In fourth grade, after the bra-and-girdle notebook affair, we all fell in love with Julia Harris. By “we” I mean the foreign boys in Madame Bouvet’s class, and also Pascal Fourtané, the only French boy we foreigners hung out with. Unfortunately for the rest of us, Pascal was also the only boy Julia loved back, although he used to tell me, during our daily tic-tac-toe games on the bus ride home, that he would give her to me when he tired of her. We were both young enough to believe that.
Pascal and I were the ones who started the bra-and-girdle notebook. Every day after the class finished lunch in the canteen, and before math started at one o’clock, Madame would let us into the room to read Astérix comics or to browse through stacks of old magazines. One day, Pascal and I stole a notebook and a glue stick from the supply cabinet, and started snipping out magazine ads of women in underclothes. It wasn’t long before every foreign boy in the class was browsing on our behalf, cutting out bra and girdle and bath oil ads; Pascal and I glued the pictures into the notebook, and one of us took it home each night. Not that it was that thrilling to look at. We found occasional bare-chested women in Madame’s old copies of Elle and Paris Match, but we stuck to bras and girdles, bath towels and pajamas. These things seemed safe to us, in a way that breasts and buttocks and pubic hair did not.
The French girls took a while to find out about the notebook. The French boys knew, but were afraid of Pascal; and the foreign girls were anti-French enough to leave us alone with our daily obsession.
Half the students at the Lycée International were foreigners: children of diplomats, bankers, IBM executives. The French hated us, and so we were rebels, and so the French hated us more. I’m Canadian, and since there was no Canadian Section, I spent my six hours of weekly National Instruction in the British Section, with Julia and others who pronounced car “cah” and called a truck a “lorry.” But outside of classes, I hung out mostly with angry Dutch boys, and with Pascal. The Dutch boys were the worst; during my eight years at the Lycée I helped them set fire to haystacks, filch whole cases of pâté and bubble gum from stores, and throw stink bombs, ink bombs, and water bombs at anyone or anything French.
Probably it was a French girl who ratted on us; it certainly wasn’t Julia Harris. Julia, the only girl on the bra-and-girdle team, was shorter than most of us and had wide brown eyes and short-cropped brown hair. Julia brought us pictures from a lingerie catalog of her mother’s; she was as interested in breasts as we were, though we couldn’t imagine why. I couldn’t imagine what she saw in Pascal, either, but once Madame snatched the notebook from Pascal’s lap during the nine-times tables, and dragged him off to the contrôleur’s office, the seeds of their love were sown. I have often wondered how my life would have turned out if the notebook had been in my lap and not Pascal’s: would I now be living with Julia in Sussex, breeding brown-eyed, pudgy-nosed daughters, instead of getting a postcard every five years or so , in Julia’s bulbous scrawl, addressed to “Richard Cairn, c/o parents”?
Pascal returned from the contrôleur’s office with red, swollen hands and a heroic smile, and the following day he and Julia publicly declared their love. It was only words, of course; Pascal and Julia didn’t kiss or hold hands or share bubble gum, so the rest of us — the Dutch boys, Pablo, Hans, we Anglos — could secretly believe that Julia loved one of us and not Pascal. But it was Pascal she now sat beside at lunch, Pascal she sneaked notes to behind Madame’s back, Pascal the only boy she invited to her slumber birthday party.
There’s not much more to say about the bra-and-girdle episode. Pascal and Julia were in love, the foreign girls teased Julia, the French girls felt defeated, the French boys concentrated on their math, and we foreign boys moped and wished and squirted fountain pen ink at one another. I wrote letters to Mary-Ellen, my sweetheart back in Toronto, and she sent me her drawings of horses and huge pierced hearts.
I began taking guitar lessons after an aunt shipped me an old steel-string guitar she didn’t want; when I went for my first lesson, my teacher threw me out of his house and told me to come back a week later with a real guitar, by which he meant a classical one. My father took me to a shop on Rue de Rome downtown and bought me a blond classical guitar and a cloth carrying case. I learned to read music, struggled through Carulli’s waltzes, and forgot about girls.
Before the school year was out, my fingers ached but my heart had healed, and when Pascal gave up Julia, neither of us bothered to mention his promise to pass her on to me. Pascal had discovered a new passion, a kind of animal sticker you traded with friends and stuck in special books, and now he and all of us foreign boys traded giraffes for armadillos, spotted leopards for lynxes. In June Julia’s cat had kittens, and she brought them to class to trade for some of the rarer stickers — warthog, bushbaby, Amazonian toad. Gita, the tabby I took home, slept eighteen hours a day for eighteen years. My mother had her put to sleep for good last April.
In seventh grade Julia and I were both in Monsieur Clairmont’s class, and I was in love with her again. It was a different kind of love then, the kind that paralyzed. Julia couldn’t have thought much of me, since I was nervous and quiet around her and when I did talk to her I made a fool of myself. Being in love wasn’t as easy and innocent as it had been when we were eight; puberty and sex loomed dangerously ahead.
I had kept on with the guitar, and had learned to play without making the strings buzz at every note. I talked to my guitar and called it Mary-Ellen, though the flow of pierced hearts and horses’ heads from Canada had dried up over the years. Once a week I polished the blond wood of the soundboard, and every couple of months I changed the strings. They say music is the universal language, but it seemed to me that classical guitar was a dialect not much understood or cared for by other eleven-year-olds.
I ran into Julia in a music store one winter Saturday, in her suburb of Saint Cloud. The store was a whole hour’s cycling from Le Vésinet, where I lived, but I had to pay for bus fares and guitar strings with my allowance money, and this place was cheap. I stumbled into the store sweating and coughing, and the salesmen all frowned at me, which was what French salesmen seemed to do best.
Julia Harris smiled, though, as she turned from a counter. “Richard, what are you doing here?”
Her short fingers were stretched over the holes of a recorder. I could see a wire in front of her lower teeth, and pink plastic along the inside edge of her lower gums. She wore a retainer. She never had that on at school, and I felt as if her metallic smile had let me in on some deeper secret. I kept my eyes on the retainer, and for once I wasn’t tongue-tied. “Getting guitar strings,” I answered.
“Look at this recorder,” Julia said. “Like it?”
“It’s pretty,” I said, and felt stupid.
“So you biked all the way from Le Vésinet, did you?”
This is a dream, I thought. How can we be talking, how can Julia sound so impressed, sound like she likes me? I felt a burst of courage within me, stared straight at the silvery wire of her retainer, and asked, “Want to go to a movie tomorrow?”
“Well, what movie?” Julia said, utterly calm.
Don’t wet your pants, Richard. “Jaws,” I said.
“That would be lovely,” Julia replied. “It’s playing right here in Saint Cloud. Just us two?”
She can probably see my legs rattling, I thought. But I nodded. “Well, see ya,” I said, and started to leave.
“Richard, your guitar strings.”
So I came back to the counter and asked for some Savarez Haute Tension, and while one salesman threw the strings at me, Julia argued with another over the price of the recorder.
“Call me tomorrow morning,” Julia said as I sneaked out.
I made it home in half an hour.
My older brother Doug knew something of dates, since he’d had a few; puberty, since he’d reached it; and sex, since he’d read about it. That night I walked bewildered into his bedroom.
“Doug, I’ve got a date and I don’t know what to do.” I told him what had happened in Saint Cloud.
“That’s easy,” Doug said knowingly. “When the lights go out, you yawn and raise your arms, and drop an arm on her shoulder. Just leave it there a while, and then you slide it slowly under her shirt, back and forth and gentle so she doesn’t notice. Then you put your hand on her tits.”
“She doesn’t have tits!” I said, and stomped out.
But when Julia took off her jacket before the movie began, I twisted my eyes toward her and saw two little bumps beneath her sweater. I sat through the movie terrified not by the gushing blood and severed limbs on the screen, but by the chasm of puberty which separated us. I must yawn and drop my arms, I told myself — the next time the shark bites, the next time the screen darkens. Yawn, stretch, a hand falls on her shoulder. I will, I will, I thought, and my stomach ached from fear. But I knew all along I wouldn’t, and my stomach ached also from hating myself.
“That was good fun,” Julia said as I fumbled with my bicycle lock outside. “Shall we go to my house? It’s five o’clock and no one’s there now.”
No one’s there now. I felt huge pointed teeth sinking into my thighs, blood spurting out my mouth. What could she mean by that? “I have to be home by six,” I said. “I’d better go.”
“Too bad,” Julia said, “it would have been fun. Cheerio.”
I got home that night at six-thirty, and was grounded for a week.
Julia didn’t give me a second chance at an afternoon’s erotic romp around her parents’ empty suburban villa. She started hanging out with the Dutch boys, Nels and Armand; Pascal and I bought a copy of Oui, which I later set on fire in a moment of sick, frenzied guilt. Then we stole swans’ eggs off an island on one of Le Vésinet’s many ponds, but couldn’t make the eggs hatch.
I continued to play the guitar. A school concert was coming in May, and the music teacher had set me up with two French recorder players to perform a Bach trio. This did not help my image among the expatriates. School music in France is not prestigious; it lacks the glamor of brass bands and chamber orchestras. You sing, and if you can’t sing, you play along with a recorder. The music teacher was a bony woman with glasses so thick her eyes looked like tiny marbles; behind her back we called her the Crab, for her eyes and her crankiness. No one liked her, and we all sang out of key in class while she frowned at us from the piano.
One evening after a late rehearsal, I ran into Julia outside the school’s front doors. I passed her several times a day and ignored her or merely nodded; but there were no swarms of students around us now, and we were going the same way, so I couldn’t avoid talking to her. “What are you doing here so late?” I asked as the doors clicked shut behind us.
“Working on my report for Mr. Folkes, in the library. You?”
“Concert rehearsal.” I’d already finished my report, which was on maple syrup, an easy topic for a Canadian with an unsuspecting British teacher.
We walked together past the empty bicycle racks, and I stopped at my battered red ten-speed. “Coming to the concert next week?” I asked, a lump in my throat.
“Don’t know. Nels and Corinne and I were talking about going to the cinema that night. Well, cheerio, I’ve got to run.”
I slung the cloth guitar case over my shoulder, flipped on the bicycle generator, and rode out the front gates of the school. It was dark already and I could see the harsh white of Julia’s jacket as she walked past the black trunks of horse chestnuts that lined the school road. I was about to call, “Hope you’ll come” as I sneaked up behind her, when I saw a shaggy-haired boy on her left, Nels van der Linden. I passed her in jealous silence, and struggled home to Le Vésinet, slowed by the weight of the guitar, the drag of the generator, and the nagging suspicion that Nels and Julia had been holding hands.
I ate a cold supper, argued with Doug, who was going through a “God I swear Richard you’re so obnoxious and immature” phase, and went to bed.
That night I dreamed of a white guitar. The guitar floated weightless before me, its soundboard polished and iridescent like mother-of-pearl, and when I plucked its strings it had the sharp yet mellow sound of a harpsichord, lute, and twelve-string all at once. I could play the white guitar expertly, and in a dark room I made its strings sing with music never heard, and Julia appeared, sitting cross-legged, her head in her cupped hands, her brown eyes staring into mine, and I knew that the white guitar gave me the power to seduce her, regardless of the Fourtanés and van der Lindens of the world. I woke convinced that with music I could have Julia, and in our next math class I asked her to the concert again.
“Sorry, we’re going to the new James Bond film.”
“I thought you liked recorder music,” I said. “I’m in a trio with recorders.”
“I like James Bond, too.”
That evening I reached under my bed and pulled out the cobweb-swirled folk guitar my aunt had given me. I took off the strings and carried the guitar down to the basement workroom, found a tin of glossy white paint and a brush, hung the guitar from a water pipe overhead, and painted the soundboard, sides, and back of the body, the back of the neck, and the wood around the tuning gears. My mother stared at me on her way to the freezer, and I tried to stand in front of the guitar to hide what I was doing. “Put some newspaper down to catch the paint drips,” was all she said, and her lack of curiosity, her failure to ground or scold or even question, disappointed me. How could Doug provoke her by holding his fork wrong or by picking his nose, while I defaced a perfectly good guitar and suffered no punishment?
Two days later, when the second coat had dried, she even told me the guitar was pretty.
I thought so too, although when I strung it up with some old strings I’d saved from the blond guitar, it didn’t have the mesmerizing tone I had dreamed of. In fact it didn’t sound much better than rubber bands stretched over a shoe box, what with all the paint on the soundboard. But I had a white guitar, and a concert the following Tuesday, and I had the power to lure Julia Harris away from the cinema and into my arms. I wouldn’t ask her again; the white guitar would work its magic, and make her come.
The Crab was not impressed, at our lunchtime rehearsal the day of the concert, when I pulled from my cloth case a white guitar still reeking of paint. “Ça va pas, non?” she said, and sent me home for my boring blond. The French recorder players were amused.
Our trio performed well that night, considering we were only eleven years old and hated one another’s guts. But the white guitar lay silent at home, back under my bed, and the blond guitar’s strings buzzed and twanged against the frets, and Julia and Nels watched Roger Moore fire compressed-air bullets and spin his magnet-watch, and who knows if Nels yawned? Parents clapped when we finished the Bach, and students in the audience dozed, and I stumbled off the stage without a bow.
In eighth grade Monsieur Masson, our French teacher, cast us in a corny old play about how an aristocrat falls in love with a maid, and the maid’s mistress falls in love with the aristocrat’s servant, but everything works out in the end because the aristocrat marries the mistress and a farmer marries the maid and the servant marries the maid’s widowed mother. A hokey plot with the usual French concern for the preservation of the social hierarchy, but it had some good lines. I played the farmer, speaking with an exaggerated country accent full of song and expression and rolled R’s; Julia played the maid. We may have looked like a well-matched pair when rehearsals began in September, but Julia had a growing spurt that fall and winter, and by the time we knew our lines and gestures by heart in March, she towered over me, over all her classmates. The Dutch boys dubbed her “La Tour Eiffel,” and everyone fell in love with her again. Her growing spurt gave her prestige, authority, adultness, and, perhaps more important, full breasts. Most of the girls wore bras then, but Julia was one of the few who needed to. Nels boasted that he’d gone with her once, but said she was with Armand now; Armand told me he’d gone with her but now she was with Pascal again. Pascal told me he hadn’t kissed Julia since fourth grade, and his admission, instead of comforting me, made me sick with jealousy: you mean you kissed her back then?
I did not get to kiss Julia, although she became my wife three nights a week during rehearsals. In the final scene of the play, the master and his new wife hold hands, and the farmer and his new wife hold hands, and the servant holds the widow’s hands, but Julia the maid would not let Richard the farmer touch her during any of the rehearsals.
“We’re supposed to hold hands,” I would tell her, every time scene 33 came up. “That’s what Masson said.”
“On parle en français, s’il vous plait,” Monsieur would scold.
“Allez, donne-moi tes mains.” But La Tour Eiffel would lean her head down to me and shake it, and Monsieur didn’t complain. As long as we would hold hands during the actual performance, he was happy.
And so was I, as I stood on stage in scene 33 before a packed, stuffy auditorium, and took Julia’s hands in mine. She looked startled when I stared up into her eyes; she messed up her final line, and I felt her skin getting warmer. The curtain fell, and we all came out front. I stood at one end and squeezed Julia’s hand, Monsieur announced our names and had us bow one at a time, and when I stepped forward the Americans whistled and the Dutch shouted and the French clapped louder than ever. How could Julia not love me now?
A few days later, I was out in the woods beside the Lycée with Nels, Armand, La Tour Eiffel, Corinne, and Brigitta, a German girl. Nels claimed to be going with Corinne then, and Armand was going for Brigitta, which left Julia to me. To show off, I shinnied up a thick ivy vine that hung from a beech tree. Richard the muscle-man, I thought, Richard who brought the house down, Richard who had held Julia’s hand. Then I stared down and saw the rest of them sitting in a circle, choking on a forbidden shared cigarette, and I didn’t feel so muscular, so comic or seductive. I slid down for a puff, but the cigarette was already finished. No one had even noticed my antics.
I don’t remember what drove me to my confession then, but I imagine something like this must have gone through my mind: it’s odd how we tell these lies, Nels saying he’s going with Corinne when he can’t look her in the eyes without blushing, Armand going for Brigitta but not doing anything about it, me being in love with Julia Harris for most of the past five years but never letting her know. Let’s be honest, I must have thought. End the pretense!
“Julia,” I said, “want to be my petite princesse?”
Petite princesse was our euphemism for “girlfriend.”
“Ou la la!” Corinne said. Julia shook her head.
“Je t’aime,” I told Julia. “I love you,” I said in English, as if she couldn’t understand the French.
“So?” Julia said. “Lay off.”
If she had blushed and stood up and gone back to the school, if she had laughed or hadn’t answered, I might have had enough hope, enough boldness to keep trying. But my confession meant nothing to her, or even annoyed her. “Let’s smoke another cigarette,” Julia said as my face turned purple, and a Gitane began making the rounds as I left.
“Good luck finding a princesse,” Julia shouted as I climbed through the woods. Her voice was cold and without humor; it was as if we were back in fourth grade, and she had decided not to trade her kitten for my Amazonian toad sticker after all.
Unfortunately I’m crippled and I can’t come to your store. But I need some rubbers. So I have sent my son, but I don’t want him to know. So put a big packet of rubbers in a bag, along with the change from the fifty francs in this letter, and staple the bag before you give it to my son.
Sincerely, Simon Parks.
In those days in France you had to be sixteen or so to buy condoms; pharmacists hid them behind the prescription counter, and, I suppose, glared suspiciously at anyone who asked for them. But I was only fourteen now, and so was Pascal Fourtané, my buddy again in ninth grade, and we looked on the condoms as a challenge, a way of rebelling, a test of our manliness.
We typed the fake letter, in French of course, on my father’s Underwood one Saturday in my bedroom in Le Vésinet. Pascal and I thought up the plan ourselves — my father is not handicapped, and I didn’t know anyone named Simon Parks. I had seen condoms before, and Doug had given me one a few months earlier that I dropped, full of water, from a fourth-floor school window.
Pascal had boasted on Friday that he and a girl had been rolling in the hayfields near the Lycée, so I was anxious to show my own worth that weekend, by being the one who went inside the pharmacy with the sealed letter. Pascal waited outside, around a corner, ready for our bicycle getaway.
A middle-aged, clean-cut, and very suspicious pharmacist read the forged letter. “Who wrote this?” he asked angrily, and stared down at me over the tops of his glasses. But Pascal and I had thought this through pretty well: I had on a shirt I used to wear in primary school, with sailing ships on it, and Pascal had brushed my hair back so I looked like an oversized nine-year-old, and we had rehearsed the possible questions and the answers I was to give.
“Mon papa,” I said with a girlish voice. A fourteen-year-old would have said mon pere.
Somehow I managed not to lose control of my bowels, and the pharmacist rolled his eyeballs, pulled a white bag from under a shelf, and went back to put something in it. He rang up the price on the cash register, stuck some change in the bag, stapled it shut, and handed it to me.
“Merci,” I gulped, and walked slowly to the door.
Pascal and I flew back to my house.
We bolted the door of my bedroom, pulled open the bag, and took out the box of condoms. I still remember the thrill, the hot shaking in my stomach, that same sense of danger and exhilaration I’d felt while gluing girdles into a notebook under Madame Bouvet’s nose.
“Thirty-six of them!” Pascal said, and we counted to make sure.
We opened a couple, blew them up into balloons, laughed. We sneaked into the bathroom to fill a couple more with water, and Pascal suggested we throw them out the window, but I didn’t want my parents finding wet shreds of latex on the walkway below my room. We popped the air-filled ones, and tried to force Gita the cat into another one, though she turned nasty and tore the condom to bits and left long crimson scratches up my arms. I don’t know what I had planned to do with my share of the condoms — perhaps I hoped that, like charms, they would lure girls to me. But the thrill wore off soon after Gita bolted, and I had to find some other way to entertain my guest. I showed Pascal my book of animal stickers from fourth grade, but he wasn’t the reminiscing type. Then I reached under my bed, and brought the white guitar out.
“Let’s bust it up,” I said, and pulled out my Swiss Army knife.
We kicked the back of it a few times, but it was strong and showed no sign of damage, so I took the knife to the strings and cut them. Pascal sunk his teeth into the edge of the soundboard below the bridge, but didn’t like the taste of the white paint that chipped off into his mouth. I scraped some paint away with the knife. Then, in a moment of profound inspiration, I saw what we must do.
“Let’s carve hearts and our girlfriends’ initials into it.”
“You go first,” Pascal said.
I drew a big heart with the blade, a heart like the ones Mary-Ellen used to mail me, only this one said RC + JH, not RC + MEF.
“Your turn,” I said proudly to Pascal.
“Wait a minute,” Pascal said, and pointed to the “JH.” “That’s your girlfriend?”
“Well, no,” I said. “That’s just who I want to be my girlfriend.”
“Who is it?”
“You know,” I said. “Julia.”
Pascal told me that Julia was the girl he had been rolling in the hay with.
“Then we’ve got a problem,” I said.
“What’s the problem?”
“We have to decide which one of us gets her,” I said.
“I think she already decided,” Pascal smiled.
I tried to hand him the mutilated white guitar, as a token of peace, but he wouldn’t take it. “You wrecked it enough already,” he said.
Pascal rode home soon after, his sixteen condoms concealed under his sweater. As he shut the house gate behind him, my embarrassment and regret turned to jealous rage, and I ran down the gravel driveway after him and threw pebbles through the gate and onto the road, but he was out of range. A pebble hit the fender of a passing Citröen. I went back upstairs fuming. Pascal had rolled in the hay with Julia Harris, and now he went home with half a box of condoms under his sweater. I was going to use mine to make water bombs; what were his for?
La Tour Eiffel kept growing, but by eleventh grade, the last year I lived in France, most of us boys had caught up with her. I never saw her with Pascal Fourtané, and since I stopped hanging out with him after the condom incident, I couldn’t find out if there had been any truth to his hayfield claim. Julia still favored the Dutch boys, and even a couple of French ones, who, being teenagers now, finally had something to rebel against and so were accepted as our peers. She never said much to me outside of a “hello” in National Instruction, which was our only class together that year.
One crisp January day, I was playing handball against a playground wall, easily beating Nels van der Linden, who claimed to have stomach cramps from the awful couscous the canteen had served for lunch. Nels gave up the game, and with a malicious smile, told me in French: “You know, La Tour Eiffel sometimes talks about you.”
“She does? Really? What does she say?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Why, you like her?”
Nels let the matter drop.
A few days later Nels and Armand and I were smashing down a concrete shed in the fields, using a sledgehammer Armand had stolen. I took my turn with the sledgehammer, and Nels and Armand talked in Dutch, and when I handed the hammer to Nels, Armand whispered to me, “You know, La Tour Eiffel kind of likes you. She said to tell you.”
I pretended not to be surprised by this news. “Tell her I like her a lot,” I said proudly.
Secret messages, relayed back and forth. Julia says she likes you a lot, too. Richard says he thinks you’re pretty. Julia says maybe she wants to go with you. Richard says he wants to go with you. La Tour Eiffel is in love. Richard is in love with La Tour Eiffel. Every day Nels or Armand brought me news of Julia’s secret longings, and every day I sent my own longings back through them. I dropped my eyes in fear when I passed her in the hall, and sat at the back of Mr. Folkes’ English class so she couldn’t stare at me and make me sweat. Which of us is going to come out with it, I wondered? Why are we both so quiet about our love, shuttling our feelings back and forth through two Dutch boys?
At the end of classes one day, as I pulled my jacket off a hallway hook and watched Nels walk away with my latest offering to Julia, Corinne tapped my shoulder from behind.
“What?” I said, turning around. Corinne handed me a small envelope, with my name on the front in Julia’s handwriting. I stuffed it in my shirt pocket, and ran all the way to my bicycle. In a small park just beyond the school, I ditched the bicycle, and sat under a tree to read.
It seems Nels and Armand have been playing rather a cruel trick on us, or I should say on you. I like you but I never told anyone I was in love with you, and after a while I wondered why those two kept coming to me with more things they said you’d said about loving me. Finally they told me what they’d told you I’d said, and really, I never said any of those things. I’m sorry but I don’t love you. I hope your feelings aren’t hurt and don’t listen to those two any more. I punched them both in the stomach.
Your friend, Julia Harris.
Julia was friendly to me for the rest of my last year at the Lycée, but it could never be the same, not after my three embarrassing failures — confessing my love to her in the woods in front of the others; carving her initials in the white guitar while Pascal biked to a hayfield carrying sixteen condoms; falling prey to the scheming lies of Nels and Armand. Julia spoke to me as one speaks to a victim, to a child whose cat just died or whose brother has been thrown in jail; there was pity and understanding in her voice but no more, not even a hint of friendship. Too much of the past stood between us — at least that was my interpretation. Maybe she just felt repulsed by my acne and greasy hair and dirty fingernails, and by what a sucker I’d been to fall in love with her on hearsay. On the last day of class, I sneaked a sheet of paper into her book bag, with my Canadian mailing address on it, just before I rushed outside into spring and my bicycle and a summer’s freedom, just before I left the Lycée forever; but I never expected to hear from her again.
For a while I didn’t. I plowed through a final year of Canadian high school with a dull, homogeneous gang of long-haired drug addicts, and didn’t get any mail from France. Toward the end of that year I took some Poly Strip to the white guitar, and scraped away the paint. I half expected, on the night when the last hint of white had been sanded away, the night when the last curved tooth mark on the soundboard vanished, that a letter from Julia would arrive the following morning. But nothing came.
I helped other students with their French studies, which I was exempted from since I spoke French better than the French teacher, but other than the odd tutorial, I didn’t do much with my compatriot classmates. I didn’t go to many parties — I didn’t like the smell of pot, and after living in a country for eight years where I could legally buy and drink as much beer as I wanted, I didn’t see the thrill of secretly drinking myself senseless on Molson Export. I had a girlfriend at first — Mary-Ellen, my childhood sweetheart — but we soon discovered that nothing remained between us but a memory of horse heads and pierced hearts, and we lasted only a month.
After the white guitar had been sanded smooth, I stained it a cedar red and varnished it and strung it up with a new set of Savarez, which you can buy in Toronto without having them thrown at you. By then I had traded in the blond guitar for a good Japanese one, but I kept my newly stained, formerly white guitar even though it still sounded like a shoe box with rubber bands stretched over it. The new color looked good though, and I hung the guitar like a sacred cross on the wall over my bed.
The first of Julia’s postcards came a year after I graduated from high school. She was touring the Greek islands, she said, and thought I might like to see this Greek woman in a traditional costume, because the woman reminded her of Madame Bouvet. That was all. I suppose the woman did look a little like Madame Bouvet, though I had never seen Madame in a white dress with geometric blue fringes and a bundle of firewood on her back. The second postcard, which helped me through a dreary reading week in my third year of college, told me she thought of me now and again, and had I been working on any new notebooks? The joke was not lost on me, especially since the picture on this postcard was of a chimpanzee wearing a bra, panties, and garter belt. But it made me wonder: what was Julia trying to say? Was she just teasing, or saying something more?
The last thing Julia sent was not a postcard, but a two-page letter which told me of her studies and travels but nothing of her love life (not that it mattered to me any more, I told myself). She was living in Sussex, working toward a master’s in theater and directing plays when she got a chance. She included with the letter a photograph of herself and two short men beside her, sitting in the sand of a Mediterranean beach. I can’t make out the dark faces of the men; perhaps one of them is Nels or Pascal Fourtané, perhaps they are just hairy, short Don Giovannis she couldn’t get rid of. Julia is in the foreground, smiling, without a retainer; the man on the end smiles also, and looks at the camera, while the one in the middle sneaks a peek, unaware of the picture being taken, at Julia’s breasts, which are bare and plump and ghostly white. It does not look like she has had her bikini top off long, because elsewhere her skin is tanned a rich earthen brown.
I don’t know why she chose to send me that particular shot — whether she wanted to tease or provoke, or just to remind me that in Europe people aren’t so hung up about breasts now — but I have kept the shot all these years. I don’t look at it often. I’ve lived back here too long to avoid feeling shame when I do, and I hide it from whatever women happen into my life. But I hang on to it, hopeful, desperate perhaps for the return of a time I know is gone forever; just as I still have dreams about the ever-sleeping tabby, Gita; just as I hang the white guitar on the various walls that over the years have stood above my bed, even though the guitar is no longer white but a fading grayish pink, even though the lousy soundboard has cracked. The guitar, the white breasts, are symbols to me, of things that could have been but weren’t, of chances irrevocably lost. Did Julia send me her breasts as an offering of peace? As a gift, for old times’ sake, a gift more daring than any of the black lingerie she had snipped from her mother’s catalog for us in fourth grade? Or was she trying to tell me that she sometimes wondered, as I often did, where we would both now be if Pascal had given the notebook to me to hide, that afternoon of the nine-times tables?