Café du Poète (a short story)

Every few years, I find myself Googling my old friend James. I discover four or five people with the same name, but I’ve yet to uncover any sign of the man I am looking for. This is very strange: a bright young man who wanted to be a writer, a graduate of McGill university’s Honours English programme eluding the search engines. If he is not dead, I suspect, his life must have taken some dramatic turns to bring him to a state of “virtual” oblivion. Or perhaps he has simply found a very clever way to stay out of the clutches of the worldwide web.

In my third year at McGill I took the literary criticism course that was required of all honours students. It was the most stimulating course I had taken, partly because of the material and the teacher, but largely because of my classmates. My impression that they were, many of them, bright and talented has been confirmed by my Googling. I find their names in the by-lines of major newspapers (I should get used to saying “sites” because the “papers” are dying), or listed as “Professor” or “Dr.” on the web pages of university English departments. One of them, whom I admit I did not know that well, has become famous as a writer of literary thrillers that I cannot quite bring myself to read. Someone else, a Chinese girl who was always witty and well-spoken, can now be heard regularly on CBC. There are others I knew less well but nonetheless remember like characters in a novel read long ago. They also elude my late night searches. In their cases, though, I suspect it is because I have misspelled their family names.

My best buddies in the Lit Crit course were Chris, Tom and James. They knew the city better than I, or so it seemed. They were regulars at all of the bars along St. Laurent, including a quiet place that I had never been inside, called the Café du Poète. It had a pretentious name, but it was the least pretentious bar on the Main. The decor was outdated, not in a self-conscious “retro” style, but in the way of cheap things that do not age well. Top-forty and novelty songs could be played on the jukebox. There were no pints or pitchers, just bottles served by the owner, a Croatian man of mystery named Willy.

The Poète wasn’t overrun with students. In fact, the Poète wasn’t overrun at all. It was often empty. If there were five people present at once, it was, relatively speaking, busy. Going to the Poète, with its real people—hairdressers, policemen, socially assisted retirees, off-duty waitresses and chain-smoking Hassidic Jews–living real lives, brought us out of the university bubble and offered a mild taste of adventure and travel, for which, after two and half years at university, we were starting to yearn. At least, that is today’s explanation for what drew us to what was, to be honest, a rather depressing and dingy room. Of course, we had each other, and the Poète was, if not much else, conducive to conversation.

Willy, the owner, was another reason we went to the Poète. He was a poor Croatian immigrant, with a half-broken spirit and a self-destructive will. James wasn’t quite as chummy with Willy as the rest of us, who after ordering a round of beers would huddle at the bar making jokes about contemporary events or swapping what you might call life philosophies. James thought Willy’s friendliness was an empty habit. I never would have known this, except he told me one day after class when we somehow launched into an impromptu shopping adventure in the fripperies that used to be on St. Denis and Mont-Royal. I tried on clothes and he shyly but frankly told me what he thought, and then I talked him into buying a beaten-up leather jacket. It didn’t suit his personality at all, but he looked good in it.

Some people found James to be too serious. But if you paid attention, you could catch him reluctantly sharing an observation that might be wickedly hilarious. He also had a great thirst for knowledge of all kinds, was painstakingly considerate and was the only person I knew at the time who actually made art. He seemed almost embarrassed about this last point, but if you pressed him about what he had been doing before showing up at a party or bar, he would reluctantly say, “Writing.” I can hear him now. “Uh … writing.” I never saw a word of it, but I did see a box of double-spaced papers on his desk that he said was a novel-in-progress. I would love to read that novel or anything he has written since. Of course, maybe it’s better I never saw his writing. It might break the little spell that James has always had over me.

About a month after I had been introduced to the Poète, Willy mentioned that he was looking for some help behind the bar. He had an engagement soon–a poker game, as it turned out–and didn’t want to have to close for the night. I had been a waitress the summer before going to McGill and I loved the idea of being behind the bar. I told Willy I was interested. “As you can see there’s not much tips,” he said.

Most nights Chris, Tom and James came to keep me company. Often, they were my only customers. Usually, it was all three of them, or maybe two. James was the only one who would come alone. I felt bad when I had to leave him sitting by himself to go socialize with one of the older regulars at the other end of the bar. There was Klara, a Czech woman who was probably close to seventy who I think liked me and came in specifically to visit. I felt obliged to stand near her at the bar, listening to her stories. I told myself that I liked them. Perhaps I did. They were filled with suffering and unhappiness, and I took to the role of sympathetic listener.

One night when James had to share me with Klara, I handed him my copy of A Hundred Years of Solitude to keep him entertained. He told me that he ‘d never gotten around to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, so I offered to let him take the book home. I swore, untruthfully, that I was too busy then to read it anyway. I looked forward to talking to him about it–I had read the first hundred pages or so–but when he gave it back to me about a week later, I was surprised to hear his opinion. He praised it diplomatically but went on to declare that magic realism was not his thing.  Everyone was admiring magic realism at that time, so I was strangely impressed that James was an exception. I didn’t suspect him of posing. He didn’t strike me as a poseur, but maybe in his own perfectly sincere way he was, not to impress other people, but to impress himself. I am pretty sure I did not think this at the time, though. Even now I must be honest: I am thinking on the spot and as I do so I am changing my mind. No, he was probably not trying to impress himself. He wanted to make up his own mind about everything. He did not like things just because everyone else did. It’s interesting: he was insecure in many ways and certainly did not come off as a confident person, but he did have extreme confidence in his own taste. I was almost the opposite: I was a confident person in social situations but never sure if the art I liked was actually great. But I digress. When I think about the past my mind goes astray.

One night when my school friends weren’t at the Poète, a good-looking guy who was about thirty sat down at the bar and ordered a beer. He was quiet but easy to talk to. By strange coincidence, his name was James. He was a carpenter. He said he lived nearby and sometimes came in for a beer after work. He said he’d seen me there, before I became a bartender, but I didn’t remember him. We chatted for about an hour and then he asked what I was doing after work.

My final two years of high school I had a steady boyfriend. If I had met him a little later in life, or if I had been born a couple of decades sooner, I suspect I would have married him. We both applied to McGill. When we were accepted, we got an apartment together. We got along fine, but I think we both envied our single friends. No one else we knew in undergrad was living a “married” life like us. After second year, I broke up with him. I don’t think he was entirely unhappy about it.

I mention my boyfriend to explain some of my behaviour in third year. Quite simply and predictably, I was making up for lost time. I felt like I had to get in some kicks before we graduated. It wasn’t just about sleeping with other guys; it was my whole lifestyle, being freer, meeting new people, going places and doing things that I never would have done when I still had my boyfriend. But, yes, part of it was sex. I went home with James the carpenter. He was a decent guy and as I said good-looking. I guess you could say I became his lover. I hid it from Willy because I didn’t want him to feel like a pimp. I didn’t advertise it to my friends because it was too personal and I suppose I was a little afraid of their reaction. Soon enough, of course, student-James came in with Tom and they saw me leaning close to carpenter-James. It was awkward. Student-James wasn’t himself. He started chatting with the other James in a way he normally wouldn’t have. I detected hostility, or maybe it was undetectable but I just knew it was there. Carpenter-James didn’t ask me what I was up to after work. After two beers, he nudged his bottle forward half an inch and slid off his stool. It felt like he’d been chased off by my younger friends.

I went to the back room and took turns playing pool with James and Tom, while keeping one eye out for a wave from the murmuring Polish couple sitting near the VLT, a signal for another round of sherry.

Chris showed up a little later, with a tale about his epic evening of essay writing. He was finished the paper we’d all been struggling with and he was in his glory. Then in came Willy in his ratty fur coat. He’d won some money at poker. He let me off duty and bought us all a round. He got out his personal cue stick from the back and whipped all our asses at pool. He made a few jokes at our expense and then went to count the bottles in the beer fridge.

The rest of us felt like making a night of it, but, except for gloating-Chris, we had essays to write. We were honours students, and whatever fun we might have, we all kept one eye on our GPAs with an ever-present awareness of graduate school requirements.

The boys offered to walk me home. I tried to decline, but they weren’t to be dissuaded. Finally, I told them I wasn’t going home. I saw panic in James’s eyes. Maybe panic is too strong. Chris was more jocular:

“Fair Liza has a tryst,” he said.

“Fair Liza is going to get laid,” I announced.

James looked away.

“Do you care to elaborate?” Chris asked.

I was blushing by then, I think, and had lost my momentary bravado. I am blushing a little now writing this, embarrassed for my miscalculation shall we say.The three of them smiled shyly, apologetically wished me good night and shuffled toward the door. James lingered behind the other two. “Good night,” he said with a forced smile. He was trying to show me that we were still friends.

Instead of going to carpenter-James’s as I had planned, I went home.

At twenty-two I was not one to let public opinion influence my behaviour (or so I thought). I was as headstrong then as I am now, but even more reckless, and less constrained by self-doubt. Nonetheless, I spent the next twenty-four hours in a state of mild shame about my visits to carpenter-James’s apartment. It baffled me, but it was unshakable. In a penitential mood, I worked on my essay all day and then called some neglected friends and invited them over for supper. These were people I’d hung out with in first year when I lived with my boyfriend, not the guys from the English department, not James.

Despite my public acts of generosity, I could not shake a shame-like feeling, not for what I had said or done exactly, but for something more, for not being myself perhaps. That feeling had not lessened a couple of days later. One evening, unable to bear it any longer, I called the younger James and asked if he wanted to meet me at the Bifteck, a popular student bar a few blocks from the Poète. We shared a pitcher and smoked contraband Camel cigarettes. We argued and laughed and made eyes at one another. (We did not talk about the other James.) When the pitcher was gone, I asked him if he wanted to come back to my place.

When we got to my apartment–the one I used to share with my boyfriend–I kissed him. As I opened a bottle of wine, he kissed my chin and neck. I asked if he wanted to spend the night.

I had slept with a few guys that year, but never in my apartment. James was the first I had shared my bed with since my boyfriend had moved out. I’m not sure if I thought about that at the time, but it seems to me now that it is worth mentioning.

The streetlight outside my window was our candlelight. It was quite nice for a while–to make an understatement–but something wasn’t right. I gradually realized that I did not want to have intercourse with him, even though we had already done things that most people would consider equally intimate, and I had a supply of condoms and was on the pill. I didn’t know why I felt that way, but I did. Perhaps it is to James’s credit that I didn’t feel any pressure, other than the pressure I had put on myself by inviting him into my bed.

I stalled for time by twirling his hair with my fingers and trying to make pillow talk. He could tell something was wrong, though. I saw it in his eyes. Not to prolong the avoidance strategies, I asked him if we could just go to sleep. He didn’t ask me why. He just said, “Sure.” Needless to say, things weren’t quite the same after that. The next morning he left after swallowing a cup of coffee, rather obviously hiding his hurt feelings.

I quit my job at the Poète. I told Willy that I was getting too busy with school. He was fine with it. I think I had lasted about exactly as long as most of his employees.

I went out one night with a bunch of people, including Chris, Tom and James. Apart from asking James how he was, I avoided him. I left early, suddenly, before anyone could propose to walk me home. But a couple of days later I ran into James on the corner of Milton and Parc. He was on his way home. I had skipped class, but I must have been going to the library. I had been up late the night before breaking up with carpenter-James, and then having sex with him one last time. I had not been home. I had dirty clothes in my backpack. I was in a foul mood. It would have been nice to happen upon James at that moment if I had never spent the night with him. His smile would have distracted me from my foolish problems. But under the circumstances, he was cross. By avoiding him for a week, I had turned his disappointment to anger. The anger that emanated from him provoked defensiveness in me. “I’m really in a rush, James,” I said.

He snorted. “You can be an ice queen,” he stammered. We glared at one another and marched off our separate ways.

Later I ran into Chris. I told him that James had called me an “ice queen”.

He hadn’t heard about our night together. James hadn’t told anyone. I felt bad being the one who couldn’t keep it private. Chris was a nice guy, but he was very talkative. I knew everyone in our class would soon be laughing at James for calling me an “ice queen”. I felt a small pang of guilt for starting the rumour, but I was also glad to be exacting a bit of revenge.

Dare I suggest that the drama of my personal life had temporarily satisfied some part of me. It wasn’t a permanent change. It was more like the drama was fuel that I was able to burn for a few weeks before I had to go out searching for more. It came at the right time: I caught up on my work just as the semester was winding down.

I remember a scene at a bank machine. I had called James or he had called me and we were getting some money for the evening. He no longer seemed angry or hurt. To deal quickly with recent events, I told him that I didn’t know what was wrong with me, that I had some perverse desire to be with guys who were jerks. This was not really true. It was a very simplified and skewed version of the truth at best. James had no comment. Perhaps he thought it didn’t merit a response. It was the final word on our very brief affair.

For the next six months that I knew him, we never spoke of our night together. He went to Paris that summer, ostensibly to take French courses at the Sorbonne, but he was mostly just hanging out as far as I could tell. My parents were also in Paris. My father had just been transferred, temporarily. I went to stay with them for two weeks. James had been there for a couple of months by then. He had settled into the city. He had a girlfriend. She and I got along well. I think her name was Hélène. Paris, summer, freedom from the demands of university–all suited James. Yes, I had a pang of what-if, but only a pang. It felt right just being friends.

I had to go back to Montreal in September to complete two more courses. I had dropped some classes after my boyfriend and I had broken up and I didn’t have enough credits to graduate with my class. I could not afford to live in the apartment we had shared. It was not easy to find a six-month lease. I ended up in crappy one-and-a-half in a basement. I reminded myself daily that it was “only until Christmas”.

James was back in Montreal, too. He was starting an MA, but he was not enjoying it. Perhaps Paris had spoiled him, or awakened him. When I asked him how school was going, he’d grumble and say he’d rather “just write”.

I don’t know if he finished his MA or not. In December I packed my suitcase while taking breaks from writing my last paper. I had a plane ticket to Paris, where my father had gotten me a job translating internal documents for his company. There was one problem. My parents had given me a cheque in September and instructed me to “budget myself”. I had cut it too close. I was down to eating rice and canned vegetables. I didn’t even have enough money for a taxi to the airport. I called James.

The last time I saw him was on the porch of his apartment in Little Italy. He handed over a twenty dollar bill with a rueful smirk.

“Write down your address,” I told him. “I’ll send you a cheque as soon as I get paid.” I stuffed the paper he gave me into my purse and ran home to call a taxi.

Recently, I’ve reached out to a few old acquaintances with whom I had lost touch. One ignored me entirely. Two “friended” me on Facebook, but didn’t bother to reply when I sent them messages. With one I traded emails, first short, then long, then shorter again, and finally, “Keep in touch. If you’re ever in ___________, look us up.” Not all that satisfying to be honest. I won’t be in ____________ any time soon, not as long as the kids are in school and my husband is on call during the summers. Yes, I’m married, with kids, employed, healthy (as far as I know), and wiser, of course, so much wiser.

That’s a joke.

No, I don’t pine for the past, or long to turn back the clock, but, James (if you happen to see this somewhere and recognize yourself), I miss you, and I owe you twenty dollars plus interest … quite a lot of interest.