This city is not Paris.  It is not April.  I am not in love.  It is not 1924.

 

     I have to remember that these things are true, in spite of what I am seeing.  A waitress is walking slowly towards my table.  At least I think she must be a waitress, since I believe myself to be in a café, and she is toting a tiny notebook.  Perhaps she is penning her memoirs about the spring she spent in glorious masquerade, pretending to wait tables in a fictitious café.

“Day after completely fact-free day I acted as though I was bringing false drinks to equally false café patrons.  Three months I “walked” around those “tables.”  You should have seen the looks on their faces (in as much as phantoms have what may be called faces—assume in addition that these “Faces” possessed spectral looks) when I announced, in my absent whisper, “I’m not even here.  I never was.”

She would be so believable that her non-existent boss would blink once and speak through his clove cigarillo, “Then you won’t mind not getting your “paycheck.”  Brilliant.  I love her.  But I am not in love.  And she is not speaking to me.

     “Can I get you something to drink?”  She taps her pencil on a gloriously naked page of the notebook.  That is what her memoir will be titled.  Voulez vous boire qu’elle que chose?  For international release.  She will be swept away by the instant success of the book.  Critical and popular acclaim will hound her, tearing her heels to bloody ribbons, but she will remain forever untouched by the necrotic hands of Fame.  She is beautiful, and she will remain beautiful.  Her charm and her wit will pass untainted into antiquity when at last she offers her final sneer during an appropriately dramatic and touching demise.  She will be spoken of in hushed tones.  She will be remembered for a signature facial expression—a cunning marriage of desire and revulsion.   I see it now, as I try to get a peek at what I am sure is a passage about the riveting stranger who made her wish, for one evanescent second, that she was indeed, a waitress. 

     She turns the notebook away and asks again, in a perfectly scripted excerpt from Feigning Impatience,  Hello?  Coffee?  Maybe pie?”

     Pie indeed.  You are lovely, but not so lovely that I will abandon my life’s work in order to translate the history of your extended family into French, or English for that matter.  I decide in this moment that she must never know who I am.

     “I’m Cameron Schitter. Cam.”  She has not asked my name, but has freely given hers via shirt-pinned name plate.  The tag feigns death, hanging limply from her pink lapel (the color is so bright I can hear it humming when I close my eyes) and the name is completely unfamiliar to me, in the sense that I have only seen it once, written on my hands when I was a child.1 Her name is Ǽlan.

     "Hi Cam. How about a cup of coffee?"

     She laughs as she says my name, and I recognize her intent. Hers is a voice that buoys cold and distant on the inexorable tide of things left unsaid. Pregnant with irony. However, when I tell her this (in the indirect manner which is my custom) she laughs again.

      "Come again?"

     I say again, "You are not here, are you. Not really."

     She laughs a third time and offers, "Nope, and neither is my pencil...une tasse du cafe pour Monsieur Schitter. Cam."

     This is not Paris.  No waitress would speak that way in Paris.

     She walks back to the counter where a cadre of white-gloved baristae scurry fitfully and raise a steady cloud of grinder sweepings as their sensibly shoed steps carry them past the roasters roughly  three times per minute (mean frequency measured over six hours periods on three consecutive days).  Using the requisite hissings and clanging of the fully functioning café as a timing device, I estimate the time of her return.  Four and One Half minutes.  Give or take 15 seconds. The level of inaccuracy troubles me, but I suspect the espresso machine is being repaired.  The replacement, sent on loan from a rival beanery, is fully automated, but is a low-volume device.  Taking into account this information (gleaned from a conversation at the bar between my waitress and a nondescript suitor who seems content to ask and re-ask uncomfortably technical brewing questions every time she passes) I reassess her return.  Five minutes, with a range of 5 seconds in either direction.  Much better.  Five minutes is less than ideal, since I intend to construct a date strategy before her return.  Normally, this would consist of the simple Name/Banter/Request combination.  Sadly, and happily, this woman is beyond that sort of approach.  One cannot catch a tiger with a cotton ball, unless that cotton ball is very large and dripping with ether.  In the four and ¾ minutes that remain, I will become that cotton ball, and drench myself in the either of brilliance (what Dali referred to as “paradisiac rain, the steady and monotonous flow of gold.” 

     He said that in Paris.  He was, at the time, constructing a groundbreaking series of breads.  Every few days, another loaf (long, thin, French) would appear in some grand forum—on the steps of the Parthenon; in the Pope’s private study, leaning against the maps of the ancient world thought burned by Prester John and his cohorts; emerging slowly from beneath the stage during an opening night production of “Der Weise,"2 in the Berlin Playworks; sewn into the uniforms of several Beefeaters at the Tower of London, so that when the guards passed one another during the Change, the loaf spontaneously reformed itself, to the delight of the restless spirits in attendance; sprouting from the ear of VerMeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring (tiny rye loaf) during an exclusive opening at a New York salon from which Dali had been banned; in the oven of a Parisian Patisserie.  Eventually, the communities of arts and letters began to anticipate the unveiling of subsequent breads.  These appearances caused the sort of sensation that only well-placed bakery goods can achieve.  Then he stopped.  The purpose of the displays was to create a public of bread addicts, who would then suffer the nightmare of withdrawal when he stopped baking.  Following the “temps du pain,” any venue without a loaf of bread became a spontaneous homage to the catalan polymath.

     “Anyone can make people eat bread.  Only Dali can make bread eat people.”………Salvador Dali

 


1 When I was 10, I spent an afternoon staring at my father’s hands while he cut my sister out of our overturned car.  She laughed and joked as he peeled her little body out of the glowing remnants of the frame between the softening blasts of an oxyacetylene torch.I held my eyes on the blue tongue until they stopped burning, and I looked away.The combined images of my sister, the torch, and my father’s hands combined to scar my hands with a word I'd never seen. In the spaces between my fingers I watched the images of the torch retrace their earlier message--an ammoniac signature whose significance I had missed until a few moments ago. Ǽlan.

2 This tragic opera (Is there any other kind in Deutcheland?) by Ian Macht tells of a small boy whos sees his Uncle being carried away by ravens. The boy purposes to find these ravens and find his Uncle. On his travels he finds a magical loaf of Schadenfreude Broten (a hard, round bread), which he uses to attract and eventually capture a raven. The raven acts as his guide, and the two have a series of standard coming-of-age-in-a-questionable-partnership-with-a-scavenging-bird adventures. The boy finally locates the raven kingdom, discovering that the ravens are, collectively, his uncle, and he is each raven.