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Eau-de-Vie by Elissa Schappell  

The tour is just getting started when we arrive. Our guide is a plump, bald-headed man in a rumpled black suit; the pants are floods, so you can see his yellow socks. As we assemble with the dozen or so other tourists, he straightens up and smiles at us, the way teachers do when they want you to stop talking. My parents squeeze to the front of the pack. I stay at the back of the crowd. There’s a cute French boy, who looks about 17. I bet he rides a Vespa. His black hair hangs over one of his cat-like eyes. He smiles at me. I turn away for a second because I’m blushing. He’s staring at me like he’s wondering what I look like

in a bathing suit. Why can’t American boys be into me like this?


He walks right up to me and stands there, inches away. The boy has a scar cutting through his eyebrow that looks like a knife cut from a fight, or maybe he gashed his face climbing over the barbed-wire fence of his reform school. He is so close I can smell his B.O. and I don’t even care, it doesn’t even seem that gross. In fact, maybe I like it. How come French boys can smell but American boys just stink?


I lag behind the group as we weave through the vineyard toward the château. When my father scans the crowd with his camera and the lens fixes on me, I just flash him a quick smile that lets him know I see him looking at me, and I’m fine, but I don’t wave or do anything that might tip the boy off that I’m with my parents. My father doesn’t act like he sees me at all, but he lingers on me for a second, adjusts his lens, and I wonder if he’s taking my picture, and what he sees.


My mother turns her head to look for me. Posing in profile, I nod at her, willing her to stay where she is, and she flashes me her I-am-giving-you-space-to-be-an-irrational-teenager smile. The same annoyingly patient smile she gives me when I won’t let her hold my hand when we cross through the parking lot at the mall.


The last leg of the tour is through the fruit orchards. Small hard peaches dangle from the branches, their pink-and-pale-yellow skin covered with fuzz, like a girl’s mustache. The air is full of flies and bees that cling and crawl on the puffy and split skins of the over-ripened peaches that have dropped onto the ground.


Our guide pauses and waits for us all to assemble in the pear grove. “There are several varieties of pear grown in France.” He pauses. “The tender yellow cuisse-dame pear, which translates into English as ‘lady’s thigh,'” he says, and his icky lips pucker a little like he’s dreaming right now of sinking his teeth into the soft white skin of a woman’s thigh. “There’s also bright green tant-bonne pears, which some of you may know means ‘so good,’ and

the brute-bonne pear,” the guide says with a sneer, “is brown and stout and ugly, but oh, she tastes like heaven.”


Some of the people laugh like this is such a surprise, or it isn’t a surprise but it should be.


But the pear that sounds the best to me is the Louise-bonne pear, which the guide says was named to immortalize a woman in Les Essarts, but no one knows why or who she was — it’s still a mystery,” he says with a romantic sigh.


“Sort of defeats the purpose, huh?” jokes a man whose wife is wearing an identical khaki outfit, pockets bulging with phrase books and Kleenex. This is just the sort of romantic thing that an American man can’t understand.


God, what would it be like to be loved like that? I imagine holding a Louise-bonne, my heartbeat being absorbed the same way a pear absorbs the sun. I look at the French boy with the sexy scar and imagine the letters we’d write each other, mine scented with my mother’s Chanel No. 5, his with bike grease and sweat.


We follow the guide up a grassy path that winds through the pear trees. The boy pauses on the path and looks up at the sun like he can tell the time this way, as if he’s had to live by his wits and instincts like some kind of alley cat, and for a moment I’m afraid he’s going to bolt. I smile at him and catch his eye, cocking my head like, Come on. I signal him, Keep up. My heart is going crazy as I turn away and unbutton another button on my shirt. Up ahead I notice a weird glimmering in the flat green leaves, light bouncing off of something crystalline, a shimmer like heat trapped in glass. When we reach the glen, I stop.


Here is the pear orchard my mother had seen in the magazine. I turn to look for her, imagining her getting right up close to the trees and checking them out, but she and my father are standing back from the group holding hands. Dee is back up on my father’s shoulders. Standing on tiptoes, I can spy the pears growing inside the bell-shaped bottles. Some branches have pears that are tiny and hard looking, little green baby fists of fruit, others are pulled down low with the heavy, fully grown and ripened pears. Some of the pears are pale brown and have long tapered waists and big broad bottoms, others are nearly spherical gold balls. All of the pears look like the bodies of women grown in bottles, captured women slowly being lowered to earth. I wonder if this is what was so interesting to my mother, if this is what she wanted me to see.


The French boy reaches out and touches a bottle, turning it in his hand so that the little pear inside jiggles on the branch, nearly snapping loose. He grins at me, like that bottle is my body he’s handling, and my stomach scrunches up.


Ah non!” the guide cries out, and screams something in French that I think means, “Touch that again and I’ll break your neck!”


The boy shrugs and curls his lip in boredom like it’s no big deal, and socks his hands down into the pockets of his blue jeans. If the guide had yelled at me I think I’d want to cry, but the boy just laughs it off. As soon as the

guide turns his back the boy has his hand back up in the branches, his fingers leaving faint greasy butterfly-shaped prints on the bottles.


“How’re you supposed to eat the pear?” someone in the group calls out.


“Ah, the fruit is too hard to eat,” the guide says dismissively. “But it doesn’t matter, no one buys Pear William to eat the pear anyway,” he snorts, and the group laughs along with him, like they all knew this.


The boy and I lag behind the crowd. His eyes travel up and down my body like he’s checking me for damage. I could kiss this boy in a second. I am ready. For months I have been practicing by kissing the palm of my hand, not too hard, not too soft, very little spit. Still, practicing on your hand or a pillow isn’t like kissing a boy.


As I think all this, the boy’s eyes are boring into me. He jerks his head back toward the pear trees like he wants me to slip off with him, but suddenly I’m all nervous. What if my mother sees me and drags me away? She’d say, “You’re too young,” or “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Except for my father, of course.


What if my father finds me with his camera and takes my picture — how could I deny that I wanted this boy? I smile and pretend I don’t understand what he’s saying. You’ve got to keep them guessing. Be mysterious. Be playful, like a tigress. That’s what the magazines tell you. I keep walking, but slowly, moving my hips side to side like I’ve practiced in my bedroom mirror. The walk that is supposed to drive men wild. Then he is behind me, speaking in French, and it’s like some wonderful dream. “What is your name? You are so pretty. I want to kiss you …

* * *

Back at the château we enter the caves, which aren’t caves at all, but big, low-ceilinged rooms dug out of the earth. It’s a little like a bandit’s hideout or a musty basement, but fancier. Coming out of sunlight into the murky dark, it takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust. I stand in the dark and feel how cool and dry it is in the cave, how the air smells spicy. The walls are lined with giant wooden casks of wine, and further back in the gloom are metal racks stacked with hundreds of bottles lying on their sides like they’re sleeping. The room is lit by a chandelier of candles, and many more little white candles recessed in the hollowed-out walls of the gloomy room. I’ve lost sight of the boy; I hope he hasn’t cut out. I want him to see me in this light. Seventeen says that candlelight is the most flattering light there is; the next is a red lightbulb, or a red scarf thrown over a white lampshade, to make your skin look pink.


Set out on top of some giant wooden barrels are dark green bottles of Pouilly-Fumé and a clear, almost bell-shaped bottle of Pear William that is half empty. The pale yellow pear juts out of the remaining pool of eau-de-vie like a woman reclining in a bathtub. What I want is to touch that pear for a just a second.


There are also glasses full of Pouilly-Fumé and Pear William. They gleam with the light of hundreds of tiny candle flames, leaping against the glass. The glasses’ stems are shorter and the bowls smaller than the wineglasses we have at home. I wonder if this French wineglass is the one Cosmo says the perfect breast is supposed to fit into? Or was that a champagne glass?


Everyone, including my parents, is hovering around the guide, who is describing a wine as tasting of meadows and smoke and figs. No one is paying any attention to me, so I snag a glass of Pouilly-Fumé. As I take it into my mouth I realize that the fumé is the fire, the sting on my tongue, the burning in my throat. I don’t smell any vanilla or taste any honey but I pick up another glass and take it off into a dark corner of the cave to sip it alone. Not that anybody would notice me anyway, seeing as everybody, even my father, seems

hypnotized by our guide, who scolds a woman for picking up a cork and smelling it.


“Ah ah ah, one reads a cork, one does not smell a cork,” he says condescendingly. “The cork, she smells like cork.”


I scan the room for the French boy. I feel a little light–headed from the first glass of wine, but I think now that the wine tastes good, and it’s relaxing me. I’m good at this.


I spot the dark-haired boy as he picks up two glasses of wine like he’s at a bar, like he does this all the time, and starts to walk over to me. I drink my wine quickly, watching out of the corner of my eye as my father swishes wine around in his mouth like Listerine. My mother sniffs her wine, then takes a loud sip, sucking the wine into her mouth. It’s too embarrassing to watch. Dee is standing between them, pouting, and still wearing the sunglasses, which must make the room pitch black. Poor Dee really believed that there were bats in these caves. Even when my mother told us my father was joking, even when she told us, “And it’s not cave, it’s cahh-v.” Dee still wouldn’t let go of the possibility. To her, cave-cahv was no different than vase and vah-z. Same diff. Dee didn’t want to get it.


“You like, yes?” the boy says in my ear and hands me glass of wine. I sip it, it’s the Pear William, it’s thicker and much sweeter than the wine. Eau-de-vie tastes like syrup with heat.


Merci,” I say, hoping I don’t sound too nervous, or too American, although he must know I’m not French since all I do when he speaks is grin like a baboon. I could speak with him, but I’m just too nervous now — my parents are here, not to mention Dee, who is always spying on me. I wish I were wearing my mother’s tight black sundress instead of a camp shirt and cutoffs with sandals. I’ve got a Band-Aid on my knee from where I wiped out racing Dee in the hotel parking lot two nights ago. I look like a stupid kid. He stands close to me and drinks his wine down in one gulp, his eyes fixed over the top of his glass on my breasts. At least I have those.


I look back at my parents and my father’s eyes are on me, a little confused, like maybe he isn’t sure if it’s me. After all it is dark, and the boy is standing right in front of me. Then he looks away. It isn’t me, it isn’t his daughter.


J’aime le poire,” I say, pointing to the pear bobbing in the last bit of brandy.


“You want?” he asks, with a shrug.


Oui, je voudrais.” I would like, I guess, but too much more and I will be drunk.


Le poire?” he asks again, checking with me, although I don’t know what else he thinks I mean.


He picks up the bottle and gives it a good whack on the side of the table. The sound of breaking glass is like a firecracker. All conversation stops for just a second, but everybody is having such a good time, nobody cares that a bottle got broken. The guide must have stepped outside for a smoke. My parents don’t even look for me. My breath is caught in my mouth; I can’t believe no one suspects us. But why would they, the boy is holding the bottle at his side, just below the broken neck, so casual, no one can see what he’s done. He sticks

his hand sideways through the broken neck and pulls out the pear, wetting his hand.


He licks the pear, then hands it to me, like it was no big deal. Like he’ll do anything for me. I hold the slippery pear in my hand.


He licks his knuckles. There’s blood on his hand. I pull his hand toward my mouth and lick his wound. The blood mixed with the brandy is making me drunk.


Who am I? I think, watching myself lick this boy’s fingers, noticing the dirt beneath his nails and not caring. Who is this girl? I don’t recognize her.


I slowly start walking backward away from the crowd, drawing him toward the wine racks that touch the ceiling. I need to catch my breath, but mostly I need get out of my parents’ line of vision, because I know that I’m about to have my first kiss, finally my first real kiss, and it’s with a Frenchman.


“So you are American, yes?” the boy asks, wiping his cut hand against his pants leg. He’s checking out my legs and my Levi’s, which I guess give me away.


Oui,” I say, crossing my arms across my chest. The pear in my hand feels like a grenade. Suddenly, I feel like he’s wearing those glasses they advertise in the back of comic books that let guys see through your clothes.


“So you speak French, yes?” he asks, brushing his hair out of his eyes in a kind of bored, cool way.


Un peu,” I say, holding my finger and thumb apart. I want to seem cute, not too smart, not too weird. That turns boys off. But I want to speak more French, not only because the language is so romantic, but because it would be part of the foreign experience; still, he has to speak really slowly for me to understand what he’s saying.


He leans toward me and picks up some strands of my hair, and he smells them with his eyes half closed. I’m not sure what that’s about, but I’m glad I just washed it last night. Then he whispers in my ear something I can’t understand. The scar intersecting his eyebrow looks like a road between two fields — maybe it was a dog bite, maybe he fell off his bicycle. I laugh out of nervousness, or maybe it’s excitement. He steps closer to me and puts his hand on my shoulder like he’s feeling the fabric of my shirt. I lean toward him, then back off.


Even though we’re back behind the casks, I’m still anxious about getting caught. My parents would put me under hotel arrest, or rental car arrest — either way, they’d never set me free in France again. Plus it’s not that romantic. I want to be outside in the pear grove. I want him to throw me down on the grass and kiss me. I put up my hand to warn him, not here, not now, but he pulls his hand away from my shoulder and his eyes cloud up, like I’m rejecting him, but I’m not.


Non, non,” I say, and I make a grab for his hand because I’m afraid he’s just going to walk away, and I don’t want him to. I don’t want him to leave, I want to talk. I just want to hold his hand first. I want to stroll through the trees as the sun is setting and share this pear. I close my eyes and try to come up with the proper words to say, “Let’s go somewhere else, back outside.”


When I open my eyes again he’s staring at me, the muscles at the corner of his mouth sort of slack, his eyes sort of unfocused like he can’t see me anymore. I can tell he thinks I don’t want him to kiss me, but I do. I do want him to, I think. I love the pear he gave me. Then he says something that sounds hurt or angry and sort of hunches his shoulders and drops his head. For a minute he does nothing, then he sticks his foot out and rubs the toe of his black loafer up the back of my leg. I don’t know what to think, I can’t think. I know I don’t want him to leave. He keeps rubbing his toe into the socket behind my knee. Back and forth. It’s wrong, I know, but it’s also weirdly good. I can feel my whole face turning red. He stops, and for a second I think maybe he’s about to apologize, but he doesn’t. He just stands there staring at me, but not really at me, more like right through me. I stare hard into his eyes, looking for the boy he was earlier, trying to bring him back. His eyelids start to droop, then he’s doing something at his crotch, yanking his hand back and forth like he’s trying to start up a chainsaw. I don’t want to look, or I don’t want him to see me looking. But then his pants are unzipped and he’s pulling and shaking his thing at me like it’s angry, or like it’s trying to escape, and I can’t look away. I mean, I just stare at it, like I’m hypnotized. It’s weird but I like it a little. I am making this happen, I think. He can’t help himself. Does this mean he likes me? I can’t believe it. It isn’t until he comes on the top of my foot that I realize how stupid I’ve been. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. Cry, scream, laugh? I know I should laugh. This is a bad joke, but I can’t laugh. I don’t make a sound.


He grabs his thing and stuffs it back into his fly, which is gaping open like his mouth, and walks quickly away from me. He doesn’t smile or say good-bye, he just leaves. His come drips down between my toes. I swear it smells like boiled chicken. Why was it that so many things that were supposed to be exotic or special were all just another lousy form of chicken?


The boy walks fast back out into the main part of the cave, head down, and no one even seems to see him, and then he’s gone. Peering through the rows of bottles, I see his profile in one of the small cave windows as he heads back toward the orchard, like a face in a frame. How could I have let this happen?


Maybe I’m just really drunk, and if I just don’t look down, if I don’t see it, it hasn’t really happened. But my foot is slick and cool with come. I’m still clutching the pear in my hand. It had seemed so precious. It was dumb of me to think of that pear as being like a woman. I drop it, and when it rolls under a cask, I think for a second about rescuing her — it seems mean to leave her — but I don’t. I hope she rots there.


I kick off my sandal and drag my foot back and forth across the dirt floor of the cave until my foot is dirty and it burns. I pour the rest of the eau-de-vie on my foot; it tingles like medicine. Then I shove my foot back into my sandal and head for the door, my face turned to the ground. I don’t want my parents to see me, see the look I must have on my face.


My mantra surfaces in my mind, “Pouilly-Fumé, Chardonnay, Pouilly-Fuissê, Sancerre,” but it seems dumb now. They’re just words.


For a second I wonder if he’s outside waiting for me, and my heart beats faster. But outside the sun is just starting to set, blazing orange. Smearing the sky with streaks of pink and purple, the way my mother’s lipstick bleeds into her dinner napkin, and the boy is gone.


I crawl into the backseat of Josephine and sit there numbly working the door lock. I want to go home now. How could I be so stupid? I slump down in the seat and roll onto my stomach, the way I slept as a baby. I can just imagine my parents’ patient smiles that say, share, but mean but don’t hurt us. Lie to us. Don’t tell us anything that will get you in trouble. Worse than their anger would be them feeling sorry for me.

By permission of Elissa Schappell and the Joy Harris Literary Agency.
Excerpted from the forthcoming collection Use Me.

©1999 Elissa Schappell and, Inc.