There is no Paris anymore.
This means nothing really, except that it means I’m dead now. The computer is plugged in to the loose wires of an outlet. No posters decorate these four walls. The sheet rock crumbles when we pierce it with nails. Walls are blue because we couldn’t afford to paint them black. The room is hot even in winter. I am alone without Paris, even if I never had it. They didn’t tell me a state of mind can be lost. The universe didn’t offer a replacement.
The Painter can only afford discount acrylics. He stretches his canvas with broom handles. This will be the third time he has recycled the fabric. He scums cigarette butts from souvenir ashtrays brought back from places we would never visit. He coughs. Torn paint brushes dissolve in bowls of gasoline. Flecks of paint swim away, relieving the brush before it can be dueled again across the canvas. His hair has grown long and red. He is the Converse wearing all-star. Beard scruff is sporadic. Mad whiskers on a mad dog.
Duke is the real writer but he doesn’t read. His coffee is Ethiopian and black. His cigarettes are French and smooth. Tomorrow Duke will smile or he will kill himself. Paris has never meant anything to him. He can find beauty in a car crash. Feel pain from a smile. His style is New York by fall — a late throwback to a 1970s Jim Carroll. A uniform for a kid who’s been on the streets. Tight jeans. Silver rings. He shines his combat boots but he doesn’t use them for much more than stomping out cigarettes. He knows things that he does not say. We do, too. But we don’t say them.
Beautiful. Cold. Dasha doesn’t smile either. I always knew Russians would be like her, before I’d met any. She believes in the world like none of the rest. This doesn’t make her smile, though. She made her pants from curtains. Her vegetarian food keeps her young. In the forests of Russia I can see her. Deep beneath the tree line, I picture a hamlet camouflaged by ferns and pine, with little blonde Sirens bedding down against their roots. Her dimples look sculpted. An ugly world juxtaposes Dasha’s every feature. When it snows she brightens. Her hair looks like a strawberry patch when it bobs between the walls of grainy Newark alleys. All hope has left us but she keeps saying it will happen. Dasha wanted New York like I wanted Paris. They all did. She feeds us, too. Seven nights she figures a new way to cook Ramen.
We imprisoned ourselves. Here. It was all in. Full ante. We stopped living in the present for the payoff of a life with a purpose. All fortunes were on the line … and we lost. My novel wasn’t picked up. His poetry went dry. Art wasn’t art until its creator died. Or so he said. Our sentence was purgatory. No one cared whether we lived or not. If I went two weeks without typing a word the world didn’t know. The Painter was satisfied with the three of us telling him he was great. The garbage on the floor piled higher. We stepped over it. Duke drank dark beer from Europe and filled a Moleskine. Dasha wanted New York. But the scene was moving to Brooklyn and her degree didn’t cover subway fare or an iPhone charger.
Just last winter it was all going to happen. I was about to be the artist. Mine was the first book done. No more squalor. No more sharing cigarettes and huddling together under blankets. I’d be the tap-dancing libertine down Parisian streets. I’d promised myself and the universe I would be in Paris by twenty-seven. To be young in Paris. To heathen myself over cobblestone boulevards, from bookstore to bar, to throw up on rooftops and beg for a taste of those harlots spilling from watering holes and galleries around “La Ville-Lumière.”
It was so close.
But this basement bomb shelter invited us in, to crank speakers and create without interruption, and now, we were locked in. I hadn’t read a book by anyone living. The world was moving too fast around us but we just sat still. And there was no way out. We were kamikazes going down in flames instead of surrendering. The door was right there, but the force-field hung out, ominous and invisible. We couldn’t survive without each other. Outside became a scary place. We’d rolled the dice but didn’t pull that 4-5-6. One or two more rejections and the flag would be raised. We’d be cursed to disband and join police academies and the ranks of ruinous retail merchants.
Picasso, Ginsburg, Hemingway … the dream was over. In the corner was a ripped page from Seventeen Magazine. Avril Lavigne declared herself the “Sid Vicious for a new generation.” I looked at it from different angles. I knew then, as the cigarette fog hovered stagnant over the card table that separated our four corners — no matter what the tribe said, they wouldn’t have New York. And, at twenty-six, I knew, I’d never have Paris. Winter rolled. Snow dropped. We weren’t escaping New Jersey. The Painter wore a Mao Tse-tung hat but the red star had fallen off. We used copies of my book to balance the record player. Even my Grandfather hadn’t asked me for a copy to read.
It was all over.
It had never begun.
There was no Paris anymore.