She struggled with the map, giving her shoulder a good heave forward to keep the strap of her ample handbag from sliding off. The strong breeze certainly wasn’t helping as it grappled with her for possession of the map.
She had just managed execute a few folds and wrestle the thing into a small, compliant square when she heard someone speak. She glanced up reluctantly from the now subdued map.
In front of her stood a smiling man, probably a little older than her father. He was pleasant looking and appeared to be in his right mind. In her experience, if someone speaks to you unbidden in a big city, they’re usually looking for money or are high on something, or both.
“Good day, Mademoiselle,” he smiled. “Can I help you find something?” He nodded towards the map.
She returned his smile. “Uh, sure; I’m looking for the nearest Metro station.”
“Ah, oui. Here, let me show you,” the man answered gently, leaning in closer to look at the map. “It’s right here, you see? Go right at the next light, and then just keep straight for a couple of blocks. You can’t miss it.” He tapped his finger a few times on the little Metro symbol for emphasis.
“Thanks for your help,” she smiled, as the wind played with her long hair and full-skirted sundress. “That’s very kind.”
“Je vous en prie, Mademoiselle,” the man answered. “Look, it’s very hot today. Won't you allow me to get you a cool drink, just over here at this café? Then you can be on your way.” He motioned to some tables nearby.
Her problem was that she always found it hard to say no. Which is why, a few minutes later, she found herself sitting at an outdoor café in gay Paree with a stranger ordering an orange juice she didn’t want when she’d much rather have been boarding a Metro train to the holographic museum. She only had one more day in Paris and didn’t want to miss this new museum, which had opened just a couple of years before.
Never mind, it’s part of the Paris experience, she told herself. Sitting here with an actual Parisien with the perfect accent to set the mood. No so thick that you had to strain to understand it, but soft and melodic. And he wasn’t bad looking. Distinguished, she thought. His charm was a refreshing change from the attitude she’d encountered from Paris’s “service” industry.
“And your name, Mademoiselle?” her companion was asking. “Or we can make one up if you prefer. How about Agathe?
“Sure, if you like,” she laughed.
Je m’appelle Henri,” he told her.
She found his purposeful insertion of French phrases amusing. Did he suppose she’d be intrigued by un certain je ne sais quoi? All he saw was a young American woman (Canadian, actually, but over here they tended to lump all Canadians in with their neighbours to the south).
As they sat, someone came by selling roses. Henri picked out a yellow one and presented it to her. She smiled dutifully and laid it on the table.
They chatted about this and that. Henri (if that really was his name) asked her a lot of questions, while remaining tight lipped about himself. Yes, this was her first visit to Paris. Yes, she was enjoying it very much. No, this wasn’t a vacation; she was returning home after working as a nurse in Asia. In Asia? Wasn’t that a fine thing! Yes, it had been very rewarding. Oh dear, was that the time? She really should be on her way if she was to get to the museum before it closed.
Henri flashed a charming smile. “Agathe, it was lovely to meet you.” He leaned across the table. “And if I don’t see you again, allow me to wish you well. But listen. Tonight, I’ll be at the Sabourin Hotel, just a couple of blocks from here, tu comprends?”
She noted the strategic use of the familiar “you” form.
“If you like, you can join me there. We can have a nice meal and maybe dance a little.”
She promised to think about it and thanked Henri for the drink. She found the Metro station easily.
But she had no intention of meeting a stranger at some hotel in a foreign city. She shook her head. The guy probably had a regular café table and spent his days scouring the crowds for attractive foreign women, some of whom probably took him up on his offer. She supposed she was one in a long line of Agathes whom Henri had “rescued.”
Henri sat on a bench in the warm Paris sun eyeing the passers-by. No matter the season, there were always plenty of tourists around, and Henri never tired of watching them. He’d pick certain ones out and invent backstories for them. The tall, skinny man over at the postcard stand, for example. That was Jed, from America. He owned a ranch in Texas. He’d been dragged to Paris by his wife, Jolene (the sizeable woman beside him sporting the shiny purple visor and yellow-rimmed sunglasses). The ranch had been doing well, so Jolene had come to shop and imbibe some Paris culture, hoping some of it would rub off on Jed. Henri closed his eyes and smiled at the thought of poor Jed, bored out of his mind by endless galleries and museums when he could be wrangling longhorns back on the ranch.
When he opened his eyes, Henri noticed another tourist, a young woman struggling to open a Paris street map. He had an eye for detail unusual in a man. He saw the wind whip the girl’s long, wavy brown hair every which way and form playful billows with the skirt of her blue paisley sundress. Hmmm…this is Mandy, he decided, a British au pair meeting up with her French boyfriend at one of the cafés. But she isn’t sure which street it’s on, so she’s got her map out to─
Then “Mandy” turned slightly and Henri could see her face. She was so focused on the map that she didn’t even see him till he was standing right in front of her, speaking to her.
She was young, probably a good quarter-century his junior. And beautiful─
She looked up as he greeted her. “Can I help you find something?” he asked.
The Metro station around the corner; she'd have found it quite easily herself without his help. But he couldn’t let her go yet. He had to look at her, speak with her. With uncharacteristic boldness, he invited her to join him for a drink. To his own surprise, he even called her Agathe and invited her to dine and dance with him that evening.
But he knew she wouldn’t come. She was a stranger, a young woman who probably thought he was just a creepy old man. And now she had finished her drink and was rising to leave.
It had seemed odd, unnatural, speaking to her in English. In fact, a few French phrases had slipped out despite his best efforts.
Henri's eyes never left the young woman till she turned a corner and was lost to view. And still he stared, as though by some miracle she might suddenly reappear.
“You’re an old fool!” he sighed to himself, downing the last of his Chablis. He stared absently into the empty glass, the tourists and their backstories forgotten. When he finally lifted his head, he noticed the rose he’d given the young woman, still lying beside her crumpled napkin.
He reached over and picked it up, turning it over in his hands. “Tu as oublié ta rose, Agathe,” he whispered.
A little later, Henri unlocked his apartment door and walked over to the fireplace in his sitting room. In the centre of the mantel sat a photograph of a much younger Henri, grinning delightedly, his arm around a beautiful woman in a wedding dress.
“Agathe, mon amour, I almost thought I saw you today. Here’s a little something; I know yellow is your favourite,” he said tenderly as he laid the rose in front of the picture.