The scrape of metal chair legs against the sidewalk and a tall dark man slid onto a seat at the table across from mine. My face grew hot with irritation. The entire outdoor café was empty, most respectable French people off on summer holidays, and he had to go and sit facing me. Uncomfortable at eating alone, uncomfortable about why I’d even returned here after thirty years, I’d chosen this place on the back streets of Aix-en-Provence because I figured no one else would. This place next to a traffic round where big slope-nosed Citroens and BMWs honked and belched smoke, an affront to the city I once knew, the home of the artist Cezanne with its winding streets and charming stucco buildings. I glared over at the man.
He was dressed in a well-tailored pale linen suit. Perfect for the time of year, perfect for the south of France. What could he possibly be doing here? He pulled at the sleeve of his shirt, straightening the chunky gold fastener on the cuff. His mustache was thin and black. He resembled that old-time movie star David Niven.
The chair was hard, the little cutout holes in the metal sharp against the back of my thighs. I shifted my weight and my skirt inched above my knees. I tugged at it, forcing the hemline back down, like some awkward young girl. When I glanced back at the man, his black eyes were bold and his lips opened in a smile at all my discomfiture.
I took a deep breath. Then it came to me, that look of his, it was almost as though he sensed my vulnerability, the way I’d been feeling ever since I got back here. He was searching for a woman so needy that she’d pay.
Thank goodness for the vase of anemones on my table. Those flowers, they always made me think of how I was when I first came here. Fresh and young. The petals were large and showy, papery like a poppy, when you parted them, at the center the insides were pitch black.
Patrick -- pronounced Pah’-treek here — my first love, introduced me to anemones. Flowers I’d never seen before, flowers unfit for the bitter cold of my native Midwest. They sold them in big buckets at the bus station in the center of Aix.
That one time, Patrick was so rash, the sound of his francs dropping into the little wooden box in front. He grabbed up three bouquets, the blossoms red and purple and white, and thrust them into my arms. I buried my nose in them. Spring flowers.
Was that what I’d come back for? Back looking for the springtime of my life? A piece of loose skin poked up at the base of the nail on my index finger. I picked at it, dry, splintery. Springtime. This was August and those anemones in front of me must have been forced in a greenhouse.
The café man’s voice, commanding, boomed out in a call for the waiter. So loud that I jerked at my hangnail, tearing deep. The sting and a tiny drop of red pooled there. I brought my finger to my mouth and sucked, the salty sweet taste, 'til it stopped bleeding.
What was really bothering me, I knew, was the call I’d made from my hotel before I came here. Yes, Patrick was in the phone book. I was just curious, that’s what I convinced myself, despite the way our relationship had ended. My finger shook when I dialed the number.
A woman answered. Of course, Patrick was married. No, she didn’t recall my name. No, Patrick had not talked about me. “There were so many girls” who lived at his mother Madame Bernard’s home, back when I did, back when she boarded students on their junior year abroad. This ping to my heart, like someone was picking at a scab there.
Alors, alas, she said, Madame Bernard had died the year before. Patrick’s wife was sure he’d want to see me. He was so fond of his mother, he’d appreciate the connection.
He was a heart surgeon now. “What of your own life?” she asked.
No need for her to know of all my disappointments, both in love and career.
“I’m headed home from Germany,” I said. “Finished with all these years of living abroad.”
The mouthpiece on the phone, warming from my breath, gave off the smells of old plastic and staleness from previous users.
Patrick’s wife chirped away. “No vacation yet this summer for us,” she said. Her boutique kept her too busy and Patrick had his practice. Right downtown, near my hotel. She could tell him that I’d stop by.
The long train trip just to get here. My last chance probably ever to see him and to possibly hear his full side of our story.
“Okay,” I said into the phone. “Yes, later that very afternoon. I could stop there.”
Two hours till we’d meet, this café was nearby. I opened the menu. I surprised myself. I was truly hungry, hungry for something I hadn’t tasted in so long, French food.
The anemones in front of me. They were almost too perfect to be real.
The whole thing with Patrick, I blamed the start on his mother. Tall and elegant in her straight skirt and white silk blouse, her dark hair swept high on her head, Madame Bernard was almost regal, the way she carried herself. Her husband´s early death had left her with Patrick and his sister Bernadette to raise. All Madame had was her house, the Villa Lorraine, the grandiose name for the shabby two-story home at the end of a long cul-de-sac where I and five other foreign young women boarded with the family.
On the eve of my twentieth birthday, she stopped me in the hallway. She had this faraway look in her gray eyes, her one slow eyelid drooping, like she was thinking back, thinking to a time when things were better.
"On n’a pas tous les jours vingt ans," she said.
You won´t be twenty forever.
Grab for all you can get when you’re young was what I figured she meant. Patrick, so good looking with his blue eyes and crisp brown hair, it wasn´t my fault that he was Madame’s son, whom she wanted above all else to become a doctor.
The sun was hot even in the shade of the café’s umbrella. Little beads of condensation trickled down the sides of the long narrow tumbler special to the drink of pastis that the waiter had set in front of me just before the cafe man sat down.
My fingers traced the droplets on the side of my glass. Cold, slippery. I raised the drink for a sip, the lightly licorice taste sweet. The cloudy white pastis was Patrick’s favorite. He said it was special to France. Back then, I believed him. Turned out all over the Mediterranean, there were versions of the same liqueur, sambuco in Italy, ouzo in Greece.
Patrick introduced me to so many things. Like French kissing. His tongue inside my mouth, the bitter almost metallic taste from the Gauloises he smoked.
A “pssst” came from the café man’s direction, then came again. Didn’t matter that there were spots on the front of his suit and fraying at the cuffs. The man had dimples, big c-shaped dimples, just like Patrick’s.
Everything had started so innocently. Joking at table. At first I’d been so quiet that Madame had threatened she would go to the director of my university program and ask if I were not bavarde or talkative normally. Patrick started to tease me, to call me "little wife," mixing in the few words of English he knew in an effort to get me to talk.
Just flirting around, I thought, until that day when I was coming out of the salle de bains, the wash room we all shared upstairs. There was Patrick, no one else around. He leaned his arm up against the wall, sheltering my body. The oniony smell of his armpit, the slight acidity of his maleness. "Your French improves," he said.
Flustered, I pulled with my fingers at the moist towel around my neck. I had washed my hair and all I could think was how plastered down it must look. Patrick reached for a strand that was nearly dry in the front, held it up in his fingers and said the color was like wheat. In French, “Comme le ble.”
He swept me inside the salle de bains and closed the door. The cold of the porcelain tub against the back of my legs. Patrick’s mouth seeking mine, that first taste of his tongue. I didn’t want this to ever end. Darkness but for the orange glow of the pilot light on the tiny gas heater on the wall at the end of the tub that warmed the water. People died when they didn’t notice the pilot had gone out. We called it the “suicide light.”
The waiter, a slim young man in blue trousers and white shirt, was at my side. He tilted his head, his short blonde hair and asked in English, "Madame ees ready to order?"
This cafe was, indeed, a tourist trap. I rarely drank but the pastis was so good I’d already finished it.
"Wait," I said in English. "First, another pastis."
The pages of the menu were coated in plastic, sticky from people’s fingers. One side was in French, the other a bad translation in English. Provincial dishes I still recognized. Even boeuf roti a la tzigane, gypsy spit. Chunks of beef and vegetables on a skewer. Maybe I should order half a cup of "gypsy spit." I laughed out loud, the noise ringing under the umbrella.
The man´s black eyebrows went up, quizzical. I put my head down. He stretched out one leg, like he was becoming more comfortable. His foot pointed toward my table. When I looked back up, he had lit a cigarette. A long slow drag, and then he exhaled, the smoke curling up over his mustache. Disc Bleues, the same kind of Gauloises as Patrick’s.
By the time the waiter brought my second drink, my head was light. I handed up the menu. "Salade, pommes frites et bifstek, s’il vous plait,” I said.
I picked up my glass, the ice cubes clinking, and sipped. The warmth in my throat and my belly. The cafe man cleared his throat. He snuffed his cigarette out in the glass ashtray on his table. His fingers were thin, delicate, white.
Years since I’d felt a man’s fingers stroke my skin. That intelligence your cells had, the way touch could electrify and then heal. Before coming back here, I hadn’t even let myself admit I could have that hunger again. I put my glass, now empty, down on the table.
The waiter, as if on cue, came back with a carafe of wine, a knowing smile on his lips.
"Monsieur," he nodded toward the man, “is gifting you.”
Patrick’s square fingers touched my neck, my skin tingling. Our secret. In the salle de bains. Patrick said no one could know about us, it might jeopardize Madame’s livelihood. Patrick’s hands were up in my hair, “comme le ble, comme le ble.” The orange glow of the suicide light.
Patrick’s mouth on mine, his tongue searching. The clean smell of soap, of him, of Gauloises. His hands up inside my sweater, caressing my breasts. I insisted like always that I was saving myself for my husband. He reminded me I was his “little wife.”
Springtime and I was soon to go home. We couldn’t stop. The sound of his zipper. The cold of the tub against my legs, his hardness pushing up inside me. The pain, the breaking deep within, bittersweet. Then the fullness of him.
After that, every time we met, it was the same. Occasionally, one of the other girls pounded on the door. We were quiet till she went away.
We met whenever we could. Until my period failed to come. This clutching inside my heart, I avoided Patrick but still I hoped this was only a scare. A week passed and I had to tell him.
I waited till I saw him outside the salle de bains and pulled him inside. Into his chest, I whispered in English, “I’m afraid.” Patrick held me closer. I switched to French, the word for pregnant, enceinte. His chest tensed against me, but just for a moment. He put his fingers on my lips, the taste of the Gauloises, and said, “Don’t worry. We’re married in the best way, in our hearts. I shall always be here for you.”
The waiter brought the bifstek and frites. The meat was soft and buttery, saignant the way Madame would serve it, the light pinkness of the juices on the white plate. The frites perfect, skinny, crispy golden brown, a touch of salt.
The wine from the café man was only the house brand. But, it was good, legs forming against the sides of my glass. The first swallow gave a satisfying slow burn. What Patrick’s wife had said, that he never mentioned me. That there had been so many girls at Madame’s. That ping in my heart again. I put my glass down. I wanted more than just seeing Patrick. I wanted validation from him that what we had was real.
Eight days and still no period when Madame summoned me to meet her in the dining room. Her face was scarlet, the pupils in her gray eyes tight points of anger.
“The other girls are talking,” she said. “About you and Patrick and the bathroom.”
I breathed in and a sharpness cut into my side. What did she know?
“Where is Patrick?” I asked.
Madame’s chest rose and fell under her silk blouse. “He has moved to the archeveche.”
Madame’s brother, the archbishop, lived nearby at the cathedral with its medieval cloister. This made no sense to me.
Madame pushed at a lock of hair on her forehead. “I have forbidden Patrick from seeing you.”
The pain in my side became so sharp that tears came to my eyes.
Madame brought her hand down from her hair. Her nails were pearly, a little half moon on her thumb.
“He is only in his first year of studies,” she said. “You are both young enough to get over this.”
What could I tell her? It was Patrick I needed to speak to. My voice squeaked when I said, “I’m going home soon.”
The flush on Madame’s face had cleared and now, her gray eyes calmed.
“We’re just lucky to nip this in the bud,” she said.
That night, I waited for Patrick as I’d written in the note I left for him at the archbishop’s, waited in the cold at the end of the main Cours Mirabeau. Surely, Patrick would know what to do, how to keep us together. The moon was high and water was splashing out of the mouth of the dolphin-shaped fountain. My arms shivered in the mist.
Maybe he didn’t get my note, maybe the archbishop stopped him. I stood there for the longest time. As though that suffering would insure Patrick would come. Anything to escape the fear I had, that all this between us was way more important to me than to him.
No one came. The night grew so cold that I could take it no longer. I walked away from the fountain, picked my way home over the winding streets, slippery with dew. I turned a corner too fast and lost my balance, hit the ground hard. Pain. A gash on my knee. Blood on the wet cobblestones.
The next day, there was more blood. My period.
I never got to tell Patrick any of this. I never saw him again.
In France, they bring the salad last, a way to clear the palate for dessert. The waiter slid the plate in front of me, the buttery green leaves of lettuce, the creamy dressing like Madame made. The slightest garlic taste, olive oil and just a touch of mustard.
What really happened with Patrick that night so long ago? Didn’t he wonder whether there’d ever been a child, his child? If he’d cared anything about us, wouldn’t he have followed up? Never a word from him.
A stranger now, a middle-aged man. I broke off a piece of bread and speared it with my fork, like Madame used to do. She always cautioned that it was impolite to do this in public. I steered the morsel around my plate to sop up the last of the dressing.
This time it was my choice to know or not to know. Not Patrick’s. There was still something beautiful about that first love, the memory of my long ago hopes, that only I could preserve. I raised the fork with the bread, drenched in dressing, and put it into my mouth and ate.
Even in a place like this, in France the food was always good.
The scrape again of metal legs against the cement. The café man, his body in pale linen unfolding. He came toward me. He didn’t say a word. Pulled out a chair next to me and sat down. Scritched even closer, his thigh hard against mine.
I sat with him like that for a moment, his warmth against me. Who would ever know? But, then I looked again at the anemones. The red one in front of me was crushed on one side. I reached out and touched it. Paper, just as I suspected but still pretty.
The afternoon train out of here, I could just make it. I pushed my chair back and got up. The man’s dimples disappeared, his mouth open in surprise.