The Demi-Tasse Début
A PICK-UP LINE in any other language is still a pick-up line.
Even if I didn’t understand a word of it.
I looked up at the man speaking to me in French. He was tall with shoulders broad enough to suggest he worked out but not so broad to suggest he mixed steroids into his orange juice at breakfast. He was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and wore scuffed sandals that looked like they’d just come from a day at the beach.
With a demure shake of my head, I offered him a low non merci, but he remained standing to the side of the teensy table where I sat in the teensy café that had beckoned me in with its vintage mismatched chairs and vibrant mismatched coffee cups. And maybe most importantly of all, its whirring air-conditioning. After the morning I’d had, I was in desperate need of a reprieve from the sauna outdoors trying to pass itself off as just another summer’s day.
If I’d known summers in Montréal could be just as smoldering as back in New York, I never would have moved here. Okay, maybe that’s not true. I agreed faster than it took me to blink when my boyfriend, Adam, had asked me to accompany him to his hometown. And when it wasn’t playing mix’n’match with blistering heat and sweltering humidity, I loved the city. From its cobblestone walkways to its vast parklands to its array of one-way-streets. I loved the museums and the endless summer street festivals and the French air of je ne sais quoi that made strolling in the park seem far more essential than running the rat race.
I heard the rustle of chair feet on tile floor and pick-up-line man sat down across from me, pulled out a journal, and began jotting notes in the pages. Not looking at me even once.
The tingly warmth on my skin, faded thanks to the air-conditioning, started to flame again. Maybe I had it wrong. Maybe the guy just wanted a place to sit. Perfect strangers shared tables all the time in popular restaurants during busy times. And one perusal of the place told me it was definitely busy time. Nary an empty seat in sight. Maybe I had misunderstood the pick-up line after all. Since arriving in Montréal, I’d brushed away over a dozen years of dust from my high-school French and trotted it out gleefully only to realize my teacher had been generous with my C grade for the class. Maybe what the guy had asked was more like “Is this seat taken?” and the shake of my head gave him the go-ahead to join me.
I rearranged my mochaccino glacé and croissant in front of me, fidgeting to hide my embarrassment. Jumping to conclusions was not a sport I played often. Or well, apparently.
I went back to the novel I’d brought with me to read on the métro. The carnation, bought earlier from a street vendor for luck and tucked into the book’s pages, still marked the same place it had then, my mind too tense to read on the way downtown and too dejected after I’d left my appointment. A job interview. The latest in a string of interviews that went exactly the same. My education, impeccable. My nearly ten years experience as a social worker in New York, impressive. My lack of French skills, impassable. As in a deal-breaker. A roadblock, as it were, to my getting any position in a city that requires bilingualism for jobs in my field. Or possibly, stellar unilingual skills, so long as that uni language is French.
“It’s not personal,” one interviewer had said. “It’s just the law here for organizations like us. We can’t hire candidates without at least some good French.” A sympathetic smile capped her words.
I’d smiled back, clutching the sheet of references I’d brought that would once again go unused, wanting to ask if she might be so kind as to list any organizations that may hire candidates like me. But I knew better than to bother. Having already sat through identical conversations at other interviews, I feared the answer would be a confused look and a head shake. If there were any social work jobs in Montréal that accepted English-only workers like me I was sure the jobs would be few and far between, in high demand, and likely once secured, kept until retirement.
I perched my book at the edge of the café table, beside my croissant plate, and made myself read a paragraph. Either I could sit here and brood about my unemployment or I could escape into the British countryside and manor house life of the nineteenth century, and I was choosing escape.
Every few words my eyes drifted upwards, to my table mate’s notebook, the zip of his pen crossing the small pages in swift streaks, his movement causing our table to rock onto its one short leg and back again. The man’s head bent forward and his hair, wound at the crown like dark rotini, dipped so close to me I caught a hint of musky scent from his shampoo.
I peered at his scrawl, a skeletal printing tough to make out upside down. Not English I thought. But same alphabet. Likely French, or Italian maybe, definitely some kind of accents over letters.
At the end of a page, he paused and checked a text on his phone then flipped the book closed, drank down his espresso in one shot like it was booze, and looked straight at me.
I smiled, hoping he hadn’t noticed my brief perusal of his notes. My chair jostled, once and then again, and I let my eyes travel from the man to the ground where a white rubber wheel ensnared my chair leg. The wheel belonged to a stroller. The stroller to a young mom with a toddler snoozing, chin to chest in the seat, and another child, a girl maybe five years old, sweaty, one elbow held aloft smeared with dirt and fresh blood. The girl dragged a scooter and wore a bright pink helmet tilted sideways on her head, straps dangling open at her neck. Tendrils escaped the mom’s tangerine braid of hair, her skin glistened, and her eyes had the look of someone in desperate need of caffeine. And a place to rest her weary feet.
I stood to untangle the wheel from my chair and whisked my book back into my bag. “Here,” I said. “Take my seat. I’m just finishing up.”
The mom glanced at my nearly-full mochaccino glacé and my uneaten croissant.
“No really,” I said. “I, um, was going to move to the patio to get some sun.” Okay, this was a lie, but lies didn’t count when they were white ones for good causes.
The girl limped to my chair and sat, taking me at my word. While she hopped up, I held the wood back of the chair firmly, noticing that my pick-up-line friend had vacated his side of the table and was nowhere to be seen. Quickly I gathered up his leftover espresso cup and my own things and smiled at the mom who gratefully sank into the man’s vacant chair and thanked me, her accent French but her words perfect English.
I thought of offering to watch the toddler while the mom took the girl to the bathroom to wash off her bloody elbow but knew that babysitting may not be a welcome suggestion from a stranger, so I offered to get her some wet napkins instead. She declined, thanking me again, and withdrew a package of moist wipes from the diaper bag draped over the stroller handlebars. She passed the wipes to her daughter who cleaned up her own boo-boo, topping it with the animal print bandage her mother doled out automatically in follow-up. In the preparedness department, Boy Scouts had nothing on mothers. Mothers with diaper bags were like turtles with shells. Wherever they went, they carried all the comforts of home. Or at least the important ones.
The mom dropped the daughter’s used wipe into a tiny bag draped from the side of the stroller near a cup holder. She pulled a coloring book and set of crayons from the mess of toys and books brightly covered in flowers, trucks, and kittens crammed into a basket below the snoozing child, and she passed the crayons to the little girl who waved me off with a shy smile.
To make good on my lie, I went out to the patio, more courtyard than terrace, surprised to find it too quite crowded. Flagstones on the ground, the area was longer than it was wide, the width as narrow as the café interior, the length longer, extending outward buffered by a brick wall at the end, the rest lined by a short iron fence, intertwining vines covering the iron in lush green. On the outer side of the fence hung flower boxes with bright pink and white flowers. Courtyard side, marble-topped bistro tables clustered with narrow chairs made the most of every square inch, most already taken, but I managed to snag a table close to the café door, hoping to catch wafts of air-conditioning streaming out as people came and went.
Two bites into my croissant, a shadow darkened my table. Another man, glare of sun behind him catching me in the eye when I looked up.
I waited a beat for him to speak, not wanting to jump to conclusions again, hoping this newcomer and I spoke the same language. This time, whatever the guy wanted had to be more than a seat because there were empty tables to be had.
To lessen the glare in my eyes and see the guy better, I reached down to where I’d left my purse on the ground beside me, fishing for the sunglasses I’d hooked onto the straps. The shadow above me loomed closer, swooped down, and in a flash my bag was gone. Nothing left but my department store shades dangling from my fingertips.