A Short Story by Zoltan James
Valentina Dawson sat demurely at the table reserved in her name. Her brilliant green eyes scanned the prominent restaurant in anticipation of her lover, who she expected would walk through the door at any moment.
This was her first visit to one of Paris’ most luxurious eateries, The Red Chair, where patrons came to gnaw and gawk. And, it didn’t bother her in the least that she sat a good head and shoulders above the rest of the room. In fact, she was perched on a peninsula which protruded out and above the main floor, like a ship’s prow. Valentina’s position offered a commanding view of the elite and famous: diplomats, politicians, thespians, and the nouveau riche who dined and gossiped beneath her.
Besides its infamous clientele, The Red Chair was renowned for its haute cuisine and reputation for keeping private conversations very private. The setting was a bastion of confidential decorum in the capital and a time-honored landmark for the seventh arrondissement.
The tableau, which Valentina observed, was richly decorated to accent the historic building’s floor-to-ceiling windows. She admired the heavy romantic drapes, the understated white service, and the restaurant’s most famous feature, its eclectic set of red chairs. They anchored tables set for four throughout the intimate space. The back of her menu, explained how the chairs were unique in design and palate and each came with its own story. Most were painted by an up-and-coming artist who chose his or her own passionate shade of red and exotic touches. Others were designed by famous artists and were coveted by patrons in the know. To Valentina’s astonishment she read that the chair in which she was seated was painted by Picasso for his lover, Jacqueline Roque, who would become his second wife.
The allure of the richly-appointed venue, the proximity of power, and the warm bouquet from the red wine were all intoxicating to Valentina. She felt aroused and hoped her lover would arrive soon to share in her glow.
The man she waited for was Jules Giradot, the owner of The Red Chair. Valentina conveniently chose to overlook the fact that Jules was married, or that being seen with him might compromise his reputation. But, it was he, after all, who initiated the affair.
They first met at a formal reception at the American Embassy. They were introduced by the features editor of Le Monde, where Valentina worked on a free-lance assignment. She was writing a long-form essay on how a country girl from Paris, Texas thought of Parisians and the French. Her editor assured her that when her article was published, the magazines would fly off the newsstands.
Her editor, Clarete Bardon, was a fan of Valentina’s. She found her brainy and spunky and was highly amused that men still adored her. Clarete was also the first to aid in lofting Valentina’s star. It seems that Valentina hadn’t been in Paris more than a month when she created a stir. She was walking along the Seine with a group of French journalists when they were startled by a commotion. Without a second’s hesitation, Valentina ran ahead and jumped into the river, fully clothed, to save the life of a drowning man. Clarete loved that her young American writer was so brave and so she never missed a chance to preface her introductions of Valentina with this bit of heroics.
Valentina, on the other hand, when pressed about the story would always add in her endearing twang, “Well, you know, boys they always say when you jump in the river here, you’re in Seine.” Very few of the French appreciated the poor pun.
As Valentina and Jules strolled the embassy grounds on that hot July night, Valentina found him to be polite, attentive, and he struck her as one of the most handsome men she had met during her year in Paris. That evening, he wore a finely tailored tuxedo, and his salt and pepper hair made him all that more distinctive. He said the right things, asked polite questions, and definitely knew how to flirt. Her spine tingled when his fingers brushed her bare shoulder, or flitted across her hand whenever he offered another flute of champagne.
Following that first encounter, they agreed to meet for afternoon coffees, always at his suggestion. The cafes were usually different and intimate, which she liked for it gave her the opportunity to see more of Paris. They would sit close enough where she could inhale his cologne.
He held her gaze with his searing blue eyes and her attention with his charming accent. They spoke in hushed tones of the exotic French life, religion and culture. When they were apart, their conversations continued over flirtatious emails. All innocent in her mind, and she rationalized it all as research for her article. At first she was taken aback when Jules informed her that while “email” was a useful American invention, he preferred, the French word, courriel. She found that amusingly quaint and made a note to include that cultural distinction in her story. Two weeks later, she received an old-fashioned engraved invitation to join him for dinner, at his restaurant.
Valentina was single, and while she had collected her share of lovers in New York, San Francisco, Berlin, Vienna, and other ports of call, she was fiercely independent. Underneath her beauty pageant persona, she was a Texas tomcat at heart. But, she had never met anyone as fascinating as Jules. Maybe it was the way he always seemed interested in her day, what she was thinking, or writing about, that captivated her heart. But now she was beginning to think she wanted more. This was a new sensation for her. She stifled a smile as she thought about how it would feel to taste his lips and to press her flesh against his. She found herself honestly hoping that tonight might result in the fulfillment of her fantasy.
After a half hour of sipping red wine and nibbling at the corners of her cheese appetizer, the maitre‘d arrived at her table and introduced himself as “Michel.”
“Mademoiselle, please forgive me,” he began in a low whisper. “I have a note for you from Monsieur Giradot.” He handed her a square envelope upon which was printed, in raised cursive type, The Red Chair. She tore it open and read in his handwriting:
“My dear Valentina, my sincerest apologies, but I will not be able to join you this evening. Please know how much I was looking forward to our meeting, and to once again gaze into your lovely green eyes. Unfortunately, an urgent matter has arisen and I am called away. Please accept my regrets, Jules.”
Michel stood by her side until she finished reading. “I’m terribly sorry, mademoiselle. The dinner, of course, is compliments of the house. May I bring you anything at all?”
She declined, thanked him, and waited a few minutes until she was alone. She glanced around the room. The patrons were all engrossed in their own affairs, or secrets of state. She quietly arose from her Picasso chair, put on her shawl, and took the few short stairs down to the main floor. Lost in her thoughts and disappointment, she missed the little scene which played out as half the men in the room discreetly followed her exit with their eyes.
The next morning at ten a.m. a bouquet of roses, with a note from Jules requesting her forgiveness, arrived at her apartment. Then a second bouquet, a riot of purple hyacinths, was delivered at two p.m. No one had ever given her hyacinths before, so she researched their meaning in The Language of Flowers, where she learned how they represented the sentiment of apology. She wasn’t sure if she felt like laughing at the absurdity of it all, or if she wanted a good cry for allowing her heart to fall under Jules’ spell.
She chose not to respond to his floral apologies and decided to give herself some space. She wanted time to think. If she were back home in Texas she could saddle her Arabian and let the horse run through the meadows and the woods. She could allow the horse’s canter to smooth out the wrinkles in her mind. But, of course, that was out of the question. And, so, she paced around her apartment until she decided to uncork a bottle of red. She curled onto the big pillow at her bay window and watched the bustle of Paris below. She followed the lovers who walked arm in arm and tried not to think. She sat in silence as the sun sank behind Notre Dame and the City of Lights fought off the demons of darkness. And she recalled a line from a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
I know a man that’s a braver man
And twenty men as kind,
And what are you, that you should be
The one man on my mind?
She finished the bottle and fell asleep at the window.
The following morning, a mustachioed courier, wearing an ill-fitting suit, delivered a note. It was from Jules. The neat handwriting asked her to meet him for coffee that afternoon. He had chosen La Café Istanbul, a buzzy Bohemian bar in the Montparnasse district. She read the note twice then told the courier, straight faced, that she would accept. “Very good, madam,” he said as he bowed. He turned on his heels and left.
Jules was waiting for her when she appeared in the café’s foyer. He kissed her cheeks and escorted her to a quiet table in the far corner.
“I was afraid you might change your mind,” he said.
She offered a wintry smile. “I almost did.”
“Did you receive my flowers and notes?” He touched her hand and looked intently into her eyes. He seemed to be pleading for an answer.
She averted his stare and resisted the urge to enfold his hand in hers. “Yes, they were lovely.”
He leaned across the table and took her hands in his. “Then all is forgiven, my love?”
The word “love” threw her momentarily. It felt as though the carousel she was riding on had braked abruptly and without warning caste her to the ground. And, yet, she liked the sound, the intimacy, and the hope that word implied. She felt her heart melt a little as she heard his soft and charming accent. She fought the urge to answer him brightly and caught herself nearly resorting to her excitable Texas twang where extra syllables tended to rise up without fair warning. But, she caught herself and took a deep breath.
She studied his strong hands on hers and cut her eyes up to his. “For now,” she whispered.
He smiled cautiously. He raised a hand, caught the waiter’s attention, and ordered coffees.
Slowly they relaxed into each others company over café noisette, and they soon settled into their former pattern of easy flirting, flattery and laughter. She was aware of her chameleon feelings and admonished herself to stop laughing so easily. She withdrew her hand from his and worked on stifling the smile that seemed to be easily upturned on her face like a lucky horseshoe.
Jules explained why he had failed to appear for their dinner date. “A crisis erupted at my new restaurant in the Côte d’Azur, the south of France. There have been a series of construction problems and delays. And, as usual, I was needed to resolve these issues.”
“Of course, I understand,” Valentina said. “I would never hold you back from your work. But, I did miss seeing you that evening.”
At first Jules lowered his eyes as though embarrassed and then raised them wide as if struck from behind by a two-by-four. He slammed the table with his palm. “Say, why don’t you join me on my next trip.” He became animated and gestured broadly. “We’ll take a long weekend, get away from the city. We can enjoy ourselves, go shopping, stroll the beaches.” He leaned in conspiratorially, “We can also watch the sun kiss the Mediterranean good night. . .”
“Sounds lovely, Jules. We’ll see.”
“Please my love, indulge me. Besides, the change of scenery might help you with that article you’re writing. And, as a bonus, I can show you a different side of France.” He squeezed her hand and winked.
“We’ll see,” she repeated.
Following their coffee treaty, Valentina decided to step back from the relationship as a hedge against her heart. It was times like these she recalled her daddy’s admonition to “never jump on a horse you can’t handle.”
Jules sent more invitations and flirtatious courriels, but she declined them all with excuses of deadlines and meetings she had arranged. Meanwhile, she continued to attend social events in the city and heard many offers for various degrees of companionship. She politely refused overtures from respectable and wealthy businessmen, and handsome but bourgeois journalists.
As the days passed and summer waned into autumn, she continued to receive calls, cards, and courriel from Jules. But she ignored them. She threw herself into her research and writing, and took short excursions around the countryside to get more of a flavor for the French way of life.
The more she traveled the country the more she drew a distinction between her Paris in Texas and the Paris of France. She couldn’t imagine the typical French male bucking a bronco or roping a steer, or maneuvering his way around a mesquite grill, or an angry rattler, for that matter. On the other hand, she couldn’t see her Texas men strolling down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées wearing an orange silk scarf. Nor could she imagine her male Texans looking her in the eye when speaking. The men she knew always talked to her with one eye, if not both, fixated on her breasts. She also couldn’t see her Texas friends being very conversant in the latest fashions, foods, wine or the topic of sex, versus the French, who handled such entreaties with aplomb, flair and good humor. More than likely, she thought, the Texas men she knew would be limited to a brief monologue on boots, barbeque, beer and “let’s do it, y’all.”
The contrasts aside, she had to admit she was still a Texas belle at heart.There were days when she strolled down the avenues of the world’s most beautiful city that she secretly pined for her Lone Star State. In fact, there were times when she wished she could close her eyes and click her heels, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, and wake up in the bayous of her beloved Piney Woods, near her hometown, which she affectionately called, “the second largest Paris in the World.”
On a warm fall day, Valentina set out on a mission. She purchased a train ticket to the French Riviera. She was curious to find out what kind of romantic liaison she and Jules might enjoy there. When she arrived in St. Remy de Provence, the little town he had mentioned, she began asking shop owners if they had heard of a new restaurant under construction by Jules Giradot. “Yes, they knew of Giradot,” but, the consensus was he didn’t visit because of his business. There was no restaurant about to open. Turns out, she learned that he traveled there to be with his mistress, a struggling, and not very accomplished, they said, impressionist artist known only as “Simone.” One of the men she spoke to, a handsome and rugged carpenter said offhandedly,“If it makes any difference, I don’t think he comes to admire her art.”
The train ride back to Paris for Valentina was long and lonely, and somewhat comforted by the multiple glasses of wine she consumed. After her third, she knew then, in her “small Paris” state-of-mind, that the affair which had thankfully and truly never gotten off the ground “was a-fixin’ to end right here and now.”
When Valentina returned home to her apartment, the picture of an angry Texas rattler was foremost on her mind. But, when she opened her door, she was greeted by a small forest of fresh cut flowers and a short stack of love notes. One note stuck out from the rest. It was an engraved invitation to join Jules for dinner, Friday evening, again, at The Red Chair. Her first instinct was to hurl it and all the flowers out the window. But, before her fury could take hold, the kernel of an idea began to unfurl.
She checked her calendar. She had two days before the dinner date. Valentina figured that was plenty of time to shop for a special gift and to purchase a sexy black cocktail dress for the occasion. It was a dress she had spied one day in a fashionable boutique on the Boulevard St. Germain. And, it was a show stopper.
That Friday evening, heads snapped like a military drill team when Valentina stood behind the prized Picasso chair at Jules’ restaurant. She took her time sitting down so that everyone in the room could admire her very short, black mini dress with the scooped back. When she crossed her legs, she could almost count the pairs of bright male and dark female eyes staring her way.
As usual Jules had not yet arrived. She couldn’t help but wonder if he would be a “no show.”
Her waiter, Reynaldo, was handsome and attentive. When he approached Valentina, his eyes traveled from her long legs to her breasts. But, being the French gentleman he was, he kept his eyes firmly on hers and presented a brilliant smile.
Reynaldo pointed to the colorful gift box that Valentina had set on the table. “A gift for Monsieur Giradot?”
She smiled curtly. “It’s a surprise.”
“I’m sure he will treasure it,” he said.
“I hope so.”
To begin with Valentina ordered a twenty-year-old bottle of Cabernet. Then, she selected dinner for two. And, if Jules didn’t show, well, then, he could absorb the costs. What she chose she had no intention of eating. Nevertheless, she picked the Cochon noir de Bigorre (a pedigreed pig from southwest France) with marinated red cabbage, and blood sausage with aligot mashed potatoes. She also asked Reynaldo about The Red Chair’s signature dessert, “mille-feuille.”
In French, he said, it meant “a thousand leaves.” He also cooed that it was a “to-die-for layered puff pastry stuffed with vanilla custard.” Valentina pointed enthusiastically at the menu and requested two servings.
When Reynaldo returned with the wine, she settled in to wait. As she sipped, she thought it a shame not to eat, but she was too excited.
Off in the distance, near the front of the restaurant, she noticed Jules. Her heart skipped a beat. He was here, after all. He looked ravishingly handsome, as usual. He wore a tapered black suit with a white open collar shirt, cuffed in gold at the sleeves. Jules smoothly made the rounds, flitting from table to table like a butterfly. He kissed the women’s cheeks and routinely let his hand linger on their bare shoulders while he chatted up their escorts.
Valentina amused herself trying to decide if the men talking to Jules were husbands or lovers. Among the diners scattered around the room, she noticed the American ambassador, the mayor, a couple of cabinet members, and television personalities still in their pancake makeup. Next to the bar, a pianist played cocktail jazz, while waiters in short waist-jackets floated from table to table. The room buzzed with electricity.
Jules looked up at her and winked. She noticed his eyes wander the length of her body and she watched him smile lasciviously. She held up her glass of wine in a faux salute. He blew her a kiss.
As Jules continued to make his rounds, Valentina decided she had waited long enough. She took the gift box from the table and sat it gingerly on the floor. She cocked the lid to one side. Immediately, she grabbed her purse and made a rapid exit toward the front door.
With the lid lying loosely on the top of the box, six albino mice, which had been cooped up inside, pressed it off and eagerly jumped for their freedom. When they hit the floor, they fled in all directions of the globe. And, that’s when pandemonium set in at The Red Chair.
Valentina heard the first screams before she reached the door. Tumults of French cussing and the running of footsteps echoed off the walls. She couldn’t help herself, so she stopped and turned to witness a riotous confusion akin to a frenzied fire drill.
Wild-eyed men with knees knocking stood precariously on chairs, while determined women held their ground and swatted at the pests with expensive handbags. In a rush to sidestep the critters, dinner patrons and staff crossed paths and when two, or more, tried to occupy the same space, it resulted in a great crashing of arms and legs and toppled chairs. These pileups were usually followed by an angry avalanche of plates with half-eaten food, cutlery, and glasses filled with various vintage. Within seconds, the floor became as slippery as a hockey rink. Squealing waiters slid to the deck and tossed whole platters of food, fresh from the kitchen, high into the air. For a split second it looked as though a flock of dead chickens and ducks had come to life. One would have thought that the naked and featherless forms had been tossed free to fly but gravity would have none of it. The hot and marinated birds rained down ignominiously, clanking the heads of confused patrons. The downed birds bounced to the floor along with their buttery side dishes and added to the already slippery scene. Those who were still fortunate to be on their feet, thundered heavily toward the exits like frightened buffalo routed by the innocent albino rodents, who also wanted nothing better than to escape the madness.
Valentina caught a glimpse of Jules in the back of the room trying his best to restore order. He was in the midst of helping a disheveled actress to her feet. But, he no longer looked suave and debonair. In fact, he looked like he had caught the full brunt of a food fight. Their eyes met and for a moment, Valentina felt like the world had crawled to a slow motion film where every object and body in the room seemed suspended. She blew him a kiss, turned, and walked out into the night.
The next day, Valentina was not surprised to see the riot at The Red Chair reported on the front pages of all the newspapers. The story also led the TV news casts. She read the accounts with amusement and caught herself giggling at the photos of some of Paris’ most famous politicians and business men covering their faces as they scurried into the street.
On day two of the continuing story, she gleefully read how the Institut de Veille Sanitaire, the French Institute for Public Health Surveillance, had ordered The Red Chair closed while it conducted a formal investigation. The mice were never found.
That evening, feeling vindicated and hungry as a cattle drover headed to Abilene, Valentina craved a good, old-fashioned Texas burger with all the fixin’s and a cold beer. She pulled on a pink T-shirt, tight blue jeans and boots and headed out to a casual American eatery called, “Johnson’s” near the Seine River.
She found solace as soon as she walked through the door and heard the familiar strains of George Strait on the jukebox. It was like being in “Amur-cah” as red-blooded men stared at her breasts and she didn’t mind. She let her ears re-tune to the Texas twang where vowels merged in a southern lilting drawl, and the comforting cacophony of “y’alls,” filled the room.
When the blonde, blue-eyed, gum chewing waitress took Valentina’s order, she said, “Y’all want French fries with that?”
“You betcha, honey,” Valentina said. “Pile ‘em on.”
# # #
Remember to make every hour your happy hour.