Shoppers cut across their path to duck under awnings. Carmen carried a fluorescent yellow umbrella and the two of them continued, stepping over puddles, Graham’s leather shoes darkening at the toes. He described his minimally furnished apartment in Amsterdam: a bed, table and chairs, with the walls left intentionally blank.
“I’m anti-art,” he told her. “I prefer the sun and shadows.”
“How did you end up in Amsterdam?” she asked. Her voice was muffled by the shushing of water under the wheels of cars.
“Why Amsterdam?” she shouted.
Graham slowed. “Well, after you left…”
“Oh right, I see.”
When they turned into a narrow side street and Carmen stumbled on a cobblestone he reached out to steady her.
“I’m okay, thanks. Damn shoes,” she said and looked up to see strands of his wet hair stuck to his cheek.
“I got a placement from Toronto to work with Greenpeace.”
“Look at you – you’re soaking wet,” she said and stepped ahead of him, squeezing between boutique windows and parked cars. “I was surprised when you called,” she yelled back to him. “That you were coming to Paris. I had no idea you were here.”
Graham grabbed for her arm. They were in front of a watch shop and the sparkle of light on silver was blinding. The rain drenched through his thin coat turning it dark blue. He held fast to her arm. “Is that true?”
“I didn’t know you were here in Europe is what I meant,” she said and walked on again.
A crowd had gathered under a shop’s awning to wait for the worst to subside and they stopped again too, looking out at the sheets of rain and pressing closer together with the others taking shelter. Carmen told him about the Eiffel tower light show projected every night onto her ceiling, and how it was better than any painting she’d seen in the Louvre or Orsay. Even better than the Impressionists.
“Are the lights for a celebration?” he asked.
“Well, the city was lit up for the millennium New Year’s Eve party, but people liked it so much, they made it permanent,” she said.
“It is. It starts at dusk and sparkles every hour on the hour for ten minutes until midnight.”
She didn’t tell him she normally fell asleep at ten or that she rarely went out in the evenings, having cut her social life down to an occasional coffee date.
The Eiffel tower lights were predictable in her Chambre de Bonne – a maid’s room under the roof. She’d prop the skylight window open on its iron rod and stick her head out when it got too claustrophobic. The view was of hundreds of red brick chimneys jutting out every which way. And at night, with this light show, the structures would shift; what was once stable became fragmented. No wonder she felt dizzy most of the time.
Her friends back home thought it exotic she lived in a Parisian apartment, even though she explained over and over that it was only a tiny room under the roof with ten flights of stairs. They couldn’t comprehend, those Canadians, a shortage of space, or the concept of living in a closet.
In France, nine square meters was deemed the legal minimum for each person; it was a state-given right, held over from Napoleonic law. But even then some landlords found a way around the rule, based on overpopulation and on the numbers of naïve foreigners flooding in.
Her room was eight square metres; she supposed maids never had, nor would have, the luxury of space. Carmen’s friends didn’t understand why, with a degree in French literature, she was teaching English grammar to business students who would one day make triple what she earned.
Her friends imagined a different reality for her: eating cheese and pastries, drinking wine, walking up the Champs Elysees with a French boyfriend. Being a flaneur.
That’s what they would do they had told her blatantly. In assuming that living in Paris was about finding your fortune they offered Carmen suggestions:
–Become a writer.
-Go to cooking school and learn how to make soufflés.
-Become an art historian.
-Give tours of Paris to English visitors;
-Learn French design, or if you’re serious about making money, take photos of the metro entrances and scan them onto t-shirts;
-Become a film maker. Think: Agnes Varda!;
-Study cheese as a cheese connoisseur;
-Or a sommelier, yeah, then you could educate us while we get smashed;
-Be a nanny in the 16th, but hey, don’t let the kids put you off;
-Find a French boyfriend and get your papers.
Her closest friend offered the last suggestion on a regular basis: “Get yourself one of them. They know how to open the door for a girl. Not like Canadian hockey fanatics who only know how to open their beer.”
Because her friends lived vicariously through her, she felt obliged to tick off some of their boxes and she honestly couldn’t say she didn’t enjoy herself. But when the dizzy spells started in the classroom, and she had to hold onto a desk and look at the floor until they passed, Carmen went to a doctor.
“I’m not pregnant.”
“Are you absolument positive?”
“Perhaps you forgot the protection?”
“I’m positively, absolutely sure that didn’t happen. I promise.”
Then there was a beat, a pause, while he looked at her face, her chest, her clothing.
“Alors,” he said. “You have an iron deficiency. We do the blood test.”
The nightmares where she leaned over Escher-esque staircases running up, down, and sideways, like an interminable roller coaster ride returned. Other times, she was pushed by an unseen hand down a mountain, to trip over boulders and tree branches, never reaching stable ground which reminded Carmen of her girlhood when she’d balance, knees bent, on the centre of a see-saw. Just waiting to flinch and fall.
“Here we are,” she told Graham when they arrived at the tiny bistro: Les Temps Perdu. Carmen thought eating would be a distraction, but he went and brought up the topic of children even before the waiter arrived.
“My girlfriend doesn’t want kids,” he said, picking at wax from a candle. “She thinks the world is overpopulated as it is.”
“What about adoption?”
“No. She wouldn’t. Most people have to adopt abroad and she thinks that taking a child away from its heritage is just another form of colonization.”
He sipped a mouthful of red wine and savoured it. All the while staring at her.
“Oh, I see.” Carmen flushed and looked down. “She’s certainly thought a lot about it.” If Carmen had stayed behind with him, there would be a child sitting between them now, in a restaurant somewhere in Toronto.
Babies were not political to her, but a natural part of life. She only had to find a boyfriend to make that happen again. When she was good and ready. Or just ready. She wondered how socially conscious Graham’s girlfriend was and if she actually donated to Oxfam or Save the Children or any of those other organisations.
Did they have a good relationship? Did they have good sex? Did she have perfect shiny hair?
Outside the café, the windows were streaked with rain, and inside they were fogged with breath as if in a greenhouse. Carmen patted down her frizzy hair and Graham used his napkin to wipe a circle on the window so they could watch people passing by. He drank the wine, served in globular glasses and smelling of strawberries and freshly chopped wood, and she copied him because it gave her something to do. Every time he raised his glass, she looked at the backs of his hands with their broad fingers, strong knuckles and ropy veins. The hands that had once held her warm breasts.
The waiter appeared with steaming bowls of French onion soup and she dipped baguette into the salty broth. Then came generous portions of Quiche Lorraine with crisp green salads covered in lemony vinaigrette.
She kept her hands busy with knife, fork, spoon, napkin, water and wine, to stop her from reaching out and putting a hand on his cheek. But then she ate too quickly and burned her mouth. For dessert, she ordered a Tarte au Cerise with vanilla ice cream. He drank two espressos and she tried to remember if she’d ever seen him drink coffee. An elderly man at a nearby table lit up a cigarette and blew smoke rings which wafted above them and dissolved over their heads.
“Do you still smoke?” she asked.
“I quit a couple of years ago,” he said, looking up at the next cloud of smoke headed their way.
“Congratulations.” She hoped that came out sincerely.
“Yeah, I took up jogging. Now I’m running marathons.”
The corners of his lips were stained with wine.
“That’s amazing. You must be in great shape.”
“I am,” he said placing his hand on his chest. “Doctor says I have a healthy heart.”
Carmen noticed the hand was a bit off target and then she was getting up, pushing her chair back and wrestling into her coat. She threw twenty Euros on the table.
“Don’t you want your change?” he asked, but she was already at the door.
Outside, the fog blanketed the buildings in an undulating curtain of grey. Her mouth was getting tired from smiling whenever he looked at her. The arch of his long neck and the way he scratched his tousled hair made her want to run fast to a museum or a movie.
They spent nearly two more hours together and as long as they were walking, she didn’t have to look at him and could relax a bit. The heavy rain turned into a light drizzle as they made their way along the Quai de Tuileries to Pont Neuf. Daylight faded and the city became illuminated in the greenish fog, light by light, jewel by jewel.
On Pont Neuf, they peered over at a passing Bateaux Mouche full of tourists with open umbrellas. Those with rain jackets were hunched over with their hoods up, all except for one man who stood tall with a foot up on the stern, one hand holding a small hat down.
“Check out this guy with the beret,” Graham said and leaned over the rail to wave back. “He’s probably from California.”
Her laughter came out unexpectedly and she took a deep breath to stop it.
“I don’t meet many French men who wear berets,” she said. “The Americans appropriated that one.”
“Sibling rivalry, don’t you think?”
Carmen tried to imagine how she and Graham looked to others, while they leaned over the bridge with their shoulders just touching.
Before the dizzy spells had started again, she spent Sundays going for walks in the city, planning a new route each time to explore the various neighbourhoods. She watched people together, guessing at their relationships, and by studying their body language and how they carried themselves she made up imaginary lives for them. She tried to look into their eyes before they passed her by, hoping to discover something secret: an emotional state, an essence. To find out what happiness looked like. To see it reflected on a face. Maybe it would be contagious? But most of the time she only caught irritation or annoyance, and occasionally when men looked back, flirtation. Quite often she saw the expressions of dumbstruck awe in tourists who were more interested in man-made structures than in the French people around them. She watched them crane their necks at the Eiffel Tower. Or pose for pictures under the Arc de Triomphe, as tiny dots framed by that overwhelming war memorial.
Carmen looked over at Graham who was staring at the Seine. “Do you like asparagus?” she asked.
“No way, I hate it. Why?”
“The French just love asparagus,” she said a little too loudly. He looked over at her. “I was just wondering if I remembered little details about you.”
“Well, I remember something about you,” he said. “You were wracked by nightmares when we.”
She felt the cold metal railing through her gloves. How, out of their five-year relationship could he pick such a negative remembrance and bring it up, flaunt it to her? Yes she’d had nightmares while they were together. All of her life though. Did he think he inspired only bad feelings?
Behind them, a woman yelled at her boy, who was dressed in a suit jacket with a bow-tie and mini patent shoes. The little man pulled at his mother’s arm, whining to go back, and not forward, along the bridge. He’s just like her, she thought, living for what has passed.
“I didn’t have much time for nightmares. If you remember, we didn’t sleep all that much,” she said. She had to sit on a bench because her head whirled. Why was she flirting?
Back then, her parents went out of town most weekends and there were lazy days in bed with cigarettes and smoke ring competitions, video marathons of foreign films, take-out food and liquor. And Kama Sutra sex.
They threw costume parties in which their friends would appear as gangsters and molls, movie stars, politicians and ghouls. Some of the themed parties had mysteries to be solved, or an ethnic dish to be tasted. After graduation, she confided her travel plans only to her parents and then packed her belongings into boxes to store in their basement before leaving the country.
When Carmen got word that he’d followed her to France, she changed her backpacking route to Spain, travelled around the countryside, staying in remote hostels. She stopped checking email altogether, but when she arrived in Paris, there were poste-restante letters waiting; letters telling her he would have to return to Canada. She had ripped them up and tossed them into the Seine, where pigeons swooped down, expecting her confetti to be food.
“I know what you mean,” she had said aloud to the anxious birds. “Not very tasty.”
It was only a week ago that she answered her cell phone to his baritone voice.
“Your parents,” he admitted. “I practically had to pay them for your number.”
He lived in Amsterdam now and would be in Paris on business. Could they get together for an afternoon?
The rain started again, this time as a fine mist, and the spray crept under her scarf and down her collar.
“I’d better go. I have to teach early tomorrow,” she said.
They retraced their steps over the Pont Neuf to the metro station. When he gave her a quick hug goodbye, the handle of the umbrella knocked her in the face. He apologized, for the umbrella or for the relationship she wasn’t sure, but she would surely have a bruise on her cheek.
“It was great seeing you again,” he told her, his voice seeming a pitch higher.
“You too, it was really great. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Actually, I like to think I have,” he said and handed her his business card. “Don’t lose it.”
He watched her descend the concrete steps into the deep underground tunnel.
Over the next few weeks Carmen thought about emailing to thank him for his visit, but she couldn’t find the right words, and anyway she didn’t hear from him either.
One night, when she was getting ready for bed, her best friend Joanna called from Toronto. This is how she learned that Graham had remained single, and the girlfriend
he’d told her about at lunch didn’t exist. Joanna thought he wanted to suss her out and see what she had been up to all these years, if she was married with kids.
Carmen took the receiver and lay on her bed; she watched the Eiffel tower lights illuminate her room. It had been three years since she left – wasn’t that enough time? When Joanna asked if she was over him, Carmen sat up and hit her head on the sloping ceiling.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” She rubbed the palm of her hand into her forehead. Now she’d have two bruises. There was a silence on the line and Carmen lay back down. “I’m a bit jumpy because I’ve been having the dizzy spells again.”
“I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have told you that.”
“No, no, it’s okay. I’d rather know.”
Somewhere in the building a child wailed. “Just a second.” Carmen held the phone against her chest, and listened to the sound of little lungs laden with grief or fear or even terror. She went back on the line. “I’d better go, but thanks so much for calling.”
“No problem,” Joanna said.
“I appreciate it.”
“Good, then don’t forget I’m here. If you ever want to come home.”
When Carmen hung up, she watched the shifting patterns on her ceiling: diamonds and dots and slashes. Like a flashlight shone into a jewel box.
Her head throbbed as if she’d been drinking; the child’s wails pierced the thin walls. She closed her eyes but the spinning got worse. Lying on her narrow bed she took long deep breaths, one after the other, but couldn’t get enough air. After all those nightmares, she thought, and I’m still falling.
Published: Tinge Magazine, Temple University, USA, Spring 2016.
A Short Story by Unbound author, Elena Kaufman, from her upcoming collection, Love Bites. Read more and support the book here.