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.