In the City of Lights

In the City of Lights

By Brett J. Talley

“Bonjour, je m’appelle Jake. Comment t’appelles-tu?”

Six words of French, and I’ve exhausted my repertoire. But she smiles, so maybe it will be enough. I wish I remembered how to ask if she speaks English.

“Now don’t fall for any French girls.”

That was the last thing my mother said before I got on the plane. “Don’t fall for any French girls.” I had rolled my eyes and laughed.

“I won’t, mom.”

And then I was off. Six words of French, a Frommer’s Guidebook, and a promise from Adam that he would show me the city. I thought that was all I needed. But I had not expected this.

Adam met me at the airport. He had changed since high school. French food agreed with him in the way that beer agrees with most college freshmen. But Adam only drank wine.

“I’ll show you around Paris when I get a chance,” he said. Adam is busy with his studies. I never knew why he liked me. He was always richer and smarter than the rest of us. Nobody else from Jackson High School went to college out of the state, much less the country.

“But for a while, you’ll be on your own.”

I think he saw the fear in my face, because he quickly followed with, “It’s OK. Everybody in France knows English.”

A day later, I realize that Adam is a liar. Or maybe, since he is fluent with the native tongue, he just never had the opportunity to realize that no one speaks English in France. Or maybe they see an American teenager and choose not to. But it doesn’t matter to me. After three restaurants where I could neither read the names of the dishes nor find anyone to read them for me, I found myself at the Pizza Hut.

I couldn’t understand anyone there either, and even Chez Pizza doesn’t have an English menu. But that’s really not the point of this story. I forgot about pizza and food and language and what my mother said as soon as she appeared.

I guess she had come to take my order. Who knows now? I certainly can’t say. But the simple white shirt and black pants gave it away, I guess. Well, and the pad of paper she was holding in her right hand. I didn’t understand anything she said. And I certainly couldn’t respond. So I said the only thing I could say which, given the circumstances, was probably what I should have said anyway.

“Bonjour, je m’appelle Jake. Comment t’appelles-tu?”

And that’s when she smiled.

“Bonjour, Jake. Je m’appelle Natalie.”

“Natalie.”

She nods. Then she says something else. But it’s in French, and it all runs together into one long line of gibberish. It’s the most beautiful gibberish I have ever heard, full of rises and falls, of lilting vowels and sweet, soft consonants. Hell, she was probably asking if I wanted anchovies on my pizza, but God it sounded like poetry to me. Then she smiles again, and in her eyes I see that she is waiting for me to respond.

“I have no idea what you just said,” I reply, shaking my head sadly as I do.

“Quoi?”

I know that word. It means the same thing I just said. It’s just more efficient. And so there we are. In the movies, people always overcome this language thing. Like somehow staring intently into each others’ eyes will result in some sort of spiritual transference of information. At least, that’s how it works in the movies. But as I am staring at her and she is staring at me, all I can think is that I wish I hadn’t taken German.

She opens her mouth again and when she does, it sounds familiar, if only because I think she is asking about the anchovies again. I look at her. Stupidly, no doubt. This time when she smiles, she laughs too. Finally she holds up one finger, bows her head slightly, and says something brief that I don’t understand but that sounds like “one moment.”

It is more than one moment, but when she comes back, she has a bottle of Coca-Cola and a pepperoni pizza. I’m not going to say I’m unhappy about that. I had, after all, come here to get some food. But I feel that sinking feeling. The kind I imagine people get on the subway. You know, when you see someone at the end of the train? Maybe you catch her eye for a second. But then it’s her stop and she gets off and you will never see her again. In the movies, you might. In the movies, you would probably see her every day at that very subway stop. You would eventually work up the courage to speak to her. Then you get all witty all of the sudden and she laughs. She looks at you tenderly. Next thing you know, you’re making babies. But in the movies you would also fall in love with someone you can’t share more than a couple words with.

So I eat my pizza, and I chalk it up to one of life’s lessons. Learn the language. You never know when you might run into a pretty girl. Then the bill comes. She smiles at me again as she hands it over. And I sigh as she walks away. But then I open the little black book. There is no bill. Instead there is a blank sheet of paper. Well, not blank. On it is written,

Café du Marché. 38 rue Cler. 7:00”

By my count, that means I have six and a half hours to learn the entire French language. Plenty of time.

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3 responses to “In the City of Lights

  1. Pingback: In The City of Lights (I try my hand at literary short stories) | The Site That Should Not Be

  2. Pingback: In the City of Lights | An Author's Blog

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