*Names are changed to protect the innocent.
“Séraphine” is my “nom d’artist” wrote Pauline. I waited at the entrance of the Jardin de Luxembourg and stared absent-mindedly at a large pine tree.
“Je suis prés d’un sapin à l’entrée,” I wrote, which somehow felt like a poetic statement because really, who pays attention to trees in these nerve-wracking circumstances?
Pauline was very stylish, typically bourgeoise. After taking a phone call from her friend Hortense, she proceeded to vomit about herself and her accomplishments for the next hour. I could hardly fit in a word, and when I did, my words were like mirrors for more of her thoughts and experiences.
“I got stuck in the countryside during confinement, and I taught my fashion course over Zoom wearing the same grey teeshirt every day. Hah hah! It was so shameful! Imagine what my students thought... can you believe it?”
“Great story,” I mulled in my head.
Françoise repeatedly added or removed her layers: her vest, her jacket, her vest, her jacket, her vest...revealing her teeshirt which clung to her breasts; her 30-year-old breasts that had yet to discover the true meaning of gravity.
“Could I? Would I?” I searched for a kindle, a flame behind her glasses.
I couldn’t tell if her teasing was flirty or simply offensive:
“Come on, Sarah, you’re not going to ask small talk questions like that, are you?”
Françoise stretched out her long gazelle-like legs and yawned.
Great, a yawn.
“Sometimes I run from République to Bondy (or wherever), do you run?”
“I run, but I mean, I don’t pretend to run long distances. As a kid, I was more of a sprinter than a long-distance runner.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t say that you have the gabarit.”
Yeah, I guess I don’t have the “build” thank you very much Françoise.
“For example, one of our clients is (a large pharmaceutical company),” I explained to Adeline.
“Are you vaccinated?” she interrogated with some sense of shock and alarm.
“A moité, and you?”
“It’s against my beliefs.”
“Okay... I mean, yeah, things do seem very rushed, I suppose.”
“No, I mean, I’ve never been vaccinated for anything in my life, not even tuberculosis.”
Pauline proceeded to give me a pedantic real estate tour of the Jardin du Luxembourg. She wholly glazed over the fact that I’ve been living in Paris for 15 years.
“Here they do marionette shows that my mother used to take me to as a child. It’s one of my most precious memories. Here they play boules. Do you know what boules are? Beware, if you try to play with them they are very competitive! Here I play tennis. There is always a crowd of people watching me like I’m at Roland Garros. Here’s a jardin des apprentis - that means that people go there to learn gardening - it’s so amazing. I love Paris!”
"Pauline, what are you hiding?" I wondered.
Contrary to Pauline, Adeline hated Paris and even France. And yet she received French public funding for her performance art (side note: she doesn’t do dance). She looked ten years older than her photos: the sense of deception was more unflattering than the crow’s feet.
Every word she spoke was like a poisoned dart that sunk me into a deeper state of self-loathing. And yet, she looked me up and down like having sex was still on the menu.
No Adeline, shared knowledge of bell hooks will not get me in bed with you.
Before we met, Françoise texted me with obsessive chivalrous fervor. We sat momentarily on the perch of a shared reference, Ray Bradbury - perhaps the American author closest to my heart with whom so few French people are familiar. I sent her one of his quotes about summertime, and in the same vein, when she offered to bring the beers, I decided to bring the ripest cherry tomatoes I could find.
Looking at the tomatoes, Françoise furrowed her brow, “Why did you do that? You didn’t have to do that.”
“Je n’aime pas venir les mains vides... besides, it’s the season,” I blushed.
Françoise asked me if I was concerned that someone would steal or appropriate my writing, which struck me as both an odd interrogation and some kind of underhand compliment.
“No, not at all. I mean, it’s impossible to get published anyway.”
“Then why do you write?”
I write because I am very clumsy when I speak... as these encounters increasingly reveal.
I write because, when all else is lost, I have an anchor that keeps me connected to myself.
“Besides, I’m not interested in being published.”
A statement that I guess, comes across as timid, counterproductive, and borderline pathetic.
“Good luck,” I said to Adeline while parting ways.
“Why are you telling me ‘good luck?’”
“I don’t know. It’s something I say to everyone,” I shrugged.
“N’importe quoi,” she muttered under her breath.
“Bonne continuation Sarah,” Pauline said in a sing-songy voice with a fake smile.
We quickly packed our things.
“Adieu,” Françoise said stiff and dramatically.
This time as I walked away, dumbfounded, a chorale of Maghrébin men cheered me on: “Madame vous êtes sublime, vous êtes magnifique, belle, belle, belle !”
No more courteous text messages.
The leftover cherry tomatoes sit in my refrigerator. Biting into them, the taste of awkward silences, unborn kisses, failed expectations, and an increasing sense of callousness explodes in my mouth.