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An Occurrence at La Fontaine

Updated: May 22, 2023

“La vie est un sommeil, l'amour en est le rêve.”

Daniel sat at one of the small bright blue tables that adorned the sunny terrace of La Fontaine de Belleville, 31-33 Rue Juliette Dodu, Paris. Sparrows flitted under the tables scouring for crumbs while Alpine Swifts darted about, screeching noisily but never landing. Swifts spend most of their lives in the air. They can fly for months without having to land, living on insects snatched in flight and swopping down to drink on the wing. Daniel tilted his head back and watched the swifts with a quiet delight. No one has exactly the happy life they wish for, but Daniel was close.

The café was quintessentially Parisian and had been operating continuously on this corner since 1908. It was only a fifteen-minute walk from the Hôtel d’Amiens where Julia and he were staying. A cooling breeze stirred the sultriness of the summer morning and heralded the start of a beautiful day, but the sublime joys this morning were the café noisette and the croque monsieur. To call them “delightful” would be woefully insufficient. Ninety-four percent of Parisians live less than a five-minute walk from such savory pleasures.

Julia was sitting across from Daniel. Having placed her book, Madness & Civilization, on the table, she consciously ignored the birds and was absorbed in watching people pass by. Julia was a fan of postmodern literature but made her living as a technical editor of scientific journals. She was attractive, talented, and, unlike all the other women Daniel has known, painfully genuine and direct.

Julia was wearing black culottes, a red silk blouse, and a soft pearl white sweater. A blue sapphire pendant hung from a gold chain around her neck. Daniel was in jeans, a black T-shirt, and a lightweight tweed sport coat tailored for him twenty years ago. The jacket made him feel young, and he flattered himself that it was still a good fit unless he tried to button it. Julia looked stunning in the early morning light. Her beauty was a combination of nonchalance and moody attitude. It was as if she’d just rolled out of bed and didn’t care what people thought of her. Above all, Daniel found her deepest beauty in their conversations and her literary tastes.

Daniel and Julia met in an online writing class hosted by an author they both admired. They enrolled in the class with an eye to improving their writing and, hopefully, becoming rich and famous. Although they both had “real jobs,” they also realized a slight income from their writing efforts. Whenever the Zoom class was in session, Daniel’s focus would often be drawn to the frame where Julia could be seen, captured by her attractiveness or an astute observation she’d made.

Julia and Daniel were not so much writers as they were word butchers, cutting up the stories in their lives and wrapping words, phrases, and paragraphs onto parchment paper in an attempt to make them palatable, to have them make sense. But of course, the stories never made complete sense, never tasted as good as they hoped. The writing always needed more salt or less pepper, more love and less sorrow, more truth, fewer lies. At some point, after tormented hours spent typing, deleting, checking grammar, correcting punctuation, crumpling paper, and deleting files, they made about as much sense as they could handle and were “finished.” Finished, of course, until they revisited the piece, again and again and again.

The writing class was helpful, but feedback on the pieces each student read aloud was all too positive. This was a perspective shared by both Julia and Daniel. Everyone’s writing was “nice” or “good” or “beautiful.” Although it’s true that the first and best function of criticism is to recognize merits, not defects, an honest and loving rebuke is also an obligation. Any writer who cannot distinguish the good from the bad in another writer’s toil will scarcely succeed in their own literary efforts. Little was said in the class that directly challenged the writer’s understanding of their work, and everyone was left feeling good about their efforts. During a particularly notable session in which another student was reading a piece he had written about the clubbing of baby seals, Daniel caught a look on Julia’s face and sent her a private instant message asking if she found the piece as awful as he did. She immediately replied that she couldn’t believe she was paying to listen to such crap.

Other than this shared concern about the writing class and the fact that they were both writers and bibliophiles, there was a considerable disparity in their respective life narratives due to years of experience that Daniel had that Julia didn’t share. Julia was seventeen years younger than Daniel. What drew them toward one another was that particular kind of intimacy and pleasure found among people who love writing and books.

After meeting in the writing class, they began to correspond via text messages, never actually talking on the phone. Daniel had spent much of his life learning more about other people than about himself, and he put his experience to work learning about Julia. Over weeks of texting, he learned that they had in common an unhappy childhood and two failed marriages. He learned that she swam laps every other day at the community pool and sometimes screamed underwater. He shared a few details of his difficult childhood and checkered employment history but was hesitant to reveal too much, preferring instead to keep his struggles and triumphs private. What he would admit to was the fact that, throughout his life, he never felt as happy as he thought he ought to be.

Despite his reluctance to open up, Julia’s directness and vulnerability encouraged Daniel to share more about himself. He began to feel a connection to her, as though they had experienced many of the same challenges and disappointments in life. He found solace in their shared experiences, and soon their text conversations became a highlight of Daniel’s day. He looked forward to hearing from Julia and learning more about her and, as they continued to text, he found himself feeling happier than he had in a while and felt understood and accepted for who he was, flaws and all. With each passing day, Daniel began to realize that his conversations with Julia were more than just a distraction or a passing fancy—he felt that they could well be the start of something special.

Soon realizing they lived under an hour’s drive from one another, they agreed to meet in person. They first met twice for coffee and then Julia agreed to join Daniel for lunch. It was at lunch where the idea of a trip to Paris was hatched.

For lunch, Daniel reserved a table at the Black Bass Inn, a quiet, romantic location on the Delaware river. Daniel’s primary motivation in meeting for lunch was to gauge Julia’s interest in advancing the relationship. To help accomplish this, he settled on a contrivance learned from a friend of his in England. After ordering a bottle of wine and filling both glasses, Daniel, after taking a sip, cautiously set his glass down closer to Julia’s. If Julia, after taking a sip, then set her glass closer to Daniel’s, this would be taken as a sign that she was open to his approaches. After two such exchanges, the glasses were almost touching. Daniel saw this as his moment to dare a proposal.

Looking directly at Julia, Daniel said that he was considering a break from his current reality to gain a fresh perspective and perhaps improve his writing. He then suggested that she might also enjoy a hiatus: from her work, her testy twelve-year-old son, her ex-husband, and the thrice weekly calls from her mother with the probing questions and unsolicited advice. Initially startled, Julia quickly became intrigued with the idea of getting away. It took a bit of artful persuasion and assurances that his intentions were “mostly” principled before Julia finally agreed to a long weekend away. She wasn’t sure what might unfold and wasn’t overly concerned with his intentions. She had developed a measure of trust in him and knew she could, if need be, fend for herself. Besides, she found Daniel attractive and was curious to see where it all might lead.

Surprisingly, Julia proposed a jaunt to Paris because she was, at heart, a deeply romantic woman. Her intellectual acumen did not obscure the fact she was vibrant and sexy. Anais Nin’s classic erotica, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and others of this genre sat on the shelves next to her philosophy books. She confessed to the belief that the brain is the most powerful sex organ and that having something interesting to say is often sexier than how you looked when saying it. She was a woman aroused by a triple-word score playing Strip Scrabble and whose idea of foreplay was to discuss book collections. In short, she was a woman quite familiar with myriad forms of delight: sensual pleasure, intellectual stimulation, and spiritual gratification. Daniel quickly agreed that Paris was a perfect location and booked the trip later that same day.

Before leaving the restaurant, looking to add to their enjoyment and to help keep reality at bay, Daniel suggested that for the duration of the trip they pretend to be lovers/writers living in a Paris neighborhood. Pretending to be lovers is a game of marvelous potential wherein one can play at the possibility of being in love without the torture of being in love. In such a world, options abound that are not available to real lovers. As Andy Warhol once remarked; “Fantasy love is much better than Reality love.”

Arriving in Paris a few weeks later, they feigned a Parisian style but didn’t pretend to speak French; nobody should pretend to speak French. Julia’s French was passable, Daniel’s was limited to seven words, two of them vulgar. On their first day, as they strolled about Paris, they discovered Café La Fontaine. Here they were fortunate as, at La Fontaine, the waiters were kind enough to speak English, contravening much negative commentary about travel in France.

That first day was enjoyable as they played “make believe” in Paris, but, with little experience in pretending together, their efforts were often stilted and awkward. Daniel was quite accomplished in playacting and for many years had often blurred the lines between reality and fantasy in his daily life. Time and again, whenever uncomfortable or emotionally distraught, he would take himself on a surreal journey, breaking free from the constraints of reality and immersing himself in a world of pure imagination and creativity. Sadly, Julia had rarely taken time to play at anything. She, like most people, was so busy being an adult, performing other roles, that she could not afford to “waste” time on such nonsensical games. Daniel felt it a shame as he witnessed her struggle to pretend.

Throughout the day, Julia endeavored to understand when she was pretending and what she was actually feeling. At the Louvre, a thirty-minute walk from the hotel, standing in front of the painting “Venus and Cupid” by Lambert Sustris, she saw herself as Venus reaching for the love-making doves but saw Daniel as Mars, in the background, disinterested and looking away. As she stared at the painting, she reached for Daniel’s hand. Feeling her hand in his, Daniel froze. Nothing brings you into the present quite like holding hands, and Daniel found himself uneasy with the reality of her touch. His palms began to sweat and he fought the urge to let go. He wondered, “Why did she do that? What made her reach out and take my hand?” Is she pretending or is this real?” As his mind spun, he held her hand loosely, looked away, and led her to the next painting.

After the Louvre they strolled about, holding hands occasionally but rarely speaking. Daniel, anxious about the lack of conversation, nevertheless pretended not to notice. Late in the afternoon they stopped for dinner at Le Saint Ô, a restaurant in the Hotel Royal Saint Honoré. Julia studied the menu for what seemed to Daniel far too much time and finally settled on the grilled salmon pavé with herb vinaigrette. Daniel, impatient as always, made his selection within five minutes and ordered the butcher’s cut steak with parsley butter. For dessert they shared an iced nougat with red fruit coulis. Their dinner conversation was limited to pleasantries about the day, but there was an icy tone insulating both of them. There was no talk of their feelings, actual or imagined. Words were spoken, but they brought no hope to their ears. Daniel sensed this dinner drudgery though again he pretended otherwise, but it was as palpable as the iced nougat and they both could taste it. Sensing it also, Julia finally asked:

“Is something wrong?”

Daniel felt horribly empty but, unable to bring his feelings down to earth, he awkwardly replied, “No, I’m okay.”

Julia narrowed her eyes.

“I would like to know what you are feeling. Truthfully. I don’t want you to pretend.”

Again, Daniel froze; he didn’t know what he was actually feeling other than fear. His voice shaking, he spit out, “Oh, Christ, do we really need to be doing this?”

“Yes, really,” she replied.

Daniel looked away as his fear began to smother him. “Listen, it’s been a good day. If you don’t mind, would it be all right if we don’t talk about this now?”

A moment passed. Pretending to be amiable, she nodded. “Okay, we can talk tomorrow.”

After dinner they walked slowly back to the hotel. Arriving back at their room, they quietly prepared for bed, speaking little and carefully avoiding contact. They slept with their backs to each other, physically inches apart but emotionally miles distant, both lost in imaginings, good and bad.

Waking on the second day of their trip, what pretending Julia was willing to engage in was clearly finished. She was weary of the game, and reality had decidedly inserted itself. Most of her attention and all her patience with this “pretending game” was gone. She wasn’t interested in pretending to love, she wanted to be loved.

Back at Café La Fontaine for breakfast, Julia turned toward Daniel. Initially artful in her emotional restraint, she asked him, “Are you enjoying yourself?”

Daniel wouldn’t give up the script and replied, “Yes, I am, and you?”

Ignoring his question, she responded, “You do know that we are not going to be lovers.”

Surprised by her bluntness, Daniel replied, “I was certainly hoping we would be, but what makes you say this now?”

She looked at him flatly as if seeing him for the first time. “Because you don’t really want to know me. I don’t think you’re capable of it. I don’t think you’re capable of actually loving anyone. You’re a queer bird who spends all his time in the air, never coming down to earth. You’re a beautiful man, sensitive enough to hear grass growing, but you’re so afraid of getting dew on you pants you won’t take the time to lie down in it. I can’t do this. I’m sorry.”

Daniel had the weak look of a convalescent who knows he is ill and has little hope for a cure. He struggled to come to a coherent understanding of how he had come to be in this situation, and he was certain of the truth in what he has just heard. He whispered to himself, “I'm usually better at protecting myself from this kind of thing” as he searched for a clever reply. But clever men are rarely straightforward. He was wounded and at a loss for words.

After a few painful moments of silence, Julia stood up. There was nothing more to say. She picked up her purse and left without looking back.

Daniel remained seated and watched her walk away. He ordered another café noisette. He now found the birds annoying as he desperately tried to “figure out” what had just transpired. After an hour or more, he returned to the Hôtel d’Amiens. Julia was gone, the only evidence of her presence a note on the bureau that simply said, “I am returning home.” Daniel felt a sadness begin to rise in his chest but he forced it back down. He gently placed the note back on the bureau, removed his shoes, walked to the bed, lay down, and fell asleep.

Daniel awakens and opens his eyes. He is in his small apartment at Beaumont Enhanced Senior Living where he has lived for the last five years. There is no Julia, no croque monsieur or café noisette. There’s only a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich next to a cold cup of coffee on the kitchen table. No pretty blue tables, no cooling breeze, no darting Alpine swifts. His trip to Paris, just an old man’s dream.

And like every morning, an anger begins that he seems to have been waiting for. It cuts through him like a sharp knife through a piece of fruit. What infuriates him is the awareness of having lived his life in the clouds, dreaming of love but forever unwilling to endure what being in love entails. He has always sacrificed his happiness to be comfortable. He cannot land and is tired of flying.

Looking out the window, he notices the birds. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. As he stands there, he recalls that he has always loved nature and the simple pleasure of watching birds in flight. A sense of calm begins to wash over him. He decides to go outside, to feel the sun on his face and breathe in the fresh air.

As he steps outside, he feels a sense of liberation, as if suddenly the weight of the world has been lifted off his shoulders. He recalls the words from his dream and pricks his ears to see if he really can hear grass growing. Stopping near the small garden in the courtyard, he stoops to smell the flowers, and a smile tugs at the corners of his lips. Bent over, a pain rings out to the left of his breastbone, and he tumbles onto the grass and lies there looking at the sky. Daniel feels a warmth spread through his chest.

That is where they find him, smiling, eyes wide open. No longer burdened by the weight of unfulfilled dreams, launched into a last flight of fancy.

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