Martin Jones: Don’t I Know You From Somewhere?

On a steaming August night, so humid and slick the shirt sticks to shoulders and back, a man in a brown suit hurries up the narrow street and flags a passing taxi.

The cab brakes screech and through the open passenger window, the white-haired driver shouts: “Where are you going?”

The man is going north, about two miles, and the driver motions him into the back seat. But when he gets in, a woman is already sitting there, directly behind the driver. She leans forward, toward the old man. “This is outrageous. You don’t let someone in the cab without asking me.”

The driver shrugs. “What’s the guy to do? The streetcars have stopped for the night.”

The younger man glances over and smiles at the woman. She is a bit younger than him, early thirties he imagines, attractive, with a sweet face, a nice figure and shoulder-length brown hair. She has been drinking, he guesses, as she awkwardly moves a black purse to her left side. The upper button of her blouse is undone and he notices the silver pendant hanging from her necklace.

“Don’t worry about me,” he says. “I will sit quietly on my side.”

“I’m angry at the driver, not you.” But the car is already moving north and the argument has been settled.

For a while, no one speaks. Then the younger man says: “It is so quiet tonight, even the houses look asleep.”

The woman glances at him, furrows her eyebrows and asks: “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

There is a brief pause. “You know, I’ve been thinking the same thing. But I can’t remember where.”

“It must have been years ago. Maybe a foreign city?” she says.

“I have the same feeling. Europe somewhere?”

“Maybe. I spent a year in Paris, after university.”

“That’s right,” he says. “It’s coming back. You were working …where?”

“I was studying French. But I worked part-time, in a hotel.”

“Yes, of course. Mary, isn’t it?”

She is startled by this. “Close enough, Maria. My god, you have a good memory. I apologize; I can’t remember your name.”

“John,” he says. The two remain quiet for several seconds. “Well, Maria. It is great to see you after all these years. And a bit strange too.”

“Yes. Both those things.”

There is silence as the cab slips narrowly past some parked cars. The coincidence of meeting in a cab after all this time is so odd, it takes time to sink in. Finally, John asks: “Do you remember the place where we spent the afternoon?”

“I remember going somewhere with a man I just met. The House of Rodin?”

“Yes, the old house with the sculptures. That was memorable. I still think about that afternoon.”

“Really? That’s nice.”

“Do you remember how we ended up in Place Pigalle? We thought it would be fun to visit a cabaret.”

She thinks a moment. “It sounds familiar.”

John sits quietly, a slight smile on his face. Maria moves closer to him. The driver stops for a red light, and casts a puzzled glance in the rear-view mirror, just as a police cruiser flashes by. The light turns green and the taxi moves on.

“You know, Maria, I remember more now. We walked from Place Pigalle downhill to the Seine. It was a warm night like this, except there were so many people about. We followed those narrow streets beneath the stars for two hours, sometime stopping to say a few words with strangers.” He thinks a moment. “There was a sweet couple who invited us to sit with them and share their wine. Do you remember that?”

“I think I vaguely remember that. God, it sounds so beautiful.” She smiles at him and holds her stare a while. There is an awkward silence. Perhaps they are both lost for words, then Maria offers tentatively: “John, you’re a nice man. Why did I never see you again?”

“I was in Paris for only a few days. I gave you my home phone number and said we should get-together when you got back.”

“I have no memory of that. But then again, it was a long time ago.”

“Just think how strange life is. Maybe if you had called me, Maria, our lives would’ve turned out differently.”

“That’s a funny thought. I hope it would’ve been a better life.”

He considers this for a moment. “It’s tough out there, isn’t it?”

“Somehow, you expect it to be better than it is.”

The driver turns onto a side street and the car moves slowly ahead. “What number was that again, ma’am?”

“One forty-seven.” She gestures over the front seat. “There on the right, the duplex with the outside staircase.”

The taxi draws up to the curb and stops in front of the house. Maria lifts her purse and opens it, but John places his hand over hers. “I am going a lot further. It makes more sense for me to pay.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. It was great meeting you again, Maria.” Maria sits, not moving, unsure what to say next.

“Ma’am?” asks the driver.

“Just a few seconds, driver.” She smiles at John. It was a long smile, and then she reaches into her purse and takes out a pen and some paper and begins to write. She hands it to John. “This is my phone number. Call or text me sometime.”

John studies the paper briefly. “I will.”

“Don’t let another twelve years go by.” She opens the car door and pauses. She turns toward John. “Maybe we still can make our lives turn out differently.”

“Maybe we can.”

The taxicab pulls away from the curb as John watches Maria walk toward the house and the wrought-iron staircase.

At the yield sign at the end of street, the cab slows and comes to a stop. The driver turns and looks at John. “That was quite something, meeting a girl you haven’t seen in 12 years. “

“Yes. Quite something.”

“One for the books,” says the old man. “Paris, that’s a place I’ve always wanted to see. Is it as beautiful as they say?”

“Oh, definitely,” says John. The taxicab pulls onto a main street and John wonders about Maria. He is drawn by her kind, pretty face and the soft way she has of talking. She is very desirable. He likes what she said – that maybe they can still make their lives turn out differently. Perhaps he will phone her in two or three days.

But then again, should he really do that? After all, he has never been to Paris. And as he considers this, he wonders what Maria might be thinking now as she undresses for bed. He imagines her putting a finger on the silver pendant hanging outside her blouse, the one in the shape of the letter M and realizing, suddenly, how easy it might be for a stranger to guess that your name is Mary – or Maria.

No, he will do it. He will take a chance and phone Maria. He will invite her to some place nice – a fancy restaurant downtown, or maybe to a concert. If she agrees, he will take her there and tell her the truth. He will confess that he really does not know her but wants to. He thinks she is beautiful.

Maybe they can build something together. Maybe a better life. He will say all this to Maria. He will say: “I’m sorry for pretending to know you in the cab.” He will say: “You and I have a chance. I think we should give it a try.”