By IAN SEED.
I’M OUT OF the flat before they wake up.
It’s Sunday. I’ve never known Paris to be so quiet. The sky is almost cloudless, the Sacré Coeur up on my right bathed in the red light of dawn. I feel for the first time as if the city is mine. The suitcase in my hand is strangely weightless.
Here I am about to leave, though I still haven’t decided where to go. After two years, I’ve had enough. Enough of kidding myself that I’m a Hemingway or a Henry Miller in the making, enough of never having the money for a deposit on a flat, of having to sleep on friends’ floors.
Monique will still be sleeping, snoring gently. This was the right moment to abandon her and Julien. I picture her again, sitting with her legs curled under her, one hand holding her ankles, the other holding a cigarette with its ash falling in small lumps onto a carpet which must have once been red. I see her dirty-blonde hair hanging limp, her smudged makeup, her half-open bathrobe.
Just a few hours before, we’d tried to make love. It’d been coming on for weeks now, part of the unspoken reason that Monique and Julien let me stay there. Julien had confided in me once that he could no longer get an erection with Monique. They’d been together too many years, sweethearts since their days in high school in Zurich. He had another lover. After his jazz-piano gigs around Paris he rarely returned until the afternoon of the next day.
Monique was still this side of thirty, but her looks had already faded. She never did anything except drink red wine, smoke and read philosophy books, her favourite being Nietzsche. One reason she liked me was that I too had studied philosophy at university. Truth be told, my knowledge was scanty and superficial compared to hers.
‘I have lived with a madman for over ten years!’ she exclaimed one evening.
‘Julien?’ I asked.
‘No, Nietzsche, of course!’ she replied, looking at me disappointedly.
But I had no desire to replace Nietzsche – or Julien. Now that I’d finally got a part-time job teaching English, all I wanted was a place rent-free for a few months until I could save enough money to get a place of my own.
It was a delicate balancing act. I had to be friendly, even to flirt subtly with her, but to keep it at that. I hadn’t worked out what I’d do if she actually made a pass at me. But she never did. Something perhaps in her traditional Swiss family upbringing stopped her.
I’d delay returning back to the flat until late, spending my evenings in Shakespeare’s bookshop opposite Notre Dame. George, the bookshop’s owner, would let me sit for hours reading in a corner.
But Monique was always there waiting when I returned. She’d open the door for me in her unwashed, silk bathrobe. ‘Est-ce que tu as envie de boire un petit café avec moi?’
‘Of course,’ I always said, and along with the coffee would come the inevitable joint.
And then she’d start, the joint in her hand beating a rhythm in the air as she spoke, the smoke twirling above our heads in the light from two candles stuck in chipped saucers. Her voice – and the joint – would in the end send me to sleep fully-clothed amongst the scattered ash and coffee cups.
I’d wake in the middle of the night. By this time, she’d be lying on the mattress in her room. Through the half-open door, I’d glimpse her reading Nietzsche. Terrified that she might spot me and want to start talking all over again, I’d wait until I heard the sound of her snore before stirring. Then I’d go for a piss, take my clothes off, and get into my sleeping bag in the corner.
But last night was different. I’d been drinking a mix of free wine and beer at a poetry reading in the Shakespeare bookshop. Yet nothing could have prepared me for Monique that evening. She opened the door weeping, mumbling something incomprehensible about Julien. I put my arms around her without thinking. The bathrobe fell open. I felt the warmth of her naked breasts through the thin cotton of my t‑shirt. Her face was raised towards mine. I wiped away a tear with the back of my finger, tasted the salt on her lips.
It must have been a disappointment to her after waiting all those weeks. I was a little out of practice as well as drunk. It was all over in seconds. I tried to make up to her in other ways, but she pushed me away listlessly and closed her eyes. I slipped out from under her sheets and into my own sleeping bag.
As I lay there, unable to sleep, I heard Julien enter the flat. Why this night of all nights? Perhaps she’d known, wanted him to catch us together. I didn’t intend to stay around to find out. A little while later, for the first time, I heard them making love.
IT TAKES ME an hour to reach the Gare de Lyon. The sun’s rays reflect off the roofs and off the windows of badly-parked cars. A smell of fresh coffee and croissant drifts towards me from the brasserie opposite the station. My suitcase is starting to feel heavier.
As I sit down at a table by the window, I realise I still haven’t made up my mind where I’m going next.
I watch the waiter coming toward me, his lips pursed, his eyebrows raised expectantly.
Ian Seed’s latest collection of prose poetry and small fictions is The Underground Cabaret, published by Shearsman; a collection of verse poetry, Operations of Water, was published earlier this year by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press. His translations include Bitter Grass (Shearsman), from the Italian of Gëzim Hajdari, and The Thief of Talant (Wakefield), the first translation into English of Pierre Reverdy’s Le voleur de Talan. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review and teaches at the University of Chester.