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There’s no reason to pay any attention to the couple sitting outside the café, and I don’t. I don’t beyond noting she’s a little young for him, but they’ve said that about me more than once in my life. Not my business anyway. I perch with my eau de vie, and it’s not the good stuff, to the right of the girl with a little table between us. They’re entitled to their privacy, and I am too, and I’m using mine to deal with an amiable puzzle.
What if Baudelaire’s typesetter had made a small mistake, messed up a single letter in one word, when setting the type for “L’Invitatation au voyage”? What if his mistake changed songe à la douceur to songe à la douleur, simply swapping an l for a c and so asking her to think of “pain” rather than “pleasure”? How would we read the poem? What would we think of it? The change, the accident, doesn’t by any means make the poem nonsense. Given the possibility of pain in love—and don’t I know it—might this actually be an improvement or add a level of sensibility or sadness or ambiguity to the dream of joy Baudelaire is presenting to his girlfriend? An irony or a sense of emptiness for which Baudelaire had a ravenous appetite? Hard to say, and probably best to save this for the next meeting of the seminar in poetics and semiotics, which I plan to convene two weeks after hell freezes over. I go back to my eau de vie.
Other than being dimly aware of the typically French undertone of the conversation between the guy and the girl over to my left and the street noises, I’m not paying attention to anything, daydreaming, I think, in a kind of gawky way, losing the thread, grasping another, perfectly all right by me. Unconsciously—it’s an old habit, maybe the result of overly good peripheral vision—I unconsciously look from side to side from every once in a while, and the girl catches my eye. She’s around thirty, though five years either way on her birth certificate would not surprise me, kind of cute while being a little too tall and too sharp-featured to be really so, worth looking at. He could be fifty, anyway, kind of a hound-dog face, a stiff as far as I can tell. Odd couple—un vrai canon et un vrai boulet! Their business. But she catches my eye and does a real cute. She cocks her head a little too the left, scrunches her shoulders right up to her ears, grins and asks if I can spare a smoke. I hand her the pack and tell her to take two. She turns to the stiff. No, he shakes his head. So take one and a half. They both laugh, then she takes one, borrows my lighter, thanks me and smokes.
I turn to go back to my sloppy daydreams when a bird in the linden right in front of us begins to squawk. Ah, c’est beau, ce chant d’oiseau, je l’adore! I don’t find this bird’s song, if you can call it that and I don’t, adorable. I’ve been hearing it from the terrace at the back of my building ever since I arrived and can’t stand it. It’s loud, evil-tempered, piercing. But I haven’t been able to figure out what it was, this annoying bird or flock of them. I ask her. She tells me it’s a blackbird. Ah. So she talks about birds, I talk about annoying high frequencies, the stiff just follows the bouncing ball. That is to say, we’re having a conversation. Why not?
It’s the kind that wanders here and there, nothing serious, nothing too boring, a pleasant way for the girl and me to pass a little time while he says practically nothing or more frequently leans forward to hear me better. She asks me to talk louder. Maybe he’s deaf. Then she asks a question, Why not? I’ve been expecting something.
Not really a question, though she punctuates a halting declarative sentence with a verbal question mark, preceded by the statement that I speak excellent French: Vous n’êtes pas… français… je crois…? She isn’t certain, she says, maybe from a region she doesn’t know? No, not French, I’m a foreigner. Really? From where? From where do you think? The stiff is in the game now, he can hear, he’s all ears with a good measure of tongue to go along with them. More or less in order he says Belgium, Holland, the north, Poland (huh?), Scotland, Germany (I turn my back, they laugh), and a few others. I’m tempted to say Sénégal, but the joke might flop because the girl is at least a little African. They seem to have come to the end of their geography book, so I tell them I had one Russian grandfather, one Romanian grandmother, and two other grandparents said to be from Ukraine, but maybe by way of Turkey or Hungary. I tell them that’s a hint. Of course it is, she says, but still doesn’t get it or name the country. Instead, she asks my name.
Joseph, Joseph Lestrange. The stiff has gone deaf again. I repeat my name, she repeats it to him, he gets it on the third pass. I add that it’s not my real name. She says her name is… Anastasie and he is… Eric and those are really their names. She’s French, he’s Swiss, and you are…?
Time’s up. I tell them Je suis new-yorkais. A New Yorker, they love it even though I tell them I haven’t lived there for years. I add in English, to prove my bona fides, the correct obscenity between the verb and the proper noun. They love that more, and begin speaking English, not badly. Her accent is thick enough to make Maurice Chevalier sound like John Wayne, but I understand her clearly enough, even if she needs a few gestures now and then to finish a sentence. His English is workmanlike—and certainly he’s a German Swiss—and as colorless as his French. They seem more and more interested in me, what I do and where I have lived now that we’re having a bilingual conversation.
How much time do I spend in France? Why? How long have I been coming here? What do I do? May I have another cigarette? She skips the cute this time. I smile, she helps herself to my lighter, puts it down on her table—hers, because she’s moved over into the empty one between us and is facing me now. I smile again and say, That’s my lighter. Oh? She puts it back on my table. Do you…
I say it’s time for another drink and start for the bar inside. I ask them if they’d like anything more. He shakes his head, looks stern. She hold up her glass. What are you drinking? She tells me two different whites, I take her glass, get myself another eau de vie and her the same Sancerre I always drink here. She takes the wine, he scowls, I sit and take a drink of my cheap brandy. Might as well.
Before they can restart their interrogation, I figure it’s my turn. Do you live around here? She points vaguely straight ahead, toward the west, the least likely direction from here for an apartment these two would want. And you, he asks? (Got me, Eric.) I name the street. He doesn’t hear. I say it again, she says it again for his benefit. They both shrug, don’t know it. I jerk my thumb to the right, that way, not far. They’re blank. It’s the next street up, but I figure they don’t need to know that. It also stops everything for a moment. She uses the pause to get up, go inside, maybe to the WC, but if so, she’s the quickest woman I know, back in under four minutes with a half-used pack of French Marlboros (well, they make them in Switzerland) in her hand. Where the hell did that come from? She offers me one. Eric and I have been quiet in her absence, but it’s hard to talk and drink at the same time.
Well, she asks, what do you write about? And you never told me what you do here. I tell her I’m a flâneur and… She interrupts. Et un planeur. It means daydreamer and it’s not a question. Strange, and she couldn’t know this, but it’s the second term I use when anyone asks me what I do. I wander and I daydream about what I’ve seen. So, you write about…?
About whatever pleases me or catches my attention. Like? Like people I meet in neighborhood cafés, or on a bus or anywhere at all. Or like the store that sells wooden jigsaw puzzles, and nothing not related to jigsaw puzzles, two blocks up and one long block over to the left, five, six minutes from here. I wanted to know who made the puzzles, how business was doing, so I went in and talked to the owner, nice lady. A store that sells jigsaw puzzles? Here? They’ve never heard of it. And you get paid to write these things? Not noticeably, which she doesn’t get, so I give her a French version. She’s says that’s interesting, not working for money.
I shrug. Who cares? Not everyone observes things the way I do or even pays attention. Not everyone cares much about a française speaking English with a heavy French accent and then, ten minutes later, a fairly light one, depending. Not everyone knows all the streets in the quartier any more than I do. Not everyone bothers to ask people if they get paid for what they do, and anyone can forget whose lighter she just used. Who cares? But it’s wearing thin, I’ve had two large eaux de vie and it’s getting late for me, since I was up unwillingly before five this morning. Basta as the girl herself has said a couple of times.
I go inside to pay and ask Baba the boss what she thinks of the couple. She makes a face, Baba who likes everyone. She doesn’t need to add anything. I laugh and tell her that after shaking hands with some people—and I nod over my shoulder at the couple—it’s a good idea to count your fingers. She laughs. I guess her laugh has seconded my motion. She gives me a kiss goodnight and I go back outside.
It’s time to go, Eric. He stands, shakes my hand, says the appropriate things. He may actually bow slightly, but doesn’t click his heels. The girl’s not at the table. She’s over to my left now, in the direction I’m going anyway, talking on her cell, but as I approach her, she puts the phone away and smiles. What the hell, I think it would be… interesting, a good joke anyway, to proposition her. So I say, Well, goodnight, unless, of course, you’re coming with me. She pauses for two, maybe three beats, a little too long, really, considering her guy is no more than four metres away and she doesn’t know anything about me. I continue, saying of course that would be a bad idea. You know, she says slowly, I can’t. I agree, with a smile, but I’m not sure she gets it. Of course she can’t come—and a very bad idea it would be, especially for me.