The Magic Trick

One day I overstayed a birthday visit to Paris by about 10 years. That tenth spring found me in that awkward phase we 30-somethings often go through, called “still between boyfriends.” This phase had gone on for so long that I didn’t even want a boyfriend anymore. In fact, ever since noticing a beautifully wrinkled and mysteriously sensual older French woman at a friend’s party, and, having inquired if she was the wife of the frizzy-haired, balding older man with the huge, horn-rimmed glasses next to her, and being informed that, “Nooo, she’s his mistress. They’ve been lovers for many years,” I’d decided that loverhood was what I aspired to.

The lover I’d set my sights on was a Swiss-German, philosophy PhD guy with a flurry of blond, Raphaelite hair and delicate features, who wore leather Three Musketeer boots and an old-fashioned looking waistcoat — a little short, but in Paris, everyone was shorter than me — who had talked to me at length at a party attended by fellow “intellos” (all PhD’s or PhD’s in training, professors, jazz musicians, historians, and philosophers. A cast so stereotypical that it was a wonder we weren’t all wearing black turtlenecks). My prospect had intrigued us all (well, mostly me) with his very un-intellectual and kitschy ability to wave his hands around and then make a little four-inch orange square of silk disappear into thin air, then pull it back out of his fist afterwards — sleeves rolled up and everything! He’d repeated this trick upon my many requests for an encore at the party, out in the street walking to the bar, and again at the bar. What more could a girl want from a potential lover than to be continually enthralled?

So a few days later I nonchalantly asked a mutual friend, also Swiss-German:

– “Hey, uh, Chrissi…. Uh… what’s your friend’s name? You know, with the hair, and the magic trick?”

– “Oh, Florian? You like him? He liked you a LOT,” Christian purred warmly, nodding his head in agreement with his own assessment, and in anticipation of my future pleasure thanks to his imminent intervention.

– “Okay,” I pressed on, “so, is he…”

– “Oh, he’s married,” Christian said, “but he’s awailable.”

Married but “awailable”? Only in Europe. Mind you, it’s totally possible to be someone’s “mistress” without either party being married. It’s a lifestyle, not a technical thing. Personally, and because I’m a practical girl, I’d been hoping to find an unmarried lover.

– “Oh, c’mon, Chrissi, you know I don’t date married men,” I groaned, disappointed and beginning to feel annoyed.

– “Oh, but it’s alriiiight. He has an understanding with his wife. Dey are in a free relationship. It’s totally alright. I promise you. I haf seen his other relationships. It’s always okay. His wife iss very special.”

And so, the first morning we woke up together on the futon thrown on the floor of my garret, Florian propped himself up on his elbow to look at me with my morning hair, puffy face, and raccoon eyes (from mascara I hadn’t washed off the night before) and burst out: “Sacristi! You’re even more beautiful in the morning!” (A blatant lie.) Yes, the perfect lover. He showed me, by example, the difference between having a boyfriend and having a lover. For example, he didn’t call me every day, but whenever he arrived at my place, he’d go straight to my bathroom without fail and shave, so that he wouldn’t rough my face up with his stubble. A lover, European style, knows you’re doing him a favor, and not the other way around. Really. Just ask any woman in Paris who has a lover. It’s a wonderful thing. Much better than — or at least a break from the drudgery of — the typical noncommittal boyfriend or, God forbid, bored husband. In Paris, the difference between a boyfriend and a lover is the difference between full-time employment and the five weeks of vacation it has earned you.

We went to all the best cheap places to eat, mostly in the Arab neighborhoods, where all the restaurant/cafeteria owners knew and adored him and promised me all the spicy chick peas, lentils and mint tea my heart desired if I ever came back with or without him. He didn’t mind that I didn’t have fancy clothes and high heels to dress up in him, unlike the rich, corporate-type guy (recommended by a well-meaning friend) who I’d dated to test my ability to sell my soul for expensive dinners.

(When I’d told Mr. Corporate that I couldn’t afford to dress for the places he was taking me to anymore, I’d been being misguidedly kind — he was boring [rich men often are], and the charm of those chic restaurants had long worn off because the food gave me gas, and the elite crowd he was paying to be a part of was making me, a size 4 at 5’8”, feel fat. What I’d wanted was for him to start going to my haunts in Chinatown, where I could reclaim my proletariat roots and prevent any further warping of my physical self-image. But before I could propose as much, he’d glibly offered to buy me new clothes. Having a tall, skinny, exotic-looking woman on your arm as you enter expensive restaurants is some kind of healing salve applied to the excoriated self-esteems of hardworking but hollowed businessmen, and it just doesn’t work in cheap restaurants or in cheap clothing.)

Florian and I were equals, financially. And we may not have been equals intellectually, but he acted on the presumption that we were, and we laughed, we talked, we got along like a house on fire. He thought I was smart, I thought he was smart. That was a big change from my Lacanian psychoanalyst/professor of semantics boyfriend of five years previous, whose library I’d raided before taking a powder, on the premise that if I was as dumb as he seemed to think I was, I needed those books more than he did. I took a gleeful pleasure using Mr. Genius’ seduction techniques on Florian, and in seeing them work like magic. I always say: Leave someone with the best they have to offer you, and throw the rest away.

One night, Florian and I came down with a case of food poisoning from some tepid raita we’d eaten at some all-night hole in the wall and, amazingly, celebrated newly revealed feelings of solidarity the next morning as we fondly reminisced over how we took turns listening to each other vomit with abandon in my tiny garret’s toilet. We cosseted each other back to health that morning at the café around the corner, slowly reading the paper, delicately sipping our cafés au lait in the sunny window as if it were our personal solarium.

At the apex of our romance, though, I began to conceive of his return to Switzerland as the end to all this tendresse, and felt sadness creeping like a black mold into all our pleasures. Finally, one morning we woke up, and I found myself in a deep funk. Maybe it was PMS, or maybe it was the fact I was dating a married man.

– “When are you going back?” I asked, with that only too familiar child-about-to-be-abandoned feeling, even though I’d known all along that he was only in Paris for a few months to teach a class.

– “You know that. I leave in two months.” (Pronouncing it “months-zhe,” as they all do.) This turned out to be my cue to look at him, and melt into tears.

– “Why are you weeping? Is it because I can’t give myself to you, because I am committed with someone else?” he asked, as he cradled me in his arms gently, which was exactly the opposite of what I’d learned to expect from most men faced with a woman knee-jerking the imminently abandoned little girl role. In fact, none had ever stayed in the room with me long enough to shake hands and say “nice knowing you.” Most reacted as if I’d suddenly started screaming like a monkey and throwing feces at them, and hightailed as quickly and far away from me as possible, forever more avoiding me at parties and crossing streets when necessary.

In my mind I heard myself say, petulantly: “No, I’m not an idiot, I knew what I was getting into, didn’t I?” Which was when I realized that as worldly and sophisticated as I thought I could be, thatthing had happened again. That thing where I’m left behind. Maybe it was the expatriate way of life, but every man I’d ever gone out with since arriving in Europe had had some kind of previous engagement or ordained future that didn’t include me, whether it was a four-year study in another country, a girlfriend in Italy that was only mentioned after a few months, or simply the usual innate and incorrigible desire to flee relationships for any reason at all. According to the script, you’re supposed to just chalk it up to romantic experience, then go home and settle down with the leading man out of the final scene of Sabrina or (if you were a different sort of girl) Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or else accidentally kill yourself alone in a garret in The House of Mirth after loitering too long in the chapters of The Dud Avocado.

– “Why don’t I ever have anyone for me?”, I sniffled, holding panic at bay by keeping my emotions and thoughts elementary, “Someone just for me?”

He held me and stroked my hair, assured me I would have someone, someday — probably a better man, he hypothesized encouragingly, even, than him. He said he just wanted to make me happy while he was here. And while he comforted me, the truth began to dawn on me. This is a nice man. It’s nice to be comforted by a nice man. And that calmed me down to the point where, as he stroked my hair, I asked myself, did I love this guy? Honestly? Tell the truth. No, I didn’t. I liked him, but did I really want to keep him forever? God, no, I told myself, look at him! He’s 35 years old and dresses like one of the Three Musketeers! He has long fingernails, which he likes to put varnish on. These were little quirks I’d never asked about or thought to object to, reasoning that he wasn’t mine, so let him do whatever he wants, right? Nobody’s going to think I’m dressing him, after all. I’m not his wife! And then there was the unavoidable fact that, like most European men, he had what I’ve always described in my mind as a “penis in a soggy, flesh-colored tennis sock.”

(I know that sounds very superficial of me, but when you’re not in love, little things mean a lot.)

As the hair follicles on the top of my head began to feel sore from all that compassionate hair-stroking, I realized that Florian was wonderful in many ways, but he was also a lot of things I’d never desired in a man.  Maybe there was a good reason he had an “understanding” with his wife. Maybe she could only stand him in small doses, herself. All the things I find charming about him now, I told myself, are things I might want to kill him for someday if he was mine forever. Or even just mine beyond April.

The more I thought about it, the less dire was the thought that in two months I’d be putting him on a train back to Switzerland, returning him in one piece, happy and well-loved, to his understanding wife. I hadn’t suddenly lost my interest and desire for him. I’d simply realized there was no need to overindulge. A four-month romantic interlude was pleasant — perfect, even. Five minutes more than that might lead to despair.

And so I stopped crying after what I thought looked like a polite amount of time, snuggled gratefully, heaved a reassured-sounding sigh, and proposed we go out and have breakfast, which we did, soon giggling again, affectionate, relieved — the both of us, perhaps — that I no longer showed signs of wanting to keep him beyond his scheduled stay or intent.  We had our two more months of fun and loving, during which he never stopped treating me like a queen. He was always precisely on time (ah, the Swiss!) and polite, never in a bad mood. I always felt like the high point of his day. (He would, in fact, tell me that I was the high point of his day.) All this was what I learned to expect from my next lover, or from any man who wanted to be in my life for the pleasure of my company.

The day he took the train home to Switzerland, it was springtime and I was wearing my prettiest thrift store flowered dress and retro forties pumps to accompany him to the Gare de Lyon. We were early, so we drifted into the famous Train Bleu café for the tea and romantic first aid: After anticipating this moment for two months, my sudden impatience to put him on his train and get it over with disconcerted me, and I found it hard to talk as we sat opposite each other looking French-existential in our leather armchairs, avoiding each other’s gaze, each of us stirring our tea. Was I afraid the slightest softening of my heart would make me regress to that played-out abandoned little girl persona again? Had I turned hard and cynical? Or was I just impatient to enjoy solitude for a while? I wasn’t sure, at first.

As he paid our bill, I looked at him once more and told myself: This man has shown me a good time. A really good time. But I was sick of him by now. Yes, it’s true! I was! I realized it right there and then. And I was a little bit proud of it.  It made me feel so chipper that I patted him on the butt and smiled as he climbed the metal staircase into the train.

Standing on the train platform, looking up at him giddily, I hoped I didn’t look too happy that he was going. I was suddenly determined to give him as tender and beautiful a memory of our goodbyes as he deserved. We hugged and kissed and held hands again until the conductor signaled the “all aboard” and the train commenced its preparatory puffing and hissing. This was it. I was going to watch him recede into the distance. He was not going to grab me and pull me into the train the way Gary Cooper grabbed Audrey Hepburn in the final scene of Love in the Afternoon,and I was okay with that. I even thought, in a mix of hilarity and panic, “What if the train breaks down and can’t leave!” But the train began to move, and as it did, I was laughing as my lover pulled from his sleeve the little square of orange silk and passed it to my outstretched hand with a joyful flourish, then disappeared.

Previously: The Psychic.

Carolita Johnson’s cartoons appear in The New Yorker and at Oscarinaland.

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