I said goodnight to Alissón at the Abbesses metro. She turned her head to force my kiss onto her cheek, and I was sure I would never see her again. I started the walk home, half smiling with a quiet mind, half buried in my thoughts, only partially able to look up, to enjoy, to see Paris, after a rainy night, near midnight in Montmartre.
I passed the café where we had been only a few minutes before, Le Nazir, and it had mostly emptied out. The homeless man sat out-front on the street, with a napkin stuffed with the cheese and meat I had left for him on my plate, enjoying his meal. The waiter seemed to have already forgotten my face as I told him “bonne soirée.” Homeward, then, to the empty house on Rue Eugène Carriere, to sleep early, to try again in the morning, that was my plan. Perhaps I would finally sleep a good eight hours, would finally wake up without a phone in my hand, do the meditation, get back on track, get the writing started.
I walked by a bar, painted all red on the outside, lit up with tiny lights like a Christmas tree, with a dozen patrons smoking on the patio. I stopped and looked in from the street, having a feeling about this place I couldn’t really describe, but a feeling that had me stop nonetheless. Then I saw her. She wore a giant-brimmed hat, made of dark green felt, and her blonde hair tumbled out from all sides. She appeared to be alone. I walked in.
The bar man was holding up the chalk board menu for her, and she was trying to order, but she was very drunk, and her French was incomprehensible, full of English swears, and the accent of a woman who learned French in Paris, late in her life, and for the first time, only after arriving.
“Regarde, man,” she said, pulling out the last “e” of the first word as if it was its own, sweet syllable, just as they all do here in France.
“Fuck, donnez moi le camembert. Yah. Ça. Je veut ça.”
The bar man shook his head in astonishment, as if he’d been dealing with her for hours, appealing to his co-worker, a young woman, with his incredulous look. He put away the chalk board and walked away, to the kitchen. A bald, unshaven man walked past the blonde with the green hat, holding a beer, with an unlit cigarette between his lips. He was in his thirties and attractive, and for a moment I thought he was her man, for she placed her hand on his chest and started to speak.
“Alors, va fumer ta cigarette. Then you can come sit with me, and talk, oui?” she said to him. The man nodded his head.
“Sure sweetheart,” he said in his broken English, “I go smoke, and I’ll be back.”
He was just a stranger to her. I took the empty barstool next to her. The bar tender, a buff man wearing jeans and a black t shirt, returned from the kitchen and I ordered a demi pint.
She wore a white v-neck shirt, revealing most of her chest, leather pants, tight, and four-inch stilettos. Her lips were bright red with lipstick. She was very beautiful and I was happy to be seated next to her, to be seeing her.
She was shouting at the top of her lungs, at the bar man, and his assistant. Only I seemed to be listening. Everyone else was looking away, embarrassed. She called over the female waitress – a mousy woman who spoke too quietly to hear – and asked her if she could stay on her couch. It was clear the woman was frightened, and they didn’t know each other, as she apologized saying “no” in response. Next she begged the barmen for a good place to crash, a safe place. He appeared interested and told her, “of course, why not?” The next second, she raised her clenched fist and shook it in the air toward his face.
“I just want a fucking couch, you know, a goddamned couch in this city, and if you fucking touch me I will kill you,” she said.
“Hey,” I said. But she didn’t seem to notice, continuing her warning to the bar man.
“I swear, I will fucking murder you if you do something funny. Gimme another whiskey soda.”
“Hey, look,” I said.
The bar man shook his head and turned around to prepare the drink.
“Who the fuck can you trust in this city?” she shouted into the empty air above her head. Her voice was raspy, feminine, small. I was staring intently, my body turned on the stool facing her, not two feet away, and she wasn’t looking back.
“Hey,” I placed my hand on her back, the small concave above her ass. “Hey. I have a couch.”
I finished my beer with my hand there, feeling the sweat beneath her shirt, and I shouted over to the barman, in French, “Same as her, whiskey. No soda.”
She stopped shouting and she turned to look at me now for the first time and I looked her in the eyes.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, removing my hand.
“That’s about the goddamned stupidest fucking thing you can ask me, you know?
“I mean,” she continued, turning away from me to face the bar again, “men always want to know that shit, ‘what’s wrong?’ To figure it all out. Have all the answers. But you never ask a woman what is wrong. Women want to be asked ‘how are you’?”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. Well, how are you?
“Just take my advice and never ask a woman what the hell is wrong with her.”
“Fine. You are right. I am sorry. I don’t know why I said it that way. So how are you? You’re upset, I can see that.”
She took her whiskey and she held up her glass, so I held up mine and we drank together, and she put down her glass and she turned again on the bar stool to face me, and look me in the eyes.
“And who the fuck are you? French man?”
“No. Canadian. You?”
“I’ve lived here for five years,” she held up her hand to illustrate the years with her fingers, “Five. But before that I was in Seattle, before that, New York. Canadian. Don’t tell me… what part?”
“Toronto. English part.”
“Thank fucking god. Thank god you’re not some French Canadian.”
“No. Not at all. Do I sound like one?”
“I can’t stand them.”
She finished her whiskey, and so did I, and I told the bar man, “two more, the same.”
“So what do you do here?” she asked me.
“I live here, now. I’m a writer,” I said confidently, and maybe it felt true this time. It at least felt good to say.
“But what do you do?”
“That’s all I do,” I said.
“So you’re one of those lucky guys who just get to write all –“
“I worked for everything I have.”
She moved her legs and her purse fell off her lap to the floor. I picked it up, and inside was a book of poems by E.E. Cummings, folded corners on several pages, marked up with pen, I saw as I flipped through it, before placing it back in.
“What do you do, then?”
“I write. I model. Mostly, I’m married. Five years.”
And she held up her hand, showing five fingers again.
“Five years with that abusive fucking prick. And now here I am.”
She swiveled her stool to face the bar man, who had tremendous muscles, and he was listening to her, while drying a clean glass. She wasn’t talking to me anymore.
“Can you believe my husband abused me? Can you fucking believe that?” she said.
The bar man looked concerned.
“He abused you? That’s not right” he said in a lousy French accent, dropping the “h”.
“You better not fucking touch me.”
“I told you, my couch, no touching.”
I was losing this one, I thought.
“Look,” I tell her. “You’re coming with me tonight. That French man is going to try something with you.”
She seemed to hear me. She turned to face me.
“I think I love you, somehow, already. And I have a couch, and that’s it. You’re coming with me.”
She faced me again.
“You live around here?”
“Just up the street. Five minutes.”
“Describe it to me.”
“Two rooms, a kitchen, a full bathroom…”
“So a studio…”
“No, a nice place, a huge apartment.”
“The second floor.”
Her eyes rolled
“But it’s just a house, it’s the top floor of a house.”
“And you,” she pointed at the bar man, “what floor are you on?”
He became shy, he didn’t understand,
“Look,” I said, “it’s a beautiful place. Huge. Top floor of a little house.”
“You have any wine? You go buy a bottle of wine and come back, then we’ll go.”
“No. I won’t do that. But there’s a counter full of booze, all kinds.”
“Why didn’t you just say so from the start?”
Her food came and she started to eat.
“You hungry man?”
“No,” I said, “but I hate eating alone so I’ll join you.”
She tore off a piece of bread for me, and I held it in my hand as she cut off a piece of oozing cheese and placed it on the bread for me, “bon app,” I told her, and we ate. I ordered another two whiskeys. After eating I took out my electronic cigarette, and she asked if it was legal to smoke inside, and I told her with that thing, yes, but that I also had real cigarettes in my jacket pocket if she needed.
“No. Gimme that.”
So I handed her the e-pipe and she smoked, and she looked amused, like a child with a play truck, and she handed it back to me.
“You better not fucking kill me,” she said.
“Look at me. You’ve got a lot better chance with me than that big oaf over there.”
Her phone rang. She answered it.
“Hullloh…. You don’t want to know where I am. Someplace you really don’t want to have any idea about… . Don’t worry. I can take care of myself… I can take care of myself, just like I did before you, just like I’ll do now… What am I thinking? I’m thinking how the fuck you couldn’t give me the key to my apartment tonight. I’m thinking now I got to find a fucking couch because I couldn’t get into my own goddamn apartment. … Look, I’m gonna go… I’ll take care of myself.”
She put her gold-cased iPhone back into her purse. She asked the bar man for a piece of paper. She wrote out a few lines on it, which I couldn’t see. She called over the bar man, she said “Écoute,” pulling out the last “e” sound again, “Écoute. If this guy over here kills me tonight you tell the cops this is me, OK?”
The bar man looked confused.
“So you’re going with him?”
“Écoute, if he kills me, you tell the cops this is me.”
“You understand, if you die I will have no way of knowing right?”
It made perfect sense, but she wanted him to take her number regardless.
Then we walked out, we walked up Rue Lepic, down Tourlaques, and we didn’t speak much, if at all, for most the way. She held my arm. It had been raining and water ran down the black stone streets, little puddles reflected the street lights, and the air was cold. She with her big green hat, and me with my rain coat, we walked as if we’d walked like that for years, in total comfort and with no need to say anything. I realized getting to the apartment I had no idea what to call her.
“So, what is your name?”
“Jane,” she said. “Jane fucking Birkin.”