This was once a true story. I was standing at the corner of Hamilton and Emerson, watching the cars pass through the streetlights, and it was overcast but warm, rare for the season, when I encountered the man who had come from France. I had watched him leave the boutique hotel behind me, seen his face scanning the intersection, taking it all in. Performing his calculations, distant and cold. Our eyes met. Unremarkable in his appearance, about my height, with a thin wispy beard and a bulldog’s countenance, other than a silver wristwatch there was nothing about him that could catch my eye. But when the light turned red and he crossed the street, he seemed to hone in right at me, and his accent was soft and varnished as molasses as he asked, “excuse me, you speak French?”
I knew as well as him that he could simply walk into any bar or street corner in this country and open his mouth and things would just happen to him, out of thin air, like magic.
He had a story to tell me: that morning, over breakfast on the patio of one Bistro Maxine, he stepped inside to use the restroom. The dispenser was out of paper towels; he wiped his hands on his jeans. When he reemerged, he found that his wallet, his phone, his duffle bag of his itinerant possessions, and the rest of his sandwich were gone. “An ‘omeless,” he suspected, “what a shame. A city as fine and beautiful as this, this expensive city. But alas. I thought it was safe, what with your, Steve Jobs who lives here, n’est-ce pas?”
Like him, I was only passing through town. There had been so many days out there on the road: Simi Valley to Atascadero, then to Merced, King City, Burlingame, and that morning I had driven up from Gilroy, past the fields of garlic that I tried to smell out of my window, but couldn’t detect a thing. Up the 101 I felt like the last person alive, as if I was fleeing a dust storm. Almost there, almost to the ocean. A few days earlier I had crossed through Truckee, just north of Lake Tahoe, driving past memorials for all the doomed settlers, and I caught myself imagining what was like to sink one’s teeth into another person: would it be gamey, like venison, or slight and flavorless like an undercooked chicken breast?
Now I was so much closer to home. Staring down the boulevards of a city that could only exist in an architect’s rendering, like some computer-generated image of the future: every historic building a coworking space, every restaurant a minimalist wood-paneled shell with a verb for a name and a prix-fixe menu. On this day the city smelled in bloom, like it was bursting with a thousand possibilities. I was here to buy a gift for my wife. Some long overdue token of my appreciation of her.
Up and down the California coast the phone lines get scrambled; the further you go inland, the fuzzier the reception gets. How her voice had sounded like an incantation, asking me when I was to return: I can’t stand being away from you for these weeks at a time. I miss you. I miss holding you.
But my answer was always the same. Just a few days more, just a little more time, that was all I needed. I strained my voice to sound sympathetic. After nearly a decade, our relationship had felt like a game show where the answers were rigged: yet on a day like this I could break the pattern, and I would ignore all the clues, damn them, cast away these foregone conclusions, and the contents of this brown paper bag was the grand prize. One long overdue. We used to fill each other’s days with surprises like these.
And now here before me was this Frenchman. Even despite his charms, I could not help but admonish him: “perhaps it was your fault,” I told him, “all of this. After all, who leaves their wallet out in the open? And your luggage, and your passport too? You need your phone out here, what with the reception that’s so spotty when you’re near the coast. Believe me, friend, I’ve been overseas, I’ve gone places far from home too. I always keep everything on me,” and I thumped my chest, “right here, close to my heart.”
He said nothing but peered at my face, scanning my wrinkles and lingering scars, and through his visage I detected the faint shadow of a smile, pointed and vulpine, disconcerting. When he spoke again, his voice cast an Anglophile’s tone when he asked me: “so you think you’re clever?”
In his breath I could smell my father’s Pall Malls. I could feel its atmosphere, really, over a place distant in time: its diesel fumes and wet cobblestone streets, seagulls over the sailboat masts, the eye-watering tang of Gitanes Blondes—what a girl in France had once blown in my face, giggling, her mouth full of surprises.
When I was a high school sophomore, I went to France on a class trip. We stayed in a hotel in the 18eme arrondissement doubled up three to a room each the size of a Renault Twingo. We saw La Bohème, ate escargot, walked past the Moulin Rouge, took the elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I thought of the steps of the Rue Foyatier, cold and worn smooth; its travertine stone lit yellow and orange as the street lights flickered to life; In the few hours away from our itinerary—and after our dinner at Deux Moulins, our teacher having long dismissed us—I watched my classmates pass around a bottle of sugary sweet alcopop the color of nuclear sludge, and Wendy deigned to give me a sip, and Jarrett protested—he was the one who bought it, after all, because he looked the oldest—and he wasn’t gonna waste a single drop on me. My head spun. I clutched the railing like I was tied to a ship’s mast.
The next week we took a train to Deauville, off the Normandy coast. Here the hot sand cast waves before our eyes, and the boardwalk seemed so distant and so impossibly glamorous, and I stayed with a host family whose names I had long forgotten, and a daughter whose face I still could not. On my first night there, the father poured me a glass of real beer, a Guinness, and it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted, a tall and heady chocolate milkshake. He applauded my gusto as I finished the glass, a faint mustache of foam around my thin wispy one. “Americans, you’re too prude,” he lamented, and his wife glared at him, and he shrugged, saying: “on s’amusait un peu.”
What I still remembered was this: her name was Kathareau, but she went by Kat. The first time I saw her had been over AOL Instant Messenger: in the photo she sent me in our language class, against the screeching of modems, she pressed her thin, delicate, grapefruit-colored lips together and looked at me like I was the only person left on Earth. Weeks later, I carried that image across the Atlantic. That first night in Deauville she had long since absconded, choosing instead to see a movie with friends, rather than accompanying her family’s temporary house pet.
And yet, when I went to sleep, I whispered into my pillow, ça va bien, et vous? as if reciting my lessons, pretending that my blanket carried her scent, that the sheets I tangled around me were her arms.
“First, we’ll have a little martini,” he said, at the bar of the Bistro Maxine, holding the door open for me as I walked into the bar’s dim light. He summoned the bartender with a wave of his hand, who brought over two dirty martinis tinted a grey-green fog. They whispered something to each other, and the bartender said something in French, and the man snorted, laughing. The bartender walked away, wiping a glass with a rag like in an old-timey Western. The Frenchman drummed his fingers on the bar. He took a glance at his watch. Then he pulled out a knife.
So this was the bet, huh, I thought, this had been the wager all along.
The knife was a well-worn, delicate, wood-handled thing. The bartender came back with a cutting board. The Frenchman placed his palm flat on the surface.
“I will make this worth your while,” the Frenchman said. And he began to point the tip of the knife in the spaces between his fingers, slowly and rhythmically, tap tap tap against the plastic board. He spoke as he tap tap tapped, nonchalantly, as if he was twiddling his thumbs in line at the bank or a supermarket: “I could ask you to buy me a train ticket, but that would be too easy. There is a consulate in the city—on Kearny Street, no? But,” he sighed, tap tap tap, “what proof do I have of myself. Alas, I have nothing left. And yet, I have never tried to live life in conformity. This is all I have.”
He placed the knife down and took off his watch, bidding me to put it on my bare wrist, and in that moment I had to confess—I loved the soft, warm feel of that ancient metal, the way the edges caught the brightness when I moved my wrist, light dancing across the faded texture of the dial, a cracked and speckled brown, the numbers 3, 6, 9, heavy and bold, and yet the word Rolex still shone clear as day. “An ’eirloom,” he beamed, “My grandfather’s. He climbed the Matterhorn with it.”
“It’s a nice watch,” I said, attempting to sound unimpressed.
“And what do you have there? Tiffany, I see. A gift for a girlfriend? Wife? Or perhaps, both?”
I dropped the green paper bag to the ground, but he snatched it by its string handles before it landed. “If you don’t mind, of course,” the man said. “My family: all jewelers, in Strasbourg. I no longer talk to them, but from my father, I still remember a few things.”
What right did I have to carry such an extravagant gift, whose very bag was a status symbol? From the bag I had surrendered he pulled out a box, and opened it gingerly, and above the bar he dangled an 18-karat necklace, the outline of a rabbit in white gold. He cooed. “Beautiful,” he said, and pressed his fingers to his thin lips. “Magnifique.”
The bartender looked on impassively. I looked at him and he immediately turned his head toward the darkened restaurant, nobody’s gaze to meet his eyes. He trudged back into the kitchen, and I heard water rushing out of an industrial faucet: no doubt that he was prepping for the afternoon rush, which would not be for another two hours. I had checked the Frenchman’s Rolex and then passed it back to him. Despite its age, I assumed that it was accurate. One did not let a fine thing like that lapse into disrepair.
I wondered if my wife would believe me: that I was late for home, because I had followed a stranger from France, to an empty hotel bar, where he would surely stab me. Perhaps she still had that capacity for warmth. Perhaps she could still believe me, that I had tried, that there’d be this gift for her in my hand, that she could immediately make the connection—but of course, there was still an ounce of redemption after this man and his cohort inevitably placed a knife into my chest. Wasn’t that all we ever wanted–redemption, after the fact?
One thing you must know about my wife: she loves rabbits. Always has. She grew up with them, holding them to her chest, in the old photos that she once showed me. There was Eddie, there was Cowboy with his black-and-white spots, there was Ravioli with her bad leg and missing front teeth, and there was Spaghetti And Meatballs with the softest brown fur and a penchant for nibbling through shoelaces. One by one she squeezed them tight and buried her face in their hopelessly soft fur, and then flung them onto the bed where they landed soft and confused and involuntarily squeezing out a poo. The thing with bunnies is, they can and will poo everywhere, leaving little round nuggets the size of breath mints in dry little clumps—but they don’t smell, and they don’t stick to your fingers, and so that was some calming comfort, to alleviate the thought that we were just living in glorified rabbit toilets.
I resisted the temptation to text her a photo of the Tiffany bag, to show her what was coming her way: It would have been a flourish, where none was needed, an imposter’s feeling that I could not shake.
Back at college, in her dorm room, when she was putting on her makeup, I would lay on her bed and watch as Spaghetti and Meatballs nestled into the pillows, then emerge smelling like her shampoo, like lavender; I would kiss the little guy at the nape of his neck and watch him steady himself before hopping onto the floor before I pushed the chocolate-stained pellets off the bed with my arm.
In Deauville I slept in her brother’s room while he was at summer camp. That first day, with parents at work and her at school, I sat on the bed and watched French TV on an ancient television with a built-in VCR. The bed was small and uncomfortable and its mattress sagged. The newscasters spoke far too fast for me to catch a word. I saw footage of tanks and fighter jets and smoke hovering above beige cities and I got the gist.
When I did venture outside, I saw my American classmates walking hand-in-hand with their host families. A few waved, but most pretended not to see me. Jarret had gotten stuck with the only host family with a son—bad luck of the draw. The girls in the class thought the boy was just the cutest.
I remembered the colorful umbrellas that dotted the sand, the masts of sailboats at the marina as thick as a forest; the casino faced the beach, and the beach stretched for an eternity, and then the ocean for an eternity more. I drank a beer at a café where nobody asked my age, practicing une bière, s’il vous plaît like an incantation, and I sat on a wicker chair watching beautiful people walk by, and I felt wonderful and delirious, invisible.
I went to that café every day. To see more of the city, I took different paths through ancient cobblestone streets, to tree-lined boulevards past the rows of colorful townhouses; through the main roads of stinking diesel hatchbacks, where I pressed my nose like a street urchin against the windows of boutique hotels; then closer to the water until I could smell it all: the briny salt, the decaying seashells, even the faint perfume of suntan lotion, like motes of lavender.
One day I saw Kat. She was with two friends who were both in bathing suits. The shorter one wore a red and white polka-dotted bikini, and her hair was in a bob, and the other was a blonde in a one-piece suit that was striped blue and yellow. They looked like a girl group. I could see the wind caressing their hair, a dream of yearning like a memory.
But there was only Kat. Her purple flowery sundress billowed loosely, revealing wedges of cork that showed off the tips of her toenails, each painted a deep blue. She looked at me like a bird of prey might look at a finch: something akin to sympathy. The taller friend in the one-piece held onto her arm and whispered something into her ear and giggled, and I felt my neck getting hot.
Hallo, ça va bien? Comme ci, comme ça. Où allez-vous? La plage. Ah! C’est une belle journée.
“We are going to the movies,” the shorter friend said, in stammering English, “and then? We will eat ice cream.”
“Sounds fun!” I replied, too enthusiastically. Part of me had hoped for an invitation. And yet it would have been too much pressure. Quick, think of something to say. All eyes on me. I looked at Kat. “What is your favorite flavor?” I asked.
Kat ignored the question. Instead, she threw her hair back just a way to catch the sunlight from the tops of the buildings. “You’re cute,” she laughed. “You have a cute accent.”
If I wasn’t afraid of needles, I would have tattooed those words up and down my forearms. Damn the language barrier, I thought as they walked away, tell me what you really love, your dreams and your anxieties, I’ll be your confessional. Damn this distance, even when we pass on the same street, the same rough sidewalk below our painted/unpainted toes. Damn this malaise of fog that rolls in with the tide and has remained with me ever since.
Three, Four, Five!
The bartender closed the curtains, twisting a plastic rod until the wooden slats blocked out the afternoon sunlight.
Two! Three! Four!
Pok-pok-pok, the sound of the knife tip made on the cutting board. Pok-pok-pok, slowly, then rising, striding the gap across the wrist.
You now! One! Two!
A box of bandages was casually tossed onto the bar.
Five! Six! Switch hands!
I thought about Kat. Her sculpted eyes.
One! Two! Three!
If she had made her way to America like she swore she would. How could I even find her now?
Six! Your turn!
The bartender turned on the dishwasher, all noise and rattle and steam heat. Then he shuffled into the kitchen.
If I saw Kat again, would I return to my flailing awkward adolescence? With my bad haircut and flabby arms and my inability to look at people in the eyes? Would that I still found hers as enchanting. Could it all come swirling back?
Five! Six! One!
I wondered if either of us had ever been honest with anyone.
Two, Three, Four! Don’t stop now, mon ami!
I took the knife. Smooth and buttery in my hand, as if it was a living thing.
“Je suis désolé,” someone said, though it could have been me.
Don’t stop now! Five!
So be it, I thought, this had to end, eventually, in the only way I knew how.
On the morning of our last day in France, all the host families in town took my classmates to the beaches of Normandy, to the site of the D-Day landings, to mark great solemnity, paying tribute to the scores of dead. Instead, Kat took me mini-golfing.
Her boyfriend joined. His name was Michel. He resembled a young Lon Chaney, square-jawed and broad-chested, neatly-cropped black hair, and he nearly broke my hand shaking it. He bragged that he knew English just as well as anyone, and that he could count in English: so far he knew “one, two, and a shitload.” He grinned wildly at this, and she laughed, covering her mouth. They had been together since middle school. I played my heart out, squeezed the grip until my knuckles turned white, and watched as he scored under par, every time, timing his shots perfect off the banking and through the windmill blades. On the 19th hole he managed to score a free game through a hole-in-one up the spiral. He whispered something into Kat’s ear then eyed me up and down with a smirk.
“For next time,” he said, beaming, “a free thing is good, right? Super cool?” And then he looked wistful. “Too bad you won’t be here to join it.”
The heat of the afternoon soaked through to my skin. We went home. I took a nap. Then I woke up in a haze, and the time felt manipulative and distant; the cloudless sky cast long shadows in the room. The house was still, and its emptiness seemed to seep through its thin walls. I turned on the TV and watched The Backstreet Boys, performing “I Want It That Way,” turning up the volume since I believed nobody was here. I knew all the words, had heard them incessantly, and even in this distant language I could piece together the sentiment.
Though I had just seen her, I dreamed that her warmth was a cavern, and I was a refugee from the deepening sea.
I thought about this, over the din of the music video, and then I had to pee.
I stumbled down the hallway to the bathroom. I flung open the door.
She was standing before the mirror brushing her hair. She was wearing nothing but rose-colored panties, pale and arched and beautiful, as if she was carved from fine Italian marble, and I felt like I had just witnessed a murder.
As I pulled the door shut I let out a stammer: “je suis très désolé.”
From the other side I heard her laugh, and laugh, and laugh, catching her breath to say in her lilting English, “it’s okay, it’s okay,” and I heard the click of a bathroom fan, and then she coughed from laughing so hard, “you’re too cute,” she said, and then I heard the click of a lock.
I shuffled back to my room. Closed the blinds. Turned off the television, turned off the lights. Laid on top of the sheets.
And then I took my pajamas off, feeling my own body in its weak and pitiable form, replaying the scene over and over again in my mind like a videocassette, through all the snow and the static, her image ghosted onto my eyelids—the way her breasts curved down to that pale and delicate navel, the pinkness of it all, how fragile it seemed, her form rising organically like a perfect sequence from nature, like a Golden Spiral. My back arched. I felt like I was on fire. Oh Kat. Oh, coup de foudre. That my mind was such an imperfect filter to allow the return of these sense memories—resurrecting sights of umbrellas dotting the sand, golf balls traveling down unfettered paths, alleyways of chipped paint and weathered shutters leading to everywhere and nowhere at once. Unbearable brilliance, happier days. A week earlier I had gotten off the train with my classmates around me all giggling and running and they ran into the arms of their enviable hosts but I saw you, a perfect Kat, standing there on the platform, you, front and center, with your sundress and your heels, your pale green eyes, vous vous vous, and no one else.
I left the Bistro Maxine at half past three. Took the Dumbarton Bridge across the Bay, then north on 880, where I was briefly mired in midafternoon traffic. I had pulled over somewhere outside San Bruno, changed my shirt, got a Double-Double at the In-N-Out by the airport. It took an extra 40 minutes than usual to get home.
I had once thought that if I spent more than I intended, I could make up for all this time, I could ease her back into the light, or some semblance of it.
That afternoon I left with two stories, with one that I could never tell. I pulled into the driveway and noticed the bedroom light was on. At the front steps I felt for my keys. Pocket lint soft and fluffy. Jangly metal on a ring. Beechwood handle of an Opinel.
“Honey?” I shouted. “I’m home, dear. Hello?”
The house was still. I looked at my wrist. It was half past five.
“Look, darling, I’m sorry, I’m sorry for all this,” I shouted, and I latched the front door behind me. “I’ve got so much to tell you. I’ve had a hell of a past few days. Darling, come downstairs, please—I even brought you a present.”
About the Author:
Blake Z. Rong is a writer and journalist in Brooklyn, New York. He recently received an MFA in Writing & Publishing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. As an editor in the automotive industry, his longform journalism has been previously published in Autoweek Magazine, Jalopnik, and Road & Track. He has poems forthcoming in Poetica Review and Vagabond City. He hails from central Massachusetts and is currently working on a collection of stories.