By: Cara McKenna

In truth they intimidated me, because they had the power to disappoint and humiliate me, and confirm everything I feared about my own awkwardness. I carried this facsimile of haughty superiority with me through college and beyond, and though I shrug off accusations that I might have a crush on this man or that and pass my attitude off as contempt, secretly of course I’m simply terrified to hear it made official that they’re out of my league.

Beautiful men terrify me because, deep down, they’re the only kind I want.

I could probably do well, dating guys as passable-looking as myself. I even suspect they’re nicer people, yet I have what feels like an affliction—an affinity for beauty. A fetish, perhaps, to further belabor that overused term. It’s what led me to museum work, to art appreciation, to entire weeks of my life lost window-shopping for mouthwatering furniture and trinkets that could bankrupt me with a single swipe of my bank card. I have expensive taste, my father always said. Though surely he’d meant my refusal to settle for less than the fancy brand of macaroni and cheese, with its seductive silver packet of gooey Velveeta cheese. Not home furnishings or Parisian prostitutes.

But that’s enough about me for now.

When it finally struck six fifty-nine, I gave myself permission to enter Didier’s building. I shook my umbrella off on the stoop and studied the tenant list. I pressed the brass button beside 5C Pedra, D. and waited, my breath held. I should mention that Didier and I had only corresponded in postcards, because a) I hadn’t had his number at first; and b) once he gave it to me, I was too chickenshit to use it. The voice I’d speculated and fantasized about didn’t greet me, though the door buzzed as it unlocked and I let myself in.

It was probably once a dazzling building, now thoroughly worn around the edges. In addition to attractive men, I fear elevators, especially the ancient kind here in number sixteen, with the accordion-style door, so I found the slightly less claustrophobic stairwell and dripped my way up four flights.

Flat 5C is at the very end of a long, dim, narrow corridor with a ceiling at least a foot shorter than the lower levels’. As I took my final breath, knuckles poised to knock, the door swung in.

Didier was taller than I’d anticipated. He was more of everything than I’d anticipated. Which is saying a lot, because I’d purposefully built him up in my mind, so grand he could only fail to measure up and hence give me permission to do as I always do and declare myself above the bothersome magnetism of lust.

But Didier did not disappoint. My mouth went dry and I must have looked stoned, standing there with the blank expression I rely on when desperately trying to appear unaffected.

“Good evening,” he said. “You’re Carolyn?”

I managed to say, “I am.” My name is, in fact, Caroly, a misspelling on my grandmother’s prospective baby name list that my mother found exceedingly fetching. No sympathy for her daughter, doomed to be addressed as Carol or Carolyn for the rest of her days. And because of how “Caroline” is pronounced in France—Caroleen—nobody here ever gets my name right when I introduce myself. But that’s fair, considering how badly I mangle their entire language every time I open my mouth.

“I’m Didier.” He shook my hand and I marveled at the gesture, how he could manage to make it feel so casual yet confident. “Come in.” His English is strong, though his accent heavy. Ania told me he speaks several languages, and that his father was from Spain.

He closed the door behind me as I stepped into his garret.

It’s the single most sensual space I’ve ever been in. There’s nothing fancy about it, yet sex seems to drip from every square inch. His furniture is all dark wood, a mix of mahogany and walnut. More estate sale than antique broker, but it works. It matches the stained beams of the sloped ceiling and sets off the walls, painted the deep red of a dying rose, two weeks past Valentine’s Day. The lighting is perfectly inadequate, allowing the eye to take in only a handful of immediate details at one time. Very soothing, like blinders. The living room is long and narrow, and through the few windows not shrouded by gauzy curtains, you can see an enviable skyline view to the east. It smells nice, as well, something I couldn’t place, the oddest mix of clean and musty.

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