Fiction

Story: Avenue Kleber

By: Brian Vowels

 

Avenue KleberMarie hopped off the Metro at the Kléber station because she decided her remaining precious days in Paris shouldn’t be spent riding in an underground train nor in a taxi nor in a hotel lobby for that matter. It was definitely a wise choice because that Thursday afternoon in Paris was simply spectacular. Abundant sunshine, a bright blue sky, and a cool breeze created a crisp early spring afternoon and Marie felt cheerful. Yes, she felt cheerful. If asked, Marie might say she felt exhilarated or playful and, more importantly, she shared this mood with the Parisians around her. How could she not feel wonderful? Her meeting at the Credit Suisse office went superbly and ending the meeting early was an added bonus. Everyone felt Marie’s infectious good humor as she popped into a brassiere just outside the Kléber station for a glass of Bordeaux and a crouqe-monsieur; when she sauntered down the narrow Avenue Kléber window shopping and when she browsed in a bookstore for almost twenty minutes leafing through bulky novels and biographies written in a language that she barely understood. She felt compelled to purchase, at the very least, a small book or a postcard. She stumbled upon a picture book for her niece – a book about Babar the Elephant – who she thought would appreciate the unique and heartfelt gift. Marie imagined Anna taking the picture book to school for her show-n-tell assignment and for telling the story about her Aunt Marie’s romantic trip to France.

Upon leaving the bookstore, unfamiliar sentiments overwhelmed her as she stood in the threshold pondering the next stop on her walking tour of Avenue Kléber. Marie felt content and thankful for having some freedom over the next two days before having to head home to Boston. She felt a sense of freedom while in the City of Lights as if the burden that was Marie McDonald, high-powered financier, peeled itself away like the skin from an onion. She thought how nice it would be if she could adopt a new personality while here, so that was what she decided to do. She wanted something fresh and exciting as the spring day in which she enjoyed. Thinking of this made her smile. She supposed everyone, at some point or another, would love to step outside his or her normal self and lead a novel life with romance and excitement – all of which was contrary to her real life. She stepped back into the bookstore and bought a pack of Marlboro Lights. Her normal self hadn’t smoked a cigarette since leaving grad school at MIT. She felt so Parisian walking along Avenue Kléber, a shopping bag and purse hanging off her left arm and a lit cigarette in her right hand. She neared her hotel as the cigarette burned to the filter and her mood suddenly soured. The sight of the Hôtel Baltimore Sofitel reminded her of her impending solitude with another dinner and evening alone. Marie felt like a leper sitting in the hotel bar each night nursing her overpriced Kronenbourg 1664. She lit another cigarette and paced outside the hotel and she considered her options.

She wondered how a Parisian woman, professional like herself, would spend such a lovely evening. If I lived in Paris with a night like this, I would want to have a couple of close friends over for dinner. I would prepare Coq au Vin – Provencal style, mais oui – along with a lovely bottle of red wine. With some afterthought, she decided upon two bottles of wine. Perhaps we would walk down to the Trocadero for an evening stroll. This evening is way too perfect. She placed her bags at her feet and extinguished her cigarette against the side of the building. Tasteless and disrespectful to her newly adopted city she knew, but she acted on impulse. She spotted a flower shop across the busy street and felt another impulse that required immediacy. I need flowers for tonight’s dinner. Her imagination now fully engaged and she began to enjoy the fantasy so much she wanted to act it out. Marie pulled tight her loosening, blonde ponytail, adjusted her suit jacket, brushed aside cigarette ashes from her slacks, and considered momentarily, to reapply her make-up but she ultimately decided against it. Parisian women have too much dignity and grace, she thought, to reapply makeup while in public.

Marie crossed Avenue Kléber and made her away toward the flower shop, swimming like a trout upstream against the flow of pedestrians. At the flower shop, she stopped to survey a wide assortment of flowers, wrapped in cellophane, packaged in bunches of twelve, and neatly arranged by color and type in black plastic containers. She reached over to pick up a bundle of yellow roses situated on the top step of the three-step pedestal display wondering in a Shakespearean way whether roses smell sweeter in Paris than in Boston. In her state of mind, Paris sewage smelled sweeter than any flower in Boston.

Pardon, Madame,” a man tapped her on the shoulder and she jumped.

Excusez-moi,” was her retort. Her American accent easily noticed by the gentleman in the gray suit, his face now grinned with a small amount of delight.

“I am sorry, Madame. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“No, it’s okay. I didn’t think anyone was behind me.”

“Your purse – it was on les tulipes here, he couldn’t think of the English word for tulips despite the similarity of the words. “It is no longer, of course,” said the man in halted, but nearly perfect English. To Marie, he seemed eager to want to practice his English with her.

Marie replied, with her Northeastern accent spoken at light speed, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that. I hope I didn’t break a bloom off the stem.” Her new acquaintance had difficulty keeping up with her but he managed to understand her well enough by translating a few words in his head and by watching her body language.

Marie, in turn, noticed his hesitation and his subsequent confused look, but that wasn’t all. She took note of his gray suit, one that was very similar to the Hugo Boss suit she bought last year as a Christmas gift for Stephen right before their split on New Year’s Eve. She never saw Stephen wear that suit but she hoped it didn’t look as good on him as it did on the man standing in front of her. The tailoring of this suit was exquisite she thought. This man looked French in a typical Gallic way – medium height, maybe 5’10’’ as he was about four inches taller than she, closely cropped, light brown hair that was obviously styled, a long nose with slightly flared nostrils, brown eyes, darker than his hair but perfectly matched, and he wore a goatee. The goatee gave him an air of mystery and she liked that quality in her new persona. Stephen seemed so pompous and self-serving while this man was to her both mysterious and caring. He cared for the tulips and that accent. This man intrigued Marie so she decided to flirt.

Je m’appelle Marie,” she stammered.

“Marc,” he replied and with a hand extended.

“Do you mind if I have a cigarette?” she inquired, this time with a slower cadence for Marc’s benefit. “Would you like one, too?”

“No, merci. I no longer smoke. Since we can no longer smoke in the restaurants and bars, I said, ‘Why bother?’ Is that right? ‘Why bother?’”

“Yes, I think that works. It is just like in America, because in America we can’t smoke anywhere.” Marie instinctively looked down at his hands as they spoke looking for a wedding band and found none but it mattered little really, since she was unsure if the French observed this custom anyway. In the process, she finally took notice of the flowers in his hands and immediately jumped to a conclusion. “You must have plans for the evening.”

Pourquoi? Why? Oh, the flowers. Yes, well I have a dinner tonight with my girlfriend.”

“I see. That sounds nice.” Marie felt dejected, but worked hard to avoid any display of displeasure. Surprisingly to Marie, however, it was Marc that seemed more dejected and Marie noticed this right away. Her immediate impulse was to act like a heel and continue her flirting, but even in her new persona, this type of undertaking wasn’t within her.

“WellMarc, it was very nice to meet you.”

Et Madame, it is very nice to meet you too.”

“It is Mademoiselle, by the way. I’m not married.” With that said, she returned to browsing through the flowers.

Bonne soiree, Mademoiselle.” Marc emphasized the mademoiselle.

She turned back to look toward him, but only for a moment. “Good night, Marc.” She wanted to say, “Have a good dinner” or “I hope your girlfriend knows how lucky she is.” In the two years she and Stephen had dated, he never once brought her flowers or presented fresh flowers on the dinner table. Marie’s thoughts of Stephen started to sour her mood so she refocused on the scores of flowers standing before her.

She said to herself, “Buying flowers to take to my hotel room might seem a bit odd, but I think I’m going to do it.” Therefore, she did. She purchased a striking bunch of orange Amaryllis. Again, to herself, “These won’t go to waste. I’ll just give them to the sweet hotel desk clerk who calls for the taxi each morning. I’ll give them to her tomorrow.”

Marie approached the florist to pay for the flowers. The florist, an older, energetic woman with a broad smile revealing crooked, coffee and smoked stain teeth was eager to help the energetic American woman. Marie paid for the flowers, slowly counting out the unfamiliar notes and converting the Euros into dollars as she handed them to the florist. The banker in her never ceased to show herself even at the oddest of times thus complicating one of life’s simplest pleasures. She turned to her right to head back toward her luxury hotel and when she did, she turned right into Marc and in the process, squashing her bunched Amaryllis between their colliding bodies.

“This is twice, Marc.”

Tw-w-ice?” he questioned aloud, clearly not understanding the term and looking for the translation in his mind. Marie didn’t give him a chance to figure it out on his own before launching into him.

“Yes, twice. It means two times. You freakin’ scared me two times now in a matter of minutes.” A few customers and passersby turned their heads in the direction of the two because of Marie’s tone and because they made an interesting spectacle – each holding flowers in their hands. The florist pretended not to see the collision else she might feel compelled to replace Marie’s flowers if any were broken. Marie examined her latest purchase for damage as Marc took a step or two back to add some much-needed space between the pair. She peered inside the package and pushed a few flowers around to look for damage; she deemed the damage minimal.

“Do you always make a habit of scaring women? I’m sure your girlfriend must really enjoy that aspect of your relationship,” Marie said with a total disregard for his lack of fluency. “I would make you wear a bell around your neck.”

“A bell?” He was clearly having trouble with Marie’s verbal communication.

“Yes, a bell so that I can hear you coming.” A few more passersby glanced in her direction and she became to feel a little self-conscience as her feisty Boston attitude resurfaced to swallow up the smart, sophisticated Parisian. Marie took a deep breath and looked about her feet to make sure she had all of her belongings. She stepped back out of the flow of the street traffic and as she did, she lowered her voice to a low mumble and said to herself, “He may look nice, but he isn’t real smart.”

Pardon?

“Oh, nothing. Don’t you have a dinner to get to?” Still somewhat frazzled, she turned from startled to perplexed and wondered why Marc was waiting for her.

“Yes, about that,” Marc’s English, although slow, had a tinge of a British accent, “my dinner is not for two hours. I thought maybe we can have a drink at the bar.”

“Hmmyou want to buy me a drink and what would your girlfriend say about that?”

Marc hesitated for a moment as if he were searching for the right words. Finally, he said, “I did not have to tell you the reason for the flowers. Maybe I could have said they were for ma mere et puis qui ne serait pas vrai.” Marc’s English peppered with a smattering of his native tongue and he seemed not to notice right away. “I’m sorry. Should I say they were for my mother? So you see, I say the truth,” he said with a sly smile, “I am a not a bad man.” Marie would later learn that Marc is a lawyer who worked in the financial sector but originally trained in criminal law, who obviously anticipated her rejection of the invitation, and who nevertheless devised a clever, endearing retort.

Marie thought through the invitation for a moment, decided to return to her Parisian personality and ultimately accepted his invitation but with a caveat. “I can only stay for one drink,” she said as her sophisticated Parisian façade lost an internal battle to her puritanical roots.

Très bien. Let’s go over to the ‘Pub Kléber.’ It is my neighborhood bar and I love the place.”

Marie felt a little uncomfortable going to his neighborhood bar as she wondered if his jealous girlfriend might spot him, but the place was right across the street from her hotel so that eased her worry somewhat.

Bonjour, mes amis!”

Bonjour, Marc!” the bartender called.

“You don’t worry about being seen with another woman in your neighborhood bar?” Her query went unanswered.

Marc led Marie to a table for two for under the glass awning that opened to the street on warm days and closed up for the cool evenings. From this perspective, they both had a view of the pedestrians walking along Avenue Kléber although Marc took the seat with his back directly facing the street. The small restaurant was mostly empty save for two older couples, probably fellow tourists, wolfing down their sandwiches as if they had an appointment to keep. A young mom with a girl about the age of her niece Anna sat near the bar. Marie imagined the woman was an employee or somehow related to the restaurant’s owners, as she seemed a bit at home.

“Would you like something to eat?” Marc inquired.

“No, no thank you, but I would like to have a glass of Bordeaux.”

Marc raised his hand, with two fingers extended in the air to get the bartender’s attention. “Deux Bordeaux, s’il vous plaît. Merci. To Marie: your wine will be here in a minute or two.” Marie thought Marc’s English sounded less formal, now more French if that was possible. He was finally at ease. This thought relaxed her just a touch, too. “I love this place,” he continued, “I think I am here every night.”

“It is a very nice place. I thought about coming here myself the other night after work.”

“You are in Paris for business, I see.”

“Yes. I work for Credit Suisse, but I live and work in Boston.”

“I understand Boston to be a nice city with lots of famous universities and a lot of American History.” The glasses of wine arrived. “Merci.

Merci,” Marie added.

“Credit Suisse. So you are the enemy.”

“The enemy?”

Mais oui, the enemy. My firm is BNP Paribas.” With that said, Marc winked and added a chuckle. “You are a competing firm. That is funny; my new American friend works for Credit Suisse.”

“Then I guess it is off-limits for me to tell you why I am here.”

“Off-limits? I am not sure I understand.” Marc asked in a serious tone indicating an underlying desire to improve his English.

“’Off-limits’ means I can’t tell you the reason for my visit. It’s my secret.”

Oui, you don’t want to tell a lawyer in particular,” he said with a less serious tone and with a widening grin.

Marie adjusted her ponytail and flippantly twirled a tassel of hair above her ear between sips of wine. Her thoughts returned to Stephen and their failed relationship. What is it about fucking lawyers? Am I a lawyer magnet? Stephen was a Harvard educated lawyer who wanted nothing but a trophy wife to accompany his old-moneyed lifestyle. Marie was naturally thin so the last thing she needed was a hovering boyfriend fixated on her weight on top of the stress from her job. He questioned what she drank and he questioned what food she put in her mouth. In short, Stephen was obsessed with her appearance because it reflected upon him. Nothing else seemed to matter to him. A tall, thin blonde with an Ivy League education – that’s all that mattered. It was only a matter of time before he suggested a boob job but the relationship didn’t last that long.

“So you’re an attorney. That’s just great. I am not a fan of your profession. Are attorneys in France trained to lie just like in America?”

“Ha! I said already, I always tell the truth.”

The bartender walked from behind the bar and sat at the table next them. “Vous désirez quelque chose à manger?

“Are you hungry?” Marc asked Marie.

Non, merci,” she replied directly to the bartender. The bartender scurried back behind the bar and Marie followed him with her eyes. “He seems nice.”

“Yes, he is a nice man.”

“I declined food because you yourself have a dinner to attend. I wouldn’t want to eat while you watch.”

“I could have a little food.”

“I’m sure. You lawyers are all the same.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Never mind,” she groaned. She gulped down what was left of her wine. “I think it’s time for me to head back to the hotel.”

“Are you leaving?” Marc seemed taken aback.

“Yes.” Marie dabbed the corners of her mouth with the napkin from her lap, careful not to smudge what was left of her lipstick. She started to stand up to bid her companion a good evening.

“It is not what you think.”

“The girlfriend, the flowers? It seems pretty cut-and-dry to me, Monsieur Lawyer.” Marie caught her own bitterness coming through so she covered herself with a manufactured smile and added a “Ha” to help relieve the tension she created.

“I am thirty-five years old. I have never been married and Stephanie is not the woman for me. She is my girlfriend, yes, but she is mostly a companion. Is that the right word to use? Companion?” Marie nodded but Marc turned his chair around to watch the commotion on Avenue Kléber so he missed her affirmation on the proper use of the term. To Marie, he seemed pensive and distant but she continued to stand, with purse, flowers and shopping bags in hand, near the small, round table intent to leave for the hotel. Marc continued to ramble, “If you must leave, I understand. Thank you for having a glass of wine with me. I think I will stay here for the evening.” Marc motioned to the bar but the bartender didn’t notice his efforts. Marc craned his neck in an added attempt but again missed the bartender’s field of vision so he stood up from the chair and this worked. He returned to his chair and mouthed to the bartender, “Un verre de vin, s’il vous plait.”

Un?

Oui, un.

Pour mademoiselle?

Rien.” Marc seemed curt and returned to watch the street life.

Marie was at a loss both wanting to leave and wanting to stay. Regardless of the decision – stay or go – she foresaw regret. By staying, she might fall into his trap of melancholic sympathy and this was a ploy Stephen always used to manipulate her. If she left for the hotel, she would regret missing the outcome of his story and a chance at a real lasting memory of her trip to Paris. She stood, bags in hand, staring at Marc. The bartender motioned for a server to take to Marc his glass of Bordeaux and the server brushed past the standing Marie as if she was not there. Marc and the pretty, petite server exchanged muted pleasantries and Marie felt as if she were possibly the topic of their conversation but there was no body language to confirm her mild paranoia. Marie stepped back one additional step to allow the server an easier exit from the table.

Marc turned back toward Marie, half expecting her to still be there. He handed her the bunch of light blue forget-me-nots that were sitting in the chair next to him. “You can have these flowers as a token of appreciation for being nice to me. You were nice to have a glass of wine with me and to become my friend. I understand why you need to leave.” Marie walked back to their table and set her bags underneath.

“I can stay for another drink.” She sat down somewhat worried that she was being duped into staying – another one of Stephen’s old maneuvers. “Thank you for the flowers, but I really think you should give them to your girlfriend.

“I want you to have them.” The bartender anticipated Marc’s need to order another drink and waited for his hand to rise. “Merci,” he grumbled. “After meeting you, I have decided to leave Stephanie.”

“Why me? We just met.” Marie asked this question somewhat unsurprised and almost as if she anticipated this sudden declaration to be part of a pitiful come-on.

“I am not happy and she is not happy. All we do is sit in my apartment and we don’t talk. When we do talk, we discuss work or politics or her family. She is not interested in my family or my needs and we have been this way for several months. I do not know why I stay with her.”

“Isn’t that what couples do after awhile? I would think that after some time all couples would fall into a position of comfort. It could be that you are confusing comfort for a lack of interest or for falling out of love.”

“We have never had what I want in a relationship.”

“And that is…”

“I want romance. I want passion. We live in this wonderful city, the City of Lights, the city for lovers, but did you know we have not once walked along the Seine at night? Of course not, how would you know?” he mumbled. “If you walk for about fifteen minutes along Avenue Kléber in that direction,” he pointed with his right hand, “you will be at the Trocadero and from there you’ll have a great view of the La Tour Eiffel. If you walk in that direction for about fifteen minutes, you’ll be at the L’Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées. Stephanie will use the Metro and go shopping on the Champs-Élysées but we never walk the avenue as lovers. She doesn’t appreciate anything.”

“Sometimes a woman will want you to take the lead. I think she is waiting for you to ask her. Suppose you go to your apartment and you tell Stephanie, ‘We are going for a walk.’ What do you think she would say?”

“I think she would say, ‘No, let’s eat dinner and watch television.’ That’s what she would say, of this I am sure.”

“You should make her go.”

“Perhaps a couple of months ago I would have done what you suggested, but not now. There is a part of me that doesn’t want to ask.”

Marie thought Marc’s French accent was endearing. She would later tell her friends he looked and sounded “cute.” She swirled what was left of her wine then took one last sip. Marc seemed lost in thought so Marie took her empty glass to the bar to save the server or bartender a trip to the table. She came back to their table and announced, “I am going to step outside for a cigarette.” Marc said nothing.

Outside the Pub Kléber, Marie fumbled around her pockets for her matches, but then she remembered she placed them in her purse. She thought it would look uncool, or rather unsophisticated, to go back into the pub but she found some luck in a passing gentleman who happened by. He offered her a light and she readily accepted it. She leaned against the brick wall of the neighboring business and smoked her cigarette. As she did, she thought about her life and what she wanted from it, what aspects of her life she would change if she could, about her influences, her past experiences, her ability to forgive herself and others for past transgressions, her future, her nature – was she destined to always be unhappy, to always have an envious nature and finally, she thought about her fears and if she could overcome them. She extinguished her cigarette with her shoe and started back to their table inside the pub.

She stood in front of Marc, “I am going to take a walk to the Trocadero.”

 ********

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2 replies »

  1. Very good story. Excellent insight to how so many of us fail to recognize ourselves in a real sense, emotionally wandering until a circumstance intervenes serving as an awakening. Well written.
    Raymond Greiner

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