In my husband’s version of the story, it was love at first sight. I was the most beautiful girl at the party. He knew I was the one from the moment he laid eyes on me. There was just something “special” about me…
It’s no wonder I wound up marrying him, is it?
But I know that isn’t quite true, even though he’ll go to his grave swearing it is.
I know it wasn’t love at first sight for him because we’d met before that party and he doesn’t remember it. At all.
So, I’m going to tell you my version of the story, and get comfortable because it is a long version and contains several seemingly unimportantly tangents that, if you are patient, you’ll see are actually quite integral to the story.
You see, it was probably late January or early February and, having been in France for five or six months, I decided to lighten up on my self-inflicted rule to speak NO English while in France… because, let’s face it, I was probably coming across as snobby or snooty. Usually I’m neither, but my rule basically meant I had to snub most American students from my program, or any other English speakers. They would hang out together and chat in English, and I just couldn’t do that. If I weren’t me and didn’t know about my “no English spoken by me in France” rule well, I would have probably taken myself for one of those people who think they “too good” to hang out with other English speakers. But, at the time it was more important to me to perfect my French than make friends. By late winter, I really had to give up my rule anyway because the two prettiest girls from my program with whom I’d made a pact to only speak French had left at Christmas because they’d only signed up for one semester in France.
I actually happen to know for a fact that I was coming across as snooty because now that I was speaking English, I was told so by the Irish girl who had been best friends with my Dutch roommate (who had also returned home at the end of the fall semester). My Dutch roommate (who was fluent in French AND English) made only one attempt to speak with me and it had been in English. She was miffed that I replied in French. That was fine. I made good friends with my other two roommates who didn’t speak English: one was from Germany, the other Japan. They really adopted me. The German girl had taken me home for Christmas, the Japanese girl let me take calls on her phone because the lines were so terribly expensive in France, back in those days, that I couldn’t afford one. Unfortunately, both of them also left before the New Year. To get back to the point, I sort of “inherited” the Irish friend when the Dutch girl went home. She said she was just used to coming up to our “flat” and saw no reason to break the habit, especially now that I’d come around to speaking English.
I adored her.
She seemed to view France as a fabulous opportunity to reinvent herself. She was delightfully proud of her Irish roots and wrote her name in a Gaelic –in what seemed like an unreasonably long string of letters that stupefied almost anyone trying to read them: Eibhilín… especially when she told us it was the short, cute name Lea. For her, it seemed that life was a party and she was an enthusiastic guest.
She had a way of bring out the best in people.
I’ll never forget her French boyfriend (we spent hours at his apartment before they became a couple, how could I possibly forget him? In fact, her pursuit of him may have had something to do with her “not giving up the habit” of coming up to my flat. She needed someone who spoke French and English to help out when they had trouble communicating. That’s where I came in, I was their translator.) Anyhow, I never would have noticed him… an unassuming, average sort of fellow. But under her influence, he became this sexy, well groomed, confident guy who’d definitely turn heads. But, once again, I digress.
To get back to the main story, I’d alienated most of the Americans already in the city (because there weren’t many to start with and most of them were on my program). But, I made quick friends with some of the new students who just arrived from the States for the spring quarter, notably a dashing and stylish, tall and model-thin guy who wore his homosexuality as proudly as a flower on his lapel. When I wasn’t with him on one of his hopeless shopping excursions aimed at getting me out of my combat boots and Carhartt workman’s pants, I was with my new Irish friends.
I had gained privileged acceptance in a band of half a dozen Irish girls who’d just arrived in France that winter on the pretext of study but whose real mission seemed to be finding French boyfriends and having a grand time in the process.
I’m sure by now you are wondering what on earth all this has to do with me meeting my husband for the first time, but don’t worry, I’m getting to that. (Much like I’ll eventually get back to telling you about how I got my boutique tour company up and running.)
As luck would have it, Francis (who wasn’t my husband at the time so we might as well finally call him by his name and give him a much deserved identity independent of his relationship to me) had recently returned from studying abroad in Ireland.
You see where I’m going with this now, don’t you?
On one particular day, I’m thinking it was late February, I got together with my Irish “lads” (I got a kick out of the fact that these Irish girls called each other “lads” –I don’t know why I thought that was any funnier than us American girls calling each other “guys” –but I did. I learned a lot of Irish-English from them because learning French didn’t seem to be high on their priorities). They were dying with excitement to share their most recent adventure with me.
I’ll just tell you the short version of this story within my story: they met a really cute French “lad” on a bus, and though they’d “taken the piss out of him” (translation: teased him ruthlessly), he seemed to “fancy” (translation: be attracted to) one of them. So, they’d invited him to a St. Patrick’s Day party they were having.
I’d never heard about this party before, so it’s quite probable, knowing them, that it didn’t exist before they met Francis on the bus and had to spontaneously come up with an excuse to invite him over. In any case, there was electricity in the air as they now set to planning the party.
It was a nice change from the usually gossipy chat and catty revelations –like when Lea wasn’t with us they revealed the unconscionably scandalous information “Did you know, Lea’s name is really Ilene!?!” (Ilene isn’t too bad, maybe a bit old fashioned, but what’s the big deal… I’d probably prefer to go by the nickname Lea, too. They noted I was not appropriately horrified by the revelation and it caused a tiny fissure between them and me & Lea, or should I say Ilene).
As for the party, it was decided that it should be held in the flat of the lad that French fellow fancied… for strategic purposes, of course. We lived on the outskirts of the city whereas he would be coming from the historic city center via bus, and since the buses stop running relatively early, well… he might need a place to sleep.
Somehow I doubted he was really going to be cute and I was glad it wasn’t my best friend who was so into this random stranger.
In the meantime before the party, let’s get back to my life. In a tragically failed attempt to avoid another shopping excursion designed to make-me-over, I’d somehow picked up a big flouncy, flowery, light pink skirt and matching top left behind by another student. It was indisputably feminine and I was wearing it… who knows what I’d found to put on my feet, I don’t think I had my combat boots on. All I know is that the ankle –length billowy 1970s-esque garment only seemed to create a greater urgency for a shopping spree in my stylish gay friend Leif’s opinion and he’d called in back-up: Lea. So, there I was, walking toward the shopping district, looking rather like a puff of cotton candy flanked by two fashion plates when it happened.
Lea stopped unexpectedly with her eyes fixed somewhere in the distance. We halted and tried to figure out what had caught her attention. Nothing, as far as I could see.
In a very hushed voice she whispered, “That’s HIM”.
And of course, by then, every expat in France probably would know that “HE” was the French guy from the bus who had been the inspiration for the upcoming St. Patrick’s day party.
Having said that, she seemed to forget about us and took off at a fast clip making a beeline straight for HIM.
Leif hooked his arm through mine and dragged me along in hot pursuit of her, “We have got to see this guy!”
My legs got tangled up in the unfamiliar billowy fabric of the plentiful skirt. It might have been too big for me. It probably was. I felt like I was trying to swim in it and, worse yet, the wind kept trying to sweep it up Marylin-Monroe-on-the-subway-grate style, only not sexy. It was furiously aggravating and I was completely preoccupied with the stupid skirt as I was dragged along by the arm at an uncomfortably fast pace.
I cursed under my breath and muttered, “He’s probably not even cute.”
I looked up, and there he was. And he was cute.
I caught my breath.
He was imperfectly and irresistibly attractive: perfect imperfection. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Twinkling deep blue eyes with long thick doe-like lashes, charming smile, curly dark hair, a Greek nose. Tall, lanky. Mediterranean skin.
Lea was chatting with him. Leif had parked us just slightly behind her and draped his arm around my shoulders so we could safely observe without interfering.
Francis glanced at the two of us. My heart skipped a beat as his eyes met mine for the slightest fraction of a second: I felt flustered and quickly dropped my gaze so he wouldn’t know that I’d been taking in every inch of him. My eyelashes fluttered involuntarily.
He didn’t notice.
I drank in every inch of him with my eyes. Almost twenty years later, I still remember what he was wearing: an off-white Levi’s jean jacket that looked new, neatly ironed pants and a pair of blue sneakers that looked like old school Van’s lace-up skate shoes, except they were made by Nike.
I’d never been so taken with someone that I didn’t know… and this guy was already spoken for. Still, every inch of my being wished that I did not have another man’s arm draped around me making me look “taken”. That anyone could possibly imagine that Leif, who looked like he was ready to walk down a runway, could be with me, a girl disguised as a puff of fairy floss, was perhaps a bit farfetched. But there it was.
Yep. That was the first time I saw Francis.
And he doesn’t remember it.
His memory starts at the party. What a debacle that was…