It had been far too long since I had come by Colette’s place on the Rue Artois, that little loft with the outside stairs over the bar she ran with an ever-rotating crew of hired hands. I had been in a dark place, personally and professionally, with only the barest snatches of contact with the woman I loved. But when my conference in Montreal was finished, and the long flight home complete, I promised myself that I was going to make it up to her. I slipped into town unannounced–a surprise. Picked up her favorite flowers, posies, and a gift. I knew she was usually around just after sunset, taking a little personal time in her loft before the night’s business began. I planned to meet Colette that night and, if things went well, asking her to marry me.

If that seems a little naive, after I had been gone so long and had such relatively little contact with Colette, remember that I was used to nothing. Calling her once every two weeks, writing a letter once a month…this felt, to me, like I Was pestering her. It never occurred to me that to someone who craved the interpersonal as much as she did, it might come off differently.

When I arrived at the stairs to Colette’s loft, there was another man there.

His name was Robert, and he was very kind. From the posies in his hand, it was clear what his intentions were, but he was also there with his parents, an older more genial Robert and a Jeanne. They were kind to the point of being almost insufferable, completely ignoring Colette upstairs to attend to me. I suppose what I felt was written plainly enough on my face, but if you’ve ever been in such a situation, you know that even the kindest saint cannot comfort you in the throes of such darkness.

Remembering where Colette hid her key, in the third flowerpot in the garden, I let myself into the bar and pulled out the cheapest bottle they had. I scattered a few francs and whatever other coins were in my pocket onto the countertop in recompense, and started to toss back fiery mouthfuls. Robert, pere, and Robert, fils, followed me in. They kept telling me how they had no idea, how sorry they were, how I shouldn’t blame myself, how they were to blame. Looking back on it, I am frankly touched by their compassion.

In the moment, though, I did my best to ignore them and continued hurling back hard liquor. I probably would have done it until the bottle fell over empty or I did, had Colette not finally come downstairs to see what all the fuss was about.

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