The Blanket

by Dorothy Sinclair

She lifted the glass dome to help herself to another brioche. On their third morning in Paris, Sally and Earl were attempting to shed their tourist image, play-acting like natives. Today they snared a table for two outside the Deux Magots Cafe just as pair of chic women tossed some loose francs under their small paper check and hurried off to work. The table was perfect for people-watching—their favorite of all Parisian pastimes. Blink, and you might believe it was Jean-Paul Sartre sitting at a table across the way with Simone de Beauvoir. They had already settled into the routine of hurrying down on foot from the garret room at the Hotel des St. Peres, heading straight for this spot. “Want to split one more?” Earl tempted her. Another of the flakey pastries meant lingering a little longer over a tiny cup of steaming French coffee, but what would it do to her waistline? Eager to preserve Earl’s good mood she nodded, reminding herself that calorie counting was just one of the petty annoyances she had determined to leave behind in Los Angeles.

“Sure, why not? Say, Honey, I’m still trying to figure out how the waiters know exactly how many we’ve eaten. They don’t seem to have time to stand around and count.” It was just one of many unsolved Parisian mysteries.

The tension that had been in the air for so long at home had dissipated beneath the bright French sky. Sally’s dream trip was finally turning into a reality. They would spend a week in Paris, then hit the road for the countryside, crossing finally into Italy. The trip was long overdue. In quick succession, two kids had followed their wedding, but Stacey and Brian had at last reached the age where they were welcomed by a reliable summer camp, which made her sales pitch to Earl more difficult to resist. It wasn’t that she didn’t empathize with her husband’s reluctance. Earl had only recently opened his own architectural firm; commissions were slow in coming. Southern California in the ‘sixties was experiencing a building boom of single family dwellings, and Earl had hoped to cash in with his signature use of slate and open beams. The Brentwood house he had recently completed for a socialite divorcee had sparked enough interest to have all the earmarks of a trailblazer. Just as momentum was building, he felt it foolhardy to be out of touch for a month. But Sally’s argument was that they could never recapture this moment in time. Of course France would still be there, but they would be older, they would be different people. Sally’s perfect accent acquired during her junior year at college would begin to fade. The commissions could be put on hold. No doubt about it - this was the right moment for the perfect trip.

From the Blvd St. Germaine they made their way to the Impressionist Museum - the Jeu de Paume. While Earl had been playing with slide rules in college, Sally had been soaking up Art History courses. Here on just one wall was an entire semester of work - the best of Pissaro, Cezanne, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh! Her eyes couldn’t take it all in at once. She was Alice - dropped into her own Wonderland! Finally she stopped at the one she had been hoping to find - “Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe” - a picnic on the lawn by Manet. Under a lovely tree, naked women and upright men in dark suits were enjoying a meal of cheese, fruit and wine spread out on a colorful picnic blanket. She stared at the painting until her very restless husband dragged her off to their own bottle of wine, followed by a siesta in their top floor room.

The rest of their week in Paris passed quickly. Though the Louvre was not to be missed, its winding marble staircases and enormous hallways proved too exhausting and less rewarding than their private Jeu de Paume, which Earl now admitted held more interest. After pushing their way through the crowds to gaze at the Mona Lisa, they determined to return again to the Impressionists. Much as she was enjoying Paris, Sally felt the best was yet to come, obsessing constantly about their own romantic dejuener sur l’herbe lying just ahead. Several evenings they ate dinner at the little non pretentious establishment on the corner, having discovered that the food was more delicious, the prices lower than the restaurants touted by the guidebooks. They loved the rotund proprietor who greeted them with a broad smile as they entered: Bon soir, Monsieur, Bon soir, Madame. In a perfect accent, Sally exited with, Merci beaucoups, Monsieur.

For their final night, Sally insisted they splurge. Wondering how far their allotted budget would stretch Earl agreed to a reservation at the famed Lapourousse. The restaurant had been highly touted at the party given in honor of the Brentwood house, the name having been carefully tucked away inside his wallet. Dining there would partially mitigate his failure to stay in at the Maurice or the Ritz on the Right Bank. Dressed in their finest wrinkle-free clothes, they indulged in all six courses, all three wines, ending with brandy over dessert. By then they were being toasted by the attractive couple next to them. In true European fashion, the four moved to sit together. Conversation was witty and lively. Barbara, a curvaceous brunette singer originally from Ireland, was to perform later in the evening in Montparnasse. Jacques was born in the south of France and from what they could glean, had lived all over the world. It was decided that they would all go together to the club where they would hear Barbara sing.

Chatting gaily like old friends, they made their way into the fresh air. Almost at once, Barbara linked her arm through Sally’s, while the two men walked behind. Barbara advised Sally that she and Jacques were not truly a “couple” in the conventional sense of the word. “I do not like him in that way. I like YOU.” With that she ran her hand up and down Sally’s bare back. “Oh, my God. This can’t be happening. Does she mean what I think she means?” Sally was vaguely aware of Jacques and Earl several paces behind them. Were their arms also linked? What should she say? What was she expected to do? Here she was, a California housewife, mother of two, about to embark on an adventure that could spell either a never-to-be-forgotten night, or a humiliating disaster. At that moment, she felt bile rise in her throat signaling she was about to be sick. She turned to Earl. “I’m sorry, Honey, but I really don’t feel so well. I think I’d better go back to the hotel.” A look of disappointment crossed Barbara’s face. Sally was uncertain whether her glance from Earl was one of relief or annoyance. Apologies followed, along with an exchange of air kisses, addresses and assurances to keep in touch. Had she blown it? Had her middle-class morality robbed them of the experience of a lifetime?

The rich food combined with too much alcohol was enough to confine them to their room for much of their final day in Paris. The chambermaid promised relief with local remedies for hangovers, none of which had the slightest effect. They were barely able to pack and negotiate the rental of their Peugeot the next day. Not exactly the farewell to the historic, beloved St. Peres that Sally had envisioned.

Promises made in Los Angeles of an automatic transmission quickly evaporated as they argued with the bombastic agent. Not only was Earl expected to drive a stick shift, but one with several gears, all on the European right side of the car. But Monsieur, Madame, you arrive so late in zee day. Surely you must know zee auto you wished for would be already taken.

Navigating the city traffic would have been difficult enough in their automatic Chevy, but having to struggle with the unfamiliar machinery while still nursing a hangover headache put Earl in the foulest possible mood.

With a little help from their Michelin Guide, they found themselves on the auto ban, and then soon on side roads. Sally began to relax as she feasted her eyes on rolling hills, pristine borders of flowers and quaint church steeples.The landscape was dotted with picnickers enjoying their dejuenes sur l’herbe. Luscious fruits and wine could be spotted spread out on assorted plaid blankets. In the very next village, they must stop for supplies. Now she began to get seriously hungry. The few crackers and grapes she had stashed were long gone. As the clock struck noon they pulled up to a small village where she could calm her rumbling stomach. It was not to be. Suddenly, with the swiftness of a light switch, all doors shut at once. Of course! Though they had been forewarned, they paid little heed to the fact that rural towns of France do no business from noon until 2 p.m. Why hadn’t Earl remembered? He should have been looking out for his wife whom he knew suffered from a a bit of hypoglycemia.

“Don’t panic, Sal. That’s just a myth. Surely there will be at least one shopkeeper eager to make a little money.” But it was not to be. As they walked from one end of town to the other they were met only by closed shutters. Finally they came to the glass door of the sausage shop, where they could peek inside to see the proprietor and his family at a long table enjoying their midday repast. They tapped on the window, pointed to their stomachs and their wallets to no avail. The owner and his wife would only shake their heads, tapping on their wrist watches. There was nothing to do but drive on to the pension that they had reserved for the night. Following a light meal, their good moods somewhat restored, they retired with thought of the perfect day that was just within reach. In an oversized feather bed, Earl immediately fell into an exhausted sleep, while Sally tossed and turned, anxious about the rest of the journey.

Determined to get an early start, they wasted little time downing their croissant and coffee and hit the road. Already there were families eating on the grass. The first town they came to had an array of small shops, all stocking the necessary supplies. “Isn’t it great, Honey? Not a supermarket in sight!” Earl would have preferred to save time by finding everything under one roof rather then laboriously selecting wines and I pastries and cheeses in individual stores. “We’re not punching a time clock, Sweetie. Come on, it’ll be fun.” Sally had chosen an outfit she had bought just before leaving home - a long, belted short-sleeved beige jacked worn over a pair of shorts that stopped just above the knee. “That may not be appropriate, Sal” Earl had warned. But she had insisted that the set was tres chic. It was all the rage in California and she had seen several like it on the streets of Paris. In the well-stocked cheese shop a skinny proprietress with a bun and a long black skirt approached when they entered. As they stared at the huge variety in the long case, the owner began conversing at a fast, clipped pace with a woman who sat nearby. Never had Sally heard a language spoken with more gusto. Disapproving sharp head shakes by both women in the direction of Sally’s well-tanned legs told the story. Try though he may, Earl could not resist mouthing, “I told you so.” The proprietress impatiently tapped her foot. Eager to just get out of there, Earl pointed to an orange cheese that somewhat resembled Velveeta - his favorite. “Donnay us bocoo.” Humiliated, Sally made her way to the exit.

She grew more assertive in the sausage shop, insisting an exotic duck pate. At the sidewalk stall, she selected an array of grapes and peaches that even Earl would be unable to resist.

Finally it was time for the picnic basket. They agreed on a straw hamper that opened in the center, which was a perfect fit for a bottle of red wine and the napkins and cutlery swiped from breakfast. Way over their budget, it was nevertheless a necessity. As they stashed everything in the trunk of the car, Sally remembered. “Earl, what do we eat on? We’ve got to have one of those plaid blankets!” Red and green, blue and white, the selection was plentiful though tres cher. With many gifts yet to buy, with their francs quickly dwindling, could they afford to fritter away money on something to be used only a few times? According to Earl, the purchase was not only frivolous but unnecessary. “Come on, Sal. We’ll take along a newspaper, spread it out, and it will work just fine. Let’s get going.” With an air of finality, he opened the boot and began loading the food. Sally left him, walking down the cobblestone road to a kiosk at which she purchased a copy of Le Monde. The newspaper they ate on would at least be printed in French!

Before too many kilometers had passed, they felt their first hunger pangs, Time to begin the search for the perfect spot. They settled on a slightly inclined shaded place under a tree, not far from the road. The lawn, which appeared green from the car, was more dirt than grass. Gamely they spread the newspaper, opened the basket, and began working their way through bread and pate and cheese. Delicious. But hardly as romantic as Sally had envisioned, with French ants managing to work their way into the food.

The spot they had chosen was on a curve in the road. One by one they watched cars slow down, then speed up as they came to the straightaway. They marveled at the approach of a teeny Volkswagen, groaning under the weight of luggage and packages tied to its roof. There was more outside than in, and surely the top-heavy little bug would slow down as it rounded the curve. But no, instead, it appeared to picked up steam. Sally and Earl watched in fascination as it swerved on two wheels, dropping a large package as it did so. Immediately they dashed to the road, waving and shouting to the driver to come back, come back! Instead, he seemed to accelerate, with no concern for his loss. They picked up the loosely wrapped brown paper package and returned to their tree. The flimsy rope slid quickly off, revealing instantly a lovely square blanket in hues of grey, white, and black. The perfect size, the perfect weight, the perfect color. How could this have happened? They shook it out preparing to spread their lunch on top, but not before the fastidious architect tore off a bit of newspaper to cover his half. Finally he opened the bottle of red wine. Sally filled two stemmed crystal glasses that she had carefully wrapped for the occasion and clinked hers with Earl’s in a toast to their good fortune and to a picnic that was never to be forgotten.

Over the years, the story was told over and over, details changing as they are wont to do. Long after the marriage had unraveled, and the blanket had taken on a life of its own, Sally could not help but wonder if things might have turned out differently had they shipped it back to Los Angeles, instead of leaving it for the maid in their hotel in Rome.