On March 19, 2017, two months to the day after she fled America for Paris following Trump’s election as president, writer Audrey Edwards was a guest speaker at one of the popular salons hosted by the African-American expatriate Patricia LaPlante-Collins, who became a new sister friend to Edwards. In this excerpt from her book, “American Runaway: Black and Free in Paris in the Trump Years,” to be published in September by August Press, the author takes a bittersweet look at the vicissitudes of life and romance for a single, older, Black American expat woman in Paris—a city made for love.
And so it was I came to learn that my girl Patricia was in love. With one of her guest speakers. Three months after meeting him. A hunky 55-year-old Australian, Russell Crowe type who had been on “holiday” for a year traveling through Europe. Never married, no kids, free-spirited and free-wheeling, he spent most of the winter of 2018 in Paris with Patricia. She was now in love.
So we would frequently meet for drinks at lovely posh little spots in my swank Paris neighborhood to talk about the man she was in love with. We Americans are like that. We love to talk. We love to share. Even when we “do not know you like that.” But we sisters, we black American women, always know each other like that, wherever we are in the world. And we sisters always share. It is how we get through.
One evening Patricia was sharing at Les Editeur, a favorite drink and dining spot for both of us. I was having my usual Monaco, the beer and grenadine mix my friend Bob turned me on to. Patricia took a sip from her cup of peppermint tea, then shared:
“I finally told him I loved him.”
“And what did he tell you?”
“He said I’m important to him. What do you think that means?
“I’m not sure.”
“I asked him to come and live with me.”
“In your studio? Really? What did he say?”
“He said ‘No.’ But I know my place is not what he’s used to…”
Sigh. I could not believe this. That I was sitting in Paris’s bustling Odeon district of cafes and movie theaters, like I used to do 40 years ago in one of the trendy watering holes on New York’s Upper West Side, meeting for drinks with girlfriends after work to talk of many things, but eventually and inevitably the men in our lives. Could not believe I was now listening to a girlfriend about my age–maybe a little older, maybe a little younger, can never tell with black women, and Patricia never told her age—carry on about a romance that was nowhere close to being real the way she wanted it to be real.
Patricia babe, you are way too old for this, I wanted to say, looking at her, a little thinner than she was 10 years ago when we first met because of health problems, but still a slender, good-looking woman of sensual, southern warmth. And my sister girl continued to have style, a sensibility that always made her distinctive and noticed and popular in stylish Paris.
Though there had been other wardrobe choices over the years, Patricia these days was known for her two power fashion colors, the red and the black. There was the signature fire-engine red blazer often worn over the red-lace, see-through blouse and red bra with the black slacks. Or the black shirt and black pants topped with a red bolero jacket.
Patricia’s most interesting and elegant fashion accessory was the red and black cane she used when walking. About three-fourths of the cane was fire-engine red, the matching color to her jackets and blouses, and the upper end was made of black leather with a hand clutch. So chic.
Wonder if she had it custom made. Maybe her ex-husband did. From what she has told me that is the kind of thing he would do.
Philippe Laplante sounded like a lovely Frenchman, the man whose name Patricia Laplante-Collins hyphenated first and kept, even after the divorce. He sounded like the sort of man who may very well have still been a little in love with his black American ex-wife. And she perhaps still a little in love with him. Who knows what went wrong? Patricia did not share that, and I never asked. But she “divorced well,” as we women like to say, which in her case meant she and Philippe, who had no children, talked fairly often, and he sometimes helped her out financially.
Money had always been a little tight. Even when her salons were booming, the events at 20 euros a head never took in enough to provide Patricia with anything like a comfortable retirement future. There was the small pension France provides for anyone who may have worked in France yet acquired no worker’s retirement. But there was nothing like a 401K plan, and I doubt even a Social Security check coming in for an American runaway who left her country at age 18, never to return.
Patricia was now in the dimming stage of life. Slowing down. For health reasons: the immune disorder that led to slight paralysis, resulting in the need for a walking cane. For business reasons: the new competition with salon-like groups all over the city 21 years after Patricia started the first one. It had been harder to keep the soirées going, though Patricia continued to be game for meeting new and interesting potential speakers or cutting deals with restaurant owners in the venues where she hosted the dinners.
But like many single women of retirement-age—divorced, widowed, or never married—Patricia was facing an uncertain financial future alone, without the backup of a mate or enough reserves on hand to age without worrying about money or feeling she had to keep working in some capacity in order to make ends meet. That can be scary. That can be lonely.
So of course it is preferable to be in love, for romance is always the perfect anecdote to all those real-life sobering realities that can kill the fun of living. And Paris remains the perfect place to be in love–at any age. Patricia admitted to occasionally being lonely, despite the vast network of people she knew and socialized with in her international Paris salon circle.
And despite Paris being a city where it is quite easy for a woman to be comfortably alone, and to be left alone unless invited into her personal space. To sit in comfortable solitude at the thousands of outdoor cafes or churches or parks that mark the landscape. Where nobody bothers you unless invited. Where the French respect for privacy is a bow to respecting every human being’s right to autonomy. To being left in peace in your personal space, without assumptions, without judgements.
But “alone” does not equate with “lonely,” and the man Patricia said she is in love with was helping to fill the personal space in her that was lonely. “I like lying on his chest in his arm while he’s on the phone,” she told me one night over dinner in a charming café she knew about in the 5th arr.
“I feel safe when I’m lying in his arm.”
“So what is it that you really want from this relationship?” I finally asked.
“I just want to lie in his arm. I want that feeling all the time.”
She just wanted to feel safe and to be in love all the time. But this is not always real. Romance is like that. Not always real. Yet Patricia had lived in Paris long enough to have become a true falling-in-love-with-love Parisian, intoxicated by the ideas of romance and adventure. The same ideas that led to her fleeing her native America in the first place over 40 years ago.
Though I soon grew tired–even impatient–listening to Patricia’s fantasies about the man she loved, I did admire the grace and style with which she was managing to age in Paris. There were enough social safety nets in France’s highly-touted socialized system–affordable housing, a small pension, affordable health care, free public transportation–to provide something of a cushion to older, long-time expatriate women like Patricia who were smart and savvy enough to maneuver for benefits in a system that was no longer foreign to them.
Patricia continued to move through the city with a quiet, dogged dignity, jostling people on the city’s narrow sidewalks with her snazzy cane. I loved that the fast-walking Parisians would graciously slow down or move aside to accommodate a woman who may have been physically challenged but was always stoically stylish, head held high, carrying on. Let’s give Madame some space. Merci beaucoup.
The man Patricia said she loved left Paris after his holiday was over, and did not return. Patricia and the man she loved stayed in touch for a while. And Patricia stayed in touch with me for a while after I returned to New York for the winter. She was the one who had told me early in my run, “If you can do Paris in the winter, you can do Paris.” Turned out after two years of no central heat, I could not do Paris in the winter anymore.
Patricia texted me photos of herself with the man she loved when I was back in the States. Then more photos of him by himself on his farm in Australia. Photos of him playing polo. Repeated texts of the same photo showing the two of them standing together in Patricia’s small studio apartment in the 20th arr in one of Paris’s low-income sociale buildings.
Then I stopped hearing from her.
Because as we were two months into a new year, 2019, Trump’s third year in office, and the first winter I sat out Paris in New York, Patricia Laplante-Collins died. Alone in her studio apartment. Of an apparent stroke. Dead for almost a week before she was found. After her absence was noticed and reported by concerned friends who had not heard from her. Friends who had not received any notices for upcoming soirées.
The U.S. Embassy notified Philippe Laplante of Patricia’s passing. My friend Jo called to tell me. And all the social media platforms lit up with expressions of shock and mourning from people around the world who knew Patricia—had passed her way attending her soirees as their first stop on the way to discovering Paris.
I was a little surprised that I teared up at the news of Patricia’s death. Though I did not know her “like that” for all that long, I considered Patricia a sister friend, and her death was my first loss of a girlfriend in Paris. I learned after Patricia’s death that we were born in the same year. I knew I was going to miss her for all of my days in Paris.
But there were also tears of guilt. Before I left Paris for the winter, I had stopped picking up the phone at two and three o’clock in the morning to take Patricia’s calls. Then I turned the phone off completely. She had become obsessive about the man she loved. And while I admit to occasionally being something of a drama queen, I have never been the obsessive romantic type, driven by the need to be in love. Women who are bother me just a little.
Patricia told me some time ago there was nothing in America for her to return to. Not because of Trump. Not because of American racism. But because she had simply been gone too long. She was an only child in a small family to begin with. There was no family left in her native Atlanta or anywhere else in America to lay claim to, to identify with.
That identity was now to be found across an ocean in another country, France; in another city, Paris. Patricia never became a French citizen—few African-American expats do that, it appears—but she did possess what could be called a French sensibility. Something all of us who run to the City of Light may possess. A spirit moving in sync to the rhythms and grooves and passions of a city known for great beauty, great art and culture, enduring style, and exhilarating romance.
American runaway Patricia Laplante-Collins moved to such rhythms and grooves and passions, finding the seat of her soul to be in Paris where she lived and where she died. At home in the city. Her one true and faithful love.
Audrey Edwards is a former executive editor of Essence magazine, an author, and an associate broker with Brown Harris Stevens real estate in New York. Her book, “American Runaway: Black and Free in Paris in the Trump Years,” can be pre-ordered at Americanrunaway.com.