Paris, The Summer of '68
“I already tried them and they’re too expensive,” Roy said.
He was astonished. “I thought all Americans were rich?”
“Not all of us. I’m just a poor student.”
“That’s what the son of Rockefeller said when he came to Paris,” he said.
“In my case it’s true.”
“Well, we have a small garret that is vacant. Perhaps the owner will rent it to you.” He pointed to the top of the building. Roy looked up six stories and saw a tiny, round window, more of a porthole than a window on the world. The building was old, crumbling and hadn’t been painted since long before De Gaulle led the triumphant entry into Paris. Roy didn’t think it looked particularly inviting, but if it was cheap enough.... Roy said formally:
“I would like to speak to the owner, monsieur.”
“My name is Henri. No one calls me monsieur. I’m too vulgar.”
“All right, Henri. Where is he?”
“I’ll get him.”
Roy sat and watched the life of the neighborhood swirl along the rue Mauffetard. It was a poverty street, but Roy had lived on worse and European decay was more romantic than American decay. The owner made his way through the café slowly, pausing at the zinc bar to confer with the bartender, a sullen looking thug who would have been more at home in a police line up. He walked outside, stopped at Roy’s table and waited, arms at his side, staring down coldly. He was medium height, but looked shorter because of his squat, chunky body. His head was almost square, with tiny, dark, expressionless eyes like a rat, a thick, coarse nose and thin lips. He didn’t have a trace of human warmth. He and Roy stared at each other and Roy felt his attempt at dominance, but ignored it and said politely: “I’m looking for a cheap room.
“You are American?”
“You are an artist?”
“No. I’m a student.”
“Do you know what kind of place this is?”
Roy glanced around. “Sure. It’s a café and you rent rooms.”
He looked at Roy, measuring him. “We have girls, for a price.”
“I can’t afford girls, but I need a room. Henri said you had a garret. How much is it?”
“I don’t usually rent it. Let me see. Fifteen francs.”
The man finally grinned. “Per day.”
“That’s too much. Will you take five?”
The man looked Roy up and down. “You’re a big lad. Would you be willing to help us out sometimes, in exchange for a lower rent?”
Roy quickly considered what that might mean and concluded that he wanted a bouncer or cheap muscle. “No. I don’t want to work here. I just want a room.”
The man leaned towards Roy, trying to intimidate him. “Are you afraid of a little trouble?”
Roy looked at him coolly. “I have enough of my own. I don’t need yours.”
“What if I also pay you?”
“I like you, American. You can have the room for 10 francs.”
“Eight, and that includes breakfast.”
“Agreed. Though you pay the doctor if I get altitude sickness.”
He looked concerned. “You have a disease?”
“It was a joke. Climbing so high.” Roy pointed up. His new landlord got the point and laughed. Roy introduced himself. “I’m Roy.”
“I myself don’t go up there. Welcome to Chez Gilbert. I am Gilbert. Get your key from Paul, the bartender. The café is open every day from noon to midnight.”
Gilbert turned, walked inside, said something to Paul, then disappeared into the back. Roy knew that Gilbert was a small time criminal, but he had dealt with much worse in Hell’s Kitchen, where he grew up. He went in, greeted Paul, who sneered at him, got his key and began the perilous ascent. The higher he went, the narrower the stairs got and they creaked and swayed at each step. When he got to the top, he looked down and the ground seemed awfully distant. There were two doors on the landing. Roy opened one and it was a linen closet, with piles of threadbare white towels, sheets and bottles of disinfectant. He unlocked the other door and walked into a good sized, but shabby room that was warm and dusty. Roy went to the window, forced it open and saw a spectacular view of the Latin Quarter. He stared at the Paris he had dreamed of, but never expected to see.
The room had a large, old bed with a tarnished brass headboard, a dresser, a ratty rug, a frayed armchair, a small table and two wooden chairs that he moved near the window. A cheap print of a painting of the Seine was shoddily framed, but it could have been painted from his window. Roy imagined Picasso or Braque living here, abandoning realism in despair because humanity had become obsolete. A bare light bulb dimly lit the dreary room. A small bathroom, with ancient plumbing that might have been the pride of Rimbaud on his first visit to the big city, completed la vie boheme.
Roy unpacked his few belongings and went for a walk to inspect his new neighborhood. He nodded politely to people as he wandered aimlessly, following impulses rather than directions. He came to a small church, with a carefully maintained small cemetery. He walked through it reading the headstones. Some of them dated back to the 1500’s. He lingered at one stone, ‘Matilde, age 8, killed in the war.’ The stone didn’t look very different from the others and Roy could only wonder what war consumed this child without a last name. Did she die from spear, sword, bullet, shell, bomb? Could it have been disease or starvation? Roy had brief visions of battles old and recent, raging in the city of light, carrying off its citizens of enlightenment. Matilde was the nameless Vietnamese girl, running naked down a dirt road, seared by napalm; the terrified Jewish girl led to the ovens; children chopped and hacked throughout the ages by brutal adults, no kinder to their young than they were to the rest of nature. Roy found headstones of the famous, but he kept returning to Matilde. To him she was a vision of the eternal victim, killed in any war.
He referred to his street map, which was moderately accurate and enabled him to find his way back to his new residence on the rue Mauffetard. He sensibly decided to eat dinner before making the climb up the mountain. Henri, the vulgar waiter, was standing outside and he asked him if he could recommend the food at the Café Gilbert. Henri said horrified. “Never eat here.” He suggested a cheap working man’s restaurant around the corner. Roy went there feeling a little overheated and achy, but he attributed it to travel and hunger. He ate a small steak, fried potatoes, a salad and drank an almost toxic red wine. The meal cost 4Fr, 50c., with gratuity, less than a dollar American. He walked back to Chez Gilbert, still feeling warm and sore and climbed the endless steps to the garret. He was a little light-headed by the time he got to the top floor and unlocked the door. He lay down and submerged into the pudding mattress, feeling flushed and having difficulty swallowing. He fell into a restless sleep. During the night his temperature went up, his throat closed and he kept waking up, sweating and shaking.
Roy didn’t fully wake up in the morning. He lay in a pool of sweat, burning with fever, unable to recognize that he was sick. He lay there for two more days, barely conscious, racked with high fevers that made him slightly delirious. His voice was completely gone, so in the few moments that he was lucid he couldn’t call for help. With a great effort he managed to thump on the floor, but no one responded. The fourth morning, he was still weak and feverish and could barely move, but the worst was over. He heard a knock on the door, but his throat was still sore and he couldn’t speak. A girl’s voice called. “Monsieur, monsieur, are you in there?”
He tried to answer, but could only manage a hoarse whisper. In desperation he knocked the empty metal water pitcher off the night stand and it clanged loudly on the floor. He heard a key in the lock, the door opened and a tall, slender girl in a school uniform came in, carrying a tray. She almost dropped it when she saw him.
“O, you poor boy. You’re sick. And you’ve been lying here all alone. I didn’t know. Henri said a young American was living here, but he thought you went away for a few days because he didn’t see you. I’ll go and get the doctor.”
Before she could leave Roy signaled that he wanted something to drink and she poured hot chocolate into a cup and held it for him. The result was instantaneous. His throat felt better and he was able to whisper loud enough to be heard. “I don’t need the doctor now. I need to drink a lot and wash.”
She gave him more chocolate and the soothing liquid tasted wonderful. He tried to get up, but fell back and passed out. When he woke up again he felt a lot better. He was also cleaner, and only wearing his boxer shorts. The girl had undressed him, bathed him and changed the sheets. She was asleep in the armchair, tucked into an impossibly small ball. He tested his voice and said “Hello.” Her eyes popped open wide, sparkling emeralds, framed by short, dark hair and delicate features. She whispered “Bon jour.”
“You don’t have to whisper, just because I do.”
Before she could answer, they heard Gilbert bellowing “Laurette. Laurette. Where are you?”
“I must go. I’ll come back later.”
She flew out the door, a captivating forest creature. He heard her explaining to Gilbert that the American was sick and she had brought him hot chocolate. Gilbert was not impressed with her kindness.
“You finish all your chores, then you can play nurse. Do you understand?”
“Oui, Monsieur Gilbert.”
Roy felt a growing dislike for Gilbert, but was helpless to do anything about it. He dozed on and off for a few hours. At one point he was able to put jam on some rolls and eat two of them. They were delicious. Laurette came back in the late afternoon. She put her hand on his forehead, then pronounced that the fever was gone. She had brought more hot chocolate and a ham sandwich that he gobbled like a survivor of famine. His voice wasn’t back to normal yet, but he could speak softly and thanked her.
“It was nothing, monsieur,” she said demurely.
“It was important to me. You were very kind.”
“I am glad you’re feeling better. I must go now. I’ll bring you croissants in the morning.”
She pointed to the remnants of the rolls he had eaten. “Croissants.”
“Why do you have to leave now?”
“I’m not allowed to be here when the girls start work in the evening. I come in early in the morning and do clean up from the night before and serve breakfast, then I go to school. I come back in the afternoon and prepare the place for the night.”
“What do the girls do that you can’t be here?”
She looked at him as though he were an idiot. “They entertain men.”
It took him a moment, then he got the picture. “But your parents let you work here?”
“My parents are dead. I live with my sister who works here. She got this job for me, but she won’t let me work at night when men are here.”
Roy was trying to digest the fact that her sister got her a job in a whore house. “That was very good of her.”
“There’s no need to be sarcastic. We must survive. Even a privileged American should be able to understand that.”
Roy felt badly that he offended this girl who had been so kind to him. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, but couldn’t you work somewhere else?”
She answered fiercely. “You mean in a shop, where the owner would expect me to stay late and please him? Perhaps in an office, where the boss would chase me around the desk? Here I am protected. I do my job. I get paid. Nobody bothers me. I go to school. When I graduate, I’ll go to the university and become an engineer. Is anything wrong with that?”
Roy was ashamed of his insensitive comment. “No. Nothing at all. I bet your sister is proud of you.”
Laurette stood a little taller. “Yes. We didn’t have anyone to look out for us. She has taken good care of us.”
“I’m sure she does. What happened to your parents?”
“My father died in the war in Indochina. He was a paratrooper. He was killed in the battle at Dien Bien Phu. My mother died a few years later from the influenza, but I always believed it was from a broken heart.”
Roy stared at her in fascination. Another casualty of a far off war, life shattered by politics and isms that only benefited the few. He looked at her tenderly. “I understand how you must feel. I lost my father in Korea when I was a baby. I never knew him.”
Her voice was wistful “I was lucky. I remember Papa. I was four when he sailed from Marseilles. Mama, Jeanine and I rode the train with him. We waved good-bye when he sailed away on a big ship. That’s how I remember him, waving to me from way up on the deck. He looked so big and strong and I was so tiny. I never saw him again. I didn’t really understand where he was going. Mama told me he was fighting some bad yellow men far away, so we’d be safe at home. Mama and Jeanine followed the war news every day during the big battle. After it was over, we went to the cinema to see the newsreels, hoping to see Papa. We saw our soldiers who were now prisoners of the little yellow men, and they no longer looked big and strong. A neat and proper officer from the army came to our house and told Mama that Papa was dead. The officer gave her a big medal in a velvet box and a paper with a fancy ribbon that said Papa died for his country. But it didn’t make us feel better. I wanted him to come back to us.”
“I know that feeling,” Roy said.
She stared at him for a moment, then looked at her watch. “It’s getting late. I must finish my work and go home. I’ll see you in the morning.”
As she walked to the door, Roy called after her. “Thank you for telling me about your father.”
She smiled sweetly and left.
Roy slept for most of the next two days, briefly waking to eat or go to the bathroom. Each morning, Laurette brought breakfast, a large pot of hot chocolate that contained three and a half cups, and a mound of fresh croissants with butter and jam. Roy had already renounced other forms of breakfast as uncivilized. He gave Laurette money to buy a sandwich for his lunch and a small dinner. On the third day he was feeling well enough to shave, take a bath and get dressed. Those exertions were enough to send him back to bed, but he definitely was on the mend. Early that evening he heard someone come up the steps, then knock on the door. “Entrez,” he called.
The door opened and he recognized Laurette’s sister, Jeanine. Their resemblance was striking, but Jeanine was a fully developed, sensual woman, with a hard face that made it look like a mask.
“I am Jeanine, the sister of Laurette.”
“I recognized you. Come in.”
She strolled in and sat on the easy chair, a cat staking a claim to a spot, without giving anything in return. “You have been spending time with my sister?”
“She was kind enough to bring me food when I was ill.”
“You are better now?”
“Then you do not need to see her once she brings the breakfast?”
“No. Except if we become friends.”
“If you need a friend, I will introduce you to the girls of the house. You can pick one of them, or you can visit me.”
She shifted slightly and assumed a sensual pose that was a clear invitation.
“That’s not what I meant,” Roy said.
“That is what all men mean.”
“She is a child and I only want to repay her kindness. If I want something else I will let you know.”
She got up and walked to the door, displaying her sexy body. “She is not a child. Do not do anything to hurt her, or you’ll be sorry.”
“There’s no need to threaten. I’d like to take her to the Louvre tomorrow, then buy her dinner.”
“No. An outing for friends.”
She gave him a measured stare. “All right, but remember what I said.”
The next afternoon Roy and Laurette walked through the Latin quarter on the way to the Louvre. He stopped frequently to look at churches, grand houses, old buildings and to refer to his map. Laurette was excited and impatient, a child on holiday.
“Why do you stop and read the map so often? I know the way.”
“I look at the map so I will learn to find my way in the city.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “Poo. Why do you look at all the old junk piles like a tourist?”
“I am a tourist and I like old junk piles.”
She pointed and said didactically. “Do you see that bridge?”
“The Pont Neuf?”
She was startled. “How did you know its name?”
“I read the map.”
She mimicked him. “I read the map. Poo. I was going to show you the Cathedral of Notre Dame, but now I won’t, monsieur know-it-all.”
“I saw Notre Dame on my first day in Paris, and if you pout we will play abduction.”
Roy suddenly grabbed her and slung her over his shoulder. She shrieked in surprise as he said menacingly. “I am the hunchback Quasimodo and you are the impudent Esmerelda.”
He lurched along with her for a few steps and she demanded. “Put me down. Put me down. People will think you are mad.”
“Let them. Will you be polite?”
She was quick to agree. “Yes. Yes. “
He put her down and she smacked him on the arm. He shook his head sadly. “I knew you couldn’t be trusted.”
“Poo. Do not be bitter. Look. There is the Louvre.”
Roy stared at the huge temple of acquisition, one of the world’s great store houses of treasure, crammed to the rafters with material creations, looted by the victors in European wars. He thought it was strange that the French, who brought us the age of enlightenment and the age of reason, never thought of bringing us the age of wisdom. Roy got a plan of the museum at the entrance and studied it for a few minutes. He turned to Laurette.
“What would you like to see?”
“I do not know. I’ve never been here.”
He was surprised. “Not even with your school?”
“Do you want to see Mona Lisa?”
“Who is she?”
“A grown-up Laurette,” he said. But she didn’t know who he was talking about. Then he remembered that the painting had another name in France and said. “La Giaconda.”
“Of course. The lady who smiles because she is smarter than men.”
Roy was amused. “Is that why she smiles?”
“That’s how the girls at Gilbert’s smile when they outsmart men. I have seen her picture in a book.”
“We shall see her today.”
They walked through galleries for hours and saw the great art of the world. They stood on line with American and English tourists to see the Mona Lisa, elbowed in to see the Venus de Milo, gazed at the awe-inspiring masterworks of the Renaissance and smiled at some of the homages to the ego of France, until they could absorb no more. Roy took them back for a second look at Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People,’ which moved him more than anything else he had seen that day. Perhaps it was the vision of her fighting for freedom, or the exultation of the battle against injustice, but seeing her heroic stature, Roy felt inspired to continue his struggle against oppression. As he walked away from Lady Liberty, he fantasized a warrior maiden leading the anti-war protest down 5th Avenue, while the lords of profit trembled in their caves of greed. He pushed the image away when her face began to resemble Laurette’s.
They paused outside the entrance, in the bright sunshine of youth, to let their eyes adapt to harsh reality, after the palettes of splendor. Two American women stopped next to them. Roy heard the girl say: “Mom. There was so much, I didn’t know what to look at.” Mom agreed. “Neither did I.” Looking back at the enormous repository of beauty, Roy understood their bewilderment. It would take days to look at the numerous works of art and he determined to go back soon. He asked Laurette where she would like to eat dinner and she said she knew a grand restaurant. “It’s very expensive and only important people eat there.”
“And how do you know this grand restaurant?”
“Sometimes I pass it at night, when I go home from Monsieur Gilbert’s. I look at the elegant ladies who go in and I study how they behave.”
“Do you want to be like them?”
“No. But they are fascinating to watch.”
“Then that is where we shall dine.”
“But it is very expensive,” she objected.
“No matter. This is a special treat. A thank you for a child of mercy, who nursed me back to health.”
“I am not a child. And how can I go there dressed like this?” She gestured to her simple dress.
Roy knew she wasn’t a child, but he tried to treat her as one, to resist the temptation of his growing attraction to her. “You would be beautiful anywhere. Now, take us to this palace.”
Laurette took them to La Tour d’Argent, one of the most expensive restaurants in Paris. The maitre d’ seated them at an obscure table with great aplomb, not reacting in any way to their exceedingly casual dress. He left them with the same menus as the other patrons, with the same staggering prices. Laurette wanted to leave, but Roy stubbornly refused, although this one meal would consume all his money. She was too intimidated to select anything, so Roy ordered the specialty of the house for her, duck Tour d’Argent, which cost more than his entire trip to Paris so far. He ordered an omelet with truffles for himself that cost more than a month’s fencing lessons at Santelli’s in New York City. He asked the sommelier to suggest a wine and they agreed on a good Echezaux. As they ate the meal, a splendid gesture of extravagance, Roy started thinking about how he could get money for rent and food. He had a brilliant flash and confided to Laurette.
“I will give guided tours of the Louvre.”
“That’s silly. What do you know of the Louvre and the pictures?”
“Enough to guide American tourists. I’ll pretend to be French and I’ll speak English with an accent. I’ll only approach women who look like they need assistance.”
“Poo. That is ridiculous. They will know you are a fake.”
“I won’t be a fake. I will be a friend to the traveler seeking culture.”
“And you think you will make a lot of money?”
“I don’t need a lot of money. Only enough for rent and food.”
She shook her head doubtfully. “Not even Americans are that stupid.”
He corrected her. “Americans are not stupid at all. They’re just more eager to try new things than other people. Now let us drink to my new career as a tour guide with this delicious wine, that I won’t be able to afford again.”
Roy started his new profession as a self-employed tour guide of the Louvre and he was immediately successful. He hadn’t spent much time with Laurette while he was preparing for his tours. He was too busy studying the plan of the Louvre, the exhibition lists and an old art history book that he bought cheaply at a book stall near the river. When she brought breakfast to his room the morning after his first day giving tours, he told her about the results. He had made a small, hand lettered sign, ‘English speaking tour of the Louvre. 20 Francs,’ that he brought with him. “I held up the sign for potential customers to see. I gave three tours the first day and got generous tips from all of them.” He showed her the money, 90 Francs, that he had earned. He went to work after breakfast and had a good second day. He gave three tours and one satisfied customer took him to dinner. Laurette was very suspicious when he described his woman client and demanded to know if he slept with her. He was surprised at her possessiveness. She seemed doubtful when he protested his innocence and asked if she could meet him at the Louvre after school, to see what he did. He cheerfully agreed.
Roy gave two tours that afternoon and was only chased once by the pompous gendarme who didn’t want Roy on the street. When Laurette arrived he tried to get one more tour, but it was getting late and he finally quit for the day. They walked across the Pont Neuf and wandered along the Boulevard Saint Germain. They stopped for coffee at an outdoor café and watched people for a while. A young man went by who Laurette knew and she called him. “Georges. Georges.” He stopped, turned, saw her waving and walked towards them. He was medium height, but painfully thin, which made him look taller. Georges had long, straight, light brown hair that fell to his eyes, a delicate nose, unhealthily flushed red cheeks and a small, tight mouth. He wore shabby ragged clothes and a long gray wool muffler wrapped around his neck, despite the August heat. He looked arrogant and insecure at the same time. He greeted her warmly.
“Hello, Laurette. How are you?”
“Good. This is my American friend, Roy. Roy, this is Georges, one of the student leaders in the struggle against the government.”
They shook hands and Roy was careful not to squeeze his cold, fragile flesh. “Good to meet you, Georges.”
“And I am glad to meet you, Roy. What do you do in America?”
“I work for the anti-war movement.”
Laurette was startled. “You didn’t tell me that.”
“There was no need,” Roy said.
Georges stared, assessing him. “What is your work in the movement?”
“I help coordinate anti-war demonstrations and I work with Father Lundigan on civil disobedience protests.”
“We’ve heard of Father Lundigan.”
“What do you do, Georges?”
“I am a coordinator of the Student Committee for Educational Reform. Under our king, DeGaulle, our schools are falling apart and there are no jobs for graduates. We have tried petitions and peaceful protests, but without much success. Now we are getting ready for a more violent protest.”
“That sounds very much like our students in America.”
“There are big differences between us. Some of our leaders went to America and studied your student movement, especially the SDS. I went to Berkeley, California and observed campus demonstrations there. We concluded that American students want to say whatever they want, have sex, drugs and rock and roll whenever they feel like it, and if they don’t get what they want, they get angry and protest. We need heat in the winter, so we can go to class. We need high standards in the classroom, so we can build skills and develop opportunities for the future. We need freedom to explore ideas that might help us solve the terrible problems that face our country. Our schools are tremendously overcrowded, the teachers are underpaid and the buildings are collapsing. We asked the government for help, but they refused. Now we are preparing to fight the government. The workers and the trade unions support us, because we all want the same thing, a better France.”
Georges looked at Roy, awaiting his response. Roy said tactfully.
“Your movement is much more serious than our student movement. Our anti-war movement sounds closer to the kind of commitments you described. The people I work with are as dedicated as you are.”
“Then let us be friends.” He put out his hand and they clasped hands firmly. “We are making a small demonstration tomorrow afternoon at three o’clock, on the Boulevard Saint Michel, near the Sorbonne. Just a little test to see how determined our students are. It will start on the rue des Ecoles, in front of the university. Come see it. We can meet here tomorrow night and discuss it.”
“I will be there. Good luck.”
“Until tomorrow.” Georges waved jauntily and walked off.
Laurette was very agitated and cautioned Roy. “Don’t you go there tomorrow. They are wild beasts and many of them will be hurt by the police, or arrested.”
“It’s a great opportunity for me to study their methods.”
“And what if you get hurt?”
“That’s the chance I take. But don’t worry. I have a hard head.”
“It is a thick head. You big fool.” She stood up with tears in her eyes, whether from anger or concern he couldn’t tell, and rushed away. Roy paid the check and went after her, but she was already out of sight.
He could only shake his head in acceptance and decided to spend a quiet evening reading. He ate dinner in a small but clean restaurant, then went back to Chez Gilbert for the night. Roy wrote short notes to his family and friends and let them know he would return to New York on August 28th. It had been a summer of unexpected discoveries, but his holiday was coming to an end.
Laurette was aloof when she brought his breakfast in the morning. He tried to reason with her, but she called him monsieur and refused to talk. He tried to joke with her, but that only drew a scornful look that discouraged further conversation. He invited her to have dinner with him that evening, but she responded coldly. “Where? At the hospital?” She flounced out, slamming the door loudly enough to bring a howl from Gilbert demanding quiet. Roy didn’t understand why she was so upset with him, but he wasn’t about to chase a sulking girl through a whore house. He decided not to work that day and enjoy himself as a tourist until it was time for the student demonstration.
He walked through the Left Bank, pausing to look at old churches and historic buildings, which abounded on almost every street. He intended to finish the tour with a visit to the Eiffel Tower. When they were children, he and his cousin Tommy made a toy version of the tower by combining their erector sets. Then they bombarded it until it collapsed. He remembered the pleasure he got from building things with the erector set and how appropriate the tower was, with its construction of open crossed beams. It would certainly be a treat to go to the observation deck and look out at the city.
It was a long walk to the tower and Roy stopped to look at many sites on the way, which made him arrive later than he planned. He couldn’t stay very long on the observation deck, just long enough to look at the Left Bank and try to locate Chez Gilbert. He got a great view of the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Élysée. He ate lunch at a nearby café, then took a bus to the Palais Du Luxembourg, that would leave him with a short walk to the Sorbonne. For some unknown reason, the bus turned before it reached its destination. When Roy asked the driver where they were going, he got an indifferent shrug and a muttered “Detour.” He politely reminded the driver that he had asked to be let off at the Luxembourg. The driver became surly and growled at him. “This is not a tourist bus for rich Americans.” Roy got off angrily and the driver made a contemptuous gesture with his index finger and drove off. It was after three o’clock and Roy started jogging along, not wanting to miss the demonstration.
Roy began to draw stares from the slower moving pedestrians. He slowed to a rapid walk, not wanting to attract attention to himself on the way to what might become a conflict. He hurried along and finally reached the Boulevard Saint Michel. He looked around and didn’t see any large gathering. He walked to the rue des Ecoles, in front of the Sorbonne, but there were no crowds. Students were coming and going and there didn’t seem to be any unusual activity. He prowled up and down the rue des Ecoles, searching for the demonstration. By this time it was 3:30 and he was afraid that he missed it. He decided to walk to the Boulevard Saint Germain, the main drag of the left bank, to see what was going on there.
Roy turned into a small side street, the rue Thenard, and headed for the boulevard. He only went a short distance when a column of riot police, with shields, helmets and clubs, turned into the street ahead of him and came towards him. They were walking shoulder to shoulder, boots crashing loudly on the cobblestones, filling the street from side to side, with more police coming up behind them. Roy stopped, turned around and started back the way he came. Before he got very far he heard chanting voices coming closer and closer and a horde of students turned the corner. Their arms were linked and they moved towards the police, trapping Roy between them. He immediately realized that these were not spoiled American flower children, childishly taunting the pigs and that he could get squashed between them.
He hurried into the nearest building, urgent to get off the street. Just inside the doorway four young men were kneeling on the floor making molotov cocktails. They looked up at him in surprise and one of them reached for a pistol that was right next to him. Without a moment’s hesitation, Roy kicked him in the chest, sending him sprawling. Then he rushed up the stairs, followed by their cursing. He didn’t pause to see if he was being pursued and ran up six flights to the roof. Despite fear and haste, he had to smile at his luck in always picking high altitude tenements.
Roy ran across three rooftops, hardly feeling like the dashing cat burglar of Paris. He went to the edge of the fourth roof and looked down. He had a perfect bird’s eye view of the confrontation between demonstrators and police. Both sides had slowed their advance and were menacing each other. No one was chasing him, so he settled down to watch. The students were chanting loudly and not giving ground. An officer with a bullhorn stepped out of the police ranks and ordered the students to disperse. Unlike American student protests, where they would yell boldly but run at the first threat, the French students growled ominously and got ready to fight.
The officer repeated his order to disperse and the students slowly advanced. The officer yelled a command to his men and the rear ranks of police fired tear gas into the crowd. This provoked the students to a frenzy and they charged the police, picking up anything that could be used as a weapon; chairs, awnings, car antennas, signs, garbage cans, cobblestones. One huge student picked up a motorbike and threw it at the police, injuring several of them.
It was a crude street battle that flowed back and forth. The students fought ferociously and were almost holding their position. Suddenly the rear police ranks parted and a water cannon truck rolled forward. It hosed the students with a powerful jet of water that knocked them down, hurled some against the storefronts and washed the rest away. The battle was over. Battered bodies were sprawled all over the street, with almost as many police as students. However, the police were slowly moving around, assessing their injuries, while many of the students lay still. The high pressure hose washed away the blood, the debris of battle and any false illusion of student victory. Sirens blared as ambulances arrived and carried off the wounded. The students had departed. The police removed the last traces of the conflict and left. Once again summer peace and quiet descended on the street. Roy waited until he was certain all the police were gone, then he left the building and went back to his room. He was just beginning to speculate on what else the students could have done to resist the police, when there was a knock on the door.
“Who is it?”
“Laurette. May I come in?”
She came in and looked at him carefully. “You are all right? You are not hurt?”
“I heard there was a big fight between the students and the police and many were injured. I knew you were there and I was worried.”
“Nothing happened to me. I got there late and watched from a safe place.”
“I am so glad.” She ran to him, threw her arms around him and held him tightly. He tried to pull away, but she was locked against him and she started kissing him frantically. His resolve not to get involved with her weakened, though it didn’t completely collapse. He managed to push her away.
“I’m glad to see you too, but let’s keep things under control.”
“Why? You care for me as much as I care for you.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Yes it is,” she insisted.
“What about your sister?”
“It’s not her business.”
“She thinks it is. She warned me to stay away from you.”
“So that’s why you pretend not to like me? I’ll talk to her.”
“There are many reasons not to get involved. You’re only seventeen.”
“Poo. I am as mature as you. More. I don’t run around asking the police to break my head.”
“That’s not what I do.”
“Poo. You are a fool.”
“I will be going back to America soon.”
“Then we are wasting time.”
No matter what he said she had an answer. He had found her irresistible from the first time he woke up and found her in his room, when he was sick. He had really tried to resist temptation and just be friends. Now his resolve was crumbling.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“You talk too much.”
She kissed him full on the mouth and caution flew out the window, over the rooftops, lost in the Paris of lovers. They fell on his bed and made love with a passionate eagerness that released them from the restraints that had been keeping them apart. Afterwards, they lay close together, she snuggled against his chest, not talking, comfortable in the silence. He gradually became aware that someone was knocking at the door. He started to jump up, but remembered that he was naked and called: “Entrez.” His worst fears were realized. It was Jeanine. He poked Laurette and when she looked at him, he signaled her with his eyes. She looked around, saw her sister and greeted her calmly.
She ignored Laurette and spoke to Roy. “Didn’t I tell you to leave her alone?”
Laurette sprang to his defense. “He didn’t do anything. I did.”
Jeanine smiled sardonically. “But you are both here, no?”
“I meant it was not his fault. I forced him.”
She glared at Roy. “The little girl forces the big man? What do you have to say?”
He hoped she wasn’t going to go through the vengeful sister act and castrate him. He couldn’t think of anything to say that would help, so he just shrugged and said: “Nothing.”
Jeanine was not happy. “I warned you to leave her alone.”
He wasn’t sure what she might do and tensed his muscles, ready to defend himself. “There’s no need to threaten.”
She smiled in resignation. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to take out a push-button knife. I’m a French woman, not an Italian. Just do not embarrass my sister in this house. And next time, close your door.”
As she walked out the door, he called after her. “Yes, Jeanine.”
Laurette mimicked him. “Yes, Jeanine.” Before he could respond, she drew the sheet up to her eyes, pulling it taut across her body, outlining her sexual parts. She was a sensual mystery to be uncovered. He stroked her through the sheet and she became aroused. She put her arms around him and whispered throatily. “Roy.”
He was standing up like a pole and wild for her. “Yes?”
“Close the door.”
They made love again, then dozed in each other’s arms, content in new discovery. Roy stirred and Laurette sleepily pulled him closer. He started to get up, but she held him tightly.
“I have to go meet Georges soon,” he said.
“Don’t go. It will only mean trouble. Stay here with me.”
She pulled down the sheet, baring her slim, sleek body and posed alluringly. He instantly became erect, mounted her and they thrashed together like beasts until they both came. Then they lay back, sated. After a minute or so, he got up.
“I really must go.”
“What if he wants you to do something crazy?”
“Then we we’ll talk about it later before I agree. There is much that I can learn from Georges.”
They got dressed and went downstairs. Henri was standing near the entrance to the outdoor café. When he saw them, he touched his index fingers back and forth suggestively.
“Hello, Mademoiselle Laurette. You make the fic-fic with the young American? Soon you will work here.”
Roy got furious and started towards him, but Laurette stopped him and laughed. “Never, monsieur filth.”
Roy was shocked. “You let him talk to you like that?”
“That is just his way. Besides, everyone at Chez Gilbert knows about us now.”
“But how? We only....”
She no longer sounded like a child. “That is their business.”
He shook his head no. “It’s not the same.”
“Agreed. They also know that. The girls think it is very romantic. They have been waiting for you to stop being foolish and make love to me.”
He couldn’t believe that he was the house topic. “And you are not angry that Henri makes it seem so dirty?”
“Is it dirty to you?”
“Not at all.”
“Then why get upset?”
He had no rejoinder to her reasonable attitude.
Laurette went with him and they hurried to the café on Boulevard Saint Germain. Georges was already waiting there with another young man, who he introduced as Christophe. Roy thought he looked familiar and he stared at him until he looked back. He suddenly recognized Roy and exclaimed. “I know you!”
Georges was surprised and Roy explained. “We met earlier today in a hallway.”
Christophe was angry and turned to Georges. “He burst into the doorway where we were preparing the cocktails. I thought he was the police and I reached for my pistol. He kicked me hard and ran upstairs. I wanted to go after him and shoot him, but the others wouldn’t let me. They demanded that I stay and help them finish the job.”
Georges said with exasperation. “And they were right. What would you do? Chase the cowboy, shoot him and attract the police? That is stupid.”
Christophe was embarrassed. “I understand.”
“Next time have someone watch at the door, so you are not surprised.”
Christophe pointed to Roy. “And what about him? He kicked me.”
Georges was emphatic. “Forget it. I met him yesterday. He is an American friend of Laurette. He works with the anti-war movement in America and I invited him to come see our demonstration. He turned to Roy. “What did you think of it, Roy? Is it different than what you do in America?”
“Very different. You are much more determined than our students and much braver. They would never attack the police the way you did. They’re too afraid of getting hurt.”
“That is because they are the spoiled children of the bourgeoisie and they talk big, but they fear to take action,” Christophe interjected. “We are the children of the working class and we are not afraid of the stooges of DeGaulle.”
He looked at Roy belligerently, waiting for an argument, but Roy agreed with him.
“You are right, Christophe. We have much to learn from you. Why didn’t you use the cocktails on the water cannon?”
“Today was only a test,” Georges answered. “When we are ready, we will use whatever is necessary to stop the police.”
Roy saw how serious they were. “People will die.”
Georges nodded. “Yes.”
Laurette had been listening attentively. “Is there no other way?”
Georges was certain. “No. We sent letters to the officials and they ignored them. We asked to meet with them and they refused. We signed petitions and they retaliated and closed the schools. We marched in protest and they beat us and arrested us. Now we will tell them what we want, and if they will not listen, we will fight.”
Roy admired their dedication. “Is there any way I can help?”
Christophe was doubtful. “What can you do?”
“I’m not sure. Perhaps I can suggest ways to help coordinate your next demonstration.”
“And you will want to know the date?” Christophe asked.
Roy understood that Christophe felt threatened by him and he tried to be reassuring. “That’s not important. Perhaps I can give you ideas about how to get other groups to support you; churches, community groups, artists, businesses. Besides, I return to America soon, so you don’t have to worry if I am a spy.”
Georges smiled at that. “I know you are not a spy. Christophe is unhappy because you outsmarted him.”
Christophe rubbed his chest. “He kicks like a mule!”
Georges was no longer casual. “Next time, be on guard.” He turned to Roy. “We are meeting on Sunday at 5:00 PM, in the hall of letters at the Sorbonne. Come meet my comrades.”
“I would like that. Until then.” Roy stood up, nodded to Laurette who got up, and they left. As they walked away, Laurette looked back at them and whispered to Roy. “I did not know they were so dangerous.”
“They are very serious and very determined.”
They walked for a while in silence. Then she asked quietly. “You said you will go back to America soon?”
“Then we still have some time.”
“It will have to be enough.”
“You are very practical.”
“I am a woman. Men always leave us.”
Laurette moved into the garret with Roy. She did her work in the morning, went to school, came back to Chez Gilbert and did the rest of her work after school, then met Roy at the Louvre. Roy slept late in the mornings and gave tours of the Louvre in the afternoons. When he finished for the day, he and Laurette wandered through Paris, arms around each other’s waists, lovers discovering the city of romance. When they returned to Chez Gilbert, they were urgent to be alone, touch each other, make love. This was made more intense by their imminent separation, though they said nothing more about Roy’s approaching departure. The girls at Chez Gilbert had adopted the two innocents, encouraged by Jeanine, who looked after them with a maternal fondness. Gilbert was cold and indifferent. Henri cackled lewdly at them at every opportunity, but they found him amusing.
On Sunday, Roy went to the student meeting without Laurette. She wanted to go with him and they had their first quarrel when he refused to take her. She yelled at him, called him names, and even threw the water pitcher at him, which barely missed cracking his skull. Then she ran out, slamming the door loud enough to be heard in the Bastille. As Roy went down the stairs he felt the accusing eyes of the girls blaming him for distressing Laurette. He barely noticed his surroundings as he hurried along.
The meeting was very different than the student meetings he had gone to in America. There, everyone babbled conflicting ideologies at each other, rigidly locked into their own agenda. Debate was more important than action. Here the goals were specific. There was no disagreement on what was wrong and what had to be done. They just had basic discussions on what tactics they should use to use to force the government to comply with their demands.
Georges introduced Roy to the group and asked Roy to speak about his anti-war activities. Roy said. “Most of my efforts didn’t pertain to your situation. Instead, I’d like to suggest several ideas that might be useful. One goal could target enlisting the clergy, who could advocate and recruit for you. You should try to get neighborhood organizations and businesses on your side, since your cause would benefit them, especially if they have children. I can’t stress enough the importance of making friends in the media. They are the loudest voice that the government must listen to. I can’t advise you on the unions, because in America our unions are pro war and I don’t have any experience working with them.” They thanked him politely for his suggestions. Since there wouldn’t be any further demonstrations until the fall, when he’d be gone, he said good-bye and wished them good luck. He and Georges arranged to meet at a café in a few days.
When Roy got back to Chez Gilbert, Laurette was in the room. She was curled in a chair, in one of those improbable looking positions that only a woman can be comfortable in, reading a book and sending out frigid theta waves. He said hello, but she studiously ignored him. He tried to start a conversation several times, but she was unresponsive. Finally, exasperated, he grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. She immediately jumped up and confronted him.
“Where are you going, to another street battle?”
“No. I’m going to the theater.”
She was so upset that it didn’t register. “What?”
He repeated patiently. “I’m going to the theater. There are two plays by Ionesco at the Theatre de la Huchette that I want to see.”
She didn’t understand the sudden cultural urge. “Why?”
“I want to see the new playwrites who are creating exciting new work.”
“What else are you interested in?”
He laughed. “Isn’t that enough?”
“Yes. I just wait for the next surprise.”
“I hope it will be pleasant. I’ll try to make it so.”
“That is a very sweet thing to say. You are not always a monster.” She went to him and kissed him.
“You must be the best kisser in France. Would you like to go with me?”
“Of course. We do not have time for your temperamental ways.”
She turned and headed downstairs. He could only shake his head at her contrariness and follow her.
Their time together went by faster and faster and they didn’t quarrel again. They went to see the Comedie Francaise perform a colorful Moliere farce one night. Laurette’s national pride was wounded when Roy commented that it was a lavishly beautiful production, but it was more of a museum piece than vital theater. Roy spent an evening with Georges at a café. They both expressed regret that there was no time to become friends, but they exchanged addresses and hoped to meet again. During the day Roy gave tours of the Louvre, while Laurette did her work at Chez Gilbert and went to school. During his last week in Paris, he stopped giving the tours and Laurette didn’t go to school. They became desperately urgent to be together every minute, knowing separation was near. They had no fantasies of seeing each other again, so their remaining moments grew more precious.
Roy and Laurette developed a routine. She would get up early, do her chores, then bring their breakfast, which they would eat in bed. Then they would either make love, or play silly games that led to lovemaking. They napped until it was time for her afternoon chores, and he would read while she was busy. As soon as she was through with work, they would flee Chez Gilbert, running into the evening streets, devouring the city, finding odd public places for quick lovemaking and afterwards eating dinner at inexpensive, amusing restaurants. They were deeply immersed in the bitter-sweet rapture that preceded parting. People on the street looked fondly at them and made pleasant remarks. Everyone seemed to appreciate their youthful enchantment in the city of romance.
Late in the evening they would go to what had become their favorite place, the cemetery in Montparnasse. There they would sit on the grave of the poet, Charles Baudelaire. In this strangely silent pocket in the bustling city they would press close together, whispering lover’s words, silly and profound, listening to the cry of a lonely owl trapped in the city of light, and want each other more and more. On their last night, Roy brought a volume of Baudelaire’s poems, ‘Les Fleurs Du Mal,’ with him. He read to her in French and she softly corrected his pronunciation. They selected one poem, about a lover breathing in the sweet odor of his beloved’s breast and adopted it as their own. They pledged to remember each other in the future when they read it.
They had agreed that they didn’t want to have an emotional farewell and they could express their feelings by writing to each other. They got back to Chez Gilbert at dawn and Roy quickly packed, while Laurette sat curled in a chair, looking young, desirable, and already out of reach. When he was ready, he went to her and they kissed good-bye so hard that they cut each others' lips. He left the room without looking back. Laurette waited until she could no longer hear him on the stairs, then she mechanically started her chores. She shed no tears and she was already storing him in a secret compartment in her heart. But each time she heard someone on the stairs, she rushed to see if it was Roy, coming back to her.