La Vrai Paris
© Copyright 2009 by Kala. S. Anthony
In February of 2009, I walked into my job in Nashville, Tennessee and was greeted with a conference call and a severance package. My position had been eliminated and I was suddenly among the ranks of the unemployed. Weeks of trying to find work only led to more and more frustration. My resumés went ignored, my phone-calls were unreturned, and my emails were left unanswered.
After some urging by my fiancée, I did what anyone with any sense and a little time would do: I took the company’s money and I went to Paris.
I stumble onto the platform at the Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station, having missed my stop at Anvers and almost getting crushed in the slamming doors of the train. My feet are swollen and I can feel the blisters tear under the chafing of the new shoes I bought before leaving America. I’m sure my socks are soaked with blood and I am glad I’ve got codeine, as I have no idea how to say “aspirin” in French. I pull my suitcase along and feel for my wallet, certain that a pickpocket has marked me as an easy target. It’s still there. My distrust makes me feel alone and I feel like a fool with my passport and a hundred Euros in a sweaty nylon wallet that hangs around my neck under my mist-damp shirt.
The city smells like cigarettes and sweet baking bread; like soft perfume and roses opening in the rain. It is a heady bouquet of longing and subsiding regret for lost time that fills the narrow streets. Paris is the best of all the women I have ever loved: the first pang of lovesickness, the first gentle word. It is the taste of lipstick on your cigarette and scotch and water flavored kisses before you say goodnight and walk down the street, away from her door, replaying the laughter of her voice in your head. It is lavender and violet powder and the opium-sweetened smoke of her perfume, as rich as tamarind and orange peels. I am drunk on Paris and despite the surrounding chaos and the searing pain in my feet, I suppress a tourist’s stupid smile.
I walk down Rue de Rochechouart. All around me are hands offering bottles of perfume, belts, and kitschy souvenirs stamped out of base metal. People call out to me, “monsieur, monsieur, parlez vous Anglais? Francais? English? You speak English? Une moment, monsieur, une moment…” amidst the hiss of traffic. I hasten through the crowd and turn onto a side street in the hope of getting away from the hawkers, shoulders aching from switching my suitcase from side to side and my backpack straps digging into my neck.
I get to my hostel and check in, stammering in broken French. “Bonjour, monsieur. J’ai un reservation.” The man at the desk—late 30’s, tall, clean-shaven, and wearing a paper top hat covered in silver glitter—answers me in flawless English: a polite way of telling me that my French is godawful. The room will be ready at 4 pm. I have five hours to kill before I can take these damn shoes off and throw them into the Seine. I leave my bags stowed in the luggage room, take my receipt, and wander out onto Rue d’Orsel. I turn and walk half a block to Sacre Coeur. There is a carousel slowly revolving in porcelain colors of pink and gold as dozens of African hustlers sell keyrings and bracelets made of thread to obliging tourists. Small groups of Gypsies huddle and disperse. The hustlers are intimidating in groups, but they are easily avoided and they seem to prefer harassing female tourists. A seemingly endless series of concrete steps interspersed with benches and platforms ascends the green and cement hill facing the setting sun. I sit and watch the lo ng-limbed, beautiful Parisian women walk by. They traverse the streets with no problem; never making eye contact with anyone, in unbreakable bubbles of nonchalance and with aloofness that is electrifying. In painful contrast, I see fat Americans in velour ordering coffee in Midwestern English, their voices like nails driven into my ears. “Is there a Starbucks near here?” I cringe and move on.
I am lonely. Despite the beauty that I feel, somehow, is more dream than real, I feel more adrift than ever: a man without a country. The feeling is like falling in love before the words have found their way from your mouth to her ear, before the relief of a soft smile, before the honeyed scent of her neck and the traces of her on your pillow: pining and aching for mutuality. I console myself by buying a pack of Gauloises and ordering a small carafe of Bordeaux at a brasserie. I sit outside, at one of the sidewalk tables and for this, I pay an extra 50 cents. I don’t mind the soft drizzle that has begun to fall as the cobblestones sparkle like wet jewels, sparkling with the waking lights of the cafés.
The wine is cheap and young, but every swallow loosens the knots in my back and washes away the taste of loneliness. I try to write in my notebook, but the words don’t come easily. This is Paris, I think. I should be able to write something. Still, nothing true comes and I am resigned to sketching a picture of my dwindling carafe of wine and the ancient apartments across the street from the brasserie. I fumble some more with words and manage one line that I don’t scratch out until I finally do and then I order a plate of cold, sliced meats and cheese. It is the first food I’ve had in nearly a day and the salt and smoky flavor of the ham and cheeses makes me happy, content. A man passes by with a small dog that shits on the street near a parked scooter. I stare at the crossed out lines in my notebook and drink more wine. My failure to have written a novel in the two hours that I’ve been on French soil is only slightly abated after two small glasses of claret and a couple of codeine.
I find one true sentence and write it, then take a long drag from my cigarette, watching the smoke curl against the topaz sky cut into rectangles by the gray buildings that line the street.
It is raining on my first day in Paris.
And I am in love.
The shadows cast by the streetlights streaming through the blinds paint lonely gray stripes on the walls o f my dining room. Outside, the grumble of traffic lends its steady din to the hiss of the air conditioning, turned down to 68 to fight off a heat wave that heralds an early summer. I am anxious. My shirt is sticky with sweat despite the cool of the apartment and I look in the fridge for a beer, hoping to find some stray bottle that has escaped my thirst. I find nothing but a water pitcher with a 9 month old filter that I’ve been too lazy to replace. I pour myself a glass and take a Xanax, hoping for some relief from the tightness in my chest. I stare at the shadows on the wall, hoping for some flicker of grace; some miracle to appear, but instead the stripes simply tilt as the headlights outside race past, altering their axis.
I have just come home from Paris.
In two weeks, I have somehow forgotten how to communicate with other Americans--or so I’d like to think. The truth is, I no longer wa nt to communicate with anyone. My heart has been seduced by the myth of Paris: the City of Lights, of Hemingway, of perfumed women in stockings whose voices were like caresses, of brasserie genius springing to life in a novel amidst glasses of cheap, heady Bordeaux and the harsh taste of shared Gauloises. The reality is that I did not write the novel I had hoped for while sitting outside La Vrai Paris; in fact, I barely wrote in half of a small moleskine journal and much of that was in the airport. But the rest of it is true. Champagne at the Ritz with a Danish engineer and a young heiress who told me I had sad eyes. Stumbling drunk at midnight across Plâce Vendome, the glittering lights elongating my shadow in spheres of orange light. Getting hopelessly lost on the Metro and walking countless miles in shoes that gave me blisters that bled while I stopped at café after café to drink as many 5 Euro coupes de champagne as possible in order to kill the pain. Smoking hash with three Britons who worked odd jobs to survive in Paris and to whom I gave all of my over-the-counter French codeine. So the myth of Paris was alive and well…and real. What had eluded me was the myth of me as a writer in Paris, creating something from the gray rains and the cobblestones, from the vined terraces and the 3am conversations at the hostel. As usual, I had spent too much time living and not enough time writin g. And now, here I am, back in Green Hills of all places, trying to sort out what to do with myself now that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing in America will ever compare to the cradle of the City of Lights.
Slowly the Xanax begins to work and my anxiety fades. The drama of the day before subsides in a careless heaviness and though I long for a Kronenbourg or a glass of wine, I pull on an old, soft t-shirt and crawl under the cool sheets in bed next to my sleeping fiancée, the bitter chalk of the sedative still in my teeth as I feel myself disappear back into the smothering normalcy of American Suburbia, wondering what to do with my life, listening to her breathing, trying to match it with my own. I reach for her hand and feel her fingers instinctively curl around mine as I try to think of one true sentence before I fall asleep, and, just before darkness falls, I think of two.
I am lost in America.
But I am in love.
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Story List And Biography For Kalae S. Anthony