Please read part one first, or this will make zero sense.
We were on a family vacation in Florida when they told me Oliver Stewart had died—“We have some bad news for you, James: Your friend Oliver is very sick… actually, he’s dead”—but I didn’t shed a tear. It didn’t surprise me; I’d done my mourning already in the bathroom of Jules Feiffer’s apartment nine months earlier. Or maybe shock numbed all normal emotion. God knows, I can still cry easily enough about it today.
Had we been in New York, I might have made it to the funeral, but it was too complicated to get me to Rome from Florida on such short notice. As a consequence of not burying him properly, for years I subconsciously believed that Oliver’s death was just another one of his pranks.
The dreams have become less frequent thirty years later, but are vivid enough for me to believe they are quite real when they happen: Oliver and I meet again, and I tell him I always knew it wasn’t true that he died, and he confirms it by saying he’s been in Chile the whole time, or someplace else like that. Then I begin to lose him again, he slips away into a crowd, or into darkness, or down a corridor of a labyrinthine house I am unfamiliar with. And I wake up mourning all over again, my pillow wet with tears, rattled and betrayed the dream wasn’t real when I was so convinced it was.
Weirdly, touchingly, in many dreams Oliver has aged with me. He is now a distinguished middle-aged man, much like his father, Donald. These dreams have affected me enough that I based one of my better screenplays around it, Air, about a woman in early middle age who cannot let go of the teen love who died in a mysterious accident. A couple of years ago, I turned the screenplay into a novel. A literary agent wrote in his notes about the first draft, “There is much to love about this book… but I find it hard to believe that the protagonist cannot let go of her childhood love after so many years.” Yet that’s my reality. Truth is stranger than fiction.
I went back to Rome a few months later, for the graduation of Oliver’s class. As with many inseparable, forever-and-ever-amen circles of teenaged friends, ours had drifted apart over the course of a difficult year for us, and for the idyllic school in general; aside from Oliver’s death, the much-loved headmaster had been caught having an affair with a male student. Oliver and Giulia Salvatori had broken up long before he died, and he had become lovers with Letizia Formica, the twenty-three-year-old daughter of the Italian Finance Minister, Rino Formica.
I was almost a complete outsider now, gradually becoming the New Yorker I was born to be, less of the Roman I was raised as, and few around me knew how to handle my lingering shock and sadness, much less me. Also, I represented Oliver’s unacknowledged bisexual tendencies, and I had become flagrant about my feelings for him, now that I no longer had to account for myself in the halls of St. Stephens every day.
To her credit, Oliver’s mother, Luisa, tried her best to find a place for me in the group mourning process, as ruined as her own life was by the death of her golden boy. She invited me to a post-graduation party at her apartment, the place I would have lived with Oliver had I not moved back to New York the year before.
Annie Girardot was there, having come down from Paris for her daughter Giulia’s graduation. I can see her now, standing to the side in the living room of Luisa’s apartment, watching my distress and self-imposed ostracism from the people I couldn’t live without a year before. Giulia herself was barely speaking to me; it was as if we were engaged in some power struggle over Oliver’s memory and how things went down, and she was winning because I was too dazed and weak to tug back.
At a certain point, Annie and I met in the corridor outside Oliver’s bedroom. She wasn’t a tall woman, so she looked up into my face and scanned it, soaking in my state of mind. Perchè non vieni a Parigi con me? she asked in a heavily Frenchified Italian, the Rs growling around in the back of her throat rather that trilling off the tip of her tongue. “Why don’t you come to Paris with me?” She hated speaking Italian, but it was the way she and I communicated before she forced French out of me for good later on (her English as non-existent).
I said yes immediately, much to Giulia’s undisguised dismay; the mood in Rome was stifling for me. Being bisexual herself, maybe Annie had more sympathy for what I was going through, and thought her daughter was behaving toward me incorrectly. Or maybe she was bored and needed the company of an almost-seventeen-year-old. Whatever the reason, I went up to Paris alone, without Giulia and her new boyfriend and their entourage.
The reason I speculate that Annie was bored, maybe lonely, is that she had me stay with her in a relatively small apartment in a building on the rue du Foin directly behind the Places des Vosges. Her main apartment in the Queen’s Pavilion was under renovation, and she owned most of this second recently modernized building. There were other apartments there of hers that I could have stayed in, but for a week or so, at least, I slept in her one-bedroom penthouse in a mezzanine loft area overlooking her bed.
We’d smoke a spliff before bed, throw back a glass of wine, but we never said much to each other; my French was still coming out in fits and self-conscious starts and conversations in Italian were always kept at a minimum. After she turned out the lights, Annie would ask what I wanted to listen to as we dozed off in our respective beds. It was always the same band during that period: “What about Dire Straits?”
“Sure,” I would reply.
At one point during that week, an article came out about her in Newsweek, or perhaps Time, which she had me translate for her, now that my French was improving as her roommate. The article remarked how she was a phenomenon in France, so well-loved, etcetera, but unlike Alain Delon and Catherine Deneuve, she was utterly unknown in the States.
I remember looking up at one point, startled. C’est vrai que tu as fait quatre-vingts-et-un films? “Is it true you’ve made eighty-one films?” She was only in her late forties at the time.
C’est ce qu’on me dit, oui, she replied with a shrug, as if someone had just told her the weather in Marseilles. “That’s what they tell me.” I thought it was staggering that she hadn’t been keeping count herself. It’s something that I learned about filmmaking myself later on: the final product, the released film, isn’t as enjoyable as the process. She took different pleasures from it than dwelling on the past, like the beautiful raincoat the wardrobe department allowed her to keep on one film, which thrilled her unreasonably, I thought at the time. It was just a raincoat, but she modeled it, spun around laughing and generally thought it was the niftiest thing in the world.
Her next door neighbor in the rue du Foin building was her best friend and former lover, a big, jovial bull dyke named Picolette, a backwards verlans arrangement of her real name, Colette Pico. (Verlans is a sort of French version of Pig Latin where the syllables of words are rearranged to confound the listener.) Some nights we would hang out in a lesbian bar in or near the eighth arrondissement—I wish I could remember the name. Googling “old lesbian bars Paris,” I find that the oldest is La Champmeslé in the second arrondissement, which sounds about right, but I seem to remember it had more of a jazzy, Americanized Josephine Baker sort of snap to the name.
Don’t get me wrong: Annie wasn’t a lesbian, just very gay-friendly in that French sort of way. At the time, she was having an affair with the local butcher, which I really didn’t get at all, and nor did she; it was entirely for the sex, and for the fact she was bored and a little bit depressed. He looked like the archetypal butcher—barrel-chested, swarthy, silent, brooding—but Parisian style, specifically Old Marais style, before it became so achingly fashionable. Another lover was a young French actor about half her age of dubious sexuality, but plenty of ambition.
I was just discovering my love of cooking, which came about mainly because once I had moved to the States I was desperate for a decent bowl of pasta every now and then, and the only person who could prepare it for me was me. With so much practice, I was doing okay with the pasta recipes, but not much else. One day, while looking for a pasta pot in Annie’s kitchen, I found a heavy, thick one full of oil and bits of something floating in it. Cursing the cleaning woman’s name, I threw it all down the sink and spent a good fifteen minutes scrubbing out the residual oil.
When Annie saw what I’d done, she almost had a cow. “That’s how we make pommes frites! Deep-fried in that oil! You don’t just throw it out!” And that’s how I got my first lesson in French cooking from Annie: how to make French fries. That same night, she taught me how to make a garlic-and-rosemary roast chicken, a dish I still make exactly the same way to this day. (Lest I seem like I’m being harsh to Giulia, she would later teach me how to make risotto properly.)
Giulia showed up with her new boyfriend and entourage about ten days into my sojourn, and, oh boy, was she pissed off with me. She had her own apartment in the rue du Foin building, on the ground floor, and it was at her dining room table that she finally had it out with me.
“Oliver and I were going to get back together before he died,” she said, which I doubted because I’d spoken to him on the phone shortly before the accident and he was perfectly happy bangin’ the twenty-three-year-old with the fancy car and the even swanker pad than Giulia’s—well, when you’re the daughter of the Italian Minister of Finance, who was later of course involved in a corruption scandal… At any rate, he had no intention of getting back together with her. But I didn’t say anything.
Then Giulia uttered words I will never forget: Oliver non ti amava. Ti rispettava. “Oliver didn’t love you. He respected you,” which in retrospect was just more teenaged one-upmanship nonsense, but I was too crumbly and vulnerable and inexperienced at that point to know it. I also didn’t know that nobody can tell you what you have with someone else in a romantic relationship, whether consummated or not. But I still let her tell me and, worse, I believed her.
So I crumbled, and she won, and we became friends again, which was very handy when it came time for me to drop out of college and move to Paris two years later, and I needed a place to live.