"Trick or treat," you say? Alright, then. Here's your Halloween candy, kids. The opening chapter of my currently untitled novel. The first draft is done, edits and revisions have begun, and the deadline for the final completed manuscript is sometime in May, 2012.
The way Caroline reached up, tied her blonde painted hair into a messy knot, and looked at me with a mixture of expectation and disappointment, I would have tried anything to win her just then. So I let her talk.
“He’s very protective,” she said, “and he’s met a thousand guys just like you, Jarrod.”
Pierre, she meant. Her brother. Also my sociology teacher at the university I studied at in France. The one who grimaced and shook his head every time I opened my mouth.
“When your term is up,” she went on, “you’ll just go back to America and forget all about me.”
“How could I forget you?” I said, reaching for her chin. Caroline evaded, sat back and crossed her arms.
“But you’ll go back.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“What would you do here? Your French is awful.”
I mirrored her posture, arms folded across my chest, head tilted slightly in an expression of doubt. It was meant as a playful gesture, but in response, Caroline leaned forward and blew out the candle on our table.
“Who cares what your brother thinks?” I asked.
“He’s my brother.”
“You wouldn’t be here with me if you didn’t want to be.”
She sipped her wine, a cheap red from Blois instead of Bordeaux because that was all I could afford, and looked outside. A bicyclist blurred by, leaving in his wake the sound of hard rubber tires rattling against cobblestone. We were at some Italian restaurant near Henri IV’s chateau, the Aquitaine sun setting on a decidedly unromantic evening.
“I’m telling you,” she said, twisting a fork into her pasta Bolognese but not eating, “you have to make friends with him.”
“That’s it? That’s your big plan?”
Caroline dropped the fork, drained the rest of her wine. Covered the mouth of the glass when the maitre d’ returned. Even though we were speaking in English, a language not commonly understood that far south, she said nothing until he walked away.
“You’ve heard about his new project?” she asked.
“He doesn’t talk about it much in class. And my French is awful, remember? I don’t understand half of what he says.”
I’d been in France for almost six months, and had barely moved past the basics of language. Even with Caroline as a tutor. Especially with Caroline as a tutor. Her lips kissed words in a way that made it hard to concentrate.
“He has this obsession with gang mentality,” she said. “He goes on and on about how groups of people act much differently than any of the individuals would on their own.”
“They egg each other on?”
“No, like the group develops its own separate consciousness.” She waved this off as if it weren’t important, then said, “He started by going to a different bar every Friday night. Taking notes as everyone became more and more drunk.”
I laughed, picturing Pierre in a corner booth, half shaded in low light, John Lennon glasses sliding down his nose as he watched and scribbled. He’d still be wearing a tweed jacket with black tie underneath, smelling of the finest Parisian scents—roses and oleander and fancy eau de toilette—overdressed even in the most chic of French pubs.
“It’s not funny. I’m afraid for him.”
“I’m sure he can take care of himself.”
“Haven’t you seen?” she asked, eyes narrowed. “Don’t you pay attention? You saw him on Monday.”
Monday. I had come into class early in the morning, after running laps around the campus to burn off a mild hangover. It was unusually cold for June, crystals of dew spread out over the lawns like a shiny white blanket. My breath still formed in clouds when I came into the classroom. Pierre sat behind his desk, popping the generic, French version of Ibuprofen.
“And I swear he was wearing makeup,” I said, laughing again.
“He was beaten up the night before.”
The laughter lodged in my throat like a cough drop.
“I told you it wasn’t funny.”
“I hope he got all the notes he needed.”
Caroline exhaled, taking her hair down as she did. “It’s happened before. It won’t stop him.”
The first time I had seen Pierre outside of class, I was preparing to board the train after a weekend of tourism in Lourdes, a Catholic mecca about an hour’s ride away from the university in Pau. There, disembarking, was Pierre with his crooked smile and awkward head tilt, pulling a wheeled suitcase behind him and fingering a silver crucifix around his neck. I was sure he’d noticed me, though he turned away as if he hadn’t. The second time, a few weeks later, we’d crossed paths at L’Opera in Paris. I had been training at a martial arts academy up the street, he’d been watching an adaptation of Hugo’s Les Miserables.
“Pierre has a dark side?” I asked Caroline. “I never would have guessed.”
“He doesn’t exactly advertise.”
“So what do you want me to do?”
She sighed, as if coming to some great conclusion she’d been struggling with for weeks. “Go with him tonight,” she said, quickly adding, “but don’t tell him I sent you.”
“And why would I want to do this?”
Caroline sat back in huff. “Don’t sound so indignant.”
“I think you mean facetious. Or flippant.”
“Don’t sound those either.”
I smiled at her choice of words, her slippery accent.
“Just talk to him like you’re interested,” she said. “And if something happens, you can help him.”
“That’s exactly why I don’t go to bars.” I propped my elbows on the table, hand covering a fist. “Something always happens.”
“Even better.” She smiled, one corner of her lips rising higher than the other. “When you come to his rescue, he’ll owe you a debt of gratitude.”
“A debt of gratitude? Who talks like that?”
“Don’t make fun of me,” Caroline said, smiling wider, exposing a few too many teeth.
“Let me tell you a thing or two about men.”
“I’ll bet I know men better than you.” She winked, the pink tip of her tongue swatting a fingernail.
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that, you slut. Men don’t like to be rescued. We’d rather take a beating than allow someone to come to our aid.”
“He’s right, you know,” Roger Watford said, appearing from behind me, slapping my shoulder, and laying straight for that innocuous French cheek-to-cheek kiss on Caroline, a greeting that never seemed very innocuous to me. At least not when it came from Roger.
“It’s emasculating,” I continued, narrowing my eyes at the back of Roger’s head and thinking how badly I’d like to emasculate him at that moment.
“What are we talking about?” Roger asked, looking at Caroline, piling his Australian burr on thick. Seeming to conveniently forget I was also at the table.
“Nothing important,” Caroline said. “In fact, we were just about finished.”
“Good,” Roger said, “because I locked myself out of the flat again.”
I frowned, reminded of Caroline’s insistence that they were just roommates. No matter how platonic she claimed they were, imagination was my worst enemy. I closed my eyes and envisioned her in a flimsy, see-through nightgown, curled fetal on the couch and chatting it up with Roger in front of some cheesy old movie. They’d be speaking in French, of course, because he was fluent and I wasn’t.
“You’ll talk to him, then?” Caroline asked, awakening me from my nightmare.
I looked at Roger, trying not to think about what he and Caroline talked about when they were alone at home, and agreed.