I PUSHED, DRAGGED, AND BUMPED MY HEAVY SUITCASE ALONG THE narrow corridor of the night train to Paris. I was so filled with the exhilaration of wild high spirits that I welcomed the challenge of finding a seat. Finally, in triumph, I wedged my luggage into an almost nonexistent slot I’d just noticed with the experienced eye of a veteran of the New York subway.
I was one of the last, amid the overflow crowd of other skiers, to find a place to sit for the long ride back to the Gare du Nord. The slowly moving train started to pick up speed and we were finally well under way, back from Megève, in the French Alps, where I’d just spent two weeks skiing. Twelve hours from now I’d be home, but I had twelve hours to pass with a blessed partition to lean against and a reassuringly bulky sandwich safe in the pocket of my ski parka.
Even if I’d been able to get a ticket in a compartment, I’d have been too blissfully excited to sleep this night anyway, I realized. Right now, at this very minute, it was still January 8, 1949, and I, Judy Tarcher, was only twenty years old. In just two hours, at the very first stroke of midnight, I would turn twenty-one. I would attain my legal majority, I’d be able to vote, I’d be allowed to drink in a bar without false I.D., I could get a driving license—at last, at last I’d officially be a grown-up! Tomorrow I was going to be given three birthday parties, and that wonderfully celebratory prospect made me giddy with anticipation as I looked around me, beaming in good humor at the prospect of a night in the packed, lurching corridor.
Dozens of skiers were settling down, already engrossed in newspapers or books. I’d been too busy in the station, struggling to balance my skis on my shoulder and manage my suitcase, to buy a new copy of Paris Match or Elle. But I’d spent what seemed like most of my lifetime reading, so I welcomed this opportunity to sit back quietly and think about where and whither and what next. I needed this time before I got back to Paris and the bewildering pace of my new existence there. I was living as a “paying guest” in the home of Nicole Bouchet de Fareins, a fascinatingly complicated divorced woman in her late thirties, with three teenaged daughters, and my life held daily surprises.
I knew I was being silly, but I was unable to stop myself as I opened my shoulder bag and fished out a little date book. Once more I checked tomorrow’s date. Sunday, January 9, 1949. No, nothing had happened to change it in the two hours since I’d last looked.
As I tucked the book safely away, I realized that a middle-aged, well-nourished Frenchman was looking at me with barely disguised attention as he took a pull on his flask. He was close enough for me to smell the brandy and I imagined, in my heightened sense of self-awareness, that I could read his mind. A fresh young one, he’d probably be thinking, with childishly round pink cheeks, still far too young to be of any real interest yet not totally without a certain appeal. I knew perfectly well that my light brown hair and artless, fluffy bangs framed an ingenuous, innocent face. Petite as I was, this man would never believe I was as good as twenty-one. If he kept on staring, I flattered myself, he might eventually catalog what I considered my only features of distinction, a pouting lower lip that was much fuller than the upper one, and large, light gray-green eyes.
Of course he’d be able to tell with half a glance that there was no possibility that I was French. There was just something about me, I couldn’t figure out what, that breathed American-ness. But perhaps, later on, when the train ride had come to seem unbearably long, he’d offer to share some of his brandy with me. Perhaps not. He’d certainly assume that I didn’t speak enough French, if any, to offer any amusement.
Losing interest in trying to mind-read, I closed my eyes and returned to my own thoughts of the morrow and Nicole’s welcome.
Ah, that Nicole, how she dominated my time in France, I mused. I was still incredulously happy that we’d finally become friends. I hadn’t dared to imagine that such a thing could ever happen during those first miserable weeks in September when I’d arrived to live at her house once my family had returned to New York after our summer tour of Europe. For weeks she regarded me with unmistakable suspicion in her brilliantly dark and often frighteningly cold eyes. She’d been so unwelcoming that I realized only dire financial need had made her take me in. But, God almighty, I’d been so lucky to have landed at her house instead of at some proper French lady’s.
Fascinating, mysterious undercurrents of intrigue, drama, and inside humor ran among Nicole, her two sisters, and the group of four or five young men in their twenties who dropped by almost every night for a drink and often stayed through a meager dinner that was rolled into the salon on a trolley and carefully served by the three younger girls and me. I was still unable to understand precisely why these eligible fellows came by so often, but I’d learned to accept them with pleasure.
But then every hour in Paris was a major learning experience, I reflected joyously, leaning back against the partition behind me, slumping as comfortably as possible and swaying with the rhythm of the train. I was learning at Nicole’s, learning at my relatively new job in public relations, learning even through the laughter I provoked and the criticism I received.
Only a few months earlier, in October, I’d been thoroughly put in my place by Nicole and her sisters. I was just beginning to venture a few quavering, timid words of the language I was learning rapidly through total immersion, which was backed up by my three years of high-school French that consisted of barely remembered written drills in verbs and vocabulary.
After lunch, when Nicole’s daughters had gone back to school, I was allowed to join her and her sisters, Francette and Anne, for a demitasse and a single, carefully chosen piece of the brown, roughly hewn lumps of sugar that were the only sweet thing ever offered in these postwar days of strict food rationing. I sat and listened to them chirp at each other, catching words here and there, and sometimes even the meaning of an entire sentence. It seemed to me that Francette, the youngest of the sisters, had said something highly disparaging about love, and in the silence that followed, I’d forced myself to formulate a phrase and finally managed to say that “l’amour est très agréable.”
They’d turned on me, three enraged harpies, and informed me with vigorous disdain that no little American virgin had so much as the right to speak of love, to dare to have the slightest opinion, since, silly unformed creature that I was, I could know nothing whatsoever about love and would never know anything as long as I remained in my state of absurd, provincial, ridiculously infantile ignorance.
Oh, they had certainly let me know what they thought about me, I reflected, still a little miffed, but they’d also let the cat out of the bag. Now I realized that virginity, that utterly essential state, that precious condition that must be maintained at whatever price, was, amazingly, not as highly valued in France as it was in the United States.
I couldn’t put my finger on when I’d first heard the word “virgin” or known what that meant, but for as long as I could remember, the worst thing you could say about a single girl was that she wasn’t one. As far as I knew, the fearsome commandment to be a virgin until marriage cut across all religious lines, as much for Jews like me as for Protestants and Catholics.
A girl who lost her virginity, as far as my Wellesley classmates were concerned, was tarnished in the eyes of everyone who knew of this scandal. She’d severely compromised her chance of marrying the right kind of boy because her reputation was gone, and a girl’s reputation . . . well, without a good reputation, what did it matter how popular or cute you were?
I gave up on this particular puzzle, and as the dizzying thought of my birthday returned to my mind, I opened my eyes and searched for my compact. I inspected myself carefully in the compact mirror. You’re as good as you’re going to get, I silently told my reflection, delighted by my high color, bright eyes, and shining hair. Two weeks of nothing but fresh air and physical effort had been a well-earned tonic after the often difficult months in Paris. I was on the alert every minute of every day, painfully poised at most moments so that I could swim in the unfamiliar waters of a French household and, recently, in a French office as well.
I was more than ready for my thrilling trio of birthday parties, I told myself, my heart beating fast at the thought. Nicole was planning a gala family lunch for me; John Cavanaugh, a couture design assistant and a new friend, was giving me a tea party; and Harrison Elliott, my Californian boss, was having a cocktail party for me, followed by a dinner with some of his former colleagues at Dior, where he’d been head of PR until he’d opened his own firm a year earlier.
I’d told my parents all about these dazzling prospects in the three weekly letters I wrote at their command, but since they rarely wrote back, I had no idea what they thought of my new world—a world that was still so beyond me in its sophistication that I was full of wonder that it had opened up to me at all.
I’d found a job in Paris, I thought with intense gratitude as I bought an orange drink from a vendor who was working his way though the train, and now my parents had to keep their promise to allow me to stay until next summer if I got work. They didn’t know it yet, but I knew that I’d never go home. Whenever people asked me how long I was going to stay in Paris, I answered, “Forever!” My passion for the city only grew the more I knew it. As I thought of Paris, I felt that I was able to hold all of it cupped in my hands, a guarantee of constant joy, a discovery I’d been the first in the world to make, a treasure I was determined to possess forever.
I’d never been so happy in all my life! The only disappointment I had was that my birthday had fallen two months too late to vote for Harry Truman in the last election, and that mattered to me, an ardent Democrat. When Truman won, after I’d told everyone I knew to expect Dewey to become president, I’d lost all political credibility. The French blamed the whole upset on my personal lack of political savvy.
They were big on assigning blame, the French, I thought, my cheeks suddenly burning. Like that time, perhaps six or seven weeks earlier, when Hubert, one of the group who came for dinner, had had to spend the night at Nicole’s because it was too foggy out to walk safely to the Métro. She’d delegated me to take him sheets and blankets and make up his bed on the big sofa in the salon. So okay, I’d let him kiss me a little, nothing worth speaking of—Hubert was a sweetie—and lo and behold, the next day Nicole all but handed me my walking papers. She was so angry that it took me half an hour to figure out what it was she was screaming about. Hubert had had a wet dream during the night and stained her sofa upholstery, and, of course, it was all my fault! I was, according to her, an “allumeuse,” a lighter of fires, as no honest woman would be. Worse, she’d accused me of being a “demievièrge,” the French expression for the worst kind of sexual tease, as far as I could figure out. All we’d done was a bit of necking, for heaven’s sake, absolutely nothing compared to what went on during a Princeton football weekend, but try to explain that to a Frenchwoman in a flood of indignation.
Yes, I’d certainly changed worlds when I’d realized I had to live in France, I reflected. If I’d gone home as planned, I’d be dating the kind of Ivy League graduates who knew all the rules as well as I did, eligible boys at the beginning of successful careers in their fathers’ businesses, rich, respectful, yearning, courting me like crazy. But here I was, three thousand miles away from my parents, from my native turf, from anyone who knew who Judy Tarcher was or what kind of family she came from—a year of anonymity, a year in which just to be me and find my wings.
I decided it was time to eat my sandwich. Seeing me unwrap my baguette filled with ham and cheese, my curious neighbor pulled out his flask and gestured hospitably at me. “Voulez-vous en goûter un peu, Madame?” he asked politely, but I pretended that I didn’t speak French. “No, thank you.” I smiled as nicely as possible, making a regretful but firmly negative face. Just one drink and I might be in for an all-night conversation, but I was determined to keep myself to myself. All this introspection was putting things into place in a way that hadn’t happened since I’d first arrived.
Because I was living at Nicole’s, I was meeting a bunch of French aristocrats totally unlike the guys I’d known at college. What exactly had I to expect from them? They were not remotely marriage material for a nice Jewish girl. Not, God forbid, that I wanted to marry! As far as I was concerned, marriage had always loomed as the gateway to slavery and I truly pitied the hordes of my classmates who’d rushed into it right after graduation.
But it was more than odd, I mused, that after four years of fending off men who’d wanted to marry me, here I was, a bare hour or so from turning twenty-one, without even a boyfriend in my life. On those occasions when we ate in a restaurant, we always went en masse, with Nicole as the centerpiece. She was a captivatingly seductive woman when she chose to be, with magnificent long dark hair she refused to cut in the new style, and those gorgeous legs that she knew so well how to display. Was it possible, I asked myself, almost choking on my ham and cheese, that I was too American to even be considered date material by boys who were only a few years older than I was?
No, damn it, that simply was not possible, I assured myself firmly. One of the few areas in which I had definite self-confidence was my ability to ensnare the opposite sex. I could hardly have lost it, could I, because of a difference of three thousand miles? Wasn’t I still the girl who had thirteen dates with thirteen different men on thirteen consecutive nights last year at college? Hadn’t there been an abortive movement, confined alas to my dorm, to vote me “Most Cuddly” when it came time for the class to vote on “Most Sophisticated,” “Most Beautiful,” and “Most Intellectual”?
I slumped lower and reflected deeply. Here I was, isolated by an entire ocean from any supervision by my parents or observation by anyone who knew them. Here I was, out of any possibility of contact with the world of eligible Jewish boys who could all find out something about me no matter where they were from, a world that I would most likely enter one day in the far-distant future when I would finally give in and get married. Here I was, free, private, safe from gossip, more independent than I’d ever been or would ever be again in my life. Here I was, old enough to vote, for Christ’s sake, and I was wasting my evenings on a bunch of guys who didn’t take me seriously.
I’d been alone in France four full months and eight days, and during all that time I’d only been kissed by Hubert. It was absurd, ridiculous, insane! I was legally in charge of myself and yet I was still clinging to my state of virginity in a country where being a virgin not only didn’t seem crucial but was a sign of being immature, still a kid.
Suddenly I sat up straight on my suitcase, propelled by a conviction that abruptly pierced my mind. Now that I was old enough to vote, I was old enough to lose my virginity. I felt liberated from all the old constraints, the old taboos. I didn’t understand the connection voting had with virginity, but I didn’t need to. I was absolutely certain that one existed, as clearly as I was abruptly but totally liberated from all the old rules and fears that had guaranteed my virginity up until now. The time was right, I told myself, and if ever there was a place that was right, it was Paris. And nobody at home would ever know anything about it! It was the perfect opportunity! Yes, oh yes indeed, I was going to sleep with the first man who asked me, and that’s a promise, Mr. President!
I felt as stunned as if I were newly born, as if I’d just opened my eyes on an entirely different world from the one I’d entered when I’d clambered onto the train. I was determined, positive, quivering with resolution, decisively aware that I had finally come to my senses, and I could barely wait to get back to Paris to set the wheels in motion. I didn’t know how exactly, but now that I’d shed my old constraints, I’d be giving out different vibrations and someone would tune in to them.
Oh, this moment absolutely called for a toast, I thought, looking around at my portly neighbor. He was still awake, but deep in a magazine. I nudged him gently, smiled, and addressed him politely, reminding him of his earlier offer in the most fluent French I’d ever heard myself speak. He looked at me in astonishment, but quickly he smiled back and pulled out his flask, unscrewed a little metal cup, filled it, and handed it to me. I lifted the cup in his direction, but mentally directed the toast at myself. “Merci mille fois, Monsieur. A votre santé,” I said, and tossed the spirits down in one fiery, unfaltering gulp.
READER, THAT TRAIN trip took place fifty years ago. I realize that today few, if any, American girls of twenty-one would be so concerned with their virginity, but half a century ago, it had an importance too great to be measured. Looking back at the girl I was, to the girl whose emotions I still remember so vividly, to the girl who was poised on the brink of the happiest time of her life, to the girl whose innocence was intact in so many ways, to the girl who had never wept for a lost love, all I can say is, Weren’t you lucky beyond words? And weren’t you even luckier to be fully conscious and acutely aware of your luck as it unfolded?