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April In Paris Part III - A Short Story
Constance is a 55-year-old woman recently dumped by her husband of 34 years. Will Henri offer her comfort?
“Mind if I join you?”
Constance’s heart pounded. She looked up at Henri pulling his chair to her table, trying to hide her terror. What the hell should she...
“Okay, no problem. I don’t want to disturb you.” He smiled and started to get up. God, he was gorgeous.
“NO!” Constance felt her face burn up. Talk about not acting desperate. Oh, geez. “I mean, uh...no, that’s um, not necessary, you’re welcome to sit at this table.” She wanted to choke herself on a baguette.
“Why, thank you. You know, for an attractive woman, you are very friendly.”
Oh, now he was being silly. Her? Attractive? She told him to order her another cafe au lait and that she was going to the ladies’ room.
Once there, Constance looked in the mirror as objectively as she could. Hmmm, not bad, really, all things (and years) considered...good, high cheekbones, decent lips (why was she even thinking about her lips all of a sudden?), blue eyes were always her best feature...just a little makeup to smooth out the lines and...a little touch-up on the lipstick and...Constance smiled. She couldn’t believe she was doing this. Her heart was fluttering like a school girl’s. And all because some strange guy just wanted a lunch partner! Oh, well. She remembered a 60 Minutes episode she’d seen about foreigners preying on the elderly, convincing them to give thousands of dollars. She almost cracked up, deciding she would not give him even one euro. She felt oddly, giddily in control as she opened the door of the ladies’ room. She walked out.
Back at the table, Henri reclined easily against the wood-backed chair and brightened when he saw Constance approach. He even sprang up and pulled her chair out for her. Wow, he’s good, she thought.
“Do you think I am a ---I think the word is---scammer?” he asked as soon as Constance was seated. This guy sure got to the point all right.
“Why, no! Of course not!” Constance stammered.
Henri just laughed warmly. “This is why I find Americans so charming,” he said. “You are obviously a very beautiful woman, certainly approached by men constantly, and it would be unnatural for you not to be suspicious of me. Yet you protest it so vehemently. I find it disingenuous, but adorable.”
“What?! Oh,” she didn’t know what to say now.
Henri patted her hand reassuringly. “My goal is not to embarrass you. I am very sorry if I did.”
A surge of heat seared through her hand. “Then what was it? Your goal, I mean?”
“Only to say what is,” Henri replied. His eyes were sparkling, it seemed. Probably just the chandelier,. Constance reminded herself.
They looked at each other for an infinitesimal moment. Constance suddenly knew that she would be the one to decide how the night would end.
They spoke of literature, American and French, of current events, of science, technology, of economics. Constance could not remember the last time her husband had ever wanted her opinion on anything more important than what time the roast would be ready. She found it so easy to talk to Henri - despite his French accent. She found the accent unbearably sexy. She found so many things she liked about him, she forgot to look for the red flags.
“Excuse me, madame et monsieur, I am so sorry, but we are closing,” the amused manager informed them. Constance glanced down at her watch. 9PM!!! She couldn’t believe it. Six hours she had been talking to Henri. And she felt she could talk to him six more. But she had to get home to...wait. She didn’t have to get anywhere. And by the looks of things, neither did he.
Her heart pounded in her throat as he held the door for her. Was this it? Just goodbye? But it was ridiculous; they’d just met. Constance felt something being pressed into her hand. She looked down. A business card.
“I hope that you will call me tomorrow night.”
And with that, he was gone.
She stood there in a fog, alternately watching him walk away and staring at the oatmeal-colored card in her hand. She read it again: Henri D’Man, Artist.
The next day Constance was awake at 6AM. She zipped through the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the breathtakingly beautiful streets of Paris with an insane smile on her face the whole day. She had started off telling herself that of course she wouldn’t call him. That would be...that would be...just what would it be, really? Did it matter? Did anything really matter anymore? Constance felt like a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear the sound. Without her friends back home to disapprove of her calling a 40-something artist in a foreign country, Constance slowly realized that she was free...free as a bird. To do whatever she liked. And over an espresso and pastry by the Seine River, Constance decided exactly what that was.
She decided to wait a little, “to make him wonder”, as her daughter would say. At 7PM, she picked up her rented cell phone and, finger shaking, dialed the number which she’d by now memorized. She listened to the phone ring in short, double spurts. No answer. Her heart started pounding harder. No matter, maybe he’s busy. She hung up. Constance took a deep breath. Well, if she was going to be rejected, better to find out now: she re-dialed, and waited for the answering machine. On the third ring, she heard his voice.
“Henri, it’s Constance. From yester-”
He laughed. “I know, Constance, I’ve been waiting for your call. I was afraid maybe you’d forgotten me already.”
Yeah, like that was likely. “Well, I was - “
“Constance, please. Never make excuses. I am not American, remember? I do not require them.” They both laughed.
An hour later he picked her up at her hotel and took him to his art gallery. They walked through a nondescript door and down a long, dark foyer. He then flipped on a light and they were surrounded by the most beautiful sculptures Constance had ever seen.
She remembered falling in love with a piece of sculpture when she and George had first been married. She’d told him about it excitedly. She’d almost forgotten how George had so easily brushed it aside, telling her he “didn’t go in for that artsy stuff”. When Constance had insisted, he’d gone with her to look at the piece - a beautifully dramatic semi-nude woman with hair flying behind her - and started laughing. “Are you kidding me? What do you think my boss is going to say when he sees this porn in our living room?” And that was the end of that.
Now she looked around her at the stunning figures, carved in stone and more strikingly lovely than any sculpture she had ever seen before. She looked at the man who had created them. Henri was not just a gorgeous younger man. He was a genius.
He took her by the hand and led her to a man and woman, holding hands, both staring defiantly ahead. “This is my favorite”, he said.
“May I?” Constance motioned to touch it.
As she gingerly placed her hand on the sculptured arm, she felt Henri come up behind her. He watched her fascinatedly trace the man’s muscles with her fingers and stared at her. He began simulating the motion, running his hand down Constance’s arm. She could feel every hair stand up.
There was no turning back now.
She knew what she wanted, what she had come here for. She knew with a certainty she hadn’t had in a very long time. She wanted this for herself, for no other reason but that she wanted it. Now.
She turned and kissed him. All the senses in her head exploded as her lips met his. He tasted of coffee grounds and cigar smoke, and it was delicious. She allowed her fingers to cascade down his firm and muscular chest. She drank in his body with her eyes and hands and knew she wanted more. He knew, too.
He silently took her hand and led her to a tiny apartment in the back of the gallery. He walked her into the bedroom and slowly unbuttoned her sweater. She trembled at the nearness of his touch. He gently slid the sweater down her arms and tossed it onto a chair. She then did the same, hungrily pushing his shirt off and devouring his chest with her mouth. She was not thinking now. She was not rational. Nothing made sense and everything made sense. She was, for the night, her body.
Constance blinked her eyes open in the sunlight streaming through the curtains. She looked around the room. She saw her clothing lying everywhere, intertwined with Henri’s on the floor. Her stomach lurched. What had she done?! Slept with a stranger! What would her friends say? What would they...stop it, she told herself. This is your life. Your decision. How do YOU feel about it? And she had to admit, after she got over the shock, she felt great. He had been a warm and giving lover, made her feel like she was 25 again. He was everything she’d hoped he would be, and more.
She turned and saw him sleeping next to her, peaceful as a lamb. She gingerly got out of bed and got dressed. She grabbed a piece of paper and wrote:
Henri - This was so perfect, don’t want anything to ruin it.
And went back to her hotel.
As the day turned into a week and the weeks turned into a month, Constance went about her business - seeing the rest of Paris, joining a tour through Europe - and always thinking of Henri and how thank God she had ended it before he inevitably rejected her. She knew she just couldn’t take his rejection after her husband’s. And not only because of the timing either: she felt a kinship with Henri that she’d never felt with her husband. It was hell without him, but not as devastating as it would have been had he seen her flaws and realized how much older she was than he.
But a funny thing happened: he called her. And called her. And kept calling her. At first, she couldn’t understand why. She thought maybe she’d left something at his place. But the messages he left spoke of friendship and missing her and things that made her hope - a little. But that, she knew, was where the danger lay. So she didn’t take his calls.
In mid-June, Constance finally decided to fly back to New York. Except for seeing her daughter Beth, she wasn’t particularly excited about going home, but she was a hell of a lot more together than she’d been on the way here. She laughed to herself at that scared, sad little person who’d sat on that Air France plane between those two ladies. She was still sad, but a lot madder - and that felt good. It felt good to be allowed her own feelings - something she realized had been missing from her 34-year marriage. She had realized a lot of things that were missing from her marriage. She was also a lot happier - at least she had the memory of Henri.
The day of the flight Constance walked purposefully through the airport with her carry-on bag wheeled behind her. She waited in line at customs, this time answering all the questions in French - she had become close to fluent, and she was proud. Finally, the last question was answered, and she started for the plane.
“Vous parlez tres bien le francais,” she heard behind her.
She almost choked in shock. She turned. It was Henri.
“But how did you...What did you...”
“I checked every day with the hotel until they said you were checking out today. I figured that meant you’d be going back home.”
“But I...are you...?”
“If you want me to.”
She stared at him, her heart threatening to fly out of her chest.
“Look, Constance, I don’t expect you to believe me, but I’m in love with you. I know it’s ridiculous, especially by your standards and all that, and I know I am just an artist and not a big shot banker or CEO. I also know you are probably unsure about our age difference and our differing levels of dating experience. Look, when I first met you, I felt a spark, but I had no idea it was anything like this. It’s like, a rebirth for me, like spring. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, all I can do is think of you and the time I’m wasting not being near you. If your reasons take you away from me, at least I need to know that I tried. I just wanted you to know how I feel. And to prove it, I put my art shows on hold and have booked a flight to New York.”
She let go of her carry-on bag, and in the onrush of people boarding the plane, she grabbed him and kissed him.
Today they live together in a one-bedroom in Greenwich Village where they show his art and Constance teaches French and they are deliriously happy.