The subject of the e-mail said C'est une coincidence, and indeed it was. His picture looked familiar, and I immediately recognized his profile from my Okcupid Boston days. We both lived in Cambridge then and had exchanged several e-mails, and then, for whatever reason, never ended up meeting. Perhaps it was because I don't tend to go for blonds, or perhaps it was because he was the kind of person to label his profile pictures with captions like, A bitter shade beneath tangible branches without leaves and an ocean resides calm nearby, and Walking along a shoreline, seagulls waiting to move (both pictures were taken indoors), and I, to put it simply, was not that kind of person. Or perhaps I already had my hands full at the time. In any case, after our few brief e-mails, I moved on, quit dating, and moved to France. And so, apparently, did he. And suddenly I showed up in his search query once again, fulfilling the necessary age and proximity requirements, and hence the e-mail. I've been a great seeker of signs lately, ever since I was annointed by guano from the heavens, and if anything was a sign, perhaps it was this, I thought. And after all, perhaps coincidence is just the universe's way of saying, Here, try again. In any case, I figured a reconnection with a fellow Cantabrigian deserved at least a coffee and a walk along the Seine.
I hedged when choosing a meeting place, my initial instinct being to meet where Corentin and I had met for the first time a few days before. But I quickly felt awkward about it, feeling somehow disloyal in a situation where actually no loyalties lay, but my decision was confirmed by the memory of too many trees and too many pigeons surrounding the Cité metro, as I had no desire to repeat the all too memorable experience of last time. And so I decided we would meet just across the river at St. Michel. But in fact, I spoke too soon, as I found myself exiting the train tonight one stop too soon and ascending at Cité all the same, the infamous site of my first encounter with Corentin, and walking across the river to St. Michel, where I had met Corentin for our second date just the night before. And I realized that it's times like this that a big city like Paris starts to feel very small, indeed.
With an eerie sense of déjà vu, I waited for Aidan in front of the fountain, wondering exactly how awkward it would be if for some reason I happened to run into Corentin. Luckily coincidences come in limited numbers, and so of course I didn't have that particular run of luck, although I did see the same street performers practicing their same, tired routines for what may as well have been the same tired group of tourists. Then, Aidan arrived, and we performed an awkwardly American version of la bise, and sat down at a café for a coffee. (Which explains my feverish typing in the wee hours of the morning, and after all, that is how this blog got its start, didn't you know?)
It turns out that Aidan is the kind of wandering Kerouac type that picks up and hitch-hikes around France, lands in the Sorbonne for language classes, retreats back to the U.S. when his visa runs out, and when that wears too heavily on him, ambles back on over to work on a farm in the south of France making cheese, and then heads back over to the Sorbonne for more language classes so that he can read French poetry. And as I have long harbored a secret pipe dream of working on a goat farm and making cheese, I grilled him on the various minutae involved in farm work, and then wagered on how long I would actually last at such an endeavour. (Two days? A week, maybe?) After I picked his brain I then told him everything I know about Paul Valéry, Stéphane Mallarmé, Marguerite Duras, and classic French cinema, which may not be much, but he listened with rapt attention and asked probing questions. The conversation turned to where we were from, and he said Boston, well, not Boston exactly, but a small town by the ocean to the north of Boston. Oh, near Gloucester? I said. Er, yes! he said. Actually. And he pulled up his sweater to show me his t-shirt underneath, and indeed, it said Gloucester. Then he pulled it up an inch further - Wingaersheek Beach, he pointed. Ah yes, I said. I know it. He expressed surprise, and I said that actually, I knew it well. There was a summer when I went there fairly often.
And suddenly the conversation was crowded with shadowy figures from years past. Him, of course; it's always him. His roommate was there, too. Sometimes he would go with us to the beach, and I never could figure out which of us was tagging along. And the man we paid to let us park in his yard after the beach parking lot filled, even he was there, called suddenly and unexpectedly into mind. This is part of the reason I left Boston, after all. James, his presence, was everywhere. In coffee shops and restaurants, in parking lots and on park benches. At times he was everywhere I turned. When I started dating again I stumbled over pronouns - We, er, I love this bar...When we, I mean I, went to the Cape...Boston closed in on me like a fist, and in the end it seemed safest to move thousands of miles away, and to hope that I could leave my memories there behind me, safe within its metropolitan borders, like a living time capsule that would only be re-opened at some point in the distant future, if I so chose. But of course memories have no boundaries, and they don't require visas; they seep across continents and are never once stopped by immigration or border control. Because he is everywhere, and he is here, too, as I realize every time I see a black BMW and my eyes automatically seek out the driver, even here, and I wonder if I will ever stop looking. His shadow is here, too, all over Paris, an imprint left from a tumultuous 16 days we spent in France together, one spring. It stalks the halls of the Musée d'Orsay, and it laughs, triumphant and wind-battered at the top of the Eiffel Tower. It focuses a lens relentlessly at bridges and streets by night and dangles legs off the edge of Ile de la Cité, and it is sailing, we are sailing down the Seine on a lumbering ship made of trees and buildings and stone. There is nowhere safe to go, and so no choice to but to keep on pushing towards the new, the unexplored, and the uninhabited, in search of a place without a past, a tabula rasa. And all I can do is hope that someday there will be enough new memories to obscure the old, and that all of this will be but a vague smudge of color, a small winking eye in a vast and multi-layered collage.