As always, he saw her before she saw him: a wisp of a creature, sitting by a window with a hand-rolled cigarette, now mostly ash, smoldering between the fingers on her right hand. She was writing in a Moleskine with her left.
He slowed his pace and fell across her like a ghost, lifting the cigarette from between her fingers and setting it to rest in a nearby ashtray. She looked up and smiled — slowly, returning from a great distance.
“Matthew,” she said. She did not like shortened names.
“Lyra.” They gazed at each other a moment longer, reclaiming intimacy, before he finally took the seat across the table. “Been here long?”
“Workin’ on the same story?”
“Always.” The story was two years old already. She shut her notebook and let the pen rest on its shiny creased folds. The bottom edge of her hand was smeared with black ink. “How was the flight in from Müenchen?”
“Terrible. Actually, I took the nachtüg.” He set his backpack down under the table. “Shared a cabin with a family of four. I can still smell them on me.”
“You must be exhausted.”
“And how is the travel blogging?”
“It’s the same. It goes.” Matt hadn’t blogged since last year and was spending the summer in Munich as a bartender, just to be there, or so he told himself. He was no longer sure why he kept returning to Munich — or to her, for that matter.
They met every summer at Chez Prune beside the Canal St.-Martin, where he — an overeager, glorified travel blogger — first found her four years ago.
He’d entered the café, much like today, wearing an expression he fancied “native German” — a mixture of weariness and determination. He’d spent the entire day hunting for Wi-Fi, with little luck — fucking backward Paris! — and finally managed to find some at Chez Prune, only to discover he’d run out of battery power.
And there was Lyra, two tables to his right, for all the world a bona fide Parisian, with a stick of power sockets in her possession. He reached over to ask if he could plug into it, the proper French words escaping him — French seemed too soft, too frustratingly feminine after months living and breathing in Deutsch — and that’s when he noticed her keyboard. It was QWERTY, not AZERTY.
“Can I plug into your socket?” he blurted out, English all a mess, and it was only upon registering her surprise that he realized what he said.
“I’m sorry,” he backtracked, “I meant …” He pointed to the socket, his mind in knots, falling back on the crooked, bashful smile his friend once said could get women in any country to “peel off their lace and give womb.”
“Go for it.” Her voice was cool, the phrase rolling cavalier (and too American) off her tongue. She pushed the power stick toward him and turned back to her screen, tapping decisively on a few keys to demonstrate their exchange was effectively over.
Lyra: cold as stone, a veritable tundra of apathy. It took the rest of that afternoon, followed by a rambling, sleepless night wandering Bastille, to fix himself in her favor. They parted with that casual promise expats make: to see each other again, the difference being that they did.
How different a reception she gave him now, with so much warmth radiating from her eyes. They’d never slept together, but as always he wondered if this was the year.
“Where are you staying?” he asked.
“I rented a studio in République.” She smiled ruefully. “I think this time I won’t go home.”
A studio. Yes, he decided. This was definitely the year.
“Would you like to get coffee, or something to eat?” she asked, her polite lilting voice a natural extension of her French.
“Maybe in a little while. Really, I’ve been sitting all day.”
“Then we’ll walk. L’addition, s’il vous plaît.”
Outside the sun began to set, and as they fell into pace she slipped an arm through his — a natural gesture, given how long they’d known each other, and he felt old feelings revive in his chest, thick like cream, filling him with heady bien-être.
“And how goes your blogging?” he asked, stepping gingerly over the sleeping accouterments of a vagrant, who reached out and asked for what he could only guess was a cigarette.
“It goes.” She proffered the desired smoke, reaching down to light it too.
In the years since they’d met, Lyra had become a fairly prominent tech blogger. Mostly she covered “new technology” — fresh ways marketers were finding to integrate their messages onto mobile phones, the internet or gaming consoles.
They never much discussed her work, but from his home computer in Toronto it was easy to follow her movements. Every few weeks he checked her personal blog, Beaucoup d’Amour, a name whose cheap, burlesque quality gave her a bit of wry glee. According to the “About” page, she’d named it after a generic brand of perfume sold by Kim, the Vietnamese hooker-heroine in Miss Saigon.
A year ago he formed the habit of leaving comments on the blog under anonymous handles. Sometimes — and for reasons he couldn’t quite name — he was cruel, a quality he lacked when they were together.
Last month she blogged about her recent engagement to an engineer in Ithaca, where she lived (four hours from Toronto, and not even a visit). Using a contrived name, Matt snarled, “I never took you for such small-town stock. Guess you have given up on your dream of living in Paris.”
Nothing in their communications thereafter suggested she knew he read up on her, much less that he participated in her world. Walking beside her now, he wondered if his distant antagonism ever hurt her.
“And how is Tess?” she asked.
“She’s fine.” They too had gotten engaged. Matt met Tess — a paper-skinned, nervous blonde whose green eyes constantly darted from left to right, like guppies — out of high school. They’d been dating for ten years. She had never been out of Canada.
“Did you start that restaurant you talked about?”
“No, but I’m working at one in the city now.” He smiled at the thought of his boss, Chef Ben, preaching the merits of butter with his big scarred hands.
“Ahhh.” She smiled and lowered her head knowingly.
“Do you know what I realized I love doing?” he said.
“Working the pastry station.”
Lyra laughed; they were climbing the steps of one of the Canal’s bridges. “I can’t imagine it — making small, beautiful things with these hands.” She took one in hers and ran a finger over his life line, an obvious invitation, but, being Lyra, it struck him as more studious than flirtatious.
He lifted his hand to dislodge a wisp of her dark hair, and as the sun set over the Canal, reached in to kiss her.
Her slight body merged tentatively, then naturally, with his. Her lips were soft and lush, a mouth that knew how to kiss, teeth that knew just how to nip. Another classic moment in Paris. Her hand, rising gently to his shoulder, indicated its end.
“I’m happy you’re happy,” she laughed, pulling away and beginning her descent down the hard, narrow steps. He followed like a small boy, palm sliding over the rail, his body a captive of lust and torment, eager to grip and to grab, to have and hold.
Her ballerina flats, barely visible beneath oversized pants with dirty fringed ends, guided him to République, its emblematic statue punctuated against the blue-gray sky with a personal convoy of electric stars. On the Place, a man unrolled a small carpet and removed his shoes, prostrating himself in the direction of Pizza Pino.
“What about you?” he asked, regaining composure. “How are things with you and the engineer?”
“We’ve broken it off.”
A pause. He waited.
“I told you, I’m not going home this time. For the next little while, this is home.”
She turned to face him, walking backward, arms expanding to embrace everything around her: the setting sun and bobbing baguettes, the sound of metal against metal as shops began to shutter.
“That’s … surprising.” He felt himself faltering again, wondering why it was that, now she’d fixed herself to the one place he always found her, he felt her slipping inexorably away.
“But I thought things were going well?” he countered as she slowed, waiting for him to catch up.
“They are and continue to be well. I just wasn’t ready to become small-town stock.”
Discomfited, he nearly walked into her, but stopped just in time — falling instead into an iron gaze that lasted a moment too long.
Something in him seized up, catching what he thought was derision in her eyes, but she turned away too soon for certainty, slipping her arm back into his.
“We need to find you a place to stay,” she said finally, her tone just friendly enough to cut.