I am in my usual spot by the window, smoking, when my husband comes home
from work. This is my favorite time, between day and night. I've been to
the market and come back with crème fraiche, cherries, a rabbit (the head
still on the carcass so I know I'm not getting a cat), and a couple of good
bottles of wine. The haricots verts have been steamed, the meat is
simmering, the tarte is cooling on the windowsill and the creme in the
cooler. The floors have been mopped, the roses pruned. The bougainvillea
is trained against the wooden shutter on this, my favorite side of the
house. The side that faces away from the hedge and the road - although we
don't get much traffic. Still, I love to sit on my chaise in the second
floor study and look out this window, past the wooden shutter and the vines,
to the valley beyond. I can almost see the Rhone, but not quite, and each
new day brings a discovery. Last week, for example, I was watching when the
team that was supposed to be building the new Seyssuel Municipal Pool, by
accident unearthed a roman ruin. Today there is not much activity at the
site. Not even the smoke of the archaeologists on a cigarette break.
* * *
"Ma puce, ou es-tu?" my husband calls. He comes home at the same time every
day, calls the same thing every day. Where are you my flea? I am always in
the same place, always smoking.
He comes to where I'm sitting and kisses me on the head. But something is
different. Something is wrong. He is looking at me, really looking at me,
like he hasn't in more than twenty years. He looks excited but also
"What's wrong, Ch‚ri?" I ask.
He sits on the other side of the ottoman and loosens his tie. My husband,
Monsieur the Mayor, has aged well. He has a paunch but not so big. He
plays tennis, but always without me. I smoke.
"There is a new video store in town," he says.
I flick ash onto the ground one story below. I saw it earlier when I was
at the charcuterie. There were lights in the windows and a cardboard cutout
of Sylvester Stallone.
"They have a section behind a dark curtain," he continues.
"Your movie is there."
He is worried about his respectability once again, Monsieur le Maire. He
wants comfort, and I want to give it to him, but I've forgotten how. It's
been twenty years since he asked anything of me that didn't involve creme
fraiche or mopping or pruning. And he looks so small. I would like to run
my fingers through hair, kiss him softly on the forehead as he does to me
every weekday afternoon at 5:15. But I don't. Instead I lift the cigarette
to my lips and smoke.
Everyone else from the film gets recognized in the streets. The starlet,
even now, thirty years later, can't walk her bichon without getting
propositioned by men half her age. I haven't seen her since wrap, but I'm
told that she still does not wear a bra. Men can see the outline of a
breast under raw silk and still become aroused. The curve of her lip, the
flash of her eye. She is over 50 but they still want to protect her as they
would a young girl. I say her lips and her eyes wouldn't be quite so
appealing without the nip and tuck of middle age. If her hips had broadened
and her chest sagged to the floor like mine after three children, I might be
able to trade places with her. I would be the one still appearing on TV
specials, "What ever happened to . . ." with the soft lighting and no
close-ups. Maybe then she would be the one in this village in the middle of
nowhere, with the children away at school and the husband who would rather
spend time playing tennis with other fat, hairy sweaty men, than be with his
own wife. I know now that half a life is a long time to live without love.
It wasn't always like this. Thirty years ago I was still living in Paris
in a flat with three other girls, awaiting my break that didn't come.
Sometimes I read for commercials, but not often. The offers that came my
way more were for dancing or painting or photographs. "You're enjoying
this," the photographers and directors would all say. "You're eating it
up." It meant many things, the eating up. It meant the kissing, the
pinching, the sucking, the slapping, the smoking. And for awhile it was
easy enough to pretend that it did. But then it got boring. What happened
more often was when one or more of my flatmates needed cash, we would bring
a home a businessman. Sometimes these men would point to one of us and that
one would then take him onto the rooftop. More often the kind of men that
came back to the apartment were the kind that wanted to see us kiss and
fondle each other. Sometimes they were specific. We were to kiss, remove
our blouses, then act pleasantly surprised when they came between us. This
worked every time, although I still don't know why. Some people behave as
if sex is an interesting thing. To me it was a job.
When people asked my why I lived like I did, I always said, "It's better
than waiting tables." I said it so often that one day I decided give
waiting another try. I got a job in a small café in the left bank. The
hours were long but the tips were fair. Not what I was used to, but it was
a change. My mother always told me to try everything once. The café was
large with little round marble tables outside on the street, all of them
facing Notre Dame. These people would come and sit for hours, ten rows
deep. The people in the back must not have had a very good view. The view
was not the point, I understand now. It was the ritual that counted, having
somewhere to go that wasn't an apartment or an office.
There was one man who came in every morning to read the paper. He would
order a café au lait for himself and crusty baguette for his large white
poodle that would sit on the chair next to him. He would slice the baguette
and the poodle would eat it daintily, piece by piece. Now there's a trick.
Mine is nothing by comparison.
I was serving this customer (my favorite), when I met Guy. I was bending
over, taking the poodle's order. My customer, the poodle's husband, always
liked that. I would ask him what he would like, then turn to the poodle and
say, "And for you, Madame?"
"She'll have the usual," my customer was telling me, when I felt warm breath
on my ear. Because I was talking to the poodle, I suppose, I associated the
breath with puppies. I didn't turn around. The little hairs on the back of
my neck were standing up. It had been many years since I'd been excited.
A soft voice just said, "Hello." I turned around to face my prince. He was
about average height, maybe a little taller than me. He had dark curly hair
he wore about his shoulders and brown eyes. In those eyes was just the hint
of cruelty, like maybe Alain Delon. He was wearing a suede jacket with
fringes and tight black jeans that flared at the bottom. He had very bad
"I'll be right with you," I said.
"Bien. I am sitting over there." He indicated a prime table in the front
row. I wondered who he had to push out of his way. I imagined at least
five other young men, all wearing suede or leather.
I walked into the café to fill the poodle's order. When I came back with
the baguette and the café au lait, this man was sitting where he had
indicated. I smiled at my favorite customer and went to help my prince.
"You must excuse me for being so forward," he said, rolling a cigarette.
"But I couldn't help notice you. You look charming." And from a large bag
he drew a bouquet of daisies.
I accepted them, snipping one from the bunch and placing it behind my ear.
I had plenty of coffee and cigarettes, but flowers were rare in my life.
"What do you want?" I asked my notepad in hand. I tried to look bored.
"I would like a brioche and a walk."
At first I thought he meant he wanted to walk me around his hotel room, me
on all fours in a collar with big metal spikes, and him holding the leash.
In response, I leaned closer to him and whispered in his ear. "A thousand
He shook his head like he didn't understand.
"The brioche is ten. The other you ask is unusual. A thousand francs."
He looked at me and colored, then laughed a huge laugh that made everyone
turn and look. I showed them my finger. They went back to staring at Notre
Dame or reading their morning paper.
"I just meant a walk. This is my first time to Paris. I would love you to
I did not know what this man wanted. No, that's not correct. I knew, but I
hoped he just wanted a walk. A simple thing, flowers. I was young, only
22, but I had already made my film and posed for photographs and entertained
businessmen. I had no reason to expect romance.
I tore the sheet off and gave it to him. "Ten francs," I said softly. "Come
back tonight at 8:00."
He showed up at the café at 8:00 with a bottle of cheap red wine, a crusty
loaf of bread, and some cheese. "Do you know some place we could picnic?"
he asked. I thought about my three flatmates and the presence or absence of
"No," I said.
He glanced around like he was sneaking. "I do," he whispered. I took his
hand and expected to be led to a park bench.
"I thought we were going to walk," I said.
"And we will. It is a beautiful evening. It is a bit far, but not too far
to my . . ."
Hotel. So there was to be no mystery for me. Perhaps a little romance but
maybe I did not require much. In truth, I did not require any.
He didn't pay me, but at least I got to spend the night with just one person
instead of three or four, and in a clean room that didn't smell of women.
I'd never been in that particular hotel before. It was cheap but
well-arranged with black and white tiles in the lobby. My prince worked for
Renault, and he was in town for two weeks for a seminar. Each night he
watched as I unbuttoned my blouse and tried to make it look like the most
exciting thing in the world. For him it worked. He would watch me dance
around the room naked to no music at all, then loosen my braid. He would
bury his face in my hair and inhale.
There was something sweet about him, something not from the city. Which
would explain my mistake. On our second Saturday together, I told him about
my trick, and he wanted to see. So I showed him. He was so aroused we made
love five times that night. I came six.
The next evening I went to his hotel room and he was gone. Just like that.
Poof! I suppose he was the love of my life. I thought he would take me
with him when he went. And who knows? Perhaps he might have, if I had
pretended to be something different.
The next morning at the café my favorite customer was back, only without
his wife. For the first time I really noticed him. His eyes were gray and
his face had fallen. This expression, oddly, made him look like a puppy.
"And where is Madame today?"
My favorite customer sighed. "Alas, she is no longer with me. She was hit
by a truck last night."
He had two doughy hands neatly folded on the marble tabletap. I took one of
them. "I am so sorry," I said.
"Many people say not to worry, that I will find another. That I should get
the same kind of dog. Give her the same name. But I think it will not be
the same, do you?"
I shook my head. "I will get you a coffee. On me."
I was walking away to fill the order when he called to me. "I enjoyed your
I stopped and turned around slowly.
"I leave Paris in a week," he continued. "I put in for a transfer even
before my Choucroute met with her unfortunate end. The city is no life, eh?
Not even for a dog."
I stood still.
"Yes, my friends say she is easily replaceable. But I think not. I think
what I need is a real Madame."
I made my decision on the spot. I don't know why it was so easy. Perhaps
he was right. The city is no life. But perhaps I was just bored. After
all: I'd never been married. It had to be better than waiting tables.
I have often wondered, sitting at my window and smoking, how he went from
being my favorite customer to being Monsieur le Maire. I know how - he got
elected. All the same, a change came over him so gradually I hardly
noticed. In the beginning when he loved me and called me Bitch and Slut and
Whore in this house after hours with the wooden shutters closed and the
vines creeping outside. I tried to tell him that no one could see in, we
were set apart from the street by the hedge and there was nothing on the
other side of the house - except for maybe a long buried roman ruin. But he
always carefully guarded our privacy, Monsier le Maire. Even in the days
before video. The days he would rather have spent behind the buried cities
and creeping vines with me than out on a hot court with his fat confreres.
As I look at him sitting across from me now, exhaling, I wonder if we ever
loved each other. For the first time in my life I think the answer might be
yes. I remember the object of my dusk ritual wasn't always the smoking
itself, but the waiting. Listening for my husband's car as it came up the
gravel drive. Knowing that he would always call for me; knowing I would
always be here.
I flick my cigarette onto the drive below and hold him close, my favorite
customer. "Don't worry, Chéri," I whisper softly to him. "No one will
recognize me. You are the only man who ever looked at my face."
The scene is a smoky, poorly lit bar. A man with sideburns and a leisure
suit comes in and orders a drink. I part the beaded curtain and emerge on
the stage, completely naked and holding two cigarettes. Day and night, I
call them, for more reasons than one is lit and the other is not. Because
with the second one comes darkness, a gentle obscuring.
I take a long drag on the first and move my hips back and forth with the
music. Then I lie down on the stage and spread my legs so everyone in the
bar can see. I start to gyrate and groan, like there is a man on top of me,
a big man, and I am trying to pull him farther in. Finally, I take the
unlit cigarette and place it down there, in my pussy. I light it with the
other cigarette. Lit now, I leave Night in place til I am filled but not
with passion but with darkness. Slowly, I remove the second cigarette, and
everyone in the bar watches as I smoke.
MJ Beaufrand went to Wellesley and Bennington, and until recently was a Software Test Engineer with Microsoft. She lives in Seattle with her husband.