Not the dumbest thing I’ve ever thought, however. That particular honour belongs to a moment in San Francisco – I was walking down Castro, I glanced across the street, and I saw a burger joint called Sliders. I read the name, emblazoned on a huge, purple sign in the window, and I thought Huh. I wonder if that’s a whole place themed after that Jerry O’Connell show from the mid-90s?
Instantly, I thought There it is, Simon. Right there. The single stupidest thing you will ever think in your entire life.
No, no. The dumbest words to ever come out of my mouth came courtesy of my seventeen year old self, a teenager who, it’s true, said some fairly stupid things as a matter of course. Even then, the bar was high. With maturity, my ability to release unrepentant barrages of idiocy into the world, like flooding rivers bursting their banks and swamping unsuspecting social gatherings with shocked silence, has developed, grown more skilled, become perfect with practice. But that particular evening… well, I was just in the zone.
The girl in question was French, a foreign exchange student who was spending a few months in Australia. I’d seen her at Mario’s, a café my friends and I have been frequenting for a little over a decade now (it’s at 666 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn. The coffee is excellent, both in blend and in brewing. If you’re in the neighbourhood, drop in and ask for Richard. Then tell him he has a stupid face, he’s been holding me back for years, and some day, after I have ridden his coat-tails to victory, I mean to put him in the ground). I was in Year 11, with a bit part in a school play¹. Rehearsals were set some time after school had finished, so the actors² would head to Mario’s after the last bell had rung, to wait until it was time to go back to school and block our positions, recite our lines, and talk about how, someday, Ben was going to make it as an actor.
I caught a glance of her one night across the café and even before I’d heard her accent and fallen just as hard as every other man who hears a woman speak French for the first time, I was wondering who she was. She looked like Milla Jovovich from The Fifth Element, all easy grace and self-possession, the only real difference being that her hair was dark brown rather than bright orange. We smiled at each other as I walked past her table to the counter to order, and exchanged another look, later, as she was leaving, that held for just a second too long.
The following night, when I came in, alone and with a freshly-shaved head, she saw me and laughed. She made a loud electric sound, audible throughout the room: ‘Bzzzzz!’ and mimed shearing all of her hair off. It was instantly disarming, if only because she was foreign; I couldn’t imagine an Australian girl either being so bold as to do such a thing, or having the savoir-faire to pull it off without looking foolish.
From there, she gathered her things and stood. Smiling, she came over and seated herself at my table.
‘In France,’ she explained, ‘if we saw someone at a cafe and smiled, we’d just sit down to say hi. Australians… you’re too uptight.’
Her name was Laura, and she came from Paris. She was over in Australia on exchange, living with a local host family and studying at a school near mine. When her friends, also French, came in, she introduced me. When mine arrived, I did the same. We sat in a circle of company and conversation, of coffee and cigarette smoke, and, as it does when you are young, time drew long; expanding without notice across the borders of minutes and hours.
Simply, easily, afternoon meetings became a regular thing between the two of us. I’d walk in to find her waiting, alone. We’d talk, drink coffee, and smoke cigarettes. We flirted, a little – being French, she ran conversational rings around me. She was something far beyond my experience; stylish and sophisticated even in a flat school dress of white and lime green checks, while I felt clumsy in my words, and always rushing, on the verge of stumbling, to be even one step behind.
‘Do you know any French?’ she asked one night.
I’d studied French, half-heartedly, for three years, but somehow asking where I could buy a loaf of bread and enquiring about the health of the rabbit of her aunt didn’t seem to be what the moment wanted.
‘Voulez-vouz couchez avec-moi?’ I said, grinning to show that I – of course – didn’t mean it as it sounded. I – of course – would never be so crass. And yet – of course – I did, and I was. The joke was a proposition, cloaked in the deniability of humour, and my every sense was set to gauge her reaction.
‘Ha ha,’ she said, and looked me in the eye.
And then she laughed too, like a tense moment breaking, and deliberately took another cigarette from her pack on the table. She put it to her lips, leaned close and waited for me to light it for her, and I was left to wonder if now she was the one joking, or if my fool-proof plan had just backfired.
She told me she had a formal in a few weeks (equivalent to a prom, Americans), and she’d love to go with me, but she’d already agreed to take her host family’s brother, and she couldn’t back out. I, of course, swallowed my disappointment and lied that I understood.
We talked about sex, we talked about France. We talked about the sex she’d had in France. She quizzed me about what my favourite things to do in bed were.
To this day, I feel reasonably justified in thinking there was something going on.
And then one evening, in that quiet time between afternoon and twilight, as we waited for her Parisian friend to arrive for a rare pre-arranged coffee, she turned to me and said ‘Ey, look… what are your feelings for me?’
‘Huh?’ I asked, blinking and blindsided by the raw honesty of the question after so much time skirting the issue of how much time we were spending together.
‘Because, you know… I ‘ave a boyfriend in France. And I really love ‘im.’
‘Oh!’ I said. ‘Yeah. Of course. No, no, we’re friends. I mean, I think you’re cool, and all. But yeah. Friends.’
And in the depths of my brain, something took a deep breath and screamed ‘FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU-‘
Laura’s friend turned up, annoyed at some problem with her host family. She didn’t order, just sat and smoked, tensely, ripping one cigarette after another from the pack on the table and lighting up, wrapping herself in circles of smoke like armour against further irritations.
It was obvious things had become awkward with the introduction of this third party, so Laura and I said we’d walk the other girl home and call it a night. The two of them chattered back and forth in French as we walked the ten minutes back from the cafe, and at one point the other girl stopped and took a sidelong glance at me before turning to Laura and saying something that sounded vaguely hostile, and at the same time, vaguely concerned.
We walked the friend to her door and started the short journey back to the cafe and the train station. Both of us were quiet, lost in our own thoughts. I was trying to think of a loophole to salvation – surely there was some sentence, some perfect combination of words I could put together that would make her say ‘Boyfriend? Oh, you misunderstood! I said pet turtle. Yeah, you and me should totally have sex. Wild, French sex.’
Dusk was falling, and with it, a light rain. The breeze picked up, and above us, tree branches moved gently. Streetlights were flickering on, and it was a perfect romantic moment; one of the few I feel everyone is owed throughout the course of their life. Laura stopped walking, put her hand on my arm to catch my step, and faced me.
‘OK,’ she said. ‘Tell me. ‘Ow do you feel?’
At this point, it was like God himself reached down from the sky, flipped open the back of my skull, and poured ten quarts of distilled stupid straight into my medulla oblongata.
‘I’m kinda cold, actually,’ I said.
‘Oh…’ she said. ‘And… zat is all?’
‘Uh huh,’ I said. ‘Yup.’
And I walked her to the train station, and away.
¹ and it was far, far more than I deserved
² I use this term loosely