When my husband showed up, I didn't recognize him. A handsome face, yes, but sweet and genuine. Philippe meant what he said. His earnest eyes, the pressure of his hands'all of it infuriated me.
by Cara Goubault
When I told him about myself, he didn't come back with a derogatory one-liner. He listened, and said something appropriate, something nice, even. The frat boys at school ignored me, and the only boyfriends I'd had were generally nasty. So who the heck was this guy?
Admittedly, I was a stranger in a strange
land, far away from any notion of home - I was in
France, for my junior year abroad. When I met him, a
Frenchman, I braced for the worst. We all know about
those Frenchmen, after all. As it turned out, he was
even more foreign than I could have imagined; in
country, and in custom.
I grew up in a home of angry silences and sarcasm. Where my mother pretended to stab my father with a fork at mealtimes. Pretended. It was a place of high drama, where we rode waves of emotion according to the whims of whichever parent got "left" with us ("your father disappeared on us today"). But it was home. Criticism begins to feel like compliment when you know little else. Amazing how one can cathect to even the thorniest of flowers, for an occasional whiff of rose.
When I met my husband, I was coming from a place where The Donald had just married Marla, where my own father had just married a 27 year old ex-model'those to me were the Real Men'narcissistic, powerful, and id interested in just one thing - which pudgy, frizzy me didn't possess.
I figured if I lost enough weight, I could
marry a venture capitalist or corporate lawyer. A
hard-edged, man's man, who most likely wouldn't want
anything to do with my murky inner life. That was fine,
I wasn't looking for understanding, or even love. I
wanted the security that came from money. To my logic,
the English-major brain in my possession was never going
to make it, so my mission was to marry it, then most
likely divorce it. Cynical. Of course. But I was proud
of my practicality.
When Philippe came into my life, I reacted in the only way that I knew; with subtle - or not so subtle - disdain.
"You drive me crazy. You're too intense! I need my space." After a few dates with this receptive, gentle man, I wanted out. I wondered if he was gay. This certainly wasn't my definition of "manly" behavior. I wondered if it was some "French" thing. Philippe was disappointed, but not discouraged.
"You'll see," was all he said.
I got drunk at his apartment after one of these first
dates, on purpose. I figured I would test my "gay"
theory by lying in an irresistible haze on his couch.
Philippe spent the evening singing me French folk songs
on his guitar. He didn't touch me. Definitely gay. I
went back to my place, planning on ending it there.
Except'I'd forgotten my umbrella in his car, again. I
would have to call him, or renounce the umbrella. I
Something was happening to me. I went out with my friends and complained about Philippe; we made fun of him, we were baffled by him. I would tell them I'd had enough, that I was taking a well-deserved man sabbatical. Then, I'd have the dreams.
The ceiling, indifferent over my bed in the morning, belied my embarrassment. I digested the oversweet aftertaste of pink romantic fantasies involving umbrellas, soft light and soft singing. In the "real world", maybe I was a sophisticated rebel who'd been around the block (well, the whole island of Manhattan really) several times over. In my dreams, I was a pushover, pining for more. When he called me again, I said "Yes".
It was the classic "serious" date. We went to a wedding; a raucous affair out of a Truffaut movie (without the subtitles), in the country. After a staid reception in a stone church, the men dressed up like women, and sang off-color songs that I didn't quite understand. Everyone danced themselves into sweaty dervishes, holding hands and whirling in circles. Everyone assumed I was "with" Philippe, which annoyed me (he looked so proud) but I went along with it, because it was beyond my ability to explain the situation in French. My jaws and tongue hurt from alien gyrations. It was an adventure, after all.
Afterwards, the October night, smelling of smoke and leaves, hushed the revelers. In the small white car on the way back to Paris, exhausted, I calculated my calorie count for the day, and worried what I'd wear tomorrow. It was an ordinary moment, when he asked me, "'a va?" ("Are you all right?")
Was it the tone of his voice, or his expression '? The car was dark and I'll never know. I only know that in that moment, I believed him. He really wanted an answer.
Something in me relaxed, melted - I felt my scalp tingle. In that unassuming question, he got me. He had reached me - in my head, where I lived. If home is where we can truly relax - make a mess, run a fever, and retreat - then in that moment, I had found that space with him. Even if we were in a small white car that smelled suspiciously like old kerosene, with chilly plastic seats. He found me where I really lived.
No one had ever tried to reach me there
before, where I ruminated and calculated, and generally
obsessed. Money or things kept distraction going, and
loneliness was locked away in gaudy packaging. I was
caught off-guard. In that ordinary moment, Philippe came
in through a window, and brought me home.
"Oui 'a va," I said, and meant it. Afterwards, there was silence - the good kind, the shared kind. The night rushed by; pitch studded with yellow headlights. I remember then, I started to sing, just my alto part, on its own, from high school chorus. There was no melody, so the song was fractured, a bit odd. Philippe listened.
"Tu chantes bien," he said. You sing well.
' 2006 Cara Goubault
About the Author:
Cara Goubault is a psychotherapist, coach, and writer. She is the owner of Open Mind Consulting, a coaching and consulting business in France. Originally from New York, she received her A.B. from Barnard College, and her MSW from the University of Maryland. Cara lives in France with her husband and three children.
You can contact Cara via our Contact Us page.