It was a Saturday night four and a half months ago, and I was on a date with a handsome, bearded, and self-proclaimed "mean" photographer, who, in a turn of events surprising only to true naïfs (and your faithful author), would reveal himself to be one of the bigger assholes I've ever bedded. But I didn't know that yet. We were post-movie, pre-bed, halfway between a movie about two lovers and its flimsy reenactment. At this precise moment, we were in the middle of the road, caught in the center of an intersection, about to dash across before the light changed. Everything hung in the balance. I took a deep breath, my foot left the curb, and I braced for the cold air in my face, that quick rush of energy you get when you cross streets in Paris, passing inches away from the steel bodies of cars hungry to eat up the pavement where you were just standing. From the opposite side of the road another couple also took a deep breath, and similarly threw themselves into the road during the last few seconds of flashing, red-handed safety, making a break for the other side. We met in the middle, each dashing in opposite directions, each of us singularly purposeful in our intentions. The intention was not to stop. The goal was to reach the other side and whatever that entailed. But I stopped.
"Hey!" I called out. "Hey!"
His face was completely out of context here in Paris; I was used to seeing him in the linoleum-tiled salle des profs in the rural village where we both taught, over an hour away. But I recognized him all the same. My head spun with the pure chance of it all. What were the odds that I would run into someone from my school here, in Paris, in this exact neighborhood and in the center of this exact street? And that out of all the teachers there, I would run into the one teacher who made my heart skip a beat whenever he walked into the room? Not that I was entirely convinced by the overly dramatic flip-floppings of my heart at this point, mind you; in fact, I wasn't even sure he was my type. But the heart is a stubborn organ. Unlike the lungs, whose ballooning can be paused for whole minutes at a time, or the eyes, which can be forced open until they sting and fill with tears, you just try to tell your heart what to do. Not only that, but it seemed my heart had enlisted the support of my stomach, lungs, and throat in a desperate coup, all of which were reacting in out-and-out panic mode.
All the same, I managed to choke out a strangled hey as he went by, and it was then that I realized I didn't even know his name. "Hey!" I said again.
He turned. "Oh!" he said brightly, recognizing me and skidding to a stop in the middle of the street. "Hi!" Introductions were made all around, or at least as much as is possible when no one knows anybody's name.
"This is...a colleague," I said to my date, who smiled uncomfortably. He hadn't seen this coming. Five seconds earlier he had been on his way back to his apartment with single-minded purpose, and now he was trapped on a too-small strip of concrete in the middle of a busy street in a sudden tête-à-tête with three people he had no intention of ever seeing again. His discomfort was palpable. I, however, was delighted.
"So are you a teacher too?" my still unnamed colleague asked him.
"Er, no..." he replied. "I'm a photographer." I beamed. This couldn't have worked out more perfectly if I had planned it. I tallied up points in my head: Seen out on a Saturday night in Paris - check. With a man - check. Who happens to be a photographer - check check exclamation point. If this didn't ratchet up my level of intrigue vis-à-vis the still unnamed colleague, I didn't know what would.
"That's so funny!" my unnamed colleague exclaimed. "I was just talking about [the rural village where we work]," he said, turning to his date for confirmation. She nodded. "I was just saying how beautiful it is there, don't you think?"
"Oh, erm, yes," I affirmed noncommittally. Apparently one person's remote, desolate hellhole is another person's charming, rural hamlet. Whatever. To each his own.
At this point the still unnamed colleague turned to my date and began describing in great detail each of this town's apparently many charms, and I felt the situation start to slip away from me. All I had wanted was a quick I see you and you see me, so hello, goodbye, and see you on Tuesday, and now, suddenly, lengthy explanations were being entered into. I looked for a break in the conversation to make our exit, but the light had changed again, traffic rushing by on both sides of us, and we would have been stranded awkwardly in the intersection until it turned. And so I waited for the green walking man to illuminate again, but when it did the unnamed colleague was still talking, with no break at all in the conversation. I was reminded of the first time I had really taken notice of him at school. He had been walking through the faculty room, obviously on his way out the door, when someone casually said something like, "So what is this whole banking crisis about, anyway?" Though the question hadn't been posed to him, he stopped, turned on a dime and said, "Well, actually..." And for a solid five minutes he proceeded to list each and every factor leading up to the current state of the world's banks, explaining in clear, concise detail the causes and effects of subprime mortgages, securitization practices, and bank failures. Five solid minutes later, during which time he had never paused or slowed down once, he said, "And that's why we have a banking crisis." Then he turned on his heel and continued on his way as if nothing at all had happened, leaving half a dozen people staring open-mouthed behind him. Who is this fascinating, strange little man? I found myself thinking.
And now he was at it again, not paying the least attention to me, I noted, but continuing to engage in friendly, one-sided chatter with my date, whose eyes he didn't seem to notice had long glazed over. I myself had lost track of the conversation several minutes earlier, and so I had no idea whether he was still touting the rural beauty of the town where we worked, or if he had moved on to other topics of potential interest. I kept watching the walk signal, on the alert for any break in conversation to make our exit when the green man was illuminated, and slumping into resignation every time it turned back to the red hand. As the light cycled through yet another round of traffic, I caught the eye of his companion standing silently by, and we looked at each other and shrugged. Finally, though, he paused for breath, and I took the opportunity to make an escape. We said goodbye and goodnight and continued on in opposite directions, as if nothing at all had happened.
By Tuesday it was looking less and less likely that I would ever hear from the handsome, bearded photographer again, but on the other hand I decided it was almost a worthwhile trade, since in a way it was because of him that I now had an excuse to talk to the oddly intriguing teacher I'd had my eye on. I waited anxiously for the afternoon, and practiced my opening line: It was so funny running into you in Paris the other night! The minutes ticked by slowly, and finally it was 2:00. Like clockwork he entered the salle des profs and smiled at me. He was friendly as usual, but there was no hint of recognition, no indication of our having shared a moment in the middle of a busy Parisian street together only three days prior. He sat down and got to work, buried in textbooks and lesson planning, while I went back to my book, and sighed. For an hour we were the only two people in the room, and we didn't say a word. This wasn't going at all according to plan. Finally, an interminable hour later, he looked up from his book, stretched his arms in the air and let out a stifled yawn. I saw my chance, and jumped on it.
"Tired?" I asked, a bit too eagerly.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "I have so much work to do lately..."
"I know what you mean," I said, though really, my own workload as an English assistant gave me no cause to complain.
"Hey, it was really funny running into you in Paris the other night," he said, as if it had just occurred to him.
I smiled. "I know! I was so surprised to see you there."
"Well I live in the neighborhood," he said. "And you?"
"Oh no, I live in the suburbs."
"You know," he said, a little embarassed, "I don't even know your name."
I smiled again, realizing he was beating me to all of my carefully rehearsed lines. "It's Rachel," I said.
"I'm Hervé," he said, and I laughed a little, because I would never have guessed that in a million years. Hervé! And to think, in my head I had been calling him David all this time.
Four months of Tuesday afternoons, and several excruciating weeks of will-he-won't-he later, and he is at my birthday dinner, and he is meeting my sister, who instantly pronounces him "adorable." "I love him!" she exclaims. And she is not an exclaimer.
"You can't love him!" I protest.
"Ok, well I like him," she says. "And how many times have I said that about someone you've dated?"
"Never," I say.
"Exactly," she says.
I am not convinced by my sister's predictions of living adorably ever after. I am dubious, hesitant. In fact, I am not sure of anything at all anymore. But then, it's hard to picture my future when everything past June is shrouded in a vague, uncertain fog. Try to factor someone else into my nonexistent plans for the future and my brain gets a short circuit. There are just too many variables in play. All the same, he did present me with the most thoughtfully chosen books for my birthday, each marked with a sweetly appropriate inscription. And he does gaze at me adoringly, and hold my hand, and send me regular text messages when we're apart telling me how he can't wait to see me again, to hold me in his arms and kiss me.
I think back to four and a half months ago, tip-toeing out of a photographer's apartment in the early morning light, pushing on pull doors and standing dazed in the courtyard of his building, looking frantically for the exit, and feeling completely alone. And then I think of the man who makes coffee for me in the morning and has never once let me walk to the metro by myself. The man who, when I can't sleep, responds to my late-night requests for a story with whispered tales of Greek mythology, La Fontaine's fables, and entire Baudelaire poems recited from memory. The man who can skew my sense of time so completely that I can spend an unprecedented 17 hours in bed with him and think nothing of it. And all because four and a half months ago, I was walking west, and he was walking east. And I don't know what the future will bring, or where it will take me, but I am glad that for the moment, at least, we can walk a little while together.