Back then, I hadn’t mastered the art of finding a flaw. Hadn’t even thought of it yet. Of protecting myself from little crushes with a prayer. Show me, God. Reveal something undesirable about this guy—halitosis, a lousy work ethic, a collection of Skipper dolls—that’ll make this constant thought of ‘what if’ go away.
I don’t remember the year. It’s not important. I can tell you where he worked though. At the change bank. Under the
. In the shade of it. Arc de Triomphe
The guy at the window next to him was tall, very. He had a wonderful smile, so friendly, but he wasn’t beautiful. Not like Eric. Eric’s skin looked like crème brulee. The custard underneath, not the crispy, bubbled brown top. His eyes? They were polar ice water blue. How do you say that in French? Je ne sais pas. His gaze was intense. I wanted to ask if his eyes were tired ‘cause I never saw him blink. Ever. His lips looked like Cabernet, as if he’d recently taken a sip, sans a glass. Just put his mouth in a vat of it. Juicy. What would that taste like? I felt heat in my cheeks, at the possibility.
I thought about him each day. In every country.
. Switzerland . Germany . Italy . The last time I saw him, he’d pressed a business card into my palm. Greece
“Call me. The minute, no, the second, you return to
. Oui?” France
I tucked a wisp of hair behind my ears and smiled. “Oui.”
My tummy simmered when I called him from the payphone at Charles de Gaulle two months later.
“Bonjour, Eric. C’est moi. Je suis ici, a
“That is so great,” he said. His voice sounded soft, like a whisper. “Will you have dinner with me? Ce soir?”
My heart revved. “Yes. Oui.”
I barely remember the meal. Except for the garlicky, buttery, snails. And the wine, le tres bon vin. He wanted to order Ile Flottante—that floating island dessert--but I put my hand over my mouth.
“I can’t eat another bite,” I said. “But I’ll have more wine, s’il vous plait. It’s amazing.”
He worked at the label, to peel it off for me.
“It is from
, my favorite wine region,” he said. “If you like, we can go to Alsace Reims and taste its champagne. I have an uncle there who would—“
I sighed and shook my head. “I can’t, Eric. I have to go home, to
He covered his face with his hands. Pretended to sob. “I will die. You will take my heart with you when you go.”
I squeezed my chair seat with both hands and leaned across the table. “Silly boy.”
He made his eyes big. Pushed his bottom lip out. “It is true. Surely I will perish when you depart.”
I glanced at my watch. “We should go. I have to catch an early hovercraft back to
We held hands inside his olive green Renault. Over the gear shift. The moonlight came through the windshield. Made his creamy skin luminous. He made little strokes on each of my fingernails. Held my knuckles to his mouth. I wanted his lips on mine, not on my hands. I had to know. Had to. If this was as good as that. If he, French boy, could be more wonderful than him, American guy. What if my man back home (Je sais. Je suis terrible!), wasn’t the one after all?
It all depends on the kiss, you know. If you can’t kiss, if you’re not really good at it, what can you do? If you can’t melt chocolate with the promise of your lips, make its velvety sweetness drip and ooze so the other person wants to slurp up every drop, can you really love? Is it possible you can live well? I don’t think so. Everything rides on mouth-to-mouth contact. They should teach it in school. Well, college.
I tried to speak without words. Narrowed my eyes. Mouth breathed. Come closer. Don’t wait for me. Be the man. Kiss me. And please, let it be wonderful.
He leaned toward me, but his seatbelt stopped him. I released it. He fell against me. I pushed him back, so we were face to face. I closed my eyes. Felt his breath on my cheek. Smelled wine, café au lait. I smiled. Softened.
All of a sudden he was on me. What I wanted, but not. Everything was hard, sharp, open. Wrong. I pulled inside myself, like a snail. Felt the coolness of the window through my hair.
“?Qu'est-ce que c'est?”
I looked through the windshield. “Nothing.”
He took my hands again. Inspected them. “I must tell you one thing.”
My inhale sounded hissy. Disappointed. Distracted. “Yes? Oui?”
“Je suis marié.”
I shook my head. “You’re Mary?” I said. “What does that mean?”
His mouth pulled to one side. “Non. I am not Mary. I am Eric. I mean to say, I am married.”
My stomach lurched. It felt as if the snails inside me had come to life. They crawled. Slimed.
“You’re married? Really?”
“Really. But it is not good.”
I huffed, chuckled, and rolled my eyes. All at the same time. “Of course it’s not.”
He came at me again. Confirmed the fact. The facts. He’s not better. He’s not the one.
I held his face in my hands. To stop him. To show him.
“Ici. Pour votre femme.”
He pulled back. Squinted. “For my wife? What?”
“Oui,” I said. “Pour votre femme. You must kiss her slow. And small--petite. So she wants more--plus.”
I opened my mouth in a silent roar. Traced a circle in front of it with my pointer finger.
“When your mouth is this big, it’s hard. To kiss, it should be soft. Yielding. Accepting. Giving. Comprenez-vous?”
He crossed his arms. Sagged a little. “Oui. I am no good.”
I looked at his lips. Pressed my pinkie into the center of his bottom one.
“But you can learn,” I said. “Make her ache, Eric. And burn. Pour vous.”
He leaned toward me. “Like this?”
I cupped my hand over his Cabernet smile. “Save it,” I whispered. “For her.”
He sat back. Shut his eyes. Sighed. I returned to my side of the car. Put on my seat belt. And I’ll save it. For him.