VOL 003: from Springfield sexy to Paris pukey
After a few formative years in Springfield, roughly two of them with Obie in the house, working at the Pentagon, the other two with him Southeast Asia’s war zone or otherwise abroad, it was time again to move. The O’Bryans were heading back to Paris! At least, most of us were. Obie was already there, for months, possibly getting his Francophile ways out of his system prior to his family’s arrival. Patrick was set to start college at Georgia Tech. So, while most of the first Paris adventure was a nuclear family of four, so, too, would be the second go-round, even if Patrick was going to enjoy some summertime with the family in France and Switzerland before landing in Atlanta. Megan still had two more years of high school to finish, and I was set to enter second grade. So much was different! Surely, this wouldn’t set us up for a Paris encore, which, you remember, did not end well.
Maybe because I was born in Paris, even without any memory of it at the time, and quite contrary to my generally anxious nature – either inherited from my mother or a reaction to my father – I was excited about the move. I also expected very little to change, relative to my West Springfield experience. We sort of lived in Washington, D.C., in the sense that when out-of-towners came to visit, we might pile in the car and cruise slowly past the White House. While Paris had the Eiffel Tower, D.C. had the Washington Monument. I figured they’d occupy my geography similarly, with a sighting about once a year.
Even with the subsequent, solemn trip back to Switzerland, my notions of Europe were largely limited to an I Love Lucy representation, that wonderful tour that introduced America to the TV-sitcom glamour of a trans-Atlantic flight. There is some debate about the plane, though. The audience is supposed to be paying attention to the cheese baby, but some of us were also fixated on the flight home itself. The episode features some tarmac footage, some stock plane-in-flight stuff, but it doesn’t all quite add up. DC-6? DC-7? Constellation? Did they fly home from Nice? From Paris? Regardless, hoping to answer just these questions online, it was gratifying to land on a message board populated by a tiny crossover community of folks who care about Lucy and airliners in equal parts.
Flight aside, Lucy met little European kids in Italy, and I figured they would be the equivalent of my new little Parisian pals. Lucy’s bambini would more or less be mes amis. A little broken English, scruffy play clothes, possibly still recovering from World War II, generally good-natured….
THAT FAMILY WAS DEFINITELY
A LITTLE ROUGH AROUND THE EDGES
Indirectly, my next-door pal, Mark, also left me excited about moving to France. Before Mark moved in, it was Charlie’s home. I had deemed Charlie’s family my social inferiors, as their driveway was usually filled with some collection of car-repair bits. (It may have only happened once, but it was entirely novel to me, 16 before I received any instruction whatsoever about changing tires or oil.) Charlie also bullied me into drinking his urine out of a Dixie cup. That family was definitely a little rough around the edges. Lucky for them, our little court had no HOA.
Mark’s family, by comparison, introduced an intercom system to the house. If it had been there in Charlie’s time, I never noticed. Chez Mark, however, it was a symbol of sophistication and affluence that I wanted. Breakfast time at Mark’s house, with his parents and older sisters, included pre-mixed cinnamon and sugar to add to one’s buttered toast. This was civilization. This was a family that had been places. In particular, they’d been to Germany, where Mark’s Army dad had been stationed. That may be why moving to France excited me. It would make me more like Mark, less like Charlie.
Mark and Charlie weren’t my only suburban pals, of course. Sometime after Mark, a family moved in with a few kids my age. I don’t remember their names. I do remember that one of the sons skewered his palm, crucifixion-fashion, on a rusty nail in my house’s dirty crawl space we once explored. Cathy at the end of the court had a great collection of Weebles and looked very hip – Cindy Brady style – with her sporty yellow-yarn-tied pigtails. Out of the court and about two blocks to the right was Mike, the only little friend with whom I shared a classroom, for kindergarten and first grade. Everyone else was either at parochial school or a year or two off. Mike’s family was sophisticated in ways similar to Mark’s. They had a TV in the kitchen, and a backyard sandbox. I only recall a single visit to Mike’s house, though. Maybe it was just too far a trek, even if I once ventured about a quarter mile up to the main road, barefoot. I had to turn back, as that road was littered with the broken beer bottles that the high school kids would hurl from their passing Mustangs, Camaros, and Pintos.
Wandering is a childhood trait I shared with Patrick, though I returned on my own. Dora had to thank a passing trucker who turned little Patrick over to the police.
Mike and I shared a scandal. In first grade, I leaned over during a quiz to advise him that the silent vowel in “apple” was “e.” And I got caught. Mrs. English zeroed in and I was punished with a half hour of detention after school. As scandals go, it was particularly low-key. She gave me no morality lecture. Mike hadn’t even requested my answer. More so, I was simply boasting that I knew it, as well as showing off my Christian sense of charity.
With Jim, however, the scandal would’ve been much more serious had our liaison been exposed. Jim was my other beyond-the-court pal, but a left turn rather than right. It started with a found issue of Hustler. This was a mere amuse-bouche of what I’d later find in my father’s nightstand, but more than ample for fueling the imaginations and biology of two boys still aged in the single digits. Bob Guccione’s popular periodical was, however, merely a gateway drug. It wasn’t long till we were exposing ourselves to one another, possibly fondling. I remember calling these precious interludes “The Pee-Pee Club” – not that there were any “water sports.” That was Charlie’s bag alone, far as I knew, and no thank you. But the PPC came to a sort of abrupt end. One afternoon, ahead of what I had hoped was to be another exploratory tryst with Jim, he insisted the Pee-Pee Club must end. I acquiesced. So that was that and off we went to go find toads in the backyard or round up kids for a game or freeze-tag or whatever.
The West Springfield split-level, circa 2005, looking very much as it did circa 1973.
Though our wonderful, short-lived, erotic arrangement had come to end, our tight bond remained. And the 1976 June eve before our departure to Paris, it was his family that invited us for our farewell dinner. The house was already packed up, and we were in an area motel for the night. Returning to the neighborhood for the dinner, we must’ve had some last minute chore at the house, as we walked from there down to Jim’s. At least, Megan, Jim and I did. It wasn’t a walk, really, so much as a kind of blissful skipping and trotting and scrambling and then a race across green suburban lawns at late-spring dusk. Just after pig-tailed Cathy’s yard came the sloped downward curve, out of the court and left to Jim’s. That’s where my sister’s foot landed in something like a gopher hole, leaving her with a swollen ankle on which to hobble through Dulles and Charles de Gaulle airports, as well as jetways, an IAD-specific “Mobile Lounge,” and an airplane aisle.
OUR WONDERFUL, SHORT-LIVED,
HAD COME TO AN END
It was a wrong step that reinforced my sense of self as bad-luck talisman. Remember that boy and the nail through the hand? Another boy in the neighborhood was bit by a dog as we crossed through my backyard wormhole, prompting his mother to scream at me in her panic, “I will never listen to you again, Billy O’Bryan!” Pushing a younger neighbor – just a toddler, really – around the court on his PlaySkool scooter, he took a tumble and chipped a tooth on the cement curb. In this suburban court, it seemed, I was one of the meekest children, yet also the most dangerous. Second-grade schoolmate Susan would learn as much just months later during a winter outing to a tropical Parisian greenhouse. As we gazed into the koi pond, my footing on the border stones slipped a little. A hand on Susan’s back steadied me squarely. I’m sure it was a chilly taxi ride for her back to the apartment, where she waited in a blanket for my mother to dry her school uniform at a nearby laundromat, or whatever they’re called in France.
I was never bad luck for Jim, though, as far as I know. And he, his mother and father offered us a lovely going-away meal. As Megan’s ankle throbbed, my mother made small-talk; my brother ate silently; I looked from my dining-room chair out the sliding glass doors onto the patio where Jim had introduced me to paint-by-numbers and Wacky Packs. Obie, already in Paris, was probably giving up his penultimate night of bachelor freedom with a bang. It was the picture of suburban ease and comfort, until dessert, when I fucked up. It was a faux pas that has lived with me since. Jim’s mother offered handcrafted sundaes for all. She even playfully named her creation for herself, sundaes à la Mary! Or, should you prefer, she had some generic ice-cream bars in the freezer. Yes, please. No, my mother corrected me: That’s not what you want; just look at these beautiful confections from Jim’s mother.
Nope. Ice-cream bar. She offered. It’s what I want. Otherwise, what sort of charade is being pulled here? Yes, ice-cream bar, please.
I don’t know why I was being such a dick. Is that what Jim was eating, and I merely aped him, adoringly? He was a year older and so much cooler…. I was damn determined. Sometime later in life, that memory came floating back to me. It might’ve been the next day. It might’ve been a year or 10 later. Whenever it was, it socked me in the belly. How ashamed I felt, long after the incident when I finally – finally – grasped how impolite my request. I mark that as my first trespass. Even if my realization came the next day, I was already an ocean away from this gracious hostess, to whom I’d never had a chance to remedy my dinnertime shame. The universe, at least, doled out some comeuppance, some just desserts, mere hours later.
The night flight from Washington to Paris left little impression. At just 6, until the end of the month, I surely slept, tucked into a TWA Boeing 707 seat that was wonderfully large for my tiny body. In that sense, all small children fly first class. I awoke the next morning upon landing, certainly. My senses awoke, however, on the CDG conveyer belt. I was proud of myself for not getting airsick, as I’d become aware of airsickness bags. Obviously, some people weren’t cut out for air travel. Not so for little Billy. I made it to Paris in fine form. I didn’t make it much farther.
Having conquered the Atlantic with not so much as a hint of queasiness, the airport’s poorly designed people-mover was picking up the slack. So many arriving in Paris will know this moving walkway. It is not a flat, solid surface. Rather, it slopes downward, then back up, an inverse arc of nausea. Add to that the rollers underfoot, easily detectable through the thin rubber, slowly bouncing passengers along the mandatory route, as though designed to be vomit-inducing. But I held it together. Down the inflight meal remained, and it would stay there as I hoped to collect myself in the long lines of passport control. Wait – those lines aren’t for us? We have diplomatic passports?
IT SLOPES DOWNWARD, THEN BACK UP,
AN INVERSE ARC OF NAUSEA
In no time, we were hitting the Parisian highway, the five of us squeezed into Obie’s Datsun. It didn’t take much of that till I had my head out the window, adding a streak of beige, partially digested chicken or fish to Dad’s sporty blue paintjob. Empty, I collected myself and promised my father that I would wash his car once we arrived at our new home. I reckoned it would be a perfect opportunity to have my new French neighbor children introduce themselves. Surely one would speak English and would approach our carport, serving as my translator for the rest of the afternoon, my new best friend.
Pulling into the city, I began to panic. What the heck was this? This was a level of metropolitan density I had not imagined. Even the downtown D.C. of Smithsonian fieldtrips couldn’t begin to compare to this M.C. Escher-inspired maze of cafés, “tabacs,” bistros, and boulevards. Leaving America was one thing. Leaving the lawns and split-levels of suburbia for a bustling cosmopolis was alone far more disorienting.
Would I be called to honor my commitment to wash the car? I was expecting Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” calm, albeit with a charming accent. What I got was an alien urban cacophony. Frantically, I grappled with recalculations of what was to be. I was entirely unfamiliar with humanity on this scale. I keep my mouth shut after we arrived. How would I wash the car as it sat parallel parked? These crowds of busy foreign city people would surely stumble over my bucket. Where would I even find a spigot? It was all too confusing. I hoped that if I never again mentioned my offer of washing my vomit off the car, nor would anyone else. And no one ever did. Instead, Megan was checked into her room at Le Petit Hotel, and Patrick and I were checked into ours. Dora and Dad went back to his bachelor-for-a-year pad to reunite. In a few weeks, the summer would be over, we would have an apartment to call home, Patrick would be away at college, Megan would be a junior at the American High School of Paris, and I’d be in second grade at Pershing Hall, the international school down the street, where my older siblings once attended.