I am your atypical, traditional tough guy in these days of sensitive more or less male human beings. Why, I did not even moan during my colonoscopy! My wife did hear me groan in pain once or twice about ten years ago while she was sitting in the waiting room of a dentist. He was performing an emergency front tooth root canal on me without benefit of any anesthesia or pain killer. It was in Rabat , Morocco. I don’t want to cast aspersions; he was a good dentist. Different country, different customs. Anyway, of course, I don’t cry. I did not even cry on the occasion of my mother’s passing away or at her funeral.
Nevertheless, the other night, I woke up at two am in tears. The flow of the tears itself woke me from a dream about Cristella. The last time I saw Cristella was in 1961. She was a short but striking Bolivian girl with luscious brown skin and thick black hair and the whole complement of baits Mother Nature has devised to entrap young men. She would have been unforgettable even if she had not done everything – except everything – to ensure that she was unforgettable. We were on the dance floor; it would have been difficult to do more. We met exactly twice. It was on the occasion of a US-wide trip for foreign high school students. She was on one bus, I was on another. We had two joint stops somewhere in the middle of nowhere. That was enough to set the hook in me.
We promised to get together again, somehow, a daring promise at a time when international travel was fabulously expensive. She was to return to Bolivia and I to France, of course. I was sincere in my promise. At that age, I was fairly sure I could do anything.
I did return to France. Then, I took a trip into southern Europe. I got into trouble in Communist Yugoslavia. Then I was drafted into the French Navy. (Both the stories about Yugoslavia and more about my service in the Navy are in my book: “I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography.”)
Soon after I started living on an aircraft carrier, I began writing Cristella, sometimes in English, sometimes in my rudimentary Spanish. Those were love letters she answered in heated terms in Spanish. This often happens with women who barely know you: During our few hours together, she had laid a womanly trap for me and fallen right into it herself. One thing was missing from my letters: a concrete description of our future together in France. There was, correspondingly, no marriage proposal. I was twenty then, twenty-one, a high school dropout with no skills and no money. I had no perceptible future. This may sound strange but I never lied to women except sometimes, for a few minutes, when I described for a girl what she was feeling about me, specifically. Then, quickly, my description became what the girl actually felt. It was not lying, it was more like guidance to where she wanted to go anyway.
After nearly a year and a half, Cristella’s hot letters stopped coming. I became a forlorn figure at ship’s mail service every morning. I grieved inside but did not give up. I kept in my mind my promise. After I was discharged from the Navy, I went to work in Paris, my hometown, in a fairly precarious job. Then, I got an inspiration. I spent days at a public library and wrote a report on Bolivia, on its recent agrarian reform to be specific, which had gone unnoticed because Bolivia was a small country far from the Cold War battlefields. I cold-called a prestigious, high-gloss magazine named “Réalités.” The Managing Editor received me kindly although I had no recommendations and no credentials. He lent me a careful ear, told me that the story was interesting if accurate.
I argued that the magazine should send me to Bolivia, that I would be much cheaper than a regular and less informed professional would be. Besides, I spoke Spanish well. It told me pleasantly that he had to talk to his boss about the idea and that he would write me a response. (No email, no private phone then). Sure enough, after a week, I had a letter informing me that regretfully, the magazine could not afford the expense of sending me to Bolivia. I was disappointed but not too surprised. There is an end to this is part of the story that is different from the Cristella story’s end. My preparatory work on Bolivia was good enough that the Managing Editor sent himself there, I discovered six months later. The magazine displayed a nice article with good pictures of Bolivia, right along the lines of my preparation. They gave me no money and no recognition. At that age, 21, I was years away from realizing that I could have done something about the cynical theft of my work and of my imagination.
In spite of this defeat, Cristella staid in my heart like a little ember. Fast forward and I am now a junior at Stanford. Those are the days of plenty in American academia. I am minoring in Latin American studies With a bit of striving and a large dose of luck, I land a Ford Foundation scholarship for field study in Latin America. Quickly, I contrive a little piece of research that can pretty well be done only in Bolivia. In June, I land in La Paz. It’s a strange place. There is a condor right outside the airport which is surrounded by fields of stones. A rickety bus takes me downtown. It’s not much of a downtown or of a town. I feel immediately sick with soroche, altitude sickness. The next morning, I comb my hair and I leave my pensión to catch another rickety bus. I have found Cristella’s address in the phone book. The bus travels downward. La Paz is so high that, contrary to almost all other cities in the world, its prosperous live downhill, where it’s more oxygenated and warmer.
The bus drops me one block from the address. I spot a large mansion enclosed in a wall with an iron gate. I ring the bell several times. A servant girl comes to the door and explains to me that Senorita Cristella is married and now lives in America, in Washington D.C. with her husband, the Bolivian military attaché. It’s difficult to explain what I feel at the moment. If Cristella herself had run out of the compound and squeezed me against her glorious bosom, it would have been completely extraordinary. So, paradoxically, I am not crushed by the news. A question remains: What kind of a love story had it been, five years ago? An illusion, a massive delusion on my part? What was it for her? Perhaps it was a fling that never even really become a fling, a fling of which body rubbing and nervous clutching – but quality clutching on my part – had been the main instruments? Maybe, it was a shared sentimental optical illusion guided by mutual exoticism and youthful ardor. Whatever it was, it remained inscribed in one small corner of the back of my brain.
By the way, don’t worry about me. After a couple of days, I fled La Paz, soroche and the missing Cristella. I flew to the lower altitude city of Cochabamba where I met my first wife, an American girl in the Peace Corps. I was not crushed obviously but I was on the rebound. The American girl caught me in mid-air but only for a while.
One last question : What provoked the torrent of tears out of my usually dry eyes in the middle of that night? As it turns out, the afternoon before, I had exchanged a few words at a party with a young man from Ecuador. His skin was the color of Cristella’s skin, a color that had been stored in a a corner of the back of my brain seemingly forever. Go figure.
I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography
is available from me by email at:
The electronic version is also available with Amazon at: