Marva Dobbs has a life most people would envy. An American who has lived in Paris for most of her adult life, she runs a popular African-American soul food restaurant, and her thirty-year marriage has produced a beautiful grown-up daughter. So why is she jeopardizing everything for a fling with her sous-chef, a mysterious twenty-eight-year-old Algerian man named Hassan?
Marva begins to ask herself the same question when she returns from summer vacation to find that Hassan is missing, and that he is the main suspect in the investigation into the bombing of a building in Paris that left one man dead. And then she disappears, leaving her bewildered daughter and secretive husband to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Ghosts of Saint-Michel is the talented Jake Lamar's second romantic thriller to be set in the bohemian Eighteenth Arrondissement of the City of Light.
About the Author
Jake Lamar was born in 1961 and grew up in the Bronx, New York. He is the author of the memoir, Bourgeois Blues, and the novels The Last Integrationist, Close to the Bone, If 6 Were 9, and Rendezvous Eighteenth. He has lived in Paris since 1993.
Jake Lamar was born in 1961 and grew up in the Bronx, New York. He is the author of the memoir Bourgeois Blues and the novels The Last Integrationist, Close to the Bone, If 6 Were 9, and Rendezvous Eighteenth. He has lived in Paris since 1993.
Read an Excerpt
Ghosts of Saint-Michel
By Jake Lamar
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Jake Lamar
All rights reserved.
Marva Dobbs loved the rentrée. She loved the way the French spoke of the end of summer as a reentry. Like a high-flying space voyager reentering the earth's atmosphere. After the intoxicating pleasures of a month-long vacation, the whole country was supposed to return to practical everydayness. Back to school, back to business, back to reality. From summery hedonism to autumnal seriousness. The unofficial start of the rentrée was the first Monday in September, like Labor Day in the United States of America, the country Marva had abandoned four decades earlier. But while Labor Day Weekend was a three-day holiday, the rentrée was a three-week mini-season. Early rentrée was the last week of August. Late rentrée was the middle of September. French people even wished each other a "bonne rentrée." Have a good reentry: sort of like saying "happy end of holidays." For Marva, there was something festive about this time of year, the collective sentiment that it was time to get back to work.
Marva was rentrée-ing early this year. Following the habit of the past thirty-nine summers, she had spent most of August in Brittany, with the family of her husband, Loïc Rose. As usual, she'd had a pleasant time, sailing along the rocky shores of France's northwestern coast, drinking white wine and eating juicy langoustines — those tiny, needle-clawed crayfish that were a Breton spécialité — and going for long walks across the dramatic cliffs, arm in arm with the man she had loved for two-thirds of her life. Loïc would have been happy to stay in Bretagne, as they often did, until after the first weekend in September. But Marva insisted on a somewhat premature return. Because, through all those pleasant walks and meals, during all the engaging conversations she had had with Loïc and his — after thirty-nine years it was really their — relatives, Marva had been thinking incessantly, obsessively, about one person: her young lover back in Paris, Hassan Mekachera.
Monday, August 27, 2001. The Boulevard Saint-Germain still had its sleepy, late summer feeling. There were couples and clusters of tourists wandering up and down the broad avenue but not much traffic. Many of the classy fashion and furniture shops were closed. The hustle-bustle that energized this main artery of the Left Bank most of the year was, for Marva, eerily absent. Like much of Paris in the dying days of summer, the Boulevard Saint-Germain had a half-deserted air about it. Lots of visitors, but precious few residents. As she walked to the garage that housed her silver Audi, Marva savored the unfamiliar stillness of the street. She felt a funny, illicit thrill to be breaking with her routine. She saw the surprise in the eyes of the fat and sweaty garage attendant, imprisoned in his little cubicle, behind the clear plastic wall, when Marva showed up a week ahead of schedule. Being a Parisian, he was far too discreet to inquire as to why she had returned unexpectedly from her summer vacation. He just nodded and said, "Bonjour, madame."
Pulling out of the garage, turning onto the rue du Bac, Marva had the childishly delicious sensation of doing something naughty. She had not told her employees that she would be returning early. And she took a certain cruel pleasure in imagining the shocked looks on their faces when the boss came sauntering into the restaurant a week en avance. Everybody knew that Marva Dobbs was a creature of habit. At least that's what they thought they knew. But they were all in for a surprise today.
All of them, except for maybe Hassan, the cook Marva had hired only last May. Marva doubted that anything she could do would shock Hassan. He had known her mainly as a lustful and impulsive lover. Would he be happy to see her this morning? Had he thought about her, reminisced and fantasized about her the way Marva had obsessed on him during the past three weeks of separation? Much as she tried, Marva couldn't stop remembering Hassan: the smell, the touch, the taste of him. She saw him in her dreams: his hazel eyes and light brown hair and creamy coffee skin. Every day and night in Brittany, Marva heard a ghostly echo in her head, the memory of her own voice saying her lover's name as they ravished each other, the name that sounded first like a sigh, then, as she said it faster and faster, turned into a delirious hiss, then finally a gasp, repeated over and over again as she reached a mind-shattering climax: Hassan-Hassan-Hassan-Hassan-Hassan....
It would have to end. Marva knew that. It was late August now. The rentrée. Midsummer's mad passion was over. She had had three weeks in Brittany to consider the situation. And she knew, on this dazzling Monday morning, as she drove north toward her famous restaurant, that she would no longer be fucking her cook in the small bedroom above the kitchen. Today, order would be restored. That was what the rentrée was all about. She would explain to Hassan that their brief affair was finished. Marva had wondered if maybe she should fire him. But she couldn't do that. Hassan Mekachera had seven children to support. At least, Marva hoped he supported them.
Driving across the Seine, bold sunlight shimmering on the water, Marva let go a deep, contented sigh. How she adored this city. Even after thirty-nine years, she never took the beauty of Paris for granted. Zipping along the Avenue du Général Lemonnier, the vast Tuileries garden on one side of the road, the magnificent expanse of the Louvre museum on the other, Marva wondered for the ten thousandth time if it was fate, God or sheer blind luck that had led her, a poor girl from the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, to make a life for herself in this most glorious of European cities. And what a life! She was one of Paris's most celebrated restauratrices. She hobnobbed with folks who used to be known as the "international jet set." She had a sweet, smart husband who worshiped her. And a beautiful, gifted daughter who had not only excelled in the European educational system but who had then gone on to graduate with honors from an Ivy League university in America.
So what the hell was wrong with Marva? What had compelled her to have an insane fling with the number-two cook in her restaurant? For Christ's sake, she was sixty-two years old! Hassan was only twenty-eight — a mere five years older than her daughter, Naima. Marva felt a sudden nauseous surge of guilt. What would Naima say if she learned of her mother's affair? Would she be horrified, disgusted, tickled, blasé? Marva had been so preoccupied with thoughts of Hassan all through August that she only now recognized how much she had missed Naima in Brittany. This was the first summer ever that her daughter had not spent any time in France at all. Naima said she was just too busy on her movie shoot in New York. Driving up the rue des Pyramides, Marva shook her head in bittersweet wonderment. For most of her life, she had felt lucky to escape America. And now look what had happened: Marva's only child, the precious daughter she had sought to protect from that violent kingdom of grinning hypocrisy, had decided to make her home in the U.S. of A. Naima even said she loved it there, in the very city that Marva had left and never missed.
Maybe, Marva thought, when Naima came home to Paris for Christmas, long after this affair with Hassan was dead and buried, she would confess everything to her daughter. There was a time, not so long ago, when Marva and Naima had been the best of friends. But once Naima left for Brown University, back in 1996, inevitably they had drifted apart. Maybe if Marva opened up to Naima, told her all about the loony passion with Hassan, this would bring them closer again, reestablish that special mother-daughter intimacy. Of course, once Marva talked about Hassan, she would have to reveal much more. Naima had always been an inquisitive child and she would demand to know. But would she really, truly, want to hear all the details of her parents' sexual past, of the chaotic years Marva Dobbs and Loïc Rose had spent together before their miracle of a daughter was born?
From 1962 to 1978, Marva and Loïc were a glamorous and childless married couple. She was the charismatic African American, tall and voluptuous, with a velvety smooth voice that only slightly blunted the edge of the clever quips she liked to dispense, in perfect English and fragmented French. He was the genial Breton with blond hair, blue eyes and a delicate-looking bone structure. Marva was a genius of black American cuisine, whose fried chicken, barbecued spare ribs, black-eyed peas and gumbo tasted, in the words of a famous French chef, like "culinary orgasms." Loïc, meanwhile, brought an acute business sense to the franchise that, soon after its opening in 1965, became one of Paris's landmark restaurants: Marva's Soul Food Kitchen.
Marva and Loïc were completely and utterly devoted to each other. Their emotional commitment, however, did not deter them from engaging in the movable, and fuckable, feast that was Paris in the 1960s and '70s. For the better part of two hyperkinetic decades, Marva and Loïc both engaged in one-night stands, torrid affairs and awkward on-again, off-again sexual friendships with an array of partners, some famous, some infamous, most totally obscure. But they always came home to each other. Many couples they knew well did not survive those turbulent times. But the marriage of Marva Dobbs and Loïc Rose was seemingly indestructible. Outsiders were sometimes suspicious of the couple's enduring bond. They suspected it was primarily a business arrangement. Marva knew better. She believed that she and Loïc were literally made for each other, that even if she had never come to Paris and found him, he would have gone to New York to find her. No matter how many recreational infidelities they indulged in during the wild first act of their marriage, Marva knew she and Loïc would be together forever. This was a fact beyond questioning, like an iron law of nature. It was just the way it was.
Then, at the age of thirty-seven, Marva learned she was pregnant. And the infidelities came to an abrupt halt. For sixteen years, Marva had been convinced of her barrenness. She had had two traumatic "back-alley" abortions when she lived in the States. By the time she arrived in France, her body had stopped following normal monthly cycles. She had never used birth control with Loïc or any of her other lovers in Paris. Three different obstetrician-gynecologists had informed her there was little need to. When Marva told Loïc that a child was growing inside her, they held each other and wept with joy for a full hour. There was never any doubt about paternity: The baby had been conceived in mid-August, when Marva and Loïc were alone together in Brittany. And so began the second act of their marriage: the eighteen years of raising Naima.
While Marva remained an incorrigible flirt, she no longer made love with anyone but her husband. She simply didn't have the desire, the time or the energy for affairs. And, though she had no way of knowing for sure — since she would never dream of asking him — Marva assumed that Loïc, too, had given up his extracurricular adventures. They were both too busy making a living and looking after their daughter. Besides, the sex between Marva and Loïc had always been great. Giving up sex with others was no sacrifice. It was more a conservation of energies, a concentration of appetites, an appreciation of the pleasures of monogamy. When Naima left for college, Marva and Loïc began the third act of their marriage. Even as they entered their sixties, they were still blissfully horny for each other.
That was one reason why Marva's liaison with Hassan had come as such a shock. As ladies her age went, she was sexually satisfied, not some lonely spinster, widow or divorcée. Driving up the grand Avenue de l'Opéra — which was unusually uncongested, this being the last week of August — Marva started laughing to herself. Or was it laughing at herself? She remembered the saying, "There's no fool like an old fool." It was usually applied to some lecherous codger chasing after a gold-digging young slut. But here was Marva, a distinguished woman of a certain âge, as the French liked to say, obsessing on some young hunk. "Giiiiirl," she said aloud, "have you lost your mind?"
Staring up the wide boulevard at the enormous green and gold crown that adorned the top of the Garnier Opera House, Marva felt her vision turn bleary. She wondered if the brassy sunshine glittering on the crown was somehow hurting her eyes. Then she realized she was crying, weeping softly even as she continued to laugh at her foolish old self. It was her husband she was crying for. Now that they had returned from their holiday, she finally recognized the hurt that was etched on his face during those three weeks in Brittany. If Marva had occasionally noticed Loïc's sadness, she quickly forgot it, her mind returning to thoughts of Hassan. Only now did it dawn on her how painfully attentive and solicitous Loïc had been with her in Brittany. How he had behaved like an anxious suitor, almost courting her, seemingly worried that he had fallen out of her favor. Yes, Marva saw it now, saw the low-wave anguish that had gnawed at her husband all through their vacation. How could she have been so oblivious to the obvious reality? Loïc knew.
"Do you know, my love, how much I cherish you?" That was what Loïc Rose had asked his wife less than half an hour earlier, as she was rushing out of their apartment. He sat in the breakfast nook of the kitchen, wearing his terry cloth bathrobe, a tiny cup of espresso in front of him. "I cherish you more than anything in this world."
Marva was surprised that he had spoken to her in English. For the past five years, they had mainly communicated in French. She was in a hurry, gulping down a glass of orange juice before she walked out the door, wondering exactly what she would say to her young lover. The tenderness of Loïc's words, the words he spoke in Marva's mother tongue, caught her off guard. He smiled sadly at her, the crow's-feet at the corners of his sea blue eyes crinkling. Loïc was still a handsome man, even if there were only a few threads of blond left in his silvery head of hair.
"I love you, too, baby," Marva said, giving her husband a quick, almost absentminded peck on the lips. Then she strode out of the kitchen, her high heels clicking on the hard tile floor.
"Over, over, over," Marva said out loud, sniffing back tears and banging an open palm against the steering wheel, more determined than ever to end her affair with Hassan, even to fire him if that was what it took to kill her obsession, to spare her husband any more agony. With the rentrée, she had returned to her senses. She was climbing the long, steeply inclined rue Pigalle now, leaving the Paris of sparkling magnificence and entering the Paris of tawdry charm. While Marva Dobbs made her home in the elegant, très bourgeois Seventh Arrondissement of the city, just south of the Seine, Marva's Soul Food Kitchen had always been located up north, in the funky hills of Montmartre, the heart of the roiling, multicultural, eternally bohemian Eighteenth Arrondissement.
Marva pulled into her specially reserved parking spot, right in front of the restaurant, on the rue Véron. It was exactly 11:30 A.M. She stepped out of the car, took a deep breath, composed her face into a mask of serenity, then walked through the front door. All morning, Marva had hoped to shock her staff. As she entered the restaurant, she could see that she had succeeded. The hell of it was that Marva was as shocked to see all of them, clustered in front of the bar, in a semicircle around a strange visitor, as they were to see her.
"Oh my sweet Jesus," Jeremy Hairston said. He was an unabashedly gay brother from Arkansas, a head-held-high drama queen who was also the most reliable manager Marva had ever hired. As she had for the past eleven years, Marva had trusted Jeremy to run the restaurant while she was away. She had known he would be upset by her showing up early like this, but from the desperate tone in his voice, she knew that something else was going on.
Excerpted from Ghosts of Saint-Michel by Jake Lamar. Copyright © 2006 Jake Lamar. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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