Authors: Cara McKenna
I was near to tears, because of course Didier
what I want, in enough ways to let me overlook anything he may lack, for better or worse. Plus he’s the only man I know how to be with, and I’m not sure those skills are transferrable.
“But I do love your company,” he said again. “And you’re always welcome here.”
I nodded, confused. Was this a breakup? Was Didier giving me the diplomatic brush-off with this talk of his inadequacies, our collective impossibility? He could probably sense how attached I’d grown. The notion that perhaps I ought not come back to this flat felt likely, and terribly heavy. I suppose he was only ever my training wheels, an illusion of capability. Out in the real world, how badly might I fall and mangle myself, attempting an actual romance with an actual, available man?
I stood. “I guess I’d better head home soon.”
“Would you like me to wrap the pastries up for you, or any of the cheese?”
“No, you keep them. Thank you for the coffee.”
As I turned to begin gathering my stuff, he got to his feet and grabbed my wrist. “It feels as if everything changed just now. Did I say something wrong?”
I stared at his collar, afraid of his eyes. “No, you’re perfect. I’m sorry. I’m just sad that I can’t come as often as I have been. It probably sounds pathetic, but this has been the highlight of my life the last week or so, my visits here.”
“I hope that is not pathetic, as they’ve been my best days as well. Though if it is, we’ll be pathetic together.”
Didier always knows what to say, but at that moment, nothing could neutralize the pain I was feeling. The grief.
He rubbed my arm, waiting as I swallowed my fear and assembled words. “I’ve had a wonderful time with you. More wonderful than is probably wise.”
“What do you mean?”
“I like you, a lot. Enough that I probably need to step back for a while and remind myself, you know… About what we really are, I guess. Not to freak you out or anything, but if I keep seeing you this much, I’m going to fall in love with you.”
A lie—I was already in love with him. Jesus Christ, give the frigid girl four nights with a French prostitute and what happens? Like I never drank a drop, then one pub crawl and I wake up with cirrhosis. “I’m losing perspective, the more I see you.”
“I understand.” Surely it’s happened before, with any number of his clients. Didier gave my arm a final rub and let me go to collect my things.
Neither of us quite knew what to say when we met at the front door, but he kissed me, soft and slow, fingers tangling in my damp hair. It morphed into a hug, and he whispered, “Goodbye, Caroly.”
Any Other Normal Day, Yet Not
Things sucked for a few days.
Once I left Didier’s flat on Saturday morning, I felt lost. I felt unsure of who it was I’d said goodbye to, and unsure if I might see him again.
He’d cut me loose—I just knew it. I’d heard it in his voice. He’d cut me loose and I couldn’t help but wonder which of us he thought it aided.
The second I left him, the emptiness arrived. I missed Didier in a way I hadn’t known it was possible to miss anyone, short of them dying. And I missed more than his body or company or the anticipation or the sex—I missed how I simply felt around him. How I felt about myself, and the new person I’d begun blossoming into. I mourned her loss too.
Plus I’d made such a full-time hobby of fantasizing about him and replaying our time together, I was at a complete and utter loose end and nothing felt fun. Nothing sounded like the thing I ought to be doing. Nothing tasted or smelled or sounded very good anymore. My soul had the flu.
The arrival of the work week was a relief. And by the time I woke this morning, my symptoms had eased. My heart had quit actively hemorrhaging, but it still hurt. It simply hurt more quietly.
I share an office with the head curator but she was busy elsewhere that day, so I had the cave mercifully to myself, free to mope without witnesses. Normally I grab lunch from down the street and eat with Ania and Paulette next door, but I wasn’t feeling up to their energy just yet. There were plenty of pending emails to fill an hour and keep my thoughts from wandering into the dark, dreary corners of my head. I’d use them as an excuse for staying in, should my friends catch me walking by the gallery on my way back from the deli—
My phone rang.
It was one of the girls from the front desk. “
Quelqu’un vous attend à l’entrée.
A visitor? Ania, likely, with gossip that couldn’t wait another moment.
I thanked the girl. I picked up my purse then put it back, lest my friend try to talk me into a so-called quick coffee.
But when I reached the lobby, my heart froze.
Didier, in shoes. In the sunlight and the vastness of the building.
As I approached the front doors, he smiled and raised a hand.
I felt I could only half recognize him here. He looked like a photograph of himself, those brown eyes Photoshopped brighter in the daylight. As though he were a painting finally restored, a million long-lost details emerging to dazzle the viewer.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hello.” He bent to kiss my cheeks. I could tell he was nervous. That normally warm smile was tight and twitchy, jaw set.
I goggled at him a moment. “You left. You left your flat.”
He nodded. The lobby is huge and was especially chaotic this afternoon, guests streaming in for the opening of a controversial new exhibit. I wondered if I ought to bring him somewhere smaller and safer, my office or the archives.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
“It is. Is it okay that I’ve come here? I know some of your friends know what it is I do. You can tell them we know one another from a gallery event, if you—”
“No, I don’t care about that. What’s going on?”
He cleared his throat and stood a little taller. “I came to see what you’re doing for lunch. If you’re free to eat with me.” He lifted a handled paper bag. “I made sandwiches. I did not think I was ready for a restaurant yet, but maybe the park…?”
This wasn’t easy for him. All his typical ease was gone, his posture rigid, eyes alert, bag and hand shaking faintly.
“That’s what got you to leave your place? To ask me to lunch?”
Another smile, slow and nervous. “Yes. So I hope you’ll say yes.”
“Is it a date?”
“That is my wish.”
I felt… I felt like a pomegranate sliced open, all my ruby-red capsules spilling out, sweetness leaking everywhere. I felt like a beautiful, delicious, sticky mess.
“Like a regular old…date?”
“I’d like that. I’d like that very much. Let me get my purse.”
I went back to the offices and I swear I was floating, walking two inches above the tile and wood and carpet. And there he was when I returned, right where I’d left him. How about that.
“Ready?” I asked.
He crooked his arm and I linked it with mine, and we strode through the automatic doors.
“How do you feel?”
His gaze panned the veranda and sidewalk, the intersection. “I feel better than when I first left the flat. But nervous now, letting you see me this way.”
“I can tell you’re nervous. But I don’t mind.”
The park was just across the street, and I watched his face as we reached the curb and waited for the walk sign. His gaze was trained hard on something in front of us, expression simultaneously blank and intense.
“You’re doing great.” I gave his arm a fortifying squeeze and to my great relief, he looked down at me and smiled.
Parisians are kamikaze street-crossers, and businessmen streamed past us on both sides, happy to take their chances with the lunch-hour traffic. Our light came on and I was mindful to look both ways. I took Didier’s hand, feeling a bit like a guide dog. But he’s led me to so many new and scary places, it felt nice to return the favor and be the confident one for him.
People talk about hearts fluttering, as soon as we stepped onto the opposite sidewalk, danger officially over, mine did. It absolutely did. I felt the opposite of that stupid, stubborn grudge that keeps me from making eye contact with handsome men. I was giddy, knowing I was so obviously
Didier. Lovers, hand-in-hand. Even if my lover was pallid and wide-eyed and trembling at the threshold of a panic attack.
We found a nice spot on the grass in the shade, sitting hip to hip, facing the fountain. The pigeons spotted us. They must live for that noise—the rustle of a paper bag. Beggars flapped and landed, watching us from a pushy, patently European distance.
Didier eyed our stalkers. “Oh dear.”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind them. They remind me of your little nosy neighbors, on your roof.”
“I worried so much about the people, I forgot about the animals.”
“I’ll protect you.” I grabbed a stick and waved it at the birds, scattering them, if temporarily. “I’d hate for you to leave the house for the first time in three years and get some weird pigeon disease.”
He grinned at me. “It’d be worth it.”
I laughed, blushing. “That’s very romantic. I think.”
We unwrapped the picnic he’d prepared, and I didn’t press him for more insight about his feelings, not just yet. We ate in silence, watching the children and shooing the birds.
I finished the first half of my sandwich and licked garlicky mayonnaise from my fingers. “This is delicious, thank you.”
He laughed. “I made this lunch three times.”
“How do you mean?”
“I made it on Monday and Tuesday, and again today. Today was merely the day I managed to get past the front steps when the taxi began honking for me.”
He’d wanted to see me this way as early as Monday? Two days after we’d said goodbye? “And today you just…could?”
He smiled at me, eyes crinkling. “This morning I just realized it hurt more, missing you. More than it hurt to deal with the fear.”
“You missed me?”
His grin deepened. “You look surprised.”
“I did miss you. Very much. More than I’m used to missing people, especially those I’ve known such a brief time.”
He pursed his lips and squinted thoughtfully before going on. “I like the way you treat me. And the way you look at me. Like you’re looking
me, not merely at me. I’m sorry, that does not make much sense.”
“No, I think it does. I like that…and I do think that’s how I see you. I mean, I came to you because of how you look, obviously. But I like the rest of you even more.”
“The man who cannot leave his house?” he teased.
I raised my arms, gesturing at the vast blue sky. “But you did. Here you are.”
He nodded and looked away, seeming shy. “Here I am. Two weeks and you’ve gotten me to do what no one’s managed in three years. Without even asking me, or pressuring me. Begging me. I don’t know how. It astounds me. Thank you, Caroly.”
I mumbled an inadequate, “You’re welcome,” my cheeks hot with pride and pleasure.
We didn’t speak again for several minutes, Didier taking in the action around us. “I forgot how it smells outside. When I first left the flat, it was the petrol. But here, the grass, the air…I gave all this up for so long. I forgot how a real breeze felt.”
“Now you get to appreciate it more than anyone else in the whole city.”
Like a parolee
, I thought.
“Perhaps. That is a nice way to look at it. I like the way you look at all kinds of things,” he said. “You must gaze all around you, putting frames around different people and places.”
I smiled. “Maybe subconsciously.”
“Cataloguing beauty,” he mused, watching me with a mysterious gleam in his eye. He sighed. “I wish we could go down to the river.”
“Maybe. But not today.”
“Something to work toward.”
“Perhaps this weekend,” he said. “If you would like to spend the night on Friday or Saturday—as just, you know. Not as we have been. More as we are today?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
“And then maybe you could help pry my hands from the front door so I may leave again.”
“I’ll bring a crowbar.”
As he laughed, I read deeper into what he’d said. Did he not have clients to see on Friday or Saturday? And if not, was that incidental or because of me?
“I would like to see your flat sometime,” he said.
“You’re welcome to. Though I’ll warn you now, it’s tiny and stuffy and my bed’s not really designed with guests in mind. But I live above a bakery, so at least it smells nice.”
“Charming. I’d like also to see you again, this way. Out like this, though hopefully when I’m not so…”
“I’d like that too.”
Didier opened a glass bottle of lemonade, took a deep drink then passed it to me. He seemed to hesitate before saying, “What I am is not so secret, in your crowd.”
“No, especially not to my friend Ania from the gallery. She’s got a whole fan-girl binder full of prints, just of you.”
“I did not know I had fans.”
“She’s quite rabid. And she doesn’t know I’ve been seeing you. I better have a talk with her, if it seems like we’re all destined to cross paths.”
“Are you sure you’re comfortable with this? With us being so public?”
“Yes, it’s fine.”
“I don’t care what people think. Do you?”
He shook his head.
“I’d only mind if you felt badly about it. I’d like you to be who you are. It doesn’t matter what others think.”
“It matters to me, what you think.”
“Well, you’re fine then. I like who you are. And I’m not going to waste my time worrying how I might feel about it in the future. In fact, at the risk of sounding shallow, I’m proud to be seen with you. You’re the best-looking man I’ve ever met.” I rubbed his back. “And I’ve spent so much of my life being boring, it might be fun to be part of a scandal.”
Didier stared at the sky for a long moment.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’m…I’m breathing.” He looked back at me. “I haven’t slept very much since Saturday morning. It’s beginning to catch up with me.”