I don't know who started this absurd game. But ever since I was old enough to participate, this was the Christmas ritual: each guest had to tell an extraordinary story about him- or herself, true or imaginary. The other guests had to guess whether it was real or invented. The luckiest or most imaginative, according to the votes of the family members, won the mystery gift. Every year, I dreaded the fateful moment when, invariably, I was the laughing stock of everyone. The eternal loser. The one who dreamed her life more than she lived it. Being incapable of lying (at least without turning scarlet red), my extraordinary adventures always consisted of finding five cents in the street or having the staggering audacity to venture across state lines. These anecdotes looked ridiculous compared to tales of Uncle Henry's polar expeditions and my cousin Emma's extraordinary encounters. Besides, I never had any luck. Except once. One time that eclipsed all my unlucky days. And all the fanciful adventures recounted by past and future generations. This is the story I told last Christmas Eve, before ten pairs of mocking, skeptical eyes — at least at first.
"One momentous day, like every Saturday morning, I reluctantly abandoned the captivating book I was reading to go get the mail, since the extreme delicacy with which the mailman had shoved it into my mailbox had brought me back to reality. Also like every Saturday morning, the scornful look that the woman next door gave me only increased my bad mood. Among the bills and ads, a letter caught my attention. I first noticed the carefully-shaped, unusual, intrepid handwriting, before reading the name of the recipient. The woman next door. Yes, the very same. As you know, I'm deeply honest and good-hearted, which to some of you means "astonishingly naïve." I know that's what you think. Don't deny it, Emma. Yet five years of scornful looks every week had conquered my innocent benevolence, toward the woman next door at least. Seized with eager curiosity, I tore open the envelope and read this:
Allow me to address you this way even though you do not know me — a fact which, I hope, this sincere and senseless letter will rectify. I am a hopeless and desperate romantic, anachronistic perhaps, impetuously playful with life, and I refuse to stop believing in its magic. Even if, I must admit, circumstances do not necessarily plead in its favor. And even less in mine. My friends, cynical or weary of seeing me single, and resigned to seeing me rely on chance alone to end this state, have nevertheless decided to give uncooperative chance a little push, and have developed this outrageous game: finding a person I am likely to like, locating her address, and sending her a letter that I have written, without ever seeing her. For a reason that I still do not know but which, I hope, your presence will justify, they have chosen you. If I told you that I am not without charm, I would seem dreadfully conceited. So I will simply mention what I like: senseless coincidences and certainties, the indolent caress of a summer breeze, that ecstatic and infinitely sad moment before devouring the last pages of a book, the surreptitious sensation of rebirth that accompanies the winter solstice, the eloquent silence when two pairs of eyes enchant one another, alliterations, passionate and melancholy beings. And paradoxical ones. And you, who knows, someday…. To find out, meet me at 9 PM on the Pont des Arts. Every night, I will wait for you there.
— A new friend…perhaps
I was trembling. My determination did not waver. One week later, I excitedly headed for the Pont des Arts. The Paris air had never seemed so charged with magnetic electricity, inexpressible possibilities, mad dreams. By the light of a streetlamp, on the almost deserted bridge, I saw a silhouette step forward and then turn toward me. I approached, hypnotized. And then…but Sam can tell it better than I can," I said, turning toward the front door.
Ten pairs of eyes moved with mine. Like them, I held my breath. My eyes were riveted on the door. One second. Ten. One minute. The door did not open. Finally, the applause burst forth, uncertain at first and then resounding.
On the way home, in the snowy street, deceptively white and innocent, my enormous teddy bear under my arm (my discreet trophy), I laughed. Delirious with happiness. I thought of my half-lie that had astonished them all. And fooled them. I thought of the letter (roughly the same as the one I had described) that I had sent to a stranger. Because I was wild with a visceral desire to live and to finally refute the scornful looks of my neighbor and my family's disdain. Because, in a government office, without seeing his face, I had heard his enchanting voice, his address, his name. Because Sam was more than a name; it was a sensuous promise. I thought of my waiting, languorously criminal, on the Pont des Arts. I thought of Sam's footsteps that I had waited for and then heard, trembling. Of the hand that had intertwined with mine facing the ravishing beauty of Paris. Each hand offered to the other. Given. It went through my mind that life could become wonderfully romantic when you write it yourself, that imagination is a priceless power, and that, without this obscure Christmas ritual, I never would have realized this. Finally, I thought of the voice and the hand, both irresistible, that were waiting for me and that from now on, every Saturday morning, would prevent me from hearing the racket in my mailbox. And the racket of reality.
Translated by Kate Deimling