The doctor at the immigration bureau called my name. He asked me where I was from and what I did for work. Do you like France? he said. In a sense, I said. The food? The wine? The women? he said. Yeah, they’re good, I said. How many cigarettes do you smoke per day? he asked. Maybe five, I said. You can’t really enjoy wine without cigarettes can you? But I’ve got to tell you in my role as a doctor that you should quit. I’m trying, I said. Your chest x-ray looks good. I’d say you’re in fine health, he said. He shook my hand and stamped something on my VISA.
It was drizzling outside and the sky was grey. I walked back towards town and turned down a small street to see where it took me. Lately I’d begun to enjoy the peace walking brought me, at least at moments, but I felted soured, perhaps because of the weather. I wanted to lie down and fall asleep. My train back to Niort wasn’t for another few hours; I’d given myself this time on purpose, so I could see some of Poitiers. Time is a gift we give ourselves, to the best of our ability. And now I regretted it. I stopped at a small tabac and ordered a coffee. Madame Peuget at Jules Ferry had loaned me a police novel by Georges Simenon and I took that out and tried to read, but even with the coffee I felt tired after a few pages. Perhaps it just wasn’t a good book. Sometimes, when I read in French, I couldn’t tell if my feelings related to a miscomprehension of the language, or a real knowledge that what I was reading wasn’t any good. Same for the people.
I stepped outside and lit a cigarette. I was lying before when I said five cigarettes a day. That was a conservative number. I felt awful. My bowls rumbled and I ran inside to shit. My body was suffering from all the coffee and cigarettes, and the kebabs.
There was a striking girl sitting at the bar when I came out. She was reading from a textbook. I didn’t know what she was doing in such a dingy place. I didn’t know what I was doing either. It occurred to me that there were probably plenty of girls like her, university students, sitting at cafes in the center of town, with their cigarettes and their text books. I could be among them. I paid the barman and asked him which bus to catch to get to get to the University. I glanced at the girl to see if she had glanced at me. She was concentrated on her book.
I didn’t even know where the university was, or anything about the town, except that it was old, but to me everything in France was old. René Descartes had studied at in Poitiers, I did know that. The bus dropped me off at a big square with a church. There weren’t many people about. I chose a small street at random and sat at a café on the corner. I ordered a beer and watched the people walking by. The street was not as resplendent with people as I’d hoped, but there were some. Something was coming over me: desire. My beer was already gone and I ordered another.
It was Friday. The drinks lifted my spirits and my enthusiasm (?) was mounting. Two girls sat down a few tables away from me and I tried to eavesdrop on their conversation but they spoke too quickly. I only picked up on a few things here and there. “What were you thinking?” “What was he thinking?” “What a drag!” It was a drag.
My enthusiasm was mounting, but so was my frustration. I began to send out text messages to the Italians, Gaspar, even Tania who never seemed to go out, to see if anyone wanted to make a night of it back in Niort. The Italians were traveling; Gaspar was working until midnight; Tania said I could stop by her apartment, but that she wanted to stay in. I even thought of seeing what the other Anglophones were doing, but they never went out, either. A message from Maggie confirmed that they’d gone to the English girls’ country house in Parthenay. They no longer even bothered to invite me there.
When I finished my third beer, I ordered a fourth. I wished I had something to say to the two girls, a witty remark perhaps, or a question. Then I got my opportunity. A dreadlocked hobo (ubiquitous in this region of France) had sat down at the other end of the terrace with his big dog. The barman came out and told him he would have to leave and the hobo told the guy to fuck of. That’s it, I’m calling the police, the barman said. Ah fuck off! the hobo grumbled. He got up and walked past us, uttering a string of unintelligible explicative. Excuse me, I said to the girls. I’m American (I wanted to say, ‘which I imagine you’ve already noticed by my accent,’ but I couldn’t find the words fast enough to say it in French) so I couldn’t understand what that guy was saying. Les grossièretés, one of them said. What? I said. Bad words, she said. I wanted her to ask me if I was American, but I remembered that I’d already mentioned that. They resumed their conversation. Do you have a light? I said, holding my pack of cigarettes. We don’t smoke, one of them said. My lighter was right there on the table. I’ll just ask the barman, I said.
Now I was filled with resentment. My phone buzzed. Gaspar said he would meet me at midnight. That brightened me up, at least a little. I paid my bill and set out to the train.
The walk sobered me up a little and I realized I was being ridiculous. It was puerile to think that by going out and drinking myself silly I would—it doesn’t matter. All I had to do was go back in my journal to confirm that. I would have a quiet evening, and wake up early the next day to read.
But on the train my resolve quickly faltered. My car was nearly filled to the brim with college girls. It suddenly occurred to me that it was a school vacation—they were probably students from the faculty at Poitiers, or even from Paris, on their way back to Niort or La Rochelle, to see their families for the week. I recalled something Gaspar had told me once, that in Niort, school breaks were the best time to meet girls. I stood up just then and made a decision: I was going to continue drinking. I went to the car with the concession stand and bought a can of beer. This was all out of character and I knew it. But what did it matter? I was a foreigner in a small, insignificant town where nobody knew me, least of all myself. I drank that beer quickly, and ordered another to bring back to my seat.
Thus liberated from myself, I decided to chat with the girl sitting next to me. Headed home for vacation? I said. I suppressed a burp. I don’t know how this innocent question was received. It was meant to sound almost like an afterthought, or a spontaneous question that came to me when I sat down, but these subtle shades of inflection were often lost in my French. It might have sounded more like a question I had carefully formulated and rehearsed beforehand, which was what it was.
Yes, going to visit my boyfriend in La Roche-sur-Yon, she said.
Ah, I said, trying not to sound deflated. I’ve actually been there. It’s a bit boring. Is there a school there?
Military academy, she said. My boyfriend is there.
There was a short pause. I considered what the boyfriend could possibly be like. It’s a relatively young city, right? I said.
La Roche-sur-Yon, I said.
I’m not sure, she said.
In truth, her attitude towards me left to be desired. There was a kind of circumspection to her tone that made me feel as if I were an obtuse brute of an American. I was American, but I was not an obtuse brute! I began to feel indignant. If I could have taken another seat, I would have. I just wanted to be indulged.
The train stopped; we’d arrived in Niort. I got up and left. When I exited the train station Gaspar’s wisdom was confirmed. There were an unusually high number of young people waiting outside the station, among them many beautiful women in, presumably, their early twenties. It was as if I was completely invisible to them, as if I inhabited another dimension in which I could only see them, but I was powerless to actually intervene in their lives. I resented the French State’s decision to place me there, in Niort, where everyone either fled off to university when they were eighteen or got married, or both. Why couldn’t I have been placed in Poitiers, or another university town like Nantes or Lilles? I knew that I was pathetic, and lacked dignity, and each fresh-faced college girl that walked past me or stood waiting seemed to reduce me to nothing more than a frustrated desire.
I had to shake my head to stop this train of thought. It was the beer that allowed them to go too far, and yet I decided to get another one at Bar du marché, where I sat outside and watched people walking in front of les halles. The weather had cleared. I ordered a coffee, too, which surprisingly perked me up. I took out the police novel and began reading. It was too boring, so I took out a collection Kafka stories I’d taken with me, in the event that I gave up on the police novel. But I couldn’t concentrate.
I lit a cigarette. It was only eight. Gaspar would not be free for another four hours. I wasn’t sure if I could keep up by myself.
After I finished the beer I walked across the street to a small kebab restaurant and placed my order. The owners, two guys who had immigrated to France in the 90s from Iraq, recognized me and said hello. I brought the sandwich with me past the dungeon and sat down on a bench next to the spot where Niort’s river was split off into several channels for what had been, I assumed, a canal system at some point in the distant past. The sound of the water cascading over a lock filled the air. A group of people walked past me, shouting and laughing.
I was disconsolate. The kebab sobered me up, to a degree, but then the weight off all that food suddenly descended on me, as if from above. I walked a little north to some benches facing the river where I was less likely to see anyone. I lay down and looked at the stars. I may have even fallen asleep. I’ll never know. When finally I sat up I felt no less dejected but my fervor was gone. My fervor for life. I was enjoying, in fact – this gradually dawned on me – looking at the water. Soon I left to go to bed.