The trip to Paris was his wife’s idea. The husband himself, although he didn’t say it, was less than keen on visiting a country where ISIS-inspired acts of terror had become a regular occurrence of late. Perhaps he would’ve spoken up under different circumstances—if, say, his wife’s choice of France as a destination had been nothing more than a place to get away. That was the case back in ’07, when they took their children to France for a week. They went for pleasure, to shop and eat and see the Eiffel Tower. But now, exactly 10 years later, with only him if he wanted to come, his wife was bent on returning for business—general research for a book she was writing.
His wife, fulfilling a lifelong dream, had taken up the pen in her 50s and every morning before it was light would slip out of bed, throw on a robe, and head to the attic to write for an hour. The husband was careful not to disturb her once he stumbled out of the bedroom. She looked to him for support and encouragement, and as of yet he hadn’t failed her. So when she proposed the trip to France, framed as mostly a working vacation, he couldn’t very well give voice to his qualms without appearing to stand in her way.
“How long would you want to stay?” he asked, straining to sound sufficiently willing.
A week, no more than a week, she replied—which gave him a small degree of comfort; he thought she would have plumped for two.
“And you’re all right with leaving the dogs?” he asked with a solemn show of concern. She loved her dogs as they loved her, and whenever she had to leave them both even for a single night she suffered agonies on their behalf, knowing they’d be pining for her.
The question only annoyed his wife, who needed no reminding. On top of that, he seemed to be taking the dogs’ side.
“You know how I feel about leaving the dogs—I hate it, but what can I do?” she cried. “I’m making a concession to them both, as it is. If not for those two, you can bet your life I’d be spending four weeks over there, not one.”
The husband, who largely ignored the dogs when not casually resenting them, now understood he had them to thank for the prospect of only a week in France.
His wife’s next comment took him aback.
“Please don’t feel obliged to come. If your heart’s not in it, if you can’t spare the time, I’m perfectly fine with asking Susan. Of course I’d rather go with you, but one way or another I’m making this trip.”
The husband, who all this time had been trying to appear not ill-disposed to the trip, squirmed on seeing he hadn’t succeeded. He briefly considered his wife’s proposal to take her older sister in his place, and tempting though it was at first, his conscience sent a warning flare. What if, thanks to a bomb or bullet, his sister-in-law should die in his place, leaving behind a grieving spouse and three devoted daughters? How could he face them after that, he the shirker of his duty as escort? Out of respect for the loss of his own wife—killed along with Susan—nothing unpleasant would be said to his person by either his nieces or brother-in-law. But in their hearts they would never forgive him for depriving them of their wife and mother.
The husband’s mind was now made up. Putting on the brave face of one about to risk his life, he told his wife what he should have said from the start: “We’ll go together and we’ll have a good time.”
And so the ball was set in motion—his wife booked their flights. And then they broke the news to people, as happens with any trip, his wife telling her circle, the husband telling his, until only two people remained, his parents, the two he relished telling the least. His parents, he knew, were just like him and would see no reason to celebrate a trip to France at a time like this and would only reinforce his fears of returning home in a box. And so, when he finally did tell his parents, breaking the news over the phone, he put on the rosiest voice imaginable, daring these two to burst his bubble by raising concerns about his safety.
His gambit worked—they played along, choking back what they might have said. They even wished him bon voyage, forced though it sounded.
A few days later husband and wife, freshly arrived in Paris again, were strolling down the Boulevard Saint-Michel, their stomping ground of 10 years earlier. Coincidentally, it was April again—April in Paris, just like the song, whose lyrics suddenly came to the husband at the sight of actual chestnuts in blossom. But each time the rumble of a truck reached his ears, lines from the ballad jostled in his brain with bloody visions of trucks run amok. With his wife beside him, sometimes behind him, he kept to the building side of the pavement, as far from the curb as one could get, surprised (and pleased) by how few others thought to take the same precaution. But there were risks of another kind in hugging the facades. They had a couple of near misses with street doors flying open as shoppers came bursting out of stores clutching bags.
It finally got to be too much. “I can’t walk here,” his wife muttered angrily after she almost got clobbered again, and off she went with a determined stride to join the walkers in the middle of the pavement. Unlike him, she was not prey to visions of trucks run amok on the sidewalks of Paris; had no idea what was on his mind or why he walked so close to the buildings. Rather than try to explain himself and reveal his morbid fantasies, he meekly followed his wife to the middle, prepared to die if it came to that. He thought of his elderly parents with a pang. Now if a truck really did mow him down here in the middle, this vulnerable spot, they’d never know he made the move against his better judgment.
That first day in Paris he and his wife wandered for hours with no set plan; and every street and square they roamed, every public garden and park, swarmed with people coming and going with no look of fear about them. While waiting to cross an intersection, you never waited long before others came flocking up with the same idea, 20, 30, and 40 strong, spilling over the curb. The little round tables in front of the cafés were thick with patrons jumbled together, forcing the waiters to wade in among them, finding space where none seemed to be. All these many thousands of people, by some intrinsic law of nature, did not collect in one place, like water in a tilted box, but spread out evenly over the city, seeping into every corner. The moment someone gave up a seat, someone else was there to snag it, if only a matted seat on the grass along the banks of the Seine. The cobbled side streets, when no cars were coming, flooded with pedestrians oozing from the walls, to which they receded when the next car appeared. When rising out of a Metro station, no matter how far from the city center, one met the same crowds here as elsewhere, defying all notions of an outlying district.
Amid this boiling sea of humanity, where one was a mere speck of matter, the husband began to understand the Parisians’ seeming lack of fear. Each fresh outbreak of terror in their city had them vowing, when the dust had settled, to go on living their daily lives and not be cowed by the haters of the world. But was it really as noble as that? People drew their strength from others, from peeking out their bedroom windows and seeing their fellow man. Only then did one creep forth, impelled to seek one’s daily bread in company with the crowd, which roved the streets of the metropolis like ants in a field. And like the ants, which kept on coming, undeterred by a death in their ranks, the crowds of people kept on coming, their fallen members whisked from the path. Surrounded by these human ants, the husband took courage, and little by little his vigilance relaxed.
He wasn’t long in Paris, however. The book his wife was working on had to do with World War I, and the very next day they made their way to the countryside surrounding Paris for the start of a four-day driving tour of sites related to that shattering event. The world out here, as seen from their car, a little black rented Fiat, consisted of yellow colza fields laid out in rectangles and red-brick farming communities without a soul in sight. One slowed down at the sight of the bricks and sped up again at the sight of the colza. The points of interest dotting their route shared this same repetitive aspect. In between their car-time and short breaks for lunch, they paid calls at cemeteries, battlefields, and shrines, and dallied in front of artifacts in musées de la Grande Guerre.
When emptying their pockets of change at night, they first pulled out the day’s collection of ticket stubs, admissions receipts, and folded brochures, all of which were duly added to the pile of like items each kept stowed in a suitcase pouch. The last brochure to go in their piles bore on its front a color image of a hulking structure of brick and stone: the renowned Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, designed by England’s Sir Edwin Lutyens. This same brochure described the memorial as being visible for miles around, but that was not the experience of the husband, who on his approach in the little black Fiat had made out nothing at all of the work. Closer still, all that appeared was the glassed-in, flat-roofed Visitors Centre and fleets of buses in a parking lot. To get to the shrine, you walked through this building and out the back to a path leading up. It was there at the top and off to the right that Lutyens’ creation in all its majesty revealed itself rearing up at the end of a lush lawn. The husband later read in the brochure that the structure was 15 stories high.
The day of his visit was chilly and gray, but the students of history were out in force, some in units of two and three, others in huddles of 20 and more. Rising out of each of the huddles, a tour guide squawked in one of three tongues—French, German, or British English. Tagging along behind his wife, his very own tour guide, who led him up the short flight of steps fronting the shrine itself and who stopped every now and then to point out a detail, the husband ran his eye down the names on the stonework. In all, the number of recorded names was 73,077, according to a plaque high up on the shrine. These were the soldiers, mainly British, who gave their lives at the Battle of the Somme and for whom no proper graves exist.
“And who are they?” the husband asked a short time later, peering down the memorial’s short flight of back steps and pointing to a small grid of marked graves below—rows of identical crosses on one side, rows of identical headstones on the other.
Those, said his wife, were the graves of soldiers whose remains were found during the building of the monument. The crosses marked the French dead; the headstones, the British. In most cases, only this—their nationality—was known.
While the husband listened to his wife’s explanation, a gaggle of British teenage girls, their voices raised in jubilant spirits, blew on past his shoulders from behind and down the steps with thudding feet, like children suddenly released from school. Once at the bottom, they came to a halt in front of the tiny burial ground and proceeded to carry on despite it. They preened, they capered, they laughed, they sang. One of them opened a bag of crisps and shared it round among her chums. Another, spying a distant figure, a farmer slowly walking his fields, stuck her arms up high in the air and waved to him with both her hands, an action copied by two of her neighbors. And when the farmer waved in reply, his right arm raised in silhouette, all three girls were beside themselves—they jumped for joy, squealed with pleasure, and renewed their waving with added zeal.
Observing all this from his perch on the shrine, this schoolyard cavorting on top of the dead, the husband at first was inclined to take umbrage at what he considered callous behavior. How different, he thought, from the older folk, who roamed the graves in solemn pairs, shoulders hunched, heads bowed, hands clasped at the waist. In order not to disturb the departed, they spoke in whispers if they spoke at all and trod the ground with the lightest of feet. For one looking on, it was tempting to see this group as morally superior to the girls.
And then the husband had an insight. These older folk, of whom he was one, were well aware of their approaching demise and therefore showed respect in the presence of those they’d soon be joining below. The girls, by contrast, because they were young, had no such fellow feeling for the dead. Never mind that the dead at their feet were likely young themselves when killed. Time had rendered these boys an abstraction, a history lesson—the Missing of the Somme. Their death had no reality for the girls—no more so than their own mortality. Once the husband perceived this fact, he went from being affronted by them to viewing their antics with a new-found indulgence. As for his own actions and those of his wife, both behaved according to their age once they made it down off the steps. Treading lightly, speaking in whispers, they roamed the graves with solemn faces, brooding on the dwindling time left to each of them.
The research part of the trip now over, they were back in Paris the following morning for one last day to do as they pleased before they left for home on the morrow. With the finish line so near at hand, the husband, far from relaxing his guard, instead became more wary than ever. Over the course of the past four days in the halls of the World War I museums, he had read too many accounts of soldiers—French, German, English, American—who had come through the worst of the fighting unscathed only to perish at the hands of the enemy on the very eve of their completion of service or a general laying down of arms. The most gruesome of these cases was that of A—, an English soldier at Mons, who was idling filling his pipe in the trenches and starting up a conversation when a shell, a whizz-bang, blew off his head. The following morning at 11 o’clock the war officially ended—a day too late for the unlucky A—. “No,” the husband said to himself once back in Paris, “I will not relax for even a second until I’m back in the safety of my home.”
He kept these morbid thoughts from his wife, who did not help matters by dragging him along to a falafel joint in the Marais for lunch. Did his Gentile wife think he as a Jew would be gratified by a visit to the Marais, the city’s historic Jewish district? She had blithely read him a review of the restaurant in the Paris guidebook she carried around, when the thing he wished to avoid above all was any Jewish gathering-place. He had not forgotten the recent shocker of Jews gunned down in the name of Allah at a kosher market on the outskirts of Paris. The Jews of France, so he had read, had been leaving the country in droves ever since. And now amidst this exodus, as he himself was about to leave, his wife led him by the nose into the old ghetto where everyone present had a target on his back.
Again, the husband kept his silence. He assumed his wife knew something about the state of Jewish affairs in France, and still she sallied forth undaunted, map in hand, in pursuit of her sandwich. If she, then, the Gentile, in full knowledge of the risks involved, was casting her fate with the Jews, as it were, he, the Jew, for very shame, could only follow meekly behind.
And so they came to the cobbled street mentioned in the guidebook and paused a moment to look about them and sniff the air for cooking smells. In that same instant the husband was approached by a figure in black, a young Lubavitch, who sported the traditional black felt hat with rounded brim and dimpled crown. Like a mounted cowboy taking his ease at the end of a long and dusty trail, he wore the hat tipped back on his head at a 65° angle, revealing the usual milky face surmounted by a scraggly beard. The husband knew the type well from his rambles back home; even knew what this one here was about to say as he sidled up.
Sure enough, in a lowered voice muffled by his moustache, or fringe of sparse facial hair that passed for a moustache, the young Lubavitch asked the husband in English, “Are you Jewish?”
The boy’s sole mission was to troll for those Jews who looked and acted more like goys; and if one answered yes to his question, he pounced with his next, his raison d’être: “Please, will you let me fit you with tefillin?” By this was meant the two leather boxes containing parchment with holy scripture and worn at morning prayers by the pious. One of the boxes was strapped to the forehead, the other strapped to one of the arms. Once many years ago the husband submitted to just such a “fitting” in lower Manhattan. The fitter, Yaakov, or something like that, as soon as he finished securing the boxes, removed the yarmulke he wore under his hat and clapped it summarily on the husband’s bare head. Then he shoved a booklet at him and led him through a Hebrew prayer, the husband reading along with him in transliteration. Lastly, the husband, repeating after Yaakov, lifted his voice in solemn appeal.
The husband had gotten sly since then. Whenever the lads approached him now and asked if he was Jewish, he’d simply say nonchalantly, with a nonchalant wave of the hand, “I was fitted earlier today, but thanks just the same.”
“You were fitted?” they’d cry, stopping in their tracks, amazed to hear him speaking their lingo.
Meanwhile the husband sailed on serenely, nodding and making a wrapping motion and giving another wave of the hand. One tall lad called after him once in a booming voice: “You rock, man!”
By this little lie, the husband avoided the lure of the greater one by far: answering no to the Jewish question. Toward these boys he already felt the guilt of the inauthentic Jew. To deny being one of them would only serve to compound his guilt. In order to escape their clutches, then, he’d hit upon this half measure—this little white lie that worked like a charm.
In Paris now, as in New York, the husband was ready with his trusty line. “I was fitted earlier today, but thank you just the same.”
It helped to fling the line while moving, but he wasn’t moving here. He stood immobile as the boy came closer, a smile playing at the corners of his lips as if he knew a joke when he heard one. “Are you pulling my leg?” he quietly asked, bringing his hatted head still closer. “It makes no difference to me, my friend, as I have a perfectly good second leg.”
“I’m not a believer,” the husband pleaded while trying to peer around the hat.
“A Jew is a Jew,” the other countered. “Your prayer will still be heard by God. I ask for only five minutes. What is five minutes?”
“I’ll think about it,” the husband said, taking a step back, “but first I need to have some lunch.”
“Fine, go eat. I’ll wait for you here. And then, you’ll see, you’ll be done in five minutes. I’m the fastest wrapper of tefillin in Paris.” The lad, on making this grandiose claim, lifted slightly the bag at his side to indicate the tefillin within—a perfectly ordinary plastic bag dangling from his bony wrist.
As luck would have it, the falafel place touted by the guidebook turned out to be just a few doors away, in easy range of the lad’s sharp eyes. As the husband made his way there alongside his wife, he could feel those sharp eyes boring into his back. The two walked in and were shown to a table smack in the center of the large front window. The husband, hoping to forget the boy and what had just happened, chose the seat with its back to the window and proceeded to bury his head in the menu. But moments later there came a rapping of knuckles on glass. The husband glanced across at his wife, who sat facing the window.
“It’s your little friend,” she noted drily, looking past his shoulder. With a sinking feeling he turned in his seat and there indeed was the familiar face pressed against the windowpane, borsalino and all. Now that he had the husband’s attention, his lips silently formed a message:
“The combination plate is delicious!” In doing so, they left a puff of mist on the glass.
The husband, who found it hard to be rude, mouthed his thanks and turned back around, burying his head even further in the menu. A few seconds later he peered over the top of it and quietly asked, “Is he still behind me?”
“Please don’t let this ruin our lunch,” his wife implored with a heavy sigh.
“I’m not going to let it ruin our lunch. I just want to know if he’s still behind me.”
“As a matter of fact, he’s across the street standing under an awning.”
“No doubt keeping an eye on our table.”
“Honestly, it’s hard to tell where he’s looking. I told you he’s standing under an awning. His eyes, his face, are completely in shadow.”
“I find his presence very unnerving. What would you say to switching tables?”
“You’re being silly. We’re not switching tables.” And she raised the menu in front of her face.
The husband desisted, but inwardly fumed. He hadn’t wanted to come to the Marais, and only relented to please his wife. And now, although he could never say it, his fear of meeting his end in the Marais on this, his final day in Paris, had become even greater, more harrowing yet, thanks to his little friend outside waiting patiently under the awning. His fear was that, if he acquiesced and let him put the tefillin on him—right out there in the middle of the street, in full view of the public—the two black boxes stuck on his body, but especially the one protruding from his forehead, would mark him instantly as the first to go in the event of a sudden terrorist attack, in the same way a medic’s cross invites the first enemy bullet. It would do no good to explain to the terrorist that he wasn’t really an observant Jew, appearances notwithstanding. It would be God’s little joke, he supposed. He, the great secularist, would die a martyr’s death. And all because he couldn’t bring himself to say no to the little pisher across the street.
The husband, taking the boy’s advice, ordered the combination plate—a single order he split with his wife and which both of them found the perfect amount. They were also agreed on the quality of the food. All the items, but one in particular—the fried rounds of eggplant—elicited raptures even from the husband, who up until the food’s arrival had sat in sullen silence. The only crack in the husband’s enjoyment was the thought of that boy with the spying eyes; and, too, the consideration that this could be his last meal.
And then, unsolicited, his wife informed him she could no longer see the boy out front. Her telling him this was a loving action that needed no explaining. She was grateful to him for his change of attitude, for coming out of his sullen mood and enjoying this wonderful meal with her.
Later, as he was paying up and getting to his feet, his wife reported something else she knew was sure to please him: the bright front window of the bakery opposite brimmed with trays of poppyseed strudel.
“Please,” she said, “can I buy you one? I know how much you love the stuff.”
With an inward shudder, the husband blanched. The offer of his favorite sweet at this time was like the slice of cherry pie that caps an inmate’s final feast before his execution. He saw himself going to his death in the street after partaking of the poppyseed strudel.
But what could he do? He couldn’t say no. He had no choice but to accept with a smile.
Fully expecting trouble from the boy, he showed himself at the door of the restaurant and started across the street for the bakery, his wife right behind him. Like a man on a wire, he looked straight ahead and put one foot in front of the other until his last step brought him safely to his goal. He entered the bakery, followed by his wife, and only then did his breathing return. If the boy called out, he hadn’t heard him; nor had he seen any sign of him, either.
The husband pleaded a full stomach and took the piece of strudel to go, hoping by this technicality to elude his date with Death. Then he made a dash for freedom, but it wasn’t like the movies. In the movies, the Jew, fleeing for his life, ever so cautiously pokes his head around the corner of every building before deciding to venture forth. When on the move he slinks along the shadowed edges of deserted streets, darting furtive backward glances over his shoulder. The husband dispensed with all this now, all these overripe conventions, and aimed instead at a semblance of normality in the hopes of blending in. With his wife in tow, he left the bakery simply by walking out, whereupon he turned left and headed down the street, moving neither fast nor slow and never glancing behind him. He only had a block to go to make it out of the Marais, and just as he was coming onto the street that marked its terminus, he heard a wild hailing from behind. Even then he did not glance back or change his course in any way. But after all was said and done, the movies knew best. On hearing the shout a second time, a little louder still, he lost his head and sunk to the level of one of those Jews with the border in sight. He started to hurry, then to trot, then broke into a full-out sprint.