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Paris is not meant for the rain. Low gray skies suit Amsterdam and can even feel cozy there — God’s in his wet heaven and all’s damp with the world, or at least the Dutch think so. Paris has its share of rain and drizzle—these days more than it needs—but it doesn’t wear bad weather well or suffer it gladly. Nor do Parisians take kindly to rainy days, their volubility muted as they slosh along the streets, their heads down and collars up, walking with bleak purpose rather than sauntering and taking in what’s there around them to see. In no place on earth, I imagine, will you see more beautiful umbrellas than in the hands of parisiennes, and a store on Boul’ Mich has become famous everywhere for its stupefying assortment, but the Paris ladies themselves in the rain are much less bright and floral than the pretty umbrellas that keep their hair dry: no matter, their spirits are damp and it shows on their faces, and the men are worse. Not promising. But today I’ve been housebound too long and out I go, ready to take my chances, though I’m not hoping for the best.
Without thinking of any place in particular, I head more or less west. I’ve been avoiding my own neighborhood for a couple of weeks. One glum afternoon—glum for me, the sun was shining that day and it was warm—I told sweet and tiny Baba, who manages the only nearby café that I like, about mon chagrin d’amour, and ever since she has been kind and sad-eyed whenever I come in. Perhaps she’s showing solidarity with me, perhaps she thinks she could make me smile again, perhaps she’s just being motherly. I can’t tell, and it’s nice to get the occasional extra glass of wine on the house or the astonishing twofer when I order a croissant in the morning. But I’m really doing much better these days, and her sad, understanding look isn’t doing me any favors: being her broken-hearted customer is not my trade, not going to be. So I make a point of passing by at least once a day, waving at her from the terrasse, and not stopping.
The rain isn’t too bad at first, more a low-flying cloud or a cosmic wet blanket than a real rain, and it suits me. After maybe thirty minutes, the wind picks up, smacks me right in the face and sends water down my collar. Time to retreat, to find a café and lie low for a while, but this is not my idea of the place to do it. I’m in the Fourth Arrondissement, with the tourists checking out the smallish museums or crowding the colonnades in the Place des Vosges or watching the King and the Ace of Falafel duke it out on rue des Rosiers, but I’m here and the wind is still blowing harder than I like this afternoon. The café I’m right in front of is my port in this storm, and I find a table where it’s quiet, away from the bar. By the time I hang up my coat and wring out my floppy hat, my coffee has come and I have a book in my pocket. I can wait this one out.
Either I’ve become less observant or she came in on little cat feet while I was looking away, but there is a woman at the table to my right, facing toward me though looking down at a map. I think she’s pouting or puzzled. Old habit: I ask her if she needs directions. She looks up and proves what I thought—simply, she is very beautiful. She answers in weak French and with an accent I can’t place. I ask her, still in French, what languages she speaks, and she looks a little unsure. English? Yes, she speaks English, but still with an accent I can’t place, so I ask her in reasonable English if she needs help with her map. She does. I move over next to her—she smells very good, if a little wet—and show her where she is, which surprises her. Mila has no idea how she got here, but here seems to please her for the time being, and we begin to talk. Her family moved to America from Iran many years ago, she’s an American citizen, and she’s here with two girlfriends—one’s actually a cousin—and they were getting on her nerves, so she set out on her own with no sense of direction, got caught in the same wind and rain that chased me from the street, and here she is. Good.
And so we talk and drink coffee, less for the caffeine than for the waiter’s goodwill because I think it’s still windy and wet outside and I don’t want to give up this comfy talk with a beautiful woman to be hustled out for a dose of bad weather. We talk about everything imaginable, except of course about us which is the only thing that matters when a man and a woman first meet, but she is a good talker and comes across as intelligent, which always is at least slightly erotic for me. After two hours I understand that I have not once thought of the woman who broke my heart and her own and decide I’m making progress. Some anyway, but she looks at her watch and has to go. She has to meet the girlfriends for tea, but we could have dinner if I like. I do. I ask her where she will be, she tells me, and I know a place near where she’s having tea that is quiet. We promise to meet in two hours. Good, I say, and you know it’s wonderful to meet a woman who is intelligent and beautiful. She smiles bright and broad and thanks me.
It’s no longer raining very much, the wind has died, and I find Mila a taxi because she has no idea how to use the Métro, kiss her on both checks and say à bientôt. Yes, she says, and smiles. Two hours later, she’s just walking up the café. It’s one of those schizophrenic Parisian places that claims on its awning to be Café-Bistrot-Restaurant not to mention Bar à Vins as an afterthought on the window, or maybe they just ran out of room on that awning. If they expand, maybe they will add Brasserie and Auberge. I tell the waiter who greets us that we’d like to sit in the back, around the corner, he grins his understanding and seats us. Nice leather chairs side by side, the music from the bar almost inaudible, and a couple of oblivious Italian tourists the only others anywhere near us.
She smiles, puts her hand on my arm and asks me why my eyes look a little sad. I thought it had stopped showing, so I tell her, with enough detail to make everything plain, but no more. “I have a broken heart, too.” I wasn’t ready for that. What happened? The man she thought she was in love with and who courted her with flowers and phone calls for six weeks before she went to bed with him immediately afterward began insulting her intelligence, telling her she didn’t know what she was talking about. She left. And that was just a week ago. That’s why she was so pleased when I told I thought she was very intelligent and why her girlfriends brought her to Paris. Oh. After a couple of months, I’m not sure I’m ready for a new woman, but how could she be ready for me after only a week? Over two hours, and wine and smoked salmon, I hear enough to know that she is still in love with the man. And there’s more. She has money problems, she has been largely ostracized by the Iranian community where she grew up in California because of a nasty personal incident, an aunt she loved just died, and she’s having a fight—or maybe it’s a lawsuit—with her landlord.
Nelson Algren gave good advice when he said, “Never play cards with a man named Doc, never eat at a place called Mom’s, and never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” Given the choice, I’m not sure I’d follow the last part of Algren’s advice at the moment, but it doesn’t matter. Even with her hand always on my arm and her eyes in mine, she’s not talking to me any more, but to her once and (certainly) future lover, trying to coax the sun back up in the sky and to chase away the stormy weather in her heart even if it’s just misty outside. Too bad.
Et alors? She’ll send me a text in a few days when she’s home in the States telling me she’s back with the guy: you can bet on it. So what? So maybe I did her some good, though I’m not sure. But she did me some, too, more than some. For a while, at least, I’ve had the attention and the touch of a beautiful woman and stopped thinking about the other. She says à bientôt when I kiss her goodnight outside her hotel. And on the long walk home I say adieu and feel fine.