Monday, July 25, 1977
I'm just telling you what happened.
Gabrielle had a small house in a struggling neighborhood of Redwood City. There were French signs all over the doors and diplomas on the walls. She was a tutor. She was slightly plump, very cute, with curly short hair and little gold earrings in the shape of a teardrop.
I began by repairing a leaky tub faucet in the salle de bain. Gabrielle stood in the doorway, chatting, inquiring about my schedule, so I explained that ever since my first child was born my wife and I were splitting childcare time, each of us working part time so one of us could be home at all times. That's why I was working at 8 p.m.
Gabrielle said, "If my husband had done half the child-raising, I wouldn’t be divorced today."
Debra, Gabrielle's soulful-eyed, dark-haired, five-year-old daughter, came into the bathroom and without a word handed me three chocolate eggs.
"You sure you want to do that?" Gabrielle asked.
Debra nodded silently.
"Thank you, Debra," I said.
Quietly Debra glided out of the bathroom.
"Mon Dieu," Gabrielle said. "She's been saving those since Easter."
"What did I do?"
"I don't know, but Debra has very good taste in men." Gabrielle stood over the tub where I was tightening the faucet handle. She was pushing hair around on her head, fluffing. "Are you finished?"
"Ah! No!" There was a tinkling sound, and one of her earrings bounced around the walls of the tub and then shot straight down the drain. "Merde! Can you get that?"
"It's in the trap. I'd have to go under the house."
"Would you please? Can you stay longer? It was a gift. Of course I'll pay for your time."
As I gathered tools and a flashlight, Debra came into the room and silently started stuffing little coffee candies into my shirt pocket.
"Thank you, Debra."
Without a word, she walked out.
"Bedtime, Debra," Gabrielle called. Then to me she said, "You won't make a lot of noise? I need to settle down, put Debra to bed, have a glass of wine. Un verre de vin."
"A little clunking, maybe. I shouldn't need any power tools."
"C'est assez bon. That's good enough."
"Are you tutoring me?"
She smiled. "Pas encore."
It was a tight crawlspace and a rusty steel trap. I had to hunch my body like a worm, return to my truck for Liquid Wrench, hunch in again. It took over an hour. I recovered the golden teardrop in a mass of gooey soap and hair and that penetrating odor of sewage. I emerged dusty, filthy, slightly smelly.
When I returned to the house - quietly, so as not to waken Debra - I found Gabrielle on her bed sipping red wine, wearing a flimsy gown.
I ducked quickly out of the room. Softly from the hallway I said, "I'll - uh - leave the earring on the table with my bill."
I stood at the table, writing an invoice.
"Would you like some wine? Par hasard?" Gabrielle had come out of the bedroom wrapped in a white fluffy robe. With one hand she held the flaps tightly closed at the neck. With the other hand she held up a glass. She fidgeted with her feet. Then nervously, softly she said, "I could wash you."
Our eyes met and held. After a few moments she said, "I'm sorry." She lowered her eyes. "Je suis désolé."
"I'm honored," I said. "Merci. Really."
Now here's a strange fact. Back in Maryland when I was at Walter Johnson High School, 1964, my twelfth grade French teacher had a crush on me. It sounds like a school boy's fantasy, but in actuality it was awkward and embarrassing. She was attractive enough, but even in my inexperience I could tell there was something off-center about her. She asked to see me after class. She offered a ride. There was a French movie she wanted to see. Did I like crepes?
No. No. And no. Nothing happened. Given my unformed social skills and complete lack of interest, I handled it badly. I already had a girlfriend my own age. The only benefit for me was that I got straight A's in a class for which I had no talent.
Anyway, by the time I met Gabrielle, July of 1977, maybe I had more social skills. I had a nine-month-old child at home. I was still getting used to this fathering business. One thing I know now, and perhaps I knew it even then: when you cheat on your wife, you cheat on your child.
Another thing I know: sometimes attraction seems random and weird.
Gabrielle whispered, "C'est moi qui vous remercie."
"Thank you, sir. Je vous remercie de tout coeur. Next time something breaks, can I call you again? I'm sure Debra would like to see you."
I worked for Gabrielle off and on for a couple more years. We never spoke of that evening again. Debra quietly gave me chocolate. A gentle, friendly man appeared in Gabrielle's life. She stopped hiring me.
I saw Gabrielle one more time, years later, when we happened to meet in the coffee line at Peet's. Gabrielle and her husband - the same gentle, friendly man - lived in Los Gatos. Debra was studying engineering at Stanford. In the photo she looked serious and shy, somewhat wide-eyed as if caught by surprise - and deeply attractive.
"She took Spanish in high school," Gabrielle said. "German in college. Never French."
The barista was ready to take my order. I wish I had grabbed a bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans and handed them to Gabrielle. I wish I had said, "Give these to your daughter, s'il vous plaît."
I could have repaid a debt. But after all those years, I was still slow on social skills and had forgotten all my French.
"Nice to see you, Gabrielle," was all I could say.
"Au revoir," she said.