She remembered that night better than he did. The way he was dressed, how he talked, what he ate, where he was stayingthe ring on his finger, fresh from January, and it shined under the dim light, her warning sign to stay away; a warning sign she took seriously and knew well. She kept the thought vigilant in her mind with every fidgeted rub to her own naked ringfinger under the table, the ghost of the engagement then and the marriage that never was. Her boyfriend beside her should've been reason enough to resist the obvious magnetism and subsequent temptation, but she found herself captivated by this man of her French homeland, who listened to every word she said with a rapt attention her boyfriend would never match. He kept conversation going. He asked questions and listened to her babbling answers. He made her feel special in a way that the Hollywood gift baskets and showering of flashing lights and Al Pacino and Entertainment Tonight couldn't replicate. He was real. He made her feel real.
The boyfriend left when they spoke too much French. Their mutual friend Sean followed soon after, back to his own hotel. The wick of their table candle receded. Music stopped. People filtered out.
They shared a cigarette once they were kicked out. She took it from his hand. Callused fingertips touched her pampered owna sensation she pocketed into memory.
His eyes focused on her lips as she took a drag. She returned the gesture, watching his pucker around the white end, and the lit tip shined in his green eyes.
It shined on his ring too, and she took a step back.
"I should go."
She remembered how his face fell. "But" He stopped, the realization sucker-punching herself too, taking a step back as well. "Oh."
The cigarette fell to the ground. "I'm sorry."
"I am too."
He closed the gap between them to kiss her cheeks. Stubble scraped the skin. His lips were soft. And the cologne"Adieu, Aurélie"and his whisper. That whisper.
She returned the gesture, pressing her closed lips to his. "Adieu, Vincent."
In the taxi, she caught her last glimpse of him in the rear-view mirror. The way he stood on the sidewalk, the way he lookedhis finger thumbing his ring, and Aurélie found herself repeating the gesture to her left hand until she couldn't see him anymore.f
He still looked good four years later. She recognized him; he completely bypassed her. Rude defined his attitude and mannerisms. He was focused on the papers in front of him and the full glass of wine, drinking and flipping pages almost synchronized. It amused and worried her. Gone was the Vincent she met. Hard working and driven, but knew when to listen, when to kick back and have fun. Sitting at the very end was a man she didn't know, a fuck-off fuck-you asshole who didn't care about anything or anyone but his own self.
Then, he dumped the papers across the table and threw his head into his hands.
She felt her chest pull forward, and her legs followed.
Vincent came closer and closer in her vision, until he filled it all up, and she rested a hand on the small of his back.
His head turned up. The confusion and anger she caught quickly turned into shock.
She smiled. "Hi Vincent."
The reaction blindsided her. There was no big shout or arms flinging or sudden rejection. All he did was smile back, but the way he whispered her name"Aurélie"followed by his arms settling around her torso, and his head settling over her heart
it reassured her that he was still in there, the guy she met back in '97, as well as gutted her too. Vincent was hurt. Vincent was stressed. Overworked. Exhausted.
In the very back of the restaurant, in a private booth Vincent situated for the two of them, he answered that question thoroughly. And she recognized the words all too well from her own life. Failing marriage. Separation. Missing his son and needing to see him. Going crazy. Working long hours. Little sleep. Big room, big bed, too much time. Too much fucking time.
"You know what I fear most?" he said.
His eyes shined in the candlelight. "Being alone."
Her hand reached for over the table. She squeezed his fingers.
Four years ago, she would've regretted this. Going to his hotel room, sitting on his hotel bed, stripping off her clothes, him laying naked on the sheets and her straddling his waistshe could've stopped it all like she did back then, right in the middle of the street, right in front of the restaurant. But her boyfriend-of-the-week was the boyfriend-no-more, and Vincent had no ring, for now. They were free. They were alone.
She knew his loneliness all too well.
That one time should've been enough for both of them. She ended up staying in his hotel room for the week.
In between the sex, she made him talk. And Vincent talked. And talked. And got emotional, talking about how sick and tired he was of everything falling apart his studio, his marriage, his 20 year friendship with his producer and collaborator Chris, "I just want something to fucking work dammit, why can't I fucking make it work, what's wrong with me, why can't I fix this, why am I fucking up so much," and she gave him the advice she knew he needed, the advice of a once-abandoned divorcee, and Vincent listened. She saw him listen. And when she finished her storyof her abandonment when pregnant with Sebastian, fighting on her own as a single mother, maintaining and separating her working life with her private life, how to be a great parent and a great partnerhe kissed her and thanked her in words, touches, and sex, in that order.
On the last day, Vincent put his ring back on. She called a cab. He escorted her out and waited with her on the morning streets. He offered a cigarette. She watched him smoke instead. They stood in a comfortable silence Aurélie hadn't enjoyed in a long time with someone, and a ping of regret reared its ugly head.
You shouldn't have done this, it said. He's married. What were you thinking?
She fidgeted in place. Vincent stayed calm.
Not again. If he asks, say no. Never again.
He never did.
When she entered the cab. Vincent leaned into the window and gave her a kiss that he lingered on when they parted.
The ping of regret consumed her chest, swallowing up her stomach. "Vincent"
His fingers pressed over her mouth.
They skipped over and down the side, to her chin. His eyes focused on her lips, and they turned shiny as he whispered, "I wish
He shut his eyes. His teeth gritted. His lips curled.
Her shaky hand reached for his.
Vincent slipped his out and pushed away, back onto the curve. He slapped the cab top. "I'm done."
Aurélie's hand fell onto her lap as the taxi sped away.
She saw him in the rear-view mirror again. The way he turned his back. How he walked into the hotel lobby. Hunched over. Hands in his pockets. A burning cigarette still burning on the sidewalk. And she still looked at the mirror even when she couldn't see him anymore, her hands twisting and fidgeting in her lap.
He came to her three years later. May 2004. She almost didn't recognize him. The last time she saw an image of Vincent, he had bleach blond hair, a weird goatee and was talking on Entertainment Tonight about how it was directing some pop band's music video. The song sucked, but the video she liked. She made a point to tell him that after the proverbial hellos and how are you's. And when he thanked her, she found herself sideswiped by his open-hearted sincerity. He meant it. He seemed humbled by her genuine like. Okay, what happened, said the concern from three years ago, and it wouldn't go away during their impromptu light dinner conversation.
So, she asked. And like then, Vincent spilled.
She got the whole story. How he applied everything Aurélie told him. How his working life nearly fell apart, no new jobs, no clients, no one hiring him. How he and Chris are better now and every day learn something new about them. How jealous he is of him because he has a family and hates that he's jealous. How his wife told him she was bored. She wasn't happy. She was tired.
" Vincent's eyes shined like they did years ago. This time, though, his voice cracked. "She didn't love me anymore."
Aurélie reached for his hand over the table.
Vincent took it.
Three hours later, they left hand in hand, fingers twined.
Three more hours later, they went to Vincent's room.
In the morning, they woke up together, still clothed, tired from drinking, eating, and talking all night long. She found him cuddled up to her side, tuffs of hair sticking up, his breath tickling her breastbone. Their clasped hands stayed clasped through the night, over her hip.
Aurélie kissed his forehead and fell back asleep to his soft breathing.
Eight years later, on an evening with none of the kids around, she asked Vincent, "Do you remember how we first met? In New York?"
He pursed his lips, glass of wine hovering in front of his face. "I think so
" His eyes glanced up at her over the rim. "Sean introduced us."
"You were wearing a gold dress."
She chuckled, laying out a hand across their dining room table. Vincent's fell on top of it. Both ringless still. Both absolutely fine with it. "Two out of three isn't bad."
"Still disappointed in myself."
"What?" He squeezed her hand and smiled. "I want to remember everything about you."
She smiled back.