The musty odour of the Archive clung to Serge’s clothes as he walked home. The late afternoon sunlight burnished the sky and glistened off the Paris roof tops in a magnificent tableau. It was hard to believe that misery and anxiety had gripped the city just weeks before. While people still hesitated to congregate as Paris slowly recovered from the pandemic, some were beginning to trickle down the winding streets to the Metro at L’Église Saint-Gervais. Fewer people made navigating the sidewalks much easier but much less exciting. Hopeful waiters stood in the doorways of cafes, hungry for customers. Shops displayed the latest summer fashions, having bypassed the spring when everyone was at home in their pyjamas. Serge took this as a sign of hope.
The day had been productive. He had discovered a new fonds of documents, which promised to be fruitful. When the Archive had first reopened, he had been thrilled to research actual documents again – since many remained undigitized, research on his new book on tax policy in eighteenth century France had come to a dead halt during the pandemic. Over the course of the lockdown he had tried to continue his research and writing but the ennui that had overtaken him soon turned to a sense of futility: eighteenth century tax policy, no matter what lessons it might teach about structuring society, was irrelevant in a world in the grip of a pandemic. People worried about life and death and feeding their family. History was made in the moment and the concerns that had obsessed every pundit were now relegated to frivolity. “A good time to be an existentialist,” Serge thought. Lethargy had shackled him as the days flowed seamlessly one into the next without distinction.
Returning to the Archive had changed his view. From the moment he entered the reading room with its wide tables and green shaded lamps, his heart beat with renewed vigour. His hands had trembled when he untied the blue ribbon and unwrapped the brown paper from the first batch of documents. The cotton gloves he used to touch the yellowing documents could not mask the pure sensuality of uncovering history again.
“Who knew old tax documents could be so sexy,” Marie used to tease him before the pandemic. He would grow irritated when he was unable to articulate the rush of adrenalin he felt when he discovered something that gave new perspective to his theory.
“I’ll never understand why you like sorting through those boring mouldy documents but whatever makes you happy makes me happy,” she would say. Then he would wonder for the millionth time how he could have married someone with whom he had so little in common. His love of ideas, researching them, discussing them and writing about them were fundamental to his being. He often wondered what kept him and Marie together. Just when he was most at a loss, he would hear her laugh or smell the rich aroma of her cassoulet cooking and then he knew he could not live without her. She embodied the granular texture of daily life. Without her and his connection to her flesh and blood he was a ghost like the starlings in Dante, forever doomed to flit on the wind.
The comforting smell of bread filled Serge’s nostrils as he passed a bakery. The lines of the last few months were gone and only a few customers lingered to buy their daily baguette, a tradition the pandemic had not been able to kill. Serge tugged at his big grey sweater. The extended time at home had added extra roundness to his already pudgy frame. The sweater fit more snugly than he remembered it. The warmth on his face made him smile in spite of himself. He felt the soft heat of the day as the perspiration made the shirt under his sweater stick to his back. He wished he could discard the sweater without looking like an overstuffed sausage, for as tight as the sweater was his shirt was tighter.
A rich sweet smell made his mouth water as he passed the open door of a chocolate shop. The window was full of elaborate chocolate sculptures in various shades celebrating spring. Serge felt his resolve to abstain melt as the euphoria induced by the aroma invaded his nostrils. He watched with anticipation as the clerk measured and wrapped chocolate morsels in a cellophane bag flecked with gold. Once outside, his hand trembled as he opened the little packet and allowed the bitter sweetness to melt over his palate, leaving in its wake a sense of pure unadulterated pleasure which he had almost forgotten.
The chocolate could not be eaten without a stop at the Forêt du Vin for a bottle of his favourite wine to enjoy with dinner. Living with Marie had taught him that the little sensual pleasures were the true substance of the larger tapestry of his life. “Why wait until I get home? I’ll stop at the bistro for a bite,” he thought. His favourite bistro had only reopened last week. He felt it was almost a patriotic duty to patronize them again.
Jean-Paul was at the front cleaning unused tables and smiled with delight. “Un verre de vin rouge, Serge?”
Serge sank into a rickety chair at one of the small round metal tables that lined the front windows of the bistro. It was a long Metro ride home. A glass of wine would make it seem shorter. The wine came and he raised it slowly to his lips, letting the acidic sweetness trickle over his tongue as his mouth puckered to the tingling new stimulus.
A beautiful young woman in a short red knit dress and uncomfortable-looking pointy-toed high-heeled pumps sat at the table next to him. He watched appreciatively as she crossed her legs. He could not help but notice the small run in her black stockings on her inner thigh above the knee. It seemed like forever since he had been able to gawk at a beautiful woman. No face mask, no gloves.
He watched with a connoisseur’s knowing eye as she ordered a glass of white wine. She opened a gaudy designer bag and pulled out a cell phone. Contrary to his expectation that she would become engrossed in sending texts, she glanced at the screen briefly and put the phone back into the bag. She sat back in her chair and brushed her flowing and meticulously straightened blond hair off her perfect face. He watched her watching the meagre traffic on the street, mastering a lost art that had once preoccupied all of Paris.
Her wine came and she sipped it slowly. Serge finished his glass and could not bring himself to lose sight of her. He ordered another while she closed her eyes and leaned back, her face relaxed and glowing in the late afternoon sun. Serge told himself to look away but could not. All thought of the Archive and the exciting fonds evaporated. What mattered now was this moment. This wine, this chocolate, this woman. To his surprise she opened her eyes and smiled at him. He nodded embarrassed and made to look away.
“What a beautiful day, n’est pas?” She was speaking to him, actually inviting conversation. Serge was stunned. He looked down at his tight frumpy sweater. The perspiration was prickling the back of his neck and soaking his armpits.
“Yes, we seem to have waited a long time for this sunshine,” he replied despite his discomfort.
“Certainly. It is especially beautiful after being cooped up for so long.” She was completely relaxed and comfortable, languorous in the hot sun.
“Yes, but I think a lot of people are afraid of venturing out even though we all long to.”
A pause and Serge was distracted by a flock of birds dipping over the walls of the nearby church, capturing freedom alfresco.
“I agree but that fear won’t last long. It’s human nature to enjoy life. The crowds will be back soon,” she continued.
“I hope so, but I think the pandemic might change a lot of things.” The moment he said it he felt foolish. Why was he engaging in this trivial conversation?”
“It might but people have short memories. As soon as things are more or less normal, only politicians and historians will care about changing things.”
Serge was incensed. “Well that might be accurate, but it doesn’t make it less important. Without historians we would be like a man with amnesia.”
Her smile was disarming. “Of course! You must be an historian. We are not far from the Archive. What is your specialty?”
A flood gate opened. With a few questions she had probed more of his inner self than Marie ever had. He began to detail the context of the epoch and the tax policy he was working on. As they talked, she moved her chair closer to his table better to hear him. The diminishing distance between them was an intoxicating breach of pandemic edict.
She talked easily about herself. She was American but her grandmother was French. She had come to Paris to care for her grandmother during the pandemic. The rest of her family was dead. Her grandmother survived. Now she could go home. Jean-Paul came to ask if they wanted another glass of wine.
“Would you like something to eat?” Serge asked the woman with what he hoped was casual courtesy.
“That would be great! By the way, I am Melinda.”
“Serge,” he replied, but his name stuck in his throat. He had not spoken to a woman in this way in many years. He realized he very much wanted to.
“I know a great place for veal,” she said excitedly and without hesitation. He signalled to Jean-Paul and paid the bill with real Euros, delighted that he could use cash again without feeling frightened or guilty.
“It’s a place where we can actually eat in!” she enthused. “No more take out.”
He laughed at that. How nice to sit in a restaurant and eat a meal with a beautiful woman. Food would no longer be tasteless. Wine would be for more than just numbing your senses. She hailed a cab with ease, another sign of life returning, and gave the driver an address for a restaurant he had never been to.
They arrived at a small old building a few blocks from Sainte-Chappelle. Before the pandemic he would never have been able to get a table there without a reservation. The maître d’hôtel welcomed them warmly although it was still early for the dinner hour. People were not yet flocking to the restaurants; an industry that had been such a huge part of life now felt like an indulgence. As the mouth-watering smell of good food cooking slowly permeated the restaurant, much to his surprise he felt his stomach rumble.
And yet the food came too quickly for him. He wanted to savor the moment. He let his gaze take in the appetizer, a trio of marinated scallops on a bed of crisp lettuce, and even without bringing a forkful to his mouth he could taste the buttery mustard sauce enhancing the perfect texture of the seafood. “This is a dish Marie would never eat, she hated scallops,” he thought. Slowly he realized that was the first time he had thought of Marie all evening.
He recalled her climbing the four flights of steps to Madame Grenelle’s apartment because the old lady could no longer go out to get groceries. The building had been built just before the revolution of 1789 and had no elevator. Madame Grenelle had always said that walking up and down those stairs kept her young. No one had expected her to stop. The old city with its winding streets and magnificent character that attracted so many tourists had not planned for a pandemic. The tourists would return with or without Madame Grenelle, but not everyone would.
“My wife died in the pandemic,” he said suddenly.
Melinda looked up quickly from her appetizer. “What happened?”
“She was very healthy, or so we thought. She wanted to help others so did a lot of volunteering, like bringing food and groceries to those too old to get them for themselves. I think she caught it from one of them. I think we may have sought help too late. She was dead within a week.” His voice was steady. He held himself rigidly, waiting for her to not know what to say except the usual “I’m sorry,” or “that must be very hard.”
Just at the moment the waiter appeared holding two hot black steel trays with his white apron. The veal was slow cooked and magnificent. Bright orange carrots and steamy potatoes in a golden broth held his gaze. In the silence he cut himself a piece of the meat and immersed it in the rich broth. It melted in his mouth. After a moment he realized he was actually enjoying the taste, salty and satisfying. “This is a good place for veal. She really knows what she’s talking about,” he thought.
“It is good isn’t it!” Melinda said, changing the subject without hollow expressions of sympathy.
The waiter opened the front door to let in the warm breeze. Serge took his sweater off.
“I’m not leaving until tomorrow evening. Would you like to meet for lunch? Maybe you can show me the Archive. I’ve never been there,” Melinda asked.
Tomorrow the Archive would be very exciting indeed. Perhaps spring really had arrived.