Waiting for Respect
“One little gust of wind and you see their buttocks!”
The young woman in the scarlet dress was sauntering down the rue de Buci in Paris with her husband when that remark—made about her in French by a hunched old woman walking by—reached her ears and caused her to blush. She turned to look at her critic but the elderly woman did not look back, continued rather on her way, the tap-tap-tap of her wooden cane marking her steps.
“Did you hear that?” the young woman asked her husband.
“Yes,” he laughed.
“Is my dress that short?”
“Well, yes it is, but so what? Mini-dresses are fashionable and you have nice legs. Why not show them off?”
The year was 1968. The young woman, Julie Sanford Ledoux, was 25 years old, a new bride, and happily rediscovering a city she had come to know intimately just three years previously, as a jeune fille au pair. She was married now, and about to embark on a graduate degree in French literature. Somehow, the old woman’s opinion of her and her attire—she might as well have called her a hussy —did not square with the image she was trying to cultivate. She had married a French professor, Hank Ledoux, and would soon be pursuing the same career. She was a respectable young woman, intelligent, refined, professional.
The image had already been sorely tested once, just a few weeks earlier, in Amsterdam. Julie and Hank had checked into a small bed-and-breakfast hotel. The family name on Julie’s passport, issued when she was still single, did not match that of her husband. Such a discrepancy would not have raised eyebrows a decade later. However, prior to the sexual revolution, even in “sinful” Amsterdam, the moral code dictated that unmarried couples should not share a hotel room. And married couples typically had the same last name. It was highly unusual in the 1960s for an American woman to keep her own name after marriage. The proprietress, a woman of a certain age, eyed Julie with suspicion. She only rented rooms to married couples. Julie produced their wedding certificate. The proprietress studied it, pursed her lips, and handed it back with a look that said, “Who do you think you’re fooling?” by which Julie concluded that wedding certificates were easy to forge.
But she gave them the key to their room.
The next morning, the staff treated them brusquely, serving their breakfast with the kind of scorn usually reserved for the ladies in the windows of Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light district. Their cups of coffee were plunked down on the table with such force that some of the coffee sloshed out into the saucer. Julie was offended by this behavior; Hank, for his part, was amused and vaguely titillated. He jokingly suggested to Julie that they purchase bells so that the next day they could enter the breakfast room ringing them and calling out “Unclean! Unclean!” like the lepers of medieval times.
Julie did not find this funny.
She had to admit, however, that the frenzied lovemaking that followed when they returned to their room was directly related to their sense that they were doing something unlawful. Perhaps their moans and gasps could even be heard, through the thin walls, in the room next door?
Slumbering afterwards, her head on her husband’s chest, Julie was transported to her days as an au pair when she used vacation time to go hitchhiking with a friend and had to fight off men who picked them up, assuming that women who would get into cars with strange men were fair game. One guy, whose last name was “Sauveur” (Some savior, she thought later), drove them about 100 kilometers, then offered them lodging for the night in Toulon. Leaving them in his apartment, he went in search of a friend to share the spoils. The two Frenchmen cooked dinner for the naïve young American women, plied them with wine, and made their move. Julie and her friend somehow managed to escape to one of the bedrooms, locked themselves in, and shouted, when the men’s gentle rapping on the door turned to pounding, “Nous sommes des jeunes filles sérieuses!”
In the end, their insistence that they were “good girls” discouraged their suitors and their virtue was saved. Obviously, Julie’s desire to be respected went back a long way.
And now this. If the short red dress had scandalized the old woman, what would she have thought of the other dress hanging in Julie’s closet, the one that was known as a hot pants dress? Such dresses were made of gauzy material, slit up the front to reveal a pair of matching short shorts.
Julie shuddered at the thought of meeting the woman again and made a decision to avoid the rue de Buci.
But then she had another idea. It was crazy, she knew, but she was determined to correct the false impression that she had made upon the old woman. Her self-image depended on it. She would dress conservatively, carry a briefcase, find a place at a sidewalk café on the rue de Buci, and wait for the woman to pass. At this point she would accost her, invite her to have a coffee with her, convince her that she was “a good girl.”
“You’re mad!” said her husband. “In the first place, you’ll never see that old biddy again. And if you did, would you even recognize her?”
“Of course I would!” insisted Julie. “She had short grey hair, was wearing a plain black coat, was bent over, and walked with a cane.”
“Like 90% of the old women who pass on the rue de Buci.”
But there was no stopping Julie once she “got the bit between her teeth” as Hank often used to say. Reasoning that old people are creatures of habit, that the woman probably lived in the quartier and took the same route at the same time each day to run her errands, she decided to give herself a two-hour window for the encounter. The fateful remark had been uttered on a Friday morning about 10 a.m. So the following Friday, Julie dressed with all the care of a young professor about to walk into the classroom for the first time: navy blue pantsuit, low-heeled black pumps, pearl earrings, shiny brown hair pulled up into a loose bun. No lipstick today. Rather, a bit of mascara and the slightest hint of blush. Words often spoken by her mother trotted through her head: “You don’t need all that make-up, Sweetie. You’re a natural beauty.”
One last appraising look in the mirror and she was out the door, making sure that she tucked into her briefcase a serious-looking book that she would pretend to read. She decided on Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir. Perhaps the woman would turn out to be a retired literature teacher and they could discuss Stendhal’s novel. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
As she walked along the Boulevard Saint-Germain in the direction of the Rue de Buci she was aware that while men paid less attention to her, other women of her age and beyond gave her approving glances. She had struck the right tone.
Sinking onto a metal folding chair on the terrace of the Café de Paris, right at the edge of the narrow sidewalk, she ordered a large café-crème and pulled out her book.
The wait began.
At first, the anticipation was almost unbearable. She sat up straight, excited but tense, her eyes trained on the people rushing by. Pedestrian traffic on the rue de Buci was somewhat heavy, but she couldn’t help but notice that unlike much of Manhattan, with its throngs of twenty- and thirty-somethings, there was a good age distribution on the Paris sidewalks, and she did not have to wait long before the first elderly woman came slowly along. She had no cane.
Julie sipped her coffee, turned one unread page of the novel just in case people at the table behind her were looking over her shoulder, and continued to scan the passers-by.
As time wore on, and she finished her coffee, and the passing old women didn’t correspond to her memory—this one was wearing a red hat, that one stood erect—she became discouraged. Perhaps Hank was right? Perhaps this was a fool’s errand. At the same moment, the waiter who had brought her coffee began to look at her expectantly. She looked at the card attached to the menu, intended to discourage patrons from occupying tables indefinitely, without continuing to order food or drink: “Les consommations sont renouvelables toutes les heures.” She had been there over an hour. According to the card, it was time for her to place another order. She signaled the waiter. “Encore un grand café-crème, s’il vous plaît,” she said, aware of a feeling of fullness in her bladder area but unwilling to quit her post. He brought the coffee, placed a second little slip of paper under her cup.
And the wait continued. At one point, a crowd of middle school girls skipped by in uniform, laughing and jostling each other and blocking her view of a little old lady on the outer edge of the sidewalk. She was furious. Then there was, curiously, a lull in the pedestrian traffic and for several minutes, nobody passed. She saw an opportunity to use the WC, but just as she was starting in that direction, another woman beat her to it. By the time she emerged, pedestrian traffic had picked up.
Slowly, painfully, another hour went by.
She ordered a third café-crème, seriously uncomfortable now, jiggling her foot to take her mind off the pressure on her bladder.
The bells of l’Eglise de Saint-Germain des Prés were just ringing to announce noon when Julie saw her. The same short grey hair, the same unadorned black coat, the same dowager’s hump, the same tap-tap-tapping of her cane. There was no mistaking her. From the front, she could see that she looked somewhat ill-tempered too, and that made sense. Would a happy person have made such a nasty, judgmental remark?
Julie leaped from her chair, nearly sending her cup and saucer flying as she did so, and rushed to accost the old woman.
“Excusez-moi, Madame,” she said.
The woman, who was a good head shorter than she was, stopped in her tracks and looked up at her with consternation.
Julie had given no thought to what she’d say next. She smiled nervously. Her heart was pounding from her overdose of caffeine, and she realized that her hands were trembling.
The woman did not return her smile.
Summoning her best French, Julie continued:
“I know this is rather strange, but I’d like to invite you to have a coffee with me.”
“I don’t know you,” said the woman, attempting to sidestep Julie and continue on her way.
Julie blocked her path and the woman began to look truly alarmed.
“Yes you do!” insisted Julie, desperate now. “Don’t you remember me?”
At that moment (so there is a God! thought Julie), an elderly man passed and tipped his hat at the woman, “Bonjour, Madame Antoine,” he said.
A name! She had a name!
Julie was feeling weak now, and her bladder was about to burst. She had to act fast.
“Oh-là-là, I’m in pain!” she cried, clutching her chest. (She could scarcely use her hand to apply pressure between her legs the way she did when she was a little girl.)
“Couldn’t you help me sit down, Madame
On the table lay a copy of Le Rouge et le noir. The book was splayed open, cover up. Madame Antoine helped Julie into a chair and then, exhausted by the effort, slid into another chair herself.
The strategy had been successful! There was Julie, sitting at a café table opposite her critic! Julie couldn’t wait to tell Hank. But first she had an urgent need to attend to. Excusing herself once again, she made a beeline for the toilettes. When she returned, Madame Antoine was gone.
Gone! Vanished into thin air! Not a sign of her anywhere. Julie ran out into the street and scanned the crowd. Now she’d never know for sure whether Madame Antoine had been her critic. She’d never be able to redeem herself, to convince this woman that she was not a hussy but “une jeune fille sérieuse.”
Defeated, she motioned to the waiter.
“L’addition, s’il vous plaît,”
“L’addition?” asked the waiter. “Madame Antoine took care of it. I think she was worried about you.”
Julie was dumbfounded. Madame Antoine had paid her bill! Was her kind gesture an apology? Had she recognized Julie as the mini-skirted young woman of the previous week? Or was she simply a generous old lady who wished to help an obviously troubled young person? In that case, she was almost certainly not the mean-spirited old crone of the previous week.
Julie was halfway down the block when it occurred to her that perhaps the waiter knew Madame Antoine. He had called her by name after all. She returned to the restaurant.
“Madame Antoine?” he asked. “Oh sure, she’s well known in the neighborhood. She was a dancer at the Folies Bergère. Afterwards she ran a brothel on the Avenue de l’Opéra.”
Then, noticing Julie’s shocked expression, he winked and added:
“Were you looking for a job?”
Mary Donaldson-Evans had a career in academe, teaching students how to read literature. She’s now writing fiction and non-fiction narratives of her own. Her creative work has been published by The Lowestoft Chronicle, Boomer Lit Magazine and The Literary Hatchet, among others. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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