I don’t know why I have such a fancy for this little café. Yes, it was here that I met Charles, who turned out to be, oh so briefly, the love of my life. No, the food is nothing to write home about, and the ambiance is a poor excuse for French. C’est la vie. I too often mix memories with what might have been.
I met him on my second trip to Versailles, this outing a sidebar on a business trip to Paris for my editor. One cannot take in the town with one visit or even, as I soon learned, with two. This time I booked a room instead of rushing back to Paris at the end of the long day of touring. I was killing time in the Americanized lounge of my Americanized hotel, avoiding the need to use my well-worn pocket translator, when he caught my eye. In hindsight, he’d purposely positioned himself on the bar stool, facing the wall-to-wall mirror, and stared at the chilled martini I was sipping. Hours later, in my bed, arousing feelings I’d long forgotten, he told me how the image of that clear cold gin sliding past my red lips and down my throat had driven him nearly mad with desire. I flushed, and we began again.
I don’t even know if Charles was his real name. Probably not. He claimed to be on vacation, but avoided my question of where he was staying. I didn’t press. I sensed he’s not the type to allow prodding. He said he owned a tech company in Bordeaux, but he had his daughter run it most of the time. When I asked if he had a photo of her, he scrolled through his phone but couldn’t find one he liked enough to share with me.
“Why are you here?” he asked, changing the subject. We’d come down to the breakfast buffet in the café and were eating like runners after a marathon.
I paused, the ready reply on my tongue like a lyric from a well-worn song. But out slid something else. “I’m bored,” I said. “I’m bored with life, with living, with breathing and eating and talking, and all the other crap that comes with it.”
“I know. I lapse into ennui now and then. It’s the curse of the times. I make my living from people who’d rather scroll through games on their phones than live their lives. They’re addicted to the hunt, the win, the automatic link to the next game without having to decide whether or not to play another round. They can barely help themselves.”
“So what do you do when it strikes?”
“I play live games.”
“What do you mean, live games?”
“I people-watch. I bed beautiful women. I travel around, see what I can get away with. Then I go back to work and try to build what I’ve learned into a programmable version of life.”
I should’ve been aghast, should’ve felt like a pawn on a board, a meme on a screen. Instead, I was intrigued, jealous of his curiosity since I thought mine long gone. “Do you ever get in trouble?”
“Sure. But no matter where I’ve gone, the police are corrupt, and I’ve been able to buy my way out of the petty so-called crimes I’ve committed. As for the beautiful women, well, you tell me.”
“Can I play?” I blurted out, sounding to myself like a six-year-old child.
“You already have played. You just didn’t know the name of the game. But seriously, you didn’t answer my question. Do my intentions trouble you? There aren’t enough game points in the world to buy my way out of hurting one as lovely and intelligent as you.”
“No, I’m good. I want to play. Let’s call it ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, or ‘Charlotte and Charles’.” I pressed my hand to his face. He hadn’t yet shaved, and I caressed his silvery blond stubble. Picked up his hand from across the tiny café table and kissed a couple of his fingertips as I probed his blue-green eyes with mine. “Please?”
“Stop! All right.” He pulled away from me and sat back, frowning. I didn’t expect that.
“But if we get caught, you’re on your own. It’ll be too easy for you if you know you can get away with whatever comes of your adventure. It’s not only about winning. It’s about consequences, too. Sometimes serious consequences.” He dropped his serviette on the table and stood up. “Let’s go for a walk.”
On his way out the door he collected a large folded tourist brochure from the concierge desk.
“Do exactly as I say. Ask no questions. See that young fellow in the jeans and brown sweater?”
“Yes, I see him.”
He leaned into me like a co-conspirator. “Walk over to him and ask if he has the time. Tell him the battery on your phone died, and you’re late to meet a friend. Sound a little distressed, but act friendly. And whatever you do, don’t look at me. Keep your eye on the mark.”
“Yes, that’s what they’re called. I’m going to lift his wallet. And you’re going to help me.”
I took a few deep breaths while I silently practiced my speech, hoping the young man spoke English. Most here did. He was absorbed in a framed street map posted on the corner of the building. I walked up to him, clutching my mobile.
“Excuse me. Do you have the correct time? My darned phone is dead, and I’m running late to meet a friend.”
He turned and smiled at me. Eager, innocent face. Probably a student. Looked up and pointed at the clock on the church tower across the street. “Ten-fifteen,” he said.
“Oh my. Duh. Well, I never know if those things are fast or slow or even working at all. But if you say so.”
“Trust me. I know it’s correct. Hey, are you American?”
“Yes. Sorry, I’m so late. I really have to be on my way. Thanks.” I nearly ran back to the hotel where Charles was waiting for me in the lobby.
“Let’s have another coffee,” he said, leading me into the now deserted restaurant we’d recently left. Smiling, he ordered us each an espresso and a Frangelico. “You did well.”
I sat, still a little shaky, but strangely proud of myself as he took the mark’s denim wallet from inside his folded brochure and placed it on the table between us. How had he pulled it off? I didn’t need to know. I let myself exhale deeply and took a sip of the syrupy hazelnut liquor. Then another. I was totally turned on. Could have jumped him right there in public.
He casually scanned the room to be sure we were alone. Then he removed a wad of Euros from the wallet and put them on the table, slid them toward me. I put them in the side pocket of my long, loose jumper, never taking my eyes off his face, his mouth. I’d stopped carrying a purse long ago, and had migrated to a wardrobe with deep pockets that held my phone wallet, sunglasses, a few tissues. I traveled light.
“That was a practice round,” he said. “Are you ready for more?”
“Teach me everything you know,” I whispered, leaning closer.
He laughed. Stood up. “Two or three more times and then, you’ll see, the thrill will wear off. It’s not like we have to do this for a living. But, before it does wear off, let’s go back upstairs.”
* * *
Sated, showered, my adrenaline soaring, I felt like his protégé in all things physical. I put my tee shirt and jumper and sandals back on while he sang in the shower, a soft, sexy French baritone. He stepped out of the tiny stall that barely contained him, dripping, smiling. Well, I’d thought I was sated. An hour later we were finally ready to roll.
“Let’s get to work,” he said. We walked outside in the muted mid-afternoon sun and I almost missed seeing him drop the denim wallet into the gutter.
“Let’s go to the Palace. So many tourists. So many marks.” I tried to sound competent.
“Yes, but so much competition. And no, there are lots more CCTV cameras there than here on the streets.”
And so, we followed his proven routine three more times. We took to a residential neighborhood, then a busy retail area, finally the train station. I varied my plea for assistance, sounding more credible, to myself at least, with each successive caper.
Then, suddenly, I felt spent. I just wanted to sit down, lie down, rest for a few minutes. I had to let the roaring in my ears dissipate. We found a bench outside the train station and I perched on its end, elbows on my knees, head lowered in my hands.
“Are you okay, Charlotte?” he asked. “You haven’t eaten since early breakfast, just coffee laced with booze.”
I felt my mobile vibrate in my pocket. It was Rachel, my editor. Ten years my senior, she allowed me a long leash, but suffered no excuses. I had to take her call.
“Just checking in to see if you’re still working for us. I’m sure he’s hard to part with, but we do have a ‘zine to run, girl.”
“What do you mean? I’m just taking a couple of vacation days while I’m here. And, actually, I’m doing some side research on a piece you might like.”
“Right….” Rachel drew out the word like a snake. “In Paris. It better be good.”
“It will be. Trust me.”
“Well okay, I know you. Stay safe. And, chop-chop, be back by Friday morning so we can lay out the next issue. I need you here.”
Her girlfriend attitude went only so far. It motivated most of us who worked for Women of the World to over-deliver for her, but it was hard to mend that cloth if you let it fray. Game over. This one, anyway.
I looked up at Charles. The sun was at his back, and all I could make out was the outline of his head. His face blurred into a mask I’d seen before, too many times, on too many men. He was right: the thrill wears off. I’d been on a bender with him, drunk on adrenaline. How could I break it to him that the party was over?
I didn’t have to.
“You have to get back to work,” he said. “The ultimate excuse.”
“I’m afraid it’s not,” I lied. “An excuse, I mean. Let’s go blow our stash, get an extravagant meal, get smashed, have a farewell fuck.”
* * *
The café was empty but for us. We were paid full attention, too full for comfort. While our server decanted the wine, Charles explained how the snails in our appetizer were hand-picked in the wild in France, then starved before they were refrigerated into forced hibernation to optimize their sensuous texture. How the artisanal mushrooms beside our veal entrée were grown in the darkest soil, rich in manure, to complement their pairing. How the veal itself was a cruel meal, sliced from a tender young calf that gave its life for us.
I wasn’t sure if his graphic culinary lesson was designed to further mentor me, or to distance us. It offered too much information. The food became chewy. I had to force each swallow down with the pinot noir he’d poured for us. I began to cry.
“When are you leaving?” he asked, smiling sadly.
“I have to rebook my flight. There’s a nonstop that departs early afternoon tomorrow.”
* * *
In the morning I walk to the train station to catch the coach back to Paris and then connect to CDG. It’s drizzling, a grey morning. Umbrellas sprout everywhere. They remind me somehow, disgustingly, of mushrooms.
Patricia Ann Bowen is the author of a medical time travel series about a cure for Alzheimer’s, and Unintended Consequences, a collection of short stories about strong women of all ages in challenging circumstances. Her stories have also appeared in the Table for Two and Stories of Southern Humor and Southern Crime anthologies. She has taught short story writing, and she leads a critique group of short story writers for the Atlanta Writer’s Club. You can connect with her at www.patriciabowen.com.