It’s eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning in May, and I’m standing on Boulevard St. Germain des Prés in front of the beautiful old church of the same name. My suitcase sits next to me on the sidewalk and my daypack is slung over my back. I’m vaguely aware that tears are leaking out of my eyes and rolling down my face.
Parisians stream past me—students, office workers, shoppers, laborers—and if they notice me at all, they probably imagine that I’m moved to tears by the sublime proportions of the Romanesque bell tower, or that I’m just one more silly Americaine, enthralled at finally making it to Paris.
I don’t much care what they think. After spending the night with my knees under my chin, wedged between the tall kid in the aisle seat and the fat lady in the window seat, my body is just beginning to un-crimp. My short brown hair is dirty and flattened to my skull. My eyes, which Evan once told me were exactly the color of Grade A maple syrup, are currently so bloodshot they look like the street map of Paris I picked up at the airport.
If I’d booked my flight months ago—January, say—like the tall kid and the fat lady probably did, I might have had better luck with seat selection. But in January, going to France was the farthest thing from my mind. In January I was incapable of long range planning. I was still trying to put one foot in front of the other. Pour the cereal in the bowl. Remember how to dress myself. Start the car. Preferably after opening the garage door.
And anyway the date was the most important thing. I decided I didn’t want to be waking up in Los Angeles on May 3, thinking of the same date one year ago. Mornings are always the hardest. Just before you open your eyes. That’s when the memories come for you, and you’re too groggy to outrun them.
I couldn’t bear the thought of going to work that day, watching everyone tiptoe past my door. Seeing them carefully avoid mentioning the Watkins account in my presence. I didn’t want to deal with the inevitable phone calls from my mother and Beth-Ann Kennerlieber, my best friend from forever. And Evan’s mother. We were just thinking of you today, Andy. We know how much you miss him, honey. We do, too.
By leaving on the evening of May 2, it was almost as if the 3rd had passed me by in mid Atlantic. As if I could erase it from the calendar, and thereby erase it from my brain. I hadn’t thought of it at the time I booked the flight, but that’s just how it worked out. Sort of an eerie coincidence. Of course, Evan didn’t believe in coincidence. “It’s all in the stars, Andy,” he’d say. Then he’d ruffle my hair because he knew it annoyed me.
I have to say right up front, I don’t believe in that star stuff. Oddly, I think Evan actually did. I say oddly because it didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the package—finance major, soccer jock, corporate whiz kid, Trivial Pursuit addict. Oh, he’d joke around about scorpio rising and moon in libra, but more than once I caught him sussing out Sidney Omar’s column in the LA Times while pretending to read the comics.
That was one of the things I loved most about him—the sense that all was not exactly as it appeared, his wonderfully loopy take on the world.
He could predict things sometimes. Nothing world shattering like wars or election outcomes, but things like the Long Beach Toyota Grand Prix getting rained out or the Diamondbacks losing the pennant or our favorite taqueria closing because Clarita’s little girl had to be taken to the urgent care clinic. Weird stuff. And when I’d stare at him and demand to know how he knew, he’d just laugh and say, “I told you, it’s in the stars. It’s all there.”
But of course it wasn’t. Because if it had been, he would’ve seen it, and he would’ve known not to get on the bike that day.
I met him at a party, but not exactly the way you might suppose. It’s not like our eyes locked across a crowded room. His hand didn’t brush mine as we both reached for the same piece of California roll. Actually, I tripped over him.
It was my company’s annual summer party. At the over-the-top (think Country French on steroids) home of Al Hoskins, president of Hoskins & Holthaus Advertising. One of those interminable, sleep-inducing affairs that makes you wish you could get seriously drunk and dance naked on top of the hors d’oeuvre buffet. You can’t, of course, because it’s difficult to face the art director in a Monday morning meeting and tell him the logos for the Watson account are boring rather than sleek and spare, when the last time he saw you, you were waving your lavender Miracle Bra overhead and singing “Chain of Fools.”
It was August, and Southern California was in the throes of a wicked heat wave. The air conditioning was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people because, in addition to all the H & H employees, key people from our biggest accounts had been invited. Everyone kept going outside to see if it was any cooler out there, which it wasn’t, and all the door opening made it even hotter in the house, and nobody wanted to be the first to suggest that we bag it and go run through the sprinklers on the golf course.
To make matters even more unbearable, I was dating Chris, my (married) boss, who’d been assuring me that he and his wife were discussing the details of the divorce, but ohmigod…he showed up at the party with her in tow. He and I were having this rapidly escalating discussion of the situation in the kitchen and the caterer was trying get rid of us, and then Al came in and strongly suggested that we set aside our differences and get our butts out to the party. Chris was trying to pretend that Al had no idea what was going on, when, in truth, there was no one in the company, with the possible exception of the night cleaning crew, who didn’t know Chris and I had been carrying on like bunnies for nearly six months.
Anyway, I stormed out, straight to the bar, and poured myself an eight-ounce tumbler of white wine. I continued out the French doors, across the patio, past the pool with its fake lava waterfall and rubber lily pads, across the perfectly manicured lawn. My destination was the white gingerbread Victorian gazebo on the far side.
I almost made it. But then my sandaled foot hit something warm—something rather like a body. The wine glass went flying, and I tumbled to the ground, somehow ending up half on top of this guy.
After the initial yelped expletive he smiled and said, “Hello.” Quite calmly, considering the circumstances.
I was trying to collect myself, apologizing frantically, when it occurred to me to wonder what the hell he was doing sprawled on the grass. I pushed myself off him, and began rubbing my bruised shins and knee.
“Excuse me, but what exactly are you doing sprawled on the grass?”
“Watching the Perseids.” He massaged his thigh. “Good thing your knee didn’t travel any farther north. It would have put a serious crimp in my ability to father an heir.”
“What the hell are Perseids?”
“Meteor shower. Tonight’s the peak.” He held out his hand. “Evan Watkins.”
Uh oh. “As in Watkins Enterprises?”
I still hadn’t extended my hand so he reached over and took it. It prodded me to say,
“I’m Andy Harriman.”
“As in our Account Manager?”
“Um…yes. Why haven’t I met you before?”
“I’ve been working in sales for the last six months, so I’ve been on the road.” He laughed. “All this time I’ve been thinking Andy Harriman was a guy. Been meaning to buy you a beer and tell you how much I like what you’ve done with our advertising.”
“I don’t drink beer.” I winced when I tried to get to my knees. “But I’m glad you like the campaign.”
“Andy. Short for..?”
“Oh.” He sounded vaguely disappointed. “Actually I could see you more as Andromeda. She’s kind of upside down, too.”
“What?” I tried to take a closer look at him, but it was dark in this little corner of the world. All I could make out was a smile full of nice, even teeth. Black frame glasses pushed up on top of his head.
“Andromeda, the constellation” he said, pointing, and I tried to follow the general direction. “Of course you can’t see her right now. Too close to the northern horizon and there’s too much light in LA. Can’t see Perseus either. Or Cetus. Just all these fabulous—”
I followed his gaze just fast enough to see a streak of light. “Oh my God. A shooting star.”
He laughed, a pleasant, male sort of chuckle. “Lots of them. Except they’re not stars, they’re meteors. Look. Lie down here.” He patted the grass next to him.
“Isn’t it a bit…damp? Aren’t there worms and things…?”
“Nah. I promise. And even if it was a little damp, it would be worth it to see the Perseids at their peak.” He put his hand on the grass, then touched my arm, and my stomach suddenly felt like a butterfly convention. “See?” he said, “It’s dry.”
I lowered myself gingerly. “What about the worms?”
“Watkins Enterprises at your service, ma’m. I’m heading up a new division. Earthworm and earwig protection services. Damsels in distress our specialty.”
I couldn’t help laughing, and I started to recline.
“No, point yourself this way. Now turn your head slowly.”
It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust. He called it “dark adapt.” He said my retinas were being flooded with a fluid called visual purple, making them infinitely more sensitive than they are in the daylight. Meanwhile, my brain was being flooded with questions. Who is this guy, really? What planet did he come from?
While I waited for my eyes to adjust, he told me the story (which, I was embarrassed to say, I’d never heard) of Andromeda, the daughter of the King and Queen of Joppa, who somehow pissed off some sea nymphs. They in turn complained to Poseidon and he smote the waters—in mythology they were always smiting things—calling up Cetus, the way bad watersnake. The oracle told the king that in order to save his kingdom, he’d have to chain his daughter to the rocks by the ocean as a sacrifice to the monster. However, Perseus, who just happened to be in the neighborhood on his way home from slaying the Medusa, saw Andromeda and fell in love with her. So he killed Cetus and rescued her.
Even before he stopped talking, I began to see them—quicksilver streaks across the sky. You could do a lot of wishing on a night like this; so what if they weren’t stars. It occurred to me that it was sort of a dicey situation—lying there in the grass next to a man I didn’t even know—my client, for God’s sake—watching stars fall out of heaven by the dozens and becoming ever more aware that his hand was less than an inch away from mine. But even the certain knowledge that I’d lost my mind and was probably going to lose my job wasn’t enough to break the spell of the moment.
“So, why do they call them Perseids?” My voice was a bare whisper.
He turned just slightly towards me. “Because their radiant—that is, the apparent origin—is the constellation Perseus. I guess you’d call him the hero of our story.”
We lay there for a few minutes without saying a word. But I could tell he’d moved a little closer. I could feel his breath on my face, I could hear my own heartbeat and see the tiny grains of dust becoming rockets in the blackness. The party seemed very far away. Suddenly I heard my name.
“Andy! Where are you? We need to talk. Andy!”
“Who’s that?” Evan said.
“Andy, where are you?”
I watched another couple of fireballs shoot across my field of vision. He’d propped himself up on one elbow so he was looking down at me, not up at the sky.
“I think it’s Cetus,” I said.
Now with my dark adapted eyes, I could see that he had a wonderful smile. We both started to laugh and when we stopped laughing, he kissed me, and his glasses slid down onto the bridge of his nose, and we laughed some more.
I shake myself back into the present, riffling through my daypack. Where the hell is the map of Paris? Did I leave it on the train? For an agonizing minute I’m pushing Cetus the panic monster back down into that scary cave where he lives inside me—invisible, but waiting. I have no idea what possessed me to come to Paris. What am I doing here? I had four years of French in high school and at the moment all I remember is the word for asshole. If I had to get away, why the hell didn’t I just drive to San Francisco?
Maybe it had something to do with the campaign we put together for one of our clients in February—the photo of the woman drinking coffee in a sidewalk café. Okay, and then there was the horoscope business. One bleak March morning in the LA Times, Sidney Omar had said “an unexpected trip” would bring healing. But an unexpected trip could just as easily have meant Cleveland. At least they speak English there.
I square my shoulders. I’ve made it this far just fine. Customs and immigration went pretty easily and I found the RER train into the city without much trouble. At the Gare du Nord I managed to locate the Bureaux d’accuiel where they find you a place to stay when you’re stupid enough to come to Paris in May without hotel reservations. They booked me at apensione called Chez Pauline on rue des Canettes, which I seem to remember means ducklings. Street of Ducklings. They gave me a slip of paper with the address, a Metro map and a heartybonne chance. The Metro disgorged me at St. Germain and here I am.
Eventually I unearth the map. The street of ducklings looks to be close—only a few blocks, so I decide to save the cab fare and walk. Of course it ends up being more than just a few blocks, and I’m hauling fifty pounds of baggage, so by the time I find the place I’m sweating like a stevedore and out of breath. I drag myself and my daypack up the stone steps and ring the bell. Then I go back down for the suitcase. While I’m struggling with it, the door opens and a fair-haired, smiling woman says,
“Hello. You must be Andrea. Did you have any trouble finding me?” in a perfect British accent. I almost start crying again with relief.
The tiny room on the third floor is exactly the sort of place you’d hope to find in a house in Paris. The walls and sloping ceilings are painted a pale blue, bare except for one rather ugly small oil painting of a flower market done in full-tilt, over-exuberant colors. White lace curtains flutter at the dormer window, and there’s a white iron bed with a delicate crocheted coverlet, a chair, and a tall mahogany armoire with an ornate brass key. Pauline shows me the W.C. down the hall and the salle de bain, with its pedestal sink and massive claw-foot tub. Then she gives me an appraising look and says,
“You look as if you’ve had a rough trip. Why don’t you freshen up and come down for some tea?”
Freshen as I might, I still look like I’ve been dragged backwards through a knothole, and my eyes feel lined with fine-grade sandpaper. I open my suitcase on the luggage rack and stare dully at the contents for a minute, but everything looks as wrinkled as I feel, so I trot obediently down to the front parlor.
While Pauline fusses with the tea things out in the kitchen, I wander around the parlor looking at her books and knick-knacks. There’s a photo of her with a man. He isn’t handsome. Tall and lanky with a beak of a nose, but he comes across with a certain je ne sais quoi.
When she reappears with a tray, I suddenly realize that I’m starving. I settle myself on a pretty green velvet chair and she serves me tea and croissants and cream scones with lemon curd.
Pauline LeCamp is a slim, elegant Brit who married a French pro tennis player—the guy in the picture. They had an amicable divorce five years ago and she ended up with not much other than this lovely old house with a big tax bill. To keep said lovely old house, she began two years ago taking in paying guests, mostly students and budget-minded tourists who didn’t mind sharing a bath and eating breakfast at a common table.
“Are you a student?” she asks me.
“No,” I say around a mouthful of feather light scone.
“Just on holiday?”
“The Bureaux only booked you for one night. Do you know how long you’ll be stopping here?”
“Not exactly.” I can tell she’s impressed with my sparkling conversation.
“Well, I generally like to have twenty four hours notice when you’re leaving, but you can let me know this evening. Have you got plans for today? I can help you with day trips, shopping information, galleries and exhibits, lectures…There’s quite a lot of interesting goings-on at the Sorbonne. I can give you the names of some good cafés and bars. And the quarter is full of dance clubs, although I don’t frequent them.” My exhausted mind is not digesting all this. “Are you meeting up with friends?”
I say nothing, but watch a look of comprehension replace her practiced, professional friendliness.
“Ah, I see. So this is a sort of I-couldn’t-stand-another-bloody-minute-of-it holiday?”
I manage a weak laugh. “Something like that.”
“Well, you’re in the right place,” she smiles. “I’ve never seen a muddle that couldn’t be sorted out in Paris. But to start, why not try a little sleep? This neighborhood is lovely and quiet during the day.”
“Thanks. I think I will.”
I trudge gratefully up the two flights of carpeted stairs, turn the screaming colors of the flower market painting to the wall, and collapse on the iron bed.
When I open my eyes, the room is dim. I scan the walls while my brain flips through a list of possible locations where I might be waking up. My house. No. Not my mother’s. Or Mary-Beth’s. I have a terrific crick in my neck from sleeping face down and there’s a big wet spot of drool on the embroidered pillowcase. When I ease myself into a sitting position, my gaze comes to rest on the back of the painting. Ah. Now I recall. Paris. In a few minutes I feel strong enough to stand up and totter over to the window. A sea of slate tiled rooftops in the pinky gray dusk greets me, and I feel a kind of wonder.
My eyes brim suddenly, and for a second the temptation is strong to crawl back under the covers and wallow. But there’s this voice in my head. Get a grip, Andy. You’ve already wasted a whole day in Paris sleeping.
After a hot soak in the tub and a change of clothes, I feel somewhat more human. And hungry. The stairway is dark, but as I reach the top, a light comes on. As I come to the landing, that light goes out and the next flight is lit. Clever people, the French. Downstairs I literally bump into Pauline in a shabby chic trench coat.
“There you are. I was trying to decide whether to wake you before I left. Feeling better?”
“Yes, thanks. I was wondering if you could direct me to someplace not too expensive for dinner.”
“Of course. How hungry are you?”
“Well, there are plenty of student haunts up on Boulevard St. Germain or BouleMiche. Or you can come with me. I was just going round to Drugstore St. Germain.”
“That’s really nice of you. I don’t want to disrupt your evening, though.”
“Not at all.” She pronounces it “a-tall” and she smiles.
Drugstore St. Germaine really is a drugstore. It’s huge and the ambience is early Walgreen’s, all bright lights and noise.
“I’m certain this isn’t where you dreamed of eating on your first night in Paris,” she says when we’re seated at one of the tiny tables. “But I think you’ll be surprised at the quality of the food. And the prices are quite fair.”
“To be perfectly honest I hadn’t thought much about where I’d be eating my first night in Paris.”
Suddenly the waiter appears with a plate of bread and that wonderful sweet cream butter. We order our dinners and a carafe of vin blanc.
“Do you like living here?”
“Very much. It was lots more fun when Francois was around, but you adjust. His family and friends like to pretend I don’t exist, of course, but I’ve made some friends of my own—mostly expat Brits. And there’s ever so much to do here. So I keep busy.”
“Did you ever think about going back to England?”
“Good wine’s cheaper here.” She sips contentedly. “Actually my mum’s passed on and my dad and sisters weren’t keen on my marrying a Frog. I suppose I wasn’t particularly interested in hearing the rousing chorus of we told you so.”
Her smile takes on a slightly wicked glimmer. “Besides, the French are much more appreciative of une femme d’un certain age than the English, so my social life is probably better here.” With her pale hair falling softly around her face, and her gray eyes reflecting the glittering lights, she doesn’t look even close to what I think of as “un certain age.”
The waiter sets down our plates and I bend forward to inhale the warm fragrance of garlic and herbs rising from my poulet roti.
“What actually brought you to Paris, Andrea?”
“It was like you said. I just had to get away. And I—” I break off suddenly, realizing how woo-woo this is going to sound.
She raises one perfect eyebrow. “And you…?”
“I was sitting at my desk looking at tear sheets of an ad for one of my clients. One was a picture of a café. I’m not even positive it was Paris, although at the time, I felt absolutely certain. And there was a woman sitting at a table with a cup of coffee. She was alone, but she was smiling…I guess it was stupid, but I suddenly wanted to be that woman.” I decide to hold off on mentioning Sidney Omar.
“No, not stupid.” She takes another sip of wine and says casually, “Married?”
“Almost.” My eyes go automatically to the star sapphire ring on my left hand. I pretend to study the long rack of glossy magazines along the far wall and hope the tears that are pooling in my eyes don’t spill over and dilute my wine.
“Sudden changes can be quite difficult, I know,” she says gently. “But you can still have a lovely holiday here, if you’ll allow yourself. Just begin slowly. Give yourself some time.”
I smile carefully at her and begin to cut my chicken into perfectly square, bite-sized pieces. I want to tell her that’s the easy part. Time. There seem to be vast quantities of the stuff spooling out around me in all directions, everywhere I look. Days and hours. Weeks and minutes. Years.
The hard part, I’ve discovered, is filling it.
I don’t take breakfast with Pauline’s other guests. On my floor there are two Aussie girls. They sound young. College age, maybe younger. Lots of whispering and giggling. They seem to bounce off the walls as they head down the stairs. I picture them in those dance clubs that Pauline doesn’t frequent. Dancing with swarthy men who wear tight black pants and reek of Drakkar Noir.
On the second floor there are two couples—one American, one German. The men both have graying hair and large stomachs and the women look as if they get up before dawn to start applying their makeup. I’ve only seen them in passing once or twice, which is fine by me. Even at my best, I’m not big on polite conversation with strangers before my second cup of coffee. It’s much nicer to drift in and out of consciousness under my comforter, listening to Paris come to life for another hour or so.
They’re all usually gone by nine a.m.—off on the Greyline City Tour or taking in the Baccarat Museum or the Rodin sculpture garden or Pompidou Center, Notre Dame, la Tour Eiffel. When the house is quiet, I get up, dress and go downstairs. The dining room is empty, still and sunny. If Pauline’s gone out, she leaves a thermal carafe of coffee and a basket of bread, a covered plate with butter and cheese. If she’s around, she’ll sometimes have a cup of tea and keep me company, ask about my plans, make suggestions.
At first I stay pretty much within the boundaries of conventional tourism. I visit the Louvre, which is overwhelmingly huge and full of Japanese tourists.
I do the Eiffel Tower and discover in myself a latent but fully functional vertigo. I make a quick pass through Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, the two major department stores. At Fauchon, I stare in awe at the window display of a leg of lamb that opens out like a cornucopia, filled with fresh vegetables sculpted into the shapes of fruit.
Out of the whole first week, the place that imprints itself indelibly on my mind is the Conciergerie, the forbidding prison of the French Revolution. The day I visited was warm and sunny, but the breeze around the walls seemed cold. The dark, airless cells and tiny courtyards seemed to exude sorrow, particularly the Cour des Femmes, where prisoners bound for the Guillotine were allowed to say their final farewells.
The second week, I discover the Musée d’Orsay with its comforting and familiar paintings of the French Impressionists. I go jogging along the quais. I watch children floating their boats in the fountains of Luxembourg Gardens and the old men playing petanque and sucking tired looking cigarettes.
Paris begins to get inside me.
I take it up through the soles of my feet as I walk the tree-lined boulevards. I inhale it with the exhaust fumes, the steam off my café au lait, the bouquet of vin rouge, the sweet, roasted grain smell of the boulangeries. It seeps into my pores with the breezes, the puddles evaporating after brief, torrential showers. I feel myself unwinding in a long, slow spiral.
Versailles is disappointing. Formally stodgy and not particularly beautiful. The Hall of Mirrors is cavernous and weird, all that light and glitter and reflection and nothing there to reflect. No furniture except for a tiny, ornate desk upon which the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Just emptiness bouncing back and forth across the room from one mirror to the next. The parc is much nicer, but every flower and bush and tree is tortured into frozen perfection. Plus it’s expensive and I return exhausted. I think about skipping dinner in favor of a hot soak and a glass of wine, but Pauline talks me into going to a little bistro where the mellow sweet fumes of garlic soup loosen my tongue. Okay, the bottle of Alsatian Riesling doesn’t hurt, either.
I find myself telling her all about Evan. Well, except for the star thing. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just too intimate, too quintessentially Evan. To share it with anyone else—anyone at all—might diminish it. It might make the picture of him in my mind seem a bit faded and trivial, like an old photograph of someone wearing amusingly out of style clothes.
I just tell her about how he loved movies, everything from the biggest Hollywood blockbuster to the most obscure art film from Yugoslavia. How we were both tired of expensive, pretentious restaurants, so we explored local dives in search of the juiciest hamburger, the smokiest barbecue, the most authentic Mexican, Thai, Moroccan, Persian—you name it. We frequented the House of Blues and the Jazz Bakery and some of the funky little clubs on Sunset Boulevard. We took long walks on the beach and drives into the desert.
I tell her how he made me feel, how some nights I lie awake wondering if I could ever feel anything like it again.
“So what happened?” Pauline’s voice startles me.
I chew the inside of my cheek. “He was killed. A motorcycle accident. A month before our wedding.”
She gasps audibly. “Oh, Andy. Dear God, I’m so sorry.” She leans toward me, brows knit together in genuine distress.
Sometimes you just have to believe that people spend a lifetime stockpiling stupidity, so they can drag it out on special occasions. Like at funerals. Numb as I was, I still couldn’t believe that people actually came up to me and said things like, Don’t worry, you’ll find somebody else. Things like, At least you’ll remember him as young and handsome and you’ll never have to watch him get old. And At least it was quick and he didn’t suffer.
I hope the flowers were all right. I used a new florist because he was having a special promotion.
Sorry I couldn’t come to the funeral; I couldn’t get off work on such short notice.
Too bad you were just living together. If you’d been legally married, you’d at least have his life insurance.
In the midst of regaling Pauline with tales of the funeral, I suddenly find all these misbegotten condolences oddly and excruciatingly hilarious, and I erupt into great shuddering spasms of uncontrollable laughter—the first in a very long time.
“Oh, Andy, don’t,” she says, but after a few seconds she joins in. Every time one of us gets close to quieting down, our eyes meet and we start laughing again. I can’t stop laughing. About the time I realize there’s a kind of hysterical edge to it, the laughing has turned to crying. Which is equally uncontrollable.
She signals for l’addition, pays the waiter, and we stumble to the nearest Metro station. She holds my arm to steady me, brushing aside my soggy apologies. When we reach home, I’m ready for bed, but she insists that a proper cup of tea is needed to ensure a restful night.
“Tisane, actually,” she says. “Chamomile is very calming.” As we sit in the parlor with our steaming cups, I feel her assessing the state of my mental health. “Are you all right?”
I sigh and nod and try to reassure her. “Just exhausted and embarrassed.”
But there’s also something else going on. I’d tell her, but I can’t really explain the feeling yet, even to myself. It’s almost a weightlessness, like an astronaut in deep space, and a loosening, as if something hard and heavy in my chest has shattered into thousands of tiny pieces.
Maybe it’s that, or maybe it’s just the tea, but I sleep deeply and dreamlessly that night.
Monday morning I head for the Metro stop early. Something almost like a smile forces its way to my face as I let myself be carried along by the river of people going about their daily business. Distinctive smells spike the morning air—coffee and garlic and baking bread, different perfumes and aftershaves. A woman carrying a bunch of intensely fragrant lilies seems unconcerned that they might get squashed against someone’s coat or backpack. The ubiquitous accordion player is already at work in the tunnel, playing the love theme from “The Godfather.”
It’s so different from driving to work in L.A, hermetically sealed into my VW Bug with my non-fat, no-foam double latté, and my evergreen car deodorant. My only contact with other commuters is generally limited to a honk and a rude gesture if I unthinkingly cut someone off.
After a long ride north I exit at Porte de Clignancourt and follow the crowds along the avenue lined with tacky street vendors selling partially used phone cards and suspiciously rubbery-looking leather jackets. The sun is already warm, and water left on the sidewalks from the morning’s scrubbing steams towards the blue sky. I turn left on the rue des Rosiers, into the heart of the beast—the Marché aux Puces de Saint Ouen, which bills itself as the world’s largest flea market.
And it is. It must be. It looks roughly the size of Santa Monica. The atmosphere pulses with color and motion, with noise—the traffic of moving bodies makes up the background, overlaid with sellers and buyers haggling over price, kids with boomboxes. People walk by alone, engaged in animated conversation, displaying the full repertoire of Gallic facial expressions and gestures. I know they’re talking on cell phones, but they still look like lunatics, talking to God or imaginary companions.
I have no idea what I’m looking for, but I told Pauline I want a souvenir of my trip, something other than the generic silk scarf from Au Printemps or bottle of perfume or framed watercolor of Notre Dame, and this is where she’s sent me. I take a long breath and submerge myself in the crowd.
The market is actually divided into lots of separate markets, each one specializing in a different sort of goods—furniture, antiques, paintings, bronzes, clothes, china, phonograph records, books, vintage postcards, linens, jewelry—whatever you can imagine, you can buy here. I wander aimlessly among the stalls. Some of the dealers speak English, but most aren’t interested in chatting unless you’re a serious buyer. Their frank stares of appraisal—as if I’m just another kind of merchandise—are intimidating. And the mindboggling array of stuff is overwhelming. My overstimulated brain wants to run up the white flag.
I love the antique buttons—handpainted porcelain, hammered silver, carved wood and bone, colored glass. But what would I do with them? Not only don’t I sew, I lack the hand-eye coordination necessary for even the most basic crafty projects.
When the sharp-eyed dealer says, “Vous desirez, Madamoiselle?” I shake my head and murmur, “Non, merci.”
Likewise, when I stop to admire the hand-spun, hand-dyed skeins of wool, it must be obvious to the young hippie looking girl seated on a tall stool behind the metal cashbox that I’m just a grimy-fingered gawker. She barely looks up from her knitting.
I’m tempted to skip the book stalls altogether. I’ve already bought several things from thebouquinistes along the Seine, and a book really isn’t what I had in mind today, but as I turn reluctantly away, one of the dealers catches my eye. He’s short and stocky with a merry face. I can’t tell his age, but he has a grand total of three hairs combed over the top of his head.
“Bonjour, Mademoiselle. How are you this lovely day?”
I swear I must have Americaine tattooed on my forehead. “Fine, thanks. And you?” I was planning to just keep moving, escape before I got sucked into a conversation, but he’s beckoning to me, waving me over, and so I go. It’s not like I have a hot date.
“You are looking for something.” It’s not a question, and he smiles, his dark eyes twinkling, like he’s sharing some amusing secret with me.
“Well, I didn’t really want a book,” I explain apologetically.
He wipes his hands on a grimy rag lying on top of a book bin. “I have more. Not only books.” My eyes settle on some cheesy figurines on a shelf—can-can girls and gendarmes and apache dancers. He follows my gaze and laughs. “Non, pas comme ça.” He turns around and pulls out a stack of prints from under a table. “You like stories, I can see this. These are the most old stories.”
He shows me the series of black-and-white drawings, beautifully hand-tinted. Illustrations of characters from mythology. Venus and Adonis. Cupid and Psyche. Pomona and Vertumnus. All lovers. Ceyx and Halcyone. Orpheus and Eurydice. And the last one, at the bottom of the pile is Andromeda. Alone. At first I don’t recognize her because most pictures I’ve seen show her upside down, like her constellation. This one shows her upright against a diaphanous turquoise background. Her body faces forward, but her head is turned partially away, eyes closed. Even though she’s obviously standing free, she still wears the shackles that bound her to the rocks as sea snake snack. She wears a flowing lavender dress, and the stars of her constellation gleam from her auburn hair. I think it’s the most wonderful picture of her I’ve ever seen. Evan would have loved it.
“Where can I get it framed?” When I look up at the dealer, he’s smiling. Already counting his money.
“I’ll be leaving on Wednesday,” I tell Pauline that night as we wind through the narrow, cobblestone streets of the 18th arrondissement.
“Oh, dear. I shall miss your company, I’m afraid.”
I smile at her. “Thank you for saying that, but I’m sure you’ll be glad to get your life back to normal.”
“I’d hardly call it normal.” She gives a rueful laugh. “This time of year I feel like a glorified chambermaid-cum-secretarial service. Your visit has broken things up nicely.”
“Do you ever get time off?”
“Oh, yes. I close down to guests from the end of November till the first of March. By then I need it desperately. But right now is just the start of the madness.” Her stylish, high-heeled boots make a staccato tapping on the paving stones.
“Here we go, then.” She reaches around me and pushes open a small wooden door, ushers me through into a dark, low-ceilinged, cheerfully tacky room. A roar greets us from a large round table in a far corner and Pauline waves.
“I hope you don’t mind. We’re meeting some friends of mine.”
I try to hide my dismay. “Oh, you didn’t have to drag me along. I’d have been fine. Look, maybe I should—”
“Don’t be silly. I wanted you to come. See, they’ve kept two seats for us. Everybody, this is my friend Andy. Please go round and tell her who you are and warn her of any dangerous habits.”
I try to pay attention as they smile at me around the table, three men, four women. They tell me names I can’t hear through the ambient noise, and say things either to me or to each other, all punctuated with laughter. Most of them seem to be English, but one woman named Marie-Claire and the guy on her right, whose name I miss, are French.
Inside I’m shrinking. I’d give anything not to be here. I can’t make conversation with these people. I want to slink back to the B & B to watch American cowboy movies with French subtitles on Pauline’s tiny television.
Pauline is going around the table kissing and being kissed while a guy with a gray ponytail and a shapeless green sweater says in a perfect Inspector Clousseau accent, “Ah, Mademoiselle, how is it that a beautiful woman comes alone to Paris in the Spring?”
“Bon question, n’est-ce pas?” says the Frenchman.
I smile awkwardly and say, “Just a quick vacation.”
My reply is lost as they all begin talking at once in Franglais, and it’s dizzying. The waiter brings two bottles of wine and more glasses without being asked, so I figure this is a group of regulars. Someone else sets down three plates of different cheeses and a couple loaves of bread wrapped in big white napkins.
After a few sips of my wine, I excuse myself to the bathroom. It’s very small, just a urinal, a toilet and a miniscule sink fitted into one corner. I wash my hands and stare at my face in the mottled, grimy mirror. I look like a cardboard cutout of a woman—flat, gray, unappealing. No light, no spark.
The world keeps turning. Life keeps unfolding. People keep walking, talking, laughing, eating, drinking, smoking, going places, touching each other, sitting, reading. They get married, get divorced. Die. Yes, some of them die. My hands are trembling as I dry them on the coarse paper towel. I know I used to be a part of it, but I don’t remember how it works. I can’t do it. I don’t have to. I’ll just go out and tell Pauline that I’m not feeling well, and I’ll go back to the house.
But when I come out of the john, I can’t find Pauline. The whole place is packed, and the group has expanded, like an amoeba getting ready to divide. The chair where I left my jacket is occupied by a frizzed out blonde deep in conversation with the guy in the gray ponytail. The table is covered with plates of food.
“Mademoiselle. Andee.” The Frenchman is waving my jacket and motioning me to the empty chair next to him. I bet his date is thrilled.
“I fix a plate for you,” he says, smiling. “I am afraid it will all be eaten when you return.”
I try to smile back at him. “That’s very nice of you. Thanks.”
“Let me tell you….” He turns the plate this way and that, pointing to various dishes.
“These are pinchos. Like hors d’oeuvres.” There are thin shavings of ham, roasted red peppers, mushrooms, olives speared on toothpicks with anchovies and hot chiles. Hard boiled eggs with flakes of tuna. Garlicky grilled shrimps and perfect silver dollar sized potatoes, fried hot and golden, redolent of fruity olive oil.
He pours more wine in my glass.
“I must apologize.” He puts down his fork and looks directly at me with luminous brown eyes. “I did not hear your family name.”
“Harriman. Andy Harriman. And I didn’t hear yours at all.”
“Claude Massot.” He turns to the woman on the other side. “My sister Marie-Claire.”
She smiles. “Always, it is noisy here.”
So. His sister. Okay, then, I forgive him.
“How do you know Pauline?” I ask.
“I know her for a long time. I am friends at school with her husband François.” He spreads some crumbly, blue-veined cheese on piece of bread and eats it slowly. “I tell him when they divorce, a big mistake. Pauline is a wonderful woman.”
“And what did he say?”
His grin broadens. “He said to me, ‘you are not married to her.’”
We both laugh. I relax back in my chair.
“And you know Pauline from where?”
“I just met her. I’m staying at the house.”
His thick eyebrows go up. “C’est vrai? I thought you were perhaps a friend from England.”
I shake my head. “No, I’m an American.”
“Ah, that explains your accent.”
I smile at the thought of a Southern California accent. When he finds out I’m from L.A., he asks if I’m an actress, so I tell him yes, as a joke, and find it’s not that far off the mark. What else would you call what I’ve been doing? He says he’s a painter. A serious painter with a day job as a sign painter. Someone is tapping him on the shoulder, talking in his ear, so I concentrate on the food, which is simple and fabulous, and the wine, which is making me feel very cozy and warm.
“Do you like art?” he turns back to me suddenly.
“I suppose I do. It’s not something I think about a lot.”
“Because it’s a divertissement, you know? When I paint or when I see paintings or think about paintings, I forget my problems.” Without any comment or encouragement from me, he asks, “What art have you seen in Paris? What do you like?”
“Well, I went to the Louvre…”
“And the Musée d’Orsay…”
“Ah, you like l’Impressionisme?”
“Do you like the new art?”
“Contemporary art?” I shrug. “Some of it.”
“Some of it.”
“I can see you are very discerning.”
I laugh. “I don’t know anything about it.”
“I could show you, if you desire to learn. I have many friends, artists…”
“I don’t think so, Claude.”
“Et pourquoi pas? You think I am a bad man?”
“No, really. It isn’t that.”
He tilts his head. “What then?”
“I’m going home Wednesday.”
“But tomorrow is Tuesday.” He has the most beautiful eyelashes.
“This is just kind of a bad time for me.”
“Yes.” He nods gravely. “I can see. I am sorry.”
The thing is that suddenly I am. Sorry to be leaving Paris. Sorry I can’t spend time with this man and his pretty eyelashes. Sorry I won’t be having any more mornings with Pauline in the Street of Ducklings.
He touches his glass to mine. “À votre santé,” he says.
Wednesday morning, I’m dragging my stuff down the stairs when Pauline comes bounding up, meeting me on the top landing.
“The taxi’s here.” She takes my daypack and precedes me down. “I really hate to see you leave.”
“I hate to go,” I say softly. “It’s almost like I’m leaving home instead of going home.”
At the bottom of the stairs, we stop and hug. “You’ll come back, won’t you?”
I nod. “Most definitely. Pauline, thanks so much. For everything”
A blast of the taxi horn makes her roll her eyes. “Parisian cab drivers.”
The driver sits on his butt while we wrestle my bag into the trunk and hug again. “Travel safe, Andy. Be happy.”
I smile. “I plan to try.”
As we careen around the corner I look out the window at Pauline waving from the curb. There were things I wanted to tell her, but there wasn’t time, and it was all sort of hard to explain. Anyway, I think she’ll understand.
The taxi darts and weaves through the traffic, the driver alternately flooring the gas pedal and slamming on the brake, but I barely feel the movement. In the back seat I float, magically suspended, weightless. Thinking of my little blue room at Chez Pauline, the cozy iron bed, the dormer window with its view of Parisian rooftops. The mahogany armoire with its brass key. The ugly flower painting that adorned the wall is tucked neatly into my suitcase. And hanging in its place, my picture of Andromeda. Still wearing her shackles, but escaped from the rocks now. Right side up and standing on her own.