It’s a quarter to ten, a half-an-hour past sunset, on Saturday, August 9, 2008, and Alexander Blackwell is headed out to the Utopia, a Blues bar on the rue de l’Ouest. He has a date with Yasmina, whom he met on the net. He’s wearing a beat-up black leather jacket (just for the style, not for the weather), a pair of old ripped up blue jeans covered with paint, a black t-shirt with “The Who” and a silhouette of Pete Townshend that he bought at a concert in the Twin Cities back in ’82, 26 years ago. It’s a relic that he cherishes. Black Italian lace-up dress shoes are his standard, whatever else he’s wearing. They’re more comfortable to him than sports shoes because he’s flat-footed. He also always buys lace-ups, because his feet are too slender for any other kind of shoes. When he gets to the bar, he shows them his “Utopia Smoker’s Club” card to enter. Because of the new law passed in January, this bar has created a “club”. Some bars and hotels don’t really follow the law yet, but this is a place likely to get a visit from the police if they don’t follow the law. That’s why they’ve created a private club to get around the law. You have to agree that you accept to be in a place where there is smoke to be in the club. There’s a Blues band called Hall N Ashes playing tonight. He takes a seat near the stage, orders a dark beer, and lights a cigarette. The band is just starting to warm up, the show starts at 10:30.
Yasmina Hariri, a 43-year-old Parisienne, takes the RER train from her apartment at Neuilly Plaisance in Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb with a large concentration of North African immigrants. Her face shows her age, but her body has resisted the ravages of time and she boldly shows off her assets with a one-shoulder black satin mini dress and heels. Her long raven black hair falls freely over her shoulders. She calls Alex as she’s arriving, he had told her about the private club card. You have to fill out a form, he goes to the door to meet her, leaving his beer and pack of cigs on the table.
“Hi Yasmina, you look marvelous! (in French) I already paid your subscription. You just have to fill out a form and sign it. You can use your receipt until you get your membership card.”
“Hi Alex, nice to meet you.” She’s a bit surprised, because she knows that he’s older than her, but looks much younger. She doesn't mention it, nonetheless, her eyes gleam in admiration.
“I got us a table next to the band, I’ve been talking with them, they’ll let me sing with them!” Alex is all smiles; he knows that it’s one of his strong seductive means. In general, women love a man who can make them vibrate with their voice.
They take a seat and Alex holds out his pack for Yasmina, she takes one, “Camel Natural…I haven’t tried them, they’re a bit expensive.”
“Yes, but I prefer the natural taste without any additives, you’ll see, it’s worth the extra.” He pulls out his Zippo and does a trick he learned in high school to show off, opening it with a flick and lighting it with a snap of his fingers, then he tosses his cigarette into his mouth, another trick from his youth. He lights both. “It’s strange, you know, I stopped smoking for 28 years. I first started when I was 12 in Chicago, and stopped on a bet just before my 20th Birthday. I just started again last June 15th, and for the first time none of my children wished me a Happy Father’s Day. I walked into a smoke shop and bought a pack of these. I couldn’t care less now if ‘tobacco kills’. What’s strange is that when I started again, it was as if I had smoked just the day before. All of the gestures came back in a flash, they had never left me. I guess that it’s like ‘once a smoker, always a smoker’ I always ask people if it bothers them though”.
Yasmina is enjoying her smoke when the waitress comes to take her order. She hardly speaks, but that’s her nature. In very little time they’re holding hands, just enjoying the music and the moment.
After a while the lead singer says that he needs to wet his lips and invites Alex on stage for a number, introducing him to the audience. The guitarist starts into perhaps one of the slowest blues songs ever written, “Blue Jean Blues” by ZZ Top, and Alex gives it all of the emotion it deserves. He changes just one line, singing “I could tell that they was mine from the oil paint and the turpentine” (to fit his reality) instead of the original ‘from the oil and the gasoline’. Near the end of the song his eyes are blurred with real tears. Yasmina’s eyes are wet too, like many of the others. He gets a big round of applause, and “Encore! Encore!” but he steps down, thanking the audience and leaving the place to the lead singer.
After a few drinks and a few wet kisses, they run to catch the last RER train for Neuilly Plaisance. It’s a quick trip, and Yasmina’s apartment is just 5 minutes’ walk form the station.
She lives alone. No children. She’s divorced from a man who used to beat her, just like Alex left his wife who used to slap his face.
Her apartment is arranged in Maghrebin style, with a U-shaped sofa on three walls of the living room. The sweet smell of shisha greets them, announcing the presence of a hookah.
“Yes, thank you.”
She brings 2, opens them, hands one to him and sets hers on the round traditional sculpted cedar coffee table. “Be back in a minute, I have a surprise for you.”
Alex sips his beer while pondering what she’s going to offer him. After just a few minutes she returns and his face lights up with surprised delight. She moves to the stereo and puts on a CD of oriental music. She winks.
“You gave me a show, now let me return the favor, just relax and enjoy.”
As she sways to the music, her belly ripples sensually, and every part of her body has a part to play in the dance. She swirls and twirls gracefully and the veils come off one by one, drifting with the music as their transparence enhances her form. By the end of the dance, Alex is in a trance, he’s never experienced such a sensual dance. He had already seen belly-dancers, but this private performance is on another level. It’s personal, for him only. Even though Yasmina said to relax, he’s now in a state which is anything but relaxed, and they are in the bedroom in no time.
Alex gives it his all. There is not an inch of Yasmina’s body that escapes his kisses. For Alex, it’s his way of thanking her for the show. As they lay on the bed afterwards, she poses a question. “Are you like this with every woman you date?”
“No, Yasmina, of course, every relationship is different.”
“Do you think I look old?”
“Your age shows, but you’re beautiful. In fact, I find beauty in all women.”
“What do you mean? Some people are ugly.”
“To me, people are only ugly by their acts, not by their looks. Even if my wife Michèle became violent over the years, she isn’t an ugly person, she has a big heart. I still love her, but I just couldn’t live with her any more. She says that I never loved her, but I’m sure that she knows it’s not true. My love was the only thing that kept me near to her throughout the years despite her violence.”
“Yeah. I know what you mean.”
They sleep cuddled, tears in both of their eyes.
Alex wakes at the first morning light, after just a few hours’ sleep. He dresses, then kisses her gently and she wakes. “I’m going home, I have paintings to finish for my next exhibition. Thank you for a wonderful evening beautiful Yasmina.”
“Thank you, Alex. See you soon, OK?”
“Yeah, of course.” They both smile. Yasmina closes her eyes and Alex heads home. They both know in their hearts that they will never see each other again.