It would have been about two months before the Twin Towers came down that these two people met. She was working for a finance firm in New York, and he was passing through: there for a few weeks having traversed the country for the previous nine months. He was staying in a hostel and had five days left in the city when they first saw each other. He was from Paris and intended to return; she was from Nice and expected to be working in Manhattan for another couple of years. They met in Central Park on a Friday afternoon with his modest juggling skills earning him less money than he had been used to making in other towns and cities across the country. The competition was much stronger here and juggling four balls in the air wasn't going to please the jaundiced New Yorker who expected you to do so while standing on a sideways barrel. Yet she was amused by the jokes he would tell while keeping those four balls in the air and was happy to hear a French accent. She gave him a couple of dollars after finishing her sandwich on a park bench, and said, in French, she would give him three more if he could juggle while singing Le Marseillaise. After doing so, and as she handed over the money, he asked if she wanted to go for a drink later. He hadn't met too many French people on his travels.
Those last five days they spent together; she took two days off work at the beginning of the week, and she showed him sights that she had seen just once when arriving in the city two years earlier, sights she had visited with the New York boyfriend she had gone to the city to live with. They had broken up six months earlier, and she admitted she felt relieved that she could show Jerome around Moma, stand on top of one of the towers, eat in Elaine's and wander through Central Park without any longer the memory of her ex crowding out her present. "I like you" she said to him that Sunday night before they then later slept together for the first time. Michelle said she didn't quite know what she meant by these words, but suspected that they were uttered out loud to Jerome to express that she no longer loved her ex-boyfriend, but were perhaps also words to Jerome about how strongly she felt. She knew, she said, that from the moment she saw Jerome diligently focused on juggling that she wanted to see more of him, even if it would merely have been going back the next day and watching him once again.
During those days together they discussed many things, but Jerome never mentioned once that he had a girlfriend waiting for him when he returned from his travels. It was as if Michelle needed to clear from her mind her ex and talking about it with Jerome was the best way of doing it. Jerome didn't feel this need at all: he was there with Michelle, and Julie didn't intrude on the intensity of the encounter. Julie and Jerome both acknowledged that they weren't sure if the relationship could survive his trip: she knew he was capable of solitude but interested in adventure; she was unsure whether she wished to be alone for so long and could not promise that she wouldn't need someone else. But they had written to each other regularly and, only days before Jerome arrived in New York, they had both acknowledged how important they must be to each other if they were sure they wanted to continue the relationship after he got back. It wasn't that Jerome had been faithful: he had three encounters as he traversed the country, yet none of them remotely dislodged Julie from his mind. When he wrote to her saying that she had been in his thoughts throughout the trip he didn't at all believe he was lying. He assumed this was so with Julie as well: that the frequent communication between them would have been surprising if she had been sharing her life with someone else. Perhaps she had drunkenly slept with a man, though he had never seen her drunk. Perhaps she had gone to bed with a male friend, but he didn't believe she was close to any of them.
Why didn't he tell Michelle of Julie? Some might insist he didn't do so because he was a liar, a young man who wanted a brief affair without the complications of a confession. Others that he was acting in bad faith: that he didn't want to tell Michelle so as to protect her feelings, while all he really wanted was to maintain his own: to believe for a few days that he was a single man involved in a great, if brief passion. Perhaps there is truth in both these claims, but Jerome I suspect could separate the two women in his mind because they occupied different places in the world. If during those five days Michelle had expressed an interest in returning to France, then the Atlantic Ocean would no longer have yawned so widely, and he might've needed to acknowledge that he would have had a choice to make.
Michelle expressed no interest in returning to France, no matter if she was tearful the night before Jerome was leaving and admitted that she missed her country; that having him in New York for several days alleviated it and exacerbated it at the same time. He realised he had missed France very much too, and told her, after she asked, that he was pleased to be going back. In avoiding mentioning Julie he instead invoked his favourite bakery below the flat that he had sublet, his favourite bar on the corner six doors along, and of his parents' place in a small village in the south of France, with its own bar and bakery, and yet so different from the ones in Paris. He could smell the dough entering the oven; the fresh croissants coming out of it. The places conjoined in his thoughts sentimentally, and he managed to conjure up both the capital and the village without calling to mind at all his girlfriend. In fact, as he described them to Michelle he could see her there with him and believed somehow that he would eventually see her in France, though when and in which context he couldn't quite say.
That last evening was August 28th, and they walked through Central Park, entering at 5th Avenue and exiting at Columbus circle, near her studio flat off Columbus Avenue. Can you imagine living in a city with no park, he said to her, and they talked about their favourite ones in Paris, a city she knew much less well than Jerome, having worked there for only a year with Credit Suisse before getting a job with the same company in New York. He favoured Montsouris, she preferred Buttes Chumont, which they found ironic because she lived in the 14thnot far from the former, and he lived not too far from Buttes Choumont in Belleville. As she had asked him if he was looking forward to going back home, he said apart from one very good reason to remain that he was. She was moved by his understatement, and was wary of offering over-statement in return, but she said it anyway: it is only in the last few days that she really felt she was living in New York. It was then she told him her main companion had been her notebook: that she would write every day, and perhaps, in a few years' time, when she had enough money, she would stop working in finance and write novels, essays, travel pieces. Perhaps it was a dream, but the way she would sometimes use language he knew it could have been turned into a reality more readily than for most.
What Jerome didn't say to her, of course, was that when he arrived back in France, at Charles de Gaulle airport, Julie would be wating at the arrivals lounge for him. What he felt even more obliged not to add was that he was looking forward to seeing her; that the last few days he saw as a final experience in an exciting American adventure. It would have been meaningful, but it would be his past, and yet hadn't he thought he might see her again?
As he returned to France, he kissed Julie fondly at the airport, took the RER with her to the city centre, and returned to the life that he had a year earlier. He managed again to get a job in the bar he was working in along the Canal St Martin, with Julie still the one who earned the most money: she worked as a secondary school teacher in the fifth arrondissement. While he thought sometimes of Michelle he didn't write to her, believing somehow his fidelity to Julie lay not in sleeping with Michelle while he was in New York, but in refusing to contact her while he was in Paris. Had Julie seen anybody while he was away? He didn't know and he didn't ask. He might have wished to believe this lay in discretion, but he probably knew that it resided much more in the fear ofconfession: that he knew if he asked her and she said no; she would ask him and he would be obliged to say yes.
But a couple of weeks after his return an event took place that seemed to shrink his convoluted principles, and he contacted Michelle. Two planes had forced their way into the Twin Towers, collapsing both buildings into a heap of steel and rubble. He fretted over whether Michelle might have been lost underneath the crumpled chaos. Her office was elsewhere, but she said she sometimes had meetings with others in one of the towers, and he hoped she had managed to work somewhere else that day.
He sent her an email the evening of the 11th, and received a reply the next morning. She hadn't been in the towers but had been close by. She had seen bodies fall from the sky, and lost people she would not have been close to but whose hands she had clasped, whose eyes she had met, whose laughter she had shared. One of those people climbed out of the window to escape the atrocious heat, and dived to her death, an Icarus in reverse. Michelle was going to get out of New York as soon as possible, she said, and that she had booked a flight for three days' time. She asked him if he would meet her at the airport. Something in his ethical universe dissolved as he knew that he could no longer keep the two worlds of Michelle and Julie apart; that some religious fanatics irate with the western infidels had certainly exposed one of them in the most indirect way possible. He sent a lengthy email explaining why he couldn't meet her at the airport. He had a girlfriend, they shared a flat together, they were building a life. He saw his trip to the US as somehow a parenthetical existence that needn't impinge on his life in France. He asked if there were not others who could meet her instead, though he knew her brother and her parents were in Nice; that she had few close contacts in Paris. He saw her arriving at Charles de Gaulle, alone, traumatised and hoping perhaps that he had come after all. But of course he didn't and for many years it was the place to which he could not quite go: the decision that he most regretted. Michelle never replied to his email saying that he wouldn't be able to meet her, and so of course over those years he wondered what exactly she had thought while reading his.
Was the regret more pronounced because Julie left him a year after he had returned to France? They were not getting on he would have had to admit, but he wondered whether they were not doing so because their year apart had created in each of them a feeling of independence that was detrimental to the complicity they had once shared. They both seemed more insecure when the other would go out alone, and yet feel the need to do it nevertheless. When they parted, within a few weeks Julie was seeing someone else and he would recall that in her letters she would occasionally mention this person with whom she would sometimes see a film, occasionally eat out with. His own girlfriend she had said was studying abroad, and there they were, two people yearning for someone who wasn't there and finding solace in each other's company. He didn't doubt that she had been faithful to him during his year away, as he had not been to her, but he assumed what had happened was that feelings had developed and been repressed and, presumably, he had recently parted from his girlfriend and so she, in turn, parted from our central character.
He was angry and bitter, but what could he say? After all, he had never told her about Michelle, or about the other flings in the US, and so every time he would sit down to write an email he would think again, go for a walk or to see a film, or write emails to Michelle that he never sent. Again, what could he say? Ask her how she was doing, that he had parted from his girlfriend, hoped she had recovered from 9/11 and would they like to meet up sometime? He would be happy to go to the south of France. No, certain things cannot be said, certain people cannot be contacted, unless there is a justification much bigger than our own puny actions, our sad needs and our guilty justifications.
Over the next few years, he would do odd jobs and each summer go off travelling. His juggling skills had become much more refined, and he could live easily off what he made, as long as he shared dorm rooms or slept in his tent. Around three years ago he travelled to Scotland and found a country he could call home, and he realised through he would almost certainly not live there (he needed a city as big as Paris and a climate that would allow him a proper Spring, Autumn and Summer), he found in the country what he couldn't find at all in the US, or in other trips he had taken through Spain. It was a certain type of spirit that he would find in the people and in the place. He didn't idealise this: there were faces he would see eaten up by pain and misery; people who would swear and shout in the street, cans of lager in their hand and a body language that seemed as ready to throw a punch as fall over. Parts of the Highlands seemed so empty of not just people but nature, a wilderness of wildness, a world of wistful wind and rain. Some days it enchanted him; others it oppressed him. Yet he always felt as if it were doing something; it was as if in the absence of people the landscape had become a people of its own, and at night in his tent he would talk to the wind as it whipped against the canvas.
When he returned to Paris it was as though everything was motivated and manipulated, with everyone passing each other and either looking to charm or to reject you. Nothing felt neutral and just there, and it took him some months before it became once again a city in which he could dwell and find his being. During that time he did think about moving to Scotland, but the country somehow terrified him, and while he knew would return, he could not easily do so alone. It was as if the country's solitude met his own and he couldn't countenance such an immense loneliness.
It would have been around two months after returning from Scotland that he was sitting on a cafe terrace and from across the street he saw walking along it Julie and a man who might well have been the one she had started seeing not long after they had broken up. He had never seen a picture of the person and knew only his name, Declan, and that he was half-French and half-Irish. The red hair and pale complexion suggested that is who it probably was, and he watched them with a mixture of tenderness and envy. He could see in the man an attentiveness towards her that he could never have matched, and an ease in her which he suspected had never been evident when she had been with him. They were probably married and would soon have children he mused, and at that moment thought of Michelle and wondered if she had children now. Oddly he didn't want to go over and say hello to Julie; he instead wanted to write an email to Michelle, to apologise for never meeting her at Charles de Gaulle.
Not only over the years had he written several emails to her that he hadn't sent, he had mentioned her on numerous occasions in a journal he had been keeping for some years. Sometimes he wasn't sure whether he wanted to make contact or make sense; to understand some aspect of himself in an unusual tenderness he felt for her. After all, he hardly knew who she was: just a few days in New York. How could she occupy space in his mind; how could he see Julie on the street and think not of his past feelings for her but stalled ones for Michelle?
He wondered if it rested on his silence. He had never mentioned Michelle to anyone. All his other emotional experiences however significant or minor people knew about or he had talked about. Girlfriends would meet his friends, Julie had met his family. Casual flings had been discussed with his mates; even one night stands were blearily acknowledged: sometimes the morning after at a lecture when a friend would say he looked like he hadn't slept. He would smile, half sheepish/half cocksure, and tell them why. Even in the States, people in the hostel knew of his one night stands.
Michelle, though, he had kept entirely to himself. It had given her a spiritual role in his life that he couldn't explain or justify, and seemed only to wish to try and do so on the page. It was though he couldn't say anything about her to anyone until he found a way of saying something to her himself. During the period between Julie and his trip to Scotland he had no more relationships and only a couple of flings that curdled when he tried to explain why he couldn't continue seeing them. He thought he might still be in love with someone from his past. When he said this they reacted initially with pain and then quickly with indifference. Were most relationships built on a denial of that threatened indifference, he wondered, and then what builds out of this unacknowledged sense that they could just as well be with someone else is the forming of habit and dependency? He thought back to his time with Julie and how they had met. They were both twenty-three and on the same literature course. They were waiting outside the lecture hall and he asked what she made of the book that was the subject of the lecture. They talked for a few minutes and, afterwards, she suggested that he should join her at a cafe nearby with a couple of friends who were also on the course. They had missed the lecture and expected her to tell them what was said.
He would sometimes now wonder if someone had been standing outside whom he found attractive, interesting and smart whether that would have been enough to generate a relationship that lasted five years. Then he thought about his meeting with Michelle, and whether he could have said the same thing. He thought not, yet wondered if this is the nostalgia of the incomplete, and the guilt of the Samaritan who couldn't quite be good. There they had been, two French people in Central Park: he juggling and she looking on, eating a quick lunch. While he might think that Julie and he inevitably met, and easily could not have started going out together, he reckoned that he and Michelle could so easily not have met and yet he couldn't have easily resisted seeing her again.
Yet why hadn't he gone and met her at Charles de Gaulle that day? He supposed because it would have been betraying Julie, and yet hadn't he already done that by sleeping with Michelle in New York? That wasn't quite how he saw it though. In the US it was as if the relationship had been on hold, with anything that happened to be done during his time away, Julie's time alone in Paris, not really the other's business. But to meet Michelle in Paris would have been an act of infidelity in his mind even if he had done no more than meet her, hug her, taken the metro with her to Gare de Lyon and got a coffee at the station before she got on the train south. He could have done this for numerous friends and no gesture would have been contrary to his loyalty to Julie. Yet he knew that it wouldn't have been so simple, and what he always had with Julie was simplicity.
Why did he let thoughts like this return? The simple reason was that he didn't have anything so very important to occupy them. He would be working a few shifts in cafes, doing some technical translations that paid much better than literary work, and would wait for what he couldn't quite name. Perhaps he found it easier to give this waiting the name of Michelle, but whenever people name what cannot quite be explained, they are perhaps seeking within the named thing another quality of which the named thing is merely an attribute. He increasingly seemed to associate Michelle with various other things: contingency at meeting her in New York, guilt in failing to meet her at the airport, curiosity as to what she might be doing. Of course, none of these surrounding attributes were credited to Julie, for he felt no guilt towards her, believed meeting her was half-inevitable, and he knew a couple of people who knew her and that he could, if he so wished, enquire about her life. When he saw Julie on the street it wasn't a surprise, and wasn't at all painful. She was no more and no less than Julie; Michelle was rather more mysterious to him, and yet if he wanted to get in contact why didn't he do so?
There were a couple of occasions where he thought he might have seen her. The first was around three years after they had met in New York. He was striding along Boulevard St Germain hoping to catch a film in a cinema up a side street in the 5th when just by a metro station, in a small park, getting up from a bench, was someone who looked like Michelle. She walked in the same direction he was going in so he didn't feel too perverse following her, but she was sauntering along at a pace that slowed down his own necessary aim to make it on time for the film he was seeing with a friend. After a couple of minutes, he walked ahead of her and then turned around, as if he had forgotten something, and saw it wasn't her. He then ran to the cinema and while Parisians can tolerate many unusual forms of behaviour, someone defying the pace of the stroll with the movements of the frantic can hardly expect anything but scorn. He arrived at the cinema sweating and sat next to his friend who asked him why he was so late. The trailers had ended; the film was about to start. Usually, Jerome would arrive well in advance of anything. He replied that he thought he had seen someone he knew, or had known. After the film the friend asked him who it happened to be, but Jerome was as we have noted sworn to a certain type of secrecy, and he did not tell the friend the story of Michelle and New York.
The second time was a couple of years ago, when he was sitting with friends in a cafe near the roundabout by Nation. They were seated on the terrace and he noticed a woman coming out of the cafe and moving in the direction of the city centre. He didn't say a word to the couple of people he was sitting with; he got up and followed her. A few minutes later she turned in to a shop and he could see by her profile that it wasn't Michelle. People change but profiles usually remain the same, and what he remembered as vividly as anything about her was the subtlety of her face from the side. He remembered in the year after while he was still with Julie he would sometimes look at the latter's face in profile and see a harshness that he wasn't quite sure whether he should credit to Julie's character or to a contrast with Michelle's softer features. The idea of physiognomy might be a discredited notion, but it still plays out residually in our perceptions. Of course, the relationship between Jerome and Julie didn't end on the basis of a profile that seemed unsubtle in Jerome's eyes, but equally who can deny how small are the details of attraction and repulsion?
Jerome returned to his friends who gave him a strange enough look for us to realise that, though he had his moments of madness, they were the briefest of moments and hadn't accumulated to such an extent that the people he knew wondered whether they knew who he was. As he explained to them that he thought it was someone from years ago, they laughed and said we all have to chase the occasional shadow. As they said this he wondered how completely a shadow Michelle happened to be. If he had never told anyone about her, then, obviously, no one who knew him had ever seen him with her, and he could easily have dreamt her up as readily as lived that reality. When people introduce a girlfriend to others, when they marry, when they have children, it is as if they take that shadow of a feeling and turn it into a three dimensional reality in their social life. The relationship he had with Julie might not have led to marriage and kids, but it did feel part of the world rather than a figment of his imagination. Are there realities we experience that are so exclusively our own that part of their meaningfulness resides in their meaninglessness to everyone else? We all have our private thoughts, our fantasy life, but what if that fantasy life had a momentary reality that we then refuse to share with others; can we start to believe that it never really existed? It is as though there are at least four worlds here: the private world of our fantasies, the private life that we live with a lover; the public life we live when we share the existence of that love with others as we acknowledge the nature of our relationship, and the public world at large: that world which led to Michelle leaving New York and asking if he would meet her at the airport.
It was as though an event reflecting the further reaches of reality would need to meet with the most private of thoughts, just as in 2001 Michelle returned to France just after 9/11 and he failed to be there to console her. And so it was that after a truck careered into various people in Nice celebrating Bastille Day, he looked her up on a social networking site and sent her a message. What did he say? He said he couldn't easily explain why he didn't meet her at the airport after the attacks in New York, and hoped that getting in touch now to make sure she was alright would not be taken as too much of a presumption. He wrote probably five thousand words, and then put most of them into a folder; then sent her an email no longer than a hundred and fifty. He asked her to please send him even a brief reply to say that she was safe.
A couple of days later he received a much longer email than the one he sent, and it made him wish he had sent the long one instead. In it, she said that yes she was there on the promenade when the truck turned into the crowd, but she was in the distance and escaped the truck if not the tragedy. She wrote about how difficult it was returning to France after the events in New York. There were very few people she could talk to, and for several years she was quite anti-social. It was as if nobody in France quite understood what had happened; that terrorist activity was instigated by the Americans and it was almost right and proper that they had been attacked. She didn't want to disagree with the notion that the Americans were imperialist in their outlook, but couldn't quite tolerate the smug French approach that made them seem innocents in the world of international affairs. That smugness had certainly left them over the last year, she said, and what was horribly true was that she no longer felt her compatriots were quite the strangers they had been to her after September11th.
She wrote about how active she now was in immigrants' rights: she had switched from financial law in New York to human rights work when back in Nice. For every person who had become more xenophobic and militaristic since the attacks in Paris, she would find others who had become more realistic about terrorist threats and who saw them not only as revenge for American aggression. No, immigrants she met and worked with acknowledged, this is a problem for our way of life even if the West is far from innocent when it comes to destroying the lives, livelihoods and values of other cultures. For several years after the attacks in New York when she felt alienated and often lonely, she saw therapists, and even for a while took anti-depressants and sleeping pills. Yet what perversely made her feel much better was when France had suffered the same atrocities as the US. She was going to therapy thinking that she had to understand herself, when what she really needed was others to understand her; to understand that the world is not such a safe place. Once that was acknowledged she felt paradoxically less unsafe.
She ended the email (which she sent as an attachment) with just a few remarks about him. Yes, she said, she was very hurt that he hadn't met her at the airport, and yes, she wished he would have contacted her in the intervening years, but there he was contacting her now. That meant something, even if she didn't quite know what. She concluded by saying she hoped to hear from him again.
He read the email several times and went over its conclusion on numerous occasions. Was she asking him to write back quickly; saying that it would be nice if they were in occasional contact? Was she being ironic given how long the gap had been between their previous contact and this one; was she merely being polite?
He thought about this for a couple of days before going back to his long email and, editing it slightly, decided to send it to her. In it, he said that he had been thinking about her over the years, explained why he didn't feel he could meet her at the airport, and until now didn't feel he had the right to contact her again. He would like to see her very much he said, and hoped she would be willing to see him.
He received a reply within twenty-four hours; she said she would be in Paris in ten days: that she would be liaising with some colleagues in the Paris office over the treatment of immigrants in the northern coastal town, Calais, which, he no doubt well knew, had become a base camp for many looking to get into the UK. She would be very busy but she would love to see him and would have at least one evening free. He replied saying that he would make himself available whenever necessary, gave her his mobile number and said he was so looking forward to her visit. She sent a brief reply saying that she would indeed contact him when she got there. They could make arrangements then. He took her reply to mean that she felt no further need for contact until they met, and he sent her no further emails.
During those days waiting for her arrival, he felt calmer and more focused than he had done in years. Any time that he wasn't working in the bar where he worked three nights a week, he was out by the canal, juggling, or near the Seine. Though he threw his cap down he didn't do so expecting very much money. It was now late September, with few tourists around, and yet make money he did. It was as if he cared not at all for the performance as a display, and only wanted from juggling the capacity to concentrate. He could easily juggle six balls in the air but whether it would be three or twelve it didn't really matter. He wasn't interested in competing with other jugglers; he only wished to find the means by which he could discover the calm in himself. He remembered several years earlier having a conversation with a human statue who was posing near where he was juggling, by Notre Dame. She was taking a break for fifteen minutes, stretching and drinking just enough water to keep her hydrated without needing to use a bathroom. He asked how she managed to be so still for so long, and she said that she might have asked him a similar question in reverse. She supposed there are people who are given to stillness while there are others given to movement; just as there are talkers and listeners. She liked stillness and quiet, she said, and added not another word. She didn't seem at all rude, and he didn't feel that he needed to ask her anything more.
During those ten days waiting for Michelle to arrive in Paris he thought that for the first time in many years he could perhaps have dispositionally been a human statue; that he at least and at last had the calm necessary for stillness. Juggling had always appealed to his need for doing something, and he understood why, for many, juggling couldn't really be taken very seriously. It could easily be perceived as a form of useless motion, and he often wondered when people would stop and watch him how idle usually was their interest. They would watch for a minute and then look at something else, their curiosity piqued by what he was doing but not sustained by it. It was an action so without consequence, and he reckoned he did it, perhaps like most jugglers, not because it was going to take him anywhere (as an actor's training might; as a painter's effort could), but that it was a means by which not to go anywhere at all. He never expected to do anything with this skill except make some cash in hand, and that is exactly what he had been doing for over fifteen years.
He wondered as he waited for Michelle to arrive in the city whether his juggling had been an agitated waiting; not simply for her of course, but a way of doing something without doing anything. He wasn't, when he thought this, trying to make any general claims about juggling, or any other street art, but he could see that for him, the idea of throwing some balls in the air and keeping them from dropping seemed finally a futile activity, but it was activity nevertheless. Without it he might have been a heavy drinker, or a casual drug user, but instead he juggled.
Michelle texted him saying that she had arrived in Paris, would sort out her schedule and get back to him over the next day or two. Of course, he had hoped she would have contacted him before getting to Paris, and he could have met her at Gare de Lyon just as he had refused to see her off there years before. He wasn't sure whether he was of little importance to Michelle, or that the work happened to be of immense importance, and how could he expect to be of any significance to her at all? He couldn't easily explain why she was of import to him, perhaps also why he had never told anyone about her, though he knew she was.
He received another text the following day saying she would be free the next evening; they could meet near where she was staying if that would be okay. She was based in the 14th arrondissement, and he suggested a cafe in which they could meet, at seven o'clock. After receiving the text in the afternoon, he felt oddly agitated and decided to walk. He exited his flat, now near the canal, walked up along the canal as far as Stalingrad, turned in the direction that would eventually take him to Nation, stopped off in the very cafe he years before thought he had seen Michelle exit, and took a decaf coffee. He tried to read a book, but his concentration wouldn't allow it, and he picked up a newspaper that had a story about the atrocity in Nice. He wondered if Michelle avoided stories like this, and if she did so with 9/11 stories too. He wondered if such events are the opposite of most psychoanalytically explored traumas. With child abuse, with abandonment, with any issue internal to the family, the trauma is a secret, often teased out by a therapist many years later. But there Michelle was with two crises in her life she could read about in newspapers and history books. Did they make the trauma better or worse; easier to live with or harder to forget? It seemed so strange that he would be seeing her again after fifteen years, but also unusual in the wake of two events to which she had been a witness that changed society, but where he didn't really know if they had changed her.
He arrived early at the cafe, took a seat outside and wondered if he would instantly recognise her. He watched as people walked by, but with that perceptual awareness which means that everyone who passes happens not to be someone, rather than who they are. Sure, he knew that we all perceive the world according to certain paradigms of perception, but sometimes that width of comprehension has a very narrow aperture, and today was one such occasion. It wasn't only that strangers passed by, they were non-beings, and he realised that perhaps he had been living this present perception emotionally for many years. That he was always looking for Michelle, and others were merely examples of her non-presence.
This probably wasn't the most useful thought he could have had while nervously waiting for her appearance, but he also knew if he could talk to her about it that there would be an understanding they shared that would go beyond whether there still might be feelings between them. It would suggest much more an affinity, possibly a much more profound affiliation with another than a feeling.
At that moment he looked up at the clock and, noticing it was almost ten past seven, looked back to the street and saw someone hurriedly walking towards the cafe wearing heels, a skirt above the knee and a tight-fitting jacket that matched the skirt. She has been dressed in almost identical attire fifteen years earlier when he first met her, and after they hugged for a long time she said she had just come from work: she didn't have time to change. The hug seemed as warm and casual as the clothes appeared officious and austere. As she sat down he couldn't understand how time had changed nothing; it was as though they were back in New York. No doubt she had aged a little and he knew that he had too, his hair was greying at the temples, and there was almost a streak on the fringe, and yes on her face he could see when she smiled a crease remaining as the smile around the eyes faded. Yet there was no sense of resentment on her part; no sense that he needed to apologise for his actions. He tried nevertheless but she insisted that could wait. Had he acted so terribly? Perhaps. That was a long time ago and she very much appreciated that he was still thinking about her many years later. And yes, she had of course been thinking of him.
They talked first over a glass of wine as the light faded on this mid-September evening, and then later over a risotto and a salad they shared. The atmosphere was convivial and people seemed to be no longer showing any of the anxious signs he would see so often on Paris faces as the horror had moved southward. He looked around and wondered if anyone sitting there had lost a relative the previous November, and then looked at Michelle and asked her whether anybody close to her had lost their life in Nice. She said thankfully not, before adding that her good fortune was somebody else's despair. She added that at least in France the odds were still in our favour that loved ones would be safe; could the same odds be offered to those in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan?
He wondered what were the odds that they might have met coincidentally in the city since she would obviously occasionally be in Paris, and he also wondered if having each other on their minds was evidence of their madness, or of their sanity. She asked him to say more, and he said that if he had been thinking of her for the last fifteen years without her thinking of him, then this would have suggested madness, an obsession in his head without external manifestation. Yet if they were thinking of each other this suggested a strange type of sanity, since at least it was met by the real world, by her thinking of him likewise. He said this as she leaned her head against his shoulder, and she said indeed it had been, and much more than they might have wished. The odds had indeed been, on this occasion, in their favour, but with such odds he felt a brief, vibrating anxiety, at how two people sitting like this would have been killed in a similar cafe a year and half before.
© Tony McKibbin