Antoine Bargel

Third Date First

To Pauline, sadly.

I woke up spooning her, my hand lazily resting on her naked hip. I did not know who she was.

But she was female, and warm, and I was 18 if that changes anything, and it was nice so I pretended to still be asleep until she began to stir.

Then I pretended to wake up also, bringing my lazy hand back to myself and turning over on the couch, faking a stretch and a yawn.

I had spent the end of a night of drinking on a friend's couch and apparently so had she. We quickly determined this. Only her night had ended later than mine and the couch being taken, she had decided to share.

I did not point out that I had gone to sleep wearing my pants, so "exhausted" was I, and was now waking up naked. She looked delightful. A brunette with blue eyes, very pale skin, straight short hair and generous curves vaguely concealed by a thin, white nightgown that she, being an organized type of person, brought with her in her purse when she went out drinking and might spend the end of her night on a friend's couch.

This she explained after I, looking for my underwear and pants, which I expressly needed to put on before I could release my half of our shared comforter, found them folded at the foot of the couch and she, noticing my surprise, said that I had looked uncomfortable sleeping in them and that she had subsequently taken them off for me. Her name was Pauline.

I told her mine, we shook hands playfully and I turned my back to her while putting my clothes on. She took advantage of the moment to grab her own pair of jeans which were folded on a nearby chair and to slip them on, keeping her nightie on as a sort of shirt or blouse, apparently.

I was trying not to stare at her pointing nipples while coming up with something to say when our mutual friend emerged from his bedroom, fresh, clean and dressed in a suit. He smiled maybe a little wider than appropriate while stating that no introductions, it seemed, were needed and that he, being less of a bum than us two artist types, had to leave immediately for work, both important and remunerated.

I quickly countered that a photography gig that began at noon could hardly be construed as respectable employment, and Pauline added haughtily that indeed he may leave, we would let ourselves out, maybe. Everyone was quite merry as our friend followed up on his promise to leave, making me the happiest that he ever did.

I was hungry. So was she. She offered to cook pasta. I offered to go get wine. We seemed to agree on everything. I bought two bottles. Her pasta was delicious.

By the time we had finished all the wine, we had established that she was a wannabe painter as I was a wannabe writer and that we liked each other very much. As the early afternoon progressively drew to a close, we realized that we each had messy lives to keep dealing with and we parted ways, happily tipsy and titillated, after exchanging phone numbers.

We knew that we had come for each other. It was a party organized by a friend of our common friend, who had let us each know, knowingly and known to all, about the party and that he had also let the other know. He himself wouldn't be there.

I arrived early and the party was still calm. Pauline was sitting on a couch with another girl. They were looking at a notebook of Pauline's drawings, as I learned by joining in with a quick "Hey, what's that?".

Pauline's drawings were exquisite, full, dark, technically impressive, thematically exciting. They are difficult to describe from memory, but they represented legions of body parts combined in impossible yet entirely plausible shapes. These creatures seemed at once monstrous and unarguably natural, like mistakes that nature had forgotten to make until Pauline came along. They were drawn in pencil, a full notebook of them, with such texture, grain, shades of dark and darker. I was thoroughly impressed.

Also, the notebook was of a kind I had never seen, which Pauline said was from Japan. Every other page was linked to the next and the spine was unbound, forming something like an expandable paper accordion. I liked the notebook very much as well, I said. I said I wanted to have it. Pauline said that she could not give it to me, she needed the drawings for her art school project. I said that I understood, but that I could not help really wanting to own this specific notebook with these specific drawings in it, very very much.

I cannot quantify how much drinking went on that night, nor can I subtly indicate, as this story unfolds, at which stage of consumption each event is happening. You will have to infer that from the characters' behavior.

Pauline said that she liked that I liked her notebook so much, but that she still needed to keep it for school. Seeing that I was disappointed, she said that she would make me a deal, though: if I could steal it from her unnoticed during the night, then it would be mine. I said OK, we shook on it and moved on.

Since this was a friend of a friend's party, we did not know many people, so we went to mingle. Pauline was clearly the hottest girl there. I could tell by the way that the other guys looked at her and were unfriendly with me. But I broke the ice with liquor, a hobby of mine that they all happened to share. I always came to parties prepared.

The next thing I remember, Pauline, the girl that she had been speaking with when I arrived, three guys and myself are in the bathroom, putting on some make-up. We are all cross-dressing.

I am happy enough until at some point, the three guys are encouraging Pauline and the girl to kiss, in a way that makes me uncomfortable. It is clear that Pauline and the girl are not unwilling and even slightly excited by the idea. It is also clear that the three guys really want to watch them kiss. But I am unhappy.

I am unhappy, not because I am jealous of Pauline but because it seems sleazy to me, in that moment, the four of us dudes watching these two girls kiss. I don't feel like we are cool gender-bending young people anymore, like I did a few seconds ago. I feel like three or four horny guys have introduced this whole cross-dressing affair only to partake in some faux-radical lesbo-voyeurism. Maybe that is because none of the guys seem to have any inclination to kiss each other. Maybe that is just how I feel.

Surely that is how I feel, because when Pauline and the girl do finally begin kissing lightly on the lips, I cannot stand it and push their faces apart, in what I think of as a soft gesture.

Among a general mix of shock and disappointment, this softness of my gesture is immediately brought into question by the girl, whose name I have entirely forgotten. She might have had, I realize then, a more real desire for this kiss than I had understood. At least, she seems to be challenging me, like a man would, for the role of being Pauline's date, as much as complaining for what she describes as excessive roughness on my part.

Pauline, for her part, says it was just a game, no need to get angry anyone.

The girl, for her part, proceeds to punch me in the face. I repeat that in my opinion my gesture had been soft and in no way represented an attempt at initiating violence. Rather an act of dismissal in a situation that had become distasteful in my view.

A long theoretical and rhetorically complex debate ensues, which I guess I win, since the girl finally agrees to accept my point of view as valid, and subsequently to make up and hug it out. During this hug is when I first black out that night.

By which I mean, I fall over with the girl in my arms. The audience to our whole affair is still surrounding us and we are caught and helped up and I regain a sufficient amount of consciousness to stagger away on my own. The party continues. I have not made any new friends.

The next thing I remember, I am sitting alone on the couch, in the living room. Most people are drinking in the kitchen. After a while, Pauline comes out and sits with me.

I feel like we are taking up where we left off: we are interested in each other, this is alone time again. I don't remember specific discussions being had, only that there is music and an empty room, so at some point we get up and start dancing.

I am too drunk to dance. I keep bumping into things, failing to catch Pauline's hand when appropriate and stepping everywhere but near her feet. Pauline suggests that we slow dance instead.

I remember a few moments, not many, maybe just a second, of holding her in my arms. She is as soft and warm as I had experienced, remembered, re-imagined, dreamed of, and wanted to experience again. That was truly the only thing that I had really wanted to do all night, holding her like this, and I like it. During this dance is when I black out for the second time that night.

By which I mean, I fall over with Pauline in my arms. This time we have to catch ourselves. We hold on to each other at first and then realize that we have to let go, if we don't want to just fall flat on the hardwood floor. We each scramble in our own direction and I knock over a large, wrought iron lamp. This attracts the attention of people from the kitchen, the tenant of the apartment included, the friend of our friend. He is not too happy, but being drunk is cool at that age, so what can he say? I try to help fix the mess, and the party continues!

The next thing I remember, Pauline is in the bathroom. Her purse is still on the couch, so I seize my chance and take her notebook out. There is nowhere on my person where I can conceal it for long, so I go and hide it behind the piano. Pauline comes back and it seems that people are leaving. At least we are. Pauline and I. As we say goodbye, I manage to retrieve the notebook and hide it in the back of my pants. I am so happy to have achieved this feat of thievery that I don't think about what is going to happen next. I am going home with the notebook.

It is with an intense feeling of victory that once outside the building, I bid Pauline a quick farewell, leaving her alone on the sidewalk.

I do not remember anything else from that night.

But in the morning, laying next to me on another friend's couch, Pauline's notebook was mine.

A few days later, I received a text from Pauline asking if I had her notebook in my possession. I texted back that I had successfully stolen it, so I owned it now, remember our deal? She proceeded to call and explain that she needed it for her schoolwork, seriously, would I please return it. There was no amusement in her voice anymore, so I said fine, I would.

Since I lived in a different city at the time, I mailed it back.

A few weeks later, I was coming back to Paris, so I sent Pauline a text. I had just read a novel by Dostoevsky entitled The Gambler, in which the narrator, a man named Alexis, is in love with a young woman named Pauline, so I made a reference to it in my text, trying to be witty.

I believe it went something like: "I am returning soon from Roulettenberg (the fictional gambling town where the novel happens), dear Pauline, could I be so bold as to humbly request the pleasure of your company ?"

Pauline's answer was: "Who is this?"

After an instant of puzzlement, I understood that she must have erased my phone number from her contact list in her cellphone. That was disappointing to me. I had still thought of us as potentially interested in each other. I had very much thought of myself as in love with her.

So in a jest, I replied: "It is Alexis, but of course".

I assumed that it would end there, but a reply came back: "Which Alexis? Where did we meet?"

So I followed up on my Dostoevsky reference and replied : "All of our talks by the fountain, in the park. How could you have forgotten, my Pauline?"

I still did not think that this was going anywhere. I was merely acting out of disappointment and dejection. But Pauline replied again.

"I have not forgotten. When will you be in Paris?"

Only then did I think it could be fun to surprise her, romantic even. Maybe this was my chance at a fresh start with her. It would be like a surprise date.

"I shall arrive on the morrow. My heart flies toward you Pauline."

"OK, let me know when you want to meet up."

I arrived in Paris the next morning and, come mid-afternoon, which was about the beginning of social drinking time at that age, I went to the bar which everyone in our circle of friends frequented at the time.

People walked in, including the friend on whose couch Pauline and I had met. She was to come by later, actually, he said with a glimmer in his eye. He asked me if I had made any progress with her. I told him that she and I had been texting.

Before I could explain, more friends arrived and joined us. I had not seen many of them in a while, so we exchanged news and stories. The place was getting progressively more crowded, lively with youthful booze-fueled energy. Then Pauline walked into the bar.

Across the room, our gazes met, immediately. And from her reaction at that precise moment, I perceived two things at once. Two things that she would confirm with just a few words, once she had reached our table. But these words I did not need to hear.

I had read it in her eyes that she had guessed, the moment she had seen me sitting there, that it was me who had been texting her as Alexis.

And that she was disappointed.

(First published in Viewfinder Literary Magazine, 2017)