By Colette O’Connor
My parents’ marriage, on public display in Paris, possibly is saved in the bed department of Bazaar Hotel de Ville.
In the bed department of Bazaar Hotel de Ville, Mademoiselle in charge of duvets pulls a particularly puffy one from the display of every weight—summer, autumn, Arctic—and offers a feel to Dad. Mom, meanwhile, sits weary and collapsed on a sample bed, careful not to muss its crisp, pleated sheets of mauve, or in despair bury her head in the fluffy pillows.
“Monsieur, zis is tres warm, zee best,” Mademoiselle says, her English an effort, but clear. “You will not be cold some more.Non.” She shakes her head. Dad fondles the corner of the duvet with suspicion to feel if its composition – 50% down, 50% feathers – can ease the chill he has carried since he and Mom arrived in Paris six days earlier. Because their newly-acquired apartment is not yet fitted with even a single twig of furniture, for five nights they have slept on the floor on a camper’s blow-up mattress. The blow-up has a leak that hisses but can’t be seen and a pump that’s French – hence, too foreign to manage without a nervous collapse.
“You know? Maybe I should just get the plane home,” Dad blurts in a tone of high irritation. Mademoiselle flinches.
“Well, maybe you just should,” says Mom. She is so hot, sitting there in the mauve. Outside, the Paris winter freezes away in teeny, tiny temperatures and an unfriendly wind whips. Visiting the over-heated department store while overdressed in layer upon layer, plus coat and hat and gloves and scarf causes Mom to sweat. She flings off her woolen beanie and gives her husband of nearly 60 years “the black look” that in earlier days sent him straight to the bar but now, many decades sober, inspires him instead to rattle Mademoiselle.
“Ah, but oh, Monsieur,” she stammers. “Perhaps zis will be better for you and Madame.” She pulls out a different duvet from the display and offers it to Dad for a feel. This comforter – 60% down, 40% feathers – does little to tamp down his temper. As the black look seeps into his marrow he turns toward the bed to slit his eyes at Mom.
Their fight began, if not the day they married a mere two weeks after they met on a blind date, certainly their first night in the apartment. A fake duvet of polyfill Mom had provided Dad let his feet poke out in the night. Monsieur Landita, the building handyman, would not fix the first thing that said bienvenue when they arrived – a broken heater – until he returned from vacation in Spain in another four, freezing, possibly fatal nights, to hear Dad tell it. His chill was unforgiveable.
“It was meant for a child,” Dad with a pout says not to Mom but to Mademoiselle, his tone conveying the frost of a wronged husband. Mademoiselle is perky, petite and pained by Dad’s blast of crabbiness. At the smack of it her young, fresh features shift from a shopgirl smile into a shape that could, with the slightest encouragement, cry. But she will not be abused.
“Yes, yes, but zis,” she says with strength and unfurls a decidedly adult-sized duvet – for two – and invites Dad to feel it, fluff it; maybe he will even lie under it on the display bed next to Mom and imagine the possibilities? “Zis makes for warm feet and,” she aims a sympathetic smirk in Mom’s direction, “warm feelings.” Mom moves a mauve pillow onto her lap. It looks like if she chooses to throw it, it will be good and ready.
“Honestly, who is the child? Who is the child now?” Mom’s voice is as hot as her legs under their itchy, foul-weather tights. Dad doesn’t answer and nixes the duvet-for-two by wandering off in the direction of the sheets-and-pillowshams display. Mademoiselle follows.
I stand sagging against a floor display of bedskirts, over-hot in my own hat and coat, and listen to my parents carry on. This is Paris – Paris! We should be loving every inch of it, every minute, as they create a home away from home of their new apartment, and I spend 10 days of European vacation making the best of them. That is to say, knowing full well I’m to cherish every ticking second I have with my precious, aging parents while we’re here, together in this magical city – even though they make me as jumpy as they do Mademoiselle. Over in sheets-and pillowshams, I see her pulling from stacks a selection of sheets with a rat-a-tat efficiency of one determined to please: a sales pro.
“Yes, Monsieur,” she’s saying. “Perhaps something very soft – Egyptian cotton, the very best – in a soothing color. Blue? Yes? Perhaps this will please you and Madame?”
Madame isn’t pleased. In fact, Madame won’t be pleased at all unless and until Dad decides on a duvet, today, a decision that will free her from one more torturous night on the floor dealing with Dad’s thrashing and complaints. Their bed, on order, will arrive at the apartment in French time. This means whenever it will, no one involved in its purchase and delivery can say when.
“Tom!” Mom calls, with the uncharacteristic Mommie Dearest edge she resorts to in catastrophes. Like when Dad pretends not to hear her, even though he, totally deaf in one ear and diminished in the other, really can’t. And because he can’t hear: “TOM!” She motions him over and I, still sagging into the bedskirts, feel 5 not 50, and afraid. Uh-oh, somebody’s in trouble.
“Tom, let’s just focus on the duvet,” she says when Dad returns, trailing Mademoiselle and her hands-full of blue sheets. “Okay?”
“Okay!” says Mademoiselle, cheery as can be. She off-loads her pile onto a sample bedroom bureau and makes it point to ignore my parents like they are naughty children whose bad behavior best not be rewarded in any positive way.
“Mademoiselle,” says Mademoiselle, instead turning to me. I flinch. Now I’ll have to be involved.
“Papa and Maman, they love to love, yes?
Oh my God.
“Soft blue sheets, very soft, will be lucky for love, for l’amour, do you see?
No, no, I don’t want to see! But I pipe-up for the sake of Mademoiselle, who seems to be trying so hard to, what, make a sale? Get Mom and Dad dealt with and out of there? “Yes, blue. Very beautiful.”
The determined way she does not flee to help other customers, nicer customers, customers who surely will buy something, is a minor miracle. A miracle much like the 58 years my parents have held together. Never mind the dozen years of divorce they entertained before remarrying in a romantic elopement to Lake Tahoe to which their five children and seven grandkids were not invited: Mom and Dad since their first date, which happened after he proposed and she accepted at the post-college party where they met, have choreographed a relationship whose steps, however intricate, no one but they know. Least of me, cringing with their bickering as if all of Paris will tsk-tsk at their lack of respect and, offended, shun us from sharing in all the love the city promises – not least with its idea of a bed. The soft and seductive one now holding up my mother, for instance, is frilled in romantic ruffles and prettied by a slinky, satin coverlet. If it doesn’t say come to bed, darling, I don’t know what does. But really, as if Mademoiselle with her sheet suggestions can have my parents happy together on a flabby, half-deflated blow-up mattress when there are Dad’s cold feet and who knows what else between them!
Still, I am entranced by Mademoiselle’s idea that l’amour is simply a set of sheets away. That luck in love may apply to my parents, as she so optimistically implies. I am so entranced, in fact, that I miss whatever Dad says next, but it must have been classic, because Mom’s response seems as ready as the mauve pillow.
“Maybe you should just stay in a hotel,” she says.
“Maybe I just should,” says Dad.
Other bed department shoppers who wander among the displays hear my parents, sense the danger, and cut a wide swath around the zone of hostility they have formed; some even scoot away fast like Mom and Dad are a blast about to detonate. Mademoiselle is made of steelier stuff.
“Oh, mais non!” she clucks. “Non, non, non.” She levels her gaze at Dad. “Feel this!” Off-topic of sheets and back on duvets, she challenges him to fondle an especially puffy one – 70% down, 30% feathers – and unfurls the thing so it lies on the display bed in a splendor of promised warmth and comfort. Mom scooches over a bit to give the duvet better play. To help it lie flat she puffs and pats the mauve pillow back into place beneath the headboard. At Mademoiselle’s urging Dad drops onto the smallest possible sliver of the bed’s edge as if at gunpoint, and his reluctant, put-upon expression causes Mom to roll her eyes. He’s so impossible. Mademoiselle, however, is triumphant.
“Mais oui!” she sings in the trilling way of those flirty Frenchwomen. She is all girl, with short skirt and a sexy playful wink. Her charm alone could chase the chill right out of Dad’s feet, and I wonder: what effect might she have on a fever? Watching my parents impose their…their…well, their thing on an innocent bystander like Mademoiselle makes me so hotin my two sweaters and coat and gloves and scarf. The lack of control I have of them! To stave off a faint I try to breathe…one…two…three, unbutton my coat to vent some steam, and wonder, what happened?
Mom and Dad were all laughs mere hours earlier when we sat Paris-people watching on the sidewalk terrace of cafe Les Deux Magots in St. Germain des Pres. Four tables over lunched (gasp!) the actor Jeremy Irons, looking bleary-eyed, bedheaded…tired.
“I know that guy,” said Dad, indiscreetly staring. “I think I worked with him once. I’m going to go see if he remembers me.” Dad, a career stockbroker who most certainly has never worked with Jeremy Irons, stood up and was halfway to his table to ask if the actor remembered him when Mom and I yanked him back in giggly panic, no!
Between then and our visit to the bed department, something must have been said. A choice aside on the Metro ride to get dessert sorbet on the Ile Saint-Louis. Or a loaded look cocked and shot as we walked past Notre Dame. Secrets, lies, unwelcome surprises. Joys, marvels, miracles. My parents’ love story features it all. Their tale is a triumph over typical marital trauma – alcohol, infidelity, money worries, in-law issues, problems. Acquiring an apartment in Paris several years after their remarriage was to be not just amends, but also a second honeymoon, a dream come true, a wildly exciting next installment – the part where the happily-ever-after happens.
Yet here it is: my parents’ marriage on public display in Paris.
“Oh, stop it,” says Mom.
“You stop it,” says Dad.
I study my shoes in shame. What must Mademoiselle think? This is Paris – Paris! A place where in a setting of incredible beauty, romance simply cannot not happen. Take Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, Antonio Canova’s spectacular winged sculpture in the Louvre. Or any of Renoir’s knockout nudes, plump and luscious, displayed in the Musee de l’Orangerie. There are, especially, the ancient, gilded buildings lit at night in a sensation to dazzle the senses, and the Eiffel Tower’s on-the-hour show of lightplay. Here, in the City of Light indeed, love good, love true and, if you’re a ridiculous romantic like me, even love beautiful seems suggested, if not inspired. What’s more, everywhere you look, lovers themselves woo one another. They are hand-in-hand strolling the Seine, kissing in sidewalk cafes, patting fannies with affection in the parks and Luxumbourg Gardens. They are even snickering a deux like the huggy couple who now linger on the fringe of the zone of hostility, gawking at Mom and Dad like they’ve never before seen such a crazy-strange thing as this. You are in Paris and not madly in love? Madness!
Mademoiselle, too, stares at my prickly parents with an expression of puzzled incomprehension. I imagine her unkind thoughts: Surely she has decided they are a blight on love itself. That when it comes to the art of l’amour, Americans certainly are poor practitioners. That not only could she, a Parisian for whom a feel for romance is in the genes, not even begin to school these hopeless two in its rudiments, but she also better call-in her supervisor to sell the duvet because, clearly, here is a couple she can’t help.
Instead she flits away in her clicking kitten heels, wafting a scent so sweet that when it reaches me I could weep. The little-girl me longs for Mommy and Daddy to be sweet, too. If only it were as easy as holding my breath until I turn blue and die to make them sorry. But it’s not. Still, who’s the grown-up? Who’s the grown-up, now? Making like the more savvy shoppers, I start to tip-toe from the scene. If I’m far, far from the blast – say, otherwise enjoying tea in the cafe that’s in a distant corner of the floor – I should be safe.
Before I can sneak off, however, Mademoiselle is back. She is flushed and winking and thrilled that she has found the perfect thing.
“Voila.” she trills. “Madame, Monsieur, you will see. Shoes off!” She holds an armful of duvet – 100% down – and in one impressive swoop sweeps the duvet that’s on the bed off, and flutters its replacement into place between the opposite edges of bed upon which my parents perch. Shoes off? Dad catches on right away, slips out of his walking moccasins and, coat and all, slides beneath the down; his head is on the pillow Mom could have thrown but did not. In a split-second shift Mom’s eyes go merry with mischief. I know what you are up to. And she goes along. Shoeless, she slides under the pouf. “Nice,” she sighs.
Maybe it was frisky footsie, or possibly a well-timed tickle, I can’t say. I missed it. I was busy watching Mademoiselle regard my parents with the pride of one for whom all is, as the French say, comme ca. The way things are. The stars aligned, the earth in its orbit, the lovers united. But whatever it was, Mom and Dad do indeed detonate – into great loud guffaws of embarrassing laughter. The huggy couple does, too.
“Tres bien,” says Mademoiselle, beaming as her prize duvet billows and waves with Mom and Dad beneath – forgiving, forgetting, and, rolling around in a fully, fully clothed hug, together forging ahead. “Tres tres bien.”
“We’ll take it!” says Dad, now happy. And my parents carry-on laughing.
Colette O’Connor lives and works around the Monterey Bay Area in California. Her lifestyle features and travel essays have appeared in many publications, among them, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, France Magazine, and Travelers’ Tales Paris, Sand in My Bra, Whose Panties are These? The Best Women’s Travel Writing (2005 and 2010) and The Best Travel Writing (2010 and 2011).