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.