The city was burning under the sun and beneath the microscope of my scrutiny. We shouldn’t have been tourists. The skin beneath my collarbone shouldn’t have been bright red. But we were and it was. I hesitated from penning my name on the iron ledge of the tower. Spring rays yellowed the patterns of squares and triangles below. Everything the light touches is yours.
But I couldn’t grasp it.
At the base of the Eiffel Tower, there were blooming bushes. We crouched down to daisy-level, pulling wine bottles from seclusion. Suck it, Paris. How clever. On the lawn, we kicked shoes off, stole sips of rosé. My sucre crêpe leaked steadily and soon I had sugar cheeks, sugar hands, sugar legs. A real ditz, maybe. I dabbed at the damage with a damp paper towel then turned to discard it, promising: “I’ll come back when I’m a better person.”
Six days earlier, I was sitting at a desk in Midtown Manhattan eating reheated zucchini pasta. A message appeared on my computer screen: “I’m really thinking about saying fuck it and flying to France next week.” And then: “Come with me.”
Flights were booked within the hour. We packed our potential in duffle bags and pulled the forks from our hearts. “Going to Paris for a few days,” we announced. “Don’t wait up.” If we were meant to stay in one place, it wouldn’t be this easy to run away.
Hôtel Emile was the first to greet us. Streets below our terrace stretched out in the sun, buildings bending backward to conceal what we knew to be another life inside our own. We ran eagerly to the river, discovered young people gathered with makeshift picnics. We let our feet dangle over the water as we assessed the mise-en-Seine. “You can do this when you’re older,” a mother said to her small daughter. “When you’re a teenager.” We hadn’t earned our rite of passage; we stole it. We tore socks off, tore baguettes apart, tore into worn copies of Hemingway. “When in Paris,” we said. We were selfish.
Jungles spilled out of window boxes above our heads as we explored the neighborhood. There was something new to uncover around every corner: a courtyard, a sports car, our names scrawled across storefronts. We did not wander by mistake. At the Louvre, signs directed us to Mona Lisa, cutting to the chase. We considered her smirk briefly. “You slut,” was his only review. We did not pass Aphrodite. We did not collect 200 euros.
The next afternoon, we ate rabbits at a bright purple table as the bells tolled. I adjusted sunglasses to cover my gin-fizzling hangover. We were serenaded with “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” surrounded by the shade of green hills and greyed statues. Next to us sat an American church group. “I don’t like to read,” said the one with no opinion of what it means to be born again. “Except the Bible and the internet.” After a bite of quiche: “This is just like on the plane.”
Oh, yes. Once we ruled the world. Now we wait in airport terminals.
School children had shut down a block in Little Tokyo to kick around a soccer ball, aiming it at each other’s heads rather than the gap between orange cones. “La vie ne vaut d’être vécu sans amour.” Or so growled the motorcycles settled on Rue Sainte-Anne. Start your engines, perhaps. We could always be a little bit in love, even without united states.
On Rue du Temple at half past late, scuffed ballet flats and black canvas sneakers thumped against the pavement. Paris peeled back its looming, faded ivories and royal blues to allow room for frivolity, letting nothing impede our impulse. After a few laughing breaths, we reached the finish line of parked cars.
“That’s the second time I beat you running backward,” he gloated.
“I didn’t say I wanted to win,” I reminded him. “I said I wanted to race.”
We ducked into a café to uncork Bordeaux, then meandered through Marais, passing the bottle. A bathtub had been abandoned on Rue Charlot for our sails alone. I climbed aboard with an, “Ahoy!” and then reclined, soaking up every last drop of moonlight. We were supposed to declare ourselves winners, but we forgot. Check, mate. Queen me.
At one o’clock in the morning, we hopped a métro turnstile only to watch the last train disappear. A graffitied lioness looked down on us with her warning: “Don’t let your life live you.” We returned to fresh air, the foreignness and familiarity of a Friday night on the edge of morning. We followed Boulevard de Magenta to Montmartre as if we knew the way.
After two days in another dimension, I was starting to unfold. Uh oh, your creases are showing. We stood on Pont de l’Archevêché at high noon, me with feet squared, keeping a safe distance from the locks cluttering the bridge — relationship on top of relationship, no space to grow. Everything was hot pink. We had begun to sound like palindromes, speaking a mix of French and English neither one of us could understand (“Franglais,” a teacher once said).
“What are you talking about?”
I was talking about Paris. The Paris that stopped you on the street to call, “Très jolie!” before downing another mojito. The Paris that wouldn’t play your song at L’Orange Mécanique, but would keep the coffee shop open after hours especially for your Americano. The Paris that said: You are welcome here, but you must translate the rulebook on your own. We took a chance rolling the dice — and they scattered across the arrondissements never to be seen again.
At the water’s edge, we rested our buzzing heads on spare bits of clothing and swapped tales of our separate afternoons. I illustrated shoppers filling the blocks, halting cars with their slow strides and coupled hands. “Marais was nuts today,” I said. “Like SoHo.” We found logic in comparison. “I have this place, these people at home,” he said. Then why change the clocks at all? So we labeled boxes “Paris” and “New York” and took the trip apart, sorting what we already owned from what would never be ours.
Dirt on the white walls along the river made patterns for us to decipher. “We’re just very different people,” said the loner to the loner. He dipped cheese into honey. I bit juice from a strawberry. Teenagers chucked empty cans at the Bateaux Mouches, taking target at tourists — got one!
The sun began to set on the rows of books and pockets of flowers. In the middle of Pont Louis-Philippe, I noticed white dust on the tips of our shoes — markings left behind by the Tuileries — and cringed at the thought of it fading with time. We travelled not to escape home, but to enhance it — with lessons and particles that latched on. Oh, you can keep the damn croissants, but let us hold onto this. No matter where we roam, we might still stand on foreign soil.
“Who gets what of Paris?” I asked.
“We’ll divide it up like a divorce.”
“So I get this moment every other weekend.”
When I said there was no one I missed, I said there was no one I would let take the moment from me — the describing would steal from the being. While he sent text messages to people six hours in the past, I planted myself on the Point Zéro, turning slowly to capture the panorama. If this isn’t it, I don’t know what is.
In the shadows of Notre-Dame, I took a sip from the bottle of Côtes du Rhône and rationalized. “You drink wine at church. So this is worship.” Respect the gods, we declared, though we believed in none. It was just a nice thing to say. Like “bon soir” when it wasn’t one. We passed over the bridge. Reflections of traffic lights appeared in the dark, shimmering Seine. There were many red lights — only one green. And then it vanished, the light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock; we were no longer in an enchanted city.
The café on the corner had been waiting for us all along. Our waiter whisked by, presenting with a flourish: tiny saucers, cups, cookies. I cradled the espresso in my hands for a moment, squinting at the couples walking past — women in blazers, men with bare ankles. “Drink it quick,” he advised, “or else it will turn bitter.” But I was already bitter.
“Remember how you wondered if I would be a different person in Paris?”
“Yeah, you’re definitely not,” came the conclusion with a shake of his head.
“I think it’s that I’m a different person alone.”
I had meant to say “better.” But if we had a board game made of people, we would eventually lose the pieces.
We tapped at crème brûlée, trying to crack the code. A couple of expats were diving back into past relationships, but we were focused steadfast on the future, laying out the next five years like Monopoly: properties here and there, picking up tokens for the American Dream anywhere in the world. I liked us saying, “survival of the fittest.” We would adapt as we landed, not letting luck screw us out of our strategies. Point “A” was a tiny table tucked inside an underground jazz club in Saint-Germain and points “B” and “C” spanned the distance between our flaws and our freedom. Call it a draw. We would stop fools from playing our games, we would have the courage to commit our own sins. Give me an apple and I’ll grow you a garden.
“We’re such fucking crackheads,” the recovering drug addict had said ordering another café au lait. “Whenever I’m angry or depressed, I want to shave my head. Like there’s negative energy attached to my hair and if I just cut it all off…”
Angry and depressed, I exited the métro.
“I’m not going to be the crazy girl who — ”
“Oh my god.”
He turned away, avoiding the eye of my hurricane, and we climbed to the bottom of our road.
“Don’t you ruin Paris for me.”
“Please. Paris wasn’t ruined in a day.”
“Fuck you,” I said to the water running through the cobble stone hills.
The trip had been one more door in my life pried open. Like always, I hesitated before each possible path, trying to catch a glimpse of what might lie ahead. I plucked weeds under the watchful eye of Jeanne d’Arc, then stuck the prettiest behind my ear. On a slanting street forgotten by our map, we spoke of community and isolationism, tangling our arguments among ivy-covered homes. “You can’t be everything to everyone,” I was told. Or maybe it had been: “You can’t be anything to anyone.” Numbed by the anesthesia of uncertainty, my head fell back against a vacant boulangerie. I was told to pick from the millions of stars in the sky, but only a handful could be seen at all. The most dangerous thing you can do is stand still.
Abandoned in Eden, I curled up under a curtain of leaves on the chilled patio, letting them comb through my knotted hair. I pulled knees to my chest and covered shaking pajama limbs with a spare coat. We cannot shake ourselves abroad, but we can collect ourselves. I had the image in my mind of someone who looked just so (but better) smoking in this very garden. “Bring me back a cigarette,” I wanted to say, the girl who never smoked. What a gift to qualify, “That’s not me. That’s Paris. That’s me in Paris.”
We were perched on the steps of Sacré-Coeur at midnight. A halo of fog hugged the rooftops below our feet. Above, a full moon hung over the city, cascading its light across our shivering shoulders.
“Will you miss any of this?” I asked, waving a hand across the skyline.
“Yeah,” put simply.
“Visiting a million times still wouldn’t be enough,” I sighed to no one in particular.
Enough of what? Even the Seine’s ducks had turned their beaks, rejecting the crumbs tossed their way.
“I think…” He searched for a familiar landmark on the horizon. “I’ll always want more. Once one goal is reached, it never feels like success for very long.”
I stayed silent, witnessing a car struggle at the curb, not telling him that I could only ever recognize my potential as a photograph — and if I were to ever get too close, idealism would surely disappear.
We let Saturday become Sunday. There was shouting and smashing of glass around us as local youth turned a tourist attraction back into a holy place. There was a siren calling out in the distance. And there was no better spot from which to conquer ourselves.
The wind would clear broken beer bottles from the steps of the basilica just as it would push our lives forward, giving greater clarity with each current. We would sit atop summits outside of our stories, looking at life from all points of view. We would not be the center of the universe, but we would be the brightest stars in a constellation. And if we collapsed into cosmic crucibles, it would only be to begin again.