Saturday, March 06, 2010

L'ex

"I have a question for you," my mother asked out of the blue on the phone this week. "What's 'Facebook'?"

"Oh... just... waste of time, really." I laughed. "It's a web site that shows you information about people you know, and lets you keep in touch by sending them messages and sharing pictures. Why do you ask?"

She'd just gotten an e-mail invitation to join Facebook from someone she'd never heard of, and as with everything computer-related, she asked for my advice, which was to ignore it.

"So, you can just sign up for this thing? And it's free?"

"Yeah, it's free. And it's kind of stupid. But it is useful for finding old friends and keeping track of what people are up to." I paused briefly, and wondered if I should confess. "Speaking of which, you'll never guess who just found me on Facebook..."

"Who?" Mom asked.

"An ex-boyfriend. L'ex. I articulated his name carefully then paused for effect, sure that it would still mean something to her seventeen years after I'd last uttered it.

"Who?"

"You know. L'ex. The one with the green pick-up truck?"

"Oh, l'ex!"

"...and get this, he's coming to Paris. We're going out to dinner Friday night."

I casually mentioned an event which, while not exactly looming ominously on my calendar, I'd been watching approach with apprehensive anticipation since I first learned that l'ex was moving to London. Just how much I cared or why I wouldn't admit to anyone, for it was all wounded pride. L'ex was one of a select few ex-boyfriends who had dumped me rather than the other way around. It was a very old story, and while I couldn't remember all the details, I'd held onto the essential: my poor adolescent heart had been humiliated, crushed. It was heartbreak as you can only experience it at age sixteen, when upon closing the front door or hanging up the phone you're certain your entire existence on the planet has been irreparably shattered.

The dumping kicked me hard in the stomach in the dead of winter, right after both Christmas and my sixteenth birthday, and it felt like it took me a long time to recover. Then came spring and summer, other boyfriends, prom, then another school year, and finally college far away across the country. Before long I had to admit that despite what I feared in the first cold months of 1993, my life did go on.

Now the infamous breakup, l'ex, the green pick-up truck, none of it had crossed my mind in over a decade and a half. Yet when a message from that name showed up in my Facebook inbox a year ago, asking something like "Hey, you wouldn't be the Parisienne Mais Presque, from Seattle...?" the nostalgia wasn't altogether welcome.

I answered anyway, of course. I'm polite. And curious.

It turned out that l'ex had moved to L.A. shortly after the breakup to go to film school, then had worked for ten years in the film industry, and was now moving to London to go to graduate school. He was spending some of his free time tracking down old friends on Facebook; a way, I assumed smugly, to better prepare himself for a big jump into the unknown. He assured me he'd be visiting Paris, and insisted that when he did, we must get together.

I emailed a French friend about my plans to meet l'ex and said, "Americans are strange because a) they find it perfectly normal to track down exes and b) they think that Paris is right next to London." It has never seemed very French to me to leave a relationship and look back, even briefly, even seventeen years later. The French word for breakup is rupture, which feels much more dramatic than its English equivalent, and leaves no room whatsoever for "Let's just be friends."

Then again, the only Frenchman whose personal life I've observed closely and whom I've interrogated on the subject is my husband. His exes were a subject briefly addressed at the beginning of our relationship; the book is now closed, pushed to the back of a shelf, and covered with a thick layer of dust.

I asked him how he'd feel if I met up with l'ex when he came to visit Paris. "Si ça t'amuse," he told me, which best translates as "Sure, whatever," with an indifferent Gallic shrug.

We set the date: March 5. I got to choose the restaurant, one I'd discovered with a friend almost a year ago and where I longed to go back. I figured that even if the evening was a complete loss and we couldn't figure out what to say to one another for two hours, at least I'd enjoy the food.

* * *

On Friday morning, rather than rushing for the Métro as usual, I decided to be late to work and pulled out the ironing board to press the black cotton blouse I'd picked for the night's big occasion. "You're making yourself all belle for the ex-boyfriend?" my husband teased.

"No. And yes. I picked the shirt to show off the necklace you gave me. But I do want to look good, you know. Consider it revenge," I said playfully, truthfully.

Later, I went for a run during my lunch break, despite the head cold I'd been suffering from throughout the week. I needed the physical exertion and the moment alone in the cold, clear air to work up the nerve I'd need for the evening ahead. I joined a colleague to eat after I got back, and as we sat across from one another in the deserted lunch room, I confided to him my plans.

"En fait, I'm meeting an old friend for dinner tonight," I said nonchalantly. I avoided the charged word copain, which means both friend and boyfriend, and instead said un ami du lycée, a friend from high school. No mention of exes here.

He grimaced over his yogurt. "Myself, I've never enjoyed meeting up with old schoolmates. They're always boring. All you can talk about is what happened in the past, 'Do you remember when?' and all. In fifteen minutes you've said all you have to say to each other."

"Maybe not this time. When I knew him, he was going to school part time and working at a pizza joint. Since then he went off to film school, and now he's in London."

"So at least he's somebody interesting now."

"He's probably got more to talk about than his kids and his brand-new car, unlike most of the rest of us. And if not, at least I know the restaurant we're going to is good."

At half-past six, I touched up my minimalist makeup while shutting down my computer. We wouldn't be meeting at the restaurant until eight, but since my commuter rail line has been everything but reliable lately, I left myself plenty of time. But then the RATP conspired to destroy my confidence; the train and the Métro were both on time and delivered me, helpless, twenty-five minutes early at my destination station. I hate arriving early. I shivered and pulled out a book, and hunched into one of the seats on the platform to wait.

At quarter to eight, I got up, pulled out my map and started making my way circuitously to the restaurant. I was in the heart of monumental Paris: a step to the left revealed the Eiffel Tower, a step to the right the long avenue that leads to the Invalides. The apartments were pure Haussman, and their impeccably maintained floral stonework was stark white in the streetlamps. Most windows were shuttered, but some were open and lit, and from my perspective on the street they revealed chandeliers, heavy silk curtains, and the upper half of giant gilt mirrors. Were these the famous appartements d'apparat where no one lived, and that were only used by the rich for receptions and gala dinners? Did such apartments even exist, or were they a myth? How much would one really spend to construct a facade for the rest of the world? I walked up the street and back to kill time, stopping in front of the window of a real estate agency to look at the listings.

At two minutes to eight, with still no sign of l'ex, I walked into the restaurant. I was greeted warmly by the hostess and a waiter, who rushed to take my backpack and my coat. They ushered me to a table against a wall from which I had a clear view of the front door. The waiter complimented me on my petit accent charmant, and I mumbled an incoherent response. I was nervous, and when I realized it, I chided myself for it. I looked around and started to discover the details of the place, which was everything I love in a Paris restaurant: wide windows veiled with half-length curtains on brass bars; small tables pushed together in improvised intimacy; a menu scrawled in white on a slate easel; a polished bar facing the front door. There were the sounds I love, too: the pop of a wine bottle, laughter alternating with muted conversation, the purposeful clicking of the hostess' heels on the tile floor. If this was about revenge, there was no better place for it. I thought how my sixteen-year-old self would have been consoled to picture herself sitting coolly across the table from l'ex in the warm cocoon of a Paris restaurant.

For the picture to be complete, l'ex would have to actually show up. Which he hadn't yet, and it was almost quarter after eight. As much as I detest arriving early when meeting someone, I fear even more the embarrassment of arriving late to a restaurant where I've made a reservation. At least this time it was clearly not my fault. The hostess and the waiter carefully and politely avoided meeting my gaze as I stared forlornly at the entrance. To give myself something, anything, to do, I pulled my phone out of my purse and sent a text message to my husband.

"Dude isn't here yet!" I wrote. Just after I sent it, my phone rang. I answered, discreetly turning my face to the wall. It was l'ex, of course.

"You're lost!" I meant it to be a question, but it came out as an accusation. Breathless, he explained how he'd gotten turned around on rue de Vaugirard and started walking in the wrong direction. It is easy enough to get lost in Paris, to stumble disoriented from a Métro station off down an unknown street. I do it often enough myself, but that didn't diminish my irritation. He assured me he'd arrive in ten minutes.

My husband, to whom there's no greater shame that being unable to read a map, wrote back, "Quel loser!"

"Just called," I quickly typed. "Now I suddenly remember that he'd get lost in downtown Seattle, couldn't find I-5. Ca commence bien..."

Meanwhile, around me, the restaurant started to fill up. Groups of regulars came through the door, shrugged off their coats and exchanged rapid cheek kisses with the hostess. A family with a little boy just le Petit's age came in and sat at the table next to me. The little boy called for "maman" and his toddler voice stood out from the murmur of the adults. I decided that if for some reason l'ex didn't show, I'd happily stay and eat by myself with my book for company.

It was eight-thirty. Just when I'd stopped obsessively checking, there he was, l'ex, coming across the restaurant with his coat on his arm, looking relieved. I thought the hostess and the waiter were going to applaud.

* * *

"It's been what, seventeen years?"

"Yeah, crazy, I know!"

Could there be any other way to start a conversation with l'ex than with such banalities? How long could I keep this up?

"So, tell me everything. The last time I saw you, you were going to school part time and you worked in a pizza joint..."

I waited somewhat impatiently for the hostess to bring the menu. I would be ordering a glass of wine after all, I decided; it might prove indispensable.

We each worked through our respective everything-since-high-school narratives. Then the food arrived. And the wine. I realized at once that I was actually quite interested in what l'ex had to say about his life, and that I'd forgotten all the details of our so-called teenage romance. He mentioned an episode when his mother had spied through the window blinds on our kiss on the front porch of their house. I'd completely forgotten about it. I couldn't remember when we'd started dating, or even precisely when we'd broken up. The time line was erased from my memory entirely. It was as if we were two actors discussing a play we'd performed together long ago; the once-memorized script was now a blur, and the emotions and even the actions weren't ours, but belonged wholly to the characters.

I also discovered that l'ex -- not the teenager with the green truck of my unreliable memory but the real guy, who showed up thirty minutes late because he walked the wrong way down rue de Vaugirard -- is a very interesting person.

And I presented my own narrative to prove that I, too, am a very interesting person. Look where the odd turns of life have taken me: marriage, France, motherhood, writing, a restaurant in Paris with curtains that veil half of the windows. Not just to prove it to l'ex, but also to the adolescent girl whom I'd forgotten, who walked in, seventeen years and thirty minutes late, just behind him.

Does that count as revenge?

* * *

In my e-mail message to my friend, I wrote, "The only thing that's too bad is that the guy has my blog address, so I can't blog about the experience afterward."

And then I thought about it on my way home on the Métro last night.

And then I said to myself, why not?

3 comments:

Sylvie said...

Good work!
Yes, Paris is certainly handy for one-upping exes. I was quite happy to use the "Come visit me in Montmartre" line on an ex not long ago, and it worked it's usual magic (though it did not result in a visit, but that really wasn't the point, was it? No, the point was my own ridiculous satisfaction at being able to impress someone who had not been very impressed with me, and I have to admit the results of that line made me quite giddy!)

caramama said...

What a great story, especially the ending! I'll bet you are living a life that your 16-year-old self hadn't even dreamed of!

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Why not write about it, indeed!

Thanks for a wonderful story.