Paris. You meet in a dark stairwell in the 18th arrondissement. The power is out and you’re standing near the open window on a landing in between some floors. It’s freezing. You shiver and blow shamefully small lungfuls of smoke out into the dewy November night. They betray your amateur, expatriate status so that no wool coat and no number of coats of mascara can conceal it, no matter how dark their shades of black.
Outside it smells like Paris rain—wet cobblestone, zinc roof, and a hint of your mother’s expensive perfume.
He comes up the stairs, a dark figure but undeniably male (you can tell from the footsteps-–they fall with ease, unlike the cautiousness of a woman’s feline patter).
“Pardon,” he breathes when he spots you. You nod and look back out of the window, take a drag of your cigarette, wait for him to pass. But he stays. You didn’t get a good look at him, in the dark, and are unsure whether to be wary.
He laughs a little, harmlessly, then asks in American English if you need a light.
“I’m sorry?” you ask.
“It’s just that–-” and he points to the thing in between your fingers, “your cigarette has gone out. I’d imagine it tastes pretty rotten about now.”
“Oh,” you flush, embarrassed, and nod. You have a light, but it seems easier to just accept the one he has already lit up before you. It illuminates the angles of his face-–a Roman nose that casts a shadow across the left side, a congruent chin below. He is older, though you can’t tell by how much. You lean close to the flame, then back again. The drag dizzies you a little.
“How did you know I wasn’t French?” you ask, excitement momentarily dulling your nerves.
He laughs again, and glances up to where your host’s door is. “You’re visiting Clara, in 13?”
You nod, slowly, your caution returned.
“She’s the only one in the building who makes her guests smoke outside. Maybe the only one in Paris, really.”
That’s funny, you laugh at that.
Or maybe that isn’t how you meet at all. Maybe you meet on a train platform. You have just bought a grown Chinese evergreen and had it potted–-an ordeal that relied more on hand gestures than language. It sits in a brown paper bag the woman at the flower shop insisted you take, so as not to dirty the lapels of your coat (hugging it to your chest is the only way you are able to carry it). But the bag is much too small and it is splitting at the corners, green leaves spilling over the brim, fighting for air. They cradle your face, swallow your nose. All you see is green and all you smell is the damp soil that always reminds you of your grandmother.
You don’t run into him or anything of that sort. There is no mess.
What happens is you manage to maneuver yourself into the station and make your way onto the platform without falling down stairs or onto rails. On the bench beside you is a man in a navy overcoat and a cloud of cigarette smoke. He nods a polite greeting, which you return. He returns to staring in the direction the train should approach from, and you follow. This is what people do.
But the train is uncharacteristically late and at some point, he offers you a cigarette. Whatever way you meet, it always, always involves a cigarette. A cigarette and some deception. But never a pause.
This is a lie. There is always a pause, always a few seconds onto which you will later hang all your regret, of which you will ask questions you cannot find answers to, in the depths of which you will search for a self-contempt so great that you should choose to take the Dunhill. It’s clearer in retrospect, but sometimes you swear the things were laced.
But it happens, and you meet.
“You aren’t French,” he states, rather than asks. His lips pinch into a smirk. You smile sheepishly and wonder what gave you away. Maybe your light hair. Maybe the fact that the edges of your shoulders are soft, the outlines of bony landmarks hidden by skin, not tissue paper.
You don’t notice the gray scattered in his hair until you wake up beside him. His Parisian blinds are rusty, so they can’t close completely, but the room is mostly dark except for the violet morning light that sneaks in and paints his form in stripes.
The “flat,” as you’ve trained yourself to call it, is large. You do not trust its emptiness. It looks too easy to abandon, like he could pack up his things–-some clothes in some armoire, some books on the desk-–in minutes and go back home, leave no trace of his existence there. You imagine yourself showing up to find the place deserted, the curtains billowing weakly in the breeze, and the French chatter from the Brasserie below the window flowing in and echoing off the white walls.
But he doesn’t leave. Instead, he takes you to the opera. He wears a suit that looks expensive. You spend your entire paycheck on a coat you feel just barely passes for good enough.
His friends are all older and although they are nice enough, you are always missing jokes, limiting their conversation. There is an ever-present sense of something being left unsaid, and you glance from one face to the next, wondering if the joke you’ve missed is you.
When he tells you about his wife, you are lying in his bed, your poor excuse for armor strewn around the floor of his apartment. You build a shield out of the white sheet, wrap it around yourself like rolling paper. Some voice in your head scolds you for not having prepared for this, predicted this. You rush through questions in your mind: who do you want to be? How much are you worth? You pull the sheet up over your mouth and you grasp the fabric so tight that your fingers begin to prickle. He waits.
You know you should be angry at his casual revelation, but mostly you feel pain, and jealousy, and fear. You curl your body into him, hide beneath covers, hide beneath pillows, gut like knotted rope.
And you convince yourself that love is complicated, letting the months pass.
She becomes an abstract, faceless ghost. Just a fact. An asterisk. A footnote one glances at, simply to dismiss it before turning the page.
And you, you lose your own reflection. You lose weight. You wear black. You smoke cigarettes and say things like “Fabulous, isn’t it?” You walk through two arrondissements in nothing but a trench coat and kitten heels because he tells you to, and fall giggling into his arms when he opens his door. Bolder, you try to be older. You can do older. You can do sexy, even—you’re good at sex. But his every reaction, no matter how appreciative, feels humoring. As if he’s simply entertained. As if everything you do is for his amusement. You try harder, you leave your clothes around his flat, trying to add permanence.
But one day, he leaves.
And when he does, you cannot remember what you did before him. You cannot even remember what you thought of—as if back then you thought in a different language, the way you cannot remember things from the first nine years of your life. All of your plants have died from your neglect, your absence. From him you have a postcard—never sent, merely left on a console table. “Stay out of trouble,” it reads, in his professorial script. You throw it against the white wall but it catches the breeze from the window and floats ardently, slowly, down to the laminate floor. It lands with an apologetic echo.
Again, the city feels foreign. You leave it soon after, but you spend the remaining days writing him emails telling him you miss him, telling him you can come to him, reminding him of the places you went together and providing accurate descriptions of how different they now are.
He replies only to the last one. He says, “And yet Boston is painstakingly the same.”
You smoke the cigarettes he leaves behind.