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We were lying in bed one evening after dinner, digesting, idle as ever, the windows thrown wide open on the pulsing sky. Birds were wheeling above St.-Merri, and the pigeons, huddling between the geranium pots, were cooing (roucoulement, the French word, gives a better sense of the deep-throated, glottal contentment of the sound).
Hubert, as usual, was complaining about someone or something, and I said, "When you die and go to heaven you'll complain that your cloud isn't as sympathique as the next one." Fred was lying on his couch, chin on crossed paws, one eye cocked open and trained on us; he was wondering why we were already in bed when he hadn't had his late-night walk and it was still light out.
Like an orchestra tuning up before the conductor sweeps onto the podium and the curtain hisses up on the milling crowds for La Bohème, act 2, the restaurants downstairs were welcoming their first clients. A few glasses were tinkling and cutlery was chiming on china. A few people were laughing and a constant hum emitted by strollers was rising up to our fifth-floor windows.
"What a peaceful night," Hubert whispered. The sheets were clean, because we'd changed them that morning, and we felt as though we were drugged and melting into them. We must have fallen asleep for a moment, since when we awoke the sky was six shades closer to black and the restaurants' lights glowed from below like the gleam off the Rhine Maidens' sunken gold.
What woke us was a street singer's strong, even strident, voice accompanied by sketchy chordson an accordion and half-hearted strumming on a sadly out-of-tune guitar. The instruments may have been feeble but the singer's voice rang off the old walls in the narrow rue des Lombards with a sharp, ricocheting force.
"What's she singing?" I asked Hubert in the dark. I could barely see him. Usually he's hopeless about pop culture, as though he'd spent his entire youth in Ethiopia instead of just two years after architecture school, when, instead of serving in the army, he was sent by the French government to teach in Addis Ababa. But for once he surprised me and said, "It's Régine; it's so pretty, all about paper, crumpled paper, cardboard..." He can't really sing but he can hit the odd note with frightening operatic force, and now he let fly with one baritone shout that caused Fred to sigh in bored disapproval, though he thought the quickening signs of life looked promising for his walk.
"What do you think she looks like?" I asked.
"I was wondering exactly the same thing. She sounds to me very sophisticated," a word he uses in the older sense of "unnecessarily complicated," even "affected." "I think she's like Régine herself, red-haired, rather forte but not fat, backless spiked heels, hair swept up in a brioche, a look sympa. Someone with a rich, messy life."
As always his description surprised me and made me feel I didn't really know him. Anyway, his taste in women invariably strikes me as odd. He likes pale, sickly women with too much makeup, carefully applied, and expensive, impractical clothes; he has a horror of suntanned, natural, athletic American women.
"And you?" he asked.
"I see her as a peasant woman, short, wide, badly dressed, bronze hair curling with sweat and sticking to her big red face, a space between every tooth, thirty years old."
Hubert went to the window. Fred accompanied him, just to put in one more bid for his evening sortie. The song was over and Hubert joined in the applause.
"She's looking up," he said. "You know, it's fantastic. Your description is exactly right. I would never have guessed. Now I can see why you're such a good writer."
I was so idiotically pleased with this stroke of good descriptive luck that suddenly I wanted to go down and see my character at closer quarters. Fred was not reluctant to join me.
Our Paris. Copyright © by Edmund White. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.