“They were both in the prime of youth, or even in that season which precedes the prime of youth, the season before the smooth pink folds of the flower have burst their gummy case, when the wings of the butterfly, though fully grown, are motionless in the sun.” (from “Kew Gardens” by Virginia Woolf). Anne-Sophie and Arnaud are in that stage of their lives, drying their wings in American sun before they fly back to Paris, back to their jobs as a teacher and counselor.
Anne-Sophie is a tall French beauty with dark hair and bangs bringing attention to her eyes. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on Virginia Woolf’s short stories and essays and I’m trying to convince her to translate the 500 pages into English for publication in the States. But she’s awfully busy teaching in a school of predominantly North African students and preparing to have a baby in March. Arnaud is thrilled to be starting a family. His mother died when he was very young, and he was raised by various aunts, and he takes his role as father seriously, checking labels to make sure milk and cheese are pasteurized and vegetables and fruits are washed before Anne-Sophie consumes them.
When I first spoke with Anne-Sophie on the phone, I thought she was British, she speaks English so beautifully. Her father said it was important to be fluent in English, and he sent her to spend several summers in Cleveland living with an American family for the experience and enrolled her in a school in England. She helps Arnaud with his English, but even with the language barrier, his intelligence is obvious, and his sweetness is endearing.
They stayed in Fern Forest for four nights, choosing the guest room in the house rather than the treehouse. They’d been traveling in New York and Montreal and asked to use the washing machine to launder their clothes. Anne-Sophie draped the clothes over the line outside rather than using the dryer, and they went out to dinner. When they weren’t back by dusk, I brought in the clothes quickly to keep the dew from wetting them and put them in a basket in their room. The next morning Arnaud came into the kitchen with a spider he had captured under a glass.
“He was in my shirt,” he said. “He slept all night in my shirt and I found him this morning.” He was wearing a black shirt that morning and had laundered the shirt he’d worn the day before that said “Brooklyn” across the front. He held the glass up for me to examine the spider, which looked like a small black widow but without the red spot.
“I don’t think it’s a black widow,” I said. “I’ve never seen a black widow here.”
“Maybe he is the husband of the black widow,” he said.
“No—the black widow eats her husband after he mates with her.”
“I don’t kill insects,” he said. “I—um—surrender him?”
“Free him,” I said.
“Free him? I can say free?”
“Yes, free him outside. But far away from the house. He’ll eat bugs.”
“Fly,” he said. “He it fly.” He held up the glass and spoke to the spider. “I free you to it fly.”
Then he took spider to the other side of the parking area, near the compost, and set him free to “it” fly.
One day they explored Burlington, but the other days they stuck close to Fern Forest. Arnaud took Anne-Sophie to lunch in Bristol or cooked for her in our little kitchen. One night I was working upstairs and smelled garlic sautéing at ten p.m. They don’t have a car and take public transportation to and from work and get home around six. By the time they shop and unwind, dinner is late.
On Sunday I made Vichyssoise and popovers to take to friends’ house for dinner and left some soup and popovers for Anne-Sophie and Arnaud. When H and I returned that night, they had eaten and cleaned up the kitchen and were watching a James Bond movie on TV. I went upstairs, and when I looked over the balcony, Anne-Sophie was reclining on the sofa, her feet on Arnaud’s lap. H was in his favorite chair, and the three were engrossed in 007’s adventures. It seemed so natural to have them in our living room, stretched out, satisfied.
Virginia Woolf killed herself by putting rocks in her pockets and walking into the Ouse River. In their final hours with us, we took Anne-Sophie and Arnaud to the river for a swim below a waterfall. No one had rocks in their pockets.
H had discovered that Arnold was born in the year of the Dragon and Anne-Sophie in the year of the Rabbit.
“Rabbits are the luckiest sign of the Chinese zodiac,” I told them.
“Yes,” Arnaud said. “We are very lucky.” And he kissed Anne-Sophie’s hair.
Before she died, Virginia Woolf wrote, “Beauty is everywhere, and beauty is only two finger’s-breadth from goodness. So, in the name of health and sanity, let us not dwell on the end of the journey.” I’m trying not to dwell on the end of our brief journey with Anne-Sophie and Arnaud but on the beauty of their visit, which was less than two finger’s-breadth from goodness. It was all good.