The American – by Molly Gaudry

by TBLM

The story was first published in UpRightDown; also anthologized in Best of the Web 2009, edited by Lee K. Abbott

They lunch at L’olivier, and during her first glass A– says, There was a tourist. Of course there was, D– chides, her disgust for tourists as palpable as the crème brûlée she abuses with her spoon. Was he good in bed, at least? C– asks. Except for the swearing, A– says, yes. Romantic B–, who has obviously never had her heart broken, sighs, So he was an American. Of course he was American, but I courted him, not the other way around. And now he’s returned to the United States and you miss him. B– removes a cigarette from her silver case. Please don’t light that, A– says, I haven’t finished my meal. All right, go on then, tell us about him. When was the affair? C– asks. He went home two weeks ago. You didn’t tell us, D– says. I didn’t think you would understand. I understand that you’re my friend and should have said something. So I was right, you don’t understand. I understand perfectly, you haven’t finished your wine. I’m not thirsty. Thirst has nothing to do with what I’m talking about. A– drains her glass and cuts her veal into grape-sized pieces. Lifetimes pass between swallows. D– loses patience. Give me a cigarette, she says. But A–’s still eating, B– says. It has never mattered before. It matters now, A– says, it matters now to have friends who will respect me and allow me to make my own decisions. You’re letting him off too easily, D– says, they’re all the same, especially Americans. Maybe I am, but he promised to write and I’m worried because he hasn’t, something terrible must have happened. Why don’t you call him, B– suggests. Because I would rather he called me. You could e-mail, C– offers. I have. Just once I hope. Yes, just once. What did you write? Only that I hoped he arrived safely. Is that all? And that I was thinking of him. You’re a fool, D– says. She’s not a fool. Yes, she is. Why do you say such things? Why can’t you just listen to her? I’ve already said it, because she is a fool, and so are they. All four gaze in the direction of D–’s upraised chin and see the same two people but differently. A– sees a happy American couple, happy, she thinks, because they wear their joy meaty on their bones the way the rich wear jewels and the poor their humble rags. D– sees two fat American pigs and wishes she were sitting in B–’s chair, so she wouldn’t have to see them. C– sees money, she always sees money where tourists are involved. She has a souvenir stand outside the Louvre, it was her father’s before he died, a suicide, she runs the family business in his honor, his name, her memories of him that much lovelier when tourists purchase his postcards. And B–, romantic B–, she sees nothing but the love that passes between two vacationers, U– and I–, who have come to Paris on business, competitors for the same promotion, and what’s true is that there is no love lost between them. Then U– begins to choke. Halp, halp, halp, U– gasps between fast breaths. Din’t, I– shouts. Halp, halp. Din’t tauch hem, watt jest a menit. There’s no time, A–, the beautiful one, the one I– has been admiring since entering L’olivier, says breathlessly, rushing over, heaving her fists beneath U–’s ribs. A mushroom cap launches from U–’s throat onto the floor. A– sits beside U– and smiles. That’s better, isn’t it? Are you all right? Tank you, U– says, tank you, tank you. It was nothing, A– says. Tank you all the same. When A– returns to her table, two of her friends applaud. You just saved that man’s life, B– says. It was nothing. It wasn’t nothing. He was going to choke and you saved him. You would have done the same, it was just that I reacted first. You’re my new hero, C– says, lips pinched white. And you, do you have nothing to say? A– asks. Forget him, D– whispers, staring at U–’s greasy chin and bulging cheeks, forget him the way that man has forgotten he nearly died but for your pity.