for their pursuit of younger women or men, whatever the case may be. They don’t want to be old. They don’t want to give up this kind of heat. They know nothing quite replaces it. It turns out, you’re like them.
Later, you look back at the photos and zoom in to read the patch below his right shoulder next to the strap of his bulletproof vest. Embroidered in white, it reads O +POS+, indicating his blood type, and you get a shiver because you understand the difference between a uniform and a costume. You look up the name of the style of hat he wore, a side cap, and learn it’s made to be easily foldable in case there’s a need to don a helmet. You hope he’s safe.
The best image is the one not captured except in memory. Before he walked away, this beautiful young man looked directly into your eyes, gave his French shrug, and without a hint of mockery said, “C’est normal.”
You shrugged back and answered, “Oui. C’est normal.”
He saw you. He knew exactly what you felt and responded perfectly.
This is normal.
Cindy Corpier holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University. Her nonfiction has been published in The Louisville Review and on Huffington Post. Her novel-in-progress, Only One Paris, was a semi-finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition. Her essays were awarded runner-up by the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Contest in 2020 and 2021. She practices nephrology, has never gone on a bad vacation, and still believes she’ll one day speak French fluently. She lives in suburban Dallas with her incredibly patient husband and two fabulous felines.