I'm not sure if it's the bedlam of a Parisian weekday morning getting underway, but I wake up. Sort of. Having arrived the day (or was it night?) before, all I want to do is sleep. If that means wasting a day in Paris sleeping, so be it.
I'd miss the day: breakfast at home, then out for our first café crème, hitting my favorite store (Maje!), drinking yet another café crème. Then Paul, my husband, and I would pick up his niece and nephew from school and, holding their little hands and listening to their chatter, walk them safely home.
I can hear Paul's voice coming from the dining room downstairs, the one room in the house where everyone congregates and everything happens. Something was happening.
He sounds so exasperated that I worry about its cause until his father, Marcel, speaks. His tone is confident with a dash of annoyance. Definitely on the cheeky side. I sigh with relief, nothing like an innocuous early morning debate between father and son to welcome me back to Paris.
These arguments are no cause for concern, but I rouse myself regardless. What if it is more serious than the Great Vanilla Fight? I'd hear about it all day long.
At lunch a few years prior, Paul mentioned in passing that Carrefour's whipped cream contained artificial vanilla. His father adamantly disagreed: he didn't detect vanilla, therefore it wasn't an ingredient. Not bothering to argue the subtleties of taste, Paul dashed into the kitchen to fetch the whipped cream. The ingredients on the back of the canister listed vanilla flavoring!
This unarguable fact did nothing to persuade my father-in-law of his error. Marcel took the whipped cream from his son (not even a glance at the label), filled his coffee mug with the foamy stuff and proceeded to eat it with undisguised relish. He smiled, savoring his youngest child's increasing infuriation more than he did the whipped cream.
Dressing quickly, I wonder what "discussion" waits for me downstairs. Expiration dates on mustard jars? False advertising meant to scare consumers? Not that I would understand until later - my French is horrible. I hurry down the stairs, run through the foyer - the chronic blast of cold air waking me up - and almost trip over an extension cord as I stumble into the dining room.
Paul, perched as usual at the head of the ancient wood table, pours me some coffee. The remains of assorted gastronomic delights mock me: Rétrodor baguette, Poilâne bread, airy chouquettes, buttery croissants. I am so late to breakfast that the crumbs on the table probably amount to more food than the remains in the breadbasket.
Then Paul surprises me with a bag from the local boulangerie. It's an almond croissant, my favorite! He reminds me that it is not breakfast food, but an afternoon snack. I always get this admonition. God forbid I should go elsewhere in France, ask at breakfast for a croissant aux amandes, and, when confronted with horrified cries of "Mon Dieu!" prove my innocence by passing the blame.
Marcel waves Paul's warning aside and tells me, "Anything for my belle-fille." It's good to be here.
Paul asks his dad for directions, and their conversation switches back to French. I don't detect any tension. Paul listens attentively, nodding often as his father verbally guides him through the streets of Paris. He speaks for a good ten minutes; I guess that the distance from the house to the Viaduc des Arts, where working artists and craftspeople have open studios, must be long and complicated. Or maybe they changed topics. I have no idea, so I fade from the conversation and focus on the one thing in the room that moves - Marcel's hands.
With one hand he sweeps the crumbs on the table into a neat little pile. Then, with his other hand cupped next to the table's edge, he catches the crumbs. He repeats these motions throughout the conversation until the table is clean. I know that this ritual signals the end to breakfast; errands beckon him out of the house and into the city. I wonder how many decades, on how many tables, he has performed this act.
Marcel dumps the crumbs into a paper towel and rises. "Mon fils," he says. He places his hand on Paul's shoulder, letting it rest there for a moment. "Mon fils."
Moments later he leaves the house.
I regret my late arrival, there won't be any stories from Marcel today. No laughing about how Paul learned to ride a bike (slowly and painfully, he kept peddling into things), or any sense of wonder at how Marcel crashed his future wife's wedding, oblivious to the fact that this was the woman he would marry ten years later. Nor would there be any sad stories, like when Marcel learned that his beloved older brother, on his way home from the war, was killed when his train was bombed...
The old table is now gone. Marcel and his wife sold the family home and then moved to Spain. Shortly after, Paul and I announced our divorce. It's so very real, our worlds that support us day in and day out, and then suddenly - everything changes. Life begins anew. And I wonder if I dreamt it.