The Café de l’Espérance

It was February, 1992, when I stood in my raincoat with my two suitcases in front of a locked courtyard gate in the 9th arrondissement. The airport taxi vanished, leaving me alone on the deserted street. The digicode I had brought from Los Angeles didn’t unlock the big double doors of the eighteenth-century apartment building. What am I doing here? I wondered in a moment of panic. Am I completely crazy after a year of widowhood?

But just then, a woman wearing a bright silk scarf over her dark winter coat opened the courtyard door, pleasantly saying, “Bonjour! Alors, entrez!” before setting off down the street toward the pealing bells of the church of Notre Dame de Lorette. I propped open the heavy green door with one bag, hauled the rest of my gear over the threshold, and entered the courtyard as Alice must have entered Wonderland.

I had always wondered what was behind those huge doors I saw in French films that hid Parisians’ private lives from the curious tourist on the street, and now, as I lugged my baggage across the court, I took a good look. Large and square, completely enclosed on all four sides by the six-storied building, the courtyard’s only items of interest were the gray cobblestones and a metal fountain used, I supposed, for watering horses a hundred years ago. The perfume of Sunday morning coffee floated from several windows.

Madame de Chardon waited in her open doorway as I got off the minuscule cage elevator on the third floor. Madame, small-boned and elegant, “d’un certain âge,” with a pink artificial flower already pinned to her chignon, surveyed my abundant American belongings now filling up the small entry hall of her apartment. “Bienvenue, Madame Magnus. Je suis enchantée de faire votre connaissance.” We shook hands firmly up and down exactly twice in the prescribed French way.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked in French, opening the curtained glass parlor doors. While she clanged pots in the kitchen, I perched on the drab flowered sofa and studied the portraits hanging from picture rails and porcelain boxes balanced on lace doilies on Directoire marble tables. Madame brought in teabag tea and packaged cookies with panache on a tarnished silver tray.

“I was able to keep my large apartment in this good quartier by renting out the two extra bedrooms to students.” At this she peered over her glasses at me as if to ascertain whether or not I wasn’t too old to study French. “Furthermore,” Madame continued, “I enjoy meeting people from around the world—and occasionally practicing the English.”

To me, the apartment was very French and therefore charming, more than 200 years old, with high ceilings and marble fireplaces in each room. Madame ushered me ’round on a guided tour, and I gaped at the exposed pipes and conduits that ran every which way, the laundry draping from clotheslines crossing the ceilings, and dusty curtains hiding caches of God-knew-what in every niche and corner. I didn’t care that the two towels Madame handed me were threadbare, or that the bureau drawers were full of things belonging to people long-since departed, or that all of the fancy cornices and moldings in my room were painted a hideous bright pink. Or even that a thin layer of grime covered everything. I was in Paris.

Madame indicated that I shouldn’t make myself at home in the rest of the apartment. I noticed the telephone in the dining room had a padlock on it, not that I had anyone to call. The stale cookies had left a dusty taste in my mouth, and so I went across the street to sit over a crème on the sidewalk of the Café de l’Espérance, now open and filling up with after-Mass and instead-of-Mass habitués. My ears ached with listening to them all speaking French as I stirred my coffee and looked around with amazement. Here I was, at age forty-eight, suddenly on my own in Paris, transported as if by magic. There was no place on earth I would rather be, nothing else I would rather be doing. It had been three years since I had had a moment like this. Los Angeles was far away, so was the despair and depression I had lived with for so long.

Last year, Jack had been in a cancer clinic in Tijuana, the hospital of last resorts. The Mexican doctors took him off morphine so that the organic herbal treatments they prescribed would be more effective. He suffered agonies of withdrawal with sweats, hallucinations of snakes coming out of the walls, enormous pain. Even so, throughout his torment, he had been uncomplaining and optimistic and brave, unlike me, who had not felt the least bit courageous watching him die, just terrified.

On the first Christmas without him six weeks ago, I kept thinking about how Jack and I and the boys used to go at night to the Alameda Tracks in the belly of downtown Los Angeles to buy a glorious eight-footer at auction, fresh off the boxcars from Oregon. Winter-cold down at the tracks at night, we warmed our hands over oil-drum fires. We bought our dinner from taco trucks and churro and cotton-candy wagons before piling into the pine-scented jeep to go home.

My first Christmas as a widow, I didn’t feel like doing that. As soon as I would come home from work, I would go straight up to bed. Adam and Jason, my sons, had been home since the funeral, and they didn’t much feel like it either. Nobody cared about celebrating Christmas or anything else. My medication for depression only caused my insides trouble and changed the taste of food, so that I completely lost my appetite too. My appetite for living had left me long ago.

I tried to make a New Year’s resolution, but I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do in my life, let alone in the coming year. I knew I had to sell the house and get out of my financial difficulties. I knew my grown sons had to live their own lives. I knew my mother, affected by a failing memory, couldn’t help or comfort me or even understand what I was going through. I knew that each day was a mountain to climb over. I had no wishes, desires, or hopes, apart from freeing myself from the loneliness and pain.

Finally, on New Year’s Day as I lay in bed too down to get up, I realized there was something I wanted: to learn French. Maybe now was the time to do something serious about it. At my age, if I didn’t become fluent pretty soon, I figured I wouldn’t have a whole lot of time left to use it. Jack’s too-early death made me more conscious than ever of not waiting for “someday.”

My Francophile neighbors lent me a stack of brochures from language schools in France, and I picked one in Paris. On the second of January, I phoned my travel agent, and then I requested time off from my job at the city library. Before I left for Paris, against the advice of my doctor, who was afraid I might drown myself in the Seine, I threw away the antidepressants that made food taste like rusty airplane parts. “I’m going to France and by damn I’m going to taste the food and drink!” The kids were glad that at last I wanted to do something besides cry in bed.

And now, two weeks later, here I was, alone in this city of my dreams, getting ready to start school the next day. Sometimes, magic can be performed with a wish and a credit card.

After my coffee, I crossed the street. And this time, when I punched in the digicode, the gate opened.

The next morning, I got up early and struggled with the “foreign” bathroom and the accompanying hot water problem—the problem being that there wasn’t any. I took a cold shower, thankful that I just had my auburn mane cut short.

Euphoric to have some place in Paris that expected me, I joined the Monday morning throng hurrying down the steps of the Place Saint-Georges Métro station. The Parisians riding the train to Concorde in elegant suits looked vastly different from the tee shirt and jogging-apparel-clad public transport commuters of L.A. I wore jeans and boots and a black leather jacket like the student I had suddenly become.

French school was the right prescription for what ailed me. No one knew me or my problems; all I had to worry about was my homework. I could be happy for a little while just being me, whoever that was. I had hope that in two weeks my French would be, if not perfect, more Parisian, more French! Suddenly, I had an appetite. For the first time in years, there were pleasurable things to do, learn, see, feel, taste. As I stepped on the train, I felt myself crave.

— Cherie Magnus

Cherie Magnus was a dance research librarian in the Los Angeles Central Library and a dance critic for local newspapers before living in France, Mexico, and finally Argentina, where she taught tango for eleven years. Many of her articles on dance, books, travel, and international culture have been published in magazines, professional journals, and several anthologies. “The Café de l’Espérance” is an excerpt from the author’s award-winning The Church of Tango: a Memoir. The prequel, Arabesque: Dancing on the Edge in Los Angeles, was published in December 2014. Both are available in paper and for the Kindle from Amazon.

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