I was drinking iced tea at La Belle Époque when I had the unmistakable feeling that I was being looked at. A dark green awning sheltered the front patio of the cafe, which was crowded with tourists desperate to escape the heat. If you dashed to a seat moments after someone had left, you could get a clear view of the fountain in the center of the Cours Mirabeau, the wide thoroughfare at the center of Aix-en-Provence.
This fountain was my favorite of the hundreds on the city’s street corners. An unsculpted and inornate mass of rock, it was made almost entirely invisible by a thick layer of moss, which draped in quivering spindles over a circular pool. The water came steady and temperate from the Bagniers spring which ran underneath the uneven cobblestones; unlike that of the city’s other 19th century fountains, none of this water was ever meant to be drunk. The fountain’s name—La Fontaine Moussue—was more descriptive than symbolic. As opposed to the Baroque artistry of the Fontaine de La Rotonde or the Fontaine des Quatre Dauphins, La Fontaine Moussue was crafted before fountains were made to be ornamental, and so it lacked extravagance or symmetrical beauty. Looking back on it now, I wonder if what drew me to it was its raw state. Whenever I passed the fountain, especially in the middle of the day, I would lay my hand upon the moss as if petting an animal and feel the throb of water pouring out, a quickening heart that beat beneath my fingers. Like the other pedestrians who stopped on their way down the street, I would cup the flowing spigots embedded in the rock and, pulling aside my hair, would toss the water on the nape of my neck. I would often try to seat myself at the edges of the cafe’s awning so that I could see others do the same gesture. It was one which was routine but felt alluringly private. That day, however, the patio was full by the time I arrived, and I sat on a prickly velvet seat cushion with my back to the fountain, hearing its trickle in the pauses of the surrounding conversations.
Absorbed in my book on the glass table in front of me, I was not sure how long the man two tables away had been staring. Once I realized that I was being observed, I also knew it had started before I had noticed. When I raised my head and met his gaze, he did not look away, though he also seemed entirely unaware that I was looking back at him. He was likely almost twice my age, though he seemed younger than my father. He sat with his arms extended on his table, one hand hovering near an untouched espresso, the other gripping a pen which he pressed against the unlined page of a notebook. His hair was dark and his skin softly tanned, and he wore a blue collared shirt unbuttoned partway down his chest. His eyes showed neither lust nor violence, but rather a pensiveness which was altogether ambiguous.
This was during the height of the canicule, the record-breaking heatwave that tore across the continent that summer and compelled many to swim in fountains which were typically regarded as art. The newspaper photos from those unbearable afternoons were of locals stripping to their underwear in front of the Eiffel Tower, where they could dip in the Trocadéro Fountain as part of the capital’s emergency plan. Sundown brought little reprieve from the humidity; it had been weeks since I had slept through the night. I spent the dark hours twisted in my sheets, alternating which side of my body would be closest to the fan. I would at some point get up and open the door to the patio, breathing along with the crickets and other sounds of the darkness. I would go to sleep in a slip and wake up with my bedding piled on the floor, both sides of my pillow dampened with sweat. It was my first time ever hearing a swarm of cicadas, and I was maddened by the roar—not as much by their noise as by their monotony, which did not let up until the temperatures dropped. I was nervous and shy around the other American students, and so I spent most of that summer alone, spending the stipend I was supposed to use for my research on pastries and cocktails and tickets to an art exhibit in an old hotel, where portraits by Picasso and Degas hung next to mirrors framed with gold. On my routine visits to this exhibit, I would slow as I walked by these mirrors, curious to see my body lengthened, my red hair feathered with light, my hands twitching and making odd shapes in the glass. I had just turned twenty, and I didn’t always recognize what I saw in my reflection; I found myself looking more closely than I had in the past. I had been at the hotel exhibit earlier that day, before going to the cafe to stay hidden from the sun.
The man put a handful of coins on his table and gestured to a waitress. When he stood up from his seat, he moved toward me slowly and softly, as if not wanting to startle me, though we had already made eye contact and held it for a time. He murmured a few words as he approached in a language I could not identify from far away. As he came closer, I leaned toward him to hear.
“You look very concentrated,” he said in English, his voice lilting with an indiscernible accent. “It must be a good book.”
“It is,” I answered, though I had mostly forgotten about the book in my hand. At that moment I did not know how wary I should be of him. I did not know whether I desired his attention. I did not know what more to say.
He looked at me for a few moments more, as if trying to decipher something in the details of my face, trying to read something deeper into this encounter. Then, turning on his heel and breaking his gaze, he walked out from under the awning, toward the mossy fountain in the center of the street. Resting his hand on the surface of the rock, he paused, closing his eyes. He did not raise his fingers to the back of his neck. His hand stayed on the spring as he breathed in and out. Then, as if woken from a dream, he started, disoriented, pulling his hand to his side. Walking down the avenue, he did not look back. I twisted my torso, watching over my shoulder until he rounded a corner and was gone. The last glimpse I had was not of him but of the water, dripping from his fingers and onto the cobblestones.