He’s an old man with an old man’s shave. He missed the ridge of his jaw and few places around his chin, and high up on his cheeks, above the beard line of younger men, he has little patches of whisker where late-life hair sprouts no less than in the ear and nose. He has a small pleased smile on his ruddy lips as he reads his paper.
We are sitting just about shoulder to shoulder, a fact of Paris cafés I noticed many years ago, and still it makes me wonder, always. Had we come here together, we would not be sitting any closer. He was sitting when I arrived, and I squeezed in to the last place available on the terrace between him and a woman in a bright green coat. He barely looked up. And on my other side, I would not be sitting any closer to the woman in the garish coat if I were sleeping with her, though I think that would be a bad idea and less than no fun.
I settle in and fiddle with my notebook, trying to figure out what I wrote in it no more than an hour ago. I really can’t read it, but the couple of words I can pick out tickle my memory, remind me of what I think I meant to write, and I make a fresh note. Got it, maybe. I decide, as the waiter walks up to take my order, to treat myself for this triumph of recovered memory or cryptanalysis to smoked salmon and a fillette of Sancerre. I grin at the world and let out what I think is a little sigh, or just a grunt, of satisfaction at the same moment that the old man spits a sigh of disgust at his newspaper. We both notice and laugh, a little nervously, but laugh anyhow.
He goes back to his paper, and I eat. I don’t much like talk about food and wine, especially while I’m eating and drinking them, but today I’ve hit the jackpot. The salt in the fish and the flint in the wine are really getting along like best friends—and I’m willing to swear I hear them agree to bunk together next semester as they make their way down my throat. I eat slowly, uncommon for me, and keep my eye on my plate and my glass to make sure that I finish the salmon and the wine together—a last hand-in-hand swallow and sip, two for the road. I lean back in my chair, done and done up proud, close my eyes, convinced I am beaming with benevolence at all the world, every last one of God’s beasts of the field, of the air, of the deep, down to the microbes. I guess I doze.
But jolted, I open my eyes, thinking the old man must have bumped me as he was getting up, not surprising seeing how close his chair is. But he has actually tapped me on the shoulder, very lightly. He appears, I think—I’m a little lost and bleary from food and my world-loving semi-siesta—to be offering me his newspaper, then looks me right in the face and asks me why I’m looking so sad. I didn’t know I was. “Oh, yes, I wondered what could make a young man like you look so unhappy.” Young? “To me. Much younger than I, anyway.” I was thinking about… I start to tell him I was thinking about my meal, but it comes back to me. I had drifted into thoughts about the note I had decoded from my standing-up writing into my more legible sitting-at-a-table writing. It was about a woman, I tell him. “Of course.” He laughs. “What else could it be?”
No, I tell him, there’s no problem with a woman, nothing making me sad. I tell him that, to the contrary, another familiar fact of Paris I like is the way young women look at middle-aged men with interest and a welcome and are glad to get to know you, unlike young women in the States. No, I tell him, nothing wrong, no heartbreak, no tearing my hair. “Then what? You said it was about a woman.” Yes, but she was nothing to me, still isn’t. “So?” So, she annoyed me somehow. He looks at me, and I think it’s time to tell the story.
There is a semi-famous American ex-pat who has monthly get-togethers, and I went to one last week. Everybody pays a few euros, maybe more than a few, for the food and the wine—which I will not say a word about—and bores the bejesus out of everyone else for a couple of hours. I began thinking of how to make my escape within ten minutes of arriving. People seemed very forthright about walking up and introducing themselves, which for someone as shy as I am made life a little easier since I didn’t have to say anything first. I was talking with a retired engineer from Denver—for this I come to Paris?—when a good-looking dark-haired young woman came up to us. She stuck out her hand to shake, with the elbow perfectly straight and her palm pointed slightly down—the sure-fire technique for keeping someone at arm’s length.
Her English was good with a very noticeable French accent—charming, of course, or perhaps intriguing. Not charming because French accents are supposed to be, though often to my ear they are not, but intriguing because it came and went like the tides, only faster. I asked her how long she had been in France. About sixteen months, she had gotten married to a Frenchman, and she mentioned the church—the only one in Paris I can think of that is actually uglier than Saint-Sulpice. Sixteen months? “Yes, and since we always speak French, I guess I’m losing my English.” Well, from time to time. And you said you’re going back to the States? Where? “Wisconsin.” She drifts off. The engineer and I stare at each other…
“And,” the vieillard asks, “and that makes you sad?” No, not sad. And no, not angry either, I tell him. “Then what, if you don’t mind my asking you?” I felt sorry for her. She was making something up, writing herself a script, and getting ready to be the professional semi-foreigner or world traveler. When she gets back to Wisconsin or wherever she is going, people will probably laugh at her. Look, she couldn’t fool me or the engineer for ten seconds.
“Well, you know, she is young. She’s trying out different things. If people make fun of her, she’ll get over it.” I suppose you are right, but it seemed so à la gomme, pathetic. Maybe it reminded me of myself thirty years ago. Who knows?
He laughs. “Vous êtes bonhomme,” he tells me. Thanks, but I don’t know how good-natured I am. People tell me otherwise. “Don’t listen to them, my young friend. You were disappointed. She was a pretty girl, yes? You wanted her to be a perfect pretty girl, the kind you could like, fall in love with perhaps. If you were younger, you might have because you wouldn’t have cared if she was not perfect. Why not? You’ve noticed girls like her are interested in men like you, after all. You, you are a romantic and maybe a little sentimental as well. That’s bad? No, not at all, but you’ve forgotten or just don’t believe in it any longer. What a shame.”
He gets up, pats me on the shoulder, and smiles. “You’ll be all right.”
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