- Author: Andrea Lee
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To the memory of Charles Sumner Lee
During the wet autumn of 1974 I heard a lot about another American girl who was living in Paris. Her name was Kate, and she was said to be from a rich family in Chicago—a word my French friends pronounced with relish, in a pidgin staccato. Kate was a photographer who specialized in making nudes look like vegetables; she lived on an immense allowance in an apartment near the Bois de Boulogne. She was an old friend of Henri, Alain, and Roger, the three young men with whom I lived, and in early October we tried several times to visit her, but each time a hostile male voice over the telephone told us she was busy, or out of town, or indisposed. Henri finally heard a rumor that she was being held prisoner in her apartment by her present lover and an ex-boyfriend, who were collecting her allowance and had bought a luxurious Fiat—the same model the Pope drove—with the profits.
The story was riveting enough when we discussed it over drinks at the Bill-Board, a nondescript café near the Rue de Rivoli, but none of my companions seemed especially concerned about Kate. Alain sighed and licked the ring of milk foam from his glass (he always ordered Ovomaltine); Roger thoughtfully rubbed his nose; and Henri, shaking his head at me in mock sorrow, said, “American girls!”
Kate came occasionally into my thoughts as I sat shivering and watching television in the big vulgar living room of Henri’s uncle’s apartment, where a penetrating chill rose from the marble floors. That fall I had only one pair of tights because my supply of travelers’ checks was dwindling and I didn’t want Henri to buy my clothes; over the tights, for warmth, I wore a pair of white tennis socks I’d bought in Lausanne in the summer. The socks, which I seldom washed, were getting tatty, brownish, and full of holes. I massaged my cold toes through my socks and tights and thought idly about Kate the Lake Forest debutante immured somewhere overlooking the rust-colored chestnuts in the Bois. She seemed to be a kind of sister or alter ego, although she was white and I was black, and back in the States I’d undergone a rush of belated social fury at girls like Kate, whose complacent faces had surrounded me in prep school and college. Idly I sympathized with her, guessing that she had a reason for investing in whatever thefts and embarrassments modern Paris could provide.
In October there was a French postal strike, which pleased me: I had painstakingly cut off communication with my family in Philadelphia, and I liked the idea of channels closing officially between America and France. The dollar was down that year, and it was harder than ever to live on nothing in Europe, but scores of Americans were still gamely struggling to cast off kin and convention in a foreign tongue, and I was among them. I had grown up in the hermetic world of the old-fashioned black bourgeoisie—a group largely unknown to other Americans, which has carried on with cautious pomp for years in eastern cities and suburbs, using its considerable funds to attempt poignant imitations of high society, acting with genuine gallantry in the struggle for civil rights, and finally producing a generation of children educated in newly integrated schools and impatient to escape the outworn rituals of their parents. The previous June I had graduated from Harvard, having just turned twenty-one. I was tall and lanky and light-skinned, quite pretty in a nervous sort of way; I came out of college equipped with an unfocused snobbery, vague literary aspirations, and a lively appetite for white boys. When before commencement my father died of a stroke, I found that my lifelong impulse to discard Philadelphia had turned into a loathing of everything that made up my past. And so, with a certain amazement at the ruthless ingenuity that replaced my grief, I left to study French literature in Lausanne, intending never to come back.
One weekend in Montreux I met Henri Durier, and at his suggestion quit school and Switzerland to come live in the Paris apartment he shared with his uncle and his uncle’s array of male companions and his own two friends from childhood, Alain and Roger. There I entered a world where life was aimless and sometimes bizarre—a mixture that suited my desire for amnesia. Henri was nineteen, a big blond who looked more Frisian than French. Though he wasn’t terribly intelligent, there was something better than intelligence and older than his age in the way he faced the world, something forceful and hypnotic in his gray eyes, which often held the veiled, mean gaze of one for whom life has been a continual grievance. He was, in fact, an illegitimate child, raised outside Paris by his mother and adopted only recently by his rich uncle. This uncle held a comfortable post at the Ministry of Finance, and Henri, who had an apprentice job in the advertising department of Air France, lived and traveled lavishly on a collection of credit cards. When I met him, he had just returned from touring Texas, where he had bought a jaunty Confederate cap. Throughout our short romance we remained incomprehensible to each other, each of us clutching a private exotic vision in the various beds where we made love. “Reine d’Afrique, petite Indienne,” Henri would