I often look back on my first meeting with a person whom I’ve come to know well, and marvel at how strange it was to see that person, whom I know so well, in a different light – the light of a stranger. It often almost seems like a different person altogether, with the same facial features, the same voice, the same mannerisms, but a whole different persona – a persona constructed in my own mind, as one possible solution to the riddle before me, the riddle of the person’s true self, as yet unknown to me. And sometimes, unexpectedly, I find myself thinking about that person, like a mysterious dark twin of the other.
So it was that I met Saturday Night, in the actual darkness of a winter night, at the banks of the deserted canal at la Villette. Though, in another sense, we actually met through the bias of AdopteUnMec, a newly-launched dating website which I had joined in an attempt to find a partner for a technophobic friend of mine, single and newly arrived in Paris. I did also have my own professional reasons for wishing to investigate Adopte. (They eventually offered me a job, despite my risible faux-pas of showing up for the interview wearing a business suit!! How 20th-century of me!) So I found myself scrolling past the highly desirable photoless profiles of obviously married middle-aged men, and clicking instead on the 20-something beau gosse types whom I normally shun like the plague. But my friend was into good-looking, unattached, younger men, and Saturday Night fit the bill.
27, tall and fit, with wavy brown hair and tanned skin, he was perfect for her. I attempted to explain my selfless mission, but he seemed unconvinced. However, we had discovered that we were both runners, so he had invited me to join him on a late-night run at la Villette – a part of town unfamiliar to me.
I emerged from the metro to find myself in the middle of a dark and deserted park. I could just make out the silhouettes of a few beer-drinking vandals perched atop a nearby wall. Then a dim figure emerged from the shadows, the whites of his eyes flashing in the darkness, and greeted me solemnly. We exchanged a few formalities, and began to run along the banks of the canal, mostly in silence. I glanced over at him every now and then, but he kept his eyes on the path ahead. Although “not my type”, I found him incredibly handsome. And I almost imagined I could feel something between us – like a little current of electricity, a sort of animal magnetism. I had no idea where we were going, but we seemed to be penetrating deeper and deeper into the darkness, and there was not a living soul in sight. If he wanted, I knew he could grab me and drag me into the bushes on the banks of the canal before I had a chance to cry out. With one hand over my mouth, he could push me to the ground and rip off my running shorts, taking me brutally, grinding my bare ass into the grass, and then leaving me there, half-naked and sobbing, fodder for the first gang of teenaged inner-city hoodlums to pass by in search of a place to get high.
But none of that happened, of course. We sat down by the banks of the canal, drinking water, saying very little, and then we said goodbye. I didn’t even get a chance to mention my friend. Determined for them to meet, I invited him to join us for dinner one day, at a local restaurant. He showed up, dressed immaculately, with beautiful blow-dried hair, fresh from the salon. My friend was impressed.
We invited him over to her place for drinks on Saturday night. He accepted eagerly, but, just to make sure that things went in the right direction, I thought I’d better message him the night before, to let him know that she was hot and horny for him. He seemed a little dubious, but I promised him that she was a fun-loving, open-minded girl, and that he’d be in for a good time. So he came over, with a crate of beer. (I’m so embarrassed and ashamed to think of this now, and the part I played in it.) She supplied some disgusting liquor, which I hated, but which I began to slug down in copious amounts, hoping to establish a suitably drunken tone to the party. However, I remained, as always, horrifyingly lucid, and well aware, despite her prim giggles and his heavily-accented, almost nonsensical English, that these two were not getting any closer to fucking.
“What’s going on?” he asked me, slurring his words a little, when she stepped into the kitchen to mix some more drinks. “What about that threesome you promised me?”
I gaped at him. It was true that I had gotten a little carried away in my attempts to entice him to this event, and, in so doing, had intimated that this might be within the realm of possibility. But I knew it would require a level of drunkenness which none of us had reached, and we had already gone through all the alcohol in the house. So I suggested that he get it on with her instead.
”But it’s you that I want,” he hissed, his dark eyes flashing as he grabbed my wrist. Just then, my friend emerged from the kitchen. I jumped up, quickly made some excuses and left.
“He spent the night,” she told me, the next day. “And we did it.”
“Great!” I beamed smugly. “How was it??”
”Not good,” she said. “It really hurt.”
“What? Why? Is he… too big??”
”No,” she mused. “He was kind of rough…”
That was intriguing. And sounded promising. But not for long.
“Your friend is a lousy lay,” he told me. “You should see the silly, girlish nighties she wears. And then she just lies there! She doesn’t even know how to – “
“Stop!” I cried in horror. But it was too late. She asked him to marry her on their third date. He changed his telephone number and told me not to give her the new one. She didn’t speak to me for a year after that.
Saturday Night and I remained friends. We went running together two or three times a week. Occasionally we went out for a drink or for dinner. Once, he got really drunk and begged me to kiss him. “Un petit bisou,” he pleaded, practically in tears. But I was in love with someone else by then. The next time we went out for drinks, we ended up sharing a table with two older Left Bank hippie chicks, their necks adorned with brightly-coloured beads. One was in her forties, the other about twenty years older. He went home with the younger one, but he left her when he found out she had a baby from a previous relationship. So imagine my embarrassment when I had to explain to him that we couldn’t run together any more because I was 7 months pregnant. I thought I’d never hear from him again. A young, single guy like him – what could he want with me? I was second-hand news. But he stuck around, buying toys and lollipops for the baby and even pushing the pram when we went out on walks together. Then one day he invited me to his birthday party, at a trendy speak-easy near Notre Dame. I put on my chic black dress and heels. It felt great to be out late at night.
“Where’s the party?” I asked when I arrived at the bar.
“You’re it,” he said, as we exchanged the perfunctory bise.
That was kind of weird, but nothing a couple of cocktails couldn’t fix. And the music was loud, I had to lean into him a little to hear what he said. One thing led to another, and soon we were kissing with open-mouthed passion. We made out furiously (and drunkenly) all the way home.
“This is a really bad idea,” I told him, sitting on his lap in the metro.
“I know”, he said, gazing into my eyes with affection. “But I’ve been dreaming of it for so long. Just to hold you in my arms… even if that’s all there is.”
Sadly, and strangely prophetically, that actually ended up being all there was. We exchanged another kiss by the St Michel fountain, the next time we met. But the time after that, when he approached me, with parted lips, I turned away. I don’t know why. I just thought better of it, I suppose. It really was kind of a bad idea. And it just felt wrong. After all those years that I’d known him, he was in the Friend Zone – that’s all.
And we were still friends, even after that. He moved to Brazil. We stayed in touch. He languished in a South American hospital for several months after a white-water rafting accident and fell in love with a local girl who nursed him back to health. But eventually, he was back in Paris. I helped him with his CV and job interviews. He saved up to buy me an expensive perfume, to thank me. The baby dropped it on the kitchen floor and smashed it – the entire flat reeked of Chanel for weeks.
So, after all that, it was kind of strange when he just blew up at me over nothing. He had invited me to a museum, and then for a coffee, but I was always either in London or just about to leave for London, and I couldn’t explain why. Finally he sent me a long, bitter message, about how he was nothing more than a name on my long list of lovers. I was stung. But I shrugged it off. It was better not to reply at all, than to give him false hope.
Then, out of the blue, he contacted me again, a year or so later. We met for coffee. He still looked as young and hot as ever, whereas I felt so much older and out of shape. To make matters worse, he seemed a little awkward and different. Perhaps he was disappointed. I felt embarrassed and ashamed. Then, at the end of the meeting, evading my gaze, he blurted out that he had a girl now, he was living with her in a little studio in the 2nd arrondissement. I told him I was happy for him. It’s not as great as it seems, he said, evidently downplaying it.
Then the next day, he messaged me again: “Want to meet for lunch?”
And the day after: “Shall we go for a run?”
And the day after: “Could you help me update my profile on LinkedIn? I’ll take you out for dinner.”
And so on. I answered the first few, but after a while… well, some things never change. And somehow, you know, I can’t help but think that in all the years we’ve known each other, the closest we got to fucking was still that dark night, on the deserted banks of la Villette – the night we met.