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Book Excerpt

SYLVIE

by David Westheimer

Sylvie was hesitant at first when he invited her into the bar for a drink but changed her mind and handed him her coat to carry. She was wearing what in Houston would have been a short evening gown with thin straps and cut so you could see the tops of her knockers. The dress was kind of violet, matching her eyes, and he knew that was one of the things that reminded him of Esperanza, she had eyes that color.

She walked in a little ahead of him and Pierre stopped in the middle of what he was playing and started a tune Ritter had never heard. And when Ritter walked in behind her Pierre looked surprised and started Deep in the Heart of Texas.

"What was that?" Ritter asked.
"You donít know it? "Dip in the Ďart of Texas.í"
"I mean the one before."
"La Seine," she said.
"It must be your song. Pierre knows you."
"Of course. I come here often."
"I never saw you here before last night," Ritter said. She looked at him thoughtfully, appeared to decide something, and said defiantly, "During the Occupation."

"So?" "You wish to cut off my hair?"
"It looks too good where it is."
It was piled on top of her head and she looked like a movie star.
"Hey," he went on. "Itís none of my business."

He was surprised he didnít care if sheíd gone out with Germans. Hell, he was a foreigner here, too. And maybe it meant she was really eager, not pretending just to get him all hot and bothered like Lieutenant Asshole last night. Anyway, heíd already guessed she hadnít stayed home nights during the Occupation because she could dance like a fool.

She was surprised that it didnít bother him.
"Were they good dancers?"
She laughed.
"Not very. Not like you. Who says he has not danced with a girl in three years."

They bought drinks, citronade for her, a beer for Ritter and a cognac for Pierre.

Pierre said, "I never saw her before."

Sylvie said something to him in French.

"So you know," he said to Ritter. "But she was always very proper."

He played all of La Seine for them and Sylvie said it was time to go. Ritter looked back at Pierre when they went out and Pierre gave him the okay sign, the tip of his forefinger pressed against his thumb.

Sylvie insisted on hiring the cab because she was so much better at it than an American and she was right. They sat in opposite corners in the back seat though Ritter knew he could be a perfect gentleman even if they sat closer even if she did smell like a flower garden. She told him to let her deal with the driver because Americans could not cope with Paris taxi drivers. Ritter thought heíd become pretty good at and tried to show off when they got out at the restaurant and held out two hundred francs when the driver asked for two fifty. Sylvie snatched the money from his hand and gave the driver one fifty and what seemed to Ritter a vivid description of his family tree.

The restaurant was up a long flight of stairs above a store front. Looking up at it from the street it did not seem like so much to Ritter even though there were white drapes on the upstairs windows. Sylvie made him wait downstairs in the shadows while she went off with a waiter in a tux. After only a few minutes he came back down and herded Ritter quickly through a room full of empty tables covered with spotless white linen cloths and gleaming place settings with napkins folded like lilies and an array of knives, forks and spoons that Ritter thought pretentious. Each table had a candle on it, as yet unlit, and a slim vase with a single rose in it. Then he was in a private back room which was not quite as magnificent and not really private. Three tables. Sylvie was sitting at one with her coat thrown over a chair and her knockers proclaiming themselves to the world or the small part of it represented by a party of four at a third table.

An odd group. Two young people feeding each other morsels, giving each other sips from their wine glasses, exchanging butterfly kisses. A middle-aged woman, her eyes red from weeping, her chin resting in the palm of her hand, her elbow propped on the table. A short, round middle-aged man, looking as if heíd been inflated to the limits of his silk short-sleeved shirt and gabardine riding britches, worn with cordovan riding boots. Blue suspenders and a belt, too, studded with colored stones. He was eating and drinking noisily with great gusto, reaching over now and again to feed the weeping woman a forkful of something or tilt his wine glass to her lips. He noticed Ritter looking at him and raised his glass in a toast.

This is where they put the people they donít want anybody to see, Ritter thought. Except people like Sylvie, who lit up the room. If she werenít with an offlimits American she would have been at a front table in the main dining room. He wondered if German soldiers had to dine in the back room.

Sylvie ordered for both of them, conferring seriously with a tuxedoed waiter and a another man with a chain dangling from his neck. The main with the chain brought a bottle of white wine in a cooler and poured a sip for Ritter to taste. Ritter deferred to Sylvie, who smelled the cork and nodded approval. She did the same with a bottle of red wine reclining on their table in a narrow basket.

First there was what looked like his momís chopped liver, with little toast points. Pate de fois gras, Sylvie said. Then onion soup with bread topped with melted cheese floating in it. Ritter knew what that was. French onion soup. And fish in some kind of creamy white sauce, and meat that Sylvie said was veal in a brown sauce, and string beans, French beans they called them in Houston, and crusty French bread and a salad--in Houston you ate salad during, not after, a meal. And runny cheese he hated the smell and taste of. Sylvie ate more than he did, crooning and nodding to herself and sipping wine.

Ritter had had one other meal like this, less sumptuous, in a mountain resort outside of Beirut the time he and Cohan took a three-day pass. It was okay, too, but he preferred New Orleans French to Paris French. And liked to know what he was eating. Heíd really have preferred a T-bone and big baked potato with chives, butter and sour cream at Ye Olde College Inn and hot blueberry muffins served from a warmer by a little black kid in a uniform.

During the fish, he asked Sylvie if Germans had to eat in the back room. She studied his face to be sure he was asking out of curiosity, not rancor.

"They had the best tables, the officers," she said. "I was in this very restaurant with, how do you call it, a leftenant coronel?"
"Oberst leutnant," Ritter said. He touched his silver bar." "Youíve come down in the world."
"You are much more Ďand some," she said, not at all coquettishly.

Funny, she spoke English so well but couldnít handle "h."

"We also attended the ballet and the opera."
"An intellectual," Ritter said. "What is your favorite opera?"
She said, "I know the Toreador Song from Carmen when I hear it."

She was so quick. She knew he was getting even with her for teasing him the night before.

"Bizet," he said.
She laughed. Her knockers shook a little. Fascinating.

"Are you not jealous?" she asked.
"Envious."
"That is not the same thing?"
"Jealous is when you are pissed"—he didnít want to say pissed off in front of her— "angry at the other guy for having something you donít. Envious is when you just wish it was you."
"Interesting," she said.

During the veal she listened to the conversation at the next table.

She said, "It is a wedding party. The bride is the daughter of the woman who cries and the vulgar fat man. I think he trades in the black market."

They were having American powdered coffee when the waiter brought the check.

Twenty five hundred francs. Twenty-five dollars even by the French count.

Twelve-fifty each. The best dinner in Houston cost two bucks. And he didnít have twenty five hundred francs. He looked at his watch. Was there time to get back to the Crillon and get a loan from Pierre?

The watch.

The one-armed black market guy had offered him two thousand for it. Must be worth twice that. He pushed back his chair.

"Sylvie," he said, "Iíll need an interpreter."

And started for the other table. She gaped. He thought nothing could surprise this woman.

"I want to sell him my watch," he said. "I donít have enough to pay our bill." In Houston it would have mortified him to admit that, especially to a gorgeous date he was out with for the first time. But now it didnít bother him at all. After everything that happened to him the last two years?

Sylvie was amused. No American girl would have been. Not Esperanza Riordan, for sure. And everybody would know about it the next day.

"I have three hundred," Sylvie said, digging into her purse. "Is that enough?"
"It might cover the tip."
"The gratuity is included. But not for the captain."
"The captain?"
"The one who conducted you to the table."
"How much does he get?"
"In France it is very serious not to have enough for líaddition," she said.
"And it is a very serious laddishon," Ritter said.
"Let us by all means visit the black market," she said, getting up and leading him toward the fat manís table.

He couldnít help but admire the way her hips undulated in the tight violet dress.

On the way, Ritter put his watch in his pocket. It would be tacky to sell it off his wrist. The fat guy looked up, puzzled. Sylvie said something to him in French. All Ritter understood was the French for "Prisoner of War." The fat guy jumped up and pumped Ritterís hand.

Ritter said, "Donít tell him itís to pay our check. Itís for champagne to celebrate our engagement."

Sylvie struggled not to laugh. She and the fat guy talked a while and she said, "He wants to buy the champagne."

Ritter took the watch out of his pocket and said, "Tell him I really appreciate it but it wouldnít be the same. The future bridegroom must pay. It is the tradition in Texas."

She said something to the fat man, who said something back and rose and kissed Ritter on both cheeks and then everyone else at the table, all drunk, kissed Ritter and Sylvie on both cheeks and Ritter said, "Seven jewels."

The fat guy took out a wad so big he had trouble extracting it from his pocket and started counting out one thousand franc bills.

Sylvie said, "He says say Ďwhení."

And after he counted out five thousands, Ritter said, "When."

The fat guy slipped the watch on his new son-in-lawís wrist and the son-in-law got up and gave Ritter and Sylvie more kisses and lingered so long on Sylvie his new bride got up and pulled him off her by his hair. Mother-in-law burst into fresh tears. While the fat guy was plying her with red wine and pats on the back Ritter and Sylvie went back to their table and gave the hovering waiter three of the thousand franc notes.

Ritter said, "Tell him three-fifty for the captain and one-fifty for him, since his gratuity is already included."

Out in the cab, Ritter said, "Can we finish the evening on two thousand francs and change?"

Sylvie said. "Nicely. You are such an imbecile."

The way he called Cohan, "Sumbitch."

It augured well, Ritter thought.

"What happened to him?" he said.

She knew who he was talking about. "Why are you so curious?" she asked.

"I know what happened to us," he said. "I want to know what happened to them."

"He was taken prisoner," she said. "And you were a prisoner. Ironic?"

"Well," Ritter said, "to the victor belongs the spoils." Which was exactly the wrong thing to say. She bristled. "I do not Ďbelongí to anyone," she said angrily.

"Any imbecile can see that," Ritter said, pronouncing it the way Sylvie had. "Itís the other way around."

It took her a moment to understand. English was not her first language.

"Remember that," she said. "And perhaps you may borrow me for a while."

He couldnít tell if she meant it or was just stringing him along like Esperanza Riordan.

"What was the liberation like?" he asked.
Was she sorry to see her oberst leutenant go?

"Magnificent!" she said. "I was visiting my aunt in St. Claude. Then suddenly shooting and shouting and running. We knew what was going on. We lay on the floor and listened. As if to music. I crept to the telephone and called a girlfriend in Paris. The soldiers hadnít reached there already. I held the telephone so she could hear the fighting. We were so excited!"

"Werenít you scared?"
"No. Excited. We drank champagne."
"We drank coffee."
She reached over and squeezed his hand.

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