On the Left Bank, surrounded by new classmates, white-footed terrier at my knee, I press close to the café table. The cold marble nips my palms. Foamy beverages arrive. I lean down, sip, recoil—too warm, too bitter. I try to catch the eye of the woman across from me, smile. She stirs her creamy drink, clanking spoon against china. She’s Scandinavian, may be Finnish or perhaps Norwegian.
On my left, the girl from Berlin with blue-streaked hair, who blushes when called to conjugate, says in English that her feet hurt.
“I look terrible in tennis shoes,” says the American, on my right. Her glance darts over the dog, skips down my thigh. She frowns at my offending trainers. My legs freeze. If she stares too hard, my shins will shatter. Across from me, the Scandinavian giggles. In halting French, she explains that today she bought new sandals. Under the table, her unpainted toenails and fuzzy legs stand firm as horses.
The American is wearing espadrilles. Espadrilles! The soles are not real rope, I am certain.
“Tu portes des espadrilles,” I say, hoping I have not made a mistake.
“Donna Karan,” she says with a smirk.
Should it have been les espadrilles? D’espadrilles?
“My mother bought them for me.” She rolls her eyes. The Scandinavian chimes in—mothers, fashion crimes, phone calls home.
Just as the American is about to open her mouth, I remind her, my accent veering towards South London, that we are here to learn. We’re supposed to speak French.
Lips pressed together, nostrils pinched, she holds her breath, as if protecting herself from a foul vapor. Silence reigns. The stone of the table, which had seemed grand, elegant, bears pits and scars.
Pastries arrive, and I wish I had ordered one. I sip my tepid drink.
The American spoons whipped cream into her mouth. The dog stirs, stretches, settles back in my lap. I’m sure the American is about to comment that dogs are not allowed in New York restaurants but I am wrong.
“Tu me permets?” You allow me? she asks. She breaks off a bit of biscuit, holds it between fingertips. “Pour le chien?” For the dog?
I nod, and my terrier snaps up the offering. He licks his lips, raises his ears, cocks his head. Around the table we exclaim: How cute, like mine, like a baby, my little brother, he wants more! I laugh, stroke my boy’s silky ears, warm fur. The Berliner slips me a bite of profiterole—sweet fluff. We chat, lick spoons, pay the bill, and rise to leave, the Berliner and Scandinavian still comparing test results.
“Come,” the American says, “I’ll take you to my favorite place in all of Paris.” This time I don’t object to English. I scoop up my little dog and join her on the street.
Katherine Gleason’s most recent book is Anatomy of Steampunk: The Fashion of Victorian Futurism (Race Point Publishing, 2013). Her short stories have appeared in journals such as Cream City Review, Papirmasse, River Styx, and Southeast Review, and online at Camroc Press Review, Mississippi Review online, and Monkeybicyle online.