Thursday, July 3, 2003

I spent a glorious afternoon on the balcony to the sound of Café del Mar, Volume Six. With my iPod as my only companion, I was miles away from civilisation and close enough to oblivion. I must have fallen asleep because I woke up sometime in the late afternoon with a raging headache. Luckily I had applied sunscreen before I went on a self-imposed barbeque, lending me a tan somewhere between a healthy glow and deep pink. I went back to my computer and, as hoped, there was an email from Carl.

See you at 8

/Carl

It was too short to warrant a reply and lent me mixed feelings about the impending rendez-vous. I decided to banish any negative thoughts and instead tried to tame my sunburnt face and body. I couldn’t decide what to wear, but as the evening was still warm, a sophisticated dark-blue Roland Mouret dress, a self-sponsored birthday present from years earlier, seemed appropriate for the occasion. Bruno Magli kitten heels and a touch of make-up and I was set to go. I tried to control my nerves by opening a cheap bottle of Champagne, and took a few sips in quick succession. The alcohol mixed with the heat and, soon enough, any lingering apprehensions were all but banished.

I arrived fashionably late, despite the heeded warning to my date. Carl was sitting at a corner table with a beer and yesterday’s edition of Le Monde. He looked up when he saw me approaching, folding the newspaper and placed it on an empty chair beside him. He stood up and gave me the customary pecks on each cheek. We sat down.

“You look lovely.” He smiled at me, and I couldn’t resist returning the courtesy with an expression of delight.

“Are you hungry? I took the liberty of going through the menu and the chef apparently recommends the roast ‘poulet de Bresse’ with a tart of Cévennes onions,
liquorice and foie gras. He also suggests the pan-seared scallops with sweet onions and cardamom as a starter. If you like shellfish, of course.”

“Yes, it sounds great. I’m starving actually. I had a late breakfast but no lunch. Got trapped on the balcony…as you can see.” I waved my hands in front of my face, unwittingly drawing attention to the calamity I’d suffered. Despite my actions, I was hoping he didn’t take notice as I’d done my best to camouflage the redness. But I was afraid it was to little avail.

“Great, let me get the waiter.” He simply said. I drew an inner sigh of relief.

We ordered our dinner with a bottle of Sancerre rouge, which was placed in a cooler next to our table.

One day after our first meeting, the spark was still there. Carl questioned me about my studies, background and family. I gave him the condensed version, starting with an honest disclosure of my age (twenty-three) and my family circumstances, including a brief mention of my mother’s earthly departure.

“I’m so sorry. What happened?” he asked.

“Well it’s a long story, but to cut it short, Maman was driving home one evening. From where, we never found out, as she had already left work in the afternoon not feeling well. It was around seven or so, and she was — we presume — taking a shortcut through the Bois de Boulogne. She had been drinking, which was rather unusual for her. Well not more than a glass or two of wine anyways. Ended up somehow in the opposite lane and hit a car. Both died. There was an inquest held, and the family of the young man who died sought damages. As you would, I suppose.”

I shrugged my shoulders and lifted my eyebrows in an attempt to embody the travesty of the French legal system.

“My father’s lawyer took care of things and, although I don’t know the exact details, I presume they came to some sort of an agreement. The whole thing quietly went away, but my dad was devastated. He literally became a recluse overnight, only to emerge six weeks later and throw himself into eighty-hour work weeks.” I stopped myself and took a gulp of wine.

“Wow, I really don’t know what to say. That’s tough. How old were you then?”

“Twenty-one. It was two years ago.”

“How is your father now?”

“He’s doing fine. The first year was the hardest, obviously. We were a close-knit family. But eventually things just settled somehow. I guess time does heal everything…well, if not all, then the essentials.” I smiled, but I’m not sure whether it came across as particularly sincere. Carl remained silent so I continued. “He’s not seeing anyone, as far as I know, and he keeps all the photos and memorabilia intact. It’s like the house has become a museum to her memory. But I think he needs this, so he doesn’t forget her.”

“Are you close to your dad?” He looked at me intensely whilst sipping his wine.

“Mmm, very. I was probably closer to Papa than Maman. I wish somehow it had been different, though. Sometimes I think I never really got to know her…” We were conveniently interrupted by the first course, and the waiter refilled our glasses. I took another gulp before attacking the food with great gusto.

We ended the evening at a quarter past midnight. Technically it was Friday, and both Carl and I had made a pact not to attend lessons the following morning. For us the weekend started now, and it was ours to make the most of. That we had a lot in common was evident. Our mutual passion for language, music, history and politics was like a pool of knowledge, which we both dipped into to put our best feet forward for these early conversations. A human mating dance where intellect presides over physical attributes.

We walked the busy streets of le Marais, the neighbourhood that had become my salvation after a stormy break-up with a broker several years earlier. My father contributed to my rent and it gave me a certain freedom few students could afford. We bought sorbet ice cream from an Italian vendor and moved in the direction of my apartment — knowingly or not.

I again invited Carl up for a nightcap. We both knew this step would seal a certain fate. Perhaps it would be but a short romance, or a three-month affair. What we didn’t know then was that it was to be the start of something far more significant with further-reaching consequences than either of us could have possibly foreseen. As I write these lines, calibrating what could have been with the knowledge I now have, I wonder if I would have done things differently, if I had known the future. But as pain has been a constant fuel in my life, I doubt the benefit of hindsight would have made a difference. I doubt it very much.

I woke up in the middle of the night. The alarm clock was leaking a faint green light over an otherwise pitch-black room. It was only minutes past 4 AM. I recalled the night, hour by hour, minute by minute. Was I moving too fast? Did I have too much to drink? I couldn’t even remember if we used protection. He was from Sweden, and I recall making a quick calculation concluding that Sweden was not a high-risk country for sexually transmitted deceases. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness I realized I was still wearing my contact lenses, now stuck to my retinas with a painful dryness, so I slowly got up and walked to the bathroom. My face was puffy and smeared with mascara. I did a quick wash before removing the lenses.

I tiptoed back to bed so as to not wake Carl. He stirred when I reached the bed, and stretched out his arms towards me, his left hand wandering over my skin. I took it as an invitation for nocturnal intimacy and let his body spoon mine. It was warm and comforting; he emitted a slightly musky smell. I fell back asleep.

The next morning, Carl was already in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on an improvised breakfast. He was standing barefoot in his jeans, making croissants with readymade dough from a tin that was most likely past its sell-by date. I wore his oversized white shirt. My red, curly hair shaped into a loose knot.

“Good morning, beautiful,” he said, flashing an almost unnaturally white set of teeth. I fired an abashed “good morning” back.

“Sit down, I’ve made you breakfast. I have to admit I’ve thrown in my complete arsenal of cooking skills.” He pointed to the table. “There are scrambled eggs, a fruit salad, yoghurt, toast and… hold on for a second…” He coated the croissants with an egg yolk and milk mix and slid them into the oven. “…croissants. Give or take five minutes.”

“It looks fantastic,” I complimented him as I started on a bit of scrambled egg.

He sat down after serving. It was a beautiful morning, but enjoying anything outside seemed a waste. I stretched my leg in Carl’s direction, tickling his crotch with my toes. I continued to play as we let the petit déjeuner silence us. Unsurprisingly, food gave way to amorous love making — not ferocious and thrusting this time, but slow yet with great intensity. We both came simultaneously. I cried. A release of crushing anger… bitterness… pain… passion — and love. Yes, I felt love, and if memory serves me right, it was also the time I proclaimed it.