It’s hard to say how this came about. I was 12, and we lived in Beverly Hills in what turned out to be the grandest, most luxurious house of my childhood. What’s weird is, I didn’t want anyone to know it. For instance, when I got bored, it was never my habit to call my friends. I wanted engagement with others, but not others that I knew or that knew me. I craved the anonymity that made room for Anything to Happen.
Dad was somewhere in the world, and Mom was out at some luncheon or whatever. Or maybe they were out of town, equally plausible. In any case, Gunnar and Elsie, the Swedish couple my Mom had hired years ago, were in charge of me, and they were home and it was a Saturday — the beginning of a long desert stretch of weekend. I loved school but really hated weekends. They filled me with a floaty invisible discomfort, the kind that motivates preteens to just go get into some kind, any kind of mischief just to alleviate the boredom.
So here’s what I did. I would dress up in my “travel clothes,” a nice little dress with a matching coat, and a little round hat that brought the whole thing together. Black patent leather flats with silk bows at the toes. I crept out of the house through the back door. Quickly, I’d make my way toward the swimming pool, then down the hundred or so winding brick stairs that led down to our tennis court. On the far side of the tennis court, a gate opened out onto to the street. Once I went through that gate, I was Anyone. I was free.
I decided I was Valentine Presoir, a French girl who had merely lost her way, walking around the neighborhood. French having been my first language (I grew up in Geneva, Switzerland), I had no trouble pulling this off — so I would just knock on the door of an impressive house that I wanted to see the inside of, and pretend not to be able to speak English, asking if they had a telephone. We would all wing it from there.
So now I’m walking down Laurel Lane, turning left at Laurel Way until I hit Beverly Drive — scoping out which mansion I was most curious about. I found it. It was not so grand as to be intimidating, but had a gorgeous coziness that was really intriguing. I think it was the house right next door to where I was later told Doris Day lived. Anyway, I knock. A slightly more than middle aged man answers. “Yes?” And then it begins.
I stutter, trying to speak English, smiling. “Bonjour! Avez vous une telephone?” (Miming the talking on the telephone) He gets his wife, and they both try very hard to understand what I need. I have a little piece of paper with the address (my home address) and a telephone number written on it. They offer me food, they offer me milk. I politely decline and seem quite intent on finding a telephone.
They bring me to the kitchen, hand me the phone, and I dial the number, looking several times at the paper to ensure I’d gotten it right. Gunnar answers. I say in French how relieved I am to speak to him, and that I’d gotten turned around during my walk, and…What? Oh, of course! I forgot to ask…
I turn to my deliciously gracious hosts and ask what their address is, in my French accent — “Where…uh…where eez here? La rue…l’adresse?”
They get it and quickly scribble the address on a piece of paper for me. I read it into the phone, and then pretend to be listening to instructions about how to get back home from this address — all the while covering the phone tightly so they couldn’t hear him saying, “Tina? Is that you? Hello? Who is it? Tina? Vat are yew doing?” Gunnar of course had absolutely no idea what was going on, and I loved confusing him. It wasn’t the point of the game, just a nice perk.
Once I had my bearings and knew how to ‘find zee address,’ I thanked the lovely people who helped me. They were so kind. They offered to drive me (all this in mime), but I assured them it was not far. “Non, merci beaucoup, mais c’est très proche…very …uh…comment ce qu’on dit…” I mimed my hands very far apart and said “Pas comme ça,” then brought my hands very close together and said, “Comme ça. Très proche!” Much smiling and laughter and extremely good will. The woman pushed cookies into my hand as I left.
I stayed in character all the way to the second turn, looking at my paper every now and then, looking up at the street sign, as though they were watching from their living room window.
I could still feel their kindness at my back.