At a cafe in the gold-plated first arrondissement, the expatriate writer perched at the corner of the cafe counter. At a right angle from him sat the Parisian.
The Parisian and the expatriate had always nodded, but, not unusual for cafe life, had never introduced themselves. The Parisian always looked like he’d slept in his clothes the night before, or dressed in an unlit closet and then walked out to see what fate had thrown together. There was no fashion aesthetic, style guide, or rhyme or reason to the ensembles.
The writer had even concocted a term, ‘enshamble’ to describe the look. The only saving grace was that everything the Parisian wore was the best money could buy. So, all in all, not a bad trade off.
Throughout most of their shared time at the cafe, the Parisian had kept his equine nose firmly buried in the day’s copy of Le Monde, cooly assessing headlines and sniffing at editorials. Today, however, he was strangely distracted. His eyes slid over on several occasions to monitor a couple sitting a few feet away, cocooned in a red velvet corner.
As the writer twisted to catch a glimpse, he noticed the man and the woman in question, both older, probably in their 80s, if he had to guess. Their hands were clasped together, eyes pink and swollen with a shared burden. Two neglected espressos and two small glasses of water sat in front of them.
The writer turned slowly back to his comrade and arched an eyebrow. Such a display of emotion was uncommon in Paris, especially here, across the street from the Ritz and a bouquet of boutiques where elegance, reserve, nonchalance, and style were the order of the day, idols to be worshipped, ideals to be not aspired to, but embodied every waking moment. In this context, such a raw reveal was…the writer searched for the words in my mind…unseemly? Inappropriate? Bizarre?
Finally, the couple gave each other’s hands a last squeeze and a quick pat, sipped their coffees, and stood to leave. They twisted into their coats, dropped some euros on the small table, nodded to the Parisian with warm smiles, and held each other’s forearms as they shuffled through the crowded counter area. The writer watched them go, as did the Parisian.
“Qu’est-ce qui se passe avec ces deux?” the writer asked. What’s happening with those two? The Parisian took a moment and folded the cafe’s newspaper, precisely, methodically, as if he was preparing me for something serious. As it happens, he was…
“You’re American, I think,” said the Parisian softly, almost in a whisper.
“Then you’ll appreciate this.” He nodded to the bartender, who nodded back and immediately produced a cognac. It was eleven o’clock in the morning, but, what the hell, these people are Parisians and somehow they get their work done, quite well, thank you very much. Who was I to judge? thought the writer, remembering Faulkner and Hemingway, alcohol and greatness. The Parisian swirled his amber elixir around in the snifter, leaned forward, and shared this story…
There was an American soldier. He left a pregnant wife to join the army and fight the Nazis in World War II. He was sent to France, and, in an ambush, ended up separated from his unit. He came upon a house–it looked deserted–in the woods in northern France. It was in fact, a small, two room hunting lodge on the grounds of a large estate. A woman and her two children were there alone, terrified, as German military were ensconced at the estate, and patrolling the area. The only saving grace was that the lodge looked deserted, with broken windows and a large hole in part of the roof.
Shivering from the cold, the French woman let the American in, and for several days fed him what food she had salvaged and let him sleep on a bench in one room. He could tell my the terror in her face that she was Jewish. Getting caught by the Germans would be almost certain death for her and her two children. He tried to put her mind at ease as best he could with a comforting gesture and a reassuring smile. His rifle and only a cartridge of bullets by his side, he sat down near the window and kept watch for signs of his unit, or signs of German soldiers, in the woods that surrounded the place.
The woman and the children spoke no English. The soldier’s French was limited. The only thing he managed to explain to them was this: if German soldiers appeared at the house, he would either tell the family to ‘stay’–restez–or ‘go’–allez. Run out the back of the house, into the woods. Don’t stop. Don’t look back. They had to do what he told them without hesitation. The mother agreed, and explained to her daughter and son. It was understood. D’accord.
The next day, a lone German soldier appeared in the woods, looking around. Inside, the American motioned to the woman and her children to him, gripped his rifle, and watched through the curtains of the front window. The woman almost panicked. But the American remained calm, watched the German soldier, and said, ‘Restez.’ Stay. The woman held her children close. She was afraid, but she did not move. The children remained still and quiet. Finally, the lone German soldier paused by a tree and urinated. Then left. He did not seem to see the hunting lodge nestled in the thick forest.
The second day, three German soldiers appeared in a clearing near the house. Again, the American watched. He waited. The woman and her children waited. Again, he said, Restez. Stay. And so she did. The German soldiers laughed, moved closer to the house, looked around it, but then were called back by a voice in the woods, and departed.
That night, by the light of a single candle, the family ate a simple dinner in the small cellar of the house, careful not to have any light visible to any one outside. The American sat with the mother, the daughter, and the son. The American pulled out his wallet and showed her a photo of his wife. ‘Avec un bebe’, he said. ‘With a child.’ He motioned to his stomach.
The mother smiled and nodded. She finally told him her name, and introduced her children. The soldier introduced himself, then his mood darkened. He turned the photo of his wife over and wrote his name on the back of the photo with a small pencil he carried. ‘C’est moi.’ That’s me. He gave the photo to the French woman. She looked at him, but nothing more was said that night.
The third day, the American kept watch, eyeing the forest through the window. He saw a single German soldier, and motioned quickly to the woman, who again pulled her children close. ‘Restez’ said the American.
Then, two more German soldiers appeared. ‘Restez’ said the American again, steady and calm. Then six more German soldiers appeared. The American soldier turned to the woman and said, Allez.
She looked at him. He looked back at her. And, as he had told her to do, she took her children, hurried to the back door of the house, and ran out, into the woods. As she, her daughter, and her son went down the hillside and into the bushes, she heard gunshots ring out. Germans were yelling. Then there were more gunshots.
She and her children ran, not stopping and not looking back. They found refuge with another French family a few miles from their home. They remained there, safe until the war ended. The mother died many years later. Her son died in a car accident. The daughter went on to live her life in Paris.
Decades later, the internet was invented. One day the daughter was going through her mother’s belongings. She found the photo of the American soldier, and deciphered his name that was still legible on the back. With the help of a relative who spoke English and knew how to search for information, she entered the soldier’s name in a database. He had died in combat, the records said, but he had a son who still lived in America.
She had an email translated and sent to a World War II forum. A few weeks later, the American son replied. He wanted to talk with her because he did not know how his father had died, and this had long been on his mind even though he was now an adult with children of his own.
In a handwritten letter to the son of the American soldier, the daughter of the French woman explained what his father had done for her family. The American son came immediately to Paris. He checked into the Ritz across the street. And he met the daughter here in this cafe.
The French daughter doesn’t speak English. And the American son doesn’t speak French. They met here in this cafe. They mumbled and gestured a few futile words of appreciation to each other until a patron of the cafe interceded and translated for a moment. As the two embraced and cried, he excused himself, back to his stool on the counter. As he did, their attempts at conversation ceased. They just sat in silence, holding each other’s hands.
They do this now, every year, but without translation or much conversation. Then the French daughter goes back to her apartment around the corner. And the American son goes back to his family in San Francisco.
“How did you hear about this story?” asked the American writer.
The Parisian hesitated, then searched the last of his cognac in the bottom of his glass. “When she came into the cafe for the first time, and he came in for the first time, the friend who was going to sit with them didn’t arrive until later. So I was the person who translated for them as she explained what his father had done for her and her family. So that’s what today was.”
“‘Go Day,'” the writer mumbled to himself.
The Parisian didn’t hear the comment. He sniffled and something–a speck of dust probably–had suddenly gotten in his eye. He wiped his nose and his eye with a monogramed handkerchief and an unsteady hand. Then the handkerchief was roughly stuffed back into his jacket pocket like an unwelcome guest who had to be put in his place.
The writer sat in silence for a long moment. He glanced at the Parisian, who’d returned to the newspaper, headlines hiding his eyes. Then the writer threw a nod to the bartender, who instantly stepped over.
“Two cognacs, please. One for me. Another for my friend here.”