"Paris is a gas."
“A gas? Who still says that?”
Her brow furrows in cute indignation. “I do.”
He smiles and hunches his shoulders. “OK. Why not?”
“But I don’t even know what it means, really.”
“Sure you do. Gas moves a car. Paris moves you.”
"Ah… You know, I thought the same thing about Paris, before I got here."
"Aw, what do you mean?"
He takes another sip of the Old Fashioned. Best he's ever had. Smoky, a little sweet, that alcohol sensation that gently strokes the nose and brain at the same time it touches the tongue, without the sting or unpleasant head-thumping that accompanied the drinks at all the other places. Age, old wood, and warmth that creeps deliciously downward and beats away the cold of that damn Paris rain. But now the rain doesn't seem so bad and the warmth of the Old Fashioned floods his cheeks and loosens his tongue. "You know those old movie sets made out of plywood with buildings painted on?"
"That's what Paris feels like to me."
"Okay. Yes. You turn the corner and you're wowed by something drop-dead gorgeous. But it's like... you can only stop for a few seconds and it's just a backdrop for people's vacation photos, and everyone rushes around so fast... it's like those movie sets. They've always got them scrolling by quickly or blurred in the background, so that you don't notice they're fake."
"Yeah but these places are real."
"They were real."
"They were until they became abstracted into tourist attractions. Now they're giant postcards."
"You're being funny. What about this place?"
"Wait. Did you get what I meant?"
"And I think it's sad."
"Not for the same reason." She smiles, lips closed, dark-red lipstick and eyelids weighed down with shadow. No other makeup. Beautiful. Mysterious. A timeless look. A lock of wet hair is framing her face, curling over her lips and dancing with her words like a willow branch in the wind.
You know what? Thank god for the rain, he thinks.
"What about this place?" she repeats.
He takes a second to look around. A jazz bar straight out of another time. No jager-bombs. No J'
"It's true. I didn't think there were any places like this left."
"You just have to know where to go," she says.
He looks sideways at a group of three at the next table. Two men and a woman, whose eyes meet his for a second. She smiles. He does too. Then she stands and sort of glides his way. "Would you like to join us?" Slight French accent, but clearly well practiced in English.
"We're good here, I think." He turns toward Valerie, who gives a small nod of agreement.
The woman raises an interrogative eyebrow. "Alright. Have a nice evening." She sways back to her people, and his gaze lingers on her for just a second. The woman hadn’t acknowledged Valerie's presence at all.
"Would you like to buy me another drink?" She rolls her empty glass between her fingers by the stem.
"I thought you were one of those strong, independent girls." He grins.
"Some places don't change." After a short silence. "She was beautiful, wasn't she?"
"Yes, she was," he admits. Not as beautiful as you.
"One of those allures." She shuts her eyes and sniffs the air. "I love it here," she says with her eyes still closed. "A dream," she sighs, almost sings, lingering on the “m.”
He downs the rest of his drink and moves for her empty glass, trying to surreptitiously graze her hand in the process. She jerks her hand back when his gets close. Her eyes flutter nervously and avoid his puzzled stare. A couple seconds of awkward silence pass, but she smiles and the music and drink and people are too good for him to worry about it. He takes the empty glasses to the bar.
"Monsieur?" the barman asks through an unlit cigarette.
"Deux martinis, s'il vous plait- shaken, not stirred," he adds in a mock British accent. The barman doesn't seem to get it. He lights his cigarette with a match and prepares the drinks in silence, handing them over just in time to catch the ash-caterpillar dangling from the end of his cigarette in one of the bar's ashtrays. A real pro.
She's gone when he gets back. There's a napkin on the table. In curvy, slanted handwriting it says:
Have you ever heard the story of the treasure of Vincennes? Meet me at the Chateau tomorrow at 7pm.
The mark of a dark-red kiss follows, then an afterthought:
Give Paris a chance.
One of the men from the other table has gone. Jack takes the two martinis and puts them in front of the woman and the remaining man. "Bonne soirée," he says.
The day they met was the day he'd had it with Paris.
"Votre attention s'il vous plaît. Votre train est arrêté en pleine voie. Pour votre sécurité, veuillez ne pas tenter l’ouverture des portes. Merci." Translation: You are royally fucked because this train won't be moving for a long time. Thank you.
8:15am, late for a meeting with one of his professors, and stuck indefinitely in the tunnel between St.Michel-Notre Dame and Chatelet-Les Halles for the fourth time in as many weeks. As usual at this hour, the inside of the train resembled a giant can of angry, ash-faced sardines, all crumply and unattractive, absorbed in books that had to be held less than an inch from their faces, or music players, or cell phones, in a stubborn effort to create some abstract personal bubble to compensate for the complete lack of a physical one. The combined smell of sweat, leftover vomit from the night crowd and unbrushed coffee-tobacco mouths lingered evilly in the humid air, and the only sounds were coughs, whining babies and the all-too-audible French gangsta rap obliterating the eardrums of the hulking, shady teenager standing next to him.
After about ten agonizing minutes, the artificial lights flickered once or twice and...
This was a relief for Jack from the creepy stare of a greasy drunkard whose face was an inch from his own.
Why doesn't he turn the other way? It was just the doors on the other side. In the dark he could hear the wheezing, feel the wet breath on his face, and smell the acrid, sour ick of a stomach full of whatever sinister something lurked in that paper bag.
Jack turned his mind off. It was the best thing to do. He sunk off into a standing slumber, letting the mass of bodies support his weight, floating, floating in human filth... He wasn't sure how long he'd been dozing when something hard and very uncomfortably organic suddenly rammed against his thigh.
His worst nightmare. The great risk of the Parisian public transit system. Un frotteur. A dry-humper.
"Mais qu'est-ce que vous faites là!?" What are you doing!? He screamed and pushed with as much leverage as he could muster against his violator, who squealed with perverse glee amongst a litany of curse words from the surrounding crowd. As if some malicious switch-thrower were watching the whole thing, the lights suddenly flashed back on, revealing a sea of furious glares directed his way. Temporarily paralyzed from shock, Jack fell backward as the train lurched into motion, colliding with the shady rap kid, who pushed him back with inhuman hormonal force into a throng of very, very angry people.
A robotic voice crackled over the loudspeaker. Chatelet-Les Halles... Chatelet-Les Halles. Attention à la marche en descendant du train.
The doors opened with a whoosh as train air flew to meet the Paris underground. Mass exodus. Bodies cascaded through the doors, taking Jack with them, forcefully expulsing him onto the platform. He took one look toward the pullulating mass now bottle-necking at the base of the escalator and another at his watch. 8:45.
He waited out the crowd before heading to the upper level, where, instead of exiting through the blue-lit shopping mall, he took the tunnel to Metro line 1, destination: Bois de Vincennes, a slice of nature on the edge of the city, separate from all this shit. A place he'd been meaning to go since he'd arrived in Paris.
Strange day. I had to get away from the city. I got on the metro to Chateau Vincennes. Even in October there are people everywhere. Turns out you can't even look inside without paying. Even the chapel is paid entry. There were signs indicating the gift shop everywhere. The building was cool I guess.
He took his pencil up. In five months this was only the third entry in the log he'd promised himself to keep of his time in France. In the room's yellow light he looked for all the world exactly the way he'd hoped to look in Paris. Dark, tight-fitting clothes, a small room, a small desk, littered with coffee-ringed papers and piles of philosophical and literary greats stacked haphazardly on whatever surface would hold them. The dust, the busted sink, the endless street noise… everything he'd wanted. Authentic, bohemian cool. Seated at the desk with a pencil in hand. It all looked right. Except the notebook was empty. Almost.
I met a girl today. He paused again, tapping the tip of his pencil against the page. The internet radio was tuned to the French news channel. Background exposure to the language would hopefully communicate with him on a subliminal level and help him learn, but the network in the building was so bad that the news report came in almost indecipherable buffering-70%-please-wait stutters. He listened. The translation, as he understood, went something like this:
Discovered by jogger... in woods... body parts appear to belong to a young woman... the rest of the body still missing.
...stuttery chatter... long history of murder victims... Bois du Boulogne and Bois de...
The next word had to be "Vincennes."
And now regional weather.
He stopped listening and shut the radio off.
Haha. Ominous radio broadcast. Corpses in the woods. Lucky I didn't find one. I went off exploring after seeing the Chateau. I dunno. I guess it's been a long time since I just walked around in the woods. I used to do that all the time when I was a kid back in Virginia. Today I just had to. And it was perfect.
For a while I just walked. The ground was really muddy from last night's rain, and I got covered in it. That stubborn squeezing in my chest that's just been getting worse and worse was still there, and the cold wet mud soaking into my socks sucked.
I guess I zoned out. I stopped for a second and realized I was totally lost. But then up ahead there was this little clearing and there were leaves and somehow the sun picked that exact moment to finally break through the clouds and shine right into the clearing. I bet nature is full of those sorts of little miracles, if you look for them, but for me it was fucking Providence. I got pulled in.
And I cracked. I breathed. I jumped, I kicked, I threw sticks and rocks and climbed some of the trees and got mud on my face and I didn't care. I felt earth between my fingers, got it under my nails and sniffed it like a drug. God it felt good.
I thought I'd wandered way out of the way, but it turns out there are little walkways all over. She was standing on one of those, staring at me, when I noticed her. I must've looked insane. All mud-caked like that, probably laughing like a maniacal idiot too. I remember picking a leaf out of my hair and trying to clean off my glasses with my dirty shirt hem. Made things worse.
I don't know how long we just stood there looking at each other. I do know that what happened next was pretty much the best thing that ever happened to me.
She started laughing. But she wasn't laughing at me. She laughed like a little kid too and she ran right at me and picked up a bunch of leaves and made it rain red and gold and yellow and sweet autumn smell all over the both of us. The frolicking probably went on for a while, but it felt too short.
"What's that?" were the first words she said to me.
What's that was a shiny bit of metal sticking out from under one of the trees at the edge of the clearing. A great, big, ancient-looking tree actually. It's trunk was at least as wide as two of me. Anyways, I guess we'd exposed it kicking dirt around. I dug it out with my hands and lo and behold, do you know what I found?
A necklace! Totally tarnished and covered in dirt, but it looked like real gold and silver. It looked old.
"It's yours," I said.
She took the necklace like it was the most precious thing in the world. This was the first time I got a good look at her. She smiled and with the smile and the sun and leaves it was like her whole body lit up. I could see it. Emotion quivering on her lips, eyes moist and eyelids flickering. It all said "Thank you” in a way that just the words can't.
Her name is Valerie. She's American too. She's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen.
Snow, real snow, is a rarity in Paris. But now it snows with great white fury. Wind-accelerated flurries lash the sides of buildings. When it started in the afternoon everyone was all gleeful and ran outside and relished in it. And why not? Jack thought, seated on a bench in the Tuileries. He too had been lured from his room by the promise of a snow-blanketed Paris. It's pretty after all. That white Christmas-y feeling.
The sight of the ice-frosted Eiffel tower, the top glinting as the sun peeked out from the snow clouds—a great iron Christmas tree with a star on top—filled him with child desire and adult wistfulness for home and family and warm apple cider. It nearly brought tears to his eyes.
But the rosy-cheeked couples, laughing, holding hands, kissing, taking pictures of each other, grasping steaming cups of Starbucks or hot wine in mittened hands... They were... annoying! Annoying as hell.
And so good riddance that black clouds from the north came like shadow wraiths to blot out the sun, along with brumal gales that transformed the once-innocent snowfall into a stinging, icy locust-swarm.
Everyone ran for shelter. Except Jack. Now he is alone. Collar up, scarf to his nose and hat snug, he rises and treks through the thick snow, which reaches almost to his knees. He knows exactly where he wants to go.
There are no cars in the road. Hardly any people either. The few who remain are like him, shadowy figures come to see the Gothic cathedral in the blizzard, the tops of its towers obscured by the snow like they're being swallowed by some heavenly wrath. In the darkness and churning snow everything looks like a grainy, old film. Except for the stoplights, the Paris he sees now could very well be the Paris of days long gone.
This is Paris. This is Hugo's Paris, Baudelaire's Paris and Joyce's and Hemingway’s and Picasso's and Camus' Paris, he thinks. Man, this is even Voltaire's Paris, and Rousseau's and Descartes' Paris.
The seven-o'clock bells sound, but the snow dulls the ringing, which combines with the howl of the wind to create a sort of faded, unreal sepulchral echo.
Jack can't do anything but stare. In silence. He stands and stares and the minutes tick by. Gradually the wind dies down and the snowfall calms enough for him to lower his scarf and deeply inhale the cold air. He lets it out with a slow and fulfilled sigh.
"I thought I might find you here," says a voice from behind him.
He quickly turns to identify the source. "Valerie?"
"In the flesh."
“What are you doing here?”
She doesn’t answer right away. “I couldn’t miss seeing it like this.”
He stands in silence. Icy clumps of snow coat the hair around her face and little puffs of vapor float from between her lips. Her eyes are glowing, and she's smiling. Finally, he speaks. "What happened?"
The smile disappears. "I'm sorry."
"I was there. 7pm. I wanted to see you."
"I know. I'm sorry."
"That was two months ago."
She doesn't say anything now. Her mouth opens but then closes again and then just trembles, from the cold, maybe. She takes a deep breath and tries again. "I... I got tied up. I wanted more than anything to be there, but I... I couldn't."
"Why didn't you leave a phone number?"
"I don't have one."
"I really am sorry."
"You're wearing the necklace we found the day I met you." It's the same one, but now polished and shining like it was bought yesterday.
"Yeah. I thought it might suit me and cleaned it up. Plus it reminds me of you."
"It does suit you."
Her smile returns for a second, but then a worried frown takes its place. "I can't stay here very long," she says.
"I've got to be somewhere."
"Somewhere? Where's somewhere? Why do you have to be so mysterious?"
"Yes! No. I don't know. I guess we haven't actually spent much time together. But... time with you is so... real. It's weird. It's kind of like I really know you. Like... I know your... nature, I guess. You know, the kind of subconscious way you really know someone. Sort of a trust thing. So no, you’re not mysterious. But I don't know you. I don't know anything specific about you!"
"Yeah… but that doesn't matter as much."
"I guess not.” He takes another deep breath and sighs. “It made it really hard—your not being there—to try to follow your advice."
"Give Paris a chance."
"Well, what are you doing here then?"
"This," he waves his hand around, "is a special night. It's never like this."
"Turn around, Jack." He does. The Seine reflects in golden ripples the illuminated buildings standing along it. The snow has stopped, and the moonlight turns all the white into a silvery blue.
"Jack?" He turns back towards her, and she takes two tentative steps forward. She bites her lower lip, looks down at her feet and then back up at him.
Then she throws herself forward and wraps her arms around him. She smells like flowers. There's another smell underneath. Familiar. But he can’t place it. Sort of earthy. Strange. But good.
"I can't stay,” she says.
"Do you remember where we met?"
"Could you find it again?"
"I don't know."
"Meet me there tomorrow. I'll tell you everything. I just don't have enough time right now."
"But why there? Wouldn't it be easier to meet somewhere else?"
"I like you, Jack. A lot.” She hesitates. “I'm following a dream, ok? Maybe you don't get it. Why can't life be like stories? Why can't places be symbols? If we can make a place a symbol just by choosing to meet there, wouldn't you want to?"
The quarter-past bell rings and Jack notices that people are starting to come back outside. “Ok,” he says, “but I still don’t know if I can find it again.”
"Here,” she hands him a folded slip of paper. “It’s not a map or anything, but this should help. I'm sure you'll get there."
“How can you be sure?”
“I’m just sure.”
"Well, seven seems to be the time decided for us, doesn't it?"
"Sure… How can you be sure I’ll find it?"
"I'm sure... I have to go," and she runs off, waves goodbye, descends the staircase to the walkway running along the river and disappears.
Jack watches the spot where she last was. The wind blows and the paper flutters in his hand. He unfolds it slowly, taking care not to rip it. He holds it under the nearest streetlight.
Nothing on it makes any sense.
He feels cold.
The next day is a Saturday, and the deep gray circles around his eyes from a night of not sleeping make him look almost ghostly. He passes the time as best he can. Pacing amongst neglected piles of dirty clothes that he hates the sight of. He makes a second pot of coffee and tries reading from a book of short stories by Zola that he'd come across at one of those sidewalk kiosks. A man in a sort of paralyzed rigor mortis can hear and, with dying sight, see everything around him. Everyone believes him to be dead. He can't accept it, but the constant "what if" agonizes him. The whole thing is only 30 pages long, but caffeine-anxiety throws his focus around like a wiffle ball, and he can't get to the end.
At 3pm he decides to open a bottle of mid-priced Armagnac he'd bought upon arriving in France, imagining a circle of friends in a small, smoky room with a window open to a cool, crisp-aired night, needing nothing but beautiful talk and that golden liquid to stay awake and animated until sunrise. He rinses the dust off a glass and pours himself a sizable portion. For the next hour he sits and stares at the paper she gave him the night before, memorizing every detail, sipping his drink.
Then at 4pm he laces his style-over-function leather boots, dons his wool scarf and jacket and hurries out the door.
He arrives at Chateau Vincennes about twenty minutes later. The sun is low, but there should still be light for at least another hour. It's much warmer than yesterday, and he already sees more earth than snow on the ground.
I should've left earlier. Why didn't I leave earlier?!
He knows the answer. Anxiety. Doubt. Confusion. Isn't that what it always is?
Still, he has almost three hours to find the place. It hadn't taken long to get there before, right? He can't remember exactly. But the paper. He pulls it from his pocket. He doesn't open it. He doesn't need to. But he holds it just the same in his numb, ungloved hand.
Glued to the notebook-page-sized paper is a picture. The picture. He knows it's the same place. It all looks slightly different, but there is no mistaking the old tree, nor the path she'd been standing on, watching him during that singular moment of madness. The arrangement is the same. He's sure of it. But how is it possible? Chance had brought him there. Nothing else. And how can he ever find it again?
Jack closes his eyes and re-imagines the day they met. He recalls reading that the more you remember a given moment, the more that memory transforms. And there'd hardly been a day in the last two months that he hadn't thought about it. Fantastic. He sees himself, walking the perimeter of the Chateau, once the home of French kings, and not feeling anything special. He sees himself giving up, picking a direction and going. He arrives at the departure point of his memory, shrugs with a resigned sigh and walks. The Armagnac is turning his world slowly counterclockwise, and he concentrates on bearing slightly right to compensate.
Chance, symbols...what the hell choice does he have?
So he walks. He treads through the woods. Icy water invades his shoes and he loses feeling in his toes. The Armagnac churns in his head and he lets it take him, lets it swallow his consciousness and guide his body.
After about thirty minutes of ethyl-wandering a strong gust picks up and blows the paper from his hand. He snaps out of his trance and runs to pick it up where it landed...at the foot of a huge, ancient maple—probably—tree.
"Oh my God," he says out loud. This is the place. It's dark now, but the moon is nearly full, and its light easily illuminates the entire clearing through the trees' bare branches. He's here.
He checks his watch. 5:30. He sits at the base of the large tree, where he has a clear view of the path where she first appeared. And he waits. And waits. And the longer he waits the more his eyes go out of focus and finally the fatigue, the day's anxiety and the drunkenness are too much and he falls asleep.
"Jack? Jack!" There's a note of panic in her voice.
He yawns and stretches. "I'm sorry. I was so tired."
She sighs. "You had me worried for a sec. You look pretty beat."
He shakes his head and rubs his eyes to clear the fog and looks up at her. With the moon behind, she's almost a silhouette. "Is this real?"
She kneels down and sits next to him, back against the tree. She tucks herself under his right arm and leans her head against his chest, her right hand over his heart. She gives a small nod.
They sit side by side like this, Valerie's eyes closed, content playing on her lips, Jack's eyes open, wide, looking straight ahead at the path she came from and the moon above it.
“You said you would tell me everything.”
“I will.” She opens her eyes and looks up at him. “But for now, can't you just... close your eyes and enjoy this?”
“I don't think I can.”
There's no fight in him. He does as she says and concentrates on the feeling of her body beneath his arm and her head resting on his chest. He focuses on it until the thought drowns out everything else. Enjoy this. Enjoy this. Enjoy this... he repeats over and over again in his mind until the repetition puts him in a trance, switches his mind off and finally he's just feeling. Her warm breath puffs regularly against the skin on his neck and the knots in his center slowly unwind, giving way to a vague feeling of inner weightlessness. Elation.
Her weight shifts as she raises herself. And then her lips, warm and soft and real, are on his. At first he pulls his head away, but she follows and the feeling of inner weightlessness turns to full-on anti-gravity and the alcohol-torpor rushes out of his body, which awakens with a shudder. And then he loses control. Without thinking his hand runs through her hair and along her neck and she doesn't flinch at the icy touch of his frozen fingers. Their tongues intertwine. Her hands move down his chest, down his stomach, down his waist and stop. He can feel his penis hardening to meet her touch. It rises... rises... rises... and then she grips it, firmly, and he feels... he feels...
A paralyzing cold spreads from his pelvis through his stomach, his legs... it hits his lungs and he can barely breathe. His whole body goes rigid. He can move his neck just enough to rip himself from her kiss and look at her. She's glowing with vitality, cheeks flush with life, electric warmth tingles on her skin and her gray–blue eyes shine like watery moon rocks. But she's crying.
“I'm sorry!” she weeps.
“What are you doing!?” His words come out as a whisper, but his face screams with pale horror.
“You came close to me! You were looking for me. You felt me!”
His vision begins to blur and darken and after a few seconds he can't see anything anymore. He just hears her crying while the life leaves him. “Why?” he whispers.
“You came to the place where I died.” She sobs and puts a warm hand on his extinguished face. “I thought we could be together. I thought it was love you needed. I thought that was why you came.” She takes her hand away. “But it's not fair.”
His head falls back and thumps hollowly against the tree, and he lets out one long sigh... Everything fades away...
He's not dead. Not yet. But he's experiencing nothing. Nothing. His senses are gone. Blackness, Silence, Numbness... and that's it. Seconds go by... minutes, hours, days... lifetimes?
And then in the middle of the void a faded chiming comes to his ears like a far-off cry. What is it? The chiming gives way to long, high-pitched wails. Crying? No. It's music. A flute! And the song flows into his ears like warm nectar and trickles its way down to his chest.
Suddenly heat shoots to every part of his body and his eyes jolt open.
She's still there, kneeling next to him with her head down and her hands on her knees, shoulders shaking as she cries quietly. He tries to say her name, but he can't move his mouth and his body is still heavy and immovable. The flute continues on in low, drawn-out notes echoing behind the melody of her tears...
And then the pitch goes up! And the tempo. It drowns out her crying. And it gets louder and louder and louder and pounds against his eardrums. He feels hot. Too hot. Burning. And suddenly whatever invisible chains were holding him snap and he's free.
But he can't control his body. He feels all the physicality of anger, the rush and fire coursing in his veins. But it's just in his body. His mind doesn't understand. He's only thinking of how hot it is. His body jumps to its feet. And the rest he watches in silent horror. He watches as his arms throw her onto the ground. He watches as his hands rip her necklace off and throw it from view. The flute is an earsplitting screech, but he can still hear her. But she doesn't scream. She just whimpers. “Please,” she says, “death is so lonely.”
He watches himself killing her.
Afterward the color drains from her face, her flesh melts away, her elegant clothes turn to tatters, and he watches as the earth reclaims the bones that tried to escape it. No one escapes.
The flute plays on and his hand turns upward to show him that all along it held the paper, folded and a little crumpled in the center of its palm. The music comes again in long, low notes that might just be the wind blowing through the tree branches.
He turns away from the clearing and leaves. The paper tumbles from his hand. It flutters to the ground and lands silently, halfway unfolded for no one to see.
The picture is of Valerie, as she was. Tall, smiling, in a long, black coat, lipstick, big scarf. Thick locks of hair are falling out from under a beret, which is adorned by a curved feather following the flow of the hair beneath it. Her smile is wide, untamed, unforced and beautiful. In her hand is a flute. That's the look she has- it's the breathless ecstasy of someone just lost and found in music. The print, in cutout letters, consists of only three words:
Created: Mar 27, 2014N. Bourbaki Image Media