Monday, April 2, 2012

Paris, 1992

It was near my parents’ apartment in Paris, a stone’s throw from the Opera, and for reasons to this day unknown it was my father’s favorite restaurant. Shortly after my mother’s death when the world was still chaotic, he, wifeless and still uncomprehending, decided we should go there and seek memories of her, as if these were scarce where they had lived a dozen years.

My sister and I wondered if this was a good idea but he was adamant. The restaurant served cous cous and only cous cous, with an array of meat and vegetable dishes meant only to enhance the grain. The place was run by an Algerian man and his wife. They knew my parents and had learned of my mother’s death that very morning and they reacted as North African Muslims do, with real tears, embraces and the panacea of food.

It was a tiny one-room establishment, with the giant cous cous pot and the four burner gas stove off to the side. Six tables, a linoleum floor with a pale lost motif eroded by years of wear, posters of the Mediterranean depicting what could have been Oran or Algiers or any other coastal city of the South. The owner stirred and tossed the grain while his wife sautéed peppers and onions and mergès, the thin lamb sausages endemic to North Africa. Every minute or so she would cast a sad glance our way and shake her head, then toss another handful of greens into the pan. There was something ageless about the food’s preparation, a knowledge passed down through generations of cookery, of ingredients, of bright blue flames barely controlled and pinches of spices and herbs.

We spoke quietly; there was no music. The street noises were muted and I think a thin rain was coming down, more mist than water, and the streetlights glowed with halos. The other customers—a middle-aged Muslim couple with an amazingly quiet child, two older men playing checkers at a corner table, and an elegant and misplaced couple, possibly Germans or Austrians—all seemed engrossed in their food, their game, the warmth of the small room and the moments at hand.

My father drank a lot that night, an unusual behavior for a man who seldom finished his evening scotch and water, and I thought, good, he’ll sleep, he’ll have a night of peace. He ate happily, told stories of meeting the woman he would marry, of the Free French and the war and the desert, and the malaria that would plague him his entire life. I, of course, recounted for the hundredth time my realization of many decades earlier that he and my mother had met in July, married in January of the following year, and I’d been born in March, two months after the marriage and nine months almost to the day of their first encounter. The story always made him laugh and he would pretend innocence, accuse me of poor mathematics, and then shrug his shoulders in that Gallic way that brooked no argument and encompassed all understanding.

After dinner my sister went home and my father and I returned to the apartment that was now his alone. The church service and funeral would be two days’ hence and I sense the presence of hundreds of mourners, the handshakes and murmurs of condolences, the embraces and tears and the sermon, the unfortunate panoply of death, none of these would affect him, and they did not. He sat in the front pew back erect, and he hardly blinked. I don’t know and will never know what he was thinking.

Twenty-four hours later, I return to the cou cous restaurant for lunch, this time by myself; my father has been taken in hand by one of his oldest friend, a widower as well, and they will go to an expensive restaurant and spend the afternoon touring one of those tiny museums Paris delights in, perhaps the one dedicated to locksmiths, which houses the collection of locks Louis XVI enjoyed working on before a mob dragged him off.

In the cous cous place, I come to the realization that I will have to bring my father back with me to the States. He won’t fare well by himself in Paris. He will live in my house in Virginia and we will work things out somehow. The harvest of this decision is a sudden feeling that my mother is at rest for good and for well. She is no longer worried. Her husband will be taken care of. And I am no longer worried either.

I eat the cous cous, the merges, the fried peppers. The owner hugs me again, and we argue over his insistence that my meal is on the house, and I can’t help but notice that the offer did not come three days ago when there were three of us eating. Life is normal once more.

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