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.