The summer of Mary Lou Rhetton, Catherine came to stay. She was Parisian, but her cinnamon skin spoke of weeks at La Côte Azure, where my sister and I had heard women never wore bikini tops. Catherine’s shoulders revealed no tan lines when we swam at the pool in our apartment complex. Somehow this made her worldly, though she was just a year older. We hoped she could tell us the secrets of men. She’d laughed, “Mais oui.”
Our mother had found her through CODOFIL, a joint Louisiana-France exchange program designed to “increase cultural awareness and promote mutual understanding,” according to the brochure. At school, I had taken to French like a weevil to cotton, the way the words turned on my tongue and made even the most banal of things something to devour—parapluie, pamplemousse, pomme de terre—and Mom sought to improve my conversational skills. She knew her daughters would love to faire connaître de gens who had entranced her since reading A Tale of Two Cities as a young girl.
Catherine delighted everyone, especially my father and his wife. She was slim, polite, a pin-up girl from Vogue. She spoke of her villa en Provence, the soirées she attended, the celebrities her parents knew, how she’d gotten her first bottle of Chanel at age eight, had played tennis since four. She knew more about wine, it seemed, than my father and his wife, who were both too well-acquainted with Franzia, but not much else, and she offered suggestions about wine pairings with dinner, a remarkable discussion topic for a teenager.
Weekends at my father’s house on Delaware Street (we called it Maison Delaware) morphed into the cult of Catherine. The litany of comparisons grew repetitive as Sunday petitions, with my sister and me found wanting. The two of us wanted for a lot—tuition, clothing, always Mom’s peace-of-mind that, like the collection of Limoges in their parlor, could shatter with a breath. We said nothing. How do you explain why your hâute couture is Sears, not Givenchy? Why you’re “children” on the weekend, but a lawsuit the other five days? We watched as Catherine absorbed praises from my father and his wife like a magnolia absorbing rain.
When they invited her to spend her last week in town chez them, she accepted, though Mom had already promised to let us three eat cake—well, beignets—in New Orleans. She didn’t have the money for the trip, but for once ignored red digits in her checkbook. It hurt our mother the most, who felt Catherine’s defection, like any loss to our father, keen as the guillotine. And something else: perhaps some recognition that this was the closest she’d ever come to France, and it was now lost to her.
When Catherine left to stay at our father’s, then later when we put her on the plane back to Paris, my sister and I smiled for the photographs—but more for ourselves, free from the Bastille at last.