Copyright © 2006 by Rich Mussler. Not to be reproduced without permission.
“Always trust your instinct, mon chér. It will not deceive you. Listen to me, had I only paid attention to my inner voice when I was young I might have averted the only regret I hold in all of my long life. I still have the nightmares, oui. Not every night any more but, still, often enough. I did what any of my compatriots would have done so my conscience is clear, but still I abhor doing that which I should have avoided. Had I only listened to my gut! My instinct would have saved me.”
My aunt was eighty-four then. She had lived in America since marrying my mother‘s brother in 1949. Uncle Bill had served with the Army Corp of Engineers in Paris after the war, rebuilding bridges destroyed in wresting the City of Lights from Nazi occupation. Theirs was a great romance – but that is another story. I record here what she told me that day with little commentary.
She lit a cigarette, which she smoked through a long ivory holder. I‘d watched her do that all my life but could not help but notice how the tip of it trembled now. Was it age that caused the shake of her hand or the remembrance she was about to relate to me?
“My instinct warned me, that much I freely admit. I knew, as I said, in my gut. Perhaps I was too young to understand? No, because I knew even then it was wrong. Love with a man much older than me, more worldly, so sophisticated. Mon dieu! I should have run from him. It was plain to me as, they say, the black and the white. Even at that young age I had learned to trust my instinct, living by my wits as I did before the war. But I make no explanation. I was flattered. Perhaps you young people today cannot know what loving the enemy does to you. Especially American young people. How could you? You‘ve not been overrun by enemy soldiers. You‘ve not seen uncles and aunts bow to new masters to secure jobs and social standing. Vichy French. (She made a face.) A government of puppets. I hate them even today. One resists but colors fade and black and white go to gray. Love is a fever; you cannot know what it means to compromise in order to satisfy your desire for it. Ah, me! A woman may make any compromise, commit any sin, any unconscionable act when she is in love.”
Again my aunt drew upon her cigarette. She glanced at me. “Brandy? I should like a small glass. Help yourself, mon chér.” I complied and filled two tiny, cut-crystal goblets with a dark amber liquid she kept in a cabinet.
She continued: “I hope I do not shock you by speaking frankly, my dear. At my age shading the truth to appear righteous serves no value. I no longer remember what I ate for breakfast but I recall those days with clarity of vision. I was very beautiful and loved by many men. I do not speak vainly. Before the war I was a professional model. I was photographed extensively and appeared in magazines of a certain type. I was in demand by the greatest artists on the left bank. Go to Paris even today and my image hangs in the Louver, not once but twice.”
I had no trouble believing this and watched my aunt reflectively. She was thin and angular now, but I remembered her while growing up – always the center of attention at family gatherings, the men in our family hanging on her every word. She was beautiful. Even today she has an inner glow that attracts people to her. I wondered what life might have been for her had she been born a decade earlier or later.
“I believe in the hand of God,” she said. “It is he that oversees the circumstances of life. Human instinct is his way of communicating to his creation. It was the prophet Elijah who first heard that ’still, small voice,‘ the voice of the Lord. It is very dangerous to ignore God when he speaks to you. I am a courageous woman, but courage is the tool of last resort for the fool who ignores God.”
She sipped her brandy and studied the glass meditatively and with an anxiety that she did not try to hide.
“Where was I, mon chér?”
I cleared my throat. “You were a professional model.”
She nodded. “That was before the war. When the Nazis came I used my beauty in other ways. One must eat and times were not pleasant. But I was able to choose who I would attend to, my beauty enabled me that. I built a reputation and an impressive clientele. I slept only with high-ranking military officers and only those willing to pay my price. The more I charged the more in demand I became. I satisfied their lusts and after doing so these German officers often lay beside me to speak of all sorts of things.
“One day I met a Frenchman in service to their government. I had purchased a small flat overlooking the Seine, near the Eiffel Tower. It had been vacant since before the war and I needed the electricity. How do I mean?”
“You needed someone to turn it on?”
“No, no. It was much more complicated than that. The wiring was old. I didn‘t trust it for fear it would set the building aflame.”
“You needed it to be rewired? By an electrician?”
“Oui. It was very complicated to secure all the permits, and to find the workers. I lived by candlelight for months. Henri said he could help me.”
“He was a Frenchman who held a post of importance. He was not handsome at all but very attentive.”
“One day after my electricity was at last functional I received a note from him asking me to join him for dinner at a certain expensive restaurant. I did not bother to go or even to respond. He was a good-natured man and I suppose he thought I was whimsical and a tease. I could be, it was in my arsenal, but in this case it wasn‘t so. I simply wasn‘t interested. Two days later I received a second note. It was accompanied by three dozen roses, which were rare things during the war and perhaps they cost a week‘s pay for Henri. The note invited me to meet him for an evening at the theater. I sent the roses back with a note of my own: No Thank You. I did not fancy him. I thought I had made that plain. But the very next day a box was delivered to me. It contained an exquisite mink coat. Solid white. I put it on and it extended from my neck to my ankles. With it was a note from Henri stating that I should see him for dinner and that I was to wear the mink coat. And nothing else. This appealed to my sense of humor and, laughing, I wrote a note in response. I retrieved a photograph of myself posing nude in a garden. It had been widely distributed and appeared in several magazines, though few remembered then that it was me in that photo. Perhaps Henri recognized me; I never asked. Very carefully I cut from stationery the shape of that white coat and pasted it over my naked self in the photograph, then wrote on the back: ’Thank you so much for the coat. This is all you will ever see of me naked in it.‘
“I sprayed perfume on the photograph and sent it to him and did not know if he would be amused or angry. Men are not often happy to be spoiled in their attempts at love-making. From experience I know they give up quickly, especially if the ego is bruised. Henri was a man twice my age. I assumed he was married. Apparently he had money and he was not afraid to squander it on a younger woman. The next day he sent me a thousand franc note instructing me that he was willing to pay for my company should I join him for dinner. His note concluded that after dinner if I still did not fancy him I would be free to depart. He set the time and place and demanded only that I wear the mink coat with nothing under it whatsoever. This appealed now not only to my sense of humor but also to my sense of adventure. I returned his note with my acceptance to his invitation. I believe he thought that I had been rejecting him only to make myself more desired. This wasn‘t so. I had been rejecting him because instinctively I knew there was danger.
“I met him at the restaurant he had selected, among the most expensive and respected in all of Paris at that time. I wore, as he had requested, the white mink coat and nothing else but a pair of red shoes with stiletto heels. The coat fit snugly to my body. It was chilly but that mink felt luxurious upon my skin. Did I say Henri was not handsome? That night he became the most handsome man I ever met. He had worldly charm and a voice so mellow it felt like chocolate melting in my ears. He made me laugh. His eyes were dark and he wore a trim mustache. His hair was black and combed straight back, just gray at the ears. We danced and he pulled me close, and I could feel his longing for me. In a word he was sexy. I asked him why he had pursued me and he laughed and said he found me adorable. I clung to him. His arms were strong. But when we finished dinner I stood and said good night. He looked shocked and asked where I was off to. I said home to bed, alone. I reminded him of his promise to let me go and insinuated that I trusted him as an honorable man to keep his word. He stood casually and pulled me near and kissed me passionately, then sat again and ordered cognac from a passing waiter. I felt my resolve to leave him dissipate but, in a moment of pride, I filled my lungs, turned and walked away. I did not look back. That is a weakness of mine. I never look back.
“You may think me a fool, mon chér. In the taxi I was the most miserable woman in the world. I had fallen in love with a Frenchman much older than me and an official in the Régime de Vichy, which I hated. I expected to never hear from him again and was miserable because of it. Still, in my gut I knew that this was the best thing.
“But the very next day I received another thousand franc note and a request to meet him for dinner once again. And for seven evenings I played with him, arriving to rendezvous for dinner in stiletto heels, nude under a mink coat. I was shameless and enjoyed every minute. Occasionally I would flash myself, taunting him and anyone near with brief glimpses showing more than was proper and teasing mercilessly. I could see he was madly in love with me, as I was with him, but I wanted him to say it. He said much, but not that. He told me he thought of nothing but me all day long. His work suffered. When we danced his hands were all over me. I could feel him pressing against me. He was distracted at home. He neglected everything, he said, thinking of me. I was a patriot and hated the Vichy French but was in love with him. All the high-paying positions were reserved for those who swore allegiance to the Nazis. I could forgive him for making concessions. After all, hadn‘t I done the same? I slept with them for money. But for months I had been supporting with my earnings a small band that got together to resist in any way we could. We determined that we would no longer put up with these German masters and the evil with which they ruled over us. We had gone underground. We flatted tires on city buses. We set fire to a post office. In June we cheered when the Americans landed in Normandy and listened to radio broadcasts intently everyday. One of the men stole some dynamite and we plotted to use it to derail a train transporting German soldiers. Our plans were made and a date was chosen. We were ready to strike. But I had fallen in love with someone in service to the enemy!