Most of my wanting to become French was about French men...
I can’t remember how Michel came into my life in Grenoble. I think he just sat down one day and started talking. I’d seen him before in our local hangout, the Maison du Café. Looking like Jean-Paul Belmondo (but taller), wearing a rumpled suit and with wild black hair, he would stroll around, hands in his pockets, wearing the self-satisfied look of a man who has yet to be disappointed in life. Not that I had such insights then. But I could see that women liked him and he knew it.
In the beginning, he just flirted with me. He called me his petit lapin, his adorable chou (cabbage). Of course, at that age, not quite seventeen, I’d never known a man like this, or been the object of such adoring familiarity. All that dark masculinity and rushing words. We did nothing during the day. We walked the streets, or we went to a dive, a dusty hole called Le Zinc, where we played table hockey and the patron arm wrestled with the clients.
After dark, we necked in the front seat of his decrepit Alfa. I didn’t know what I felt; I was still too astonished that he liked me–– though I was sure he was seeing other girls, most likely sleeping with them. Strolling around the Place Grenette, I caught him winking at women he knew, ivory-legged beauties who in return gave him a knowing smile, or a raised eyebrow—probably because I looked so young. In my new Levis and my éclat frosted pink lipstick, I resembled a healthy twelve-year-old.
Still, we went everywhere together, and on the weekends he drove me to Alpe d’ Huez to teach me to ski. I begged my parents to send me money so that I could buy the latest stretch trousers with loops under the feet, and a pair of ski boots.
I was busy creating a new French life, something I knew only from our vacations in Saint Tropez, or from movies. To go with my Jean Seberg haircut, I’d bought a striped matelot tee shirt like the one Jeanne Moreau wore in Jules and Jim, and a tight black gabardine skirt.
I had a portable record player, found in a second-hand shop, and spent nights lying on my saggy bed at the pension, smoking (choking on Gauloises) my heart thumping, listening to Edith Piaf sing Non Je Ne Regrette Rien, or Francoise Hardy’s Je Suis A Toi.
Love had taken the place of education. Occasionally, I had to make an appearance at the faculty to qualify for my end of year Cerificat D’etudes, but I was learning more French with Michel. And he was happy to be the dilettante tutor. Our romance filled me up—although so far there'd been no real sex. He had, however, told me he loved me. It was a December evening, foggy and freezing, and we were standing on the corner of Rue Tilsitt.
"I love you, petite Anglaise!" he said. I told him I loved him, too. "Je t’aime," I murmured, gazing rapturously at his face—words that up until then I’d never uttered to anyone in English, let alone in French, and that no one (including my parents) had said to me in any language. The thrill was immediate and terrifying. I was aching to be in the throes of love and, of course, to be loved!
But sex was imminent. One night Michel parked his car in a dark side street and we did it. I can see myself now, lying across the front seat of his Alfa, legs sticking out of the open passenger door, my head rammed under the steering wheel, my skirt bunched around my waist. It was a grey angora skirt with a matching sweater, something I’d bought at the local Galleries Lafayette with money my parents had sent me for the ski boots. I could hardly breathe, or, rather, I was holding my breath because of his dead weight, suffocating, my head banging against the dash with every shove. Gasping, I was sick with worry—not about doing it, but that someone would walk by and see us...
More about MICHEL - my first great love - soon…