We come upon it by a narrow street. Here we are, walking, and I’m always just a little confused, never sure where the traffic is coming from. Keep a vigil on the pavement because nobody in the town of Aix-en-Provence has ever picked up after their dog, and there seem to be a lot of dogs here.
Close on either side I’m aware of the tallness of the buildings, how dark everything is because the sun’s going down and the streetlights aren’t on yet. I start feeling claustrophobic but a minute later we come around a corner and I see the corridor open up.
The square we enter is paved with broken cobblestones, which feel uneven but sturdy beneath my feet. In the middle is a fountain, which is nice, but this is the “City of Fountains” and I’m already writing this one off as somewhat lackluster. One building forms three sides of the courtyard, virtually indistinguishable from every other old building we’ve passed. The first story is weathered dingy—the color akin to nicotine-stain yellow—and the plaster of the top two levels is cracked and uneven. There’re two signs on the closest wall. One says Place d’Albertas and the other says Hotel d’Albertas, so I ask Grace what the difference is.
“Hotel is building, place is piazza,” she says. Oh-tell. I guess that makes sense. Before I can so much as shrug a response some unseen hand turns on the outdoor lights. Seconds ago in the dying natural light the building looked haphazard and grim. Now the façade is flushed with a healthy white gold that crawls up the columns between the windows. On either side of the courtyard are arched doorways, painted green, and above them two globes shine benevolently toward the fountain. Shadows carve a visage, an impartial knowing face. Tall shutters hang black like judges’ robes. I could probably write a novel about this place; in fact, I’m about to grab the notebook out of my back pocket, but the girl has already started walking up the street, and I know I can’t write and watch for dog droppings at the same time.
We met while she was studying abroad in New York. I gave a guest lecture at her school and she came up afterwards, dragging along some schmuck with horn-rimmed glasses and a thrift store blazer. Later I saw her again, alone, in the lobby, and we exchanged email addresses. Grace wrote three months later, from Aix. The timing was right, and I barely second-guessed myself before hopping the first plane over.
Back in her apartment she makes tea while I scribble frantically in the notebook I took out the moment we stepped in the door. Looking over I see her, wreathed in steam, tip the kettle. There is diligent purpose in her movements, befitting her name. (She told me earlier, rolling her eyes, that her parents had named her after the princess.)
Grace walks to the table, balancing a saucer and cup in each hand.
“Your new book is going to be published, no?” She asks when she sits down.
“And now you are writing again,” she smiles. “Do you take breaks?”
“Not that I can remember,” I say, looking down at the table. She assumes this notebook is the beginning of a story. While the fact that I always carry it makes it convenient when I have an idea, more than anything this is a journal my therapist in high school recommended I keep. When kids had asked me about it, I’d said I was a writer, and eventually the lie became true.
“What is it about?” she asks, extending her hand to tap the table near my notebook. Follow her lines, from the fingernail she’s painted deep blue, up her wrist, then along the smooth tan forearm to her elbow. The knob of it protrudes only slightly, and disappears into toned flesh when straightened. Her sleeve is pushed up but I can see the outline and form behind the cotton blouse. Skin reappearing just below her neck, elongated on this side by the way she tilts her head when she asks a question.
“I’ll tell you about it later,” I say, sliding my hand on top of hers.
I’m alone, it’s dark. I still have to keep my eyes down as I make my way through the labyrinth of streets, up, across, crooked, and I’m still worried about being hit by a car. It’s just this kind of paranoid vigilance that’s kept me from remembering street names all day.
Grace’s attitude had shifted to quiet isolation, but whether ultimately condescension or embarrassment I couldn’t tell because she wasn’t making eye contact. If she’d been like that for the sex, none of this would have happened.
There we’d been, her naked body against mine as my hands reached down and back to explore every inch of skin. Her hair brushed against my stomach as she removed my belt, my pants, my boxers. The cotton sheets were cool on my back as she rose again to press her mouth onto mine, her hand massaging me and me almost ready—then I opened my eyes. Just for a second, but all I could see were her eyes, green, penetrating, unblinking. My body paused, my hands faltered, tongue receded.
The street opens into a long mall. Both sides are enormous walkways, with trees planted at intervals, and café terraces jutting out: areas of patio tables roped off with people filling the seats because it’s only a little after dinner, and the night is warm. The road zags right, but the sidewalk continues forward and so do I. This is a place we passed earlier, and it looks better at night. It was only a couple of hours ago, but it’s new. That makes me think of the Hotel d’Albertas, and I wonder if I could get a room. If I could even find it.
Grace fumbled to say something, to smile, but I could read the disappointment. I held up a hand to silence her and when she tried to stroke my chest I pushed her arm away.
There’s a fountain covered in moss, running water that hugs the broken green surface. Feeling the heat come off it I realize this must be from one of the warm-water springs. Imagine what it would look like in the winter, ghosts of steam wisping around it catching beams from streetlights.
There’s a café across the street, and I hesitate momentarily to run through a checklist of how to order coffee, what coins to pay with. I walk over to one of the tables and look around before I sit. The waiter is at his station and when he sees me he gives a slight nod. I pick a chair facing away from the street.
The waiter intuitively addresses me in a tourist-intended mixture of English and French, “Bonsoir, monsieur. What to begin with?”
“Just some coffee,” I say.
My flight is a week away, and it might take that long to muster up the courage to go back to the girl’s apartment and retrieve my luggage. Besides, going to that apartment can’t compare to what’ll be waiting in the States.
“David,” Grace says and sits down. “I found you.”
“What are the odds?”
“You are not hard to follow.” She smiles. She looks so beautiful and sweet I blush and apologize.
“Shhh,” Grace says. “You must have a lot of things in your mind.” Tings, she says. She smiles but doesn’t hold eye contact for long, or maybe it’s me who looks away first. Either way. It’s awkward and my nerves almost open up to unload a history of parents, childhood, ex-girlfriends: half explanation, half confession. But something holds my tongue, so instead I start asking questions about her.
She tells me she studied history in college, then hesitates like she’s waiting for the inevitable criticism of her major. I tell her I was a philosophy major.
“And your parents; what did they say about philosophy?”
“Probably the same thing your parents said about history: ‘What’s the point?’”
“Very true. I told them I would be a teacher, but they still want me to work in their store so I can run it when they are old. They think I am ungrateful.”
“You said it was a wine shop, right?”
“No,” she says. “It’s a liquor store. Just a simple, vulgar, liquor store.”
“But they own it?”
“Well that’s something.” I slide my hand on top of hers again. Now there is no spark, only the dull ache of understanding. I leave it there until the waiter comes to tell us that the café is closing, and then we walk back to her apartment.
The next day we hop the TGV from Marseilles to Paris. Train à Grande Vitesse. We sit across from one another with a table between us. We’re on the eastern side of the train and I have a headache from staying up all night so I close the window blinds and my eyes. I’m in no condition to sleep, but pretending to sleep is satisfying in a peculiar way.
I’ve given her an advance copy of the new book. I can sense her thumbing through the opening pages now, probably questioning the dedication. It would probably be better if there were no dedication at all. But I do what I’ve been doing for the past six months and what I’m getting better at every time. I shrug. It’s done.
The TGV is moving. We’re half an hour out and I want to peek out the window to see what two hundred miles an hour looks like, but at the same time I don’t want her to know I’m awake. I spend the entire ride with my eyes closed. It doesn’t feel like we’re going so fast, but we must be because the train arrives in Paris long before it should be possible.
Grace and I eat soup d’onion at an outdoor bistro near the station. The sidewalk is packed with every kind of human being you could imagine, all shuffling along, looking and pointing.
“What do you want to see?” she asks. She is methodically stirring and blowing across the surface of the lumpy brown soup. She lowers her head to take a bite. Looking up at me with wide eyes she closes her lips, removes the spoon.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Really, I just wanted to ride the train.”
“You’ve been here before, no?”
“A semester in college.” I dip my baguette and stir it around. There is already bread in the soup. Like a typical American I wish there were some kind of meat involved but I’ve learned not to voice this opinion.
“The Eiffel Tower, we could go there.”
“I hate the lines.” I take a bite. “Let’s just stay here.”
She shrugs with only the slightest hint of annoyance.
“Maybe walk around a little,” I add.
After lunch we drink coffee and she reads the book while I nervously reread the same paragraph in a collection of Kafka’s short stories I carry with me because it fits in my pocket.
I start to feel anxious so we pay and walk down to the Seine. The dappled shade combines with the breeze coming across the water, adding freshness to what would otherwise be a crowded pathway. As it is, with the dozen different languages chattering around us, Grace and I can speak privately.
“Well,” I say.
“I’ve read the first chapter,” she says, “so far it’s good.”
We stop and lean against the low wall running beside the path. Grace tells me we’re looking at the Pont Neuf.
“This is my favorite bridge,” she says. Breedge. ‘Not so fancy, like some of the others, but it is the oldest we have in Paris.” The Pont Neuf is simple, stout stonework that crosses the Seine at the western tip of the Île de la Cité. “This was built by King Henri the Third or Fourth, I cannot remember, sixteenth century I think.” She smiles and shrugs.
We watch the water sliding by, and when I don’t say anything, she continues.
“I thought of it because of your book.”
“How so?” I ask.
“Well,” she says, “Henri did not get along very well with his father. The old king was embarrassed and… angry that his son was fonder of art than hunting and fighting. He told Henri that he would not give up the throne unless he could act like a king.” Gulls cry overhead as a sightseeing cruise boat drifts lazily downstream.
“So did Henri change?”
“No, and he still became king.” She looks me in the eyes to decide whether or not to go further. I’m silent. “The character of the father in this story reminded me of the old king. He is not like the father figures in your other books,” she says.
“No,” I say.
“And usually,” she says with an insightful look, “you do not write in the first person.”
I shift my gaze out across the water.
Grace laughs and gives me a smile. “ I just meant to say that I think you are changing your style, and I like it. It is more,” she pauses, “authentic. So, will the narrator in your book be like Henri?” Grace asks.
“I guess you’ll have to finish it,” I say. “Then you tell me.”
Walking again, the Eiffel Tower becomes visible behind a group of tall buildings. She points to it and raises her eyebrows but I still don’t want to go. “Let’s walk back,” I say.
We spend the rest of the evening visiting little shops, then another meal and a bottle of wine. Soon the horizon’s color matches our merlot and we start back. I feel flushed as we hold hands and walk through the TGV station.
Grace stops at the information desk for directions. A mother tugs her little boy toward their departure gate, his legs stumbling to keep up and his head swiveling back and forth in a wide-eyed attempt to understand this place. Catching his eye I give him a knowing half-smile. He averts his eyes, embarrassed.
Grace reads as we sit on the platform together, and then perks her head up at the call of our train. The ride back is much less crowded than the first trip and the cabin is only half full as we lurch forward.
There is no moon tonight, no stars that I can see, and once we leave the city limits there is very little light at all. Looking out the window I know we are at full speed, but I can’t see it, and don’t feel it either. We come around a bend, and I’m unable to make out the landscape but something has opened up and the black horizon shifts to seem further away. My thoughts jump to the Place d’Albertas and I put Kafka away to pull the notebook from my bag. I write for a couple of minutes, but I’m restless and can’t focus.
Grace is staring at me across the top of the book I’ve given her, and with a simple nod she returns to the page. I look from her to my notebook, finish my sentence and put it away. The train cuts through shadowy forests and fields and hills. We travel very fast; because of the darkness, I can only guess the speeds that carry us forward.