Coming to America: Some Personal Observations and a Strange Incident


by Devon Pitlor PART ONE
Having been asked the question far too many times about what I thought of the United States after my definitive arrival here in late 1987, I feel that my only response can be that I was basically indifferent to America as whole. In France, we had been inundated with all sorts of projected Americanesque visions: tall buildings, suburbs and the like, so nothing really surprised me. New York, where I began, looked like the New York that I expected it to be. I was neither happy nor sad to be in this country. It was simply a new experience in a different venue. I was ready for that. I should say up front that I came here because of my wife, who has given me her total permission to use her name and tell anything that I consider relevant to this essay. And I think it will turn out to be an essay rather than just a straight memoir. Or at least I hope so. I was given a great deal of opportunity in the US which I would not have had in France, as I did not succeed on the baccalauréat, which is the one and only criterion for entry into university and the so-called higher professions in my country. I came to the US, immediately enrolled full time in a well-known university (which I prefer not to mention here) and achieved an MA in economics within three years, taking college as a business rather than a diversion and attending summers and mid-sessions as well. I worked as a Manhattan bartender and waiter, had a few adventures, and achieved a goal that I probably never would have been able to reach in France. But what I really wanted to talk about is my wife. Her name was---then and

now---Meredith, which may surprise some readers who know that I had multiple affairs and was separated from Meredith for long periods of time, and this by mutual consent, something that may appear to cheapen the relationship in the eyes of some skeptics. I was a very shallow and, above all, independent person who had many occasions to enjoy the company of other women. I have alluded to this before. My wife and I took trial separations from one another more than once. Today we are back together again, the kids have moved away, and we have more of an understanding and "alliance" than what is usually thought of as a marriage. At least in the US sense. To arrive at the story I want to tell, I do indeed need to make some cursory observations about changing both country and social class. My wife came from what we generally call here the upper middle class---very upper. And there is no doubt that both she and her family, which did not readily accept her marrying a foreigner, gave me a lot of support and help which I probably did not deserve. I feel no guilt for this because at the start Meredith and I were so tightly bonded together that nothing could separate us. I fell under her spell from the moment I met her, and I know that she will admit that she felt the same with me. Such passion, such obsession is somewhat juvenile, I know that. But at age 22 going on 23, it is what we truly felt. There is not a big transition going from a developed and prosperous country like France to an equally developed nation like the US, so the fervid emotions that some immigrants feel in arriving on these shores never affected me. In some ways, I even considered the US primitive compared to France, especially in the areas of medical care and social services. But I don't want to get political here. Because of Meredith, I decided to go for dual citizenship and make the US my home. However, I never kissed the ground and thanked any sort of god that I had arrived. Lots of my habits were crude, especially in New York City, where we settled. I smoked and drank too much even then, and I cared nothing about clothes, cars or houses. Living in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn was fine with me. It resembled somewhat the world that I had grown up in in La Rochelle, my hometown. I wondered why anyone would ask for more. I never became a materialist, and even today, although I have substantial savings and a good

income, I still live in a crowded neighborhood in Brooklyn and like it just as much as I always did. I think that for Meredith it has been different, but I have always been insensitive to many things. I would rather die than live in a suburb or worse in the country. Only the activity of a lively neighborhood interests me. I hate driving, although I have a car, and the best environment for me is where one can walk everywhere to satisfy one's needs. But I want to get back to the subject of love...or lust...or passion...or as we say in French éblouissement--which translates roughly as the state of being totally enraptured by another person. That is how I felt for Meredith at the start. I was raised not to be possessive or prideful, but it delighted me that all heads turned when Meredith walked into a room. And I mean that for real. No exaggeration here---especially since the core of my story will involve an episode that I consider rather recondite and which may appear either exaggerated or fanciful to some readers. I guess you have to believe me completely (which is asking a lot, I know) to fully comprehend the story I want to tell. Okay, back to my arrival here briefly. I was the odd man out when it came to Meredith's Long Island family. I had a strong accent and dressed terribly. I ate strange food and was totally unimpressed with the USA. That was enough to alienate me from them. My lifelong Existentialism didn't make me any friends either. It took me a long time to ingratiate myself to Meredith's family, and to this day, I am not sure that any of them do more than just tolerate me. Upon entering university, I became determined to master the one tool that I believe separates the successful from the non-successful: language. In short, I overcompensated for my lack of English, and naturally that has formed the basis of my ability to write today. I was also a very hard and determined student and worker. I had just a couple of years before returned from nineteen months of obligatory military service in Africa, where I saw very unusual people, sights and events---all of which dwarfed any strangeness that the US could possibly exert on me.

So what kind of "love," and I put that in quotes, existed between Meredith and me? I could romantically write a 'bottomless passion,' and that would not be far from the truth. I feel that those who have not experienced this depth of passion have missed something in life, despite the fact that, as we all know, it does not last, and quiet companionship and immense mutual toleration take the place of those flaming cinders that once comprised what passes for ardent and all-consuming love in one's youth. Meredith and I were never out of one another's sights, and we didn't want to be. We joined up daily all over Manhattan when classes or jobs permitted and probably never spent one night in the first two years of marriage without making love. It doubtlessly was overkill, but we were both gripped in the clutches of obsession. And no, it was not mere infatuation. I will never cheapen what we felt for one another by calling it that. Even in maturity, I respect the fiery and frenetic zeal of our early fervor, a crazed and driven sense of attachment to be sure. One who has never known this complete obsession should not disparage it. Adulthood and maturity do not require that we shed the things that consumed our youth. But what happened? That is what I want to explore here, and that is the reason that I shall embark on what I can now honestly call the second part of my essay. PART TWO I met Meredith, an American student of haute couture and fashion, very close to my hometown of La Rochelle, on the sometimes picturesque, sometimes ugly Ile de Ré, a ferry ride across the Pertuis d'Antioche Strait from La Rochelle. I was already working in economics as a minor state analyst in the salt market, as the Ile de Ré is, prosaically, one of the largest sea salt producing areas on Earth. And a very dull job it was. My lack of university degree did not permit promotion to more challenging levels of the business...and well, salt, important as it is to our survival, is just nothing I can write about with any keenness unless this were an economics essay, in which case I could compose volumes on

the subject, volumes that would be read, naturally, only by the few. Meredith was in a fashion photo shoot on the pretty side of the island, where I often went on my lunch breaks with friends to drink wine and sleep on the beach before returning to a long afternoon of work. It was July. Tourists and photographers were everywhere. In a crowd of girls, just outside of SaintMartin en Ré, I spotted Meredith, and stereotypically, she was wearing a very slight bikini. That was part of the fashion montage of the shoot she was participating in. I had no idea that Meredith was an American as I stared at here in the distance. I was too far away to hear the voices of the girls who were involved, but Meredith stood out like a castaway goddess from some planet of unreal beauty: Long, straight brown hair, a perfect torso, a totally symmetrical face with full lips and huge dark eyes. She was a stunner from the start, and that was naturally the basis of my magnetism to her. I have always been courageous when it comes to meeting girls, and I had always enjoyed a great deal of success therein. In fact, I was at the time living with another very beautiful young lady who was counter worker for the island ferry company. I jumped up and hustled my way through a crowd of chattering photographers and make-up assistants and went up to Meredith's side. I purposely stared at her in the eyes for longer than one usually does and blurted out in French "T'es trop belle, tu sais...pas réelle...hors de cette planète!!" She stared back at me, dressed as I was in a drab black shirt and corduroy pants, standing on a beach replete with fresh skin, youth and loveliness. "I don't understand," she said. I stammered out as much English as I then knew, which wasn't too terrible because I had spent time in Great Britain in the company of some very chaleureuse English girls. It went on from there. I won't elaborate. I was foudroyé by Meredith, and

from all accounts she was equally thunderstruck by me. We met that night after her photo engagement in a mainland café not far from where I was living and very close to where I had grown up. From the start, we could not take our eyes off one another, and later we could not take our hands off one another. Okay, I know it sounds hokey, but I have already covered that. One is only young once. I was twenty-two, and Meredith, although she returned to the US, borrowed money three times from her family to come back to France with the sole purpose of visiting me in La Rochelle and later Angoulême in the HauteCharente, where I had taken up temporary residence. By March of 1988, we were married and living in New York. The details of this transition do not bear much recital. It is the intensity of ardor that I want to convey to the reader. I had known many girls before, but... Well, take it from there. Not every French boy would follow an American girl to the US, but I did, and I did willingly. And strangely, this mutual obsession lasted for nearly two years, as we both plodded through college and after-school jobs of little merit. Then one day, we met on the university campus as planned and decided to go to a free film club screening of David Lynch's "Eraserhead," a totally stupid but supposedly avant-garde movie that was still popular on campuses at the time. Nothing could have been more routine. We met, as a totally smitten married couple, every day and night and at all times in between. Going to a free movie on campus was no big deal. But what happened there was. And it is here that I would like to ask the reader to suspend judgment on what I am about to describe because I am not lost in fantasy or writing another work of fiction. To some this event may be dismissible as simply the work of an over active imagination, but I assure one and all that it is not. It sprung itself unexpectedly on Meredith and me in one of the most standard venues possible

in the life of urban students, there in a makeshift screening room in a drafty university hall converted into a temporary movie house. We sat on noisy metal chairs waiting for the film to start under the full lighting of the room. As ever, we were physically connected, arms around waists, necks or shoulders or whatever. Meredith and I were like that. We could not resist touching one another. I guess I have already written this, but it may still contain some descriptive value in what I am about to tell. Also, we were kissing. We always did that too, again and again and in public where it was not at the time frowned on. About three rows in front and to the side of where we were sitting was a young man of about our age with his head turned away from us. In that era, boys still wore their hair long, so that it covered his face until he heard someone he knew call his name, which was Tony, and he turned around to look over his shoulder at whomever was calling. So now I can drag out the French words again: foudroyés, abasourdis, stupéfiés, ahuris. Anyone who can read French will see that these adjectives, and I could use more, all end in the letter S, which means that they are plural. Collectively, they mean staggered, stunned, dumbfounded, astonished, incredulous, overwhelmed, flabbergasted and speechless---and all of these in the plural because the shock was totally mutual between Meredith and myself. Tony, a very masculine and not at all effeminate boy in any way, was the mirror image of Meredith. I do not mean that Tony resembled Meredith. I mean that Tony WAS Meredith. The likeness was beyond uncanny. It was supernatural. In his own boy's features he was the absolute doppelganger of Meredith, her exact male counterpart. Moreover, he was of her own size and shape. I cannot stress the likeness enough because it was outrageous and disturbing in ways that even today I am unable to adequately verbalize. It is possible, therefore, for a male to remain a male and still parallel the literal and precise countenance of a female. A small curvature of the chin here, some

extra bone there. Not a big deal. No, Tony, was another Meredith, and he at once knew it too. So all of those adjectives of shock and alarm can be equally applied in the plural to Tony as well. I say the plural because they could also be applied matter-of-fact to the cute young girl seated next to him. Four people in their early twenties witnessed the eerie resemblance that day before a lame movie started in a university hall under the unrelenting glare of the pre-screening lights. We were, in effect, all four of us spellbound. Totalement envoûtés, as it were. Tony could not lift his eyes from Meredith and vice versa. It became so intense that the girl next to Tony took his arm and whispered something in his ear and seemed to lead him in like a trance out of the room, so anxious and distressed was she. And so they left...and rather hastily at that. And there were backward glances, and the girl had to do some very obvious tugging to extract Tony from the hall. In all it was appalling and deeply disturbing---as they say today "on so many levels." Time passed, and Meredith and I skipped a class and went for a few drinks. We hardly remembered the movie at all. We had come face to face with Meredith's double, and while I was in awe and worried about losing my beautiful wife, Meredith was suffering with something much greater inside. I guess this is the essay part of this attempt to recapture an incident in the past. I never studied much psychology, but in all earnestness I ask myself the question now as I did then: What subliminal longings are stirred up in a person who sees an exact double of themselves? I briefly touched on this in my story "How I Met My Wife," which is pure fiction and somewhat based on an episode of the French comic book hero Lone Sloane, created by the inimitable Philippe Druillet, known to all French kids since the early sixties. But the question still remains.

The answer, of course, is not with me but with Meredith. There exists what she said and did then and what she says and does now. I will attempt to cover these in summary fashion, and again, it is with her full consent. Let me mention one more time in passing that, although obsessed with my wife, I was not jealous nor possessive. In fact, I admit to having had brief encounters with other girls, and don't hold that against me. The furor for Meredith still remained. But this was not totally the case with Meredith. The university hall encounter with her doppelganger had not left her unscathed, and Meredith being Meredith, she acted on it. She contrived in her own way to meet Tony face to face and privately. She learned his last name, which is unimportant here, and that he was an American student in engineering from somewhere in West Virginia. They were the same age as well. So the question emerges: what did she do? What would I have done? What would Lone Sloane have done? Well, I can answer that first from Druillet's amazing comic book character. Lone Sloane cast himself upon the transformed doppelganger and engaged in the most explosive and volatile sex that anyone could imagine, except in a French comic book--which I should remind the reader were not "comic" at all, something which does not exist in American publications to any great degree. French "comic" books were dead earnest in their depiction of sex and nubility. As for me: I felt a distance swiftly interpose between my gorgeous wife and myself, and I eventually acted in the most assholish way possible, which was to treat myself to numerous affairs which bear little recount. But none in shame. And Meredith? The answer is yes. She and Tony were drawn together by an indestructible lash which caused her to ask me for what we then called a 'leave of absence,' to which I resignedly assented. There was no use fighting this attraction because it was mystical and tantric. The core of their essential erotic narcissism had been tapped at its very primal roots, and there was no way that I or anyone else could have prevented this union.

How long the physical and romantic affair lasted between Meredith and Tony I cannot say with exactitude. Meredith rejoined me in about six months when I was already in graduate school. She refused for years to talk about Tony, other than just the essentials. Sometimes she would break into tears. Sometimes she would fall into the most turbulent rages of anxiety. Even after their separation, the memory of having conjoined with her double haunted her and does to this day. Other than outright denial, there are all sorts of dirty little directions the reader or observer can take with this story, but none of them happened. Also one can refute the notion that a boy can so closely resemble a girl and vice versa. But that is equally false. I give testimony that it can and did happen. Lone Sloane, Druillet's space cowboy, had no compunctions about furious and frenzied love-making with his shapechanging double. Meredith did. And she still does, at age forty-seven, to this day. In all, it shook her more than it did me. I was kind of a boy-whore, and I actually enjoyed my "break" from the intensity I had with Meredith, and although we are still married to this day, things are much calmer and drastically different. Some would say more realistic. Somewhere in the USA, Tony must still live. Perhaps he has been married for a long time and has children. After all, he was very, very attractive---as was his double. But Meredith still wakes up in the night after having some nightmare about Tony, and I presume he does the same. I imagine him with equally sleepless nights. Some things are immutable and beyond our ability to explain. This is only one from my past.

________________________________ Devon Pitlor */*/*/ November, 2012

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