He opens his eyes and, for a moment longer than he should have thought natural, has no idea of where or who he is.
He lies there a while, staring at the wall. It’s white, plain but attractive, and there is a door in it that is slightly ajar, through which he can see a hint of brown furniture and just the edge of a window. The sky, cloud-covered, is duller than the wall. Nearer to his eyes there is a bedside table, and it’s at that moment it finally, solidly dawns on him that, yes, he’s in a bed, can feel the springs straining slightly under his weight - and there’s a clock on the table. 8:27. He squints at the numbers on the clock, not trusting their hard bright red lines.
They glow back at him, unable to offer any further assistance or advice, except for coyly switching their last digit to an 8.
He looks away, relenting, runs a hand through the shag of sandy hair atop his head, and that’s when he feels the warm presence behind him. Someone’s there, and they’re asleep still, and even before he turns he can sense the slow and peaceful rise of of their breath.
Someone has dark hair, a big great curly mop of it, and their face is turned away. He is unsurprised to find them there, unshaken by their presence. As for the remainder of the situation...
He is waking up now, the world is becoming present to him, or he to it, and things are slowly gelling into shapes that are hard and fast and grotesquely solid. He even knows his own name. He thinks. It is 8:28 - no, hang on, 8:29 - he is awake, there’s someone next to him in bed, a cloudy sky outside, and he finds he has the sudden urge to get dressed and have a smoke.
Guillaume swings his legs out of bed and stands to open the closet, after only the briefest of pauses spent remembering where it is.
Blue jeans, a plain t-shirt, a wool-lined leather jacket, a hat with ear-flaps that struck him as uniquely absurd and yet he still had a strong urge to jam over his hair. His boots make sharp and startling thud noises on the stairs as he heads for the front door.
Guillaume’s shoulders instinctively curl up as he steps outside, but they soon relax. Warm for December, he finds himself thinking without warning, and he lights up his cigarette and stands on the curb.
Au premier temps de la valse
Toute seule tu souris déjà
Au premier temps de la valse
Je suis seul mais je t`aperçois
The music floats from somewhere around the corner, and the language curls and twists in his ears, but he understands it all the same. He recognizes the tune, too, as one recognizes a very famous and important phrase but couldn’t for the life of them place where, exactly, one heard it first. Guillaume shudders in the too-warm-for-December air, then finishes his cigarette faster than he intended.
Rosaire is coming down the stairs after him just as he’s starting his journey back up. Rosaire - that’s him. Guillaume would like to breathe a sigh of relief at the information, but the sudden assault of this reality is still a little too much.
“There you are.” Rosaire smiles his lost-puppy smile and clasps a hand onto Guillaume’s shoulder, dragging the other man along as he descends. “I woke up and thought you might have run out on me... Come on, let’s get some breakfast.”
The cafe has a fabricated antique charm - too polished and clean to truly be as old as it pretends, but there are a few artifacts adorning the walls and table that seem genuine and are unique enough to make the place memorable. Guillaume thinks. He is certain that he will remember it the next time he visits. Absolutely certain.
There is an antique silver clock on the far wall of the cafe, its pendulum swinging silently in an even tempo.
“Hm?” Guillaume turns his attention back to Rosaire, who (he has just realized) has been talking this entire time. Guillaume’s eyelids still hurt as though he woke up too soon. He can tell he looks unrested. “What?”
Rosaire has just finished spreading a bit of jam onto his croissant. He puts down the knife with a gentle clink. “Is something the matter?”
Guillaume rubs his hands over his eyes. It doesn’t really help. Something murky is lurking on the edges of his mind, a penetrating darkness. “I had an odd dream.”
“I’m not exactly sure.” He looks about himself, taking in everything, hoping for some spark, some clue. “But I have this feeling, as though everything’s suddenly different.” Which is, of course, absurd, because everything feels so familiar. “Have you ever felt as though your body were an ill-fitting suit? You’re either stuffed into it too tightly or you’re swimming in it; your legs might feel an inch too long, or your hands not quite large enough, but some way or another something just doesn’t fit. Do you know what I mean?”
Rosaire chews on a mouthful of croissant. “Have you tried stretching?”
Guillaume picks at his food. “It’s not soreness.”
“Still, it might help you feel better.”
He gives it a try, pulling his elbows toward each other behind his back and lengthening his legs out under the table where they collide with the legs of Rosaire’s chair. Then he lets it all go with a sigh.
“How do you feel?” Rosaire asks after a moment’s pause.
“A little bit better,” Guillaume admits with no small measure of reluctance. “I feel more... awake to the world. More focused. But still...” He takes another futile look around. “I woke up this morning and it was peaceful, almost pleasant, but it didn’t feel real. Or it felt too real and altogether wrong.” Rosaire is looking across the table at him as though he might be losing his mind when really all he’s losing is his patience. He’s starting to care less and less about keeping up a semblance of normalcy. He takes out the pack of cigarettes and drops them on the table. “These things taste vile. I don’t know why the first thing I wanted to do when I got up this morning was have one. I don’t know what I had for lunch yesterday or why I own this ridiculous hat. I don’t know how I know it’s December, I can’t remember what color my own eyes are, and I can’t shake the sensation that, although I’m talking instinctively and you seem to be understanding me well enough to answer, nothing but utter gibberish is coming out of my mouth.” He hunches over in his chair, obstinate, glaring at their surroundings, and finally his eyes settle on the silver clock. He stares.
Once again, Guillaume feels his attention snap back into the present. “What?”
Rosaire is spreading more jam on his breakfast. “Your eyes are brown. Sort of a hazel brown. Actually, today they’re closer to grey, but that’s usually the case when it’s overcast.” He takes another bite.
Guillaume rests his chin in his hand and sighs, “Well, that’s a relief.” One mystery solved. Infinite numbers remaining. He looks back up at the man sitting across from him and finds himself focused, briefly, on the eyes. They’re blue, a rather gentle blue.
He should have tried to guess before he looked.
They finish their breakfast, then go to take a walk through the small winding stone streets of the city. The stones are uneven in places and the buildings are unmistakably old - not that they’re shabby, but they look settled, like large cats that have set themselves down on the sides of the road and got very comfortable. Some of them are even leaning into one another. It is all so whimsical that Guillaume wants it to feel like a dream.
There are other people exploring the streets, ostensibly enjoying the relative warmth of the day. He doesn’t feel familiarity with a one of them, which is something of a relief. As he starts being able to separate what feels familiar from what doesn’t, a picture of a life begins to emerge. He is Guillaume, he lives in this city and speaks this language but doesn’t know many people; so far there’s only Rosaire with whom he shares an apartment and a bed, and so far as Guillaume can tell that seems to be enough.
They go home. Guillaume has begun to wonder whether he might have some kind of work he’s supposed to be going to, but Rosaire never mentions anything about it so Guillaume doesn’t either. He worries that if he does, some charm might be broken and the phone would immediately ring with a call from an angry boss.
When they go to bed in the evenings it is, at first, in the manner of two friends who only happen to be sharing the same set of sheets. But the next night when Guillaume is climbing into bed and Rosaire is already asleep, Rosaire rolls over with a sigh and curls his arm around Guillaume’s waist and nestles his head against Guillaume’s shoulder and smiles. Guillaume feels himself smile too.
When Guillaume sleeps he dreams of a field of flowers, brightly colored but so dense that the short stalks disappear into complete darkness. Or a bed, much like the one he shares with Rosaire, but the sheets are dirty, rotten, and clammy to the touch like cold skin... Or a forest in autumn, orange leaves falling like confetti, and a figure with wide flapping sleeves that is walking toward him… Or a featureless hallway that ends in an overly-featured door, so detailed he can feel the cracks in the wood all the way down to his teeth, just by looking at it.
When he wakes, more often than not Rosaire has stolen the bulk of the sheets and is curled up in them, obliviously content.
The music seems to be always there, just around the corner, drifting in through the gaps around their windows.
Et plus le temps nous fait cortège
Et plus le temps nous fait tourment
Mais n'est-ce pas le pire piège
Que vivre en paix pour des amants
He stops voicing his doubts because after a few days they start to seem repetitive and redundant. But they sit in his mind like a beast flicking its tail to and fro, like the silver clock in the cafe tick-tocking back and forth.
So a long week passes, and outside the air is getting colder all the time.
The musicians are usually there, just around the corner. They play nearly every day, or at least for part of every day, until the cold becomes too unbearable. Then they pack up their instruments and pull their coats tight and jam any free hand into any free pocket, and head for a some cafe or other to drink slowly and tell lies.
It is bitterly cold today; the warm spike of the past week has dropped off, and the band has decided that one half hour standing at the mercy of the wind is too much - at least, too much without a significant amount of passersby to make it worthwhile. They have just packed up the last guitar and snapped the case shut when the lead Player feels a tap on his shoulder.
There’s a young man standing behind him, a man with long curly dark hair and gentle blue eyes. Eyes like somebody’s lost puppy. “Excuse me, but... I think I know who you are.”
“Is that so?” The Player shucks his coat further around his shoulders and looks down at the young man with a raised eyebrow. “Please, pray tell - who are we?”
Rosaire regards him a second longer, then looks around the Player to the other members of the band. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you,” he admits before training those blue eyes back on the Player. “But I know you. It took me a while, but I remembered. I remember everything.” He licks his lips and draws up his shoulders. “What have you done to us?”
The Player doesn’t actually sneer, but the sound of it is in his voice. “If you remembered everything, you’d remember this: I am powerless. We are all powerless. We dance our dances and we play our parts.”
“But you must know something... please.” The Player has started to turn away, and Rosaire grabs him by the sleeve of his ragged coat. “That was supposed to be the end, wasn’t it? I’m... I’m not asking for myself. I want to explain to him what’s going on, but if I don’t have all the answers... Look, I won’t keep you. Just: what happens next? How long have we got here?”
The Player looks down at Rosaire, into that pleading face, and feels a pang of pity. He shrugs. “How long? I cannot say. But think of it as time enough for convalescence. A temporary respite. Or, if it pleases you...” He smiles now, looking up into the bright blue December sky. “...a Christmas present.”
“A present? From whom?”
The Player does not answer, but instead makes a quick motion with his free arm. Something bright flickers through the air, and Rosaire catches it without thought, curling his fingers around it.
Then he feels its shape against his palm, round and cool to the touch and so familiar it makes his heart stop.
“You had it right the first time.” The Player has slipped loose from Rosaire’s grasp, has stopped to pick up his guitar. The rest of the band is already walking away. “You should allow yourself to forget. It’ll be better for both of you.”
Rosaire hurries back around the corner toward the door to their building, pushing through the veil of his own frozen breath and trying so hard to hold on. There’s just so little to grasp onto. He’s trying to keep hold a memory of a time when he couldn’t remember, and it’s creating a feedback loop in his mind. He can feel it all slipping away.
You should allow yourself to forget. But then they won’t know. There’ll be nothing left for either of them, no context, no explanation, and they’ll be right back where they started. Where it all went so terribly, horribly wrong. The end was supposed to be just that, the end, but now they’re here and it’s back to Square One if they can’t find something real to hold onto. If any of it was real. If any of it still is. Damn it. He’s no good with this sort of thinking. It all starts collapsing in on itself. Where were they, again... A forest, a castle? It seems absurd, but it exists just as vividly in his mind as anything else, for now. For as long as he knows, and he has the sinking feeling that that won’t be very long now, he feels the need to tell the only other person who matters, so that they might both be able to keep their memories. Some memories are better than none at all. Aren’t they?
He gets himself to the door of their apartment and opens it with urgency, only to be stopped in his tracks.
Guillaume is in the kitchen. There’s a lovely, friendly sizzling sound coming from the stove top, an open carton of eggs on the counter, and Guillaume is fussing about with a whisk. He turns around - he looks tired still, but there’s a relief in his features, almost a smile... though any real smile is stopped by the shocked look on Rosaire’s face.
“Hello,” Guillaume says, cautious, and turns around to pay attention to his eggs. “Everything alright?”
“Ah...” His fist is still curled, and the shape inside has turned warm and sweaty in his palm. “Yeah. Fine.”
He wants so desperately to say something, he knows he can explain it all, or at least enough of it to make those shadows in Guillaume’s eyes draw back for a moment. But something stops up his throat.
“Would you like an omelette?” Guillaume glances over his shoulder to gauge Rosaire’s reaction, and his attention is caught by Rosaire’s fist. “What have you got there?”
Rosaire looks across the room at Guillaume, at the spatula in his hand and the way his hair is falling over his forehead, and thinks of homemade omelettes and charmingly anachronistic cafes and long strolls over cobblestones and midnight struggles over who can steal the largest part of the sheets - and then he does something that, could he recall his thought process later on, he would regard as very selfish.
“It’s nothing.” He shoves the coin deep into his pocket, then lets it go, and forgets.