What am I supposed to think? That I’m cute? I knew that. If nothing else, I am cute and clever—and probably nothing else at all when you measure it out, cut it and paste it, pour into soup plates, and eat the pudding in search of the proof. Everyone says my judgment could be better, I can’t hear very well, I sometimes confuse fact with really clever ideas, use my sense of direction to go to places I should avoid and lose companions along the way, smoke too much, dress like a ragamuffin (a vile slander: I dress like a chômeur, but one who has only recently lost his job), daydream in the middle of conversations that they tell me are really important and interesting, walk too fast, go to bed too early, get up much too early, and do the same things that people don’t like about me all over again, though not always in the same order, which brings the charge of unpredictability, however contradictory that may be. Clearly I have no manners, though everyone concedes I am polite.
But polite and clever don’t show, even at close range, so I suppose the answer is cute, but even my vanity doesn’t say very cute. So what am I supposed to think when I walk by the right-hand end (as you face it) of a famous café, the only one of that kind I ever walk into because a friend hangs out there in search of—and, truth to tell, finding—artistic inspiration, but he is more subtle than I, or maybe I don’t know what to look at. Oh, I’ve lost my place. What, I meant to ask, am I supposed to think when I walk by this café and a woman with a Florida tan—which you can get anywhere, including under lights and from a tube—smiles at me invitingly and follows me with her eyes as I keep going. The tan does nothing for me, and if she lost fifteen kilos she would not be scrawny, though the tube dress she is wearing, which comes almost within six inches of her knees, might fit her a bit better. I think nothing.
There are better things for me to do, more streets and quartiers to visit that I don’t know or haven’t seen in years, the crummier the better, with an occasional enthusiasm for little streets like the one with nine old hôtels particuliers, almost the size of the standard Parisian apartment house where I live and, except for two that have become a museum and one that seems to house some do-gooders, are still in private hands. Or I can discover a truly and preposterously ugly church that, after all these years, supplants in my aesthetic, the hideousness of St. Sulpice, knocking it down to a distant second in the ugly-Paris-church sweepstakes—only because Sacré Coeur was forcibly retired from competition as the all-time number one years ago when, as the Minister of Ugly Churches announced, “It is as if Tiger is playing mini-golf with five-year-olds.” Or I can find a park with the paths as arid and thirsty as the gravel paths in all the Parisian parks, but here they are paved with the gravel set into tan cement, solid underfoot, but no dust. And the park offers a free pipi-room while the one in the train station, maybe ten minutes away, requires fifty centimes, the idea being to discourage les clochards who, naturally enough, head to the park to pee and sleep on the benches there. Ah, Paris! Ah, l’État nounou!
You see, I have a lot—that is to say, I have Paris—on my mind and to keep me interested or at least distracted and certainly not thinking about chunky tanned women with beckoning smiles. It is something of a shock—or maybe a novelty, as if I were an amnesiac with a memory of seven seconds for whom the most banal and ordinary occurrences, as repeated, become new, if not fresh and welcome—when she flashes her smile at me and, again follows me with her eyes as I keep going, not even daring to look if my loco friend is in residence at the other end of the café. Since the café and, more to the point, her strategic location (she seems to have taken a long-term lease on that table and chair) are an ambush point on one of my regular routes, I have taken evasive action—to wit, crossing the street, which is quite wide. But my strong peripheral vision, one of the other minor virtues I possess even though I forgot to enumerate it, picks her up following me.
It’s weird. She must have seen some better looking men along the way and surely some of them—just one is all it takes—would have been touched by her charms, entranced by her tan, moved to salivate over her fleshiness. This frightens me—not that no one else has shown interest, no. What frightens me is that she has decided to save herself for me. You understand? From the other side of the wide boulevard, she has picked me out of the crowd—God knows how. I’m not big enough in any direction to stand out, I don’t wear bright colors or a beanie with a pinwheel on top, my gait will not get me even an entry level job in the Ministry of Silly Walks, I don’t sing at the top of my lungs or even whistle. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not even here—or there—or wherever. This is not the case with her.
But good news comes my way—an invitation to visit friends outside of Paris. The visit is good—good, you must understand, includes describing some pretty nasty medical conditions in the past tense. The food and wine are lovely in the present tense. And I have no need for the future tense, no thought of it at all. Brainless. Back in Paris, memories of the tan chunk erased by good times in Normandie, I forget to cross the street, and damned if she isn’t waiting for me. Waiting? She is standing up, rather awkwardly, or is it shyly, gesturing toward the empty chair opposite hers. She says nothing, I guess because she knows no French and can’t figure out what I speak. But the gesture is unmistakable as an invitation for a tête-à-tête to be followed by a-something-to-a-something. It’s the kind of gesture men—all of us, I think—dream about, provided the woman making the invitation looks like Catherine Deneuve or Drew Barrymore or Scarlett Johansson or for that matter the pretty girl no one ever heard of or will ever see again who just walked by leaving a heap of broken hearts and unusable hard-ons in her wake.
I keep going, but not far. Just past the famous sparkle palace, there’s an ordinary café that I like because it is so ordinary and actually has regulars. I sit, order some wine and olives, try deep-breathing exercises, consider saying Ommm, and sigh, then out of habit, as a flâneur and eavesdropper, start looking around. To my right, just past an empty table is a man, practically falling out of his chair staring at a very fleshy woman talking with another who is rather sweet and svelte. There is no mistaking, however, which woman has grappled his attention and thrown it to the mat. I slide over and say, Vous aimez les grosses filles? Pitié. Celle-là est gouine. He looks at me and—pay dirt, the kingdom of heaven, seven-come-eleven, and baby just got her new pair of shoes—he answers me in British English, saying more or less, Sorry, I don’t do French actually.
“Ah,” I tell him, slightly haltingly, “I do the English. I asked if you like the big girls?” As a matter of fact, he does, if it’s any of my business. I excuse myself for intruding, but point out that I also said it’s a pity, but she is a lesbian. How would you know that? Simple, monsieur, the white shoes—and he hasn’t clue I’m making this up. His face falls, but perks up again when I point out that his glass is empty and, I reckon, probably has been for twenty minutes. I have it filled for him. I guess him to be a few years younger than I, a bit better looking—he has more hair, but less distinction, not that these things matter to me, not at a time like this, not at all—and clearly has no head for drink. But he sounds like a Brit which for some reason is an aphrodisiac for American women—well once, anyway. My lucky day.
You know, I tell him, on my way to this café, I happened to see a big girl, who looks as if she has plenty of money, by the way, not that it matters, of course, sitting at the front of the café next door at the far end. I thought she looked triste… you know, sad, lonely. You might, you know, walk by, smile, introduce yourself. I’m sure she speaks English. You never know. And I’m quite sure she likes men.
Some men try to be casual and can pull it off. This Brit is certainly not one of them. He starts to get up, remembers the free drink in front of him is still half there—let’s not get into full or empty—drains it, mumbles something having to do with thanks and now he knows what he’ll be doing tonight, and off he goes. I hope he makes it the twenty metres or so to the lady’s table without falling on his face. After that, it’s out of my hands and in the cards which I have dealt but cannot play. I’ll walk by the café tomorrow and see. I expect to hear the All Clear.
© Joseph Lestrange