Chapter 8: A Fateful Dinner
The dinner invitation from Adam announced the turning of seasons as the hot sun-blanched boredom of August gave way to the moist, cool air of the back-to-school rentrée season. It was September in Paris.
“I’m having a few people over,” said Adam on the phone. “Nothing too formal. You can bring Oscar and Leo.”
I’d spent most of the summer outside the city, away from the minor irritation of tourists asking for directions to the Eiffel Tower. Paris doesn’t belong to Parisians in the summer. Most decent restaurants in the city close for the entire month, posting the familiar sign, “Fermeture pour congés annuels”. Even the boulangeries and pressing cleaners are shuttered for most of August. For the denizens of Poodleland, early August is when they discreetly escape to their résidence secondaire in Brittany, in Provence, or on the Riviera.
After our holiday in Provence, I took David and the dogs to Fontainebleau. Much to my relief, when our little family disembarked in the Résidence d’Étampes there was no sign of the Little Corsican. Oscar and Leo wasted no time before dashing across the garden and scratching at Madame de Bordas’ door. Robespierre the cat went into hiding. We spent most days walking in the cool forest, picnicking on the château grounds, and visiting the surrounding towns. David was immensely intrigued that Tom Ripley of Hollywood movie fame used to live nearby.
It was raining lightly on the morning I took David to the Gare du Nord and put him on a EuroStar train to London. After our goodbyes, when I was heading back home in a taxi, I could see that Parisians had reclaimed their city. The café counters were crowded with people in a hurry, Vespa scooters were buzzing up and down narrow streets, impeccably dressed Parisian women were stepping briskly out of the shops, and chestnuts were dropping on the pavement and popping out of their spiked encasings. From my windows on the Quai d’Orsay, the rentrée brought its seasonal migration of slender American mothers in Lululemon crops dragging their toddlers by the one hand into the American Church. My Poodleland neighbours were back on their canine promenades, greeting one another superficially. I was gratified to see the homeless Frenchman with his aged black poodle Boulie on their usual bench near the Invalides.
But there was no sign of Camille. I was expecting to bump into her and Mooky on the esplanade, but they never turned up. I sent her a text message but got no reply. The silence was troubling. Perhaps she wanted to be left undisturbed while she dealt with bitter divorce proceedings. There was always the possibility that she had suddenly moved away. I began to wonder whether I’d ever see her again.
Adam’s dinner invitation came at the right moment.
“What shall I bring?” I asked.
One is not supposed to bring wine to a dinner party, just as one is not supposed to bring flowers. But I had known Adam for so long that these finer points of etiquette were casually disregarded. Adam was my oldest friend, it seemed like I had known him forever though in truth we’d met as undergraduates. I was an aspiring varsity journalist and he was a sort of big man on campus standing for election as president of the student council – quite an exploit for a brash Jewish kid at a restrained WASP college. A few years later serendipity brought us both to Paris as graduate students – he was at the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration and I was enrolled at Sciences Po. Adam was something of a dandy in those days, an impression enhanced by his dark curly hair, elegantly cut jackets and extravagant pastel-coloured shirts. One day he obliged me to accompany him all over the Left Bank in search of a pair of Art Deco cufflinks that he felt he needed to match a dark Gian Franco Ferré suit. He finally found the perfect dice-shaped cufflinks in a small shop off the rue de Buci market, brushing away my astonished objections to the extravagant sum he was paying for them. He once spent 600 francs to have his Cartier wristwatch repaired at a time when I would have balked at spending that amount on a new watch. I didn’t know then that Adam was gay. He “came out” to me one afternoon when we were walking through the Latin Quarter. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, even after knowing him for a decade. What puzzled me was the not inconsequential fact that, at the time, he had a girlfriend. In fact, I knew her quite well, she was a sweet French girl called Hélène.
“She knows,” he said.
I had no objections, of course, and Adam was greatly relieved that I finally knew. I now understood why we were so different in temperament and habits. In contrast to Adam’s epicurean proclivities, I cut a decidedly Jansenist figure, making virtue of necessity given my embarrassing bank balance. Though I rarely resisted Adam’s invitations to late-night meals at fashionable brasseries where he ordered several iced plates of oysters and two or three bottles of Saint-Emilion.
Our moveable feast continued several years later in Cannes at the film festival. By that time I was a Paris-based newspaper columnist and Adam was a senior bureaucrat for the Canadian government in charge of the cultural industries. One of his perks was an annual pilgrimage to Cannes to slurp down more plates of oysters at slap-up cocktail parties. One of my perks was an annual train trip down to Cannes to write about the film festival. I found the crush of the celeb-sighting throngs insufferable, preferring quiet evening retreats to the restaurants in the rue Suquet. Adam was an excellent distraction in Cannes. Every night past midnight he dragged me to a wildly decadent gay bar called Zanzibar where I agreed to sit on the terrace with him while he eyed up the pretty boys that interested him. He had already put me through this ritual in Paris at a famous gay bar called the Banana Café, located in the same narrow road where King Henri IV was assassinated in 1610. Adam was an amateur historian of the Zanzibar in Cannes, which was apparently the oldest gay bar in France. It was famous for its frescos of muscular sailors and young shepherds painted on the vaulted ceiling by a Franco-Russian artist called Soungouroff. Adam told me he had one of Soungouroff’s paintings hanging in his bedroom.
When we arrived at the Zanzibar it was so packed that dozens of snake-hipped studs spilled into the road while a powerfully built doorman repeatedly shouted “enculer” at nobody in particular. The film actor Rupert Everett was there every night, standing on the pavement against a car in a tank top and baseball cap. We appeared to be the only ones who recognised him. At gay bars in Cannes, it seemed, everyone was a celebrity. I went back to my hotel early – which meant two o’clock in the morning – leaving Adam and Rupert Everett to enjoy their Zanzibar revels until the breaking of dawn.
If two decades of harum-scarum antics and unmentionable indiscretions weren’t enough to bond us as friends, I owed Adam the most important moment in my life. He introduced me to Rebecca. I had recently returned to Toronto after an eleven-year absence in France and England, slowly reintegrating myself into a city not known for open-armed warmth. It was the end of summer and I was frankly bored. Adam called to invite me to the dinner party that changed my life. It actually wasn’t a dinner party, it was a gathering of Adam’s old friends at Browne’s Bistro in Rosedale. One of them was someone I’d never met: Rebecca Gotlieb. Adam had known Rebecca as a small child when they were both attending a French lycée in Ottawa where senior mandarins in the government enrolled their offspring. Decades later Adam invited Rebecca to that dinner party out of generosity, knowing she had been recently divorced. When I showed up slightly late, there was only one empty chair at the table for six. It was the seat next to Rebecca Gotlieb. When we were married two years later, Adam was my best man.
Now Adam and I were back in Paris again – the third time in three decades we’d found ourselves living in the city at the same time. He was on secondment as a policy wonk at the OECD, installed comfortably in a spacious apartment in the 15th arrondissement near the avenue de Breteuil. I wasn’t quite sure what he did at the OECD, though he was always at the airport on his way to yet another “working group” meeting in Rome, Sydney, Athens, Rio, Oslo, and New York.
“I’ll bring a decent Saint-Estèphe,” I said.
“Perfect,” he said. “Bring two.”
“Who’s going to be there?” I asked. I could permit myself that question with Adam.
“Nobody you know,” he said. “I need you there to make it interesting.”
“I’m sure Oscar and Leo will amuse everyone,” I said.
Normally I would have walked to Adam’s house, it takes about a half hour through the most pleasant part of Poodleland – passing by the Invalides to the Place Vauban, then along the magnificent esplanade running to the Place de Breteuil where a statue of Louis Pasteur sits in the middle of a roundabout. I had dropped round to a wine merchant in rue Malar earlier in the day and was ready to head out with Oscar and Leo allowing for the half-hour walk to Adam’s place. But suddenly light rain began to fall.
Oscar and Leo refuse to budge in the rain, I had been through the experience many times. When it’s raining, they will stiffen and resist my attempts to get them outside, even for a quick pee-pee. I had no choice, I had to take the car.
I carried Oscar and Leo out to my grey Peugeot parked just outside my building, put them in the back seat, and hastily returned to the flat to fetch the wine. During the quick drive into the 15th arrondissement my windshield wipers hypnotically groaned back and forth.
Adam lived in the more fashionable part of the 15th arrondissement, an otherwise dull and much-maligned section of Paris. When you are coming from Poodleland it’s difficult to avoid the impression that you are travelling downmarket.
When I pushed open the big green door of Adam’s neo-Haussmann building, I immediately encountered a clutter of strollers and rubbish bins on well-worn wooden floorboards. The air was stagnant, filled with the thick smell of boiled cabbage. Even worse, there was no lift. I had to climb four storeys carrying a small white dog in each arm, my fingers clinging to a bag containing two bottles of Saint-Estèphe.
Going up those stairs was more perilous than scaling the Mont Ventoux. When I finally arrived, gasping, Adam’s door was open but he wasn’t there to receive me. Oscar and Leo darted in and hurtled through the vestibule. I heard a mellifluous French female voice exclaim: “Oooh, les toutous!”
My own entrance was less dramatic. Adam introduced me to the other guests while Oscar and Leo raced about the room. I was first introduced to Geneviève de Fressec, a regal and copiously bosomed blonde woman of about sixty with thick cascading hair brushed back to reveal large sapphire earrings. An old family friend of Adam’s parents, she was retired from a top job at UNESCO –- and, I recalled vaguely, had once been romantically linked with a French politician whose name escaped me.
“Mes hommages, Madame,” I said. She offered me a pale arm but as I had no experience with the gallant hand-kissing baise-main, I clumsily clutched her hand with a gentle squeeze.
Next my eyes landed on a small, plump and voluptuous brunette, about forty, whom Adam introduced as Marie-Christine, an adjointe to the Socialist mayor of Paris. Our party was rounded out by a French couple, Simon and Diane Bombarde, both of whom were journalists though I’d heard of neither. He was a portly little man with a double chin, blinking eyes, and a rubbery Bourbonesque visage, an unlikely match for his sensually effusive wife with copper hair and shapely figure in a tight black dress. She looked more like his coquettish younger sister than his spouse. She immediately seized my hand warmly and said, “So you are one of us!”
“I’m not sure,” I said, “but if not, I would very much like to join.”
“Yes, Matthew is a journalist too,” Adam interjected.
“Was a journalist,” I retorted. “I’ve been promoted to university professor.”
We took our seats and gazed at the display of amuse-gueules while Adam poured champagne – Bollinger Brut 1985. Oscar and Leo were already strategically positioned to benefit from any bits of food that might fall in their direction.
“Please don’t give them sausage,” I said. “They’ll be sick all day tomorrow. They have sensitive stomachs. And Leo is on medication, I have to be very careful about what he eats.”
All present looked at Leo with a mixture of adoration and gravity.
“I love their names – Oscar and Leo,” said Geneviève. “So amusing.”
“Jacques Chirac has a little bichon just like yours,” said Diane. “They gave the dog to him on the television show Vivement dimanche for his seventy-seventh birthday.”
My knowledge of Jacques Chirac’s canine travails surprised the room.
“I think the little dog’s name is Sumette,” said Diane. “Sumo was the first one. Now it’s Sumette.”
“Sumo, Sumette, how marvellous!” said Geneviève.
Oscar and Leo had their eyes fixed on Simon as he stabbed a tiny sausage with a cocktail pick.
I turned to Simon and asked where he worked. He mumbled the title of a trade publication. Diane’s curriculum vitae was more substantial. She’d been a political reporter at France Soir but had recently been let go in another round of layoffs.
“It’s all Internet now,” said Simon.
The happy news was that Diane was now running her own PR agency. Her main clients, she said, were newspapers.
“I needed your services five years ago,” I remarked. “Luckily I got out just in time.”
Reaching down to take an olive I noticed a small silver bud vase with a dragonfly motif perched at the centre of the table basse.
“I see you have a new acquisition, Adam,” I said.
Adam was satisfied with the question.
“It’s Gallia,” he said. “Before Gallia was bought by Christofle.”
Adam’s apartment was a veritable museum of Art Nouveau and Art Deco pieces, most of them inherited from his parents, Bernard and Sylvia Ostry, who were prodigious art collectors and had donated much of their Deco collection to the Royal Ontario Museum. Adam took a Victorian approach to his art and furniture. His walls were blanketed with paintings and his rooms were cluttered with bric-a-brac and objets d’art – Art Nouveau wrought iron lamps, Legras cameo glass vases, Lalique decanters, Austrian Secession and German Jugendstil pewter pitchers and trays, a Roncourt bronze of an athlete bending a metal beam and a 1920s de Rochard bronze panther. On a Ruhlmann console against one wall stood a faience Kelety statue of a horse.
All eyes contemplated the Gallia vase with admiration. Except Oscar and Leo, who were still staring at the sausages.
Convened to the table, the dinner began with a large plate of shrimp and aioli before Adam ceremoniously brought out a roast leg of lamb. I was certain he did this just to irritate me, for he knew my aversion to meat. Adam’s carnivore gourmandise was one of the chasms between us that had widened over the years. I sometimes suspected he served blood-drenched dinners as a malicious way of letting me know I was on his patch. I helped myself to copious amounts of vegetables – potatoes, carrots and cauliflower. I was less disapproving when he opened a bottle of 1988 Haut Brion.
“I see Monsieur Sarkozy is way down in the opinion polls,” said Geneviève, who was just recently back in Paris after spending the summer in Tuscany. “I don’t think he understands the French.”
“The French don’t like him,” said Marie-Christine. “He’s too bling-bling.”
“His Rolex watch!” interjected Diane.
“Who was that ghastly little man who said you are a loser if you don’t have a Rolex by age fifty?” said Geneviève.
We all tried to remember the friend of Sarkozy who’d made that gaffe. No one could recall his name.
“Adam has a Rolex,” I said. “It’s a Rolex isn’t it?”
“Cartier,” he replied.
Simon looked at me and said in a pedantic tone: “In France, we like our leaders to be civilised. Sarkozy’s sunglasses and vulgar vocabulary are offensive in this country. So is his fashion-model girlfriend.”
“Sarkozy is like a spoilt little boy, always showing off,” said Geneviève. “Mind you, it’s worse in Italy with Berlusconi. What a horrible man.”
“Bunga-bunga!” blurted Adam.
Delicately changing the subject, I recounted the story of my encounter with the bourgeois lady from the “Les Amis du 7eme Arrondissement” who had knocked at my door with her petition against the city’s plans to turn the speedway along the banks of the Seine into parks and restaurants.
“I’d vote for it,” said Adam. “Those expressways are an eyesore.”
Marie-Christine was visibly pleased by this turn in the conversation. “Unfortunately your neighbour in the 7th arrondissement has powerful friends,” she said. “That lobby has the ear of Sarkozy.”
Everyone looked at me, suspiciously.
“I don’t have a vote,” I said. “I’m just a foreign observer of local events.”
“I will bet those bars and restaurants never appear,” said Geneviève. “They’ll build the pedestrian walkway, but there will be no bars or restaurants.”
I took a small piece of lamb and started cutting it into tiny pieces.
“I thought you didn’t like meat,” said Adam.
“It’s not for me, it’s for my children,” I replied, dropping a few bits of lamb for Oscar and Leo who had been waiting patiently below. “See, they’re like you – carnivores.”
Adam brought out salads and a large plate of lait cru cheeses – and more claret was uncorked. I was starting to feel a little drunk, enough to notice Diane’s dark brown eyes meeting mine with troubling frequency. In France, the married women are always the most available. I looked heavy-headed at her husband Simon who was mumbling through an anecdote to Geneviève.
The talk turned to politics and sex. Diane told us in hushed tones about a restaurant in avenue Kléber, not far from the Arc de Triomphe, that evidently was a front for wild basement orgies in which powerful French politicians and show biz celebrities regularly partook in the small hours of the morning.
“Everyone knows about it, but nobody writes about it,” said Diane, looking vaguely at her husband. She then named a well-known French politician by name as a regular presence at these orgies.
“He has a tiny penis,” said Marie-Christine.
“How do you know how big his penis is?” challenged Adam.
We all turned and looked at Marie-Christine, who giggled and made a little gesture with her pinkie finger. “Everyone knows,” she added.
“It sounds so Belle Époque!” said Geneviève.
“We are not easily shocked in this country,” said Simon. “France is not a puritan culture. We keep personal and public separate.”
I felt oddly targeted by his remark, but said nothing.
Adam vanished into the kitchen and reappeared with almond tartes and pear ice cream from Berthillon. And to wash down our desserts he poured a pear eau-de-vie called Poire Williams. The conversation was breaking off into separate murmured discussions. I began making small talk with Marie-Christine, congratulating her on her vision for urban renewal in Paris, while looking across the table to meet Diane’s bedroom eyes.
Adam to my right kept pouring the pear liquor – and I kept gulping it down. By the time the coffee was poured, my vision was a narcotic blur from the effects of the pear liqueur. I could feel Marie-Christine warming to me, but lacked the powers of discernment to respond.
In a word, I was drunk.
My head felt like it was going to explode. My body was aching from hours of twisted discomfort. I had been sleeping fully dressed, still wearing my raincoat, splayed out like a brutalised marionette on a hard metal bed. I was surrounded by blue darkness – cold concrete walls, no windows. I heard loud clanging and screaming as if someone were trapped and desperately attempting to escape. Then came voices howling angry epithets. The noise was violent and threatening. I bolted up to understand what was happening.
Suddenly I realised where I was. I was in jail.
My first semi-lucid thought was for Oscar and Leo. My God, I thought, where were my dogs? I was locked up in jail and had lost Oscar and Leo.
I got to my feet and started thinking rationally. I groped at my body and searched in my pockets – they were empty. They had removed my belt, taken my wallet, my keys, my reading glasses. I began pacing my dark cell, back and forth, pushing my palms against the cold walls at each end. The violent banging and shouting in the corridors continued, unrelenting, furious. I felt like a caged animal, helpless, at the mercy of my jailors.
What had happened – how did I end up here? Where were Oscar and Leo?
I replayed the evening like a blurred movie in my mind. I remembered the pear liqueur, the light flirtation with Marie-Christine, the burning looks from Diane Bombarde, the kisses at the doorway as we were leaving, even the steep descent down the four flights of stairs with Oscar and Leo. I was looking for my parked car, finding it finally, and then we headed off into the rainy night. I remembered the confusing one-way streets that locked me into a labyrinth that kept pushing me farther away from the 7th arrondissement. I ended up at a large roundabout where I was searching for an exit towards my own arrondissement. I wasn’t speeding or driving recklessly. In fact I was driving slowly, squinting through my windshield to see the street signs. That’s when the police car pulled up.
Had I run over someone? Had I provoked an accident? Had I deliberately evaded police capture before they finally caught up with me? Not at all. It was, so far as I could discern, a routine police check.
I recalled blowing into a breathalyser. I could see a policeman behind me taking Oscar and Leo away. I remembered shouting at the policeman. Then handcuffs came out and more shouting. And then – nothing.
Where was I anyway? Jail cells, I realised, are devoid of any notion of space and time. They had taken away my wristwatch, so I had no idea how much time had elapsed. It felt like hours, but maybe I’d been in jail for only thirty minutes. I also had no idea where I was geographically. I presumed I was somewhere in Paris, but perhaps I was in some miserable suburb like Aulnay-sous-bois.
I had read of the soul-destroying hell of incarceration. Now I was living it. The confusion, anxiety, self-loathing and shame were unbearable. As I turned and twisted on my hard bed in my cold dungeon, I came horribly close to understanding why prisoners prefer suicide to shame. I held back the impulse by thinking of Oscar and Leo. I had to know where my dogs were. I needed to know that they were alive.
My mouth was parched and my head was pounding. The banging and shouting coming from other cells continued. It didn’t take me long to realise that nobody was likely to come for me soon, I had been thrown in this cold jail cell and was powerless to do anything to get out. I tried to sleep but my nervous system was too shattered. My mind began racing as I replayed the movie of my arrest over and over again. When I got tired of that sequence, my mind seized on anything to keep sane. I made lists, recalled names, relived experiences, replayed conversations. I reviewed every year of my life, recalling people and events, reassuring myself that I once knew a life that was not as tragic and sordid as my current predicament. I replayed in my mind all the television shows I’d hosted. I recalled sitting in the make-up room as a pretty girl gently applied blush to my forehead and darkened my eyebrows. I relived the green-room chats with our guests.
Then I thought of Rebecca – how I met her at Adam’s dinner party, the nervousness of our first date, the first time I met her little boy David when she came round to my place in Cabbagetown. I thought of our family holidays in Provence, our summer vacations in Cape Cod and our winter escapes to Bal Harbour, where I always bought the New York Times at the Surfside drug store. I recalled the afternoons we spent lying in the hot Florida sun next to the Sea View’s cool blue swimming pool with a shimmering image of a dolphin at the bottom. I could see Rebecca getting slowly to her feet in her red and black one-piece bathing suit, and my eyes followed her sensual movements as she walked to the pool’s edge. I tortured myself with thoughts of what Rebecca would think of me now in this state. I was in jail. Oscar and Leo were somewhere, probably locked away in a small room in my Parisian prison.
I could see Rebecca looking at me with pity and disgust, saying: “What a mess your life is now. You couldn’t make it on your own, could you?”
I thought of Adam. Bloody Adam, this was his fault. Why the hell did he let me leave his dinner party in an obvious state of intoxication? He should have called me a taxi. Adam could find a lawyer. I needed a lawyer to get me out of here.
Yes, I needed a lawyer. If I didn’t get out of here, I was going to crawl into a corner of my jail cell and die. Surely someone would come and inform me that I was allowed to make a phone call. Did they even acknowledge that legal right in France? I didn’t know. I thought of calling my neighbour Anne-Laure in Fontainebleau, she was a lawyer, but quickly dismissed the thought. I didn’t want the entire population of Fontainebleau, especially my Résidence d’Étampes neighbours, to know about this. Then I thought of Camille. Maybe she could rescue me, spring me from jail. But I hadn’t heard from Camille in months, she had vanished. Imagine how shocked she would be to suddenly hear my voice pleading with her to get me out of prison. I couldn’t call Camille, I was too ashamed of myself.
I fell asleep on the hard bed, taking refuge from shame in unconsciousness.
I was awoken by the loud clang of a heavy door opening and shutting down the corridor, followed by shouting and banging from the other inmates. This time the sound was different: it was a policeman coming in my direction – or as I was to discover, a policewoman. She came to my door, opened the latch to peer in through a small opening, and asked me if I wished to have a breakfast brought to me.
“Where are my dogs?” I said, desperately. “I need to see my little dogs! One of them is very ill and needs his medication.”
“Your dogs are fine,” she said. “After the dégrisement you will be processed.”
Just hearing that Oscar and Leo were okay, safe and unharmed was such a relief that I immediately hated myself less. If they were okay, things would turn all right in the end. The word dégrisement – which means sobering up – told me where I was. I wasn’t in a prison, I was in a drunk tank, probably at a local police station. I’d been placed in this cold cell to sober up. My crime was driving under the influence. That’s why I had been handcuffed after the breathalyser test. Everything was starting to come back into focus.
I greedily chewed and gulped down the scrawny breakfast on the tray that had been pushed through the opening in the cell door, hoping that food would accelerate my dégrisement. Food, I needed food. I was starting to feel human again, despite the sweat and stench from sleeping on a hard jail cell bed in my clothes from yesterday. Soon I would be “processed” and could get out of this hellhole. This horrible incident would be forgotten. I desperately hoped Oscar and Leo would forgive me for putting them through this ordeal. I knew they must be confused and anxious to be separated from me in a strange place. I would make it up to them with weeks of treats and long walks along the Seine. I would take them down to Fontainebleau for long strolls in the forest. I would take them to the Sunday market to meet and greet the locals in the warm morning sun. The simple things that normal people do to bring happiness into their lives. The small joys in life that shackled prisoners can never know.
After an eternity of waiting, thinking, self-hating, and pacing, the door to my cell finally opened to reveal a tall, blonde, muscular policeman who looked like a Waffen-SS guard. He had powerful shoulders and arms and a heavy-browed, soulless expression. He had not come to chit-chat.
“Sortez!” he commanded.
I complied meekly, getting to my feet and walking towards the cell door.
As I crossed into the dank corridor, he grabbed me by one shoulder and turned me around with an abrupt gesture.
“Hands behind your back,” he barked.
I complied again. He handcuffed my wrists tightly and jabbed me in the middle of the back, pushing me down the corridor like a condemned man being led to his place of execution. The other inmates began banging and shouting for attention, making incoherent demands in slang French. My stern jailor remained imperturbable as he marched me past the row of cells. When we emerged from the dungeons and found ourselves in a brightly lit hallway leading to a lift, it was like emerging from Dante’s Inferno into to the world of the living. I was so relieved to be breathing normal air in my lungs that I felt like breaking down and sobbing. I wasn’t free yet – in fact, I was only in Purgatory. But it was my first, desperate hint of imminent liberation.
In the lift I felt an impulse to make small talk with the square-jawed muscleman who was still jabbing a finger into my back. But he looked stonily head, frowning, making it clear that my existence was of no importance to him. When the elevator doors opened, he steered me out and, with a firm grip on my shoulder, led me down another hallway until we reached an opened doorway. Inside I saw two scruffy plain-clothed Paris cops seated behind large cluttered desks. My frowning jailor removed my handcuffs and pushed me into the room, announcing: “Monsieur Fraser”. Then he vanished.
“Asseyez-vous,” one of the cops said, more an invitation to sit down than a command.
I glanced quickly around the room. It looked like a cleaning lady hadn’t come in the past three years. There were papers strewn over the desks, the walls were covered with lopsided charts, bulletins, and posters stuck up with thumbtacks. The rubbish bin was surrounded by bits of crumpled paper that had been rolled up into balls, flung across the room, and missed their target. The young cops, both with longish hair and dishevelled shirts and jeans, looked more like seasoned gangsters than members of a police force. I sensed instantly from their relaxed demeanour that they had no intention of giving me a hard time. They seemed to regard me as a curiosity.
“He looks like Alain Delon!” blurted one cop, nodding in my direction.
My physical resemblance to the French film star had never occurred to me. My hair was long and brushed back, I was wearing a dark suit with a white shirt wide open at the collar because the police had taken my necktie. I must have looked like one of the high-class felons Delon had played in an early film. I was more relieved than flattered by the comparison, for it seemed to put the two cops at ease with me.
When I sat down the swarthy cop closest to me introduced himself and his sandy-haired colleague: “I’m Starsky, he’s Hutch.”
I gathered I was supposed to find this amusing. It wasn’t the time to be sarcastic, so I replied: “I’m Alain Delon.”
On a chalk board hanging on the wall, I was startled to see my own name scribbled in what appeared to be an arrest list. It read: “FRASER: CEI, outrage”.
These terms were unknown to me. I asked the cop closest to me what “CEI” and “outrage” mean.
“Ah, you must have had a good time last night, eh?” said Starsky. “CEI, c’est conduite en état d’ivresse.”
In English, DUI – driving under the influence.
“What about the outrage,” I persisted. “What outrage?”
“You must have been in a bad mood,” he replied.
“Do you know where my dogs are?” I said. “They were taken away from me, I need to know they are okay. One of them is very ill.”
“You’ll have a chance to discuss that with Audrey when she gets here,” he said.
I had been brought here not to undergo an interrogation. I was in a holding pattern until Audrey, whoever she was, came to “process” me formally. I was frankly glad to be here. This room with two amiable cops was a great improvement on the dank jail cell in the basement. After five minutes I was ready to regard the two cops as good mates. I needed friends.
Suddenly I heard an abrupt noise behind me, as if someone had been pushed into the room and stumbled. When I turned to look, I saw a gangly, fox-faced youth and a blue-uniformed policeman standing behind. The policemen removed handcuffs from his wrists and ordered him to sit down – next to me.
Starsky and Hutch took a very different attitude towards the new boy in the room. On the far side of the room, Hutch began scanning a rap sheet, his eyes darting up at the sallow-faced yob next to me.
“We know you, right?” snapped Hutch.
The young thug, feigning ignorance, grunted vaguely.
“Don’t give us that shit!” barked Starsky, before reading aloud from a computer screen. “Détention d’une arme blanche, January 2009. Poing américain, February 2010. Does that clear up your memory?”
Instead of answering, the young thug looked at me, as if wondering if I were a fellow convict or a cop. I looked back at him, scrutinizing his features, trying to understand how a kid like this – he must have been only twenty years old – started knobbing about the streets of Paris carrying dangerous weapons.
Hutch pulled out large silver switchblade and tossed it on the desk.
“What’s that?” he said.
The thug shrugged.
The cop took the weapon in his hands and flicked open the blade. It was big enough to disembowel a whale. Or slit the throat of a man with one quick swipe.
“What do you need that for?” barked Starsky.
The bony-faced thug gave the question some thought, calculating his answer, and then said: “I use it to eat.”
“Don’t fuck with me!” shot back Starsky. “You always eat with a knife like that?”
There was more. Starsky pulled out and tossed on the desk a bizarre contraption that I learned was the poing américain. It was a set of brass knuckles with sharp razor-blade knives jutting along the ridge. Why it was called an “American fist” I did not know. A punch in the face with that piece of sharp metal would gash and tear the flesh to shreds.
“You use this to eat too?” said Hutch.
The thug said nothing. Instead, he turned and looked at me again.
“Garde à vue!” shouted Starsky. “You’re going in.”
I knew what that meant, if only because I’d just survived it myself. In France, garde à vue is preventative detention even when no charges have been formally laid. They just lock you up and let you “cuisiner” in French cop language. You’re in the cooker. The French police can keep someone in jail for forty-eight hours without providing any reason. And prisoners have no automatic right to call a lawyer. France is not America, except in cop shows on television.
I’d been incarcerated for more than twelve hours and no one had yet mentioned my rights. Until I arrived upstairs and was shown into this room with Starsky and Hutch, I’d been treated with cold medieval indifference. I’d been arrested at midnight, separated from my two little dogs, thrown in a jail cell and left in cold and dark silence all night. Even now, I still didn’t know where Oscar and Leo were. But things were looking up for me.
The first sign of due process finally arrived when the mysterious Audrey breezed into the room, smiling and apologizing for her tardiness. She had been, it appeared, outside having a cigarette break. I was in no position to complain, much less so when I looked up to discover a strikingly attractive woman in a black shirt and tight jeans. She was a police officer.
“You’ve got Alain Delon here, Audrey,” said Hutch.
She looked at me, smiled, and asked me to follow her down the hallway to another room. I thanked Starsky and Hutch on my way out. The young thug glanced up at me, astonished to discover that I was a prisoner just like him.
Audrey’s task was simple. She was there to take my statement for the procès verbal – the written minutes of my admission of guilt. It was a simple typing exercise that would be painless for both of us – unless I denied the charges against me. I decided to make things easy by confessing and signing.
“Where are my two little dogs? I said.
“Don’t worry, I just fed them – they are so adorable,” she said.
The first order of business was the basic facts about me – full name, date of birth, place of birth, profession, salary, and so on. When Audrey discovered that I was a professor at Sciences Po and my salary was decent – at least more than a police constable’s pay – her attitude towards me began to change discernibly.
“What do you teach?” she asked.
“Courses on the media and politics, my last book was on social media – you know Facebook?”
“Yes, of course,” she said.
“I write a lot about Facebook and Twitter and YouTube,” I said.
“I’m on Facebook,” she said.
“Splendid, we’ll have to become friends.”
She smiled, hesitated, then returned to the task at hand. As she began reading the officer’s account of my arrest, Audrey seemed amused by the circumstances of my current spot of bother.
“The interesting thing is that you were not speeding – there is no mention of excès de vitesse,” she said.
“I was actually driving very slowly,” I said. “I was lost trying to get home from the 15th arrondissement and was looking for a street to take me home on Quai d’Orsay. If I hadn’t been stopped, I would have driven home and slept like a baby.”
Yes, she said, but there was the other charge against me: outrage. According to the statement, the arresting officer was claiming I’d insulted him verbally. Specifically, he claimed that I’d shouted “fuck you” at him in English.
“Oh, that’s not nice,” said Audrey, giggling.
I was perplexed by this detail.
“I really don’t know,” I said. “It’s possible that I might have said ‘fuck you’ when they were taking Oscar and Leo from me. Wouldn’t you get angry if someone forcibly took away your dogs?”
“Well, we have a problem,” said Audrey. “If you deny this, it will make things very complicated because you’ll have to wait here longer in jail while we get the statement from the police officer. It could be several more hours. You could, on the other hand, sign now and contest it in court.”
I got the message.
“Okay, I’ll go along with that,” I said. “I just want to leave here with Oscar and Leo and go home. I’ll sign.”
“I think that’s the best solution,” she said. “But you will be here for a bit longer, your statement has to be processed. I’m afraid they will show you down to a cell again – not the cell you were in, but a large holding cell, much less depressing.”
I thought again about Oscar and Leo.
“Can I make a phone call?” I asked. “Please do me this favour. I need to call a friend and ask him to come here to fetch Oscar and Leo.”
Audrey thought it over – then agreed.
I picked up a phone and called Adam immediately. To my immense relief, he answered.
“Adam, I need you to help me, this is very serious,” I said. “I was arrested last night after dinner and I’m in jail. It’s a long story I’ll explain later. Bottom line is that I was stopped and blew over the limit. I’m at a police station and I need you to come here right now to get Oscar and Leo.”
Adam sensed the gravity of my predicament and agreed at once.
“Where are you?” he asked.
I did not even know. I asked Audrey. She gave me the address, which was good news. I was in the police commissariat in the 15th arrondissement on rue de Vaugirard. It was, in fact, just a few blocks from Adam’s apartment. I was just around the corner from where’d I’d parked my car the previous evening before the dinner party.
“You can walk here,” I said.
I signed the affidavit, exchanged a few more smiles with the most attractive police officer I’d ever laid eyes on, and soon found myself downstairs in large holding cell waiting for the paperwork to be completed. The wait lasted about two hours, but I knew the end was near. A policeman finally came to fetch me and took me upstairs – but this time led me to the front desk. It was early evening, for the first time in nearly twenty-four hours I could see outside. Darkness was falling over Paris.
A plump police lady at the front desk mechanically handed me a box and said: “Verify everything please – and then sign here.”
The box contained all my personal possessions: belt, keys, coins, money, all the contents of my wallets spilled out. The only item missing was my driver’s permit. They’d taken that away from me. The charge of “CEI” in France automatically triggers the loss of six points, and a police functionary had checked my record and discovered that I had only four points remaining. My driver’s licence, which would have been suspended in court anyway, was now invalidated. I could no longer legally drive a car in France.
Just as I was turning to walk through the reception area and out the doors to freedom, I caught sight of Audrey coming towards me. She had taken the trouble to come down and wish me well.
“Good luck,” she said, reaching out to shake my hand.
“Maybe I’ll see you on Facebook,” I replied.
When I found myself outside in the cool evening air, it felt as if I’d just been released from prison after several years in solitary confinement. I drew in the moist evening air, free again. Yet I was lost. I looked all around and couldn’t figure out where I was. Adam had told me to meet him in rue des Volontaires just up the road from his place but I’d lost all sense of direction.
Then I spotted a fruit store under a glare of light. To my amazement I looked down on the pavement and saw Oscar and Leo. There was Adam, inspecting a mound of peaches, with Oscar and Leo at his feet. I ran up like a wildly emotional mother being reunited with her children after a long absence.
They looked up and, recognizing me, started to yap and dance excitedly. I picked them both up in my arms and pushed my face into their white fleece, holding them tight against me, begging them to forgive me for what I’d just put them through.
“They’re fine,” said Adam. “I think they thought it was a lot of fun. They were no problem at my place. But what about you? How are you?”
“Don’t ask,” I said. “Adam, it was hell.”
“I can imagine,” he said. “When I went to pick up the dogs, the French cops were fucking outrageously rude. I shouted at them.”
“Adam, I’ve got to go home,” I said. “I need you to do me one more favour. We have to find my car, it’s parked not far from here where I was stopped. You’ll have to drive us home, they took my permit away. I’ll give you money for a taxi to get back to your place.”
It didn’t take us long to find my car, it was parked at the same intersection where I’d been stopped and arrested. I looked about the area, the so-called “scene of the crime”. It appeared strangely banal. There was a parking ticket stuck to my windshield – another kick in the teeth, but the least of my worries.
When we got back to my place, the ambience in my apartment was reproachfully silent. It felt like the flat had been vacant for years. I flicked on the lights, overwhelmed with gratitude to find myself here again – back home with Oscar and Leo.
I didn’t have the energy to take a shower. I gave the dogs some kibble, poured myself a long glass or fruit juice, and crashed onto my bed. Leo jumped up and took his usual position snuggled between my legs, Oscar nested at the bottom next to my feet.
The ordeal was over, for now. I switched off the light and, overcome with relief, sobbed myself to sleep.
Matthew Fraser’s Blog