Early February, Niort, France, 2013

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.

nior snow 3

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.