The last time I saw Millie he was heading for the Left Bank. We had met for a cognac and an argument – the usual affair although so less frequent these days. We said our goodbyes across the road from the cafe and then I watched him walk quickly away, his jittery gait marking him out in the crowd. I never thought the back of his shabby, long brown coat would be the last I would see of my dear friend.
We had met through the Front. We were young and idealistic, committed comrades, commanders of our own destinies despite the tumultuous world around us. We crammed into bars and kitchens for raucous meetings and marched through the streets. We talked late into the night about socialism, art and love.
Then one afternoon I arrived at our usual meeting place and the waiter handed me a note. Millie had gone to Spain with a woman he had met the night before. He said that as artists, we needed human suffering because it was the most satisfying subject. But as Frenchmen, it was our duty to fight for justice. I got drunk and went home to sleep alone.
It was a year before I saw Millie again. He had nearly been blown up in Madrid and had a baby with the woman but she died during the labour. He didn’t say what happened to the baby. He was older and thinner, with a limp and a large scar under his left eye. His shabby chic had given way to just shabby and his love of life and politics had transformed into an angry alcoholism. He did not paint anymore on account of a tremor.
I had always followed Millie, picking up the threads of his arguments, trying to imitate his edgy charcoal sketches, making way for his many lovers. I did not recognise the man who returned from Spain and spent the last few months of our time together desperately trying to find him again.
We still sat at our old table, drank our favourite cognac and discussed the eternal unrest across Europe. But Millie was lost in a darkness that clouded his eyes and our conversations were marked by longer and longer periods of silence.
On our last afternoon together, we left the cafe and crossed the street as usual but Millie would not let me walk further with him saying he needed to be alone. I embraced my friend and then stood back, looking into his vacant eyes and placing my hands on his shoulders, as much to steady him as to reinforce my affection. Millie smiled and for a moment seemed to return to his old self, chastising me for my misplaced concern.
“Life is absurd, my friend. We have it but we cannot control it. Once you learn that, you will be free.”
Then he turned and walked away and eventually, reluctantly, so did I.