I was about to graduate from university. A near twenty-year-long stint of being buried in books was about to end. It was with both sadness and anticipation I received my grades in a ceremony conducted in the school auditorium. My years of coming of age had finally come to an end, and I was about to enter the mysterious phase of adulthood. I wanted no graduation party, but instead gathered a small group of friends for an intimate, low-key dinner around the corner from my house. I came home late, happy and elated from the knowledge of the onset of freedom. The lift was occupied so I walked upstairs, still holding a bouquet of flowers and a cuddly toy in my hand. Halfway up, I saw the shape of a man sitting on the steps above me, barely visible through the grille of the lift. Not knowing whom it was, or if it was someone waiting for me at all, I walked up slowly hoping to ascertain his identity before I was noticed. The visitor must have heard me, as he stood up and then walked a few steps down. It was Carl.
“Hi there!” Still the same tilted smile; still the same good looks.
“Don’t say anything,” he continued. “I’m really just here to congratulate you on your exam.”
I said nothing. I just stood still, watching him. He held a bouquet of pink and white roses.
“Here, these are for you.” I took them, without so much as a thank you in acknowledgement. There were just no words. Everything I had wanted to tell him evaporated, seemingly blown away. My mind was in chaos, yet silence reigned. I took out my keys and opened the door. He continued to stand outside.
“You might as well come in,” I muttered.
I placed the two bouquets in different vases, one a brown plastic bucket where I chucked the flowers from my Swedish visitor. He didn’t say anything but his expression had a faint look of humility.
“Would you like a glass of Champagne?” I finally asked.
“Sure.” I took the bottle I had received from a friend, which I had planned to open regardless of the circumstances, and poured two glasses. There was no toast, just a subdued silence as we both sipped on our drinks.
“So what brings you here…well and truly?”
“Well and truly…my work. I got a management trainee position at a Swedish telecom company here in Paris. But I also wanted to see you. I heard you just graduated.”
“From a friend of a friend.”
I decided not to pry further into our mutual circle of friends. “Yes, my university years are finally over.”
“Do you know what you will be doing next?”
“Nope, I don’t have the faintest idea. But for now I am going to sit back and let this summer be the start of something tremendously good.” I wanted to add that this would naturally exclude any involvement with Carl, but I held my tongue.
In vino veritas: in wine is the truth. ~Latin proverb
An uneasy atmosphere enveloped the room. I think we only started to talk after our third glass and, by then, the Champagne bottle was already finished. I opened a cheaper version, Canai, and perhaps the fizzy bubbles did the trick because we haltingly began to converse. We avoided our last months together, and the subsequent aftermath, instead focusing on the good memories we shared. It seemed like ages ago — another lifetime — and as we talked about the happy times in which we had both partaken and the future not far ahead of us, I felt once more the overwhelming sensation of love. The alcohol didn’t help, instead diffusing any judgement I might have still been capable of maintaining. Eventually I fell asleep, in the arms of Carl.
I woke up the next morning, the light shining through the white muslin curtains. Carl was gone, and if it weren’t for two empty glasses one would have thought it was a mere dream. On the table sat a handwritten note, a single pink rose adorning it.
“Thanks for letting me in. For being my friend. I wish I could turn back time, unwind it until the moment we met. But as the laws of nature ignore my prayers, I can only hope for time to mend the wounds I’ve caused. I yearn for your happiness. For your laughter to return and your eyes to sparkle – to smile once more. Like I smile on you, whilst you are sleeping ever so gracefully.”
There was no reference to an email address or a phone number, and those I had, had been long ago deleted from hard disks and SIM cards. If things were meant to be, time would tell. In the end it did.
Three weeks later Carl made a similar appearance, once again unannounced. I let him in and he opened a bottle of wine as I was getting ready. I wished we could have left things behind and moved on with our friendship, but memories kept casting a shadow over us. He asked me about my plans, and I told him I didn’t have any. I suggested we go out for dinner, and he agreed. We were both starving and before long ended up in a Japanese Tepanyaki restaurant. The kitchen was bustling, with around eight chefs flipping eggs and chopping up chicken filets at top speed. We both ordered sake, which kept on coming in a steady flow, and I must have swallowed a handful of carafes. I knew I officially crossed the line between being tipsy and drunk when I suggested to my ex we check into a hotel for the night. He readily agreed, and from the moment we stumbled out of the restaurant we were both on a mission.
The summer had taken ahold of Paris, as the temperatures soared into the thirties. We walked along Champs-Elysées to the Place de la Concorde and I stepped into the Fountain of River Commerce and Navigation, letting water pour over my head. I felt like Anita Ekberg in the Fellini film La Dolce Vita, and Carl took a beguiling picture in black and white, which used to sit propped up in my perfume collection. I looked happy, carefree and radiant – and looking back on the moment I was all of the above.
Hotels in the area were expensive, but we managed to find a two-star hotel on Rue St Roche. The hotel was situated in a ramshackle building on a street littered with dog excrement and other waste, but we couldn’t afford to be picky. The entrée consisted of flaking faux-leather furniture that reminded me of retirement homes. I sat down on one of the wide armchairs as Carl negotiated the rate. The manager on duty was an Algerian, or perhaps Moroccan, in his late fifties. He argued his rates well, but in the end settled for 110 euros including breakfast. He gave Carl a key to room 505 with the addendum that breakfast would be served between seven and ten in the dining area to our right. Carl thanked him for everything and walked over to me. He took my hand and we continued to the lift. A notice, half torn down, explained it was broken and apologised for the inconvenience. There was no other alternative but to walk up the stairs.
The room was hot and stuffy. I tried to turn on the fan but it was broken. Carl opened up the windows, but there was no breeze, so the act did little to cool the room. The space we’d just rented was almost as derelict as the building itself. The blue-striped wallpaper was peeling from the walls, and a fungus-ridden brown stain on the ceiling threatened to spread during rainy weather conditions. A bed and a table with a chair took up most of the space. I worked out that there were about three square metres left of walking area around the bed. Carl took a seat at the window and lit a cigarette. I went over to him and hijacked it for a moment, taking a long drag before expelling the smoke. He brought me closer to him until my face was only centimetres away from his. It was as close as our faces had come to each other since rekindling our friendship. I could feel butterflies in my stomach as I imagined what was about to happen. I pulled in my stomach, stuck out my chest and pretended for a moment to be Rita Hayworth’s screen legend Gilda. With a suitable perfume, Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue, I imagined I had managed to capture the essence of her mystique. But looking back I think I only smelled like Rita Hayworth. Or smelled the way Rita Hayworth looked.
Whatever the perfume did for me that evening, it was soon corrupted by sweat and body fluids, creating an animalistic scent…equally enticing. I must have worked the whole Gilda scenario to a T, making it a first-class act as I threw Carl down on the bed holding his hands above his head while I straddled him. The bed was squeaking with every move, and I remember thinking the whole courtyard would have knowledge of our carnal union. He came and I collapsed on top of him with exhaustion.
Our relationship didn’t get the official stamp until the day Carl said I love you. I had been careful not to utter those fateful words, and I kept a distance from Carl, as if he were a burning fire I was afraid would singe me. And in many ways, so it was. But like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to him. And being privy to the legend of Icarus, I also knew my wings would be burned one day. But eventually I gave in to his courtship and admitted defeat. When I expressed my eternal love over a Sunday breakfast, my fate was sealed, and whatever would happen next would be a direct consequence.