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From the Kids' Table: Lunches with Mom's Ex
A son becomes unlikely lunch buddies with his mother's Parisian ex
Welcome to From The Kids’ Table, our personal essay series in which writers share childhood memories about dining out. As part of October’s theme, “The Regular,” James Jung reflects on a Parisian restaurant that he hit once a month with an unlikely companion.
Back when I was 20 years old, I studied abroad in Paris for eight months. Technically, I wasn’t a kid anymore, but I might as well still have been one — I’d never lived in a city before, let alone Paris, and I was leagues out of my depth. It was 2001, with 9/11 still months away, and France not yet on the Euro. I used Francs to pump my cell phone (portable, excusez-moi; my very first!) with prepaid minutes I purchased at a department store called Fnac, and once a month I got lunch with my mother’s ex husband, sweating it out under the chandeliers belonging to a fancy restaurant on the Champs-Élysées.
Rather than be some secret we never spoke about, my mother’s ex had always been a bit of a figure in our household. He was a Frenchman, and he phoned her frequently enough — I can still picture her cradling the cream-colored receiver of our old rotary phone, perhaps twisting her index finger through the coiled cord, maybe puffing a Merit (a vestige of her Parisian life). I can picture my father, too, stomping out of the kitchen and down the narrow hallway of our house, muttering something in German. Dad couldn’t really complain — he had an ex, too, though she didn’t call much. Sometimes Mom’s ex sent her checks by registered mail. They were for her birthday and other special occasions, but they always seemed to arrive when money was particularly tight, as if he somehow knew.
It was his phone calls, however, that represented one of the last links to Mom’s old life. It was a life I could barely picture — my Brooklyn-born mom, suddenly a model in Paris in the swinging 60s, jetting off to Marbella and St. Tropez and St. Moritz on weekends with her rich husband. The guy was minted, but also self-made — being Jewish, his family had fled France for New York City when he’d been a little kid, before the Nazis invaded and the collaborative Vichy Government had risen to power, and, having to sell the family business for peanuts, they lost most of their money in the process. When he returned to France after the War, it was under his own steam. Like some Count of Monte Cristo, the guy restored the old family business to its former glory and then doubled, tripled, maybe even quadrupled (who knew! my mind spiraled at the possibilities) profits. In short, the guy had my respect. I was also, as much as it embarrassed me, a little taken by his charm. As Mom told it, he’d picked her up after bumping into her and her blind date (an acquaintance of his) and then invited them both to a cocktail party that he claimed he was hosting at his apartment later on that night (he was hosting no such thing, as she was to later learn, and immediately rushed home to phone all his friends and say they’d better show up because he’d just met someone special). Sometime later, when he told his own mother that he was marrying mine, the old matriarch asked for my mother’s maiden name, and upon hearing it asked if his bride-to-be hailed from the aluminum dynasty or the tobacco one.
“She hails from Brooklyn,” he told her.
What balls! What rizz! I adored my own father—his broad shoulders, his thick farmer’s fingers, the tool belt that hung from his waist, the musty, mature male smell that emanated from him at all times, even on the ski slopes, it seemed, in the dead of winter—but this other guy, despite being more of a pencil pusher, sounded like a cat I’d like to meet some day.
That day would come years later, in 2001. I was living in Paris after all — sure meeting him was a little odd, I guess, but how could I refuse? Lunch was arranged. I took the Metro, the 13 line to the 1, and got out on the Champs-Élysées in a brisk January wind — the Boulevard wide, the trees barren. I was still new enough to Paris, and new enough to subway travel, that each time I surfaced from the Metro and into a different neighborhood I would feel wonderfully disoriented, as if I’d arrived by magic. I headed toward the Arc de Triomphe, puttering along the sidewalk in my Pumas with a backpack slung over one shoulder of my oversized fleece (this was a fit I mistook for sophisticated, especially since I’d tied the whole look together with a mismatched scarf).
“You want a burger?” he asked. He spoke loudly, and with an American accent, inflected here and there with the chutzpah of a New York wise guy. “How ‘bout a cheeseburger and French fries?”
Ladurée was my destination. That this was the famed macaron maker, one of 10 in Paris, and not only that but also the brand’s flagship store, meant nothing to me — back then, as far as restaurants went, I was a rube, through and through. I was also nervous, incredibly so, and this feeling only intensified when I saw the place’s pistachio-colored awning. The restaurant’s exterior was so ornate it looked like a Fabergé egg, priceless and exclusive, and I felt myself freeze, frightened that by going inside I might break something, or simply be laughed out of the place. I decided to stand outside instead and keep watch for my mom’s ex so that we might waltz in together, laughing over some shared witticism like old friends. I’d never seen a photo of the man before, perhaps I’d never wanted to, but I thought maybe I could spot him by some sixth sense. I looked for his face among the dour Parisian men walking by, slick in their suits and trailing plumes of cigarette smoke.
I finally gave up and went inside. When I said his name to the hostess, she smiled in recognition, her eyes slightly wider, and informed me that he’d been awaiting my arrival upstairs. I followed her up the staircase, broad as a palace’s, nearly tripping over my sneakers, and into the restaurant, where I saw my mother’s ex sitting alone at a two-top in the middle of the large, Belle Époque room. He was skinny, wore a navy blue suit and wire-rimmed glasses, and had thinning white hair. To my 20-year old eyes, he looked ancient. Mr. Burns-like, is how I remember him, which is unkind, but when we are young the impressions we have of our elders are often unkind, and often exaggerated, too. What did we talk about? Who knows. I have snatches of memories. Talk of HSBC, his favorite bank, and The Economist, his favorite publication, both of which I alluded to having intimate knowledge of. When the waitress came I scrutinized the big menu with much discernment.
“You want a burger?” he asked. He spoke loudly, and though his French sounded elegant, his English was barbed by an American accent, inflected here and there with the chutzpah of a New York wise guy. “How ‘bout a cheeseburger and French fries?”
I desperately wanted a cheeseburger and French fries. I was lonely and homesick and the idea of sinking my teeth into a juicy patty slathered in ketchup sounded superb, but I didn’t want to come off any more uncouth than I already had.
“Je voudrais le steak frites,” I told our waitress.
“And ‘ow would you like it prepared?” She didn’t bother to reply in French.
“Um. Medium well.”
“Medium rare,” my mother’s ex said, correcting me with a tight smile. “He meant medium rare.”
More talk. My steak arrived. I barely enjoyed it, my appetite still tempered by nerves. Finally he spoke of my mother.
“Christ your mother could dance.”
I knew his statement, however out of the blue, was true. I’d seen my mother moonwalk in our living room, watched her dance with my father, who when not on skis looked rhythmless and spastic by comparison, but I didn’t know how to respond to the guy.
“You know she won a dance competition in Greece once,” my mother’s ex went on. “It was on Hydra. My God…” Then he just stared off for a while, far across the busy dining room, and didn’t say anything. I sat there picking at my steak. I was flushed with something like pride and shame at the same time.
Then it hit me, the one thing I’d never really thought of: the old bastard had done it with my mom.
Fortunately, he didn’t give me much more time to ruminate on the horrible fact. My mother’s ex snapped back to attention. He looked at me, his eyes somewhat beady from behind his glasses.
“Have I been talking too loud?” he asked, loudly.
He had indeed been talking too loud. Shouting, in fact, over the course of our entire lunch. Worse yet, he’d been shouting in English — yet another loud American tourist in the eyes of the sophisticated Parisians who populated the place.
“Oh no,” I said, feigning mortification. “Not at all.”
“You sure?” he said, somewhat concerned. He pointed at one ear, large and oblong with age. “My hearing’s going. I was in here the other week and a few people complained that I was too loud.”
He kept staring at me, as if enjoying the fact that I didn’t know what to say. A faint smile trembled across his thin lips. He rested his elbows on our table and leaned in.
“But I don’t give a shit,” he said. “Because I own the place.”
Yes, with a line like that I could overlook the fact that the guy had slept with my mom. And, as far as details went, who cared if he was only an investor in Ladurée (as I’d later learn) and not the outright owner? You couldn’t teach comedic timing like that, which I’d also learn was why my mother had fallen for him in the first place (like the mensch that he was, he hadn’t let on about his wealth in the beginning, and even told her that his apartment belonged to a friend). At any rate, I guess I fell for the guy a little, too. From then on we did lunch once a month, always upstairs at Ladurée. We talked movies. Politics. My mother, though thank God no more about her dancing. My father never came up, but I couldn’t fault the guy for that — Dad, in addition to being Austrian, had run off with his lady for crying out loud. Between our monthly lunches, I picked up The Economist when I could and pretended to understand its reports of geopolitical conflicts and financial drama, and I’d report them back to my mother’s ex. Sometimes, after lunch, his driver would take us back to his office in the 16th, and we’d hang out under the Monet he owned.
Come June, I landed an internship that let me stay in Paris for the summer. It was with a professor from the Sorbonne, who mistook my ability to mimic a French accent for actual command of the language. I called up my mother’s ex. I wanted to brag, for him to accept me as a fellow intellectual with a bright and prosperous future, but I framed it as if I were seeking advice as to whether I should accept the internship or not.
“Well it’s better than what you do back in New Hampshire, isn’t it?” he said. “What’s that again…flip burgers?”
I never spoke to the guy again, not in person at any rate. Not out of anger, I liked his sardonic wit, but simply due to circumstance. He was away most of that summer. And when I returned to college in Vermont that autumn we swapped a couple of letters (he not being much of an email man). But those didn’t last — we both had atrocious handwriting, rendering the prospects of us being longterm pen pals a nonstarter. He still phoned my mother, and I’d hear about him through her over the years.
He died late last year — heart problems. My mother heard it through friends. I imagine it was an odd thing, losing an ex like that, something that made her sad, though not nearly as sad as the loss of my father, who’d passed three years prior.
I don’t think of her ex husband much. Having a family of my own, and grief of my own, there is so much to think about these days. Although sometimes when I pass the pistachio-green facade of the Ladurée on Madison, the facsimile that moved to Manhattan in 2011, the guy pops into my mind. One time a few years ago he’d been at a party, my mother heard through one of her old friends—one of those friends who might well have been at that impromptu cocktail party he’d once thrown for my mother in the 60s—and he asked about me, where I was and what I was doing and all that.
“You know…” he apparently said to my mother’s old friend. And I can hear him, talking too loudly in that wise guy accent of his that was the byproduct of wars and migrations and heartbreak and character, the same one he’d shouted at me in during our first lunch at Ladurée twenty-two years ago when he was still alive. “He coulda been my son.”
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