The cheapest flight we could get went from Logan to JFK, then JFK to Paris. Except we had been waiting at Logan for hours. Snow. We were going to miss our NY flight. We waited. And waited.
When we got to JFK, we found that, yes, indeed, we had missed our flight. We waited some more, for instructions. The airline was going to put us up for the night, and then we were going to take another flight the next afternoon. I called Josh, who was supposed to meet us at the airport.
“What do you mean? I need you here. You shouldn’t have left so little time between flights [As if I and not the airline had determined the length of time between the legs of the journey, which was a generous two hours anyway]. At least if you’re going to be late, you can do me a favor. Buy me some mineral oil.”
It was very, very late at night in the hotel at JFK. Where the hell was I supposed to get mineral oil? Why did he need mineral oil?
I promised to try.
The next day we spent a long, long time waiting around the airport. We looked in every shop for mineral oil. Nothing. We flew to France and arrived exhausted to find no one waiting for us. We tried to call, but no answer. We waited for over an hour. Finally, Josh appeared and the first words out of his mouth were: “Did you find the mineral oil?”
He was angry that we had failed. He seemed to have decided to take his anger out on his vehicle, an early-type SUV that was about five times the size of every other car on the road. He flew, going easily 90 miles an hour, and driving erratically, swerving and jerking the car around the road. Even my ex, who was generally a fast driver, was a bit alarmed. The whole trip out of Paris was a blur of words from Josh on the usual themes – France is beautiful, the French are annoying, can you do the job – with a few new additions. For example, he told us his wife came out on Friday nights and stayed “until we fight, usually on Sunday morning.” In New York he had claimed she came out Thursday and stayed until Monday. He asked if we remembered the sheets, because that’s all we’ll need. He pointed out an open-air market.
“What do you think of that? Americans think it’s quaint! That’s one of your New England words, “quaint!” But, really, it’s filthy! Why would you want to eat food that sits out like that?”
He was practically spitting.
We got to the villa, and from the outside, it was everything he promised. The factory is in one wing, his home in another, our apartment in the third; there’s a courtyard and huge windows with shutters. He took us into the apartment.
It was empty.
He was right about the sheets; there were no sheets on the bed. Also, no blankets. Or pillows. Or any other furniture. Or pans, pots, utensils. No fridge. No anything really, just a bare bed, and a few coathangers in the closet. The closet which, by the way, had those folding mirrored doors. To match the gold wall-to-wall carpet. He had a 15th century French villa, and he was remodeling it to look like a Holiday Inn in Jersey.
He made me go to work that afternoon, making brownies. He informed me that he wanted chewy brownies. Then he informed me that there was no mechanism for melting the butter. Also, the butter couldn’t be warmed in any way. The factory was in a stone building with limited heat; I would say the room temperature was about 55 degrees.
As anyone with the slightest knowledge of baking will understand, this was a problem.
I was told to work with the French head baker, who doesn’t speak any English. We muddled through and made a few batches of brownies. It was clear the cook thought that Josh was crazy. It was also clear he was a little afraid of Josh. Meanwhile, Josh was cooking lamb in a pit in the courtyard, occasionally throwing his arm to the sky and yelling, “We’re the only people from Spain to Belgium barbecuing!”
After the brownies were baked, Josh invited me and my husband to have dinner with him and his wife. The kitchen was vast, like a storybook kitchen, with an old hearth. Dinner was the lamb, plus a strange fish soup made from a powder; that was all. The room was freezing cold; his wife, still silent, wore a hat, coat and mittens indoors. Josh explained some of his business decisions. For example, instead of buying cloths for cleaning the factory, he stole towels from expensive hotels. Then, he offered these towels to his employees in exchange for their old home towels. That way, he got both free rags and improved employee relations. He had become disenchanted with this method, however, because the employees’ towels weren’t, to his mind, of high enough quality.
I got the next day off to settle in. We needed food, badly – the lamb and broth were all we had eaten since New York, except of course for some brownies. We decided to go into the neighboring village, since my husband had taken a walk around our tiny village the day before while I baked and found only a drugstore and a sausage shop. Josh warned us that it was too far to walk, and offered to let us borrow his car. We declined. At this point, all we want is to be away from him. He insisted that we couldn’t walk. Unfortunately, a car appeared in the road at this point. Josh ran into the road, waving his arms madly. The car stopped, and Josh told the terrified driver that he had to take us to the next town, opening the back doors and pushing us in as he did so.
The driver took off with panic in his eyes, and once he was safely out of view, I used my limited French to end his misery. “Arretez, s’il vous plait! Ici, c’est bien! Merci, merci!” He let us out, and we started walking.
Josh was right, it was too far. We walked and walked and walked. Finally, a car pulled over to pick us up – one of the workman who was rebuilding the wall in front of Josh’s property. We spent the afternoon in a nice little French town, and that was the high point of our trip to France. We had to take a taxi back. It was very, very expensive.
The rest of the week is a bit of a blur. Among the things I remember:
Finding out that the local children throw rocks at Josh’s windows – and at my ex-husband, presumably because he was Josh’s guest
Finding out that the American electricians left in the dead of night after wrecking the apartment
Josh mentioning how he likes to go to Amsterdam to get cocaine (that made some things make lots more sense)
Josh mentioning how nice it will be for him to be able to go away now that we’re going to be there to protect the house from the angry neighbors
Josh setting us up with furniture: dirty old pillows from some lost couch and a small exercise trampoline as a “table”
Josh admitting his wife rarely stayed even one night at the villa (forget that Paris apartment)
Eating sausage and brownies and wondering how we would ever find real food
Catching Josh looking in our windows first thing in the morning (no shades, of course, and he complained if we closed the shutters, which we did anyway)
And, most of all, trying to make brownie batter that didn’t break with cold butter in a cold factory while Josh stood right behind me saying over and over, “but what I want to know is, can you do the job?”
I broke after one week. I don’t get angry with people very often, and I rarely lose my temper. But, my god, did I lose my temper.
The French baker was back, the first time in a week. I had tried every chance I could to explain to Josh that we needed to at least warm the butter, or the batter would keep breaking. The brownies came out just fine, but there was a crusty top that didn’t cut cleanly, and that was the inevitable result of the cold butter. Needless to say, I never got that many words out at a time. He never seemed to notice that I was talking, let alone what I was saying. But now, with the French baker standing next to me as I mixed the batter, he suddenly noticed the broken batter.
“What is this crap? I’ve never seen batter look like that, have you?” He turned to the French baker, pulling him into his disgust with me.
That did it. I remember literally throwing in ths towel – flinging the rag I was holding across the room and turning on Josh with fury. I remember saying something like this: “Everyone hates you! Your employees hate you, the neighbors hate you, the village children hate you, even your wife hates you, and I certainly hate you!” I know it’s not nice, I know. But that’s what I said.
I told my husband we were leaving. He was happy. As I repacked my bags, Josh offered to drive us to Paris, an offer we unfortunately had to accept. A taxi, the train, would have been too complicated and expensive, and he was going there anyway. Something to do with his wife.
The ride back to Paris was very unpleasant, to say the least. Josh tried to convince me to stay, tried to convince my husband to make me stay, and still kept asking (you know what’s coming) “but what I want to know is, can you do the job?” and I will confess, part of me thought that if perhaps I just had a night or two away, I could go back with a clear head, draw some necessary boundaries=, and get to stay in France.
But then he was interrupted by a phone call on his cell. He said hello, then okay, I’ll be there soon, then he hung up. Then he said to us, in the exasperated tone of voice a man might use to say that his wife says she has nothing to wear, and with that closet of hers!: “My wife just had a miscarriage.” He actually rolled his eyes.
That was the point at which I actually thought I was going to throw up. The exhaustion, the madhouse ride at 90 miles/hour, the diet of sausage and brownies, and more than anything the utter disgust at this strange and horrible life I had just spent a week looking in on. I remember thinking that all I had to do was get to Paris without throwing up, and then everything would be fine.
Everything was fine, of course, and yet not fine at the same time. We went home to the worst Christmas I can remember. I was demoralized on my return; I felt like I carried the stench of bad luck and bad decisions. I knew I should have trusted my instincts and stayed home. But I was afraid of my instincts – my instincts were also saying: don’t become a cook, despite all the time and money you just dropped on your education. My instincts were saying: leave your husband.
It took time to pay off the costs of the tickets, of course. I did get a job in a bakery and worked there for a while, but ultimately I left the culinary world. I also left my husband. And life has been better since. I have not often looked back at that week in France, which wasn’t even the bottoming-out point, which came two years later, in another questionable job I should have known better than to take - one that lacked even an entertaining story. But there’s only one real regret I have.
I wish I still had that brownie recipe. By the end of the week, it was really good. So, yeah, I think I could have done the job.