by Cam Smart
A open-ended romance, about two lovers first meeting.
Max paces down the Canal Saint Martin as he tries to make up for lost time. The streets are bustling and hum with a deep bass that reverberates from bars and clubs across the city. He checks his watch.
He sweeps his hair back off his face and takes the pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his denim jacket.
When he arrives at Comptoir, he notices the length of the queue, then pulls out his phone and texts Jess.
“I’m here,” he writes.
Max loiters by the entrance, but the bouncer watches him. He turns away from his gaze. A few seconds later the door to the club swings open.
‘C’est lui,’ says Jess to the bouncer, pointing at Max. He takes a good look at him and makes a small gesture towards the entrance, his oversized arms preventing proper movement. Max rushes into the club. People are already complaining about the wait and he doesn’t want to make a scene.
‘Sorry I’m late. Have you been here long?’
‘No, it’s fine. How’d the auditions go?’
‘Oh, you know how it is,’ he says. ‘We’re a bit iffy on the female lead but we’ll get there.’
‘I’ve no doubt.’ Max takes a look around the club. It looks like an old Victorian house that was built in Kenya during the days of the British Empire. Faded maps and animal busts hang from the dilapidated walls and a decrepit piano slumps into the bowing wooden floor.
‘I know, isn’t it great?’
‘Music’s good. Who are you with tonight?’ asks Max.
‘Just Alice, Minnie and Margot.’
‘Hmm not sure.’
Max has a habit of forgetting people. Those who don’t make a lasting impression seem to evaporate from his memory.
‘You met them a few weeks ago at La Java. Alice and Margot are my new flat mates.’ He recalls the night. The encounter was brief, and he spoke only to Jess apart from brief introductions.
‘Oh yes, I remember,’
‘There they are,’ she says, pointing towards the edge of the dance floor.
Max spots Alice who bounces up and down frantically waving. Next to her, Margot watches Alice with an irritable look. Jess takes his hand and guides him over, making a point of his arrival. Alice comes forward.
‘Salut Max. Nice to see you again,’ she says with a giggle as they greet one another with a kiss on each cheek.
‘And you.’ He turns to Margot, ‘Salut.’ He doesn’t remember her as well but tries filling in the blanks. Again, they exchange kisses, but she says nothing, her mood still marred by Alice’s exuberance.
Jess turns to Minnie, who is talking to some strangers in a separate group.
‘Hi Minnie, sorry to interrupt. Max is here.’ Minnie excuses herself from her conversation and spins around to greet Max, but finds he is closer than she expects. Disoriented, she bumps into him and loses balance. He grabs her to stop her from falling, bringing her back into his arms.
‘Oh sorry,’ says Max.
‘No, that’s fine,’
‘Are you alright?’
Max looks down at her. Her eyes shine a bright shade of Neptune blue, less the golden rings that encircle her pupils. As she begins to blush, the rosy skin blooms amongst the faint freckles that dance along her chest, arms and cheeks. Max cannot believe he had not noticed her the last time they had met. She gazes at him but then takes a step back and regathers herself. He sees her now tall and graceful, her wavy blonde hair flowing behind her. Her style is demure, and she wears little makeup, heightening her natural beauty.
‘It’s nice to see you again Max.’
‘Yes, and you.’
Max takes a dramatic breath out, causing Minnie to laugh.
The night is in full swing and everyone is suitably merry. Max and Minnie dance with Alice who though not the greatest dancer, certainly shows the most enthusiasm. Margot has been chewing Jess’ ear off about Alice, who quite frankly couldn’t care less, but also cannot be bothered to say so lest it start a row. Max looks over at Minnie at regular intervals, feeling giddy whenever their eyes meet.
‘I’m off for a smoke. Anyone care to join?’ says Jess. There’s a group consensus and they make their way. Minnie slides past Max and impulsively brushes her hand across his torso guiding him in the direction of the group. As her hand falls away it is caught by a secure grip.
‘Drink?’ mouths Max. She nods and clasping his hand properly now, they veer away to the bar.
They haven’t spoken much up to this point, but Max prefers it this way. He often talks too much, and silence maintains his allure, or so he likes to believe. They get to the bar and he orders two Sols with lime.
‘So, how do you know Jess?’ she says.
‘We go way back. She was there when I was born. Hasn’t left me alone since.’
‘Wasn’t she in Paris before you?’
‘Yes, it took her a lot of convincing to get me out here though.’
‘Is that so?’ She giggles at his awkwardness.
‘Yes, she’s very persuasive, and by persuasive, I mean relentless.’
‘Did you really need convincing?’
‘No, I suppose not. But don’t tell her that,’ Minnie chuckles as Max takes a long swig of his Sol.
‘What about you?’ says Max.
‘What about me?’
‘Paris. When? Why?’
‘I just fancied a change I suppose. Finished school, didn’t fancy uni. I could already speak a little French, so I thought, why not Paris.’
‘How long have you been here?’
‘Nearly three years now.’
‘You’re the adventurous type.’
‘I wouldn’t say that. I just wasn’t in a rush. I wanted to try something new. But, not like a gap year. I just wanted to live somewhere else for a while. Experience something different.’
Max is impressed by this. She is not yet twenty-one and he is pushing twenty-five. It is clear that Minnie holds a sense of maturity that he hadn’t seen in other girls. Max thinks about how independence can change people in that way. It seems to have given Minnie a certain self-assurance, though maybe she has always been like that. He wants to ask her about her family, but the moment passes.
‘I like your shoulders,’ says Minnie.
‘Huh, oh thanks,’ he replies, as his train of thought is interrupted.
‘They’re the first thing I noticed about you. You’re very broad.’
‘Really, I never thought so. I like yours too.’ Minnie laughs at this comment, finding his nervousness nothing short of adorable. He punishes himself for his response but stops when he realises that she’s watching. As he looks back at her his stomach twists in knots. Max notices again the blossoming of her rosy cheeks and her blue eyes turn to black as her pupils dilate. He seizes the moment and steps towards her, placing his hand around her waist. With the other, he touches her cheek and stares into her eyes, then slowly, he leans in and they kiss.
It’s around twenty past two when they decide to slip away from the group. As they stroll along the streets of Paris, they tell each other about their lives, occasionally stopping along the way to smoke a cigarette and admire the view. They chat about the city, their favourite cafés, restaurants and the secret places that only a local would know. Minnie recalls when she first moved to Paris, she would get off at random stops on the Metro to discover new parts of the city and Max says he’ll give it a try. Max tells her that Paris is the only city he prefers when it rains, but not in the day. Only at night.
‘I’m not sure why,’ he says. ‘Perhaps it’s the light, I don’t know. But there’s something ethereal about it.’
They go on to discuss his play; the story of a girl’s attempt to save her lover from drug addiction. Minnie is a great lover of the theatre and admires his artistic ambition. She watches him come alive as he discusses the subject evermore passionately.
It’s ten to three when they return back to Minnie’s flat in the seventh arrondissement.
‘Thanks for dropping me home,’ says Minnie.
‘It’s fine really. I love the walk.’
‘Where do you have to go from here?’
‘God that’s far isn’t it?’
‘No, it’s fine. I’ll take the Velib, it’ll only be about twenty minutes.’
‘Alright then.’ They pause in suspended unease, not knowing what to say.
‘Listen, I want to say thank you,’ says Max, eventually plucking up the courage to speak his mind.
‘I don’t know really. For tonight. It’s strange, I feel nervous around you, but also sort of, comfortable. You’re very comforting to be around. I don’t know how those two feelings work together but with you it just seems to make sense.’
Max knows that he has said the right thing. It doesn’t happen often, but he can feel it. Minnie grabs his face and kisses him passionately. He feels a surge of electricity pass through him making his hairs stand on end. They exhale and hold onto each other, not quite ready to let go.
‘Would you like to come up for a bit?’ Minnie says.
She turns the key to the door of her apartment. ‘Do you live here by yourself?’ asked Max.
‘Shh.’ Minnie responds sharply. They shuffle their way down the corridor and into her bedroom and she delicately closes the door behind her.
‘Sorry, I live with my landlady. I don’t want to wake her.’
Minnie crosses to the other side of the room, throwing her jacket down over the desk chair, then opens up the windows and jumps up onto the ledge.
‘Come here,’ she says. Max does so. She takes the cigarette packet out of his jacket pocket. There’s only one left.
‘Take it,’ he says.
‘We’ll share it.’ She lights it, takes a drag then hands it over. ‘Look,’ she says, pointing behind her as she tilts her head back on the window frame. Max leans out, revealing a superb view of the Eiffel Tower. She stands tall and proud in the night sky, a million lights glittering up and down. A lighthouse lamp at the top of the tower shoots out a powerful beam, projecting its presence across the city. ‘That’s one of the reasons I decided to move here. It’s been two years now. It still doesn’t get old.’
‘I can imagine. You know I’ve been trying to figure you out all night. You’re a real enigma.’
‘Yes, it’s like you have some sort of, something, but I can’t place it.’
‘Is that a good thing?’
‘Yes, it is,’ he says. ‘You’re so beautiful.’
She looks down at him, admiring his handsome features. She shuffles towards him and Max repositions himself resting in between her legs. He wraps his arms around her and squeezes her tightly. She puts her hand on the back of his head and leans down, gently touching his lips with hers but not yet kissing. Her lips are soft and full, and each touch tickles like a feather. They kiss now and he moves to her velvet cheeks and down to her neck, smelling her insatiable spring perfume. He kisses her neck more intensely now, sucking at her skin and moving back up to her lips, but before reaching the point of no return, she slows the pace down, bringing the moment to a smooth and tender end.
‘I’m going to have a shower. You enjoy the rest of your cigarette,’ she says to him as she runs her fingers through his wavy brown hair. He helps her down off the window ledge and she slips past him. As she walks across the room, she takes a towel that hangs on a hook on the wall.
‘See you in a minute,’ he says. She turns around smiling, her blushing cheeks illuminated by the steely blue moonlight that flows through the room. Then quietly, she tip-toes to the bathroom. Max moves back to the window and revels in the last of the lightshow, smoking his final cigarette.
Max wakes early, the morning sunshine beating down on his face. He sits up and rubs the sleep from his eyes, then moves himself out of the light. As his eyes adjust, he notices Minnie sitting on a chair on the other end of the room, her knees tucked up into her body.
‘Good morning,’ he says.
‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine,’ she says. Max picks up a cold tone in her voice, making him feel unsettled. ‘Listen, you need to leave.’
‘Oh right, okay.’
‘My landlady can’t know you’re here.’
Max isn’t sure if this is entirely true. Perhaps the hangover has gotten the better of her or she thinks it’s a mistake. He certainly hoped not. Regardless, he knows he must respect her wishes. He gets himself out of bed and puts on his clothes. She follows him down the corridor and ushers him out of the front door. As he turns to say goodbye the door shuts in his face. Her footsteps fade away and he rubs his head as he slopes off down the stairs.
‘I don’t know what to tell you,’ says Jess, as she speaks to Max over the telephone. ‘She’s a tough one to crack. I did warn you.’
‘I don’t recall.’
‘No, of course you don’t.’ she says. ‘Even if she likes a guy, she quickly finds a reason not to.’ He lies on the floor of his one-room apartment, smoking a spliff in a desperate attempt to rid himself of his hangover.
‘I just thought… I don’t know. It just felt different.’
‘I’m sorry Max, I don’t know what to tell you. Listen I’ve got to go. I’ve got Margot and Alice to deal with. They had a bloody screaming match last night.’
‘Alright. Have fun.’
Max scrolls through pictures of Minnie on Facebook. Why did she change her mind? Was it something he did? Maybe it was something he said...
Maybe my mouth did get the better of me after all, he thinks. Perhaps Jess is right; call it a day, accept that it was the best night of my life and move on.
Fuck it, he thinks, either she replies, or she doesn’t. Either way, we had a good one.
He hits message and writes:
“Hey, you alright?”