The Summer of Geneviève, All Legs and Elbows and Longing

Editor's Note: Peter Von Ziegesar is a Brooklyn-based writer and filmmaker. He has written for DoubleTake, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine and others. He is the author of the memoir The Looking Glass BrotherFor Signature's That Summer series, in which authors share personal stories on the summers that shaped them, Peter reflects on his chance encounter with a wisp of a French girl at his grandmother's funeral. 

My grandmother’s funeral that summer left a quilt of impressions, the black limousines traveling in a snakelike wave along the shaded roads of the Long Island shore town of Merriville, the graveyard entrance overhung with pink rhododendron blossoms, the Reverend Howard Lowell’s pink baby face peering out over thick black-framed reading glasses as he stood over the congregation, the sense now that nothing would remain the same. But my strongest memory was of tendrils of blond hair tangling with curls of cigarette smoke, her slanted green eyes, and her unfocused irises, which gazed into the reflective pool of the mirror that leaned against the wall.

She was fifteen, a pale, self-composed blonde with wisps of hair blowing around her pretty oval face and the buttery skin and a little turned up nose of a Normandy elf, a roommate chum of my sister Mary, from the French boarding school in which she’d spent her 9th grade year as an alternative to graduating from our uninteresting town day school.

She spoke no English, so as we all gathered, cousins and mothers, in a wing of my grandmother’s giant whitewashed house, she spent most of her time in an upstairs bedroom, sitting cross-legged on the floor in her white peasant blouse and jeans, one leg placed over the other, showing a thin gold ankle bracelet, listening to Bob Dylan on a small phonograph player and smoking Parliament cigarettes, still coolly gazing into the reflection of her face in the mirror.

Her perfectly-framed picture made my throat ache with longing, as I walked out of the room in a suddenly too hot and too-constricting navy-blue suit, following my sisters downstairs to the car. When we returned, hours later, Geneviève was sitting in the same place on the floor, her lack of interest in anything but herself so pure and beautiful that I wanted to store this image away in my memory forever, just as it was, safe and untouchable.

Nevertheless the real fleshly Geneviève arrived at my little converted porch bedroom in her white nightgown just after midnight, so silent that at first I thought she was a perambulating ghost, just one of the many reproachful spirits of that house.

"You zee, I haf fallen in love weez you!" she whispered, as she lifted the covers and slipped into my narrow bunk. "From your photograph, which your sister has showed me at school!"

I was incredulous, for a girl like her normally reacted to me as if a frog had been thrown into her lap. My face was mottled with shades of yellow, blue and black from a thorough stomping a Boston street gang had given me a week before in the hallway of a tenement building in Alston, where I was spending the summer working in a printing factory. I slipped my hand under the girl’s nightgown and felt a tiny nipple sprout into my palm.

"You are zo ‘andsome!" she said, snuggling up against me.

"You are zo beautiful!" I replied, realizing with horror I’d imitated her accent. Fortunately my faux pas passed unnoticed.

Not knowing what to do, we kissed and kissed, until our lips were sore. The girl was all legs and elbows and tumbling with her was like wrestling with one of my sisters and very little like the golden vision I’d lusted after that afternoon.

At length, I pushed down my pajama legs with my feet. We were going to make love now, I was sure of it. Just as this poetic-phonetic event was about to occur, however, Geneviève whispered into my ear to ask with charming Gallic practicality, "Do you weesh to send me back to my mozahr wheeze a little bebe?"

I leaped from the bed with a cry of denial, and falling over her legs, began to fumble for my wallet, in which was a condom that I’d slipped inside long enough ago that had left a worn crater in the leather. Crouching on the floor, I looked through my bedroom window just as a tentative burst of green-and-white fireworks flew up from Rye Beach across the Sound, making a series of faint popping noises.

"Zat was fantastique!" Geneviève whispered happily into my ear a few minutes later. Actually it had been rather pedestrian, but instinctively she had said the right thing, for she had read many false confession magazines in French boarding school and knew that scenes of lovemaking should end with these words. By this time our legs were stuck together pleasantly with sweat, and the moment seemed invested with newness, especially in the bed in which I’d rested my seven-year-old head and every head since then.

She reached for the pack of cigarettes she’d tucked under my pillow. Fumes of lighter fluid spread pleasantly, as she lit up her Parliament with a clash of metal and a spray of sparks.

"Do you like Bob Dylan? He is so, I don’t know how you say…"

"So real?"

"Yes…so real… and so…I don’t know! I hate zees! My English is so bad. So…zumzing!  I want to say it! Merde! Wowen’t you please have a cigarette wiz me?"

A few days later, I drove with my family to drop Geneviève off at the airport.

When the passengers lined up in the JFK waiting room to board, I was overcome by a sense that I must acknowledge what had happened in some defining way. I broke away from my mother and sisters to kiss the poor girl dead on her soft warm lips—surprising not only Geneviève, but everyone else in my family, who had no idea what my sister’s roommate and her rather dull older brother had been up to.

Several weeks later a light blue envelope addressed to me in green ink arrived. "For what did you make me your kiss in front of everyone?" scolded Geneviève. "Is it because you are in love? I think you are not. If you loved me you would keep our secret, because now we cannot love each other without all knowing."

I examined the crinkly-thin letter with curiosity, for it had never occurred to me that the two of us had ever been in love. Despite our prolonged intimacies, what I remembered was her perfect self-absorption as she stared at her face in the mirror for hour after hour. How strange when your own face is so beautiful that it makes you dream!

It occurs to me now that it was the last time my family gathered in that house, which soon became drenched with the smells of another family’s cooking and the sounds of other children’s cries, so that even our ghosts eventually fled.

Read more in Signature's That Summer series here.