Betwixt

Sometimes I can be a real horror. Those moments are equally as important to write about as my good days. Therefore, I'm penning a series on how awful I can be. This essay is the first.

There are two scenes that I will always remember from my 2012 trip to Paris: biking at Versailles and the first time I saw Henri. It was Easter Sunday, a gloomy, cold, rainy day in Paris. I'd only been there two days so far, and had managed to sleep off jet lag, eat a quiche in a cafe and walk to Notre Dame for mass. I was staying in an enviable spot, an apartment I had rented on the Ile Saint Louis that had once belonged to a string of famous French writers. After returning to my apartment from mass, I opened the two windows and looked out and to my right. Henri was bouncing down my block, a tall brunette man in a long trench coat and smart shoes. I saw him stop at my door, stand in the middle of the one-way street, and look up. 

I felt like "Juliet" on her balcony. I waved. 

"Salut Henri! I'm coming down!"

In hindsight: that tiny greeting led to a trans-Atlantic and New York romance that would last at least two years. But who ever imagines these things as they begin?

On a fifteen minute walk from my island to the Bastille we had the general, "Oh my gosh, we met on the internet" fodder. It was good to break down the story from his point of view: a New York girl was caught looking at his OkCupid profile (me), then he responded and was curious only because she "was attractive." 

We wrote for weeks, and then decided to meet while I was there on vacation. It was less awkward than I imagined. Henri was easy to talk to, eager and hardly nervous. We landed at a restaurant so "local" that the waitress didn't speak English like the ones in the touristy areas. We had steak and wine.

I learned more about him over our meal. He lived in a suburb of Paris. He worked for an institution that made him distrust privacy (according to him, there was no such thing) and for that reason was without a Facebook and an Instagram. HIs English was exceptional. I preferred to practice my French, but he enjoyed to practice his English. But when I did speak French, he smirked. "I like the accent." Sometimes American women imagine French men to be like "Pepe Le Peu," but Henri was skilled at being gentlemanly in an un-cheesy, genuine way. 

In his emails and our chats, he'd raved about a Belgian beer spot close to the restaurant, Le Troll Cafe. We decided to walk there next. It began to drizzle, and being that it was now 21:00 on Easter, most of Paris was indoors. Even Le Troll Cafe, was nearly empty.

Henri was a regular, he greeted the bartender and seemed proud to be there with me. We got two beers and opted for the front room of the restaurant away from the small crowd near the bar. We laughed through one beer, and Henri offered a second. 

"I can only have one," I said. 

"Why can you only have one?" he asked. 

"I'm on an anti-depressant. Its strong," I said. I darted my eyes to the open bar door. The spring breeze was coming in. 

"Why are you depressed?" he asked. 

"I've had a lot of horrible things happen to me," I said. (I gave him a little more detail than I'm writing here.) I was worried that I'd said too much too soon, but then suddenly admired myself of being so honest with him. "I'm sorry I--"

"It makes me want to protect you," he interrupted. I remember my heart falling to my feet in admiration for him. He didn't brush it off, he didn't change the subject, he didn't tell me to "come on, be happy, life is wonderful, that was just a few times" like everyone else I knew.  

He took my hand across the table. 

"Come here," he said. He rose in his seat a little, cupping my face with his hand, looking very deeply into my eyes. Then he leaned in and kissed me delicately. We laughed as he took his seat again. He was smiling like a child. We said goodbye to the bartender on our way out, and he winked at Henri and said, en Francais, "Don't have too much fun." 

Henri wanted to show me the Pont des Arts, which is normally full of students and people playing music. It was 23:00. The walk there was beautiful. We peered into the Place de Vosges, and all the lit up shops, and were virtually the only couple on every street. We held hands, we kissed under awnings. Henri even paused to remind me that we could kiss as little or as much as I liked, "You set all the boundaries and I will follow them" he said, which made me respect him even more for the importance he placed on consent, even for kissing. 

It was still Easter Sunday so the Pont des Arts was empty. We stood there talking and admiring the Seine. I looked up at the Eiffel Tower as it struck midnight and glittered from top to bottom. 

"Look Henri, look!" I exclaimed. 

"It is midnight in Paris," he whispered, pulling me in and kissing my ear. In the life of Ariel Davis, it doesn't get much more cinematic than that. 

The next morning we met for brunch at Eggs and Co. in the St. Germain. Storms were hitting Paris, so as we cancelled our tour of Jardin des Luxemburg and to the streets, arm in arm. Henri made it a point to kiss me at every pont and crosswalk. We went to a Marché aux fleurs (or flower market) and crossed room to room among lush hydrangea and roses and lilies. I paused once to sniff one, and Henri came up behind me to kiss my neck and without word, glided away into the next room. I watched his rain coat, his dress pants and fancy shoes leaving me. 

I felt like I was living in a painting or a dream. Imagine Henri crossing room of magenta, golden, blush and orange flowers in a gray colored coat, and then turning, the blue of his eyes, and above him, the clear ceiling tent, and gray clouds, somewhere in the Fourth. 

I remember thinking, "French men! What is in the water that teaches them to be good at romance?" 

The day began to close, and Henri would have to go back to work. I would be spending the next day at Versailles. "You'll stop in Issy-les Moulineaux to see me?" he asked. It was one of the train stops on the way to Versailles. 

"I don't know," I said. 

"Please come," he pleaded. "Think about it." 

I walked him to his train, and at the metro entrance we hugged in the rain. The next day I had the best day of my life in Versailles. My train stopped at Issy, and I kept on going. I didn't want to say goodbye but I did not go to Issy. I was afraid.

 

#

After my trip I returned to New York and back to my normal life: a pile of papers on my desk, psychoanalyst appointments on Tuesday nights, 80 mg of Prozac a day. Paris didn't help much to assuage the depression I wanted it to cure. 

Henri and I emailed fervently post-trip. 

"I have a friend who just moved to New York that I want you to meet," he wrote. "But I am worried. I think you will be to his liking." 

To his liking?! I remember thinking as I read. I suddenly imagined Henri and I in Regency Era costumes in a drawing room. "I believe Lady Davis, that Master Dax will be to your liking..."

"Just watch out for his French side," he wrote. I scoffed at this. As if women weren't immune to the wiles of the French man? I rolled my eyes and emailed his friend, we planned for drinks at Vin Sur Vingt. I thought it was French enough. 

Dax was waiting at the bar for me that evening, we shook hands, ordered a bottle of wine. Dax was much more quiet than Henri. He called himself a "geek" often, being that he worked as a web developer for a household-name tech company. They'd transferred him to the city and he didn't know a soul. He'd managed to get an apartment in The Village, but seemed annoyed at the rules of New York (already). I told him, with a coveted apartment in West Village things were looking good for him.

We practiced my French, then we decided that the waiter was "fake French." We talked about Henri, but I left out the gushy romantic parts. It seemed that there was a small rivalry between Dax and Henri that Dax let on to, something once involving a girl. 

Those drinks turned into several more dinners that week. He was friendly in a quiet way, but started to open up more slowly and cautiously. I enjoyed his strict pragmatism, the way he narrowed his eyes and shrugged and let his hair grow obnoxiously long and crazy because haircuts were expensive, wore the same jacket because it was cheap. But I couldn't read him. Was he normally friendly, or perhaps just lonely? Henri wrote that he was jealous of Dax being in New York. 

On the day he officially moved to his New York space, I met Dax at the apartment for a glass of wine before our dinner reservation. We talked and laughed and watched ridiculous YouTube videos. Nothing out of the ordinary. 

It grew close to our reservation, so I stood to put on my coat.

"It's time for dinner," I said. 

Dax was standing on the other side of the living room, glaring at me. 

"What?" I asked as I tied my coat. 

He marched across the room with a strange determination, and kissed me. We didn't move from that spot for at least ten minutes. 

"Are you happy?" he whispered. 

"I'm surprised. And happy," I said. 

We went to dinner at Smorgas Chef, and when our steaks came, didn't even dig into them. Due to the shock, of course. 

"I can't believe we kissed," I said, realizing that after the glow wore off, I would need to tell Henri. I felt an ulcer warming in my stomach. 

"Why?" asked Dax. "Why are you surprised, we have gotten along quite well." 

"Famously," I said. "But there's Henri..." 

"He would be happy," he said. 

"But you see, Henri and I..."

"Were you involved?" he asked. 

"Yes," I said. 

My steak was getting cold. 

"He cannot be mad," Dax's voice rose, and his accent became more sharp. "It is ridiculous, I don't want to discuss it, or I will get really mad."

So we didn't discuss it. Henri cancelled the trip he wanted to make to visit me. Even though he blessed the relationship, writing "Live your life, I am far away," I felt caught between the personalities and the locations and the ideas of two very different French men. 

A month went by. Dax and I dated very happily until he faded away for a few months, reappearing, with a new girlfriend. 

I spent several months heart broken and confused. Henri emailed me and chatted with me and assuaged my fears. Then somehow, Dax and I got to a place where we could speak to each other. One late night we met at his famous, sprawling tech office and played ping-pong, rode scooters, ate ice cream, visited all the picturesque terraces all alone. We had so many starts and stops that year, and all the while Henri emailed reminding me of how much fun we'd had in Paris. 

And then sometime, I realized what a villain I had become. I lacked loyalty and right judgement. I should have never kissed Dax. In my long list of romantic foibles, this was the biggest. I learned quickly that "All's Fair in Love and War" was for the perpetrators and fools.

A few more years and nearly a peep heard from Dax. From Henri, we email once a month or so.