A Slut This Does Not Make Me

I had a drink with a strange man, and I couldn’t tell you why I did it. All I can tell you is that it seemed like a fine idea at the time. I had been feeling depressed since New Years Eve, even though Tom and I had (at least nominally) reconciled and were being civil toward each other. I was despondent over the state of my marriage, which seemed doomed to mediocrity, and continued to harbor some ill-will toward Tom because I blamed him for our disastrous NYE.

After we had taken the kids to the park playground earlier in the day, I announced that I was going for a walk. Tom didn’t offer to go with me but instead changed into his pajamas and settled in for a leisurely afternoon at home. My despondency grew as I walked around Montmartre, feeling unloved and unappreciated, lamenting my loneliness in what was supposed to be the most romantic city in the world.

I ended up on Rue Abbesses, a popular tourist hangout lined with trendy shops and cafés, and stopped at a random café to order vin chaud, hot mulled wine, which I sipped at an outdoor table while reading a book. There was a couple smoking and chatting two tables away and I was so engrossed in my book that I barely noticed when a man squeezed past me to sit at the adjacent table. He started smoking and then asked if the cigarette smoke was bothering me, to which I replied, “No, no. I’m fine, thank you.” I turned back to my book only to be surprised when he leaned over to to ask, “You look so sad, are you? Why do you seem so sad?” I didn’t know how to respond. Tom has told me many times that I wear my emotions very visibly, but I thought, surely I’m not so obvious that a total stranger can see dejection written all over my face? Again I responded, “No, I’m fine, thanks.” He eventually finished his cigarette as I finished my wine, and when I signaled to the waiter for the check, the man sitting next to me suddenly asked if I would like to have a drink with him at a bar nearby. I declined and told him that my family was expecting me, but he persisted by saying, “Just one drink. A glass of wine perhaps? It’s just two or three minutes from here. You can come have a drink and then join your family afterwards.” My instinct was to refuse firmly and definitively, but I hesitated. Ordinarily I would’ve bolted from that scenario but at that moment I was feeling particularly low, or maybe I was vulnerable, I don’t know, but I wasn’t in my normal state of mind. My first thought was, Would Tom mind? I thought to myself, No, he probably wouldn’t. Then I thought, Why not? What’s the harm? We were in a heavily populated tourist area and it wasn’t like I was going to follow him down a dark alley. Maybe it would be an interesting experience to have a drink with a local. Why not?

“It’s close to here?” I asked, reluctantly. Yes, he assured me, just a couple of blocks away. I heard myself actually accepting his invitation: “Umm…okay…maybe just one drink…” Did I really just agree to follow a stranger to a bar? Apparently yes, because I was gathering up my things to leave with him, self-conscious because the couple sitting at the next table over had witnessed the entire interaction unfold, and I felt their eyes watching me judgmentally and imagined they were thinking, “Mon Dieu! What a slut! Oh la la!” I did not have any improper intentions. I was simply curious about his motives, and wondered whether I really looked sad or if that was just a pick-up line, and I wanted to see where a local would go to have a drink. I’d never done anything like this before and wanted to see what would happen, what it would be like to have a conversation in a foreign country with a person I didn’t know.

Like he promised, we were at the bar after a short walk, and it wasn’t until I was sitting across from him that I was able to examine his face and demeanor. He was skinny, almost gaunt by American standards. I guessed his age to be late thirties or early forties. His narrow face was heavily lined and something about the way he looked reminded me of a weasel. He had a weasely face. He looked almost as uncomfortable as I felt, and our conversation was awkward and stiff, with a lot of pauses and silences. At one point he went outside to smoke a cigarette. It’s weird, and hard to explain, how I cared and didn’t care about his opinion of me. For the most part, I honestly didn’t care what he thought of me. I didn’t feel the need to impress him; I definitely did not want to flirt. I didn’t want him to be interested in me, but a small part of me (my pride? vanity?) wanted him to find me interesting, or at least not boring. When we first sat down he asked if I was married and I said yes, with two children. Something flickered across his expression that I couldn’t put my finger on: disappointment, confusion, resentment? For a second I imagined that he was annoyed with me for breaking some unspoken but widely understood code of conduct for women who are approached by men at cafés: do not accept an invitation to have a drink if you’re married because you’re wasting his time and leading him on. Duh. But I hadn’t been thinking along those lines at all, not even close. I obviously hadn’t thought this through.

He went on to vilify his ex-girlfriend who was (according to him) superficial and frivolous, like all French girls (according to him). He complained that she used him and racked up massive debts on his credit card for clothes. He was done with French girls, sick of them. American girls, on the other hand, he found interesting. “People say to me, ‘Americans are stupid; they are fat.’ But I say to them, ‘No, I don’t think so.’ I love American movies. French, European movies are so boring.” I was both offended and amused by his pandering and his caricature of Americans. I had to come to the defense of my fellow Americans; I told him that America had such a diverse population that included all sorts of people, including really intelligent ones. And there were stupid and fat people everywhere. He agreed and said he wished he could meet someone like me. Then he asked if I was happy in my marriage, if everything was going well for me? I got really uncomfortable and stammered that I had a good husband and a good marriage, but that my husband and I had gotten into a fight, which was the reason why I was alone that evening. I explained that when you’ve been married for 14 years like we have, sometimes you take each other for granted and you’re not as nice to each other as you were at the beginning of your relationship. At this he expressed genuine shock. “You’ve been married for 14 years?? My God! You look like a baby!” I would have assumed he was lying if he hadn’t acted so surprised; it’s been a long time since anyone’s accused me of looking like a baby.

Throughout our conversation I had the feeling that he rather regretted extending his invitation, just as I had rather regretted accepting it. He didn’t seem to find my personality and wit, or lack thereof, very stimulating. I was boring and pathetic, even to myself. So I was surprised when he asked me to have a meal with him sometime, anytime. In fact, over the next several days he would be helping out his friends in the very bar where we were having drinks, and I could stop by anytime, either alone or with my family, and he would make me or us something to eat. He then wrote down his contact information and handed it to me, along with a business card for the bar. He asked multiple times whether I would be interested in having another drink with him or sharing a meal, and I was confused. Now that he knew I was married, what was he getting at? Did he think I was lonely? Did he feel sorry for me? Or did he think that because I confessed having had a fight with my husband, I might be receptive to an illicit rendezvous? He suggested that I could bring my family, so maybe his intentions were honorable. But then he emphasized that if I ever wanted to have a drink or a meal, or go on a walk with him, to just contact him and he would be free to take me out. I didn’t know what to think so I quickly finished my glass of wine and asked him to let me pay for my own drink. He adamantly refused, insisting that he had invited me.

I wanted to buy a baguette so he walked me to a nearby boulangerie, gave me a hug and we parted ways. It was nothing like a first date, or any kind of a date at all, but the awkwardness of the encounter made me feel so grateful that I didn’t ever have to date again, and I was relieved when it was over. When I got home, I almost blurted out to Tom and my mom that I just had a drink with a strange man, but stopped short because I realized how inappropriate that might sound to my mom. As soon as she was in the other room, I told Tom that I had a drink with a strange man, and he reacted exactly as I had expected. He smiled and asked what did I have to drink, and what did we talk about. When I explained that a stranger had invited me to a bar, and I went with him and had a glass of wine and made small talk, I think it dawned on Tom that the encounter wasn’t as innocent as he had assumed. He probably thought that someone had espied me at a café, sent a drink over, and approached to talk to me. When Tom realized that I had affirmatively accepted an invitation to have a drink, and followed a stranger to a bar, he said, “I don’t know what to say,” and got up and left the room. We had just started eating dinner and I was at a loss over how to explain to my mom why Tom had abruptly gone into the bedroom and shut the door. I couldn’t tell her the truth, which was that my husband couldn’t bear to look at me because of something I had done. Up until that point, I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. I thought I was being harmlessly spontaneous. Tom and I don’t get jealous over one another and we don’t try to make each other jealous. We have such absolute trust and faith in each other that there simply isn’t any room for jealousy. But now, looking back, my actions could be construed as the actions of someone who was scheming to make her husband jealous. That was never my motive. I would rather have absolute trust and faith over jealousy any day.

I swore to Tom that I honestly didn’t think he’d care if I had a drink with someone I randomly met at a café, and I wouldn’t have done it if I had known that he would react this way. He wouldn’t come out of the bedroom and I had to give my mom an absurdly implausible excuse about him having a stomachache because of some beer that he drank. I was, eventually, able to coax him out of the bedroom, because I can’t stand my husband being upset with me, and I will say and do whatever it takes to make him feel better and to reassure him about us and our relationship. I just wish he’d do the same for me.

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