I met Carl in a café on Rue Vieille du Temple. It was called La Perle and was a favourite haunt of mine between the hours of 4 and 6 PM. Almost every day that spring, I would occupy table number three or, if not available, number five — either of which would act as my improvised study for the next few hours. Occasionally I would put my studies aside to watch the people walking by: shoppers in a hurry, tourists with maps in hand and my neighbours du jour, who more often than not were amorous couples holding hands whilst gazing into each other’s eyes. I would steal little glances until I was either invited for an impromptu flirtation or tossed a withering glance. The latter nearly always coming from women keen to hold their love interests on invisible, if not imaginary, leashes.
Spring turned into summer before Carl occupied table number four. I don’t recall noticing him walk in, but as I was looking up towards the waiter sometime after with the words “l’addition s’il vous plait” on my lips, I stopped myself. Instead I ordered another cappuccino and feigned an interest in medieval battle techniques while stealing a glance at the man to my right. Carl was, like me, devouring his study material voraciously, and if he had noticed me, or his interest had been piqued, he was hiding it well. I left it at that, as I was not a girl to come on to a stranger.
Perhaps you would like a description of him, especially given what is to come in our subsequent encounter and the aftermath thereof. I am most happy to oblige. His hair was a sandy brown mussed into a wavy disarray. His eyes, I would later discover, were a honey-flecked olive green, not dissimilar to my own. He was tall for a Parisian, a few centimetres short of 190, with a lean and athletic figure. I imagined he played a sport like cricket or water polo. I later discovered it was merely down to good genes and improvised tennis tournaments, but at the time my imagination had already coloured in a whole new social heritage for my unsuspecting neighbour. He was casually dressed, wearing dark jeans, cream-coloured sneakers and a light blue cotton shirt. I could detect the hint of a white T-shirt peeking out from behind the collar opening.
Yes, I found him handsome. But I didn’t make a move. Back then I was far too demure for such a forward approach, although this would change in later years. I used to say my father taught me science and my mother taught me the art of impeccable manners. The latter I lived by like a mantra. My two vices were, and still are with a few exceptions, drinking and smoking. I rarely drink hard liquor, but generally finish a bottle of wine every two days. I smoke at a similar rate, which comes down to about three packs of Marlboro Lights Menthol per week. I’ve thought about stopping, but frankly I find it too enticing. The seductive drag followed by the reluctant release of translucent curls of smoke is the one femme fatale stratagem I have come to master — although others may not agree that my repertoire is so limited.
So I picked up a cigarette, to sooth my nerves I told myself, but more likely as an excuse to spring into my siren role. As I filled my lungs with menthol-flavoured tobacco, I trained my eyes on the stranger across from me. As if he could feel my intentions, he broke off his reading and returned my gaze. First with a blank, slightly aloof look, then breaking into a smile. I returned the favour. He picked up a cigarette, as if he felt a sudden compulsion to join me in my bad habit, and went in search of his lighter. He patted the outside pockets of the corduroy jacket he’d left casually hanging across the next chair, but with no luck. Searching inside the jacket only yielded the same outcome. He gave an expression of comic confusion, an invitation to approach. I obliged. I lit his cigarette, a Philip Morris. He asked, in slightly accented French, if I would care to join him at his table. Unsurprisingly, I said yes.
We conversed there until the stroke of midnight, sharing two bottles of Chablis (it was a sweltering summer evening less than two weeks short of Bastille Day) and ordering the whole menu of starters, which we shared as tapas. Carl was an exchange student from Sweden. He was finalising his studies in French and would be returning to Stockholm in the autumn. As the hours escaped us, we covered a wide spectrum of topics from the impeding war in Iraq to British colonial history and the art of strategic management by Hoshin planning. Never too shallow nor too deep, nor boring or tedious, I felt my world connected to his despite geographical borders and social barriers. In hindsight, I believe it might have been what they call love at first sight.
Carl walked me home to my apartment on Rue du Trésor in le Marais. I offered a nightcap, but he declined. He had an early exam and needed the few hours of sleep only a familiar and empty apartment could give. So we parted with a peck on the cheek and the exchange of mobile numbers and email addresses. The evening had left me feeling elated and full of expectations, rendering me unable to sleep. Eventually I resorted to my faithful benzodiazepines, prescribed to me to battle an on-and-off relationship with insomnia. I drifted away to a deep, dreamless slumber and woke up at eleven the next morning only to realise that I had forgotten to turn my alarm on.
Deciding against afternoon classes, I instead fired up the computer, an old Packard Bell, and made myself coffee and toast. As was my habit, I hit the Outlook icon to check my mail first off. Spam mingled with a lonely email from my father. After sending off a quick reply, I noticed a new message had appeared; it was from Carl. It was casual, yet there was a promising underlying hint of interest. He asked if I was available for dinner that night. I read it once, then a second time, before deciding I had enough information to reply.
Do you believe in coincidences?
I stared at my first line, fully knowing this was a terribly clichéd way to start off any response. I backspaced it until only the salutation remained.
What a nice surprise to find your email. I had half hoped for it as I’m indeed sitting here with my breakfast working away on an overflowing inbox.
(This was a lie but would indicate I was a busy woman.)
I actually overslept and, seeing as it’s close to midday, I’ve decided to pull a sickie and abstain from lessons. The weather is glorious and as I’m fortunate to have a little balcony overlooking the courtyard, I was planning to catch a bit of sun in the company of my MP3 player. Other than that I have no plans whatsoever and would love to take you up on a rendez-vous this evening. I know a little bistro on 25 Rue Beautreillis called Vin des Pyrenees. How does 8 pm sound to you? Don’t be late as I hate waiting. J
I contemplated the last line, not sure if it was too pretentious — or worse, obnoxious — but decided against culling it. I’d always wished I had attitude in measures, and a little faux assertiveness couldn’t go wrong, I argued. I clicked Send and within seconds the mail had been translated into binary code and transmitted through a myriad of wired and wireless connections, now waiting somewhere in his inbox to be pieced back together.