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How I met your (step)mother!

The first photo of Marie-Hélène that I took myself. She was at the reception desk at Kevorkian & Rawlings in Paris in April 1988. I had been at the firm just over a year. She had been there a few months longer.

I started work on March 2, 1987 at Kevorkian & Rawlings, the law firm which had hired me in New York to work as a lawyer in Paris. Jack Kevorkian had offered me the job knowing that I spoke no French, which didn’t seem to make a lot of sense at the time.

But here I was!

Sunshine, Nick (then all of six months old) and I had moved the previous month from 14th Street in Manhattan to Paris’s 14th arrondissement.

Jack had paid for the move. He was the firm’s founder and leader, the man who had interviewed me in New York and the man who made all the firm’s decisions. His son Reynold took me around the two mustily charming apartments which made up the firm’s offices that first day to introduce me to everybody. Everybody included Marie-Hélène: our first meeting. No sparks or anything, but I did notice that her eyes were lovely.

The firm’s big annual event was Thanksgiving, “le jour de merci donnant,” according to Art Buchwald. All personnel were invited to a different venue each year, a venue kept secret until we arrived. Marie-Helene is sitting next to Reynold Kevorkian for Thanksgiving 1988.

Nothing happened between us for over four years.

Nothing meaningful, that is. She and I worked together on an occasional basis during the ordinary course of law firm life. The office manager, she was also a good backup secretary when things were rushed, as they tend to be in a law firm, even in Paris.

Things for me deteriorated on the relationship front during these four plus years. At Easter in 1989 on a train in England, Sunshine reneged on her promise to return with me to California, as agreed prior to our moving to Paris in the first place, marooning me in a country that I had not chosen.

The only way for me to leave without her was to leave Nick and Tom behind. They were too young to leave their mother. Nothing that I could say could convince her to change her mind and keep her word. I adapted, of course, but still resented this imposed change. I tried to get over it, and even bought a bigger apartment in Paris for us all, but something inside me couldn’t concede. Even though I too had breached our contract in other ways, and wanted to get over it.

Over the years our mutual breaches of promise came to predominate over what we had built together, and the soul slipped quietly out of the marriage.

The next Thanksgiving finds her next to Stefan Kevorkian, another of Jack’s sons, still with that cigarette in her hand!

Sunshine’s change of heart had its effects at the office too. During the initial interviews in New York, I had told Jack that I would be returning to the US after four years or so, which was Sunshine’s and my deal – I’d go with her from New York to Paris if she returned to California with me – without realizing how desirable that made me as a candidate.

Here was someone who was planning on leaving right when he would otherwise transform from an asset to a liability on the law firm’s balance sheet! Becoming a partner at a law firm essentially involves this switch. Maybe this planned departure was precisely what overcame my not speaking French when I was hired?

With a full-time job and a partner who worked full time and was often away, Marie-Helene fell back on her parents a lot for child care and also on a series of nannies. This was apparently taken of Daphné with Mariso around the time that Alban was born.

When it became clear that I was not in fact going to leave as scheduled, Jack became less friendly. He made me his “partner” at the beginning of 1991, but in name only, so that I did not in fact make that balance sheet transfer. I continued to earn about a third of what I billed, as I had as an associate, and the firm (i.e. Jack) continued to pocket all the profits.

1991 also marked the first time that he did not pay me what he had promised. The first four plus years, he paid me every promised cent. But this time, things went awry.

Bristol-Myers Squibb paid the firm an approximately $800,000 bonus, pure profit on top of $1.2 million in earned fees, a bonus which Jack had promised to share with a couple of us who had made major contributions to the deal that BMS was paying for.

He changed his mind after a few months, explaining that he meant that he would have shared the bonus if it had been in excess of $1 million! I thought that $800K was almost a miracle, and was not at all happy with his change of heart. Then when I didn’t acquiesce, he turned on me, and in this little world he was all powerful.

Her father, Jacques Berhaut, must have taken this one in his and Mamie Régine’s apartment on la Rue Boursault. Pierre is standing behind Marie-Helene, who is sitting between her mother and then sister-in-law, Chantal. Her brother Denis completes the family group.

I don’t think that Sunshine realized that my staying in France beyond when Jack had been told would cause problems at the office, but it did, and what with our domestic problems as well, things were getting pretty miserable.

But nothing like as miserable as they were getting for Marie-Hélène. I didn’t find out most of this until later, but her miseries during these years made mine look trivial.

There was Arnaud, the little boy whose mother had wheeled him past Marie-Hélène’s window in Paris while she was pregnant with Alban. Arnaud’s mother was France-Lise, Pierre’s former girlfriend, and Pierre was Marie-Hélène’s live-in boyfriend and Daphne and Alban”s father.

When little Arnaud was wheeled past her window, Marie-Hélène had known instantaneously that he was France-Lise’s triumph over her. Alban was born in September 1989, six months after Arnaud.

To put it another way, Arnaud was born a year and a half after Daphné, between Pierre’s two children with Marie-Hélène.

Me in her office around 1992. Things were starting to happen between us. I think that she took this one. Reception was right behind me. The firm was now called Kevorkian & Partners.

It was only in 1994, when he could see that their relationship was over, that Pierre admitted to Marie-Hélène that Arnaud was his: “just a solitary mistake on the couch,” as he put it. But his denial was qualified: he had confirmed Arnaud as his own child at the local Mayor’s office, just as he had done for Daphné in Brittany. But he explained that he had done so to give the boy a father after his real father had disappeared.

Then there was Daphne’s birth in Brittany in 1987, when Pierre took days to show up see his new-born and then disappeared for months, literally, months on end, leaving no word.

When he finally returned, he told Marie-Hélène that he had been living with his prior girlfriend, France-Lise again, because she was not looking after their children properly.

A rather sad shot, taken presumably by her father, of Marie-Hélène in her maternity room at the Clinique des Augustines in Malestroit. Daphné was awaiting her father.

To add to this systematic betrayal, Marie-Hélène’s mother, Mamie Régine, had been experiencing a recurrence of the cancer which she had first suffered through when her daughter was just 13 years old. Only on this occasion her mother would not make it through.

Marie-Hélène lost her mother in June of 1991.

I had never met her: this is a tale of parallel paths which had yet to cross. But before she died, knowing how sick she was, Mamie Régine asked Jack Kevorkian to intercede to help her daughter: she did not feel that Pierre would take proper care of Marie-Hélène, and wanted someone else to look over her after she was gone.

Her expression shows that things are starting to deteriorate. One of the photos that she shared after we got together, Pierre took it in the Parc de Saint Cloud just to the west of Paris in June 1991.

Thus was the scene set during the summer of 1991. I had a few miseries, and she had a multitude.

The first sign that something had evolved between her and me, that the purely professional period was perhaps over, was that she started talking to me about her personal life. Up until then, she had always been very private, cagey in my terms. I’m extrovert and out there, as you can tell from reading this; Marie-Hélène tends to stick to safe social dialog, except with her friends.

“Do you know what that asshole has done now,” she asked one day. “Tu sais ce qu’il a fait maintentant, ce con!”

“Who, Pierre?” Her use of the “a” word (its French equivalent, of course) was out of character and astonished me, as did this reference to her live-in boyfriend. Whenever she had mentioned him before, there was a constant element of sympathy: it’s a hard old world, and he was having a tough time getting by in it.

There was a lot less sympathy when she started telling me this story. He had developed a habit of disappearing overnight or even over a few nights, and giving her odd stories to explain the disappearances, stories which were easily seen through and thus more obviously cover for outside entanglements.

My professional and personal partners during a rare time together! Jack Kevorkian and Sunshine at Kevorkian & Rawlings’ Thanksgiving do in 1989. Jack thought that he (with his Armenian roots) and Sunshine (with her Greek roots) had something cultural in common.

This particular time, he had told her that he was flying to Frankfurt on business, and then had called her from the airport on his arrival. She noticed that the language coming over the airport tannoy in the background of the call was constantly English, and with an American accent.

She immediately confronted him with this anomaly over the phone. Why did he fib?

Well, that wasn’t too hard to figure out: another little excursion.

In this case, she found out more. Before she and Pierre separated, she ascertained from a journal that he had kept, as well as from photos and letters in his belongings, that he had spent a hot and heavy weekend somewhere in the mountains near Los Angeles with a Southern California girl (I initially included her name here, perhaps indiscreetly). Where did they stay? Big Bear Lake? Marie-Hélène kept the evidence: I forget the details.

My guess is that it was the indirect announcements which had annoyed Marie-Hélène. He was fibbing in a manner that made what he was doing so obvious to her. He could have easily invented a credible business trip to Los Angeles. Instead, he told her Frankfurt and then called her from the US airport!

Here’s another one of jovial Jack (he really was most pleasant to be around as long as you did what he wanted), this time with Amel, one of the assistants at the firm.

Her and my communication became more open, and the upshot was that on October 18, 1991 Marie-Hélène and I actually went out on a date.

I was really nervous, she was really nervous, and we spent a very strange, but fun, few hours together. It was a sort of normal first date from my point of view, perhaps a bit stranger than she may have been accustomed to, but all in all very encouraging.Nothing untoward happened, of course, we were each way too stressed, and it was a first date with lots of reasons to be reserved.

This date, minor as it was, became the beginning of the superhero cartoon strip portion of the relationship, you know the “ZAP!” “BANG!” “KAPOW!” portion.

ZAP!

I drove up outside her apartment at 1 or 2 in the morning at the end of that first date, to drop her off, and we found Pierre pacing around on the sidewalk. Somehow, she sympathized with his predicament at that moment.

I honestly had a hard time understanding her sympathy. Okay, she and I were the bad guys on that occasion, but he was constantly doing his blatant disappearances with others, and had fathered a child with another between Daphne and Alban. How much right did he have to complain, let alone suffer?

Yet another Thanksgiving, this one in 1991 a month after that totally platonic first date. Please note that the pumpkin’s nose is the larger!

That moment became the start of the endless pantomime of long-suffering Pierre, a pantomime which continued throughout our marriage.

BANG!

I was somehow falling in love, despite or in some ways because of all of the obstacles, and I began spending more and more time hovering around her office,  finding excuses to visit her and have her help me out with work or, more often, just chat.

During one of those visits, Jack walked in, and was so embarrassed by whatever he saw there – in retrospect, it must have been some sort of intimacy that I did not know we were revealing –  that he blushed and walked right back out!

That was not Jack’s way: trust me!

 

Marie-Hélène, Amel and I went out for a drink after the firm’s 1991 Thanksgiving do was over. Pierre suspected that such a sortie might happen, and apparently followed us to the pub from the firm’s offices, where he made a dramatic appearance.  Before leaving the pub, I took this one of an enthralled Amel, weirded out Marie-Hélène and content Pierre.

KAPOW!

Pierre promptly called Sunshine to inform her that Marie-Helene and I had been out on a date! Can you believe these French?!

I quickly moved out of the family apartment shared with Sunshine and the boys. Being alienated from a spouse after mutual breaches of promise was one thing; feeling love for someone else quite another.

I moved into our maid’s room, only about 80 square feet of living space upstairs from Sunshine and the boys, but fully self-contained. Nick and Tom barely knew anything had happened: I was still in the same building.

An interesting parallel arose here, which both Marie-Hélène and I noticed: just as Pierre saw nothing in what he had done that might have provoked his girlfriend to look for solace elsewhere, so Sunshine saw nothing in our relationship to justify my doing the same thing.

Each became an eternal victim.

Of course, each of Pierre and Sunshine did get hurt, at the hands of each of Marie-Hélène and I. The worst thing that we each did, the thing that made the hurt much worse for Pierre and Sunshine than it already was, was vacillate in our relationship with each other. I even moved back in with Sunshine at the end of 1993 when my maids room lease was not renewed after 15 months there, only for her to move out herself  a few months later. Much more cruel than I should have been.

This was my favorite photograph for years, literally: a Polaroid taken in Jack Kevorkian’s office during his little Christmas toast in 1991. I was already so much in love, and had so little of her.  As the following years passed in the same way, with little change, it was the only photo I had of the two of us together. With Daphné.

My moving into the maids room marked the moment when Marie-Helene and I gratefully slid out of the relationship’s superhero comic book mode, and into a longer, slower courtship phase which lasted almost three years, off and on, until the summer of 1994.

Something profound had clicked on that first date, something totally unexpected for me at least. All I wanted was to be with Marie-Helene, and not just in the office surrounded by colleagues. I would try to arrange things during the lunch hour, after work for a drink, whenever. Lunches and chats were no longer enough. I didn’t care how I saw her: I just had to see her or be with her.

This didn’t get me very far!

She carefully kept her distance, finding excuses to be busy, spending a lot of time with colleagues whom she had no particular affection for, just to be unavailable. But I did notice that she never went so far as to tell me to get lost, and actually seemed to enjoy continuing our deeper communication, the kind which she had started before that famous fist date. This encouraged me, and I continued asking for dates.

We did see each other unchaperoned a couple of other times during the late fall of 1991 and early 1992, but nothing flowed very easily or turned out very well. There were so many underlying problems. We worked together. Each of us had two children, and she still lived with the other parent of hers. To state the obvious, there were nothing but red flags, flapping wildly in the wind.

A late fall Saturday morning in le Jardin des Tuileries. Almost all of the leaves had fallen, and it was cold. That’s Alban facing us full of glee on his maman’s right, and Tom looking across at him.

I eventually figured out that she didn’t want to date at that point, although it was clear that she did want to maintain our communication and some kind of contact. She would come up with ways that we could see each other more and in private, sort of, without the risks and possible discomfort of dates.

For example, she let it be known one week that Nick, Tom and I would be welcome to join her, Daphné and Alban at “le Jardin des Tuileries” the following Saturday morning. It was a touching invitation, in part because “les Tuileries” had a special place in her heart. She had been there in the morning when her mother died, a few months before.

We had a great first time all together in les Tuileries, and for once I even have pictures!

But these moments were few and far between, and I felt driven to overcome the barriers that our respective situations put between us, and find other ways to be near her. It was difficult. I had no desire to intrude on her family life, or to force myself into her life in any way.

But I discovered that she did not object to creative appearances that caused her no grief on the home front. Here’s a good one, which gave me a few real highs.

Another one taken during that collective visit to le Jardin des Tuileries.

Her apartment backed onto rue de Rome in Paris, and I discovered that I could park my Ford Transit van conversion on that street and see, or rather catch an occasional glimpse of, a little of what was going on inside.

Not a lot, of course, because the street opposite was way below the fifth floor, but the french windows in the living room opened onto a balcony, and I could see through them if something was happening in my line of sight.

Once or twice, before Pierre realized that the van could be parked outside, and after Marie-Hélène realized that I might be there, she would come out on her little balcony, leaning on the railing, and smoke a cigarette looking across at me. She would make gestures to let me know that she could see me, carefully so that no-one else could see that she was not entirely alone. I felt so warm and good just knowing that she could see me and knew I was there.

I sometimes stayed for hours, craning to see what was happening in the apartment. Each of these quiet vigils felt as good as a date, and I would glow like a beacon driving home, with the ache inside, an ache that I was learning to live with as it waxed and waned, folded up and put away for the evening.

It was an awfully painful period. I was English, after all, and we are not supposed to feel like this! I had never before lived anything even close to this.

If you look down past Daphné here (she was a little over a year old here, years before I was courting her maman), you can see a car parked on the street where I parked my van, rue de Rome. Taken in their apartment.

I had fallen in love, or had a nervous breakdown. They can feel very similar in Paris: check out Stendahl’s “Le Rouge et le Noir.” I was reading it at the time, standing outside the relationships, those that he portrayed and the one that I was living, and watching the craziness going on inside.

Time passed, and finally something gave way, with a little perhaps unintended help from Jack Kevorkian. The writing on the wall at the law firm proved accurate, and I left in August 1992. That meant that I no longer saw Marie-Hélène every day.

If you’ve ever been madly in love, when it is either not reciprocated or impossible because of the circumstances, you will know that the only cure is not seeing each other. And our jobs no longer required us to see each other.

Months and months of refusals and ambivalence had already had their effect. Somewhere, I was beginning to doubt all of her reasons. Not that they weren’t valid, but they weren’t enough somehow to explain why she both kept her distance and still managed to keep me chomping at the bit.

My 40th birthday party, held a little late in January 1993. Sunshine hosted it at her place on rue Boulard, which was very kind of her. I was still living in my maid’s room a couple of blocks away, but maybe she could sense that Marie-Hélène and I were less involved at this point.

Keeping my distance from her was never easy at the beginning, but after I left the firm it got easier, as the time spent more or less apart was prolonged. I was busy picking my own independent legal business off the ground, and resolving the stupid real estate problems that Sunshine and I had gotten into. Plenty of real life distractions!

The separation worked to the point where I went on a couple of dates with others during 1993, just a couple, but with new people.

But Marie-Helene was still lodged in the back of my mind however indifferent I tried to feel. I finally admitted to myself that I was waiting for the right moment to contact her. In Tel Aviv on a deal at the end of the year, after months of radio silence, I had a strong impulse. She had told me how interested she was in Israel, and sure enough the call went very well. The months apart had calmed both of us, and both of us were ready to try again.

The courtship restarted, and in March 1994, she agreed to spend a weekend skiing with me. This was a new initiative from my point of view, suggesting that we spend a weekend together, like grown-ups. But the suggestion worked, in the sense that we were soon driving down to the Alps for the weekend. I had chosen skiing for good reason: it was one of Marie-Helene’s pleasures in life.

Nick and Tom fooling around at their mom’s place on rue Boulard during the summer of 1993. I was still living around the corner in my maid’s room.

I neglected to consider that I too would be expected to ski. That’s what you both do on a skiing weekend together, ski together. We arrived in Megève the Saturday afternoon, and immediately rented skis and bought lift tickets.

I reached the top of the tow bar for the first and only time that day, let go of it to slide gently down toward the top of the run, and almost immediately fell over. Getting up again was very difficult. Skis enable you to move quite quickly on a hill, as that first fall had reminded me, and my involuntarily quavering thighs were reminding me that I was not necessarily ready.

My only previous ski trip had been about 25 years earlier, and had ended with a bad fall and a ride on a metal sled half way down a mountain. The sled was guided and manhandled by two very good skiers showing off to each other and the rest of the world as I bounced and jerked around between them, trying to hold my damaged leg still.

Only our second date, this time a weekend in England, and Daphné and Alban came too! It really was all about the children, even right at the very beginning.

The cracked tibia had been entirely my fault, but not that crazy downhill, and both flooded back as I sat on the snow in front of Marie-Helene that morning. I had barely ever thought about that first ski vacation, although the absence of a second since then spoke volumes about its effects.

I’d embarked on this whole trip before realizing that it was a long way down any ski slope!

Marie-Helene was very patient and understanding. She makes skiing look easy, and shimmied back and forth with elegance and no visible effort right in front of me, to encourage me to see how easy it was, I think.

I saw how easy it was for her!

But with gentle coaxing, she managed to convince me first to stand up, which really was a challenge, convincing my normally well behaved thighs to act normally, without shaking, and then to snowplough a little across the slope, to prove to myself that I was able to stop. Which I was: very reassuring. I realized that I was panting less, and feeling braver, within limits.

Off we went, stopping and starting down that long winding ski run and into the relationship, hesitantly at first but soon more surely, more or less together, and more or less in line. It was a beautiful run.