I woke up that morning with a big pimple on my left jaw. If I grew facial hair, it would have covered it at least somewhat, but I was clean-shaven. I popped it, and more blood came out than I expected. It burned. I resented my body, for producing the blemish, as well as myself, for not letting it alone. I felt ashamed. I caught the two o’clock train to La Rochelle, where I had to wait twenty minutes for another train to La Roche-sur-Yon. I had been to La Rochelle once, three years ago, but I didn’t recognize anything about the train station. I only had enough time to walk up and down the block outside. I smoked a cigarette; it gave me a heavy, tired feeling in my head, and I almost flicked it away halfway through, but decided I would finish it, after all. I sat next to a young man on the train who, when he heard my accent, asked me how to say “chug” (cul-sec) in English. He was pleasant enough, but after I answered his question we were silent for the rest of the hour-long trip. A rather striking English girl was seated across the aisle. I might have talked to her, but I didn’t. I touched my pimple with my left index finger. Luc, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly a year since I’d left Nashville, was at the train station waiting for me. We spoke in English at first but then he said, let’s do it French. I appreciated his confidence in me. He filled me in: He was out of touch with everyone from Nashville, living at home for the term while he prepared to enter a master’s program. He was quite bored. Ah, I said. I told him I intended to buy a winter coat, because soon fall would be over. He offered to take me around La Roche-sur-Yon, before we drove to his house. We walked through a park near the center of the city with a pond divided into rectangular sections by the foot paths. Luc explained that this small city was built after Napoleon, and the only thing (according to him) it was known for was its grid street layout, more like an American city than a European one. I tried on coats at several shops. None of them seemed to suit me. Luc was indulgent, but he didn’t have strong opinions about any of them. We decided to stop at les Sables d’Olonne, a seaside town nearby where boats launch for the Vendée Globe, the famous around-the-world race. We found a café with a view of the ocean. The waves crashed against the sand. Luc offered that we could have waffles from a stand. It took him quite a while to make himself understood, because it was difficult to explain what a waffle was, without saying “waffle.” But I knew that, now, I would never forget this word (gouffre). Our conversation was more or less superficial. I might have elaborated the state of my soul, but there wasn’t much to say. The waffle was good. It was all very picturesque, with the port, and the boats everywhere. In a sense, I could hardly believe I was there. And if could have put myself in the perspective of one of the French people walking around, I wouldn’t believe I was there, either. It was difficult to believe I was anywhere. The drive back to Luc’s house (his parents’ house, really) took us through long stretches of flat farmland. We made a brief stop at a mall that was truly repugnant. I chose an H&M winter jacket, which in retrospect was the wrong decision, but there’s no going back now. If I had thought about it I might have realized that I needed new sneakers, too, but I didn’t think about it. We also stopped at a supermarket and bought a frozen pizza. Luc described his town, Les Landes-Génusson, as not even a town, but a village, and this was true. There couldn’t have been more than a dozen buildings. He lived right in the center, in an old two-story stone home. A fire burned at the hearth. With Luc’s father, a short man, reserved but pleasant, we watched The Thing with French subtitles and ate the frozen pizza. Then I went to bed. In the morning the first thing I noticed was my pimple. It had grown. Beside myself, I starting popping it again, but I was able to stop, knowing I was only making it worse. I found some alcohol in the bathroom to disinfect it. It was almost so big, a bandage would have been appropriate. It reminded me of my friend Nick, from middle school, who once came to school with a bandage on his nose. Luc was already sipping coffee downstairs. His mother had prepared a spread of bread, jam, and butter for us. I helped myself to a toasted tartine and a cup of coffee. A young woman, fresh-faced and smiling, came down the stairs. Hello? she said. Her tone was friendly, but surprised. Good morning, I’m Dan, Luc’s friend, I said. Ah, she said. I’m Véronique. We shook hands. I didn’t know Luc had a sister, I said. Oh, that’s my sister, I forgot about her, he said. Luc! she said. I’m home for a week from school, she said. We talked a little bit about her school, and what she studied (English); she said she was too shy to practice English in front of me, a real Anglophone. What about me, do think it’s easy for me to speak French? I said. It wasn’t easy. My hand went to my pimple. I guess not! she laughed. She was reading Wuthering Heights for a class. I told her I had nothing to say about that. Are you going out with me and Luc later? I said. Going out? she said. Where are you going out here? I don’t know, I said. I assumed we were going out. There’s nowhere to go, Luc said. Ah, I said. Their parents joined us from the backyard where they had been gardening. Their mother was a kindly, retired elementary school teacher. We talked about the difficulties of teaching English in the French school system while she prepared lunch. By 11:30 we had all sat down to a full, traditional meal (traditional as far as I knew). Oysters to start, with white wine, followed by a salad, then steak and potatoes accompanied with red wine, followed by some mandarin oranges, and finally, coffee. Afterward I smoked a cigarette outside with Véronique. So it must get boring here? I said. Yes, she said. Well, it’s boring in Niort, too, I said. I know. I haven’t heard good things, she said. I live there, I said. I’m sorry, she said. She was a young girl from the country studying in Nantes, France’s fifth largest city, and I was – I don’t know. I hoped that Luc, she and I would do something later, but I didn’t say anything. After dozing and watching TV on the couch with Luc and his father for a while, Luc said he would take me to the next town over for some sightseeing. We drove about 45 minutes through more farmland to a slighter larger village, Clisson, with a river running through it and a waterfall in the center. It had begun to lightly drizzle, but the sun still shone. Perhaps we’ll have a rainbow, I said. I stood for a while watching the water and what looked like an old dungeon next to it, transfixed. This is ancient history, Luc said. It’s what I missed when I was in America. We bought some pastries and brought them to a small café and sat outside. I still felt sluggish from the big meal, so I ordered a double café at Luc’s suggestion. I never thought before to order a double, I said. Luc told me that later that night we could go meet a few of his friends at a cabin about a half hour away, if I wanted. It took me an inordinate amount of time to understand what he meant by cabin (gîte), because he wouldn’t use the English word. I said of course I wanted to go out. In truth, he seemed indifferent about the whole thing. Although he, too, was bored in his tiny town, I wasn’t sure if he appreciated the depths of my boredom. I almost asked him if his sister would come. But I stopped myself. Instead I asked if there would be girls. There might be, he said. But it also might be bit of a sausage fest (fête de saucisson), he added. Once again we made a trip to the supermarket, where we bought frozen pizza and saucisson. The sun had set. By around eight we arrived at what looked more like a big, stone barn than a cabin. A couple of guys were outside smoking and I introduced myself. An American? one said. I spent most of the evening speaking with Zoé, a third year university student studying English at Angers. I encouraged her to practice her English with me, but like Véronique she was too shy. I talked about the difficulties, and rewards, of language learning. I was boozy, but not too boozy. It was good to hear myself talking, and know (if one can know this) that what I said was attended to with curiosity. The host, Lucas, let me choose some music, but someone turned off my selections after one song. When I went outside to smoke a cigarette I felt sick, suddenly. I brought my hand to my pimple; it had grown in size. My cheek seemed to quiver. Luc asked if I was ready to go, and I said yes. I slept fitfully. In the middle of the night I woke up, parched. My shirt was soaked with sweat. I drank several glasses of water and took a shower. By around four I fell asleep again. I dreamed: I was in a classroom in my high school (Liberty High), grading an insufferably pretentious short story by Richard, a writing partner to whom I often sent my new work. I left the classroom to pop a pimple on my face. Just as I was about to have at it, a group of girls came in, so instead I pissed in one of the urinals. Steam filled the room. I woke late in the morning and resolved not to send Richard any more of my stories. Another heavy lunch was nearly ready. I asked Luc if he would take me to the pharmacy afterward. Although I had been speaking with increasing fluency since I’d been there, now I heard myself fumbling around and making errors. Despite the awful feeling in my head, I smoked a cigarette outside with Véronique after coffee. It burned my throat and made me so dizzy I had to sit down. I was on the decline. Big night last night? she said. Not really, I said. The pharmacist studied my face carefully. I’d say it’s infected, he said. I think I might have a fever, I said. He touched my forehead, gently, with the back of his hand. Yeah, it’s a fever. You have to see a doctor as soon as possible. Too bad it’s Sunday, and tomorrow’s a holiday. Do I have to go to the ER? I said. Well, that’s up to you. But I would, he said. I looked at Luc. He shrugged his shoulders as if to say: I guess we’re going to the ER. I had to admire his ability to remain unperturbed. It was as if going to the hospital were just something to do, like buying frozen pizza. At least it would punctuate my visit. I was also unperturbed. I looked awful and felt depleted, but there was nothing for which I needed to be well, and knowing that mitigated my distress. We had to go back to La Roche-sur-Yon, the nearest town with a hospital. Luc asked someone on the street for directions. He hadn’t been to the hospital since his birth. I told him he could leave me there, if he wanted to, and I would find the train station without him, but he said he had nothing better to do. I felt obliged to make conversation in the waiting room, but I had nothing to say, so I started reading (Flaubert’s Salammbô). Nobody seemed particularly sick. After a half hour, a little girl, the age of one of my younger students, came in with her mother. She was crying softly and her eyes were red and filled with tears, and occasionally she said, I can’t, mom! I watched her, and wanted to cry, too. I looked at Luc and he shrugged. A while later a man with his arm in a sling walked out of the big doors leading into the examining rooms. Hey! Hey! Pierre! It’s me! someone was calling from behind him. He turned around. Charles? he said. I stood up and walked to the water fountain and quickly glanced down the hallway; Charles called again and several people went up and grabbed him. Pierre had a look on his face like he couldn’t believe his eyes. He went back the way he came to get to Charles. The big doors closed behind him. It was another half hour before I saw the doctor. I told him I had an infected pimple. Looks like it, he said. I opened my mouth and he shined a small flash light inside it. Why are you doing that? I said. In case the infection came from the inside, or spread, he said. It looks fine, he said. I told him I also felt feverish. Could it be related? That’s what the pharmacist said. Doubtful, he said. He did take my temperature to confirm that I had a fever, however. The season is changing and you’re not used to our microbes, he said. It’s probably a mild flu, he added, like that was an afterthought. Was I right to come here? I asked. I’ve seen less serious cases, he said. His expression was inscrutable. Perhaps he was annoyed with me. I decided not to pursue the matter further. He wrote a script for antibiotics. Will I have a scar? I said. Very possibly, he said. From it I will always remember this time, I said. This remark fell flat. It was poorly formed. I had meant to say something like, It will be my souvenir from La Roche-sur-Yon. I suppose, the doctor said, perhaps just to indulge me. When I saw Luc again, he told me that there was no point heading to the train station because there were no more departures to La Rochelle that day. We got back in the car and drove back to his house.
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.
It was still dark when the alarm went off. I made a cup of instant coffee and sipped it while I wrote an email. I opened my window and looked out onto the courtyard. The lamps glowed with a peculiar orange color and a few cats were running around. At the ground floor of the building across from me a light came on in one of the windows. I could have been drunk, after a long night out, smoking one last cigarette.
I caught the 8:15 train to St. Maixent and dozed, barely registering the landscape passing by. At 8:45 when I arrived the sun had fully risen. Like every Thursday, I took a circuitous route through streets wide enough for only one car, and peaked into the houses with the blinds open. In one a saw an old woman sitting at the kitchen table with a newspaper in front of her. I went to a bakery across the street from École Wilson and bought a croissant to sate my hunger.
Giles was in the faculty lounge pouring himself coffee when I came in. I did the same and he told me what classrooms I was in that day. He was a portly, pleasant man with a pronounced mustache. Claire walked in and said hello. I’d always had a thing for her, but in the course of our conversations it had come out that she had a partner. She was young, like me, but because she was a teacher and I was an assistant—but most of all perhaps because I struggled to communicate in French and she was French—I felt young beside her, almost as if I were a student with a crush on his maîtresse and not her contemporary. (And although I actually enjoyed this dynamic, in a sense, it was also regrettable, because—to tell the truth—I felt far too often young and obtuse beside French women. It didn’t matter that my vocabulary was always improving and that my constructions were, I was told, correct and sometimes even sophisticated. And furthermore, I did not want my desires to be reduced to childish fantasies, I wanted them to be satisfied. And the strange thing was, constantly feeling young had the effect of making me feel old.)
Claire told me I wouldn’t be working with her class today, the last period, because of an assembly. My first assignment was a section of second graders with a teacher whose name I could never remember. I went to her classroom and said hello to the class. Hi Dan! they said, in unison. She chose six students to go with me into another room for their lesson. One of them was a girl I’d never seen before and I saw immediately that her eyes were wet with tears. She just moved to St. Maixent, the teacher said, her father died last week.
I brought the kids down the hall and looked at the girl. I wanted to console her somehow and tell her it would be okay. But who was I to say that it would be okay? She would carry this loss with her for the rest of her life. It seemed to me that it would be okay if she were never okay, up until the very end.
I played a simple counting game with the kids. Èmelie, a half English girl, put her arm around the crying girl, who sat at the other end of the table from me. Her grief seemed so powerful that it was as if she didn’t know where she was. She didn’t want to participate and I didn’t press it, but in the last five minutes she did take one turn counting some plastic coins. I wanted to kneel down and hug her before she went back to class, but I didn’t. I knew I would never forget her.
I spent second period with a third grade class. One of the girls, Julie, ran up and hugged me while I was leading a small group to an empty room. Hello Mr. Hoffman! said another girl, Charlotte. I’d attempted to get the third-graders to call me Mr. Hoffman, but most of them called me Dan, except Charlotte, who had a certain wit about her. Sometimes I wondered why I didn’t inspire more deference and respect from the students, the way Claire could, for example. But it wasn’t in me to demand it. Even my request that they call me Mr. Hoffman was, finally, more of a joke, at least to me, but I supposed they were in on it too. At least Charlotte was. I was a figure of fun.
After this second period I set out to the same bakery to get a sandwich on a baguette and, since this was never enough for my big, American appetite, a quiche to go with it. On my way back to the school I ran into Odette, the young (22) teacher intern who, as with Claire, was also partnered up, and for all intents and purposes, in fact, married. We chatted briefly, and I returned to the faculty lounge to eat. I suddenly had the peculiar sensation that I was not entirely awake, or that I had not been entirely awake, because when I considered my conversation with Odette from only minutes before, I realized I had no idea at all what either of us had said, or if we’d even had a conversation, as if there had been a sort of lapse in time, or anyway a lapse in my capacity to account for it passing. I poured myself a cup of stale, lukewarm coffee in the hopes of giving me a little pep, and after I’d finished it I went to the student library and sat in a miniature arm chair intended for children. I was utterly exhausted. I pushed the chair against the wall and rolled up my jacket to use as a cushion for my head. Although this position was uncomfortable, the alarm on my phone, which I set for twenty minutes, still startled me awake from a vivid dream that hadn’t seemed like a dream at all until I was woken. For the remainder of the lunch period, I stood outside next to Odette and watched the kids chasing each other around the playground, while I wondered if I’d ever had that much energy, or if I’d always been so tired, from the moment I was born.
I had the most difficulty with Giles’ class, third period, the fifth graders. They were at that age where they were no longer endearing if they got out of hand. I was not big enough to take this in stride, and I personally resented some of them at moments. Pierre in particular got to me, with his look of feigned ignorance. That’s enough! I yelled (imagine). Go back to your class room! My tone conveyed that I was angry but he didn’t understand the English. He was dumbfounded. I explained to him in French that he had to return to Giles’ classroom, where inevitably Giles would ream him out. He left the room with a sulky expression on his face.
After that I had over an hour to kill before my train back to Niort. I had never really explored Saint Maixent so I decided to take a stroll. Something about the town struck me as sterile and unsettling. There was no one about on the streets, not even anyone having a drink on a terrace. By now I was desensitized to the old buildings and the architecture, so all I noticed was the silence. It was even more dead than Niort. It was not yet spring, but it was unseasonably warm, and with my winter coat on, I’d worked up a sweat from walking up the main road.
I turned down a small street and found myself in a small square with a fountain the middle. Sitting outside a café was one lone man with a gruff look about him smoking a cigarette. I kept expecting to see some military cadets of St. Maixent’s military academy – the only thing the town was known for – but there were none. My thoughts turned to my writing. I wasn’t working on anything and I wondered if it was perhaps time to reread my journals from Nashville, to see what, if anything, was there. I was afraid of what I would find, angst over trivialities, fruitless reflections on the self. But I did feel drawn to it too, like it was somehow necessary to rediscover my own stupidity. I thought of the girl whose father died last week. I wondered if there was anything fun in store for later in the evening. I was restless.
It was a still a while before my train so I sat in the café and read Death on the Installment Plan. I looked up periodically, distracted by something, although I didn’t know what. As the caffeine took effect, I began to grow agitated. It seemed that my thoughts were converging upon a single point, a question to which I had found an answer, or nearly found the answer. The question was—I didn’t know. I asked the gruff man outside for a cigarette. He looked at me blankly before handing me one.
I told myself that it was enjoyable to sit outside and smoke on a terrace, but I wasn’t enjoying myself. My agitation quickly turned to fatigue, and the cigarette gave me a headache. I couldn’t concentrate on the Céline. There were too many words I didn’t understand, and I didn’t have a dictionary. I left the café in a foul mood.
Back in Niort on my way home I ran into Luciana on the street. I didn’t even know who she was until I was face to face with her, I was so lost in thought. I told her that she caught me off guard. I walked along a little further and realized it would have been nice to sit with her and have a drink somewhere, particularly after such a lonely day. I could have asked her what had finally happened between Gaspar and Alessandra. But it was too late.
Instead of heading home I went to Bar du marché to see if anyone I knew was there. Christian the substitute teacher from Jules Ferry was sitting on the terrace with a drink, smoking a cigarillo. He was a middle-aged guy with wild, curly blond hair and a leathery face and yellow teeth from all the smoking. A couple of weeks ago, walking around the market in front of les halles, I’d discovered that he was one of the town criers, a group of people who cried out messages in the town square once a month, sometimes with a political theme, other times just something a passerby gave them written on a note card. He greeted me enthusiastically and bought me a drink.
Somehow we got on the subject of a trip he took in Russia back when he was in high school. He couldn’t believe how impressive the Russian high schoolers were. They put us to shame, he said. They were living under a communist regime, a bureaucratic, corrupt government, but they were cultivated as hell, sharp, and disciplined. I couldn’t believe it! he said. They made us look like children!
Then he started talking about how he liked the faculty at Jules Ferry. They know how to de-stress, he said. You saw us at the Christmas party! he said. I remembered how he’d started a food fight with the orange peels, after we were all good and drunk. You were pretty ripped there! he said. I told him I was embarrassed about that. Embarrassed? he said, an incredulous look on his face. We were all fucked!
He looked at his watch and said he had to be going, but that it was a pleasure seeing me.
I remained at the bar and ordered a beer with Lucas, the server I’d gotten to know over the months. I lit a cigarette. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of the evening. It was as if, for a moment, I didn’t know anything at all.
I set out to the Italians’ place, where they had invited me and Gaspar to dinner that night. Earlier in the day a fine coat of snow had fallen over Niort, leaving the streets emptier than usual, and I’d spent a good part of the afternoon and evening walking around, killing time, which had left me feeling particularly contemplative but at the same time, restless.
The streets now were even quieter, except for a low, non-descript hum of unknown origins that always seemed to signify that the sun had fallen. Someone hailed me out of the darkness and I saw it was the bank employee who’d opened my account the year before. She was smoking a cigarette outside of what I presumed to be her apartment. Behind her, I saw as I walked closer, stood a man in the doorway. They were the only people I saw on the walk, except for a hobo drinking a big can of beer and muttering to himself. The air was cool. I appreciated the great silence about me. It was as if I was the only one going out that night. I was almost certainly the only American going out that night.
Everyone at dinner was in good spirits, including me. We drank wine while Pietro finished cooking. Sometimes the three Italians would speak quickly to each other in their language, but mostly they stuck to French so everyone could understand.
At the table the conversation turned to our love lives. It was important that my friends took a vested interest in me getting laid. I’d recently seen a girl name Marie a couple times for drinks. She was home after completing art school in Paris. Somehow on a drunken night I’d gotten her number and she’d contacted me about English lessons. When I’d met her I was actually expecting someone else, because I only recalled giving my number out to one girl, and it wasn’t her. As such, I had little to say about the circumstances under which we met, because I couldn’t remember them. I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw. At any rate, it wasn’t going anywhere, I said to my friends. Luciana and Alessandra urged me to be forward.
I’m in love with Alessandra, and I just say it! Gaspar said, at which Alessandra blushed.
Gaspar! she said, her voice sort of lilting so it sounded liked Gaspar-ah. I remembered, about a month ago, shortly after we’d begun hanging around the Italians, Gaspar and I had gone to dinner at a Greek restaurant by the Moulin du Roc. He’d shown me a message he sent to Alessandra (Let me take you to dinner!). She still hadn’t replied. Elle exagère, he’d repeated numerous times throughout the dinner, and I never knew what that meant because it seemed he was the one who was exaggerating. Even research into the precise definition of the French version of the word, and its etymology, showed that his use of it was peculiar. Perhaps you’re coming on too strong, I’d offered.
If you feel something, why wouldn’t you follow it? Gaspar had said. Something about that had struck me. It was, perhaps without intending to be, profound. Now he brought up the ignored message. You never let me take you to dinner, he said. We had moved to the living room and he was passing around a spliff. Alessandra blushed again. Her capacity to blush was endless. I understood her no better than I understood Gaspar. I wondered if Gaspar was just playing his role in a game, the rules of which I was certainly unfamiliar. What was the meaning of the blush? I supposed I admired his forwardness, in way. Whether it was objectionable to the person on the receiving end, I couldn’t be sure, but at least he assumed it. It would seem that we should assume our undesirable qualities, and treat the desirable ones as if we’ve got nothing to do with them. I formulated this reflection as the spliff went to my head.
You made me suffer! Gaspar said. Let me call Olivier. He’ll tell you. While you were back in Italy, I pined for you. Olivier was one of Gaspar’s childhood friends who’d remained in Niort. Gaspar was already dialing. Yes, Olivier. I’m going to put you on speaker here. Wasn’t I upset about Alessandra all last week? Don’t I love her?
You love her. No doubt about it, Olivier said.
Gaspar-ah! Alessandra said. She could have been either crying, or laughing, or both. There was really nothing left to do but to go to the bar. That’s how I saw it, and I said so. Gaspar wanted to drive.
Mais non! Alessandra cried. You’re too high! It’s only a 10-minute walk.
Gaspar grinned widely. It’ll be fun!
We all left to pile into his tiny hatchback. I’m not even sure we’re saving time, I remarked. Gaspar gunned the engine and pulled out. He sped down the narrow cobble street, right over a speed bump, and slammed on the breaks at the stop sign. We all lurched forward.
Gaspar-ah! Alessandra cried again. Then, instead of going through the intersection, he put the car in reverse and pressed the gas.
I went the wrong way, he said. We all lurched again when he drove over the speed bump. Ah merde, he said at the intersection. I was right the first time. And so he sped forward again and turned onto a road that ran along the river.
Slow down, Gaspar, Alessandra said. Instead he slammed on the brakes and turned into a narrow street. Gaspar-ah! she cried. For my part, I didn’t really care what happened to us.
Finally, we got out of the car and had to walk nearly as long as we would have walked had we just walked in the first place. The moon was out and crossing the river over les Vieux Ponts I paused to listen to the waterfall in the distance. I looked out at the water, which reflected the moon. We seemed to be interrupting the silence of this scene. I remembered, last year in the fall, having gone to a bench next to the water and looking at this bridge, sitting on a bench for what had seemed like hours.
The Italians wanted to go dancing right away but I insisted we have some cheaper drinks first across the street at the Vintage. We found a table outside so we could smoke cigarettes and Gaspar went and bought us a bottle of wine. We all protested that we would contribute but he was adamant.
It was then that I met Charlotte. I overheard a group of women talking about teaching; one of them was an English teacher. She was a tall blond, otherwise non-descript. I told them I worked at one of the schools, teaching English. They offered me a cigarette and I accepted. Pretty soon Gaspar and the Italians wanted to go dance, so I gave Charlotte my email. I quickly forgot about her.
The Chamboul’tou was packed, despite the streets outside being empty. I pushed my way through the crowd to get to the backyard and smoke a cigarette. Marie’s here, I said to Gaspar. I could see her at the other side of a crowd of smokers.
What a bomb! Gaspar said. I thought of what he said earlier. There was no reason to hold back! I made my way to her.
We kissed each other on the cheek and said hello. I said that I was out with the Italians and Gaspar, whom she knew of by virtue of the fact that we were in such a small town, although she had not spent any time with them. She indicated that she was with a few people standing in a circle smoking a few feet away. They appeared engrossed in a conversation. It was, of course, the moment for action. I asked her if she was having fun. She said she was, and you? Always, I said, I only ever have fun. While not quite indifferent, she seemed less interested in me than in our prior meetings, when it was only the two of us. She was a bomb! Suddenly I felt troubled, because our conversation had run its course in a matter of moments, and it seemed to me that if I was going to make some bold gesture, then I should have felt something more than what I was feeling. I regretted smoking the spliff, which had certainly made me more cerebral than usual. The fact was, I was not bold. I had desires, but it seemed foolish to have convictions in my desires. And yet perhaps I was just avoiding rejection, which may have been inevitable. Marie seemed to sense that I wanted to say something. Ça va? she said.
Yes, yes, I said. I’ll see you around! I left her to her friends.
I went back to Gaspar to relay this underwhelming exchange. Ah! Too bad. But she is truly beautiful. Exquisite! he said. I looked back towards her to confirm that this was true. She seemed so lively with her friends.
I became disconsolate, most because the spliff had led me down a hole of self-doubt and confusion. I flicked away my cigarette and said goodbye. Back inside the Italians tried to convince me to stay, but I was depleted. Good luck with him! I said to Alessandra. She blushed, and I knew that they would go home together.
On my way back I stopped at les Vieux Ponts againand looked out at the water. I didn’t feel anything now; I was just relieved to be alone again. I made my way up rue du Pont. The street was empty except for a car playing loud music. I stepped aside to let it pass. Then when I made it up to rue St. Gelais, the same car was stopped at the corner, its windows down. Hey, what are you doing? the driver, a young guy, called. I’m going home, I said, although I should have ignored him, because I knew what was coming. Ah! That accent! Are you American? Yes, I said, again wishing I’d said nothing. They trailed me as I walked towards my building. What are you doing? the guy in the back seat said. This time I ignored him. When I made it to the gate and put in the key, the car stopped. I turned to look at them. Fuck you, I said, in English, and closed the gate behind me. At least I had that small satisfaction.
Thursday night I went to Dinner with Marco. Marco was a guy who did some maintenance work for the residence, and every Thursday he cooked a big dinner for people who signed up for it the week before. Some nights there were a lot of us, like this night. I went most Thursdays because the food was good for the price, and I could practice my French, mostly with French teenagers. Sometimes Quentin, my friend from Toulouse who lived there, would come down to eat, but most of the time he cooked in his room, claiming he had peculiar eating habits. Thankfully there were the activities coordinators to talk to, and Marco himself, because I didn’t have much to say to the teenagers. The boys in particular were difficult. I don’t know why. Perhaps it had something to do with the fragility of masculinity, at that age. Anyway, our conversations were strained. At least the girls were curious about me. Wine would have helped but since some of them were under 18, alcohol wasn’t allowed.
That day a few of the other assistants came along, Amber, Tricia and Elaine. Marco mused over the peculiarities of the French language, then told us about how he used to party, before getting married and then divorced. He had wavy, curly grey hair, a quintessential Frenchman.
I looked at the teenagers, who weren’t paying much attention to Marco, and wondered what I’d been like at their age. I wondered, if someone had told me how I’d turn out, what would I think? Not that I had turned out. We never really turn out, until we die, I reflected. But nevertheless I felt particularly suspended in Niort, and as I relive these lines, now, that supposedly evoke this period of my life, I feel nostalgia for that suspension, as much as it felt like punishment.
The assistants tried to convince me to go into nearby La Rochelle the following day to meet our colleagues there and spend the night out; between all of them, someone would have a bed for me to crash on. You never come out! they said. I thought of Marco and how he said he missed his youth, when he went out all the time. I acquiesced after some insistence.
I arrived in La Rochelle late in the afternoon the next day. The train ride put me in a contemplative mood. I chose a restaurant at random and read from a novel, The Recognitions by William Gaddis, a wretched tome of postmodern overindulgence. The server gave me a strange look, maybe because it was an odd hour to be eating. Perhaps I looked strange.
After that I walked along the sea. I sat down on a bench for a while by a spot I’d visited four years ago, when I’d spent a semester in France and traveled to La Rochelle with a group of Americans. I made a note to find some of the other spots we’d visited back then, if I could remember them. The sun was out, the air cool and crisp. It would be Christmas soon, and then the New Year. It seemed I could have remained there, indefinitely, until dark, but finally I had to get up and walk to keep myself warm.
I went back into town and stopped at a used book store. I bought a few French novels. The streets around there looked familiar and eventually I stumbled upon a spot where I remembered getting drunk with Dan and Jared. A couple of weird French guys, far drunker than us, had told us to ‘get in the bus.’ One of them had us form a line behind him and he squatted, like he was sitting in an imaginary chair, and made honking noises while he held an imaginary steering wheel. That was a peculiar memory.
I felt like an old man, heavier and slower, weighed down by my bad diet of kebabs and cafeteria food, the enthusiasm sucked out of me. I did not, however, feel nostalgic.
Finally, I met with the other assistants by a big statue, and we all went to a girl’s apartment nearby to start drinking. I got boozy pretty quickly. Apparently I was restless. I joked around with Martin, a cheerful guy from the London suburbs who taught in Melle, an even smaller town than Niort where he was the only Anglophone for miles. He’d had to take a bus and a train to get to La Rochelle.
Then a girl walked in who caught my eye. I introduced myself and she told me her name, Rachel or maybe Rebecca. I was aware that my conversation had become unnatural and stilted. She’d studied French literature and translated a contemporary novel into English for her BA thesis. Do you like the classics? I said, like it was a Q & A. If I could have stepped outside of myself and watched the exchange, I would have felt embarrassed. And in a sense I was watching myself, powerless to intervene. I showed her the books I’d bought at the store earlier. If she had said, ‘Could we talk about something more fun?’ I wouldn’t have been surprised, but she half-heartedly indulged me. When one of the other girls asked if any of us wanted to take a shot, I raised my hand immediately. At least I could leave the conversation on a fun note, and perhaps redeem myself.
I was good and liquored up. Was I appreciated? I wondered. I thought about sidling up to Martin and confiding to him my attraction for Rebecca or Rachel but decided against it. It wouldn’t do any good.
We left, en masse. We found a big bar with a dance floor. I started talking to another one of the assistants from La Rochelle, an American girl from the Midwest somewhere. I picked up on a vibe. I resolved to make a real effort with her, and to be fun and clever. Or rather not to make any effort, but to just let the charm flow naturally, like a cool stream in the forest. First I had to piss. On the way through the dance floor I ran into Rachel or Rebecca. Hey! she said. Come dance with us! Perhaps she’d had a change of heart. But then she started dancing with a stranger, possibly a Frenchman.
In the bathroom it came over me: depression. It all seemed like an uninspired farce. There’s more dignity in leaving! I thought to myself, looking in the mirror. I was drunk enough that my thoughts finished with exclamation points.
Luckily, on my way out of the bathroom Martin approached me. He was leaving, and there was another free room at his friend’s apartment. Otherwise I could stay and crash with someone else. I left.
I woke in the morning with a spitting headache. I drank a few glasses of water and left without saying goodbye. The path back to town was next to the ocean, but it was windy and grey out, and I derived little pleasure from the view. I found a kebab place and scoffed one down, which brought me a small comfort. Then I got on the next train back to Niort.
I dawdled around in the morning for a long time, wondering what to do, almost as if there was something painful I had to do, but couldn’t. Other than long emails to my friends I hadn’t written in a while. But emails counted, in a sense. At least one person read them, not including me. Sometimes I reread my sent emails, to remind myself that I’d written.
It occurred to me suddenly, as in a revelation, that I was bored. I was going to write this down, but then I saw that I’d already written that I was bored, a few weeks ago.
I decided to pose myself a series of questions.
Q: am I masochist?
Q: do I know how to enjoy myself?
A: from time to time
Q: do I perpetuate my own suffering?
Q: do I have any friends?
Q: do I actually want friends?
Q: how much do I like people?
A: not sure
Q: what about love (corporeal/spiritual?)?
Q: is my life as exciting as it should be?
Q: What is a full, rich life?
Q: am I passionate?
Q: do I get enough work done?
Q: am I growing as a person and as a writer?
A: time passes
Last weekend, three of the British assistants tried to get me to come out to the house they rented in the countryside. There were rumors that the three of them regretted living there, away from town and away from the rest of us. In addition, two of them had turned against the other one, Catherine, an admittedly insufferable person whom I couldn’t suffer, as the word implies. I saw it coming when I first met her. She’d gone on about her boyfriend and then complained about having to speak French with Tania, because Tania couldn’t speak English. But I wasn’t going to say anything to warn the other two, it would have been overstepping my bounds. They were young, after all. In truth I took a certain satisfaction in hearing about the failure of this domestic arrangement. I declined their invitation for the weekend, but in retrospect I should have. It might have been entertaining. At least I would have had something to write about.
It was the night of the Hootenanny, a concert and party at l’Atlantique, another youth residence on the opposite side of town where events were periodically hosted. This was one advantage of living in a foyer, that is, these weekly events organized by the staff, activity coordinators whose goal it was to socialize us, the transient residents new to town. The disadvantage was this, that seventeen- or eighteen-year-old French youth, who for whatever reason didn’t live with their parents, needed a different kind of socializing than the smaller, older population of interns and foreigners like me. But for lack of anything better to do, I occasionally participated. And at least there was Tania with me, a Spanish girl my age from the building who was in Niort for a year-long volunteer project.
A make-shift stage had been set up in the main room of the building, and the first band was getting ready. Quentin, a young man roughly my age introduced himself to me and Tania when he heard our accents. One couldn’t help but noticing the Spanish accent in particular, it was so endearing. Mine however sounded awful to me, but apparently some people actually liked it. Being from the outskirts of Toulouse, Quentin himself had a strong southern accent, which was sometimes easier to understand, because it was slower, but just as often more difficult because his vowels had a strange, rolling twang.
He was a recent college graduate doing an ecology internship in the swamps of Poitou, a short bus ride away from Niort. One could tell that he, too, felt out of sorts in this alien environment of delinquent-seeming French youth. Looking around, we were assuredly the oldest there other than the staff.
The first group was standard alt rock sung in French. The second was also standard alt rock, though sung in an unintelligible English. I discovered that this was called yaourt, the French word for yogurt, meaning English sung by French people who actually can’t speak English and possibly don’t know what they’re saying.
When the concert was over Tania, Quentin and I left to go meet Gaspar at l’ArroSoir, a small bar across from the 1000-year-old dungeon. Gaspar would later become my best French friend in Niort, but at this point I barely knew him. We had met in the main hall of my building when he was settling some paperwork matters with Françoise, the genial secretary who worked at the welcome desk; he had lived there for a few months in one of the studio apartments and then moved back in with his parents. Before coming to the FJT Gaspar had taught French in China for four years, which he said gave him more empathy for foreigners living in his own country. Now he worked in a high paying job for one of the mutual insurances that Niort was known for, although it often seemed to me that he didn’t work very much, but rather was perpetually on vacation, as I’ve noted before. He categorically refused to do anything involving the FJT, that’s why he hadn’t come to the concert. It’s okay if you’re new to town or foreign, but otherwise it’s frowned upon to live in the FJT, he’d explained to me. It wouldn’t be a good idea, for example, to bring a girl there, he’d added.
That’s right Dan, we are at the bar, he said in a strange, robotic voice in English when I called him to say we were coming. His English was very poor but he liked to have fun now and then practicing it. He was already lit.
Walking through the narrow streets, the three of us struggled to have a coherent conversation. The truth was I had trouble understanding Tania sometimes, and then she would try saying whatever it was in English and that only proved worse, though endearing. I would have liked not to make any judgements or have any feelings about accents, but rather consider the content of speech alone, because that’s how I hoped people related to me, but accents invariably had an effect on me all the same. I was learning a lesson about the messy distinctions between form and content, which we should not take for granted.
Dan! Gaspar cried when he saw us enter. How are you? He had a rakish grin on his face and for some reason there was a big bandage on his nose.
What happened? I said. You look like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown.
I ran into a door—with my nose, he said. One of his friends next to him laughed. Even his grin resembled Jack’s grin.
We’ve been drinking for a while, his friend said.
Gaspar started rolling a spliff right there on the table. He was man of few inhibitions. When the server came he put it on his lap and ordered a round of shots. To your lovers, we toasted. A few clever things to say about my lack of lovers came to mind, but I didn’t know quite how to express them. The liquor almost made me gag.
Gaspar left the table to smoke his spliff and I followed, needing a smoke break myself. He offered his joint but I declined. I didn’t want to go down that route.
Come on Dan, it’ll do you good! he said, taking a long drag.
I wasn’t made for bud, I said. There was ample evidence for this.
Il faut pas exagérer! he said. This was one of his catch phrases. It never quite made sense to me, as it translated roughly to ‘you don’t have to exaggerate,’ or simply, ‘don’t exaggerate,’ which given the context didn’t seem appropriate, at least in a readily apparent way. Perhaps there was a meaning of which I wasn’t aware.
He was still grinning. He lit my cigarette for me. It was fall outside and I was wearing a light jacket and a sweater. Gaspar had left his coat inside and was wearing a striped shirt, and he looked cartoonishly French. Besides a couple standing outside smoking a cigarette, the streets were deserted, even though it was a Friday night. This city is dead, Gaspar said.
On our way back to the table he ordered more drinks for everyone. I asked Olivier, one of Gaspar’ friends at the table, about it. Is he always like this, buying everyone drinks?
That’s Gaspar for sure. No one gets it, you just have to accept it and don’t ask questions, Olivier said.
Now, perhaps because there was an American around, Gaspar was talking about his brief time in Boston visiting a friend doing an exchange program when they were both in their early twenties.
I never had any luck with American girls. I made valiant efforts but they didn’t seem interested! I just don’t understand these américaines!
Were you wearing that bandage on your nose? said Anthony, another one of his friends at the table. Gaspar’s customary sly grin spread over his face. His eyes were red from all the hash. Suddenly he pulled off the bandage to scratch his nose and we all saw that there wasn’t much of a bruise at all, besides a little redness. He stuck it back on.
In Paris though, I was made for the American tourists! he said. When the server came around he started to order yet another round of drinks but Tania insisted that we buy our own this time. She had more pride than me. She and I went up to the bar and ordered beers.
For the next half hour or so I spoke with Anthony about American cinema. He insisted on practicing his English, and while sometimes it insulted me when people did this, because I took it to mean that my interlocutor found my French wanting, this time I realized that he genuinely just wanted to try English. It was nice, for once, to be the articulate one. Anthony was so drunk that he was beginning to slur his speech.
Kubrick…there’s a great, he said.
What about Jerry Lewis?
Ah…Jerry Lewis! That’s shit…in the ’60s we like him…but that’s finished!
I was getting drunk too. I began to think about my last night out, with Mounir. This time I wouldn’t miss any signals! Perhaps I would even see the same girl if I could get us to visit that bar. I looked up at Anais, the only girl other than Tania who was with us. Was she sending any signals? I couldn’t tell. Smoking another cigarette with Gaspar I offered that we head over to l’Onze-bis for more drinks.
Ah, Dan, I know what you’re thinking, he said. He was familiar with the story. That place stinks but let’s head on over.
And so we found ourselves on the roof of l’Onze-bis, and while there were a few vaguely familiar faces, Manu and his friends were not there. I thought of the charisma Mounir had shown the last time. There were several groups of attractive girls sitting and talking just like us, and if I had gone up to one of them and said, simply, ‘Bonsoir, I’m Dan, a lonely American who doesn’t understand anyone in this town and needs friends. What are your names?’ my candor would perhaps have gotten me somewhere—and at the very least, an interesting conversation would have come out of it. But I didn’t have it in me. I looked out towards the river that ran through the center of Niort. In the distance there was one of the town’s three big cathedrals. I yawned suddenly, feeling tired.
Everyone was leaving now and looking at my phone I saw it was already two, closing time. Though I could have easily gone home to bed, it seemed that that would make for an underwhelming conclusion to the evening.
Where to next? I asked Gaspar, expecting him to say there was nothing else open.
Le Chamboul’tou, though I’m sick of that place, it’s all we’ve got left, he said.
Gaspar’s been banned from that place periodically, but I guess he’s on okay terms with them now, Olivier said to me.
I asked Tania if she wanted to really make a night of it. In Spain we are always out this late when we party, she said.
So all of us made our way across the river, a five minute walk, if that, to le Chamboul’tou, which was nothing more than a non-descript building with a bouncer standing out front. When it was our turn to go in he told us that if we all wanted to get in at once, we would have to wait a while. Gaspar got to the front of the line and made a stink. Come on, we’ve got some foreigners here, real, true tourists! He gestured to me and Tania. Tania was very pretty, and that probably did the trick. Okay, he said. Five to ten minutes, that’s all. Gaspar, Olivier and I went to the river to piss, and when we got back the bouncer signaled us in.
The place was packed with people, some of them faces I’d just seen at l’Onze-bis. We all had to push through a horde of people waiting to order drinks just to get to the dance floor, which was only about the size of a living room. Gaspar remained by the bar to order several pitchers of beer. I left the dance floor to go to the small backyard where all the smokers stood.
I pretended not have a lighter for an excuse to strike up a conversation, picking a group of three girls and one guy.
Can I have a light? I said to a demure seeming girl with a thoughtful, pretty face.
Ah you’re English, said her friend, who was also attractive.
American in fact, I said. Thus began the usual exchange of explaining why I was there, where I was from in the States, etc. It was an explanation that had already grown tiring. Our conversation seemed to be going fine, though, until a guy joined us and put his arm around her.
It’s an American, she said to her boyfriend.
Ah! An American! he looked me over. I love your look—those glasses—what a sweater, he said.
Thank you, I said. But I was not thankful.
Listen, he said, putting his arm around me. The demure girl was talking to another guy, and I longed. They hadn’t kissed or touched yet so there was still hope. The other girl had left the group and now it was just me and her boyfriend. You like these French girls? I can get you French girl. He spoke in a mix of poor English and French. You can get girlfriend tonight.
He was drunk, I was drunk, we were all drunk. That’d be nice, I said. But instead of introducing me to girls, the demure one for example, he just introduced me to his guy friends. My American friend! he kept saying. There was definitely something patronizing about this but I was too drunk to care. After being introduced to several people and forgetting their names instantly, the guy, Antoine or Pierre, pointed out a girl just coming outside. Ah it’s Mirielle, you could try her, he said.
Sure, I’ll try her, I said.
Mirielle, this is Daniel the American.
Bonsoir, she said.
Salut, ça va? I said.
Ça va, she said. Thus ended our conversation. I decided that this guy was getting me nowhere and I would be better off rejoining Gaspar and his friends, but before I went back inside we exchanged numbers, although we would never contact each other.
Back inside I took beer from the pitcher Gaspar had bought and forced myself to dance. Predictably, I felt absurd. The whole thing was appalling.
Pretty soon the music stopped and the lights came on. It was four in the morning and the place was closing. I assumed that meant our night was over but there was one last option, the Saint Gelais. The place was infamously trashy, beauf as the French said. I hadn’t been there but I’d heard talk about it. There were rumors that it had been closed down for a few months due to a rape on the premises, and a few of my younger colleagues at the elementary school confessed to having frequented the place out of desperation for anything else to do; they always felt ashamed afterwards.
We might as well try it, it’s right on our block, Tania said.
So now we all stumbled out and walked up the winding narrow street towards Saint Gelais. We weren’t the only ones with that ideas; drunken, boisterous groups of friends were all walking in the same direction—a Eurotrash march to our final destination. Looking around, I could tell everyone was tired but we had to get our last bit of clubbing in before the night was over and we repeated the whole stupid mess the next evening.
White we waited in line, I made note of a placard on the outside wall with a list of rules for proper clubbing behavior. Among them were ‘be respectful of women’ and ‘excessive drunkenness will not be tolerated.’
This time we all had to pay the doorman five euros to hang our coats. Descending the stairs, the generic club beats became louder and louder.
What I saw before me amounted to a dingy dungeon converted into a dance floor with a small bar serving over-priced drinks. Men aggressively danced with the women, if one was available, and a strange smell filled the air.
Ah, isn’t isn’t it glorious? Gaspar grinned. I was amazed at his ability to slum it and to appreciate things with detached amusement, au second degré. He was right, it truly was glorious. Many of the street vagrant types seemed to be there, and I even recognized a few of the more unsavory faces from my building.
I went into a small room were the music was turned down and the bartender served cocktails and wine. I managed to order a gin and soda without confusing the guy too much and almost puked after one small sip. There was a cute girl with plastic glasses standing in the corner who seemed out of place so I took another big swig, gagged, and approached her.
You seem out of place here, I said.
What? she said, incredulous.
You seem out of…never mind, I said, realizing that I wasn’t making myself understood. It was probably a bad line anyway, for all I knew she loved it there. She did ask me where I was from and why I was in Niort but before I could even finish my spiel a boy came up, her boyfriend evidently. I gotta go, I said.
Back in the main room I watched the people dancing. I wasn’t sure if I was having fun. Sometimes it was difficult to tell, for me. I could not even offer myself the consolation that at least this was material for a story, because of that I wasn’t sure. A fog machine came on and everything became hazy. Body odor wafted in my direction.
Eventually Gaspar appeared out of the fog, dancing with Anais. The bandage had stayed on his nose all night. Il faut se frotter! he said, yet another one of his catch phrases. This meant, roughly, ‘you have to rub each other,’ in the context of dancing. But I didn’t want to frotter, it made me uncomfortable. A beautiful girl walked passed Gaspar and he put his hand on her shoulder. Wait, he said, taking her hair in his hand and smelling it. She pushed him away and walked off. He was a man of many impulses, and he followed them.
I clumsily made a few efforts to dance, taking care not to frotter at all but rather keeping my distance. Luckily, the night was almost over and soon the lights came on. It was six. We all stumbled out. Gaspar tried to kiss Tania, much to her chagrin, and Anthony pissed in the street right in front of the doorman, who threatened to call the cops. We’d better get going before this gets worse, I said to Tania. She agreed, and we quickly walked back to our building.
Did you have fun? she said to me in the lobby.
We spent the day stacking boxes of scented candles onto pallets in the shipping department. The job was somewhat strenuous at times, but not so much overall. Before I was hired, I had had to take an aptitude test in a tiny office located in a dingy, neglected section of the factory. For the test, they instructed me to lift a series of boxes of varying sizes, shapes and weights while a woman evaluated me based on where I placed the stress of the weight. “Lift with your arms and legs, not with your back.” That was the mantra. It was a sound mantra. The mantra was obeyed and I passed the test, and so I was hired.
That day, as usual, we had our mandatory stretch breaks. I didn’t mind them. There were two, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, both led by our manager, KJ, a small, rotund trollish man with a grey goatee, black rectangular glasses and two unflattering circular earrings. Pallet stacking stopped and KJ corralled the workers—mostly grumpy middle-aged men—into a circle off to one side of the shipping department. Over the whirring conveyor belts, forklifts and faint country radio, we did a number of stretches for what seemed like an eternity but was actually only a few minutes. The men in the circle adopted a blank, dejected looking expression during the stretches. I tried my best to smile.
For one stretch KJ placed the tip of his index finger vertically on his chin and firmly pressed it into his flesh. I think it was some sort of neck exercise, but I couldn’t be sure. The effect was that the fat folds in his neck were deeply accentuated. He could have been pondering over a profound thought (an intimate thought). Or perhaps he was thinking of nothing.
I woke around 9 and wondered what to do, even though there was a lot to do. I tried making a to-do list, but felt uninspired. I asked myself: what is worthwhile? It was Wednesday and there was no school. I was out of coffee so I dressed and went out to find the nearest café. I still hadn’t explored very much on rue Saint-Gelais. There was a tabac about a minute away I hadn’t noticed before. Outside, a huge dog owned by a hobo with dreadlocks took a big shit. They both walked off, and the shit remained.
I stopped at the bakery across the street to get a pastry, then I went in to the tabac to order a coffee and a pack of cigarettes. I wondered if the barman would say anything about my pastry. He didn’t. It was an ugly place. Just a few tables, and a small bar with three stools. A TV with the sound turned off played French news. I sat at the bar. An old man was reading a newspaper. I decided I would go home and take a look at my novel.
As soon as I looked at it I felt embarrassed. They were words I’d written only a few months ago, but it was as if I’d outgrown them, as one outgrows—you know. I opened the window and lit a cigarette. In the courtyard there were kids running around and playing. One of them called out, Dan! and I realized he was one of my students. It was a good thing I was properly dressed. I asked him if he was on good behavior but I pronounced something wrong and he just said, What? I’ll just see you tomorrow! I called. He returned to running around and chasing his little pals. Kids, I thought. I wondered what was in store for him: a small boy growing up in a nowhere town in the middle of wide expanses of farmland. My hometown wasn’t any better. And there I was. What did I mean to him – not that I was American, but that I spoke this other language (English), and his own language, but with great difficulty and a thick accent. When young, do you know what it means to speak a language? I wondered if I even knew. Perhaps, in ignorance that there is such a thing as language, children communicated more authentically. Suddenly I had to take a big shit. It seemed I was shitting all the time in my new apartment, more than usual. I preferred that to the alternative, naturally. Perhaps there was causation between boredom and bowel movements. When bored, the body revels in its basic physical functions.
Later that day I had a private lesson on the outskirts of town. It took me nearly 45 minutes to walk there, which seemed to be a waste of time, and yet it also seemed that I had wasted most of the day away, so what was another 45 minutes. My student’s name was Aude or Audrey, maybe even Sophie, something like that, a demure French girl, like so many other French girls. She needed a tutor to help her pass her high school diploma. I charged her, or her mother rather, fifteen euros per hour, and wished I had set my price higher, in view of the time I’d spent getting there. I wondered what they thought of me. I was possibly the only American guy living in that town. I regret to say that nothing was particularly remarkable about this experience. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention.
Back at the Roulière I ran into Gaspar in the lobby and he invited me out to drinks. He had a grin on his face like he was looking for trouble. In the short time I’d known him, he was always around and ready to drink or light a spliff. He didn’t seem to work at all. He seemed to glide through life, one spliff at a time. I told him I had things to do that night, though I didn’t have anything specific in mind. I said I would let him know, I just had to check something. I went up to my apartment and looked at my journal from the morning where I’d began the to-do list. It didn’t have anything on it. I don’t remember what I did after that.
I was taking my clean laundry back to my room when it occurred to me to knock on Mounir’s door. I had met Mounir shortly before October break, in the main hallway of the building. He’d introduced himself when he noticed my American accent. He had told me that, years ago, he’d befriended an American studying abroad, and had through this friendship learned some of what it meant to be an American living in France. He himself had emigrated with his family to Poitiers from Tunisia when he was still in elementary school, and later had moved to Paris to earn a degree in finance. Now, for reasons unknown to me, he was temporarily living in Niort while he taught math at one of the professional high schools. On the weekends he often left to stay with friends, in the countryside south of Niort, in Parthenay; or he went up to Poitiers where, he said, there was an actual nightlife, at least compared to Niort. He had given me his room number, and said to feel free to stop by.
He was at his desk, sipping a glass of white wine and grading tests. Ah, Dan! he said. I asked him if he wanted to get dinner after I folded my laundry. He asked me to excuse the mess in his room, though it actually appeared neat and tidy—the home of an ascetic, if anything. We agreed to meet in the main hall in fifteen minutes.
Back in my room, I began folding my laundry but stopped after I realized it would take me too long to finish. I wondered why I had asked Mounir to dinner, when I saw that it was already nearly nine in the evening. But not only was it too late to change my mind, but I didn’t want to eat spaghetti, which was all I had. Nonetheless, I deliberated for what seemed like an inordinately long amount of time over whether I really wanted to be up late, when I had a whole day of teaching the next day in St. Maixent, and had to be up before seven to catch the train. Increasingly, I was aware that making simple decisions had become a source of undue anxiety; perhaps because, with few exceptions, I had so little to do, and without the weight of necessity, I floundered, as if the most trivial of things were actually critical and required great consideration. And they did, because I had to consider something.
Mounir was already in the lobby when I arrived, and I apologized for being late. Did you fold your laundry? he said. No, I told him. We decided to go to le Donjon, a restaurant named after the eleventh century dungeon which stood across from it. It had a sleek, modern interior with uniformed servers and (I made special note of this) a decidedly state-of-the-art bathroom. Although I had not been to many restaurants in France, in Niort or elsewhere, I somehow knew that it was all in poor taste. It was as if it were trying, too hard and unsuccessfully, to belong to another, more cosmopolitan city. It was in this atmosphere that we dined.
Mounir expounded on his ideas about life. He followed his instincts, he told me, and sought pleasure in what he knew was – relative to me – an uncomplicated way. He wanted to be drunk, he said, drunk on life. He was not, however, a mere pleasure-seeking, nihilist hedonist, he said. And nor did it seem that way. His speech was studied and measured, (although it occurred to me that he might have been speaking that way just to assure I followed him). That he had these ideas, about himself and his life, and that he was ready to elaborate them, was curious (though not un-admirable) to me. I had my own thoughts about my life, and what I wanted out of it, but they were not consistent enough to be worth formulating in a coherent way (for they were, deep down, incoherent). Furthermore, I doubted my ability to reach sound conclusions about myself. I told him that I wanted to be drunk, too, and that I used to take a lot of drugs. Of course! He said. Because you need them to be drunk on life. But you must let go!
Let go of what? I said.
That’s for you to figure out, he said. But whatever it is, I can see that you’re holding on to it.
You’re right, I said. I didn’t know what it was I had to let go. Nor did I know what made it so apparently transparent for Mounir, who had only talked to me on one other occasion. The food had come and while I chewed I thought about what I thought about my life, and why I was the way I was. I said to Mounir, I was drunk a lot – as you take it to mean, figuratively, but also literally, before I came here, and perhaps now I’ve calmed down. I do not know if this got across in my French. But it’s what I meant to say.
Bah! Mounir said. I don’t believe it. You’re still young!
And nor did I, really. We paid our bill and walked to another bar, at Mounir’s insistence. The décor in this place was nearly identical to the restaurant, except the lighting was dim and there was club music playing. Eurotrash. We went to the roof and sat at a table next to a group of rowdy people. I regretted not wearing a heavier coat. I was cold. In fact, I didn’t have a heavier coat that I could have brought. I didn’t understand most of what the people next to us were saying. They might as well have been speaking no language at all. They were laughing. I did catch a few curse words. I wanted to pick up on our conversation from dinner, and get to the bottom of it, and express what I truly meant. But I didn’t mean anything.
Without me understanding, Mounir made a remark to the group of people. He did this with great ease and confidence. I had been right when I’d wondered if he had another way of speaking than the one he adopted for me.
The center of attention of this group was a shortish man with a receding hairline and, most notably, a piece of string or necklace around his neck, and in the place where the locket would have been, there was a piece of saucisson instead, from which the man didn’t hesitate to take bites. He introduced himself as Manu, short for Emmanuel, and was with another man and two women. I’ve since forgotten the other man’s name, but the two women were both named Manon. Manu, he told us, was a social worker from Niort. He did not explain the saucisson, but he did take bites from it whenever he wanted to emphasize a point he was making. An American! he said, biting it again. I lit a cigarette. I didn’t know what to say to the guy. He started to speak English to me but it was unintelligible.
I always wanted to…hm…comment dire?…I need to speak French! This fucking language, English! he said, chewing on the saucisson.
It looks like you’ve got a bad addiction there, Mounir said. Manu took another violent bite. One of the Manons turned to me and asked what I did in Niort. I started to reply but Manu interrupted.
I want to know what is with this ‘pardon my French’ bull shit? he said. I asked him if French people cursed more than other nationalities.
Not at all…it’s insulting…He switched to his broken English. I say, ‘oh shit,’ or ‘fuck dat,’ and I have to say ‘pardon my French’? What the fuck is this? It’s fucking bull shit I say, motherfucker!
I said maybe French people do actually curse a lot. He looked at me blankly, as if I hadn’t even spoken. What the fuck is this? he said again.
I think what Dan means, Mounir interjected, is that maybe the French do curse a lot.
Fucking shit! Manu said once more, taking a bite of the saucisson.
The banter went on but I couldn’t follow most of it once it was no longer directed at me. They were lively and laughing. This was difficult for me to see, because I considered myself a funny guy, and yet I was just sitting there, like a stick in the mud.
The other Manonasked me what I did. I told her, but with no enthusiasm. The enthusiasm had been sucked out of me – by what, I didn’t know. It did not feel to me that I was where I was, although I did not know where I felt I was if not there. It is really not an easy matter, being somewhere. I lit another cigarette, for lack of anything better to do. It made me feel tired. I told Mounir I would head off because I had to be up early, and he said he could stay longer, but he didn’t mind leaving with me, either. Manon asked me what I had to be up for. This was the same Manon as before, or perhaps the other one, it doesn’t matter. I said I had to teach a full day in Saint Maixent, the next town over.
Oh! she said. My father works right near there. If you like, we have a spare room, you could stay there and he’ll give you a lift first thing in the morning.
Really? I said. I entertained, briefly, this proposition, but it seemed to offer little advantage over staying in my own bed, especially seeing as I slept poorly in foreign atmospheres, as if my own bed wasn’t already foreign enough to me. I told her, finally, that I was better off sleeping at home, because besides, my things were there. She said she wouldn’t mind waiting for me to pick up a change of clothing; she would even take me to my place now, and then we would be on our way. I wanted to say that even then, I was liable to forget something important like a tooth brush or my pajamas (I couldn’t sleep without them). But I didn’t say that because it was too complicated to say. Instead I said: How will I get to work? My father will drop you off, she said, on his way to work, like I said.
I tried to imagine this whole scenario. A drive to Saint Maixent (I didn’t know how long the drive would be) with Manon. I didn’t know where I would be sleeping, on a couch or a futon, but I didn’t want to ask, because I would have seemed ungrateful. In either case I would feel strange as a house guest in someone’s house whom I had only met that evening. Most of all, the morning would be uncomfortable, when I would meet the father (or if I met him that night, that would be uncomfortable too), and then ride with him to school. I was sure he would find the situation peculiar too. I would have to talk to him, which was a difficulty in itself, and answer his questions about my stay in the area. Perhaps he would be put off by my presence and resent his daughter’s generosity. And furthermore, what was Manon, a girl in her mid-twenties, doing living with her father in a small town? The whole thing didn’t sit well with me, the more I thought about it, so I thanked her for the offer again but said that it would make more sense if I stayed at my apartment.
When Mounir and I were about to turn the corner, Manon called out. The other Manon. She ran up to us and handed Mounir a piece of paper. Call me some time, she said. Of the two Manons she was the more graceful. It was surely a gratifying moment for Mounir. He said he would call her.
When she’d rejoined her friends I told him that I was impressed. You’re very charming, I said. Très charmant. You’re a lucky guy!
What about you? He said.
I didn’t know what he meant.
Manon invited you to her home. You could have slept with her tonight, he said.
I was about to say that she had merely meant that I could sleep in one of her spare rooms, or the couch. Then I understood. What? I said.
Yeah, he said. The truth was apparent. The truth was that I was obtuse. That didn’t change that I thought her proposition strange, and I wasn’t even sure if I would have enjoyed myself. Surely I would have regretted it, at least in part, I thought. There was always regret. But at least it would have been something.
We walked back and I bemoaned my ineptitude to Mounir, to which he just said, ah, there will be other chances. I’m not so sure, I told him.
I was thoroughly dispirited and an overwhelming sense that I wasn’t myself, and that this was a strange, unfortunate dream, overcame me. I felt almost as strange as I would have inevitably felt if I had gone to Manon’s house. My recent memories of Nashville seemed to belong to someone else entirely. I was appalled.
I never saw Mounir again after that night, though not because I was actively avoiding him. I just never ran into him again, and his phone number had been deactivated the next time I called him. Once or twice I knocked on his door, but he was never home; later the building secretary told me he had moved, but to where she didn’t know.