Heat Lightning

by David Kirby

           The cab pulls up in front of our new apartment
on the Ile St-Louis to the unmistakable sounds
                     of the rite amoureux filling the courtyard,
the woman crying, “Uh, uh, uh, ah oui, AH OUI, AH OUI!”
           as I try to count out the money to the taxi driver

           and go, “Okay, ninety, a hundred, a hundred, dammit,”
and him going, “Just start over,” and me going, “Eighty,
                      eighty-five, uh, eighty, eighty-five,”
and the driver finally waving me off impatiently
           and taking the bills out of my hands one at a time

           and holding them up, saying, “See, a hundred francs.
And ten for a tip, okay?” and me saying, “Okay!” to him
                      and then, to Barbara as we drag the suitcases
up the stairs, “Did you hear that woman having
           that huge orgasm?” and Barbara saying, “Or faking it.”

           In the months that we lived in that apartment
we were never even sure who the Ah Oui Girl was,
                      though we narrowed down the list
of candidates to this one sort of blondish person
           in her twenties who usually looked seriously

           out of sorts, figuring surely anybody that grumpy
has the ability to turn on a dime and become
                      une vraie tigresse, as I once heard a guy
on the métro describe his own girlfriend.
           But mainly we were having one terrific time in Paris:

           so many fabulous restaurants! We didn’t know
what everything was, yet we ate it anyway, all of it,
                      from aiguillette and bourride
to loup au fenouil and méchoui to potiron and sandre
           and tourteaux, grilledbroiledboiledroastedfried.

           And that was before cheese and dessert.
And opera and dance and concerts and plays—
                      we saw Racine’s Phèdre three times, in fact,
once in English and once as a one-man show and then again
           with a full cast, only in French this time.

           The best part about being in Paris, though,
was that I could spend all this time with Barbara,
                      walking along and talking or just sitting
at a little table over an armagnac or a coffee
           and saying nothing, and we went out every night,

           and sometimes, as we crossed the courtyard on our way
back in, we’d hear the Ah Oui Girl—that was
                      Barbara’s name for her, the Ah Oui Girl—
and her boyfriend going at it,
           and often in the last days of summer

           there were flashes of what some people call
heat lightning, which is just other people’s real lightning:
                      we see it, but it’s so far away
that we can’t hear the thunder, and we turn our palm up,
           but we can’t feel the rain,

           yet it’s so hot out there, so we tell ourselves
the lightning is caused by heat, i.e., by something
                      it isn’t caused by at all.
One night we came in and these huge bolts were flashing
           silently high over the ancient crenellations

           and cries of “ah oui, ah oui, AH OUI!”
were bouncing off the courtyard walls;
                      we’d had maybe a little too much
to drink, and as we headed toward our staircase,
           Barbara said, “They’re going at it again!”

           just a little too loudly, and they stopped for a moment,
but by the time we got upstairs,
                      they’d started afresh, and we opened the windows
and listened to them for a while—
           listened to her, I mean—and then made love ourselves.

           Quietly, though. I would have been embarrassed
for either of us to make noise like the Ah Oui Girl,
                      though I envied her enthusiasm
and wished I could relax and just let myself go more
           and not be so, uh, obsessive about everything.

           I wanted to be more like her, even though
I didn’t know who she was—I mean, I knew who she was
                      when I could hear her, but only then.
Once Barbara suggested that since we’d never identified her
conclusively, maybe she didn’t exist,

           that maybe her boyfriend was an Ah Oui Guy,
a countertenor who did her voice so that everyone
                      would think he was a great lover, a kind of fourth-
arrondissement Norman Bates with sex on his mind,
           not stabbing Janet Leigh to death.

           Another reason I was glad to be in Paris
was because at last I was able to read as much
                      as I wanted to, and Barbara, too,
and since I was intensely interested in a woman
           both bookish and beautiful and saw reading

           as one more connection to her, in fact, saw it
as indispensable to love, I wondered if the Ah Oui Girl
                      was bookish as well or if she and her boyfriend
went at it with sheer animal passion, if theirs was just
           pure screaming brainless hormonal wall-socket sex,

           and one chilly night just before we leave I take a walk
and come in to the sounds of the Ah Oui Girl having
                      her usual carefree good time, and Barbara says,
“Did you hear the Ah Oui Girl and her boyfriend?”
           and as I get in bed I say, “I heard the Ah Oui Girl,”

           and the next thing I know, the sun is coming up
and I’m going out to get the mail, and when I turn around,
                      I bump into somebody and say “Pardon,”
and it’s the Ah Oui Girl, and I say, “Bonjour, mademoiselle,”
           and she scowls, and I think, Um, maybe that’s not her.

David Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at Florida State University. A Johns Hopkins Ph.D., he is the recipient of five Florida State teaching awards.

from The House of Blue Light. Reprinted with the permission of the author.