Marcel's Letters, page 26
“What does she look like?”
“I don’t know,” I said as I shot Aaron a look letting him know it was pointless to ask additional questions. The previous weekend, when she suggested we meet underneath the Tower, I agreed without asking for more specific information. Could there be a more perfect place to meet? I provided a physical description of Aaron and myself, and I assumed she had seen the photo of me that ran with Henry’s article.
I scanned the crowd for any woman walking or standing alone. I checked my watch. I took deep breaths to calm my racing heart.
Military police strolled by with rifles held at a low, ready position. Clusters of tourists stared skyward, or stood with noses buried in maps and guidebooks. Others trailed behind tour guides like ducklings following their mother.
I checked my watch again. I took more deep breaths.
Just then, I noticed a woman walking toward us. She had a gentle smile. Her long, shiny hair had a hint of auburn she inherited from her grandmother.
I do not recall if we even formally introduced ourselves, but as Natacha—Nadine’s daughter, Suzanne’s granddaughter, Marcel’s great-granddaughter—walked up to us, I knew we had found each other. She greeted us with kisses and a broad smile. As she inquired about our flight and what sights we had seen that morning, I had the compulsion to reach forward and touch her arm, as if my sleep-addled brain needed confirmation this moment was really happening.
“For you,” she said as she held out a mint green bag embellished with a gold Ladurée logo. “A gift from my family. You know Ladurée?”
“No,” I apologized.
“The best macarons,” she said as she rolled her eyes in delight. Ladurée’s world-famous macarons, I would learn, were as much of a cultural icon as the Eiffel Tower itself.
Natacha suggested we head to Place du Trocadéro for lunch, so for the second time in less than six hours, we crossed the Seine, then climbed the steps of the Trocadéro. We claimed a small outdoor table. After ordering lunch, Natacha pulled a large, thick-framed photo out of her shoulder bag. It was Marcel and Renée’s wedding portrait, and I imagined Natacha plucking it off her living room wall as she walked out the door to meet us.
The only images of Marcel and Renée I had seen so far were low-resolution scans. This image was large and clear, and I stared at every magnificent detail: Marcel’s straight, thin nose, a smile that curled ever-so-slightly more to the left than to the right, straight eyebrows, the arch of a widow’s peak.
Natacha’s eyes lit up as she told stories about Marcel and Renée, but especially about Marcel. Natacha had been ten when he died, but the warm, familiar way she talked about him made it seem he had always been present. No; it was if he were still present. “You have given us so much joy, you must know that,” Natacha had written in an email the week before. “Thanks to you, I learned so many things about my family.”
She showed additional photos of her grandmother. In each, Suzanne seemed to burst with life. “She was so beautiful,” Natacha remarked with pride.
Natacha showed photos of her two boys: Ethan, three, a ginger-haired firebrand, and Nathan, two, an inquisitive prankster with big brown eyes. She passed a snapshot of her fiancé across the table. There were many things to love about him, she said with a dreamy smile; the thing she loved the most were his hairy arms.
Sitting with Natacha was a surreal delight, and an ease existed that made it feel we had known her for years, but I desperately needed one thing: sleep. I attempted to calculate how long I had been awake, but even simple math seemed impossible.
I asked Natacha if she was her family’s “advance scout.” It took her a moment to process the word “scout,” but then she sat ramrod straight, smiled, and with a single confident nod, proclaimed “Oui! ” without any trace of shame. “They are sitting by the phone, waiting for a full report.” I assumed that would be the case, but I had not expected her to be so fiercely honest. I immediately adored her.
The three of us strolled to a crêperie on the Esplanade. We stood in almost the exact same spot where we had watched the city wake up as we enjoyed the hot, sweet treats. After taking a handful of photos to remember our precious first meeting, we walked back to the Eiffel Tower and said our goodbyes. As Natacha headed in the opposite direction, my heart began to ache. I missed her already.
Aaron and I walked to the hotel, retrieved our luggage, and checked in to our apartment. Space for the building’s elevator had been carved from the center of a seventeenth-century staircase. Without bags, Aaron and I could both squeeze into the coffin-size elevator car. With a suitcase in tow, we had to go up one at a time.
The apartment’s living room had a wingback chair and a couch adorned with red gingham pillows. A tray on the coffee table held a handwritten note of welcome and a bottle of white wine. Double doors in the bedroom opened to a small balcony that overlooked a courtyard. The coziness created a delightful space to call home for the next eight days, and the private, secure building provided a shell of invisibility I yearned for.
Aaron sat down and opened the box from Natacha. He peeled back the tissue paper, revealing rainbow rows of flawless Ladurée macarons. I kissed his forehead, then stepped into the bedroom. I was asleep in seconds.
The next morning Aaron and I walked along the Seine, heading to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Along the way, we passed flower markets, grand statues, elegant buildings, and striped-awning boulangeries with rows and rows of glossy pastries. Even lampposts were beautiful, with wrought iron crowns, acanthus leaves, or fat-lipped fish swirling around the base.
Notre Dame’s stained glass windows were rich with pattern and seemed to glow with an impossible luminescence. I imagined spending an entire day walking laps around the sanctuary, watching as morning light shifted to afternoon light, allowing each window to glimmer in new and astonishing ways.
The cathedral’s trésors—gilded platters, jewel-encrusted headpieces, and hand-lettered manuscripts—were housed in a maze of rooms off the nave. On some manuscripts, words had been foiled with gold. On others, lines of intricate Blackletter were decorated with fields of flowers or woven into vines. One particular “Amen” caught my eye because it had been lettered in an astonishing six colors of ink.
After exiting the cathedral, we walked across the plaza in front of Hôtel du Ville—the grand building where Louise watched the Nazi flag raised and where she danced with American soldiers. We walked past the Louvre’s glass pyramid, then strolled the length of Jardin des Tuileries.
When we returned to the comfort of our little apartment, we tended to electronics and checked email before going to dinner at a restaurant owned by a chef Aaron had long admired. He would gush about the chef’s squid-wrapped ham for weeks.
Our first destination on Wednesday was the Musée d’Orsay, where prints by Toulouse-Lautrec made me recall the afternoon playing hooky at the Milwaukee Art Museum. It seemed impossible TypeCon had only been eleven weeks earlier. After a picnic lunch in Jardin des Tuileries, we viewed room-size Monet landscapes at Musée de l’Orangerie, then walked past a thousand Renaissance paintings at the Louvre.
That evening, back in our apartment, I turned on my laptop and noticed a Facebook message from a member of our Type Tuesday group. My head jerked in surprise; I had never before received a direct message from this type designer.
“I think I found out how those letters got to Minnesota,” he wrote. “My friend (along with a friend of hers) picked up those letters on a buying trip in France and brought them back here to sell in their antique shops.”
I had not seen or talked with this type designer in the four months since I gave my presentation, so he wouldn’t have known I had established contact with Kim, or that she had sent me twelve more letters. But when I read his entire message again I gasped so loud Aaron asked what happened. He wasn’t talking about Kim—he was talking about Kim’s former business partner.
The woman’s most recent Facebook post included a link to Henry’s artic
My jaw dropped. “There are more letters,” I whispered in astonishment. It felt as if every cell in my body was about to crackle and explode.
“Will you please ask her if she would consider selling the letters to me?” The type designer suggested she and I connect directly.
Within minutes, the woman and I were messaging back and forth. She lived in Roseville, a city ten or so miles from White Bear Lake. I told her I had been in touch with Kim, and acknowledged I knew the letters had been purchased at a flea market, not, as Henry’s article repeated, that they had been brought into the US by a soldier.
She and Kim had bought the letters at the Clignancourt market, she clarified. Clignancourt was the largest and most famous of Paris’s flea markets. Once they returned to the states, she and Kim divided Marcel’s letters. Kim sold hers at Belle Époque in Stillwater; she sold hers in Minneapolis. As messages flew back and forth, I read each one to Aaron. He seemed as dumbfounded as I was. Once again, it felt as if the Universe was conspiring in the most astonishing way.
When I asked if I could buy the letters from her, she typed back immediately: “Oh geez I wouldn’t ask money for them.”
The woman had to get back to work and logged off of Facebook. I slumped into the couch. For twenty minutes, I sat in wondrous disbelief. How many letters did she have? When had they been written? What would they reveal?
I had not yet checked email—only Facebook—and had promised family I would check email once per day. An email titled “Heuzé Letters” from Agnes waited. Once I opened the email, I realized it was not from Suzanne’s daughter, Agnès. It was a different Agnes. This Agnes was a television producer.
“I just got off the phone with Tiffanie who seems open to the idea of being interviewed on camera but she told me you are reluctant to do so. … You are the link between the past and the present. This story would be impossible to tell without you.”
I told Agnes my expectation was that our meeting would remain private, but in a follow-up email, it sounded as though Agnes was going to try to move forward regardless of my hesitation.
“If there is a single reporter or a single camera-person waiting when we get there, we’re turning around and leaving.” Aaron’s words were firm and forceful. His anger was palpable. I had no doubt he would carry through on that threat.
At dinner, thoughts ping-ponged between Agnes trying to film our meeting and the amazing claim from the woman in Roseville. The divergent thoughts were too much to process, and at one point I caught myself staring far into the distance, oblivious to the restaurant’s rattle and hustle. I looked at Aaron and apologized. During the previous days, I had made a conscious effort to be present with Aaron. I had been careful not to mention Marcel each time I wondered if he had seen the same sight, or if he had strolled the same street.
Aaron reached out and held my hand.
That night, sleep was as elusive as it had been the first night. For hours, I sat on the couch and churned through the new information: Could it be true? Could the woman in Roseville really have more letters? What if a news crew waited outside Denise’s apartment? What if Aaron tried to drag me away?
Aaron and I spent Thursday at Versailles touring the palace, then the gardens. On Friday we explored Montmartre, first visiting the massive Basilica, then strolling through Place du Tertre, the bustling square famous for its artists. We meandered the neighborhood, walking past quirky buildings, charming cafés, and an apartment Picasso once rented. Our path led to stairs that descended into Cimetière de Montmartre, one of Paris’s famous park-like cemeteries. A cobblestone path decorated with fresh-fallen yellow leaves led past crypts with ornate stained glass windows, scrolled wrought iron, arches, and carved columns. Some family names were incised into stone in ornate Blackletter; others were gilded in gold. Fresh flowers adorned some crypts, while others were covered with moss and ivy and appeared untouched for a century. One crypt included a life-size copper sculpture of a mourner doubled over in grief; the green patina running down the stone seemed to be stains of perpetual tears.
It was late by the time we returned to our little apartment. I logged into email and scanned new messages. Every day, emails from clients arrived, but I did not read them. I did not want to know about the projects that awaited. The only email I opened was from Tiffanie. I read her short message and let out a deflated sigh.
“Marcel isn’t coming tomorrow.”
In my mind, I began listing all the reasons why his change of plan had to be my fault.
“You can only change the things you have control over,” Aaron repeated. It had become his mantra during the previous weeks.
I tried to force a conciliatory smile, but my expression remained as stony as the statues in the Cimetière. I had hoped the family would be as eager to meet me as I was them—but now that Marcel was not going to be there, I had to face the sharp reality that that was untrue.
Aaron retreated to the bedroom and in a few minutes’ time, his resonant snore filled our apartment. Seeing Paris’s sights had been amazing, yet everything—paintings, palaces, stained glass, gardens, cathedrals, flower markets, monuments—had been viewed through a filter distorted by a thousand unknowns. At times, the week felt as if it were flying by. Other times, each minute felt like an hour. From the elation of learning about the additional letters, to the worry Agnes was still going to try to film our meeting, to the joy of meeting Natacha, to the lingering anxiety about all the still-unanswered questions, the whiplash between the week’s emotional highs and lows had been exhausting.
I crawled into bed next to Aaron, curling in tight so I could feel his chest rise and fall. He wrapped his arm around me. He was asleep, so he had no way to know how much I needed that embrace, or how the weight of his arm felt like a tether holding me to his safe ground.
Le Plessis-Robinson, France
October 27, 2012
“You stay,” Aaron said in a tone he would use with Hoover. I wanted to go to the outdoor market with him, but he gave me no choice. After eating breakfast, he grabbed his backpack and left so quickly I barely had time to say goodbye.
Ultimately, he was right. I needed time alone to gather my thoughts. I slumped into the apartment’s couch and took long, deep breaths. Who would be there? How bad will the language barrier be? What will I learn?
I tried to envision the first moments, and practiced a short list of phrases: Enchantée. Nice to meet you. Je m’appelle Carolyn. My name is Carolyn. C’est mon mari, Aaron. This is my husband, Aaron. Yet, as much as I tried to conjure any image of what came next, everything that followed seemed to be hidden behind a thick, mysterious fog.
I ironed my suit, showered, and fixed my hair. I carefully applied makeup and took more deep breaths. As I packed my laptop, envelopes with copies of the letters, and printed samples of the font into my shoulder bag, I could not shake a feeling I was missing something critical while also knowing precisely what that something was: Marcel’s original letters.
Aaron returned to the apartment at 11:30 with a content smile. It had been a glorious blue-sky morning, he said, and the market had been filled with colorful produce, fragrant cheeses, and fish so fresh they still smelled like the ocean. He unzipped his backpack and extracted oranges, savory lunch pastries, a raspberry pastry for the next morning’s breakfast, and bottles of Burgundy—gifts for Denise and Agnès.
At 2:00 Aaron and I caught the Métro and headed to St-Michel Notre-Dame, where we transferred to the RER, a commuter train that ran to Paris’s far-flung suburbs. We climbed abo
To occupy my mind I practiced my phrases: Enchantée. Je m’appelle Carolyn. C’est mon mari, Aaron.
As our train crawled through the Port-Royal station, then Denfert-Rochereau, Cité Universitaire, then Gentilly, each stop seemed to take longer than the last. Every acceleration seemed more labored. I cradled my shoulder bag tighter. Aaron leaned forward and squeezed my knee.
How would I ask in French, I wondered, what the fuck is about to happen?
Will they show us photos? What will they think of the font? Will Agnes make a last-minute attempt to film our meeting? Please, please, I silently begged as I looked at Aaron, don’t let a producer be there. I took more deep breaths as the train inched to Laplace, then Arcueil-Cachan. Five stops to go.
Drops of rain appeared on the window. First in ones and twos, then they joined to form rivers that zigzagged down the glass. I watched in helpless disbelief. It had been a cloudless morning!
As the train headed for the last stop—Robinson—Aaron leaned even farther forward and grasped one of my hands. “Ready?”
As promised, Tiffanie waited near one of the station exits with Louna, her golden retriever, in tow. Tiffanie greeted us with kisses. Louna greeted us with kisses, too. Without delay, we began walking to Denise’s apartment. It was only a third of a mile or so, but between the rain and my pointy-toe heels, it felt like miles.
Tiffanie’s long blond hair was pulled into a side ponytail. Parisian chic seemed to infuse even a simple combination of jeans, high-heeled boots, and a trench coat with a flipped-up collar. She typed a code into a security box. After a buzz and a click, we stepped inside the lobby of Denise’s building. Fifteen minutes earlier, our trip seemed to be taking forever. Now everything was moving too fast. I wanted to stop, take a deep breath, and compose myself, but before I knew it, we were stepping inside Denise’s apartment.