Two Encounters

Two Encounters
If I could remember exactly when it happened, I would tell you. The second encounter is clear enough—about this time, last year and on a smallish street that opens out into a square, which is actually a circle, with a handsome, old-fashioned, five-globed street-light in the center and full of tall trees, most likely horse chestnuts. I come here from time to time because its old familiar surprise is still surprising: between two busy streets in a tourist-beaten part of the Sixth Arrondissement, it is always nearly empty and as close to silent in the middle of a sunny day as any street in Paris can be before two o’clock in the morning. A good place, you know, to get the crap out of my eyes and the noise out of my ears. I had come in from the south, and why I always do I cannot tell you, and walked around to the left of the magnificent street light, passing close to the door of a small museum which is payant and not worth the price of admission. A woman was coming out just then, a step or two ahead of two women and, as I passed them, she turned to talk to one of the others, so I could see her full-face. I had that strange and ordinary sense that I knew her or had met her or, for all I know, had been married to her. She noticed me, stopped for a moment, her mouth open, her eyes wide, then started walking away as fast as she could without actually breaking into a canter. I didn’t look back: I was looking inside, rummaging the file cabinet or, as Borges put it, the garbage heap that passes for my memory. The memory stayed put, in with the old tax files and warranties for things I junked ages ago or the empty wine bottles and sardine tins. Two days ago, it floated to the surface. I don’t know why and I wish it had not. The best I can say is that I have worse and more unhappily fragrant memories that come and slap me on the back from time to time, so not to complain, Joe. Perhaps you won’t either. But it’s very sad. The first encounter, I remember now, was in a café on Montparnasse that I used to like. It’s the kind of café that has brothers, cousins, step-sisters, in-laws and pen pals all over Paris, an ordinary place, but usually uncrowded and comparatively unnoisy, plain in décor, which is to say mousey, the seats comfortable enough for a two hours’ stay, but not much more unless you are generously padded aft. It is next to one of the famous cafés from the old days, one of those places that are evoked in memoirs and biographies and are supposed to make you feel all Hemingway or Sartre or who-knows-who all over, except Ernest and Jean-Paul and whatever-his-name-used-to- be are long and far beyond showing up anywhere these days. This café got by a little better than all its homely and banal relatives because it could pick up the overflow from the great place with a great history (and a dull present) next door. It may still, but I don’t like it. Starting a few years back, let’s say five, the management appeared to change twice a year. Or something changed. The servers were suddenly all different, their outfits were different, the menu was pretty much the same and to be avoided in any event, but it was printed differently. Some tables with chairs that faced one another north and south would suddenly face east and west. Nothing serious, you see, but if you want a homely, banal and ordinary café, you also want its homeliness, banality and ordinariness to be consistent… no, constant, eternal, reliable, one hundred percent chez moi. So they lost me. But the encounter was more than five years ago, more like ten, I’m guessing. And it was as ordinary and banal, at the start, as the café itself. I’d been perched there for the better part of an hour with a un petit chocolat and a little later a glass of something red and a book. I remember it was not a promising day, not cold enough to be bracing, but a little too windy to be out and about all day long, so I had made my way to Café Quelconque and retreated into chocolate, alcohol and Baudelaire. Time was, I thought that was Paris. Time is, I still think so. The woman came in alone and, when nobody showed her where to sit, gingerly sat down two or three tables off to my left, looking from side to side uncomfortably. When the waiter showed up, it was clear that she had no French, though she may have thought otherwise, and he, who surely knew enough café English to guide the hapless, was not being helpful. And anyway, it’s an old habit of mine. I’m always on the lookout for the unfortunates qui se font baisés, and the waiter was really being more than unhelpful—more like gleefully making her miserable. I stood up, walked over and in my English which can almost pass for native asked her what she wanted. She told me, I told the waiter, suggested he smile a bit more, and went back to my table, my wine and my book. When her food and drink came, she dug in hungrily, but after, I think, the first bite and sip, said Merci, monsieur, clearly to me. I answered in English that I was glad to help and thought I’d leave it there. She said, “This is my first time in Paris? I just got here? Maybe you could tell me some things to do?” The question mark at the end of what ought to be a declarative sentence is called, they tell me, a question tag—a feminine habit showing insecurity and need, according to…

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