des amis

Remember my French friend from the creperie around the corner? Well, I've gotten to be buddies with him, in a way. He chats me up whenever he's outside and I walk by, or when I stop in to eat. We limit our talks to the subjects I have the vocabulary to sustain: my dog, food, love - or a lack thereof. For a while, he'd gotten used to seeing A. and I as a couple, and when we broke up, he made his disapproval clear. I guess he thinks because we look good together, we should be together? He always tries to convince me that A. is amoreux de moi. "Non,' I tell him, "nous sommes seulement des amis."

Alex always encourages me to come by more often, to sit and have a coffee with him and just practice my French. "You don't need to buy anything," he assures me. "Just come talk."

So the other day, I did.

I walk in and sit at the counter, where I can watch him and the other cooks smooth out the crepe batter in perfect circles. "J'ai faim," I announce, and he gets to work. He knows I always want the same thing.

We chat a bit while he fixes my lunch, and just as he serves me, I hear the door behind me swing open. I glance backwards and do a double take. A.'s just walked in. He joins me, a bit flustered, saying he didn't know I was here, and he'll leave, and apologizing for being there - and then apologizing for being flustered. I tell him not to be silly and that he should split my sandwich with me, because I can never finish it.

Alex fixes himself a tuna sandwich and sits near us, while we semi-awkwardly catch up. After a minute, we're relaxed and talking like usual. I use my fork to push a small speared gherkin across the plate towards him. "Eat your cornichon," I say.

"That's not a cornish hen!" he says scornfully.

"Stop it," I tell him. I don't have the strength to banter. But he does. He's always on, in the early part of the day. Me, I don't warm up until night.

"Where do you think he gets them? These cornish hens." We're both staring at a tiny, wrinkled pickle.

"Cornwall," I say. "It's like champagne. You call only call it champagne if it comes from the Champagne region of France. And you can only call them cornish hens if they come from Cornwall, England." He grins and I suddenly feel tired.

"Can I have a hug?" he asks. I grant the request, leaning over uncomfortably in my chair to wrap my arms around him for a moment. Alex nods approvingly. "That's what I like to see," he says. "You can only come to my house if it is like that. For wine. You like wine?"

I have no idea what he's talking about. Go to his house? Did I make some forgotten date with my ex-boyfriend to go drinking at the crepe guy's house?

The hug feels like it's lasting a very long time. I warn A., half jokingly, that he'd better be careful or I'll hijack his afternoon and throw him in bed.

We finish and A. walks me out, accompanying me halfway down the block to the dry cleaner's, where he asks for another hug. I oblige again. He rubs my back while we hug on the sidewalk and playfully, inexplicably, calls me "Meatball". I've never heard him call me that before, but OK. I don't have the strength to question the moment or his sweetness. I'll be Meatball.

He leaves and I fetch my dry cleaning and go home alone.