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The Dud Avocado
By Elaine Dundy
Paperback, 272 pages
List Price: $14.95
It was a hot, peaceful, optimistic sort of day in September. It was around eleven in the morning, I remember, and I was drifting down the boulevard St. Michel, thoughts rising in my head like little puffs of smoke, when suddenly a voice bellowed into my ear: "Sally Jay Gorce! What the hell? Well, for Christ's sake, can this really be our own little Sally Jay Gorce?" I felt a hand ruffling my hair and I swung around, furious at being so rudely awakened.
Who should be standing there in front of me, in what I immediately spotted as the Left Bank uniform of the day, dark wool shirt and a pair of old Army suntans, but my old friend Larry Keevil. He was staring down at me with some alarm.
I said hello to him and added that he had frightened me, to cover any bad-tempered expression that might have been lingering on my face, but he just kept on staring dumbly at me.
"What have you been up to since...since...when the hell was it that I last saw you?" he asked finally.
Curiously enough I remembered exactly.
"It was just a week after I got here. The middle of June."
He kept on looking at me, or rather he kept on looking over me in that surprised way, and then he shook his head and said,
"Christ, Gorce, can it only be three short months?" Then he grinned. "You've really flung yourself into this, haven't you?" In a way it was exactly what I had been thinking, too, and I was on the point of saying, "Into what?" Very innocently, you know, so that he could tell me how different I was, how much I'd changed and so forth, but all at once something stopped me. I knew I would have died rather than hear his reply.
So instead I said, "Ah well, don't we all?" which was my stock phrase when I couldn't think of anything else to say. There was a pause and then he asked me how I was and I said fine how was be, and he said fine, and I asked him what he was doing, and he said it would take too long to tell.
It was then we both noticed we were standing right across the street from the Cafe Dupont, the one near the Sorbonne.
"Shall we have a quick drink?" I heard him ask, needlessly, for I was already halfway across the street in that direction.
The cafe was very crowded and the only place we could find was on the very edge of the pavement. We just managed to squeeze under the shade of the awning. A waiter came and took our order. Larry leaned back into the hum and buzz and brouhaha and smiled lazily. Suddenly, without quite knowing why, I found I was very glad to have run into him. And this was odd, because two Americans re-encountering each other after a certain time in a foreign land are supposed to clamber up their nearest lampposts and wait tremblingly for it all to blow over. Especially me. I'd made a vow when I got over here never to speak to anyone I'd ever known before. Yet here we were, two Americans who hadn't really seen each other for years; here was someone from "home" who knew me when, if you like, and, instead of shambling back into the bushes like a startled rhino, I was absolutely thrilled at the whole idea.
"I like it here, don't you?" said Larry, indicating the cafe with a turn of his head.
I had to admit I'd never been there before.
He smiled quizzically. "You should come more often," he said. "It's practically the only nontourist trap to survive on the Left Bank. It's real," he added.
Real, I thought...whatever that meant. I looked at the Sorbonne students surging around us, the tables fairly rocking under their pounding fists and thumping elbows. The whole vast panoramic carpet seemed to be woven out of old boots, checkered wool and wild, fuzzy hair. I don't suppose there is anything on earth to compare with a French student cafe in the late morning. You couldn't possibly reproduce the same numbers, noise, and intensity anywhere else without producing a riot as well. It really was the most colorful cafe I'd ever been in. As a matter of fact, the most colored too; there was an especially large number of Singhalese, Arab and African students, along with those from every other country.
I suppose Larry's "reality" in this case was based on the cafe's internationality. But perhaps all cafes near a leading university have that authentic international atmosphere. At the table closest to us sat an ordinary-looking young girl with lank yellow hair and a gray-haired bespectacled middle-aged man. They had been conversing fiercely but quietly for some time now in a language I was not even able to identify.
All at once I knew that I liked this place, too.
Jammed in on all sides, with the goodish Tower of Babel working itself up to a frenzy around me, I felt safe and anonymous and, most of all, thankful we were going to be spared those devastating and shattering revelations one was always being treated to at the more English-speaking cafes like the Flore.
And, as I said, I was very glad to have run into Larry.
We talked a little about the various cafes and he explained carefully to me which were the tourist traps and which weren't. Glancing down at my Pernod, I discovered to my astonishment that I'd already finished it. Time was whizzing past. I felt terribly excited.
"White smoke," said Larry clicking his tongue disapprovingly at my second Pernod. His hand twirled around the stem of his own virtuous glass of St. Raphael. "You keep that up," he said, tapping my glass, "and it'll blow your head off-which may be a good thing at that. Why pink?" he asked, studying my new coiffure carefully. "Why not green?"
As a matter of fact I'd had my hair dyed a marvelous shade of pale red so popular with Parisian tarts that season. It was the first direct remark he made about the New Me and it was hardly encouraging.
Slowly his eyes left my hair and traveled downwards. This time he really took in my outfit and then that Look that I'm always encountering; that special one composed in equal parts of amusernent, astonishment and horror came over his face.
I am not a moron and I can generally guess what causes this look. The trouble is, it's always something different.
I squirmed uncomfortably, feeling his eyes bearing down on my bare shoulders and breasts.
"What the hell are you doing in the middle of the morning with an evening dress on?" he asked me finally.
"Sorry about that," I said quickly, "but it's all I've got to wear. My laundry hasn't come back yet." He nodded, fascinated.
"I thought if I wore this red leather belt with it people wouldn't actually notice. Especially since it's such a warm day. I mean these teintureries make it so difficult for you to get your laundry to them in the first place, don't they, closing up like that from noon till three? I mean, my gosh, it's the only time I'm up and around over here-don't you think?"
"Oh sure, sure," said Larry, and murmured "Jesus" under his breath. Then he smiled forgivingly. "Ah well, you're young, you're new, you'll learn, Gorce." A wise nod of the head. "I know your type all right."
"My type?" I wondered. "My type of what?"
"Of tourist, of course."
I gasped and then smiled cunningly to myself. Tourist indeed! Ho-ho! That was the last thing I could be called-did he but know.
"Tell me about this," I said. "You seem to have tourists on the brain."
He crossed his legs and pulled out of his shirt-pocket a crumpled pack of cigarettes as du pays as possible-sort of Gauloises Nothings-offered one to me, took one himself, lit them both and then settled back with pleasure. This was obviously one of his favorite subjects.
"Basically," he began, "the tourist can be divided into two categories. The Organized-the Disorganized. Under the Organized you find two distinct types: first, the Eager-Beaver-Culture- Vulture with the list ten yards long, who just manages to get it all crossed off before she collapses of aesthetic indigestion each night and has to be carried back to her hotel; and second, the cool suave Sophisticate who comes gliding over gracefully, calmly, and indifferently. But don't be fooled by the indifference. This babe is determined to maintain her incorruptible standards of cleanliness and efficiency if the entire staff of her hotel dies trying. She belongs to the take-your-own-toilet-paper set. Stuffs her suitcases full of nylon, Kleenex, soapflakes, and D.D.T. bombs. Immediately learns the rules of the country. (I mean what time the shops open and close, and how much to tip the waiter.) Can pack for a week end in a small jewel case and a large handbag and still have enough room for her own soap and washrag. Finds the hairdresser who speaks English, the restaurant who knows how she likes her steak, and the first foreign word she makes absolutely sure of pronouncing correctly is the one for drugstore. After that she's all set and the world is her ash tray. If she's got enough money she's got no trouble at all. On the whole, I rather like her."
So far so good, I told myself. They neither one had the slightest, smallest, remotest connection with me. Then a thought caught me sharply.
"And the Disorganized?" I asked rather nervously. "The Disorganized?" He considered me carefully for a moment, narrowing his eyes.
"Your cigarette's gone out," he said finally. "You have to smoke this kind, you know, they won't smoke themselves." He lit it for me again and blew out the match without once taking his eyes off my decolletage, which was slipping quite badly. I gave it a tug and he resumed the discourse.
"Yes. The Disorganized. They get split into two groups as well. First of all the Sly One. The idea is to see Europe casually, you know, sort of vaguely, out of the corner of the eye. All Baedekers and Michelins and museum catalogues immediately discarded as too boring and too corny. Who wants to see a pile of old stones anyway? The general 'feel' of the country is what she's after. It's even a struggle to get her to look at a map of the city she's in so she'll know where the hell she is, and actually it's a useless one since this type is constitutionally incapable of reading a map and has no sense of direction to begin with. But, as I say, she's the sly one-the 'Oh, look, that's the Louvre over there, isn't it? I think 1'11 drop in for a second. I'm rather hot. We'd better get out of the sun anyway...' or 'Tuileries did you say? That sure strikes a bell. Aren't those flowers pretty over there? Now haven't I heard something about it in connection with the -what was it-French Revolution? Oh yes, of course that's it. Thank you, hon.' "
I laughed-a jolly laugh-to show I was with him.
"The funny thing," he continued, "is, scratch the sly one and out comes the real fanatic, and what begins with 'Gosh, I can never remember whether Romanesque was before or after
Gothic' leads to secret pamphlet readings and stained-glass studyings, and ends up in wild aesthetic discussions of the relative values of the two towers at Chartres. Then all restraint is thrown to the wind and anything really old enough is greeted with animal cries of anguish at its beauty. In the final stage small discriminating lists appear about her person-but they only contain, you may be damn sure, the good, the pure and the truly worthwhile."
Larry paused, took a small, discriminating sip of his St. Raphael, and puffed happily away at his cigarette. I swallowed the last of my Pernod, folded my arms seductively on the sticky table and took a long pull on my own French cigarette. It had gone out, of course. I hid it from Larry but he hadn't noticed. He was lost in reverie.
Blushingly I recalled a night not so long before when I had suddenly fallen in love with the Place de Furstenberg in the moonlight. I had actually-Oh Lord-I had actually kissed one of the stones at the fountain, I remembered, flung my shoes off, and executed a crazy drunken dance.
The September sun was blazing down on us and the second Pernod was beginning to have a pleasant soporific effect on me. A couple of street Arabs came up and listlessly began to try selling us silver jewelry and rugs. After a while they drifted away. I began studying Larry closely. The mat of auburn hair curling to his skull, the gray-green eyes now so blank and far away, the delicate scar running down the pale skin of his forehead, the well-shaped nose covered with a faint spray of freckles, and his large mouth so gently curved, all contributed to give his face, especially in repose, a look of sappy sweetness that was sharply at odds with-and yet at the same time enhanced-his tough, wise-guy manner. Maybe because I had been out very late the night before and was not able to put up my usual resistance, but it seemed to me, sitting there with the sound of his voice dying in my ears, that I could fall in love with him.
And then, as unexpected as a hidden step, I felt myself actually stumble and fall. And there it was, I was in love with him! As simple as that.
He was the first real person I'd ever been in love with. I couldn't get over it. What I was trying to figure out was why I had never been in love with him before. I mean I'd had plenty of chance to. I'd seen him almost daily that summer in Maine two years ago when we were both in a Summer Stock company. I had decided to be an actress at the time. Even though we were about the same age, he was already a full-fledged Equity member and I had been a mere apprentice. He was always rather nice to me in his insolent way, but there was also, I now remembered with a passing pang, an utterly ravishing girl, a model, the absolute epitome of glamour, called Lila. She used to come up at week ends to see him.
Then I heard from someone that he'd quit college the next winter and gone abroad to become a genius. I'd met him again when I first landed in Paris. He'd been very nice, bought me a drink, taken down my telephone number and never called me.
You're a dead duck now, I told myself, as I relaxed back into my coma. You're gone. I looked at him, smiling idly. I tried to imagine what was going on in his mind. I gave up and I thought of his tourists.
I had no trouble imagining the girl with all the Kleenex and Tampax or whatever. Cool, blonde and slender, she was only too easy to picture, but the thought of all that unruffled poise somehow had the opposite effect on my own-so 1 drove her away and began concentrating on the last one. What did he call her? The sly one. Here, happily, in my pleasantly drowsy state, I was able to dress up a little gray furry mouse with tail and whiskers in a black bombazine coat and bonnet. She was clutching a small discriminating list in her white-gloved claws and uttering animal squeals of anguish at the beauty of-what? The Crazy Horse Saloon? Oh dear, I really was too ignorant and too lazy to know what was on that list...something old...those Caves, I thought idly, the word conjuring up no picture whatever. Those Caves anyway, I persevered, in...southern France? No, Spain: someplace with an A. Ha! Altamira, that's it. Yes, the Caves, I decided, framing the mouse in the doorway, or rather Caveway. Yes. They're very old...very, very old.
"The last type," said Larry, his voice suddenly snapping me out of my trance, his green eyes fixing me with a significant glare that made my heart lurch, "the last type is the Wild Cat. The I-am-a-Fugitive-from-the-Convent-of-the-Sacred-Heart. Not that it's ever really the case. Just seems so from the violence of the reaction. Anyhow it's her first time free and her first time across and, by golly, she goes native in a way the natives never had the stamina to go. Some people think it's those stand-up toilets they have here-you know, the ones with the iron footprints you're supposed to straddle. After the shock of that kind of plumbing something snaps in the American girl and she's off. The desire to bathe somehow gets lost. The hell with all that, she figures. Then weird haircuts, weird hair-colors, weird clothes. Then carries drink and down, down, down. Dancing in the streets all night, braying at the moon, and waking up in a different bed each morning. Yep," he polished off his St. Raphael with a judicious smack of his lips, "that's the lot. Hmm," a long studying glance, "now you, I'd say, you are going to be a combination of the last two types."
"Why you utter bastard," I gasped. "That's a dirty lie," I heard myself saying, the phrase dug up from heaven knows what depths of my childhood. Then in an effort to regain my dignity: "Really, of all the stupefying inaccurate accusations. It's a pretty safe bet I bathe about sixty times as often as you..." He burst out laughing. To accuse the American male of not bathing in Paris is merely to flatter him.
The Pernod was having quite a different effect on me now. I was wide-awake, and sputtering, and so angry I could almost feel the steam rising from my shoulders.
He put his hand over mine, the one with the dead cigarette crumbled in it, and gave me a wonderful smile. "Easy, child, easy. I'm only teasing you. Don't think I disapprove for Christ's sake. Live it up, I say. Don't say no to life, Gorce, you're only young once."
Excerpted from The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy. Published by NYRB.