I keep thinking of a lifetime we had, decades ago, in that smoky cafe in Paris, the one where a photo of Bix Beiderbecke hangs above the bar. In one corner, a four-piece band chugs out klezmer and gypsy-influenced jazz at a steady clip. Little did we know, but Duke Ellington was slumped in a booth in the back, his hand clasped around a tumbler of wine. He is half-asleep, but the minor tones and driving rhythms, Magyar and Moroccan at the same time, work their way into his mind, and a few months later he recalls them and writes an arrangement for “Caravan”.
A short gentleman in a gabardine suit stares out the window at the steady rain as he nurses a drink infused with lemon syrup, and he remembers a moment of pain, far away in sunny Mexico many years ago, holding his lover as he dies in his arms from a hundred shrapnel wounds. His fedora lays on the table, next to an ashtray cradling a dying Gauloise. The smoke from the cigarette casts shadows on the wrinkled hat. A single tear falls down his cheek, echoing the raindrops running down the rippled glass of the windows.
At the bar, a chatty trio of Americans are asking the monsieur in preparatory school French for another round. The trio consists of one woman and two men. The woman is long and elegant, with a string of pearls and a navy-blue scarf wrapped around her brown hair streaked with fire. One of the men is tall, bearded, and broad-chested, the other smaller and smooth-cheeked; one is the victor, the other the vanquished in this battle for the brown-haired woman’s heart. The shorter man sees the way she looks at the other man, and he thinks to himself, there are winners, and there are losers. No ill will or resentment seems to surface in his emotions, which he registers with a bit of surprise. Aside from these inner thoughts, the trio appears to be animated and jovial, the excitement of new and unfamiliar surroundings glowing on their flushed cheeks.
The band finishes a song to a round of applause, then fires straight into another one, this time a mournful dirge based on an Iberian shepherd’s melody, first played on a tiny flute around a thousand years ago. Of course, no one here knows the tale of the Iberian youth, or how the sunset on the rocks and trees around his simple home inspired him to first play the melody. However, tonight, his heartbreak and nostalgia is revived once again, and I take your hand so we can slowly dance in circles under the charred chandelier. My wrist rests on your hip, the tips of my fingers on the small of your back. Your forehead brushes against my unshaven cheek, and I inhale your scent, sandalwood and jasmine, clean soap from our hotel room, porcelain and silence. I whisper something into your ear, and I can feel your face crinkle into a smile.
This place is called Chez Louise, and it is wedged between a tiny bookshop and some sort of leather goods and curios shop called Le Minotaure. Supposedly the owner of Le Minotaure has the taxidermied head of a real minotaur (with human eyes) in his back office. Tonight, however, he is juggling a tall, slim glass of barleywine and a tall, slim auburn-haired woman, a Bryn Mawr professor of Classics who happened to stumble into his shop that night to escape the torrential rain. Monsieur Le Minotaure is not used to having a tall, slim, chatty, auburn-haired American on his arm, and the befuddlement is evident on his wrinkled Gallic brow. His brown tweed suit is speckled with bits of paper.
The bartender scowls at us for no apparent reason, the band finishes their song and decides to delve into some Delta Blues, which changes the mood a bit. We retreat back to our booth (right next to Duke‘s), and you put your legs over my lap as our foreheads press together. I pepper your face with kisses, you giggle and play with the top button of my shirt. I lean in a little closer for a deep kiss, one that takes an eternity, a kiss that makes the world stand still. The back of my neck is on fire.
A man walking by our booth turns his head, sees us, and stops. He is old, balding, and gangling, with wire-rimmed spectacles and dark trousers held up by suspenders. His face breaks out in a grin, and he starts stammering at us in French, but his accent is so accented from the hills of Provence that neither of us understand a word he is saying. He becomes more and more animated, but then a woman appears from out of nowhere (the back room? another booth?) and whacks him over the head with a large saucisson. He gives a cry of indignation, and then runs out the door into the rain sans coat, hat, or parapluie. The woman, short and plump and inexplicably dressed in a post carrier’s uniform, tosses the saucisson onto our table with a disgusted look and marches out of view.
I ask you if you want to leave the cafe, you nod your head yes. Tomorrow morning, there will be raisin croissants and coffee, sunny autumn weather to enjoy in Les Tuilieries, an old friend of yours that we need to visit in the 18 Arrondisement. I gather hat and coat, you gather scarf and coat, and we rise and head towards the door. We pass by everyone, they see us, their eyes follow us as we approach the door.