When we park the bike, it makes a strange ticking sound that it wasn’t making before. Luc takes off his helmet, dropping to his haunches to examine the damage.
“Putain…” he curses. He drags a hand through his short dark hair, lets out a heavy sigh. “What is it?” I ask. “It’s scratched pretty bad. How’s your ankle?” “It hurts a little, but I’ll live.” “I just don’t know how it happened,” he says, reaching under the seat for his bike lock. He fastens the cooling engine to a post, then takes a step back to examine his work. “I don’t think anyone would want to steal it now,” he says, dejectedly. “Come on. We better get inside.”
We weave between cars, still running on adrenalin. We cross the rue de Ménilmontant and enter his building through a set of tall grey doors. Luc’s apartment is on the top floor. We loop around the ancient stairwell about five or six times past dark lacquered doors and worn welcome mats till the banister peters out. “Voilà chez moi,” he says The entrance is narrow – it’s like walking into a broom closet, but when the lights come on the apartment is as stylish as it is compact.
“Give me your coat,” he says. He opens a cupboard and it’s quickly concealed.
I wander about, getting my bearings, getting acquainted. The one small room is kitchen, living room, and bedroom. An empty fireplace keeps a television hidden, with black and white scenes of New York in frames on the mantel. In the far corner a spiral staircase rises to a loft.
I drift naturally to the bookcase. It’s an austere library: legal books mostly, though they look largely untouched. On one shelf there is a set of red-spined Jules Verne novels, on another a framed portrait of George Washington.
“Do you want a drink?” Luc calls from inside the refrigerator. “Sure.” I glance through the window. Outside, on the balcony, a strung Christmas tree scratches at the glass like a grounded puppy.
“I’ve only got one beer,” Luc says, appearing at my shoulder. “You take it.” “I’ve taken half.” He hands me the can and we suck down our beer in silence.
“So, you don’t think that David will mind that I’m here?” Luc takes a sip of his drink. “No,” he says, after swallowing. “What are you going to do about the bike?” “I’m not sure yet.” My hand is starting to throb. When I look down at my palm, there’s gravel under my skin. “What is it?” he asks. “My hand. I must have fallen on it.” “You weren’t wearing gloves?” “No. I haven’t bought any yet,” I say. “Do you have any band-aids?”
There’s a pharmacy below Luc’s apartment, so we head down for supplies. The husband and wife who run the store serve us with fine-tuned French disdain.
“Il faudrait la jeter votre moto, Monsieur,” says the pharmacist. “Ah oui! Trop dangereux!” insists his wife. “I’ll tell you where the city’s motorcyclists go,” the pharmacist says and he raises a grim finger towards Père Lachaise cemetery.
Upstairs in Luc’s bathroom, I patch up my battered palms with pansements, filling his sink with the used backing strips. “Tout va bien?” he calls at the door. “Oui.” “Are you hungry?” “Maybe.” “Do you want to eat something? There’s an Italian restaurant nearby. Do you like Italian?”
At the restaurant we order a large pizza and a demi-litre of red wine.
“I don’t think I’ll tell David about the bike,” Luc says, “It’ll only make him worry.” He looks awkward and embarrassed. He drums his fingers on the tablecloth. Across from us a young couple sit sullen and silent, looking past one another as they finish two bowls of pasta. “How is David?” “He’s good. He’s gone home to the States to spend Christmas with his family.” “Yes, you told me in your email.” “So where are you staying?” “Le Marais.” “Ah, pratique! Close to the bars… Les Halles…” “Yeah, it’s not bad.” A flower seller enters the restaurant. We watch as he wanders the room offering his roses with the feigned charm of a pantomime villain.
“Don’t worry, he won’t stop at us,” Luc says in a whisper. “In the Marais, perhaps…”
He smiles at me as the flower seller sidesteps our table and exits to the street. For a while the room is draped in a kind of sadness. A waiter arrives with our food.
Back in the apartment, the silence is thick. Luc turns on the television and we begin watching a late night variety show. He droops in his seat. His eyes are fixed on the screen, but he’s not really watching. Not even when I lean over to kiss him.
I draw back and he looks at me with doe-eyed surprise. His lips part and I wait for the objection…the gentle rejection – but it doesn’t come.
Why did you do that? My mind is fielding the question he’s not asking. He stares up at me surprised – but those wide brown eyes close when I press my mouth to his.
The warmth of him is intoxicating. I bury my head in his lap and his fingers tumble through my hair as I lay kisses on the growing firmness in his jeans. Suddenly he plunges his hand below my chin, draws my face to his. I look into his dark eyes; the way they lap back like a jolted cup of coffee. “Should we go upstairs?” he says. “Yes,” I nod. He takes my hand, his fingers rough against my palm. He leads me to the spiral staircase and we climb – climb as one climbs a ladder, or perhaps a tree – feet and hands in equal measure.
In the loft there is room for a bed and little else. The night penetrates through a roof window. The sky is starless. The bed is made.
He approaches from behind. I feel him sidle up; settle himself snugly between my buttocks. His fingers linger at the band of my jeans, his breath collecting in my shoulder blades.
We break apart, discarding our layers in the dark. Luc steps forward and the light from the window catches his torso. For a moment we stand with threaded hands, not knowing, not sure.
He leads me to the bed and we tumble over the bedspread. His lips climb the crest of my neck. I run my hands over his thighs and my broken palms twinge.
It seems so primal. Up here on the roof, licking our wounds like a pair of strays. My legs wrapped around his like a continuation of that ride through the city. His back steadily striking my chest, the warmth of him between my thighs and the world racing by... Cars. Lights. The shadow of a bridge. The whitewash of a church. Streets done up for Christmas. Then, that sudden blow that sends us hurtling into the night.
The next morning I wake to a swollen ankle and seized joints. For about fifteen minutes I sit on the edge of the bed trying to loosen my knee enough to slide my jeans on.