Espèce de Cowboy

Charles Holdefer

I first met Lise back in the U.S. during my student days at one of those wonderful American institutions that you might as well call Pizza U. (You chose your major the way you chose toppings. You paid your money, you got your degree.) I’d chosen business administration. In those days, my world wasn’t too complicated. My main interests were earning money and having a girlfriend. Since I'd always been pretty good at math, business seemed the best route for my future. Engineering would've been too much work; plus, the male-to-female ratio in engineering was unacceptable. At the Pizza U Business School, in addition to girls (hundreds of them, tweezering their legs in the lecture hall, squeezing their books against their chests: never had learning been so exciting!), I discovered that there were also plenty of lost and confused people. This had the effect of making me look good: a guy who knew what he was about.

Promising, as the letters of recommendation like to say. And the finest part of all was meeting my fiancée.

Lise had studied political science at the most elite graduate school in Paris. Now she was in the U.S. getting a one-year MBA, which was fashionable then for a certain slice of the French elite, another notch on their CVs. How she ended up at Pizza U was a mystery to me: some kind of administrative shipwreck, I suppose. We met at a Halloween party, and instantly I was attracted. Not because she was foreign and sophisticated and from a tony school. I knew none of that, then. And when one of her first remarks was to explain for my edification that Halloween wasn’t really American, but rather a manifestation of a Celtic rite, which we Americans had appropriated for our consumer society, I was hardly listening. I was looking at her, not simply ogling but also wondering what her costume was supposed to be. It certainly wasn’t obvious. (I clutched a black hood in my hand because it was too hot and itchy to wear; being an executioner was less fun than I’d imagined.) Lise wore the same shade of robin’s egg blue, from her pumps to her satin skirt to the scarf around her neck; her lipstick, too, was an airy blue that in the presence of so many macabre costumes set her apart. There was something about the way she carried herself, excessively formal for a Halloween Party. I almost told her this but kept my mouth shut.

What she saw in me is harder to say. Lise was out of her element, that was for sure, and in such circumstances, people can get lonely and behave differently than they might otherwise. Seductions can happen, like falling downstairs. Also, it turns out she didn’t think I was bad looking, in a lean cowboy sort of way. Not long after that first party (this sounds silly, but the truth often is), Lise dressed me up with a hat and jeans and a little leather vest and then surveyed the result, which seemed to affect her strongly: she kept touching me and laughing.

“My, Wally!” she said and laughed.

“That’s me,” I said.

This was a new experience. She would touch my shoulders, tug my belt, then laugh some more. I didn't feel insulted because it was light-hearted and friendly and because when she walked a circle, touching and laughing, her laughter seemed to include herself, too, the whole of humanity, all our follies. It made me laugh with her. Then she kissed me on the mouth.

Clearly, this was a game that appealed to her. I tapped the brim of my hat and promised I'd give her America, all of it, and she grinned and continued to touch, more boldly now.

And when I think back on those days and on our engagement, a time when, in the usual childish manner of people in love, the question of how we might appear to the rest of the world was either a matter of indifference or a source of foolish pride, the main thing that I recall is our belief. Our belief in us.

***

Paris didn’t love me. Besides, we discovered, upon our arrival, that Lise's father was dying. So from the outset, there were far more important things to worry about than welcoming the New Boy in Town. Lise was devastated; she and her mother spent their time going back and forth to the Hôpital Saint-Joseph. I accompanied them occasionally, but it was not really my place. During this grim interval, I often found myself alone in their rue Gay-Lussac apartment, a dim two-bedroom above a Hungarian travel agency. I spent my time watching a TV that I couldn't understand (except the weather reports—all those maps and symbols) and, from my second day, snooping around the premises. Prying became my chief source of entertainment. I pawed through Lise’s childhood and adolescent effects, familiarizing myself, getting to know her better, and in another room discovered—oops!—some pornographic magazines that must've belonged to Papa, the same unlucky Papa who now lay agonizing on a hospital bed. (The guy definitely had a thing for Asian women, tropical settings. I wondered if his wife knew.) In the beginning, I didn't go out much because it seemed inappropriate to play the fun-loving tourist while the rest of the household spent the day with hospital horrors. Each evening Lise and her mother came home tearful and distraught. The Official Fiction was that Walter kept busy all day studying his French grammar lessons, in view of his smooth integration and general self-improvement, but in truth, I mainly mooned around and daydreamed. In those early days, without Lise's excellent English as my crutch, communication would've been impossible. Lise's mother spoke French to me in long gusts; at times, I could feel my hair blowback, but I could muster little in reply. Clearly, I wasn't a natural when it came to languages. I remember squinting out the apartment windows at passersby in the street below, women in boots, scooter boys with cropped heads and retro-helmets, a lanky man in a striped djellaba, clasping prayer beads, and it struck me that even the manner of walking was not the same as in America; when people hailed each other, the language of their arms was different, too.

But I wasn't completely alone in the apartment: Clo-Clo, the family terrier, accompanied me with clicking toe-nails as I went from room to room, watching my every move, sniffing in drawers as I opened them. I fed him chocolate-covered cherries till he threw up; he had his share of the fun, too. I talked to Clo-Clo in English, and his liquid brown eyes expressed a degree of understanding. It was sobering to witness when Lise and her mother spoke French to him each evening and to realize that in terms of bilingual comprehension, this terrier was more advanced than I was. (Given what he’d seen of my behavior in the apartment, it was a good thing he couldn’t talk, too.)

On the other hand, though it sounds terrible to say so, Papa’s terminal illness smoothed the way for my acceptance. The first time I joined Lise and her mother to visit his bedside, where he was completely immobilized, a prisoner of a ghastly array of IVs and tubes, his eyes peered feverishly at me from under their sallow lids. Even through his pain, he was curious. One of the first things he said, which Lise translated for me, was: "So he’s the one?" There was a pause, then he strained to reach out his hand. He wanted to shake with me. Obviously, I reciprocated. It was a comfort to Monsieur to see that his daughter was not alone—his only child, of whom he was fiercely proud, the object of his adoration and the symbol of the striving of generations: he, the son of a glass-cutter, the first in his family to go to university and to occupy a civil service job, had lived to see his cherished girl continue the family trajectory to the highest levels, for Lise had passed the notoriously difficult entrance exam to one of the most venerated schools in France (passing this exam was an achievement which a small circle of people carried with them for the rest of their lives, a feat which dwarfed more banal adult successes). His daughter kept company with the children of diplomats and went on ski holidays with them, too. His Lise! And now she had chosen her man. When her Papa was gone, his prized girl wouldn’t be alone. “So he’s the one?” His hand rose to reach me. He looked at Lise’s mother, Marie-Thérèse, who wasn’t about to contradict him: she nodded back. Lise, who in these circumstances would’ve done anything to please her father, took my other hand and nodded, too. Good old me! I was the man of the hour. The skin on Papa’s hand felt like hot, brittle paper; his eyes shone with a drugged burning. I managed this much: “Oui, c’est moi.”

***

Getting my first job in Paris, though, turned out to be tougher than acquiring a family. At first, I was as naive as a newborn chick. I hopped around, expected people to like me, even find me cute. But in Paris, hell, they just pick you up and throw you into a sauce for that night's dinner.

Although my linguistic abilities gradually surpassed Clo-Clo’s, it soon became apparent that despite my vigor and my A-minus average at Pizza U, there wasn’t much about me that interested Parisian employers, who wanted someone who could engage with people and type French into a computer without risking the ridiculous. There was also the problem of working papers. I’d arrived on a tourist visa. Lise and I planned to get married, which would eventually straighten out my situation, but we had to bury Papa first, then produce reams of personal documents to attest to our backgrounds and good faith and legal residence.

In the meantime, I found an off-the-books job giving English lessons to the staff of a glassware importer in La Courneuve. It was very lowly paid but allowed me to keep up appearances. I was occupied. I troubled no one. It no longer felt like I was bluffing.

Then, at a small but elegant reception arranged by Lise to celebrate her mother’s birthday, I had my first public setback. There were a few champagne toasts; next, we sat down to listen to a string quartet perform Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." This had been a personal favorite of Lise's father, and the performance was also a memorial in his honor, given his absence on this special day. The musicians plunged in with energy, and though the music was familiar, for I'd heard it in other contexts, I'd never listened to it in its entirety or seen it performed live, in intimate surroundings. The effect was impressive. After the fourth piece, to show my appreciation, I started clapping enthusiastically.

Unfortunately, this was much too soon. Call me stupid, but I hadn’t realized that the concerto contained pauses within movements, that the seasonal cycle was not yet finished. Instead of the four seasons being over, it was still “Indian Summer” or “Winter Thaw” or some damn thing. Lise and I sat up front, in full view of the guests. Lise grabbed my elbow to stop me, but too late; in sight of the entire assembly, the lead violinist cast me a withering look, lifted his instrument under his chin, then resumed playing. The other musicians jumped in, sawing convulsively: music swelled. It was mortifying. Lise's mother lowered her eyes and stared into her lap, her lips pressed tight. If there is life after death and if from some other sphere Lise's father was watching over us at that moment, his soul twisted and turned and despaired, "No, no, he’s NOT the one!”

***

During this same period, Lise was offered two very good jobs, one in the staff of a prominent politician, one for a major weekly news magazine. After placing a few phone calls to schoolmates' parents, she opted for the latter. She'd had no training or experience in journalism whatsoever—in fact, to my astonishment, I learned that she'd never held a job before, beyond symbolic internships arranged through her special school—but Lise announced that she preferred the idea of being an influential journalist. Politics had lost much of its luster lately.

We moved to a corner apartment in the 7th arrondissement, a smart one-bedroom that we got with the help of another school connection. We pushed back our wedding date due to paperwork delays, but in other respects, we settled in. Each morning, we planned our day over bowls of coffee.

“Don’t forget Hugues and Sylvie,” she said.

“Is that tonight?”

We’d been invited to a reception, an early evening pre-dinner affair, at an address on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. These people weren’t friends, but they were important for Lise and her work and needed to be cultivated; there would be some famous names there, too, at least well-known faces on television. The reception was to launch a new cable channel.

“Of course it’s tonight.”

“You have so many of these things. We should spend more time alone.”

“Don’t be selfish.”

“Well, I might be a little late by the time I get back from La Courneuve.”

“Just do the best you can.”

It was a long commute to the suburbs, and that afternoon there were delays on the RER B train. By the time I got home and took a shower, I wasn’t in the best mood. But then, looking in the closet for something to wear to the reception, I spied the leather vest that Lise had bought me back in the States. And I dug more deeply and found the cowboy hat, too. So I rooted around for a few more accessories and tried to deck myself out like in the old days.

Of course, it was a joke, but I wasn’t trying to be provocative. It was for us, really. Besides, these were media people. My idea was that I’d show up in this garb, which might turn a few heads, and then a little later, Lise and I could eclipse ourselves and go have some fun.  Just the two of us.

***

The lady who opened the door grinned when she saw me, and I smiled back, then followed her across creaking parquetry into a series of high-ceilinged rooms where people mingled with flutes of champagne in their hands, their voices rising and echoing above a background of decorative jazz. From the moment I entered, I received stares.

To anyone whose eyes met mine, I gave a nod. It seemed the best way to carry this off. Besides, I was quick to notice that at least half the men weren’t wearing ties, and some of them were unshaven, though admittedly in the calculated fashion of French journalists who want to communicate that they are really intellectuals who scorn journalists. The women were more formally dressed, with jackets and the occasional leather mini-skirt. There was one fellow in a sailor suit, munching a canapé—maybe a character on a TV show?—but it was obvious, as I moved through the crowd in search of Lise, that my informality struck a different note.

By now, the door was far behind me; there was no turning back. So I set my jaw. Why should I apologize? I belonged here, too.

“Oh, there you are!”

Lise looked up, startled. These were my first words, interrupting her mid-sentence. I’d spoken in English, whereas she’d been conversing in French.

Her companions turned in my direction. This was Sylvie and Hugues: an Antillaise woman in a dress open down to her navel and a man with red-framed glasses, pencil sideburns, and a skiff hairdo. It seemed to require Lise several seconds to recognize me under my cowboy hat; she leaned back a notch to take me in. She wore tight black jeans with a mustard blouse, one of my favorites, and a mauve embroidered jacket that I didn’t recognize. She must’ve bought it for the occasion. “Hu-hullo,” she said.

There was a pause, during which I felt Lise’s eyes on me. I plunged into small talk with Sylvie and Hugues because it was easier than returning Lise's gaze. At the same time, my brain was racing. Why this cowboy outfit had seemed, only a short time before, a good move was now a profound mystery. There was a mirror over a mantelpiece to reflect a chandelier in the center of the room, but in it, I could also observe our circle: the backs of Sylvie and Hugues’ heads, Lise, whose mouth had tensed into a flat, crushed bloom, and standing next to her, an asshole in a big hat.

I resolved not to linger. Sylvie and Hugues weren’t unfriendly, but after few sentences, I addressed Lise and suggested that it was time to go.

“Go? Now?”

“Yes, you know.” I smiled.

“Know what? Go where?”

“I’m sorry,” I told Sylvie and Hugues. “Other obligations!”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Lise said.

And though I realized that I was in the wrong, a sentimental part of me also believed that she ought to have a little sympathy. Look at the compromising situation I was in! Couldn’t she help me out a little here? Even if I was an asshole in a big hat, wasn’t I still her fiancé?

I persisted, fabricating an imaginary appointment. Sylvie and Hugues looked on, embarrassed at our bickering. At one point, I turned to them and said, "We have so much paperwork to sort out.”

“So go do it!” Lise hissed.

At that moment, something slipped, and a sickly premonition came to me. Our paperwork would never be sorted out. With a forced shrug of shoulders, I excused myself from them and angled back through the crowd, making my way for the door. My face must have looked very grave, for the fellow in the sailor suit suddenly loomed before me and said in English, in a soothing tone, “What’s the matter, cowboy?” Wordlessly, I touched the brim of my hat, then found myself on the Boulevard Saint Germain, turning toward the traffic, walking into the sun.


About the Author

Charles Holdefer, author of five novels, including BRING ME THE HEAD OF MR. BOOTS (Sagging Meniscus Press, 2019), MAGIC EVEN YOU CAN DO: BY BLAST (Sagging Meniscus Press, 2019), and DICK CHENEY IN SHORTS (Sagging Meniscus Press, 2017), grew up in Iowa and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the Sorbonne. He currently teaches at the University of Poitiers, France. His short fiction has appeared in many magazines, including the New England ReviewChicago Quarterly ReviewNorth American ReviewLos Angeles ReviewSlice, and Yellow Silk. His story "The Raptor" won a Pushcart Prize. He also writes essays and reviews which have appeared in The Antioch ReviewWorld Literature TodayNew England ReviewThe Dactyl ReviewThe Collagistl'Oeil du SpectateurNew York Journal of BooksJournal of the Short Story in English, and elsewhere.