The spring had been weird. Summer temperatures arrived early in March and stayed throughout that month and well into the next. I wore shorts and tennis shirts. I put aside my shoes in favor of flip-flops. It gave the leather some rest, drove out the stink and added a couple of months to the heels. We splashed the house money on a barbecue set, then polished off a summer's supply of steak before the halfway point of April, bringing our food out every night going on sixty in a row when the rains came. The butchers were of course thrilled, but in the end we'd had enough. We were happy then with the rain. We were less happy with it two months later.
I lived at the Cité Universitaire in the south of Paris. When I got there the American house was full but the Canadians had room and they were happy to have me. I was in Paris studying political science and graduation loomed in the near distance; or, if I may, at long last was just around the corner so we could get on with it and see other people; in no time at all—a few weeks at the most—we had drifted entirely apart and now the work was done we were free to give in to the sentiment. We knew what we had. We’d seen where it went and it wouldn’t go any further. We were friends for two years and that was plenty of time to empty the barrel, untap all the flasks and fill them with air. We had reached our potential, only the ceiling turned out to be lower than expected and now there was no way to live up to our initial, giddy prognostications.
Two years together in a new city. The restaurants were new, the parks, the watering holes, the language, the commute, the people; it was all so unerringly breathless. We were new and so was the world. Every impression was fresh, every expression contained in it some nugget of deeper truth, some key to the mystery. We had the horizon on every side and made our plans accordingly—impossible as they now seemed, when nothing remained of the early days. Like being at sea, looking at the same endless expanse day in and day out until the shore hits your eyes. There is no shift before the break.
Olivia had hated my routine. She seemed to lack all ability to turn her energy inward, and so she had dreaded the idea of me sitting around in the morning, sipping my coffee and letting my head work it out. I could sit still for hours. That was my curse. I wanted to be a guy who discovered, a free-wheeling man with no worldly cares, who did things and went places without grocery lists and shifted his aspirations on a daily basis—though only as concerned hobbies, with everything else he must remain firm. I couldn't be that man. I enjoyed my own company far too much and though I knew I must force myself out to be happy it still took me a long time. Life settles obstinately into a rhythm, even abroad. After a few months I stopped fighting it. I even stopped exploring restaurants and started taking my meals at the student café of the Cité Internationale. You could get a good meal there for three euros and you could bring your own wine; at least, you could if you were persistent enough. Except on Thursdays. That's the day Le Figaro had the scoop on restaurants. I let them figure it out for me, that was part of the routine.
This is of course figuratively speaking. Paris, like all major cities, has no horizon.
Hovik was great in the gym, a fine dancer and an all-around good guy, but he was a nerd at university. You couldn't keep a secret like that in a house full of Canadians. Why or in what way he used to be a nerd they couldn't remember. It might have been his slight build, his bad posture or that he was a mathematician. Perhaps all of them mixed into a nerdy whole. Whatever it was, probably it contributed to a lack of success with women.
It was hard to believe them. Where the transformation took place—in Berlin, Lyon, or even Paris—I couldn't say, only that it did. These days the spindly nerd from university looked more like a linebacker or one of those guys who blocked a Saturday night bus exit all by himself while the fare inspector made the rounds. The man I was heading out to meet had come a long way from his previous self.
Once, in a vain attempt at saddling me with a common interest, he had described his routine:
The alarm rings at six. Shortly thereafter he sprints past the Café du Métro on the corner and heads for the Place Saint-Sulpice. There is no rush this early. No carhorns are going off, the air holds no pressure and the citizens are still at home working through the crust of last night's bread. He runs on the Rue Bonaparte, past the police house and along the square towards the church. The square is empty. There are neither markets nor fairs, the fountain does not bubble and has no company in the gray morning but the birds and that wind which is constant across the open places of the world and now dimples the water and drives through the trees. After the square and church he turns south and passes through the Jardin du Luxembourg and up to the Panthéon, then down beyond to the clock at the Place de la Contrescarpe and from there by way of the Jardin des Plantes to the Pont d'Austerlitz, where he turns. When he gets back he eats a precooked meal of chicken and couscous, he showers, he works. He goes sometimes to the office but usually stays home. After two hours of work he eats again, sprinkling the couscous with curry this time, before running off to the gym. He comes home two hours later, he eats chicken and couscous without the curry, he showers, he works for two hours. He will eat the same thing another three times. He will work another six hours. He will do this every day. If he goes out he drinks very rarely and is back home early.
Something had come up – a crisis, I realized as soon as I got off the phone. The fact was Hovik had only two interests: women and dancing. When all his social graces were picked away these two remained, in what order I'm not sure even he knew. But what about the chicken? And the jogging? And the gym? Ah, but those were tangential, as the mathematician might have said. In truth, the day women preferred men skinny the chicken would land in the garbage and the membership card would be relegated along with the sweaty gym-clothes to the bottom of a damp drawer.
More than anything he wanted a French girlfriend. Most guys I knew wanted a French girlfriend in order to learn French but Hovik wanted to learn French in order to get a French girlfriend. He considered that the solution to all his problems. Whatever gave him that notion I'll never know, but it wasn't Paris.
Probably his ex Julia.
I began to regret taking the call. He only ever had one purpose with that, and it wasn't dancing he needed to talk to me about. Before he moved it was much easier. His had been one of the rooms in the attic – big, a slanting ceiling, coarse wooden beams transecting the air and a double bed. I'd take the elevator and he'd have a bottle of J & B set aside and when I came in he'd hand me a glass and I'd plant myself in his big easy chair. And while he talked I drank. Now he lived around Montparnasse we met in the city and it was too late now to get out of it. He was probably already on his way, pounding up the sidewalks of the Rue de Rennes, forcing people aside with that wide swing of his shoulders how he tucked his chin like a boxer and lunged forward. As though there was something on his shoulders that despite their pendulous movement he could never shake. To not stress the seams too much he wore a big sweatshirt, baggy jeans and sneakers, and always, even when it was hot, a knitted wool hat – blue and cuffed.
I resurfaced from the underground. The air was sweet and the trees liquescent in the sun how the raindrops glistened. I walked along the Boulevard Saint-Germain. All around me the city was waking up from the rain. People flung out of doorways, shutters were cranked open, doors wedged into place, chairs rushed onto the sidewalks; the brass was cooking, the bistros were bustling, the waiters running to the right and to the left. Going up the Rue de Buci I found a table on the patio of the Etages de Saint-Germain. I turned and motioned to one of the Indian waiters. The man came. I ordered beer. I had arrived in time for the place was starting to fill up. People squeezed in around the small, rickety tables and tried not to move their elbows and sat riveted to their coffee, beer or wine, thawing their faces in the afternoon glare while the smell of rain lingered sweetly and sunlight sieved through our bowels. The sun roused the tired eyes, the lustre of which was further induced by the color in the glasses set down before them. The waiter came with the beer and stuck the bill under the ashtray. I took a big gulp and sat watching the street.
A few beers later Hovik resolved himself out of the crowd. He saw me and smiled broadly, forcing the tip of his nose straight to the right. It was a sharp nose that had been broken a few times and never fully recovered. It hardly seemed fair. The rest of his face was very handsome and how it must have resented that nose. I signaled to the waiter. Hovik pulled out a chair and lowered himself onto the cushion. He took off his hat and put it on the table.
”I take it you already ordered,” he said.
”Beer,” I said. “Not too early for you is it?”
He smiled. ”It's OK. I'm going out later.”
The waiter trotted up with a full tray. He put a beer on the table and carried on. Hovik sipped dutifully.
”What's going on tonight?”
”Well,” he said, ”we're going by Chez Georges. You're welcome to come, but we'll be speaking only in French.”
”Thanks, but I've got plans. I'm eating with my mentor.”
”Your mentor? You're not going into business are you?”
“Not that I know. Why do you say that?”
“That's what business people say.”
“My mentor they say. Everybody has a mentor.”
“Well, you should know.”
”Sure,” I said. “In Baghdad I saw a lot of Kurds doing business. There was this one woman, I remember – ”
”Let me stop you right there,” he said, pointing at something in the air. “You already told me this story, remember? A very different version of it.”
“Of course. Because you weren't ready. You had to be coddled first.”
“Ready for what?”
“I was just about to tell you,” I said. “You always ask me about the war and when I finally – wait, stay still. Don't move.”
“I see a resemblance …. Do you still have relations back there? A sister perhaps?”
He rose and stood before me. “I'm not gonna sit here and take that.”
“Sure you will. You'll take it anywhere you can.”
He smiled and sat down.
”You're right,” I said. “They were good your people. Indispensable really.”
I drank the cold beer.
“Isn't this great?”
“Only because of the sun.”
“That's right. Nothing better than beer in the sun.”
“Well, it's better than a broomstick.”
“Hmm,” I said, “that's from the movie isn't it? Not the book.”
“You and your books.”
I drank it all down.
I motioned to the waiter and he brought more.
”You're in a good mood today.”
“I'm always in a good mood.”
“Yeah, that's really not true.”
“Yes it is. I don't worry.”
“Have you talked to Olivia yet?”
“When are you gonna talk to her?”
“When I get around to it.”
“I don't have a worry in the world.”
I waited. Letting him work up to it.
”So,” he said, “guess who came by as I was leaving?”
I didn't reply.
I sighed and relented, ”No, who?”
”That girl Claudia.”
He told me a story about a girl. She came by, he threw her out, and vowed never to see her again. Claudia was a girl that used to come by his apartment, tease him for a while and then leave. This time he had struck preemptively.
“When are you seeing her again?”
“I'm not. Did you even listen?”
“I'm going to Nice,” he said, “why would I see her again?”
“Well, you'll have a lot of time down there not to think about that.”
“I don't get her,” he said. “Why does she keep coming by?”
“You're both Canadian.”
“There has to be better options.”
“Maybe not. Some people just need to see someone.”
“And anyone will do?”
“Yes, pretty much. Did you ever make things clear to her?”
“How am I supposed to put it? There's no good way.”
“I don't envy you.”
“I think she got it this time.”
I took the pack out of my pocket.
”You don't mind if I smoke do you?”
”I know you're going to anyway.”
I pulled out a cigarette and lit it. ”I think this trip's the best idea. I really do. I wish you'd gone a long time ago – ”
”I don't see why you won't come with me.”
”What? Why would I?”
”Your French sucks.”
”So? I do just fine with English.”
”Oh yeah? Since when?”
”Listen,” I said, ”you think any girl gives a shit about your French? No, they give a shit because you do. You want it to be perfect so you're edgy and nervous.”
”I can't help it,” he said, “I've got too much invested. That's why I need that course.”
”You just need to get away. You don't need a course.” I took a hit of beer. ”You know what you should do? Drink more wine.”
”So my teeth are red and I start slurring? Yeah, great idea buddy.”
”It would make you more fluent,” I said. “More French. Take me for instance, my French may be worse than yours, but I'm smoother.” I finished the beer and sent for another. ”You're too aggressive.”
He nodded. ”It's funny, my buddy Marcus said the same thing.”
”That's the guy you're gonna stay with right?”
”Smart guy.” I stubbed out the cigarette in the ashtray and leaned back. “What's his deal?”
”He exports food to Africa.”
“What kind of food?”
“Frozen food. Hens, I think.”
“Hens? You mean like egg-laying chickens?”
“No, I mean exactly that.”
“That's tough meat. There's a market for that?”
”Oh yeah. He says it's like their national dish.”
“So he must be doing pretty good.”
“He does all right. He says the Chinese are trying to buy him out.”
“That's more than all right.”
“Yeah, but I don't think he's looking to sell.”
“What's their actual national dish? Chicken?”
“No, chicken's a luxury.”
The next beer arrived. I waited until the Indian was out of earshot.
“This one's on you.”
“I didn't even want it.”
“Come on. You're going out later.”
”This guy is letting you stay there the whole summer?”
”Yeah, kind of.”
“How do you know him?”
“He had this house right on the beach. Fantastic parties.”
I drank the beer too quickly and got some of it down my beard.
“Do you know yet what you'll be doing?”
”No,” I said, “not yet.”
I sat wiping my beard.
“I was hoping to do some research for one of my teachers, my mentor, but it doesn't look like he'll need it. I don't know, maybe go home for a while. We'll see.”
He sipped the beer.
”By the way,” he said, ”guess who just texted me?”
”Yeah. Out of the blue.”
I took a deep breath. I let it out. ”I swear, Hovik, sometimes you're … ” I paused, looking for a way to put it.
”No, you calm down. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“We are not having this discussion again. She's my ex-girlfriend. I think I'd know my ex-girlfriend.”
“The hell you would.”
”We got history, Kip. It's only natural.”
”You got history. And she's got a boyfriend.”
”Does she? She wants to meet up – out of the blue. After I made everything clear to her last time. You tell me what that means.”
“I don't know. Maybe her boyfriend's busy tonight.”
“You're such a downer.”
He looked away.
”So, that's who you're seeing tonight?”
“Jesus.” I shook my head. ”Well, I'm sure glad I'm not one of them.”
”I shouldn't have brought it up,” he said. “I knew you'd react this way.”
”I don't know about you sometimes. I just don't.”
Hovik looked at his watch.
“And you were doing so well too. Becoming a real Parisian.”
He picked up his hat.
“You'd even learned the bus hours.”
“I was kind of hoping you'd come along.”
“Yeah, you could bring Olivia.”
“Are you crazy? I haven't talked to her in months.”
“Go ahead,” he said, “use me as an excuse.”
“OK, so it's a little late to bring this up now. Was there a reason you couldn't mention it on the phone?”
“Oh,” he said, “you don't have a cellphone.”
“Yeah, you're right. It was a dumb idea.”
“No it wasn't.”
He rose to his feet.
”Fuck it,” I said. “I'll call her.”
“But I can't promise anything.”
“What about your dinner?”
“Well, that's actually tomorrow. I got the days mixed up.”
”Call me as soon as you know.”
”If not, I'll keep you posted.”
”Good luck buddy.”
”See you tonight.”
Before I got home the sky started to darken and shut down. Tattered clouds floated together to form long dark destroyers while the sun boiled somewhere beyond. It rained. Then, having dropped their charge, the clouds separated and the sun broke in through their rifts; the late sun, just over the rooftops, fixed on the high windows and dormers, sucking the moisture off the sills.
I made the call and Olivia agreed to see me. It was a little short notice but she would manage. She looked forward to it.
The night was damp and warm as I made my way from the metro to the Rue des Canettes and to Chez Georges. It was a wine bar. The bar was up top, the dance floor in the cellar and the wine everywhere. Julia was the first person I saw; she was overdressed for the occasion, wearing a white cocktail dress with a high neckline, her short hair brushed back behind her ears to showcase her cheekbones. She waited by the bar, probably wondering what all the fuss was about.
“Hey,” I said, “it's downstairs.”
I descended a steep set of stairs to a cave-like room with a few tables and benches. I stooped down under a stone arch and entered the wine cellar. To my left a tunnel cut through the rock to a small bar and down the steps to my right were booths, tables and chairs along the walls with space to dance in between. Olivia was there, in a bodycon black dress and stockings; her hair was down and curly and her lips were red. She smiled and we caught up. When we were done and there was nothing more to report, she turned away. She wasn't alone. She was with friends, most of whom I knew, and she would throw me neither buoy nor rope.
Later we were dancing. We made a ring of friends and drank red wine. Olivia wouldn't meet my eyes. I looked at her but she didn't look at me. I started getting drunk. Our glasses were hit by errant elbows and the wine splashed over the floor and lay there dark and gelatinous with the sweat and dirt like a veal stock. I saw Hovik empty his glass, trying not to get it all down his shirt. I went with him to buy a new bottle. When we came back they were playing the Yiddish folk music. Chiribim, chiribom … Olivia was dancing above the floor, on the partition by the stairs separating the tables up from the tables down. She looked through me and beyond. Her hair was wet and black and falling about her face. I climbed up. ”Get off my stage,” she said.
She was much less spontaneous than I remembered. Her movements seemed practiced, choreographed, where before she had only reacted now she acted. Her aura had changed. She chose to be this way, I realized, she saw herself now as well as others and she knew her personality had a willing audience. Her innocence was gone.
The music was still playing and I was entranced, in the arms of some bold French girl – red lips, small teeth, dandruff on her shoulders, sweat in her hair. I spun her about, our flesh slapped together, wine splashed on her dress and down my legs. She was touching my hair, running her fingers over my ears and neck. I explored down her body.
When the crowd broke up I released her. I saw Olivia preparing to leave. I stumbled up and caught her arm.
“Will you wait just one minute? I don't get this.”
Her brows drew together.
“Why can't we talk to each other?”
“I don't know. What do you want to talk about?”
“I thought something might have changed.”
”Yes,” she said, ”I thought we might hang out.”
”Maybe this wasn't the best place.”
“No, I liked it.”
”You don't have to make this so difficult.”
”I don't understand you.”
”Is this about Ines?”
”You broke up with me and I can't see who I want?”
”Of course you can. Just maybe not at my birthday party.”
“I had to bring somebody.”
“No you didn't.”
”It was nothing serious.”
“Why wasn't it?”
“Why it wasn't serious?”
“Yes. You shouldn't wait around you know.”
”Well, uh, I don't intend to. I'm going to Nice.”
”OK, great. Good for you.”
The music had stopped. She gathered up her jacket and purse.
“Can I see you tomorrow?”
“Just to talk.”
I looked around me. The crowd was pressing hard for the exit.
“Somewhere more private.”
“Why don't you follow me up and we can talk outside?“
“No,” I said, “I've had all I can handle tonight.”
She squeezed my hand.
”We'll talk soon, maybe when you're sober. And don't forget to send me photos.”
“Yes, from Nice.”
“Right. Of course.”
She squeezed in with her friends, ducked down the stone arch and disappeared.
Hovik waited outside. He must've guessed by my expression.
“Well, not so good I think. You?”
He shook his head.
We started walking.
“At least you have an excuse,” he said.
“What's going on with you two?”
We turned left onto the Rue du Four.
“Maybe she doesn't have any friends?”
“When did she move here?”
“Two years ago.”
“Could be hard for her.”
“That's not my fault.”
“Of course not.”
“I didn't drag her here.”
I was used to seeing him like this. Despite all of his incredible muscle he had never possessed a physical aura. There had always been something of the neurotic about him, something unsettled and frustrated. Since I met him he had stopped rushing his speech but he was still jumpy and couldn't take a silence without laughing.
We reached the intersection.
“I'm going this way,” I said.
“The metro's down there.”
“What are you gonna do?”
“Well, I'll see you,” he said. “Sorry it didn't work out.”
I walked up the Rue Bonaparte, all the way to the river. I smelled it, though I could distinguish nothing beyond the streetlights. It was late and there were no boats to fissure the black river with foam. I walked out onto the Pont des Arts. In the middle, away from the lights along the shore, the river was recalled by the stars; dark and muddy, and smooth where the lights shone. I leaned over the railing and slid a finger along one of the locks. We had made one, I remembered, all those years ago. We had met in a bar on the Nuit Blanche and again later the same night in the metro. That could happen in Paris. The rest was not much different than anywhere else.
Next evening I had dinner at Chez Janou; big U-shaped bar, tiled floor, warm yellow walls with bright posters of old movies and most of them penned by Marcel Pagnol and some by Jacques Tati. It was a Provençale bistro with an endless variety of pastis. My teacher furrowed his brows in feigned distress before pointing somewhere and somewhere on the menu offered up by the handsome waiter. We had the pastis then tucked into some sautéed mushrooms and a plate of ratatouille. The ratatouille was cold and very good; tender, with the right level of resistance to my bite, and rich. The mushrooms were great. Fat and juicy.
We sat close to our neighbors. The room was full and very hot and my teacher sent for a bottle of Chablis. It did the trick, banishing the heat like a swim down a forest pool in summer. We had too much of it and got another bottle for the main courses. I had the grilled sea bass and since this was not a date I had my way with it and didn't worry about picking my teeth.
The folks around us were French and American, which suited my teacher who had divided his life between these two shores. Jean-Claude Denizard was a Frenchman recently returned to Paris after twenty years of teaching at American universities. His manners were fine and affable, his eyes gentle but less so usually when he found a mind wandering. He was easy going but he had a temper, a way of singling you out; an intense, plumbing stare that could mark you among hundreds in an auditorium with laser-point precision; he would stay quiet and look at you, like they did in the army when they caught you sleeping, wait until it was dead quiet and everybody was looking at you, then make some meaningless hand gesture and go on. Having finished his chocolate mousse and gotten his digestif, he leaned back and gave me his full attention.
“Armand tells me you're looking for work.”
“That's right,” I said. “Something for the summer.”
He cupped his glass and swirled the Cognac.
“I would only need it for a month.”
“Well, I have to disappoint you.”
“You're already done with the research then?”
“No,” he said, “but I need a French guy for that.”
“I speak French.”
“Not well enough.”
“Well enough to make phone calls.”
“Not this time, Kip.”
“I really need it.”
“And I already gave it to a French kid. I'm sorry. I could refer you to some of the others. Would you like that?”
“Yes, but I've already talked to them.”
“To Thomas as well?”
“OK. How are you for money?”
“Good. I'm not worried about that.”
“I would be happy to lend you some.”
“You wouldn't be happy to.”
“But I would do it.”
“No, that's all right.”
We sat for a while.
“I heard you were doing something on China.”
“Next year,” he said. “You no longer need it financially, my wife told me the other day.”
“She stopped saying we ten years ago,” he added.
“So you postponed it?”
“I could have helped you there.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Are you still planning to stay in France after graduation?”
“And you still want to become a civil servant?”
“Yes, that's right.”
“Going from soldier to bureaucrat.”
“It's very similar.”
“Mhm. They're both desk jobs.”
“Except for the fighting.”
“I didn't see much of that.”
“You will be much smarter than your bosses.”
“I hope you don't think that's why I left.”
“I know why you left. The question is, do you know what you are getting into?”
“I think so.”
“When was the last time you sent a handwritten application?”
“In that case your application goes straight into the bin.”
“Regardless of merit?”
“They will not read it.”
“I don't know what to make of that.”
“The odds are not good.”
“The odds are never good.”
“Then start thinking about it,” he said. “Start planning. What are you doing to improve your French?”
“Well,” he brought his hands up, then let them fall.
“I hit a wall at some point.”
“You have to be persistent,” he said. “I had this problem too in America. You have to be active and ready to be humiliated.”
“You're talking about your professional life though, not your social life.”
“I'm talking about both.” He raised his hand and signaled to the waiter.
“It's not a great way to make friends.”
“Your social life will suffer only temporarily.”
“I don't know,” I said. “Maybe courses will help.”
“Maybe they will. Are you living in a silo?”
“I don't know what that means.”
“Don't you have any French friends?”
The waiter came and Jean-Claude requested the bill.
“I do,” I said when the waiter had left, “but not many. My friends are mostly from Québec.”
“You are developing a Canadian accent.”
“Oh, come on.”
“It's quite noticeable.”
“No … really?”
“Yes, really. Better be careful.”
The waiter came with the bill. I offered to pay but Jean-Claude shook his head. “Please,” he said, and then, “How many of your classmates are planning to stay here after graduation?”
“I don't know. A dozen?”
“Hmm,” he said, “are you sure? That's more than I expected.”
“Is it?” I said. “How many did you expect?”
“Only a handful.”
“Why wouldn't they want to stay?”
“Well,” he said, “I can't really say, but typically my students go home after a few years.”
“You look surprised.”
“I am a little. Why do they go home?”
“Why not? A nice, cushy administrative job close to your family. When you start thinking of settling down, if you have not already, this will start to sound very good. That is what you have to contend with.”
“People leave their homes all the time.”
“No, it's quite exceptional.”
“What about the management of multinational companies, NGOs – “
He said, smiling, “So is that what you aspire to?”
“Well, no, probably not.”
“What happened to the petit fonctionnaire?” he asked. “What happened to no responsibility and plenty of free time?”
“No responsibility at work, but plenty of it at home.”
“How are you going to get that traveling the world?”
“I'm not,” I said. “I'm gonna do that right here.”
“Then start working on your French and on your handwriting.”
He drank the last of the Cognac and set his glass down.
“I will be at the faculty until the end of June,” he said. “After that you will only be able to reach me on my cellphone. And Kip, give my best to your family.”
He pushed his chair back and got up.
“You have to be ready to be humiliated.”
”See you this fall.”
“Well,” I said, “you realize I'll be graduated?”
“I will have something for you.”
“Better give me that in writing.”
“I will send you something on the mail.”
“See you in September.”
I sat there some after he left. Then I went out into the warm evening. I walked down to Bastille, took the metro to Place d'Italie and got off to walk the rest of the way. The thirteenth was drab with its big, pragmatic buildings and hospitals and the stink of bleach and spoiled appendixes on the air and not much to look at before the Butte Aux Cailles, that wonderful hill of bars and restaurants and people outside them on the cobbles drinking and smoking; then I came down the hill and concrete was back on the menu with high-rises all around and no restaurants or people.
I stopped on the corner of the Rue Auguste Lançon. I stood still and listened. There wasn't a sound made since the hill but the slap of my shoes against the sidewalk. I pricked up my ears. All quiet. But when I resumed my walk so again did that sound return, springing out of the dark, and as I increased my pace so also did it amplify. As if gathering in the silence and growing therein the way a song did stuck in your mind, clogging it like grease in the drain, swelling until it drowned out everything else. Now my feet measured heavily, their tread on the pavement a resounding drum carrying off into the startled dark. I stopped again. I got my lighter and fumbled it. I smoked and composed myself.
I had a whole summer to burn.
I reached the Parc Montsouris, which was closed at this hour as the French frown upon nighttime visitors to their parks. Men go around with whistles before nightfall and get everyone out before they close it. I walked along the Boulevard Jourdan and saw the Belgian house across the road, followed by the broad, Georgian-style American, and then the arched entrance to the Cité Universitaire. I crossed the road by the train and tram stations and passed under the arch and along the maze of flowers before turning right onto the Avenue Rockefeller and continuing up to the Canadian house. It was just before midnight and there were plenty of lights on in the house. On the wooden tables of the patio and on the ground were strewn aluminum foil and bags of chips and empty bottles of beer and other debris from a barbecue and the trees by the fence offset the night and did not stir in the warm stillness. As I went up to the entrance I smelled the white flowers lining the path and they smelled like cum. I fished out my keycard and slid it in. Julien was at reception. He looked bored.
“Ça va,” he said.
“Yeah. What's happening?”
“You're late to the party,” he said.
“They have been at it since seven.”
“I didn't know there was a party.“
”Louis bought twenty-four bottles for his last night.”
“So where are they?”
“No, they drank them.”
“Ah. Tant pis.”
“Too bad for you.”
“Is Louis coming back next year do you know?”
“No. But who knows with that guy.”
“Well, I wanted to say goodbye. I didn't know it was his last night.”
“He'll be back tonight, I'm sure.”
“No thanks. I'm calling it a night.”
“I think there are still people in the Panet-Raymond.”
“All right. What are you doing later?”
“Sounds good. A demain.”
”See you tomorrow.”
I went through the lobby and up the stairs. By the first floor the smell of red wine and meat got to me and I pushed into the hallway, and then into the kitchen. Sara was at the stove, wearing a gray t-shirt and black leggings. She looked up, then lifted the lid and stirred the stew.
“Does it? I can't tell anymore.”
“Should be about done then. You're not mingling?”
“No, I have to watch his damn food.”
“It needs supervision.”
“You'll eat it though.”
“I'll do my best,” she said. “Would you like a glass of wine?”
She poured a glass and handed it over.
“He's in the library I think.”
“I wasn't really looking for anyone in particular.”
“Even I will do?”
“Maybe in a pinch.”
“Are you in a pinch?”
“I don't know.”
“Where were you yesterday?”
“Let's go outside.”
She had beautiful blonde hair falling in long tresses, with dark roots like her eyes, and her nose was small like the rest of her, with a slight, almost imperceptible, downturn at the end. We stood on the terrace, the Boulevard stretched out below with trees and lights along the way and the fenceline of the Cité on our side, the park dark and silent on the other. I lit a cigarette and leaned on the balustrade.
“I didn't know it was Louis' last night.”
“Me neither. I thought about calling you.”
“Where were you?” she said. “Hot date?”
“Yeah. With my mentor.”
“That is hot.”
“No, but very informative.”
“So what happened yesterday? We waited for you.”
I drank some wine.
“Where'd you go?” I said.
“Um, I don't know exactly. It was close to Mix.”
The wine was good, a red Côtes du Rhône, finely balanced.
“How was that?”
“Thursday is student night.”
“I know,” she said. “It was like a frat house in there. I couldn't move.”
“Should've asked to ride their shoulders.”
“Yeah,” she said, “in my prom dress.”
“Be still my beating heart.”
Blackberries. A trace of leather and perhaps bay leaves.
“I did something stupid.”
“Oh no you didn't.”
“I may have.”
“Oh my god.”
“I don't know what I was thinking.”
“I never know what you're thinking.”
She had porcelain skin. She was one of those girls who walked around wearing big hats in the sun.
“I saw Hovik this afternoon.”
“Your dancing friend? How is he?”
“He dumped the model, and now he's back to chasing his ex.”
“Wow, you two are just peas in a pod.”
“I'm not chasing anyone.”
“Hovik couldn't face his ex alone.”
“Don't worry,” she said. “I'll keep your little secret. Wouldn't want to spoil your manly reputation.”
“I might be going to Nice this summer.”
“Well, I'd love to come but I think my visa is about to expire.”
“They're kicking me out of my room.”
“So I heard. When are you leaving?”
“In a few weeks. When are you?”
The door to the library opened and Erik came out.
“Hey,” he said, shuffling over in his sandals.
“He's going to Nice,” Sara said.
“I said I might.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Well, he's going to see that friend of his isn't he?”
“You know him?”
“Right. You're both Swedish.”
“Yes exactly, we all know each other.”
He had grabbed one of the flags. The Canadian house has two, one Canadian and one French Canadian. The poles are mounted in sockets and protrude from the balustrade so the flags hang out over the street. He was touching the Canadian flag.
“He was here last fall,” Sara put in.
“Where was I?”
“Probably with Olivia.”
“Nice guy,” Erik said. “He walked us into a restaurant at two in the morning and got everything on the menu.”
“That's hard to imagine.”
“He called a number and somebody opened.”
“Was it a good restaurant?”
“I don't know, Kip.”
He fondled the fabric and gave it a little twist.
“Well, how was the food?”
“I don't know. I was drunk.”
“What's he like?”
“I don't remember.”
“You don't remember anything.”
“I'm just curious.”
“He's got a big voice.”
“A big voice or a big mouth?”
“A big voice.”
The tram went by belling down on the Boulevard.
“What will you do?” Sara asked.
“Study French,” I said. “There's a good school down there.”
I nodded. “Yeah, says Hovik.”
“For how long?”
“Jesus,” she said.
“You don't think it's a good idea?”
“The school might be a joke.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I don't know,” she said. “It's a vacation spot, right?”
“Don't take it from me.”
“I've been thinking the same thing.”
“You'll have a good time.”
“With a bunch of teens and twenty somethings.”
“You'll love it.”
Erik dropped his dying cigarette.
“How's the book?” I asked him.
“Yeah? Get your three pages today?”
“Let's go inside.”
We went inside, there was a commotion in the hallway and the door burst open.
“Oh, it's you.” Annie wore high boots and a sheer dress going down below her knees.
“I was gonna get Erik,” she said. “Are you coming too?”
“I don't know. Coming where?”
“There is a party in the sixteen,” she said. “The others are there. We are going now.”
“Not me,” said Erik. “My bouffe is just ready.”
“Oh. What a surprise.”
She looked at Sara, who shook her head.
“I'll come,” I said.
“Really? You want to come with us?”
“Yes. Can we get a taxi? I'll pay for it.” I turned to Erik. “You sure?”
“Yes, you go on.”
“OK. Let's go.”
The cab waited outside the gates of the Cité. I rode shotgun and the Québécois were in the back. The cab swung around by the Stade Charléty and roared down past the Parc Montsouris. Red lights bloomed in the night from the shops open late around Alésia and bled on the dove gray faces and black iron espaliers of the city's texture, a red lined by lamplight tossed in with the corpselike pallor of the painted moon across the windows, the pavement, and the legs pumping vigorously upon it, legs enmeshed in stockings, turning at the lights and pumping on across the thin skin of the street in front of us. I stayed with them as long as I could, lingering lovingly until they pushed into some lurid joint and disappeared.
You had the impression French women never took off their stockings. That they were born, gave birth, died and were buried in them. It was probably true, and to some extent you understood them. The raw, wet chill of the winter lasted long into spring and although this year had been warm the memory clung to the marrow like bacon grease to a frying pan; the women were slow to bring their razors out. Paris could be cold, it was true, but people had no illusions about it and were ready to suffer.
Meatloaf was playing on the radio. Life's a lemon and I want my money back. Hell of a cab driver. We'd had Phil Collins, Metallica and Queen and now we had Meatloaf. Hell of a cab ride, and as we hurtled past the Eiffel Tower and across the bridge it was almost over. Annie leaned in from the back seat. Her dress had come up over her knees and her legs were pale and bare into her boots. Love's a lemon and I want my life back. Olivia's last missive before yesterday: months ago, impersonal and brief, as if she'd expected someone else to open it. I pulled my flask out and had a drink of whiskey. Well, maybe I had loved her. Maybe I'd just ran around too quickly to realize. The envelope of her voice, the gentle dark eyes and enormous – stop. What's the matter with you? Can you just once enjoy what's in front of you? I looked at Annie. She'd leaned forward elbows on legs that almost obstructed the handbrake; her long legs evicted of their stockings now it was warm and summer near, her brown hair streaming down her shoulders, ruffled and wet from the heat. I had another drink then leaned around and offered her the flask. She took it and had a big swallow, knocking her head back, then passed it on. I chuckled, shaking my head.
I had the summer to burn and nothing on the horizon.
The cab stopped a street up from the river by Passy. It was a quiet neighborhood, the streets were neat, well lit and lined with townhouses. The one we wanted sat atop a small hill at the end of the street. The gate stood ajar so we walked in. We followed a garden path to the entrance where a dog came down then trailed us up the stairs. When we entered our friends were nowhere to be seen nor was there any sign of the hostess. The essence of a Parisian house party, just a mass of perfect strangers. As though you had the wrong apartment. Down the hallway and flanked by sidelights, the big rooms and the bathrooms on opposite ends of the apartment so we had incoming traffic the whole way, girls in white tops and bright, ruffled mini skirts, boys in shirts with tall upright collars, and I was starting to be sober and the dog barking at our backs did little to calm me down. My eyes got sore in the strong light, my sight blurry, my lungs were hard pressed in the throng and recessed as in my dreams. The ducts were opening all over my anatomy: sweat broke out of my palms, trickled from my armpits, ran down my back; there were no pores between the ridges, but sweat poured there all the same.
The dog was our herald, barking to tell his mistress we had arrived, though we never saw her. We pushed on and reached the living room, a brownish yellow oval divested of all furniture but the liquor table, that staple of parties in France where everyone was welcome so long as they brought a bottle and left it on the table – invariably leading to a great many bottles of cheap, store-branded wine and liquor. I made my way around the table and inspected the selection. I looked for something to drink and lifted the bottles – the wood beneath was damp and glowing, and turned them over. All of them empty. I was searching through the labels when, like an owl in the forest, a bottle of Jack Daniels resolved itself out of the company. I scooped up the bottle and, turning sideways and out of sight, replenished my flask and filled myself a cup. I drained the cup. I filled the cup then set the bottle down and took my place against the wall with the rest of the inmates scanning the room. All in vain, of course, since people had already paired up in the corners and by the doors and in the hallway against the wall, speaking softly, their eyes locked each pair into each, while the floor was empty and seemed to stretch for miles. After a while the margins started to shrink and the sound to fade, becoming distant as though I'd donned a helmet. I went to smoke.
Across the water the bright figure of the Eiffel Tower, the gold and copper glow conspicuous against the night, the legs and lattices rippling with light, relieved the moonlight on the river and was retained in the wake of traffic – the barges beating out the black wherever they went and plowing through the murky trench; and what's more, they had the searchlights on atop the Tower. As though a manhunt was under way. To the right and to the left the beam cast about, darting through the darkness, darting among the stars that branched into bands before the night. I smoked. My skin cooled as I collected my wits and I smoked until I could control my breathing.
The old engine didn't idle well, and that had to be accounted for. Timmins had said much the same. “There must be a cross draft in your head,” he had said, “the way you run about. A thought doesn't stand a chance with you.” “I don't go looking for them,” I had said, “they just cross my mind.” “Well,” he had said, “finally there's one thing you don't go looking for.” Good old Rick Timmins. My best friend for nine years, and the most deliberate man I ever knew. A slow, deep thinker, who loved to cook and play chess, pondering unmoving, like a Rodin sculpture, his next move. That gentleman of the South could watch birds hop about the branches for hours. He could watch laundry turn a full cycle. Always thinking about something, always unhurried lest he should let a thought spill. Though when you asked him what he was thinking he couldn't tell you. We had been classmates at the Point, and remained close in the five years of service following that, though at times I wondered whether any other occupation wouldn't have suited him better.
He'd had a slow, lingering way of speaking and a soft, limp way of looking, barely registering a beat, and if that wasn't bad enough his habits had made it worse. In the field, after a week of training and before we knew each other, he had volunteered to sit the first watch; and then he'd sat there feeding the fire, reading by the red glow of the stove, stoking it and rousing no one and reading on into sunrise. After that we would give him the hour before dawn, the one he most hated, the darkest of all. But he never stopped staying up, never gave up acting as though the discovery of the lightbulb could change things, and in the days following these episodes he would sneak off to dispense with daylight, whenever and wherever he could, and that was dangerous and not inspiring. To be seen sleeping is a terrible thing and when this happens you lose at once the respect of your fellow man – it goes right away, as from then on he sees you only that way. The way you looked sleeping, and the way he had looked when they caught his face unprotected.
Despite these shortcomings, Timmins had made it through West Point and served with distinction until his death. He never grew quick to action, but he cut down on his deliberation and once he was set he never wavered. He was très doué en langues, picking them up wherever he went – Korean in Korea, Arabic in Iraq, the curt and clipped military style at the Point; he was adored by women, loved by children and animals couldn't get enough of him – on leave in Cyprus a pack of rabid dogs almost overtook his motorcycle; they came out of the wastelands along the border and were up there nipping at the exhaust pipe before he found the extra gear. He usually did when he needed to, only he didn't consider that to be very often.
“It's simple,” he said to me once, amid the split silences of mortars scattering against our perimeter, on one of those long nights outside in the peristyle of our palace just before the end, “I don't care whether anyone agrees with me or not, sees it my way, it's just not a consideration.” He took a drag of the shisha, then held on a moment before adding the smoke to the dark. “You've been reacting all your life,” he said, “now is the time to take charge.” I found that blasphemous. He shrugged and said that, as far as he was concerned, quick and inconsiderate action had landed us in this pickle to begin with. “My life happens on my conditions,” he said, “I like to have them right where I want them.”
Had death been compliant, I wondered, had he died when he wanted to? Outside in the lean white silence of morning, bled-out upon a dust-ridden road, his throat shredded by shrapnel from an IED somebody else had stumbled on. Was that what it meant to take charge? Blood pooling around him in the road, blood pouring into the unslaked dust that lies always in drink. On Wednesday September 4 in the year 2003 he left our palace before dawn to ride along as an interpreter. He had been doing that with increasing frequency, and that day found his limits.
That was five years ago. You break it down and go on, one day at a time. Every morning the palate is a little cleaner, and a little more ready to accept new flavor. Every morning marks a new beginning. I put my cigarette out on the railing.
Back inside I saw Louis; bald, strong under a breezy t-shirt, amiable in his unorthodox accent, beset by young women; Hovik, big and bold, draped over a girl in the corner, unsteady, swaying, his eyes like pools of candle grease. He left the room with the girl and did not see me. I followed them out on my way to the bathroom and I saw him and the girl and another girl. He didn't see me pass. I had to walk all the way down the hallway and then turn and walk down another hallway to find the bathroom. Inside there was no key in the lock and no latch. Why was it never possible to lock a strange bathroom? I pulled my zipper down, grabbed the handle and pulled the door towards me, then listened. Vague sounds drifted over, fragments of spilled conversation, shouts from the other hallway. Were they coming closer? I put my ear to the door, then opened it a little and looked outside – there was no one there and no one coming. I closed the door and lifted out my cock. I could piss all right, but I preferred to do it in private, and not just as a form of meditation, there was more to it than that. Once assured of my privacy I liked to imagine myself in a competition, a pissing contest so to speak, and next to me, in close inspection, is the master of ceremonies egging me on. That's it, he says, there you go, just a little more now, just a little more for the lead. Ladies and gentlemen, this old spout is showing no signs of tiring, he's still going, oh yes indeed he's going, oh my, will this be a record performance? Will we see a new world record set here today folks? Squeeze now, come on squeeze, blow on it, yes, there it is, yes, just another trickle for the record, one tiny dribble will do, just one more drop – yes!
I came back from the bathroom to find Hovik confronted by a short, very thick man. The two girls were off to the side. Hovik was propped up by the wall and my appearance startled him so he almost fell.
“Do you know him? Good. I want him out.”
The man was almost as muscular as Hovik, and sober.
“I seem to be in some trouble,” said Hovik.
“What's the problem?”
“Your friend is drunk and abusive.”
Hovik was leering at the girls. They looked back with disgust.
“I find that hard to believe.”
“I want him out. Now.”
“Well, here's an expression for you: occupe-toi de tes oignons.”
“Mind your own business.”
“This is my business. I'm responsible so long as Paula's not here.”
“OK. Look, I saw the whole thing from the beginning. He didn't do anything wrong.”
“Didn't do anything wrong? You guys are idiots.”
“I've got five people telling me he had hold of this girl's throat and wouldn't let go.”
“And I'm telling you it wasn't that bad. And don't talk to me that way again.”
“Do you really wanna do this?”
A loud gasp from one of the girls. I turned and saw Hovik with his pants down.
“Hée boy.” Annie had snuck up beside me.
“Hovik, you reprobate. For fuck's sake.”
“Au Québec on appelle ça 'une grêne à l'air.'”
“Get the fuck out of here. Take your friend and get out and don't come back.”
“Hovik, pull your pants up. We're leaving.”
“You're still creepy,” one of the girls said, “and we're leaving.”
“You're leaving. She's not leaving. Oh my god, did you come here by car.”
“Hovik, c'mon buddy. Pull your pants up.”
Hovik tried to gather his pants and tripped.
“You're going,” the bouncer said. “Now.”
Hovik drew himself up in defiance.
“I'll throw you out if I have to.”
“You don't decide that.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You don't live here.”
“Hovik, let's go. Get your stuff.”
I grabbed his arm and heaved and pulled and pushed him out of the crowded hallway and toward the door.
“What have you been drinking?”
“I don't know.”
“A little bit of everything?”
We were halfway down the stairs when he noticed. “Stop,” he said, “I don't have my shoes.”
“Then let's go get them.”
We shouldered past the bouncer and Hovik searched frenziedly by the door, sniffing about the lines of shoes like a big Basset.
“Don't you know where you put them?”
“No. Maybe over there.” He tore through all the shoes in the hallway, lifting them up and holding them close to inspect their labels.
“That's enough,” the bouncer said. When Hovik made to move farther into the hallway he blocked his path.
“I am not leaving without my shoes.”
“Yes you are.”
The bouncer had taken a step back and Hovik pressed on; the bouncer exploded forward driving a shoulder into his breastbone and Hovik, not used to drinking, toppled. They grappled and the bouncer got past his arms and struck at his face, then I was in there; I had hold of the bouncer, pinning his arms and riding him to the floor.
“Find your fucking shoes Hovik.”
My opponent twitched below me, struggling, seething; I pressed my elbow against the bone of his neck and ground his face into the linoleum. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Hovik getting up. He was red-faced and rubbing his jaw.
“Hovik, tabarnac.” The nasal voice of Louis, pleading, then heaving grunts, then a thud. “Come on Hovik.”
“Louis, get him out of here.”
“I will,” he said. “Thank you my friend.” I glanced up to see them disappear down the stairs. I heard their voices dwindling, their last notes transpiring from the garden. I waited another couple of seconds; then raised my elbow, relenting the pressure. I pushed myself off his back and got up, then I left. Annie hurried down the stairs behind me. “Are you always this calm?” she asked.
The door closed behind us and we were enveloped by gnats, their swarm drawn out by the glow of the street somewhere ahead. We were back in the garden. Back in the damp, dark night by now traveled well past the angelic bedtime. We found the path. For a minute all was quiet except the gravel crunching beneath our feet. We walked between rows of greenery, a tremendous, wild tangle going up the walls and twisting through the gate, grown out over flowers crouching pale and starved. A blast of wind thrown up by the river shivered them in their jail-bunk beds and gave rise to a tiny rustle, and the wind kept coming and it was a little wet. I looked at the sky and the stars were smudged up there. As if I'd lost one of my contacts. What had got into them, I wondered. I put my hand out, trying to anticipate the drops, but the night didn't answer and my hand touched nothing but wind.
On the street Louis shoved Hovik into a cab. We got in and the cab eased away from the curb. Annie rode in the front and me and Louis in the back with Hovik. Then, as we hurtled toward the bridge, the night broke down. A hard pressure before the first crash of thunder, then slopping buckets of it everywhere and as clouds and dust collided in the sky the rain battered the car; an avid smattering on the hood, a wet scourging of the windows. It was oddly pleasant to behold now we were inside, with the city around us and the moon opposed to the clouds rolling towards it.
At the first stoplight across the river Hovik bolted from the car. He charged across the intersection, clearing it a split second before a car tore through, then ran on down the street without shoes and pounded along in its sallow light and under the moon, huge and dripping and grinning, and ahead of the furious brake lights streaming into the night. We tailed him for several blocks. Whenever he looked to be slowing down and we drew up alongside it was only to watch him regain his breath and start sprinting with renewed vigor. He ran in his socks without support, in and out of the pools of light and right through the pools of rain. He was keeping it up, all that muscle working without gassing, more than keeping it up, he was almost charging. All those mornings were paying off, this was his race and he would outrun us all and never be found.
A line of cabs had formed in our wake. The cabbies were loath to cut ahead on account of the road being full of water. They had no traction and nothing to do but hang onto their carhorns. The rain was coming on so thick you couldn't read the street signs. Hovik splashed through it, his clothes soaked and see-through. The wiper was doing a heroic job keeping the windshield clear, the blades sweeping up and down, going so fast you wondered if they would be able to stop, to come out of it whole. At that point I thought the same of Hovik. I thought he would never stop and that he had lapsed into a state he couldn't get out of without falling to pieces.
We were halfway down the Boulevard Garibaldi before the cabbie gave it up and cut him off. He was making good money but the rear-view choir was making him sweat. He let Hovik get a little ahead, then checked the blind spot and jerked the car into the middle of the street. He passed Hovik then cut right and almost killed him. Louis jumped out and pulled him back into the car.
It was past dawn when we reached the Cité. While I slipped the driver a little extra Louis got Hovik out and marched him off before us like a prisoner. In the house the festivities were still going: the lounge was packed, the couches full, the chairs drawn up to the table and occupied. Further down, past the rows of the auditorium, the fussball table was being put to good use: some kids I didn't know jostling one another, whooping and jeering, snatching furiously at the levers. The table before us was leavened with red and full of cheese. We were given wine and space in the couch.
“Look what good friends you have Louis. They stayed up all night waiting.”
“Yes. Good friends like this will be hard to forget.”
“Where's Hovik?” Erik wanted to know.
“We put him in your bed. The door was open.”
“Should've put him up with Louis.”
“I'm not so sure about that.” I looked at Louis. “You've had enough exercise tonight.”
“You didn't actually put him in my bed?”
“Not unless you left your door open.”
“So,” he said, “I hear you guys were quite the heroes tonight.”
I darted a look at the head of the table. Annie waved.
“I was really disappointed with your friend,” she called. “With Hovik.”
“Well, how could you not be?”
“I just wanted to introduce myself,” she said. “He wasn't making any sense.”
“I'm sure he was just shy.”
“No, no, no” she laughed, “he was all over me.”
“Oh yeah? When?”
“When you weren't there.”
“Well,” I said, “it must've been awkward for him.”
“It will be.”
Erik sat by me. “How was it tonight?”
“I wasn't talking about that.”
“Well, I wasn't there for long.”
“But you don't need long,” he said. “You don't need longer than it takes to say 'si tu n'étais pas ma cousine, je te ferais l'amour.'”
“Yeah, I don't think that will work.”
“No, it's just stupid.”
”It's the right amount of stupid.”
“Yes it will work,” Annie shouted.
”What are you doing listening to our private conversation?”
“I don't have a choice,” she said. “You are so loud, everyone can hear.”
“Would it work on you?”
“If you say it with a Québec accent.”
“It will work if I sound like a cartoon?”
“No,” she said, and then, “You think we sound like cartoons?”
“That's right,” I said, “you all sound like cartoons.”
“That's not very nice.”
“No, but I just can't lie to you anymore.”
“But it doesn't make sense without a Québec accent.”
“He doesn't get it,” Erik threw in.
“Why doesn't it make sense?”
“They are our cousins.”
“He doesn't know what it means.”
“You're like little cousin Albert from the country.”
“Whatever, it's funny.”
“OK, but is it gonna get me laid?”
“Si tu n'étais pas ma cousine, je te ferais l'amour.”
“Did I get it right?”
“You got it.”
“Did it work?”
Her cheeks were these huge red spots.
“We will see.”
I turned back.
“Well,” Erik said, “I'm going for a smoke.”
He rose and made his way over to the French balcony. He got his smokes out.
“Are you coming back for another year Louis?”
“I don't think so.”
I looked over at the head of the table. Annie's eyes rose to meet mine. She stood slowly to smoke. She was by the balcony when a sudden gust flapped the curtain. My gaze traveled over her dress, her vaporous dress trapped in the curtain. She drew out her lighter, cupped a hand over the flame and smoked. My eyes hung around for a bit; I had to drag them away.
“And you my friend?”
“Are you coming back?”
I looked inside my cup: it was empty.
“Yes, maybe. If I can get a job.”
I slapped my thighs and got up from the couch.
“So, I guess this is it.”
“You are going to bed?”
“Yeah. If I have to get Hovik back in the morning.”
“He should wake up in his own bed.”
“He won't like to wake up here I can tell you that.”
“I said I'll take care of it. You have a safe trip back.”
“I'll see you my friend.”
“See you Louis.”
Monday evening we met at the Piano Vache, a student haunt by the Panthéon. The expats had the front while the French were getting ready for Gypsy jazz in the back. I had drinks with Hovik before it started.
“Deux verres de vin rouge,” I commanded.
“Deux verres de rouge.” The bartender poured.
“Your speech smacks something of a Saxon tongue, Father”
“You relax. I am this close to giving up on the whole thing.”
“Don't do it, man. Don't give up.”
“At least he didn't answer you in English.”
“Or better yet, in Wall Street English.”
“Yeah, I'd love me some Wall Street English.”
“Doesn't get better than that.”
“What is that anyway?”
“I don't know. You think they teach a New York accent?”
“Yeah, with a crash course in sales.”
“To make you sound more money.”
“John, this stock's a riser. Get in while you can.”
“Gee Bill, I don't know.”
“John, it's a boner prospect. You feel it don't you?”
“I would like to speak to my wife.”
“John, how would you feel about owning a boat?”
“I don't know, Bill. Pretty good I guess.”
“John, do you have a boner?”
“Right now? Wait, let me check.“
“Because I do. John buddy, this is the call you've been waiting for.”
“Bill, I'm getting a boner.”
“John, let's do this first, then go get the wife, if you know what I mean.”
“It's going up as we speak.”
“Oh, where did I put that checkbook?”
“John, you're not in France. Use the internet.”
I drank the wine and made sure all my mouth got a taste.
“By the way,” he said, “Marcus wants to talk to you.”
“Does he? That's odd.”
“He say about what?”
“Well,” I said, “what did you tell him?”
“Just that you're interested in coming down.”
“Hard to say. I've talked about you before.”
Hovik touched his wine.
“What's the first thing you're gonna do when you get down there?”
“I never said I'd go.”
“I thought you did.”
“I'm leaning that way.”
“Look, I know what you're thinking.”
“Stop reading my mind.”
“It's a really good school.”
“How do you know?”
“I had the same reservations.”
“And now you don't.”
“Marcus vouched for it. It's where he went.”
“He learned French there?”
“He's not just saying that to get you down there?”
“Kip, he's thinking of buying the place.”
“So what's the first thing you would do if you did go?”
“Yes, most likely.” I turned to the bar. “S'il vous plaît, monsieur. Encore un verre de vin rouge. A boire pendant le jazz.”
“Bien sûr, monsieur. Un verre de rouge.” The bartender pulled a glass wet off the dish then grabbed a towel and was a long time wiping the glass down then set it on the counter and pulled a bottle from the shelf and poured.
“That wasn't so bad now was it?”
“Yeah, well, when it comes to ordering wine there's no language in the world you don't know.”
“I'm fluent when I need to be.”
“You should get another glass too. You know there's no talking in there.”
“Thanks, I'll manage.”
“So, what's the first thing you'll do?”
“Smoke a doobie on the beach.”
”What?” I said. “You're gonna smoke?”
“Down there, sure. Why not?”
“Because you don't smoke? Because you're a fitness maniac?”
“Oh c'mon, only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
“Uh, yeah. Anyway, I think they're about to start in there. Let's go.”
We moved through the bar and up some stairs into the back room. Erik sat facing the music, sitting in the only chair by our table so we had to squeeze into a sofa with our backs to the band. The sofa was an old one. The lining had broken down with springs visible here and there beneath the busted seams and sometimes these holes were so large it looked like someone might fall in and covering some of them were wool blankets like the one Clint Eastwood wore throughout The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. We craned our necks around to get a glimpse of Rodolphe – a short, round man perched upon a stool – and his trio. Soft notes suffused the air, gentle waves reaching for the shore; but this evening when they got there the waves had teeth and tore across the sands, this evening when he played Rodolphe held his guitar the way you would a cuckoo baby at baptism, and he sat stiffly upon his stool and his countenance was strained. “They say his mistress is cheating on him,” Erik informed us while the barkeep hushed the room in his broken English: “You're in the shut-the-fuck-up zone now!” he roared. “So shut the fuck up!” I turned my head. To our left was a pretty pair of girls and Erik had stopped watching the performance.
“How do you know?”
“Huh?” he said, “oh, he told me outside.”
I turned back towards the music. The performance dragged on. Erik tugged at my shirtsleeve. “What?” He was eyeing the girls and by now one of them had gone with a French boy to another sofa, leaving one by herself.
“If you don't,” he said, “I will.”
“OK, go on then.” I got up and we switched seats, giving me a much better view. In the center of the room Rodolphe squeezed his guitar and held it in the furious way a man does his toothbrush; he was sweating and suffering and his skin shone under the lights and he was sweating as though he had his back to a hearth. I saw the bassist winking. A woman in the front row caught the wink and smiled; and as the light slid into her eyes I thought I detected a glint of malice, but as it passed I thought it may be she was just nearsighted. Rodolphe replied forcefully, straightening on his stool and snatching at the strings. He was still finding the right ones, but his fingers were rigid and his playing had an animal undertone to it that had me worried the wood wouldn't hold and that splinters would fly across the room.
Erik chatted with the girl. She was Israeli, he was Swedish. “Oh, how nice!” she said, “I'm so jealous of the way you guys get to learn all these languages.” “We do?” “Of course! French, German, Italian – ” Hovik started laughing and Erik stomped him on the foot. “Ow!” “Shut the fuck up!” the barman bellowed. Erik glared at us, but he needn't have for we were interested only in the winking bassist, the smiling woman and the hurting guitarist. Caught in the copper light, his wet flesh glimmering like fish scales, Rodolphe had nowhere to go. Like a court jester, he had nowhere to go but on until everyone was gone, gone until the next time.
We parted after the show and I made for the river. Fresh rain glistened on the stones in the dragged-out flame of the lamplight, the rain that was rotting away the early summer, that had fallen for months but as of right now had taken a break. I stopped at a Spar and bought a six-pack of 1664. French beer. People disparaged the French beer. Called it names like weak and tasteless. Well, that was all right by me. I wanted a silent companion, not something that would explode in my mouth and steal the show. I didn't want anything like that. It was a warm moonlit night and what I wanted was to be alone.
I reached the river. The voices of students carried across, singing to each other and saluting the tourist barges: “Je vous emmerde!” I walked along the river and crossed to the Île Saint-Louis. I passed the Berthillon; it was closed at this hour. Olivia had loved the Berthillon. She would gorge herself and never gain a pound, sitting there on the quay dangling her legs, sitting there excited about her ice cream, watching the rivermen and the boats go by on the water and the fishermen over in the leafy shade on the Île de la Cité and the couples around us, the other couples that liked to be solitary together. Olivia the art student. I walked to the water and didn't know it until I sat down. I opened a can of beer and sat drinking it.
The nightlights were a blur in the distance before the black line of buildings rising back of the street. The moon rescued the river from obscurity and gave away the students holed-up along the quay across the water. They were still singing. They kept offering their cordial and most sincere compliments to the passing sightseers. Aside from that and the faraway sound of traffic, the night was calm. It was calm, bright and warm. A good night for ice cream, I supposed. Olivia the art student. How excitable she had been. That was what I had loved most about her. Her ability to drag enjoyment out of the mundane and make it genuine. She drank coffee without procrastinating. She procrastinated without drinking coffee. She looked at the sea and didn't feel the wind, she enjoyed the sunrise without running, she was stirred by the stars and always surprised by them. She enjoyed it all and damn it all to hell if she didn't. Not that that was ever an option once she had started her day. As far as I know there was no ulterior motive, or an added purpose of any kind, nor was it part of some process or marked on the planning she kept pinned to the wall above her desk.
The only process she knew was no excuses and she applied it as evenly as she nibbled her nails, which she found no excuse not to do with me around. She would sit staring across the river. Not talking and trying to not do any thinking. Just having her ice cream and her nails and smiling whenever she caught me looking. Her smile that got smaller each time she looked at me. I would have said or done anything to turn that tide, I almost expired trying to, but each time she looked at me her smile was further downhill.
We never argued; on the contrary, everything declined smoothly and went away. I took to filling in the silences, the heavy silences, talking until I was hoarse with loathing of my own sound and my lack of new material became apparent. I was expiring for love and she offered nothing in return. In the end, I made a desperate stand at a crosswalk, as we were heading for the train. I clutched her arm fiercely and weighed her down. She looked at me and I saw how she worked her face she was really trying, but her smile was too far gone. She ended up walking us both across, dragging me along with her bag. Normally, however, Olivia didn't walk. Olivia sashayed. No matter where she went. Asphalt, gravel or grass didn't matter. When I pointed it out she would stop doing it so I stopped mentioning it. I liked looking at her swaying backside. Liked it a lot. Sometimes I'd lag behind, pretending to do some window-shopping or to tie one of my shoelaces. She always caught me, and looked sweetly annoyed, and I was doing it all the time on purpose. No sweeter sight in the world than the sway of her back. The world was her catwalk.
Or maybe she wasn't happy at all. Maybe she was as frozen as I was, worried into a little knot, vocal chords on strike, body in a cramp. No, it didn't fit. Why shouldn't she be happy? What excuse did she have? I was the worst thing that ever happened to her and I wasn't even that bad.
We waited years to have sex. In her world, and mine by extension, the vagina was not to be tampered with prior to the holy matrimony. Not even a little try-out to see how things fit. At one point however she had offered it to me, and looked so damn sweet doing it. It was the night before Christmas. We were fooling around at her parent's place when she had stopped and gone rigid as though there was someone creeping by the door. Then she started whispering to me. She was drunk but earnest. She had this sweet, timid voice she used whenever she was curious about something and didn't quite know how to ask. It was so small and cute. You could just wrap your arms around it and carry it off to a little cave and lie snuggling with it under the furs all winter. It didn't matter. I couldn't get it up. Not because her parents were asleep in the room next door – or her sister across the hall, but because I'd been drinking and, having not expected such magnanimity, had not thought to bring any pills. She was a virgin, I supposed, so I didn't explain in detail. Just rolled over and fell asleep, hoping she'd do the same and supposing she'd forget about it, although she did have me promise not to drink for the rest of the weekend. But the notion had taken root and lived on. She had given this a good bit of consideration, a thing I realized from the look she gave me the following dinner every time I turned down a drink – her eyes would go vague and her mouth would come open a little at the corners. She never took her eyes off me.
That was the secret, to love someone you didn't think you did. Things are done this way in most parts of the world, including where they speak English.
The last of the boats had gone by. The moon persisted but the night was no longer fresh or clear. Puffs of mist had joined forces above the river and the students could now not be made out on the other shore. Their distant, disparate voices bounced off the underbelly of the bridge and the echoes of their song drifted off and died.
It was stone still. Through the mist I saw the lights of the bridges going up the river like the rungs of some enchanted ladder and above them in the night the stars redolent with memory how they saw through the entrails of time.
The couch creaks as she turns. A shy expression spreads down her face. Her eyes that love me, adore me, the sweet timidity in her voice. If we have a little boy, she says, is he going to look like you?
We'd met just after I left the army. I was on vacation, down and out of a purpose, and there she was. Two Texans in Paris and what's more, it turned out our families were acquainted. What were the odds? I don't know how it happened, not exactly, just in a general sense. I know there was no connivance on my part, I didn't sit at home plotting, didn't have a plan, didn't pace my room analyzing. It just happened, from one moment to the next, before I knew it and unconnected to any conscious action of mine. Anyway I stopped being depressed. We enrolled together at Austin and must have seemed inseparable to all on campus. Times were good. A couple of years went by and marriage seemed a foregone conclusion; then, I applied to a program in Paris. Olivia urged me to go. She was not going to stand in the way of my dreams, I was not going to be a bitter husband and it would only be for two years. Besides, Paris was such a great city for the arts and wasn't she an art student? My mother had been against it, of course. She was a woman of principle and chief among them was being against anything that didn't work out.
I drank some of the beer. Olivia. Kind of a bland name. It lacked the sex and sophistication of a nice French double, un prénom composé. Anne-Sophie. Eva-Marie. Marie-Claire. Those were names. Maybe Hovik was on to something.
She never took her eyes off me at dinner.
It was past midnight. The racailles had come out, jabbering away not fifty feet from my position. There was no sound from the other side. There was no more singing and the students were gone. The wind skimmed the river and brought a chill. It spread through the air, slipped into my bones and my body ached. I got the beer and started towards Saint-Michel. With any luck I would catch the last metro and be home in time to enjoy the rest of the beer and still be able to get up early. To do what? Well, there was time to think of something. It was important to keep your good habits. You never knew when they'd be needed and you never knew which ones were good until they were needed. I could go to the store. Get that out of the way early, then go back and read. That sounded ambitious enough. Here now were the racailles, jostling and laughing in their tracksuits, trainers and basketball shoes. I wasn't worried, there was nobody with me to set them off. I was just a guy drinking beer on a Monday night. What would be the point?
I was too late for the metro and would have to take the nightbus. I waited by the Place Saint-Michel and when the bus arrived it was empty. The driver took no account of me. I had a pass but it wasn't his business whether I did or not. Other people, linebacker types, came on now and then to check them. The driver wasn't supposed to, he just drove, and to that effect he was watching the street. The bus took off and I sat there in silence feeling safe and muffled behind the soft cushions of alcohol. I sat looking out the window at the dark and quiet streets of the left bank. The park was closed but the lights were still on at the McDonald's facing it across the way and hungry people came and went. At Port-Royal the bus turned right onto the Boulevard Montparnasse and rumbled past La Closerie des Lilas. I had never been there. Now on the left was the Swan Bar, where some friends of mine were occasionally invited to perform, but I'd never been there either. I'd never been to any of the places this part of the street. Just passed them going home. They looked so sad and lonely and I never went inside lest I be the only one there.
The rain was on again and sparkled across the window. I sat and watched the streets go by, seeing people pass under the lights and into the dark. I wondered if I'd be tired when I got back. I thought not, not at once – it would take a couple more beers. That's what it would take, then it would hit me all at once and put me down on the spot.
Sleep is a great curator. While you sleep the self is suspended but the heart never takes a break, just slows and strikes a steady beat, doles out the right rations and keeps order in the ranks. The heart knows only this and it's easy to remember. The mind, however, knows a good deal more. It also never rests. When you are helpless and dreaming the mind restores. It cuts away the edges, flattens and smooths the surface, airbrushes and retouches. It is absorbed in work. While you sleep the mind files away, all night long, every night. While you sleep it decimates, and in the morning you are lighter.
The final stop was Porte d'Orléans, on the southern edge of the city. I got out and crossed the intersection. I passed the halal shop on my right – steak at half price inside the périphérique. Good steak too. Great steak, and they always gave you more than you asked for. Even on Sundays. Then there was the pharmacy, the bakery and later on the shisha lounge, a black plastic patio on the corner. That place always put me off. Rope, carpet and bouncer was a common sight and luxury cars would park all over the sidewalk. It had bothered me so much I'd gone and looked it up. Turns out there was a law in the last few years affecting these establishments – they were no longer accessible to the public. Only members got to smoke. This place was private, and looked that way. Next up was the weird house in the traffic island that looked like a giant bong. It would be a terrific fit on the moon.
I walked the ten minutes up the Boulevard through the rain and then my father called. I always enjoyed it coming in from the rain. Wet clothes hung to dry. Cold limbs slipped into warm, soft clothes. The hair subdued in the mirror, the temperature rising, warmth coming into the cheeks and ears. Nothing so soothing as the rain outside in the night and me inside. The rain thrumming on the roofs and windows, coming down through the tranquil dark, through the radial glow of the streetlights. I always enjoyed it but this time my father called to say his mother died.