CIGARETTES WITH HINDSIGHT
Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is more applicable than we realize. Each and every one of us are space explorers, and our individual consciousness is our personal space ship. The faster our ship goes, the slower time appears to move around us, and vis-versa.
When your mind runs on overdrive not every day is only a day, and not every week is only a week. AKA, fuck these next five weeks.
WEEK ONE: THE FOOL
They say it is best to start a new story with a simple affirmative statement. “Call me Ishmael.” It draws the reader in with it’s vague assertion, but gives little away, opening the imagination. It is often little more than bullshit, cleverly masked by the illusion of stability. When beginning a new story, you’d be wise to remember that from the very beginning you are being tricked.
Call me Jacob, but know that in Hebrew my name means, “he who wrestled with God.”
Officially, this story begins cranky, deprived of sleep, curled under an old blanket too short to keep toes and shoulders warm. A fool is waking from the hearth of his isolation to finally face the culmination of his clandestine decisions.
Unofficially, this story began almost two years before, alone, resolute, enjoying the first of many final goodbyes. That same fool was surprised by the taste of destiny in a swig of scotch poured by a woman five thousand miles away.
However, from a purely literary perspective, I don’t think it would be smart to begin “unofficially,” so let us jump back to Scene: Somewhere in the Middle.
I awoke at 4:30AM to what was sure to be a long day. For travelers, not every day is 24 hours long. I quickly slapped my alarm and listened to the comforting sound of silence ensuring that my brother had not awoken.
The stillness made it difficult to pull myself off the couch. I hadn’t slept in my actual bed but a handful of nights over the past two months. Mathé had never touched nor seen that bed, but it was where I used to hope, plan, dream of my future with her. Not that the couch should have been any different, but at least it’s awkward size and aging cushions kept such dreams, already lived, already ruined, to a bearable minimum.
My travel clothes were lying over the back of the couch, and my bags were leaning against the balcony doors. It was not cold in Dallas, but I’d layered up anyways. As I laced up my shoes — beat up replicas from Wes Anderson’s “Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” — I realized it was raining outside. This unexpected annoyance reawakened a deep and unsettled doubt, but by the time I was all strapped in my determination had returned; besides, the fear had been much more compelling the last two times I flew to Paris.
I then scooped up my runt of a Calico, gave her a goodbye squish, translated a kick to the face as “I love you too,” and then I was gone. It had stopped raining only seconds before I opened the balcony doors, and I’ll leave it up to you to overanalyze that, but I’ll just call it “typical Texas weather.” My flight wouldn’t be boarding until 10:25AM, but I needed to leave the house early to keep my departure a secret.
I arrived at the airport with more than four hours to stew in my anxiety. I wandered back and forth between mine and the more interesting terminals, occasionally reintroducing myself to the tired TSA agents after a smoke break. Most of the waiting time was passed uneventfully, and uneventful was the way I had wanted it, yet it wasn’t meant to last. Roughly thirty minutes before my first flight the family caught on.
I’d been wondering how long the secret could last, hoping I’d be safely beyond retrieval when the truth finally came out. One message, then two, then a call from my mother, and one from my brother, and another from my father. Each buzz rattled my rib cage, but I would not be shaken loose. Standing at the window, watching men in reflective orange vests scramble about the belly of my airplane, I called mother.
“Hey baby.” I could tell it took great effort to keep the fear and anger out of her voice.
“Hey momma.” I hoped my voice sounded calm and deliberate, not curt or frightened.
The night before I had kept my family up as long as I could without giving anything away. As they watched TV, I watched them. I was careful to remain casual, I was careful not to be noticed, I was careful not to beg them for one minute more. It was difficult, but enlightening. To miss someone sitting just next to you is to know exactly why you love them. Last night made it difficult to wake up the next day.
“So where are you off to?”
“Paris,” I said, though I’m sure there was never a second thought in her mind.
“Ya, I know. Taylor found your letter.” And then a long pause because all I could think to say was, “I’m sorry,” yet I did not say it.
Into the silence she said, “Were you afraid that I’d try to stop you if you told me?”
“You are an adult, so I trust that you know how to make the best decision for yourself.” There was no scorn behind those words. “But please don’t think you ever have to hide things from me.”
“I am worried Jacob. Please tell me I don’t have to worry about you.” She was, of course, referring to my predispositions towards abandonment, even towards myself, so I responded in kind to the loaded question.
“You don’t have to worry about me.”
“OK. I love you baby. Whatever it takes, follow this dream. Commit yourself to it, and do whatever it takes to go all the way.” Like the impervious business woman that she was, she used her tone like a heavy pen to sign her sincerity into effect. That she would take such a tone at such a time filled me with a severe fixation.
“I will momma. I love you too.”
If she had any insight into exactly what that dream was, I would have loved to have heard it. I’m going back to Paris to figure out why the fuck I want to go back to Paris, is about as far as I’d gotten, but it had been all the reason I needed.
“And promise me that we will talk often.” She sounded legitimately worried.
“We will,” I said knowing full well that only time could be the judge of my character.
I boarded my Boston bound flight not long after that call. Boston was only the first stop on that three part trip: Dallas to Boston, Boston to Reykjavik, Reykjavik to Paris. All in all, the long journey was hardly memorable, which is currently a good thing when it comes to commercial air travel.
There were only two things which really stuck out from that restless, sleepless haze called being in transit. The first wass a very attractive, very talkative young woman I shared a row with on my cross-Atlantic flight.
Her name was Inga. She was only a few months older than I, and she had the blonde hair of a Californian and the baggy eyes of a Swede, genetic gifts from her mother and father, respectively.
She had been conceived during an extramarital affair, which her eldest, half brother has yet to forgive their mother for. She had lived in Lockhart, Stockholm, Oakland, NYC, some place in Germany, and many more. When she wasn’t with family, she often chose to live out of hostels.
She had travelled to Austin, Atlanta, London, Paris, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Berlin, Munich, and many more, and always for “work” or “research.” She currently worked in design, freelance writing, advertising consulting, and fashion.
She said goodbye to cities, work, and commitments on a whim to try out something new and come back later. She believed in metaphysics and social psychology as exact sciences. She’d been diagnosed with epilepsy; yet she couldn’t keep still at any other moment either. She laughed to herself when she thought nobody was looking — though it was a frequent source of entertainment for me — and she smiled just enough so that I could never forget her warm, top-toothy grin.
I learned all this and much more within the first thirty minutes after takeoff. We hardly spoke after that. I had tried offering my stories, but she was only interested in her own, and having exhausted those, there was simply nothing left to talk about.
She tried to sleep but couldn’t commit to a position, and I tried to read but couldn’t commit to a word. Eventually I gave up, but before I fell into my own unsatisfying fit of fidgeting I offered the shared middle seat to my new compatriot. She feigned disinterest and I took her refusal with a shrug.
When I awoke as the plane was making its descent into Reykjavik I found her finally indulging in my earlier offer, which relaxed some of the tension taking hold of my shoulders, but also left me wondering whether it was opinionated individualism or an ingrained distrust that kept people from accepting gifts from strangers.
Nothing was said when she awoke. The plane landed, we decompressed, she gathered her things and simply continued on her voyage back to Stockholm. No “goodbye,” no “keep in touch” or “look me up when,” that was that and I was fine with it; even though my mind had lept to wonder what such a strikingly attractive, energetic person could be like in bed.
Any moderately competent man would not have lost the opportunity to flirt; yet, the past couple years had seen my ambition for such things whither away. Mathé had nothing to do with it, the drive had been in decline since before I began my first trip to Europe.
I found it nothing to be alarmed about; instead, it was actually quite a relief. My sexual drive remained intact, it just no longer reached out towards strangers. A pretty woman might make me wonder, but the urge no longer came. Inga was far gone before I began to reflect on how long it had actually been since my last tussle in the sheets.
Certainly I missed sex, but too many empty fucks had left a bad taste in my mouth. I wasn’t about to indulge my animal half with another forgettable face. I would not let my prized lust become tainted by a fear of loneliness.
As I settled into the cramped seat of my third and final flight, I wondered if it was pride or fear that stifled my sexual ambitions. Again, but this time only to myself, I shrugged, set aside those concerns for later, and made myself as comfortable as I could. In only a few hours I’d be facing something far more distressing.
Arriving in Paris was the only other significant occurrence, but when traveling overseas, what else could be more important than arriving? Yet, this arrival, my third arrival, was much different than the last two.
Though I debarked at the same terminal, walked through the same corridors, and came to the same baggage claim, though it was all similar to the last time, alarmingly similar, it was only so on the surface. I had come home, but someone had shifted the furniture. Instant familiarity bitten off by razor sharp, self doubt. “I know this place, but I have no fucking clue where I am,” was the sum total of my inner monologue.
There was no Mathé waiting on the other side of the security doors, no cozy apartment in which to deposit my things and no friends to welcome me back with beers and kisses. I was in Paris, but not the same Paris as before.
Having reached the end of phase one — the only part of the plan with any real actionable solidity — the old doubt sprang free from where I’d caged it that morning. What had I just done? What masochistic commitment had I just formally plunged into?
Necessity has always been a strong counter against doubt, and, luckily, I had many necessities to relieve: coffee, cigarettes, rest. Focusing on the immediate, I was able to calm the growing disquiet. I caught up on coffee and lost cigarettes outside, then I gathered up my things to find head downtown and find somewhere to rest.
As I boarded the train to Gare du Nord my inner eye flashed back to Mathé’s grim silence as she had straddled my luggage, avoiding any eye contact. That was almost eight months ago, to the day, she had come to welcome me home at the airport. If I had been a wise man then I would have immediately started looking for a new apartment; yet, not even the pain I would soon then face has made me a wise man now.
There are many reasons I had, yet again, chosen to come back to Paris, and Mathé was only one of them, but as the train sank into the downtown tunnels I realized that those other reasons would take great focus just to remember.
I spent the rest of that day at Le Faucon, a bike shop, coffee shop hybrid near Republique, while I waited for check-in at my AirBNB. Like most of the places around Republique, Le Faucon was little more than a deep, oddly shaped closet. American ideals of space had remained in America.
The young owners, an Aussie and a Brit, Karl and Jack, knew me well enough to be surprised when I showed up at their shop, sandwiched by two stuffed backpacks. Theirs were some of the last familiar faces I had seen before I had last left Paris, and I had been able to pass off just as vague a reason for my departure as I was about to give for my return.
Preempting further inquiry was one of my strongest talents, but also a primary source of my isolation. I fed Karl and Jack the carefully selected essentials, letting my tone end that conversation even before I was done speaking. Without so much as a raised brow I was able to switch them over to everyday bullshitting; yet, it left me worrying that my story, my trial of determination, was merely uninteresting.
The ever present narcissist lept at that opportunity and tried to pull itself through that small scrape on my ego. If I allowed him anything more to grasp hold of, prying him loose would expend what little energy I had left from my long trip. I was able to push him back into his hiding place only when I inwardly shouted, I didn’t come back to Paris for you!
I stayed at Le Faucon until 6:00PM, blowing off time with the boys to fight off the overwhelming fatigue and unsatisfied doubt, which I knew would soon mark the beginning of each new day. For the past three months (perhaps longer if I allowed myself a more abstract definition) that doubt had pinned me down in a pit of stagnation. Those who knew me best had said I was depressed, and, in a sense, they were correct.
I was not the simple definition of the word, nor the crumpled, punctured bottle lying on the side of the street in a puddle of its own spilled serotonin. I was the bent nail, hammered into a knot of wood. I was where I did not belong, and the crooked, banged up half of me that could still taste fresh air was aching to be pulled loose. I had become stuck in a paradox, and all the “I don’t know”s were hammering me in deeper.
The truth is that, even though I was sat in a coffee shop halfway around the world, I was still chest deep in that paradox, that very same knot of wood. Doubt was the thing trying to yank me free, and my determination was the hammer, struggling against unforgiving density.
I had known that to be pulled free meant a quick straightening and then back into the sorting bucket until another freshly sanded sapling came along, but I was not ready to be pulled free, I was not ready to be normal, I was not ready to quit. The knot was my challenge.
Immutable questions mocked my every move. Right and wrong had become obsolete, and all I cared for was truth. Until I found it, I knew that home would be, could be no more than the shoes strapped to my feet. Paris was the place my heart cried out for, but where I was really going was deep inside myself, plunging into fear, loneliness, heartache to see what hid underneath.
My shoulders had began ache from all the shrugging. I had to know if life was something I chose, or if it was something that chose me. I had to find where the extent of my imagination ended, and where inelastic reality began. “C’est la vie,” was an excuse I could no longer stomach.
I left Le Faucon and the boys as the sun was beginning to set, and after a couple deserving beers from a corner Tabac, I settled into my AirBNB. It was only 8:30PM then, but it had taken me 21 hours to finally find nightfall. My host only spoke French, which afforded me good practice, but it was not long before my tired mind began to power itself down.
I excused myself to my room, and leaning out my bedroom window, I squeezed in a few more cigarettes before sleep could completely overtake me. The neighboring apartment to my right jutted out from the face of the building, giving me a clear line of sight through the half open window blinds. There could not have been a more perfect frame for the spectacle which ensued within.
Dark grey sweater scrunched up over a pudgy belly, fade washed jeans at half mast, just below the knees, the tanned bottom half of a middle aged man was propped on the couch, unashamedly yanking away at himself. I could not help but laugh, and I almost lost my cigarette doing so.
I turned and hollered out the spectacle to my host, and he called back, in that exceptionally mumbly — like every phrase is a deep yawn — Northern French accent, “Bienvenue à Paris!”
I was finally here. I’d finally arrived. It was not home, I was nothing close to a Parisian, or even French. I was a wandering Texan, pulled by an irrefusable ambition, but I was here.
I considered calling out, “Merci!” to my new neighbor, but; instead, I pinched out my cigarette early and closed the window, deciding not to interrupt his own arrival.
Rising the next morning, sounds of Paris seeping through the cracks around the window, dolphins leaping at the stern of the ship, would mark the transition between beginning and continuing. The rest of the week, occasional flurries of opposing headwinds giving way to unmarred sky, would seal my ambition.
WEEK TWO: THE DOUBT
If reading stories is escapist, then reading true stories is the ultimate escapism. I cringe whenever someone explains their new favorite book, and then, in that unmistakable tone of desperate self pride, blurts out “and it’s based on a true story!” What they refuse to realize is that their choice of literature is little more than a reflection of their own unquenched thirst for personal narrative.
A cloudy sky the same shade of white as the inside of my box. No, not a box, a room, suspended forty-eight feet off the ground. No, not forty-eight feet, fourteen-point-sixty-three metres.
Only three other countries in the world use the U.S.’s comparatively confusing system of measurement, and France is not one of them. The concrete clouds outside the window were French. The window itself was French. The copy-and-paste walls were French. Yet, if they were each trying to tell me something there was no way I could hear them over the invasive ringing of my American phone, signaling the arrival of the ninth hour of the day.
I slapped it back to sleep as quickly as I could, but the damage had already been done. I was awake. This was the eighth time geographical recognition would reintroduce me to refreshed doubt and the beginning of another day in Paris.
It was Saturday, and I’d been here for nine full days by that point. There had been only two mornings, so far, unaccompanied by that old, yet sharpened, doubt. Those two mornings had felt distressingly ordinary, oppressively dull, as if I had been scraped against a grinding stone until smooth. As physically crippling as the doubt could be, I still preferred it to the sterile normality of those two mornings.
I’d pulled myself out of bed and slipped into something loose and warm so I could lean out the window for my morning cigarette. Each thick exhale was a practiced therapy. The doubt was a beast difficult to cage, but I was happy to have my old sparring partner back again. Without him chomping away at my ambition I’d be truly lost, adrift without a single igniting spark to light the way. Or I’d be home, but that was a hope I was cautious to indulge.
Truthfully, the doubt was not just one beast, but many. Loneliness, fear, jealousy, fatigue, confusion, desperation. Each of these worked together with deadly efficiency to spin spider web traps across the corridors of my mind. The only way to avoid them was to continue making new paths, and the only way to see them was to name them.
Calling out their individual identifications was not enough. To understand the core instincts of a predator required significant knowledge of it’s species. Perhaps my old therapist would have a better name for this species of dangerous emotions, but I had resolved to calling it, simply, the doubt.
Among other things, I was determined to understand it, explain its intentions, define its value. Though my old therapist might have known a name, he had seemed convinced that coping was the best method for surviving it. But, unlike the bright eyed, psychoanalytic success story, I was unwilling to accept this method. Running and hiding, only finding safety in the tall grass, was not my ideal of a life well lived.
I knew that a predator’s fury only grew when it saw you flee. I knew that to become a beast tamer meant knowing, not fearing, my beast.
I had given it a name, the first step in any discovery, now it was time to define that name, but as I leaned out the window, cigarette nº3 all but forgotten between my fingers, I realized that today would not yet be the day.
Accepting that three cigarettes back to back might be too much within the first fifteen minutes of the morning, I pinched it off early and pushed away from the window. I then took a long, scorching shower, but not even the hot water could clean the grime stuck between the folds of my brain, and, in trying, I had only managed to inflate my skull with steam.
There were only two things left to me which could bring any worthwhile relief from that doubt: running or writing. The night before I’d already decided that Saturday would not be a day for running, and I couldn’t very well let myself down, so running was out. I knew I’d begin writing as soon as I got out of the apartment, so at first I hesitated, but the need was dire and I could find no valid reason to wait.
Like an alcoholic getting comfortable with his first after-work drink, I settled down to write. It started like this:
“I am beginning to think that most people who know me prefer me more as a idea (not ideal) than as an actual living, breathing, speaking human being. Like a character in a book instead of someone truly there.”
And it ended like this:
“Is my obsession with right and wrong merely an obsession with an illusion?”
The in-between was filled with other similar thoughts, the sort that seem deeply important in the moment, but lose their punch when read back over a few days later. However, it’s primary goal was accomplished, and I cared not for tomorrow. I just wanted to get today going.
Recovered, revived, I packed my bag and was on my bike before hesitancy could turn to laziness. There was too much writing to be done that day to donate anymore precious time to introspection.
After a quick pastry breakfast I settled into Fire Roaster Coffee. The clouds had melted away, and the weather could be considered decent for northern France in early spring, though not for me. Parisiens, having a much broader definition of a “nice day” than a sun-spoiled Texan, obviously thought otherwise. They had overrun the wide terrace, which was sprinkled by the overhanging great evergreen with fluffy, yellowed seeds.
I left them to soak in their small ration of chilly, wind-whipped sunshine, and strode past into the café proper. Mostly workers — baristas, roasters, patrons — occupied the interior, as well as a few Saturday explorers occupying the tables by the far windows, but a good half of the shared, central bench had been left just for me.
The place was buzzing with weekend life. Two baristas behind the Instagram-chique bar were getting overrun by the constantly gurgling and hissing Strada espresso machine. Two cooks in the neighboring space-saver kitchen were playing leap frog to keep up with never ending demand. Another barista squeezing out orders between the crowded tables, and three roasters prodding and fussing under their tyrannical cooker. This frenzie, this stark contrast between those working and those lounging, was how Fire Roaster Coffee created their signature atmosphere.
It was exactly what I was looking for. Calm, solitary spaces had never been kind to my writing. Open, alive spaces turned the gears of my imagination, which kept my pen moving.
As soon as I sat down the damn broke and ink flooded page after page. During those first couple hours, writing was almost effortless. I was a marble in a Rube Goldberg machine, vaguely cogent of the next drop, flip, switch, but powering on regardless, revealing more and more of the puzzle as I went along, as if it had all been planned in advance.
That was until noon-thirty, when something finally caught up with me. That was when it all came to an immediate and piercing halt.
One of the baristas, sharp shouldered but the rest curved, as if by the soft hands of a gracious potter, had been catching my eye all morning. My eyes always wandered when I wrote, bouncing randomly from garden flower to coffee cup to oblivious person, but whenever they landed on her, hers were already on me. I’d caught a few other glances that morning, which was nothing unexpected, but none were ever as recurring nor alluring as hers.
They were the tail end of a calligrapher’s signature, the final stroke of a practiced hand confidently carefree with her own name. Framed by light brown coffee cup stains for eyebrows, and a shadowed snake unwinding from the pinch of the nose to the hilltop of her cheeks.
Each time I caught her looking at me, or she caught me looking at her, there was a subtle something I had to shake off before I could put my mind back to work. It never took much effort, but what I did not realize was that this something was steadily building a tower deep within my unconscious, and at noon-thirty it finally broke free.
It was the “Fall of France” all over again. I’d too narrowly devoted myself, and the Blitzkrieg had come crashing through unprotected lines. Realization, recognition, attraction, expectation, brick after brick the foundation had been laid for desire, and atop that came hope. Then the something was tall enough to puncture subdued memories — dark hazelnut eyes peeking over an upturned bottle of beer, an energetic family of friends we’d shared those beers with, a home built with spilt beer, stained hands and wet shouts — and more stones fell into place, until the something grew exponentially without so much as a single thought to stop it.
Those thoughts were too narrowly focused on pages yet to fill, so when the lightning strike finally came, right there in the middle of that bustling café, it took all that I had to keep the tears at bay, and, when I eventually remembered how to breath, it took more than I had to keep from screaming.
This was not the doubt. This was that, at first mysterious, now revealed something. This was two years of my life, two years that felt like an entire lifetime, that had been hastily crammed into a bag and then desperately hidden down in the basement of my mind.
Being overwhelmed so suddenly had left me confused and frightened, so as soon as I regained confidence in my wobbly legs I stepped outside and lit a cigarette. A few deep, slow drags and it then became clear, I knew exactly what had happened. I’d gotten comfortable, and that comfort had allowed too much space for dangerous memories, which were inclined to self-propagate.
I’d once had a home in Paris. It wasn’t perfect, but I never once doubted it was my home. I loved it’s imperfections just as much as I’d loved the rest.
For the past two months my mind had been preoccupied with my return. Arriving and settling in had seen to the end of all such preparations, creating a void which my unconscious packed with promises left unfulfilled. Nothing so explicit as the verbal contracts between lovers of friends, only those unintentional byproducts of moments that could only ever be described as happier. Within that void those promises grew and grew, and all it took was a few well timed glances from a handsome woman to set them loose.
As I dutifully worked through my second cigarette, I first considered invasive surgery to completely remove the threats, but soon realized that the only effective option would be a lobotomy. This threat, this overflowing bag of starved promises, was an inseparable functionary in this insufferably clumsy vehicle I called “self.” It was not only natural, but also necessary; not only painful but also essential.
I knew I could not get rid of it, but I risked everything if I allowed it to run about as it pleased. With the help of fresh cigarette I gave the threat it’s own plot of land within my conscious, slapped together a tall wooden fence with a single gate around it, and named the new internal territory “Disneyland.” So long as the threat remained within the fence, I’d allow it to continue as it pleased.
Ready to get back to work, I tossed the woman with the handwritten eyes into Disneyland and strode back into the café. Two hours of focused writing and then I packed up my things and rode back to my AirBNB. I made a light snack from frozen, flash-boiled raviolis and took some time to unwind in my room.
Still heavily drugged with exhaustion I indulged in, not the best, but the most readily available distraction. Boredom was now beginning to set in, so I swiped open my phone.
I scrolled through my inbox for something, anything to ease the growing silence. When I got to Marine, a woman whose red rose hairclip I still kept in the outer pocket of my bag, I hesitated. I could see that she’d finally received my last message, yet she hadn’t responded. There was no sense in clicking, but I clicked anyways. Reading through old, unresolved conversations is something all anxious people convince themselves is practical.
Tuesday, January 17th, two weeks after my return to Dallas:
“Dear Jacob, I just arrived in Paris and I can’t stop thinking about how I sadly missed you in the US. I hope you are happy to be back home and I really hope to see you sooner than what we expect.”
Thursday, March 16th, one week after my return to Paris:
“Jacob are you in Paris?”
“Quelqu’un tu as dit?” Who told you?
“Il y a une photo de toi sur facebook…” There is a photo of you on facebook…
On Tuesday of that week, Emily, my brother’s girlfriend, had visited me in Paris. It was a day full of rushing from one tourist attraction to the other, but I enjoyed it. I only wished that Emily had come on her own. She was always more fun when she didn’t have anyone else to care about.
After her trip she had posted a picture of my in front of the Eiffel Tower, and as soon as I found out about it I took it down. Unfortunately it was not quick enough for Marine, but fortunately she was the only one to see it.
“Oh. OK, s’il te plaît, ne le dites à personne.” Oh, OK, please don’t tell anyone.
“OK je ne le dirai pas…mais supprime la photo alors…” OK I won’t say anything…but then take down the photo…
“Oui…je viens de le faire. Merci sugar.” Yes…I just did. Thanks sugar.
“Pourqoui tu veux pas qu on le sache..?” Why don’t you want us to know?
“Je dit Mathé que je ne vais pas contacter ses amis depuis elle est prêt.” I told Mathé that I was not going to contact her friends since she is ready. (My French still needed some work)
Wednesday, March 17th:
“I don’t understand, Mathé asked you to stop being in contact with us?”
“Non. C’était mon choix. Je revenais à Paris à finir mes études, mais je savais que ce serait bizarre si je vous contactais avant de faire bien les choses avec Mathé. Tu compris?” No. It was my choice. I returned to Paris to finish my studies, but I knew that it would be weird if I contacted you all before I made things well with Mathé. Do you understand?
“Qu’est-ce que tu veux dire par bien faire les choses avec Mathé? Depuis quand tu es revenu?” What do you want to say to make things well with Mathé? Since when did you return?
“Je ne sais pas exact…mais je sais que c’est plus facile pour tous si je juste attend jusqu’à la. Je ne veux pas le faire inconfortable…comme le dernier fois. Je suis arrivé il y a deux semaines.” I don’t know exactly…but I know that it’s easier for everyone if I just wait until then. I don’t want to make things uncomfortable…like the last time. I arrived two weeks ago.
Since I’d made that contract with Mathé I’d struggled with the decision to keep Marine in the dark. She was connected to Mathé through Emma, Mathé’s best friend, so I knew that Marine and Mathé were not around each other often, more friendly than true friends, but I ultimately decided it would be unfair to burden Marine with my secrets.
Mistakes had been made and there was still nothing to do besides wait; except now, I had one more person to wait on. I dipped my toes into Disneyland, risked an imagined Saturday night drink with Marine, but even my imagination knew my French was still shit. Before I could finish a cigarette with Disneyland-Marine, I yanked myself back out into the real world and stuck my nose between the pages of my French book.
I’d only have a limited amount of time to study, the hour was fast approaching for my call with Toto, my only aunt from my mother’s side. We’d spoken only briefly last Sunday, and there were still many things to clear up.
Only Mathé had known of my intention to return to Paris, so my departure came as a shock to everyone in my family. Each had their own way of dealing with it. For Toto, a behavioral specialist for cognitively impaired children, the method was (1) stick to your training and establish a calm, friendly report, and then (2) break down in the most controlled manner possible.
Over the phone, last Sunday, we only spoke for twenty minutes. As casually as she could she had asked me if I was happy, why I had chosen to come back, and had suggested I find a counselor. I had responded “yes,” “Paris is where my heart is,” and “no,” in that order. After that, we carried on with daily insignificants. This was her step nº1.
Over text, last Monday, she sent: “I am sorry if our call yesterday seemed a bit superficial. I am struggling with what to say…I have always known that the closeness of this family is what keeps me strong and sane, no matter how far away I go. Your physical distance is not what I worry about, it is that you create emotional distance and feel like you need to endure challenges alone…” This was her step nº2.
It had taken me two full days to work up a response. On Wednesday I had sent back: “I was tired of ‘I don’t know.’ I left to find out if that was really the best answer. I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want to reject anyone. Tell me when you’re free next weekend and we can talk more about it.”
At 5PM Paris time, Saturday, that talk finally came.
If I could have, I would have recorded our conversation. Such were what I lived for, what I craved from every face I met and came to know, what made daily life seem alarmingly inadequate, empty and unimpressive in their absence. Such conversations were much too rare.
As Apple has yet to release a call-recording app (at least not to the public consumer) I’m left only now with the sections my memory was able to highlight. However, for the sake of brevity it is better this way. An abridged version, a newscaster’s summary, of how we shook each other’s bones, will keep this rambling week on topic, and my hand from cramping.
She started off with the obvious.
“I don’t understand why you chose to leave without telling anyone. I’m worried that because you couldn’t face your family and own up to your decisions, deep down you have very little confidence in yourself.”
She was half right, half wrong. “I was afraid that you’d talk me out of it. You’re right, I’m not completely confident in this decision or in myself. Coming back to Paris terrified me, and I no longer knew if I could trust myself, but those are also the very reasons why I eventually chose to come back.”
“I’m glad you’ve made a decision to do something, but you need to get to a place where you can be happy with who you are, and confident in the decisions you make.” Understandably, she was upset I’d left without telling her. Up until then, Toto had always been my most reliable and relied-on source of advice.
Yet, I’d been drowning in such advise for too long. I wanted her to understand that coping would no longer suffice to make me happy or confident, so I responded, “Where is the sense in being confident if you’ve made a bad decision? What is the value of being happy if you are not living well? What is the point of life if my primary goal is just to make myself happy? Live, cope, be confident, be happy, at all costs, is that all this really is?”
She then asked me, “If tomorrow I took off in my car, up the west coast, and did not come back for a week, if that made me happy does that make it wrong? No, I don’t think so. If doing that allowed me to come back and be a better wife, a better mother, a better employee then it certainly is valuable.”
I’d heard arguments like this before. In the belly of my own unstable ego such explanations had stewed half-chewed and undigested for the past two years. I’d been waiting for a moment like this, my reply had already been prepared: “Is value something we assign, or is it something we determine? Is it something we recognize, something we create or something we imagine?”
I was desperate to understand the value of the past two years. I craved vindication for my actions and my beliefs, but, sans ça, I needed to understand their objective, relative importance. Do I, did all that, does all this have any actual value, whatsoever? was what I was really asking.
“I’m not sure if I can answer that.”
Not willing to let her off the hook so easily, I pressed on.“What about purpose; do you believe in purpose?”
“Yes, I believe I have a purpose. I believe my job is my purpose,” and the unmistakable, unshakable confidence swaying through her voice said more than her actual words.
“Do you believe that your purpose found you, or that you found your purpose? How do you know that your purpose is more than just a byproduct of your imagination?” I was cutting deep and I knew it, but I also knew no better way to clarify what the fuck this was all about, or to get any meaningful answers.
For a second I thought she might see the underlying irony behind my questions, but she was too much of a believer. “I believe we are each put on this earth for a purpose. I believe that I am not here for myself, that I am meant to help those that I can and those that I love. I know that my work is my purpose, because, no matter what I do or where I go, it will never leave me alone. There have been a few times when I tried to escape it, try something new, but I was always pulled back. Once, I told Brett and the girls that I was going to retire for a while and be an at-home mother. The next night I went to a neighborhood meeting for at-home moms, and after the meeting, after I’d introduced myself as, ‘Hi, I’m Toto, I used to be a behavioral therapist for autistic and mentally handicapped children,’ not just one or two, but several women approached me for help with their own children or children they knew. At that moment I knew I couldn’t quit work, because it was my purpose. And there have been quite a few other moments like that. No matter what, I’ve always been pulled back.”
Turning back in on myself, I thought of all the signs which had directed me back to Paris, of all the signs which had pushed me away, and I wondered if “reading the signs” was a practiced skill or a creative art. “I want to believe in purpose, Toto, but I’d rather know the truth.”
By that time we had been talking nonstop for nearly an hour. With nowhere left for the conversation to go and both of us exhausted, the only thing left to do was, “love you, talk soon!” and smoke a cigarette.
It was approaching only 7:00PM then, and I was unable to convince myself I deserved the level of fatigue I felt. Though the sun had called it quits, there were still a few hours before I would allow myself to do so.
I read some, I wrote some, I ate some. Around 9PM I listened to my cousin for an hour, and gave her the best consolation I could think of for someone on the verge of losing a high school sweetheart in anticipation of out of state college. After that I again read some, wrote some, ate some.
When midnight eventually popped up it was a welcome surprise. I was ready for the effortlessness of sleep. I had squeezed my mind like a sponge that day, wringing out every last drop of determination and creativity. There was now nothing I could think of besides the thick duvet hugging my shoulders, and the soft pillow kissing my cheek.
As I lay on my side in bed, my left arm stretching out from underneath the pillow, sharp moonlight cast a cold, glowing sliver across my forearm. With my finger I traced the faded letters that began to burn like they were being tattooed all over again. C-H-O-I-C-E, in my own slanted, curvy handwriting.
With only some leftover tattoo ink, and a thumb tac, Emma had slowly poked that word into permanence, while Mathé sipped a beer over my shoulder and donated occasional kisses on my cheek.
Tattoos, for me, where a list of all my most important life lessons. They were my mistakes, my triumphs, my proverbs. As I traced and retraced that tattoo, that lesson, I remembered that “choice,” was a two way street.
Mathé had asked me once, the last time I saw her, “What of all the memories?” I had an answer then, but I wished I could know what her answer would be now. Something between loneliness and aloneness was creeping in, something marred by self-pity; yet, I would not allow myself to name me the victim.
I was no more than a consequence of inarticulate eventualities, a confused compilation of decisions that could never be made again. I had dove into a tidal wave of probabilities, to go fishing for possibilities. My bed, this bed, was bought and paid for by me. I was there of my own free will. I’d been pulled by an intuition I was still trying to explain, but I was there by my own choice.
My last comprehensible thought before sleep overtook me was, Perhaps it is only I, and no one else, who thinks of me as a character in a book.
WEEK THREE: THE WOMEN
Dreams for the future are built upon personal histories both real and imagined. In bitter defiance of nostalgia we try to outsmart and outdo our brightest memories. What then is life besides a tireless pursuit for better memories? What then is memory besides a growing list of things that were never enough?
Since I was very young, since I could comprehend the concept of “interest,” I have found women to be its primary focus. However, even from that early age, I could sense that it was something much more than budding carnal lust.
You can imagine that this has caused me much confusion over the years. As only one young boy among many others just beginning to profit from the easy orgasm begging between their legs, in a world seemingly powered by reproductive imperatives clenched at the brink, I did what any sensible adolescent would do. I got laid as often as I could.
Like a hunting pup in tall grass, I was embarrassingly clumsy at first, something hidden just beneath the dirt always tripped me up, and my unproven extremities would not always respond as I’d been told they should. Time and again I fell flat on my face, becoming lost and ever more hungry, until at the age of eighteen someone finally tossed me a bone. And what a bone it was.
My first catch was an in-denial sadist. She taught me how to fuck and how to fuck over. It would be many years before I stopped reenacting her role.
My second was a timid masochist. She showed me the meaning of devotion and the pain of moving on. I would not stop picking at the scar she gave me until I realized how many I’d given her.
The third, the uncontainable amalgamation of the last two, broke my teeth shaking loose the bone never meant to be finished. Our repeatedly interrupted time together exposed every nerve ending in my body, and because of her, I will never forget what it means to indiscriminately and unashamedly indulge.
There were others in between and after, sexual introductions and reintroductions. Throughout it all, my collection of male friends dwindled as more and more women entered my life. I found their qualities, not just their physical allure, generally preferable to those of men, and so it was not long before I forgot how to walk or talk or live like an ordinary man.
My growing inability to connect with my common brother, along with the open suspicion of common sisters, friends and lovers alike, pulled me into the obvious, though adolescent, assumption. Was I gay?
As someone who could never be comfortable with unanswered questions or hasty conclusions, I decided to investigate; yet, instead of an affirmation, I merely broadened another sexual horizon. Men were only carnal playthings, and, except for a few, nothing of any particular interest. With the arrival of this discovery, the original curiosity burned ever brighter. What was this irresistible interest in women that could not be described as lust or aligned sexual preference?
If I was simply an easy, open lover, then why did my body only accept the most intimate of connections, and never casual chance? And who the hell were these women I’d fall in love with at only a glance, crossing my path, flashing a smile, or carrying on doing nothing important? It wasn’t until I completely severed my ties with overhyped masculine prerogatives that I realized my interest sprouted from fixated envy.
I was jealous! At the very heart of the modern man I could see little else besides privileged ignorance and violent insecurity, but at the heart of woman I glimpsed something fierce. Their lives fascinated me.
This realization was a long time in the making, but when I finally found it I felt free to let my hunger loose. Fucking no longer interested me unless it was love which energized my desire, but if love had nothing to do with it, I simply wanted to be as close to them as possible without the interruption of penetration. I wanted to dive into their mind without screwing with it. I wanted to know their story without becoming a plucked rose petal, a soggy beer stain, or an awkward Sunday brunch. I wanted to understand what they now knew, what I believed man had forgotten through the long generations of unchallenged, undeserved dominance.
While I had been in Dallas I had been made to starve by women overly cautious and flighty, so on Monday, when the thin woman, who smiled confidently and always rushed out early, sat next to me in class I felt like a burst of lightning to a lightning rod.
For some reason I never quite cared to figure out, my language school liked to shuffle classrooms every other week. Whether the new classroom was really that much smaller than the last, or we’d just acquired that many more students, we were now packed in like sardines, and that was even before this woman arrived.
At a few minutes past 11:00AM she squeezed in through the featureless white door, halted only a quarter of the way open by chair backs covered with winter coats. Heads turned and that certain toothy grin people make when they realize they’ve made a mistake — like they’re sucking in cold air through a clenched jaw — snapped across her face. As she bounced her gaze about the room looking for an opening, an apologetic “salut” then pushed its way through pursed lips.
I regarded her then as I had every other morning, through my peripherals, but when I saw her intent settle on the miniscule space on my right I had to break my cover and raise an inviting hand. I scooted a little to the left, pulled up the chair I’d earlier pushed against the wall, then took the little time I had left to watch her from a distance.
Perhaps it’s sadistic or just opportunistic, but you can pick up a lot about a person when they are forced to wiggle through something uncomfortable. I studied her carefully, not quite understanding why I wanted to memorize her features, but not quite caring to know why either. There’d be time for such reflection later.
She wore a long burnt yellow overcoat. Not the sort purchased from a boutique, but the sort found on the back racks of a camping store. As she side-shuffled her way behind the other, seated students the unzipped fold of her coat would catch and flutter open, revealing a pulled frame suggesting soft musculature with inherited flexibility. She possessed an uncommonly straightforward figure, beguiling in it’s simplicity, like the first blade of grass to wake on the crest of a hill after a humid night.
She squeezed into the seat next to me with her bag in her lap, but it wasn’t until she slapped her old books down on the table that she remembered that today the class was starting a new book. Turning to me, her face mere inches from mine, a distance now made comfortable by necessity, she asked me if she could share mine. When you’re that close to someone’s face it’s almost impossible not to snap a mental picture, the afterglow of which still remained burned into my retinas even when the teacher’s continued lecture require I look away.
She wore little makeup, allowing a couple tiny blemishes near her chin, and her skin retained a natural finish, not smoothed over by daily treatments. Her face was a long oval, with sunrise eyes peeking over pronounced cheekbones and a sharp nose pinched in the middle, but ending at an acute angle. A tight line of blush pink lips made a shallow arch across her face, but, when held closed, pushed a tentative smile out through the edges.
As the class carried on we began to speak more and more to each other. Simple language questions at first, then the occasional personal question, culminating in a few casual jests and laughs.
With each brush of the shoulder, each glance out of the side of my eye, each brief excuse to see that face form thoughts, the hunger grew. I wanted to know more, so much more. To me it no longer felt strange to crave understanding without romance, but I knew that it was still strange to the rest of the world, that it would be strange to this woman, so I kept my calm.
When class was finished and this woman, whose name I still did not know, packed up and left as quickly as she had every other day, I began to scheme, and in a matter of minutes I had come up with a plan. I stepped outside, lit a cigarette with the few other classmates gathered outside and put my plan into motion.
It would be a couple days before that plan would come together, and there’d be a few minor interruptions between then and then — a professionally drunk Eastern European who’d call me crazy and then return my salute, his female friend freshly released from prison whom he wanted me to bed, and a young Italian woman I knew from the year before, who’d been an almost good enough distraction after Mathé, who had also called me crazy when I left Paris, and who’d call me crazy again when I showed back up — yet none were quite as halting as my five minutes of fame with the woman with handwritten eyes, the woman who had been the final splash to overflow my unguarded unconscious just last Sunday, the woman I thought I left in Disneyland.
After class on Wednesday I’d dug in at Fire Roaster Coffee and remained within a self contained bubble of fixated writing until the café had to close. Such work always came at a heavy price, so when finally I stopped I was absolutely exhausted.
As is always the case when fatigue would overtake me, my unrestrained mind would drift into dangerous territory, towards relieving memories it thought it still deserved. I was tiptoeing my way back into Disneyland, but I knew, having just worked for so long, I hadn’t the mental currency to afford any of the rides. If I allowed myself to continue inside I’d just sit there gazing teary-eyed at the attractions wondering, worrying, regretting that I couldn’t join in on the fun.
With a few quick revisions to my “Alone Is Who I Am” mantra I managed to halt my momentum and pull myself back into the here and now; yet, I was still tired, and now the fatigue was beginning to spread from mind to body. An unresolved tension was setting into my calves and shoulders, so I took my time getting packed up to leave, feeling too lazy to hop onto my bike.
Just as I was unlocking my bike, the woman with the handwritten eyes came outside for a cigarette. She sat sideways on one of the terrace chairs, facing me and resting her elbows on table and chair back, looking like a rough draft of wise Athena.
Not willing to indulge any pitiful manifestations of loneliness, but not yet willing to be alone either, I also lit a cigarette, pushed my bike over to the edge and said to her, “Je suis trop fatigué pour faire de vélo.” I am too tired to bike.
As soon as I said it, I remembered that it’s never a good idea to begin a conversation introducing yourself as Tired, and so I received a deserving response: “Comment?” What?
Her calm confidence made it difficult, but I repeated myself anyways, feeling like a sloppy dresser as I tried on my best French accent.
With an upward inflexion of both voice and eyebrow, she also repeated what I had said, but that’s just the way French people sometimes ask questions.
“Oh, ouai,” Oh, ya, I moaned.
“Où vous habitez?” Where do you live? she asked, making it all sound like one word, and making me need another repetition.
“Pantin,” I responded, trying out the word multiple times, and waving my hands around in the air like a dysfunctional compass until she understood.
She then said something in French too quick for me to completely translate, so I just assumed it was something about the distance. I tried not to sound like a showboating high schooler when I explained it only took me twenty minutes to get there. However, I could not help but feel like a pubescent boy talking to the hottest teacher on campus when she looked the other direction, settled further into her shoulders and took another drag of her cigarette with puffed out cheeks.
Despite how I looked, I knew I was not hunting for anything more than a conversation, so I pushed on. “Vous choisissez le musique aujourd’hui?” Did you choose the music today?
Raised eyebrows indicated the unnecessary question, then she said, “Oui!” Yep!
“Je veux regarder un film de Wes Anderson maintenant,” I want to watch a Wes Anderson movie now, I then said. She’d been playing music from his movies all that day.
She either asked me then if I liked or knew much of Wes Anderson, I could not tell, but I responded, “Bien sûr!” Of course! anyways. Then I knew I certainly looked like a teenager when I kicked up my foot to point at my Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou Adidas.
Somehow, my pride had not completely fallen apart yet, so I scrambled my way through the tables to sit in the chair directly in front of her. I was leaning forward, elbows to knees, and she was still committed to her confident repose while we talked through cigarette smoke about nothing important. I was a peasant addressing the Queen at Court.
When the smoldering timer ran out we both stood up, and she began folding chairs. Still feeling like a chump, I simply gave up, shouldered my backpack into place, and said, “Bonsoirée,” Goodnight, but, quite unexpectedly, she responded by asking my name.
“My name?” When surprised, I often gave up on my French. “Jacob. Et vous?” And yours?
“Ah,” I nodded, all of a sudden feeling awkward and not knowing why. “Ashanté.” Nice to meet you.
In the same funny tone, she parroted back my out of place formality over her shoulder as she carried chairs in through the café doors. Ignoring my confused pride, I hopped on my bike and half pushed, half pulled myself down the street. Patience was the only option she had left me with.
Over Thursday and Friday my plan for the woman in class would come to fruition. I’d learn her name, Lira, and, by organizing a big group from class, I’d convince her of a Friday night out at the bars.
That night she would tell me about her boyfriend in New York, and I’d realize just how immeasurably she loved him as she recited, with inward gazing eyes, the memories he’d given her. Then, I’d stumble across an identical realization just the next day at Fire Roaster Coffee when Valentine’s boyfriend would make a surprise visit, and for a ten second time-stopper she’d plant a rosy-cheeked kiss hard on his lips, ignoring the expectations of the customers waiting in line.
Seeing those two women, so unashamedly entangled in an existence beyond their own solitary identity, sent a needle of regret through my core; yet, not for the reasons you might expect. It was really quite a relief to learn that they each were already committed. That sex, romance was now officially off the table. Besides the separate lives that we each inhabited, there was now nothing to get in the way of knowing them just for the sake of.
That regret was focused not on them, but on a woman I already knew, a woman whom my memory had been tirelessly reintroducing me to each day for months on end. That regret was focused on Mathé.
During the first two months after my breakup with Mathé it was practically impossible to remove her from my thoughts. Though I tried every trick that I knew — other women, other friends, other memories — she was always there, tugging at the chain anchored deep within my conscious. Nothing had worked, and I became a skipping stone who’d lost his momentum, sinking to the bottom of a muddy lake.
In the end, immutable suggestions of suicide saw to my abrupt return to Dallas. I had become convinced that my story was never meant to be a happy one, that my story was inevitably a tragedy, that no matter the beauty, there’d always be the looming shadow of disappointment. If I was a walking, waking tragedy, there was no sense in prolonging the inevitable, or so I had felt.
Tragedy or not, as I leaned over the balcony railing of my last Paris apartment, I acknowledged that my story was not yet over. I fled back to Dallas, where the practiced scalpel of a psychoanalytic therapist drained the nihilistic puss, and the unquestioning care of my family kept me numb.
My days there became saturated with distractions and I had begun to plan the next phase of my life. I had thought less of Mathé and more of myself. For a short while it had seemed I would turn the corner, but then I began to think too much about myself, to dive too far into my mind.
Thousands of miles away and hundreds of days before from my recovery in Dallas I had sat atop a comfortably angled, granite boulder with my scruffy chin resting on my knees, blurry probability stretching off in front of me and sharp-focused Mathé sitting just behind me. As she had tended the dying campfire a terrible possibility had been dancing on the tip of my tongue.
“I’m in love with you, Mathé,” I had said abruptly. I had not allowed myself to say that until I had already forced myself let go of her. I had committed to nothing but the admission and whatever that admission would bring.
A month and a half after that admission I was sitting on the edge of a lazily made bed with a swelling journal between my fingers, warm summer bliss highlighted on the wall in front of me and radiating Mathé sitting just behind me. As she resewed the sleeves of the first tangible gift she’d given me I considered how to make the most of my soon-to-expire tourist visa.
“I think I love you too, Jacob,” she had said abruptly. I had not allowed myself to grab hold until I realized I would fall. I had then committed to nothing but the obvious and all the absolutes that suddenly came along with it.
My recovery in Dallas had become impossible when I had begun to consider what I might be recovering from. An incomplete question had sparked between my synapses and then had spread throughout my clenched veins. I was had been desperately hesitant to admit what burned inside me then, no longer knowing the difference between hope, heart or desire. The only cure for each day was the coming of tomorrow, until tomorrow became no more than another distraction.
Somewhere beneath the simmering leftovers of my life I could smell the rot of a lie, and I could stomach no more of what I’d been told to eat. I’d been infected with a slow poison, and I had hungered only for the cure.
Since the day I had arrived back in Paris I’d been scanning faces, looking for Mathé. Subtle similarities would spark brief recognition, a struck match would alight my anticipation, but then a cold gust, an undeniable reality would extinguish the flame. I was a café smoker on a windy terrace, and I was running out of matches. An unlit cigarette, a little soggy now from waiting too long between tightly clasped lips, and an expectant frustration growing in the joints of my fingers once steady but now beginning to tremor.
With each find and each disappointment, each split second indulgence of hope, I’d dipped just a little further down into the bottomless, black chasm. I had loved this woman without knowing why. When I eventually realized that she did not love me I ended our romance, and had tried to run as far away as I could, but no amount of adrenaline, serotonin or dopamine had been able to satisfy me, and so I had hopelessly, helplessly continued to love her, but I could no longer tell if that love was a fact or a choice.
After Fire Roaster Coffee on Saturday, I indulged in a drink at one of my old favorites, La Fontaine, the setting of the evening sun brought back that old hunger. Women had always fascinated me, but now I worried that I had fallen for the one woman I could never truly know.
I needed the antidote, the truth, to the poison, the lie, steadily halting all the blood, all the belief, in my body, so I tossed back my Pastis, and began towards Mathé’s apartment.
Halfway there, and I could not, nor would not go any further. The familiar street had overwhelmed me with memories now tainted.
As I looked up the steep hill of Rue de Charonne, knowing what lie just two blocks further, I fell backwards into those memories, into the passenger seat as Mathé drove, whipping us around impossible corners, dangling us over the sheer, deep ravines of Ardèche.
Mountain passes had always terrified me, and she was making good sport of my fear. Just two days before I had told her I loved her, and still we hadn’t spoke about it. From both sides I was surrounded by oblivion. The possibility of life just to my left, sitting comfortably in the driver’s seat. The certainty of death just to my right, waiting for the slightest excuse to cast us down the canyon.
My anxiety rose without end, until there was no other option more reasonable than to let go, than to give in.
I rested my left hand just atop hers, the one gripped tightly around the shifter knob, letting my fingers fill the gaps, and I let each controlled twitch of her muscles saturate my own. She did not shrug my hand away, nor send me a reproach, she simply continued driving. I could feel Newton’s First Law of Motion applying itself to my non-physical form. The steady vibration in the stick, the sundried roughness of her knuckles, the deliberate flex in each jerk and shove, pulled me loose from exertion and into perpetuity.
I hung my other hand out the window, stretched my fingers as far as I could, and let them taste the distance between this life and the next. The wind beat against my palm, stretching my hand farther and farther out of the car. I could feel the edge of the road like it was the edge of soft bed. Sliding off would be just as easy as waking up; yet, this was not a dream I wanted to wake up from.
I then closed my eyes, and for the first and still the only time in my life I truly wished for death.
I had found my enough, and any moment longer could only be a false declaration. I’d reached the only logical place it could all end, or so I thought.
When finally I opened my eyes I breathed in the dry mountain air rushing in through the open window, turned to my left, and she — death, life, Mathé — was staring right at me.
WEEK FOUR: THE NARRATOR
Indecision is both a choice and a direction. Every choice has it’s consequence, but not every direction has it’s destination. Destinations are for those who have already decided.
Sundown on Sunday. It’s later than I realize. The changing seasons have confused my inner clock. I’m locking up my bike on a bent, metal barricade on the corner of Rue de Charonne and Faubourg Saint-Denis. A simple act. Repetitive and dismissible.
Yet, this is the second time in the past few days that an overcrowded bike rack has afforded me a precious few seconds of secrecy. I see her, but she doesn’t see me.
Alone, in the far corner of the swaying, laughing, frothing terrace of La Fontaine, she waits for me. Black ringlets, clipped back at the crown, outline a wide face. When first I met her, a red, cloth flower clip held up her hair, and though that flower clip now rested in my backpack, I could never picture her without it.
A spot somewhere above my head has caught her attention. She is most beautiful when she squints, and I know she would argue otherwise, so I keep from being noticed.
Vertical creases form between her thin eyebrows, and I know she’s set sail for her inner island. Once, I had asked her to take me there. I wait to see if she will pinch her bottom lip, a clear sign that she’s caught a steady wind, but she doesn’t. Something to her right has snagged her sails. She blinks at the bubbling group of bruyant patrons a few tables over, and then she checks her phone. My time is up.
I shoulder my backpack and begin walking towards her. Halfway there and she spots me. At the corners of her eyes a different set of creases takes shape as she smiles. Few people I’ve known could communicate so well with lips alone.
Arching over her half finished beer, kisses on cheeks, and I sink into the wicker chair. Like a radio miracle, the perfect song for the perfect moment, seeing Marine had always brought me relief, and in my head, I take a moment to drum along on the steering wheel.
I should have been exhausted, but determination had kept my thin blood flowing. Over the past twenty-four hours I’d eaten only half of a jambon et beurre sandwich; yet, for the past twenty-four hours I hadn’t been hungry for food. Anticipation swelled in my stomach, and fear was caught in my throat. The only thing that would satisfy my appetite was truth.
However, as was customary in France, un apéritif first. The grizzled garconniere brought out my Pastis as Marine brought out the gift she had promised, and slapped down a simple blue cap just next to my drink. I hadn’t known she was capable of such exuberance, I’d only ever seen her carefully graceful side. Over the past five days I had been learning more than I could keep up with.
“Voila!” as she leaned back into her seat, whipping her wrist back into her lap like a victorious card shark. Creases once more at the corners of her eyes, deeper and more pronounced this time, as she beamed fortified pride. I’d been seeing that smile more frequently those past five days, and it was screwing with my convictions.
My old, sweat stained hat — an exact replica of the one which had bore me across Europe during my first three months abroad, which had accompanied me through those critical three weeks in Ardeche, which had knocked Marine’s temple the first time I awkwardly kissed her cheeks — was fast approaching a permanent retirement.
I turned the new hat around in my hands. It was an L&M Cigarettes’ promotional gimmick. Navy blue with the red and yellow brand emblem patched onto the front, and a one-size-fits-all elastic cinch at the back. Nothing special, but I had always preferred gifts that were nothing special. In my experience, nothing special had often been a better vessel for something soon to be special.
As I tugged it down snug over my head, bent the bill like a Texan good’ol boy, I imagined I’d found my next signature cap, but only as soon as I could find the right time to throw out the last one.
We started on the appetizers, familiar chit chat about the day’s events, as we sipped on our drinks. “How’s the family?…How was the museum?…I’m sorry, I really wish I could have made it!”
The original plan had been to meet à la Louvre around noon, but I had to cancel in favor of changing AirBNBs. My last host, middle aged, worn out by her own whims, desperate for money and affection, had become overly flirtatious.
Wednesday evening, earlier that week, I had more than enjoyed une petite soirée, dinner and drinks and cards, at Valentine’s with Mike, another American stricken homeless by heartbreak in a shameless city. That night, after Mike had gone home, I’d stayed a slow cigarette and a “last glass” of whiskey past my welcome. The half drunk fool that I was, I bit my tongue on a confession of lovesick envy.
I had forced an abrupt exit after that, and burned through a hard ride home made bitter by stern self-reproach; yet, my host had revived my embarrassed guilt as she stood drunk, toes inching across the threshold into my room, with only worn out silk underwear and a robe to cover her pleading expectations.
“A beer with me, a beer with me, a beer with me!” and I’d indulge her. For thirty minutes she went back and forth between giggly generous and abrasively silent at a disturbing pace.
“Je doit dormir, je doit dormir, je doit dormir!” and eventually she’d stop pestering me. I’d finish out the night simmering alone in my bed, worrying that I’d become the same unforgivingly bitter and lonely person, but I promised not to let that happen.
A smile, Marine’s self confident altruism, was enough to make me remember Wednesday night‘s vow. We’d been talking easily for the past half-Pastis; yet, I’d had enough hors d’oeuvres, I was ready for the main course.
“Marine, is Mathé dating Matteo?” I dove in, never really been one for subtlety.
Her eyes widened, she sucked in a breath through half closed teeth, and, “There’s no point in lying to you…”
Affirmation. Pain. Truth. Not necessarily in that order, not necessarily in any order, but I was glad she had not tried to spare me. I was tired of being fragile.
“How did you find out?” she asked, concern seeping into her voice.
“Your drunk friend,” I said, but I could see she was confused. “At Emma’s party, on Friday night. The crying one. She had asked me how I had come to Paris, and I had told her my history with Mathé, and…” this part was harder to say than I realized, “she said, ‘oh! Mathé, the girl everyone wants to fuck; ya, she’s dating Matteo now.’”
I used a long gulp of Pastis for cover as I then drifted back into Friday.
Awoken at 8:00AM to an angry door buzzer. Peeked over the balcony to find Matteo’s shocked face. Buzzed him in, opened the door, more shock and surprise. I shrugged it off as nothing special. Old friends were just only beginning to find out I was back in Paris. Or so I thought.
Matteo left with Emma’s car keys. Emma then told me he’s going out of town for the weekend. Then she asked me if I was alright. I shrugged that off as well. I didn’t see why I shouldn’t be alright. She giggled, went back to sleep, I left her an origami heart and a cigarette before riding off to class.
Two hours of French and Texas BBQ for lunch. Back to the AirBNB. Nap. Some writing. Met Emma and Timothe at Café Laumière as the sun was setting.
Cocaine. Drinks. Music. More drinks. Then we walked to Emma’s. She showed me that she was wearing the bracelet I had given her before I last left Paris. I’d worn that bracelet every day during my first trip across Europe. I’d worn it when I first met Emma. She’d been the first person to ask me what it meant. I had told her it was how I found home.
In France, the word for “house” and “home” are the same. In Texas, “house” is for the body, “home” is for the heart. I hugged her and got lost.
More drinks. More people. My French dissolved. Drunk girl hit on me. Drunk girl told me about Mathé. Drunk girl cried. She’s reminded herself of her own unresolved heartache.
Marine arrived. I was already wearing her flower in my hair, she jumped into my arms, but she didn’t stay long.
More cocaine, because I couldn’t get drunk. More cigarettes, because I had become numb. Once more Emma asked me if I was alright, and that time my shrug was a lie. “I know you. You not OK. You can talk to me.”
“You don’t know me. I am OK. I’ll be inside in a minute.” One more drink. One more cigarette. Sleep.
The clink of the Pastis glass as I set it back down on the laminate café table pulls me back into Sunday. Marine has just said to me, “I’m sorry you had to find out that way.”
I was slowly, too slowly, falling back into reality. Too much had happened that week to keep track of which moment was real and which was memory. I took another sip of my Pastis to keep up appearances, and said, “It’s OK, it’s better to know, however it happens.” I was choking on my words, but that did not stop me from believing them.
“Yes, but Emma or Timothe or Mathé should have told you! You shouldn’t have to have found out like that,” and she really believed what she was saying too.
“I had planned to ask Emma last night,” I then said, “but she blew me off. And I’ve only just now heard back from Mathé.”
There was a slight pause, as if Marine was making sure she had heard me right, and then, though she stopped pinching, she did not move her fingers from her lip as she dropped the pivotal question. “Mathé called you?” Each word had it’s own upward inflexion, as if each could have been a question on it’s own.
If such a thing were true…, I began to think, but then cut myself short. The garçonniere had brought out round two, reminding me to stay focused.
“No. After Emma had finally told me she couldn’t make it last night, I had a ‘fuck it’ moment,” I explained in my best monotone. “I messaged Mathé and asked if we could meet. She got back to me this morning. I’ll see her next Saturday.”
Without knowing where it had been hiding all day, I was suddenly overrun with fear. If this was my old friend the doubt, I could no longer recognize him. This was pure, precise, piercing fear.
I needed something to steady myself. I looked down at my drink, and something in the back of my head, a rounded, punctuated, basso monotone — most likely Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch — commanded, No, not the pastis you fool. Speak!
“I’m terrified, Marine.” OK, now the pastis.
“What are you afraid of?” Marine asked, lighting another cigarette which enunciated her confusion.
At that moment, I wished I could have quoted Holly Golightly’s Mean Red’s monologue, but I instead summed it up with, “I wish I knew,” yet, saying that made me feel like I was straddling over a widening fissure in my cracked plateau of sanity.
“I don’t understand. Why do you want to talk with her?” interrupted Marine.
That was an unexpected question, as well as a surprising affirmation. Just that last Tuesday night, an evening which had not only preceded, but shaped the last five days, Marine had confessed she’d recently met with her ex. As most people try to do when burdened by a distressed friend — and I’m not saying that I’m any different — she had tried to reassure me with stories of her own personal accomplishments.
“Maybe it will be good for you,” she had begun that fateful or coincidental or consequential Tuesday evening. The only other time she’d spoken to me about her ex was at that very same bar, Le Sale de Bouteille. That had been four months before Tuesday, this last Tuesday, when she gave me the rest of the story.
“When I got back from the US this January I called my ex, and I told him I was ready to talk. It’s too long of a story to say in English, but, basically, after I saw him, I felt much better. I don’t really know how to explain it, he was never good to me, but I saw that I didn’t even want him anymore” and a drag of her cigarette, I remember that clearly, then, “I’m still alone now, and that’s annoying, but it doesn’t hurt anymore.”
Sunday, being only a handful of nights removed from that Tuesday, was not long enough to require me to repeat myself, but I did so anyways. Whether it was Marine or myself I needed to convince, I could not yet tell.
“I just want the truth, Marine.” I now lit another cigarette, glanced at my drink, glanced at Marine, and let my eyes trail off to nothing special as I continued. “Who did I date for the past year and a half? Who is this woman who told me she loved me? Who was this woman I thought I loved?”
“You know,” Marine hadn’t said anything, so I kept going, “something has been fucking with me ever since I left Paris. The last time I saw Mathé, after we had broken up, she had told me she was still in love with me. I don’t understand how she could say that to me and still do nothing. I want to understand, Marine. I’m tired of ‘I don’t know.’”
From the look she then gave me I could tell she was about to say those very words, but I didn’t want her to pity me. Thankfully, she huddled back into her chair instead, but from the look she then gave the ground I could tell she was worried for me.
I took another swig of Pastis and my mind flashed back again to Tuesday night, the moment she had told me I should see a therapist. In response, I had simply told her I was tired of coping.
“You’re depressed, Jacob,” was the sum of what she had said.
“I’m not convinced, Marine,” was the sum of what I had said.
Remembering that particular conversation, weighing it against everything else that had recently happened, I was now beginning to worry for myself, and within that brief pause, anticipation began to swirl like a reckless thunderstorm.
Soon, I would have what I’d come back for: the truth from Mathé’s own lips — an awaking clap of thunder, a killing jolt of lightning, and, if I was lucky, a terrible flood to scrape clean my bones and carve out a new path for my stale blood — but whatever horizon rose behind that thunderstorm was invisible to me.
I could not explain this to Marine, I could not explain this to anyone: compared to the infinite empty beyond, Mathé was just a small scar. Something you show off at basecamp when tomorrow you climb Everest.
Something grand, something terrible, something was beyond those opaque thunder clouds, and I knew it. If only I could keep pushing.
Again, we were both now pinching our bottom lips. Somehow, at some point, we had finished our second round of drinks. “Vioooola, madamonsieuuuurs,” in a ragged, rasping undertone, and thick hands with white hair on the knuckles set two pints in front of us. Only vaguely could I remember ordering them.
We both got the hint immediately, and switched over to something substantially less weighty. Fuckin-A, lighten up! our not-drunk-enough-for-this minds were shouting.
Marine first, “Ardeche! Damn I miss Ardeche. Jumping off that cliff? I can’t believe we did that. Look, I’m getting anxious again just thinking about it!”
Then me, “Damn I miss Ardeche!” And I thought, I’m writing about Ardeche! I imagined I was cliff diving when I tried to kill myself! But all I said was again, “Damn I miss Ardeche!” because not everyone enjoyed irony as much as I did.
Marine only smiled and sighed, so it was up to me again, “I never told you this, but I was afraid to see you all after Ardeche. You were all giants to me then. I didn’t want that to change.” And I had to concede to myself, fuck it, you couldn’t be lighthearted even if you tried.
Marine now, “I never told you, but after you made fun of me for pinching my lips while we were in Ardeche, I wrote about you. Not everyone notices where I go when I do that.”
Back to me, blush.
Back to Marine, blush.
And now it’s her turn to pick the subject, “I’m so done with love!”
And now I respond more with my gut than anything else, “Moi aussi.” But I think to myself, lie?
“I just want to find someone I can travel the world with. Someone I can be easy with,” Marine dreams aloud.
“That’s the dream!” I acknowledge.
“We should travel somewhere!”
“Just tell me when and where.”
And the rest of the night became easy. The sort of night that makes you forget about the time, forget about how many drinks you’ve had or how many more you will have, forget that tomorrow is inevitable.
If I could have, I would have wrapped that night up in Marine’s bedsheets, tied it off to something secure, maybe our ankles, so that it couldn’t escape us, and laid awake counting the seconds that would never pass. Maybe she’d understand. Maybe she’d lie there with me, talking nonsense, poking the sun back down beneath the edge of the earth with our bare toes. The best friends are the ones who aren’t afraid to let you see their bare toes.
Pint glasses now empty we went to the bar to pay up. Sinatra was playing, Marine was dancing, and suddenly a round of tequila was being poured for us at the bar.
A slow burn at the back of my throat and I thought to myself, how the hell do you say to a friend, I don’t want to fuck you, but you should invite me over. It was easier to say nothing, so I said nothing. I had learned that, for me, accidentally offending someone became exponentially more likely the more sentimental I was feeling.
Like holding back a cough, I’d stifled that ambition. Marine would walk me to my bike, strong hug, faire la bise, one more smile as she descended into the metro, and then I’d leave my unspoken wish hanging from the street light as I rode off for my new AirBNB.
It was a cold ride made frigid by the unanswerable question: how the hell did I get here? And, with the help of a rickety cinema projector, running reels unwound at random from my memory, Logic would try to answer…
On Monday, awoken with the same resolve as every other day. My contract with Mathé remained unbreached. I’d checked my bag to find the flower I’d picked for her in Ardeche was now gone. Maybe it was still atop her bookshelf.
On Tuesday, frantic. After a late night Pastis at La Fontaine I’d started up the hill towards Mathé’s apartment yet again, changed my mind before I got any further than a minute, and then swung by Le Sale de Bouteille for a swig of a different sort of nostalgia as compensation.
There, smoking a cigarette on the curb, all other heads turned away from the street except hers, of course not her’s, stood Marine. She’d see me. I’d see her. The debate of who saw who first would be a matter for the cameras at the finish line.
A wry smile, a few beers, an apology and a better explanation for my secrecy.
“I understand. It’s your choice,” she had said. “But heads up, Emma will be here in thirty minutes.”
“I’ll leave before then,” I had said.
But Emma was there in fifteen minutes. I was caught red handed. Shock, tears, more drinks, and Marine, with that knowing smile painted red with pride, had tried to convince me that there was meaning in the world, but Emma would tell me that she knew, all along, that I was back in Paris, and I’d wonder what was the meaning behind that.
On Wednesday, dinner with Mike and Valentine, and I’d resolve to get the hell out of my AirBNB.
On Thursday, drinks with Timothe, Maeline and Emma. I had paused by an overcrowded bike rack before they saw me arrive, and I’d flush with regret for ever leaving those people, regret for never knowing my place among those people, regret for never being able to explain why I loved those people.
I’d sleep at Emma’s. We’d stay up late drinking tequila. There’d be a mixup about who would sleep where, and I’d make a confusing friendship even more confusing before finally resigning to the couch. “Si tu veux, si tu veux, si tu veux,” back and forth between us.
On Friday, Matteo, origami hearts, and shrugged confusion in the morning. But at night, alcohol, cocaine, a bracelet I once thought I’d never see again, and a drunk girl with less appreciation for boundaries than even I.
That’s when I would connected the dots: that’s why Matteo was surprised, that’s why Matteo borrowed the car, that’s why Mathé would not be in Paris that weekend.
On Saturday, dread like waking death. The doubt. “Emma, can we get a drink later? I just want to talk.”
“Si tu veux,” but I’d wait until 10:30PM to find out she didn’t veux.
On Sunday, AirBNB swap, and anticipation had birthed once beautiful, now terrible, memories. I forcibly halted any conscious thought. I forced myself to write. I forced myself to eat. I met with Marine. Once again, I’d take my time locking up my bike, enjoying a few seconds of easy, thoughtless bliss before something close, but not quite like, resolution would bring everything crashing together.
Fate, Coincidence or Consequence? Predetermined, Chaotic, or Causal? Had someone already written my story, did I even have a story, or was I actively writing my own story?
<<Do you remember how this story began? Yes, you. Forget about the official beginning…>>
Unofficially, this story began almost two years before, alone, resolute, enjoying the first of many final goodbyes. A fool was surprised by the taste of destiny in a swig of scotch poured by a woman five thousand miles away.
That woman was Mathé. That fool was me. That unofficial beginning took place in a divey blues bar on the Eastern edge of downtown Austin, TX. Mathé, then just a woman I’d had a three date fling with during her one year vacation in Texas, had advised me on how best to spend one of my last nights before my trip across Europe.
I’d follow her recommendation almost to the letter: King Bee’s Lounge, Little Elmer Reed Band, and a whiskey neat, which I would substitute for a scotch, neat.
When finally I’d arrive in Ardeche I’d find that I’d already fallen in love with that woman, and, like that fool that I was, buffered by a misplaced or mistaken or misshaped belief in fate, I’d give whatever I could to keep coming back.
Unofficially was where it all began, and Unofficially was on my mind as I pushed through bitter wind late-late Sunday midnight. This is what had been on my mind every day that week, that month, that year. A dream that was never meant to last.
As I arrived at my new AirBNB I thought that whenever I found my narrator, that sick bastard with a twisted taste for irony, I’d punch him square in the forehead, and knock his wits straight. This I swore as I fumed through cigarette after cigarette sitting lotus out on the balcony.
Yet, when finally I laid down to sleep, I’d have to do so gingerly so as to protect the fresh bruise forming between my own eyes.
WEEK FIVE: THE HINDSIGHT
There is an unspoken danger underlying valuation. Valuation is a decision, and a decision is a commitment. A commitment of affirmation and declaration. The unspoken, underlying danger behind valuation is this commitment. A commitment towards definition.
Tuesday morning, 7:05AM, Terminal A of the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. So much money had been spent on the new Terminal D, affording so much open space and so many nice, overpriced shops; yet, the best they’d managed for old Terminal A was merely a larger, more confusing parking garage.
For the past three hours I’d been pacing Terminal D, but had now found myself back in Terminal A, leaning against the floor to ceiling, shatterproof glass window watching yellow vested worker’s load someone’s bag, someone’s bag, and then my bag into the belly of my Boston-bound 747.
It’s easier to fuck up if that’s your reputation, I thought to myself as I watched those workers brutishly toss my bag, and then each proceeding bag onto the conveyor belt. I’d just gotten off the phone with my mother, and “do whatever it takes to go all the way,” still rang in my ears.
My shoulder was wedged into the corner where metal support beam met squeeky-clean window, and my forehead was smudging up the glass. I was trying to imagine what my own reputation would be, would become.
I had not yet put my phone back in my pocket; instead, I let it hang like a reassuring counterweight between brittle fingers, frayed threads of a rope stretched slack from my shoulder. Gazing inward always caused me to neglect certain extremities, but then the phone buzzed and sent a dull reverberation through the arm I’d left to atrophy, and sensation flooded back in — I suddenly remembered reading somewhere that cigarette smoke screwed with nerve endings — and I eased my phone up to my face to see who’d now found out I was running back to Paris.
“Please make sure this is the right choice, as long as it is I will always have your back. I love you so much,” hovered in the center of the screen. It was from my brother. He’d been the one to crack the case, to find the letter I’d left on my bed earlier that morning.
I swiped open the screen, leaned my back against the sun-baked beam, let the heat travel the full length of my spine, and replied, “There’s only one way to find out.”
Very uncharacteristically of my brother, he responded right away. Without sound my lips moved along as I read through the message. “Is this decision coming from a good place or a bad one? The only difference it will make is how soon I’m coming to see you. I know I don’t do feelings very well, but you are my best friend and I worry about you. Whatever you need, I’ll be there. Go carpé the fuck out of this diem!”
I then wondered if he realized how much of our parents he had in him. Damn you people who ask questions and make statements in the same breath! Damn you people who turn me inside out with your words, who won’t let me pity myself, who aren’t small enough to stuff into my carry on bag!
Suddenly, the heat from the beam against my back and the sun against my face became too much. I walked over to the filed banks of waiting room chairs drearily decorated in repetitive, uninspired polygons and pastels, found an unclaimed row of three, snuggled in and spread out like a born-to-the-land Texan leaning against the only something solid in a dull landscape. Not until I’d found the most comfortable way to cross my legs did I respond to my brother, “I don’t know if this is coming from a good place or a bad place, and I don’t think I’ll know until I can look back at it instead of forward to it.” Hindsight was my motive, and I hoped he would, but worried if ever he could see that.
I then watched the screen closely. Three bouncing dots in my brother’s preassigned text bubble signaling the initial flood of abstract thought damming up against the language center of his brain, translating into navigable rivulets winding through memory, logic and emotion, to convene as a singular, actionable choice at his fingertips.
The bouncing dots blinked out, and were then replaced by, “I don’t always get you, but I get that.”
If only someone would just tell me I’m being crazy, I begged to myself, this would all be so much easier if I just knew I was crazy. Only fifteen minutes would I then be allocated to stew in those thoughts before boarding was called, plenty of time for my family’s words to create a new layer of dedications atop the still-drying foundation of my resolutions, but not nearly enough time for hindsight.
<<More often than not, patience is the best path to perspective; yet, it is important to remember that the only amount of time it takes for clarity is both a necessary and an unfortunate amount of time.>>
Thirty-eight days later, Saturday, 11:20AM, I’m sitting at a café, and hindsight is slowly approaching. She doesn’t look quite the same as I remember — is her hair shorter? she’s not wearing it in that familiar braid, but it’s still just as messy, just as curly; maybe it’s that chic, peach colored overcoat I’ve never seen before, or those overly-large, square-framed sunglasses she once showed me, yet never wore — but still something familiar hangs about her, the same something that sparked a fire within my chest, and twisted my definitions of both pain and pleasure so long ago.
I’d been sitting at that poor excuse for a café for roughly an hour now, but it felt like months. It was just up the street from where we had once shared her apartment, and it had been my refuge against the worst nights in said apartment. It still served the same terrible coffee.
As I sat there, the exuberant sun of a young Spring day warming the exposed rise of my cheeks, watching, waiting, letting hindsight take as much time as she desired, I let my mind go blank. This past week had been, to say the least, quite a rush, but I had prepared myself well.
Lounging in my shallow, terrace chair, left arm folded over my stomach to support the other which held a half finished cigarette conveniently level with my lips, I did not reflect, not in the typical, literal sense of the word; instead, I let the past week’s memories float about freely, and at the ready. There was a very simple, very logical reason for how I had come to find myself back at that café, now watching terrible, beautiful Mathé calmly, casually, as if it was just another day, just another drink with an easy acquaintance, walk her way towards me.
Simple. I had asked for this. Logical. I had asked for this. Yet, simple is almost never the whole story, and logic is almost never logical until the whole story has been told. That approaching moment, eleven, ten, nine steps away was a precipice, a fulcrum, a critical point, which would clear away the fog I’d been stumbling through for so long. Or so I had convinced myself.
Within my non-reflections burned the quiet, smoldering rage of Tuesday and Wednesday, when, in class, the lesson plan of the day, dictated by the sadistic, opportunistic mastermind who wrote my French textbook, was love, and all the adjectives and adverbs that define it, describe it, as well as its antithesis.
I had imagined, I had pictured my lungs bursting, tables and chairs flipping, and windows shattering; but in reality, I’d ground my knuckles against the bare concrete in the bathroom, I’d inhaled several cigarettes whole down the shadowed, wind whipped street, and I’d desperately devoured many, too many, Kit-Kats.
Now only eight, seven, six steps away, and she is folding her sunglasses with fingers too delicate to be familiar, to be hers. She still hasn’t looked at me, and I’m scrubbing away my ego, I’m clearing away my expectations. I would not let them muck up such a supine opportunity for clarity.
Somewhere, long ago, I had read that the “hardest thing to do was to mourn someone still living,” so on Tuesday I had decided to experiment. With my forehead entrenched between my swollen hands, my elbows bolted to my aching knees, and my ass planted on not my own, never my own, bed, I directed every ounce of my imagination towards something dreadful, something despicable.
Within the little divet, the little soft spot, the little apex point of the neck, Mathé is dead, had buzzed about the back of my skull, and had gained momentum, had gained definition, had become an image, then a series of images, then a projection on the back of my closed eyelids, rewound, replayed, rewound, replayed until a hoarse, rhythmic chant had risen from my clenched stomach and poured from my dry lips.
“Mathé is dead,” rewound, replayed, rewound, replayed until it all blended into a single word, a single murmur, a single, dense breath; which I had allowed to spread, to overwhelm my mind, to build up pressure, condense, and to push through my tear ducts.
On either side of the pinch of my nose, the tiny, but dense droplets had begun to form, until something else happened. A valve was tripped, was kicked somewhere and the pressure was released, was allowed to retreat elsewhere.
I could not explain nor understand what went wrong, but immediately, I had felt sick, I had felt disgusted: I could not dare to imagine her as dead; yet, simultaneously, I had felt disappointed, I had felt weak: I could not dare to imagine her as dead.
Yet, she’s only five, four, three steps away now, and holy shit she’s sauntering! When did she learn how to do that? Who is this Mathé? Had I ever really known Mathé?
And Tuesday suddenly became even more paramount. Shuffling, then, through all the gifts Mathé had given me, I had found, buried beneath all that memorabilia, saturated, drenched in unsteady, unintentional significance, was a small paper matchbox, which had once been a small token, me to Mathé, of my travels in Germany, then had become a small message, Mathé to me, during my first long layover in Dallas.
I had pushed out the small paper tray and handwritten inside I rediscovered: “Ne t’énfles pas: sans quoi une petite piqûre suffira à te faire éclater.” Do not inflate: otherwise a small sting will suffice to make you burst.
When first I’d read that little note, nearly a year and a half ago, I’d made little sense out of it, but now, time, as it is known to do occasionally, had done something funny. Thanks Mathé. Thanks Nietzsche. Thanks Perspective. I’d made sense out of it, finally it clicked, finally it fit. Then and there, that Tuesday, I had committed, I had resolved, to return that note, and all those other gifts.
Only two steps to go now, and finally she looks at me. Friendly eyes, but empty eyes, and deep within myself I’m finishing up final preparations, making myself just as empty as she, but as open and receptive as I can be.
Which is when Thursday popped in. The day when, to Ana, I had typed, “what is love besides a masochistic or narcissistic pathology?” and, to me, Ana had typed, “the strongest sensation that can’t be explained in any way.”
But there is only one step left now, one step between hindsight and me; which was, miraculously, enough space to fall back into Friday.
What a hell of a something that day was, the day when I’d ran into Cloe — who doesn’t even live in Paris anymore! who just happened to be on the same strip of sidewalk as me! who invited me to come to her party that night! — and I’d go.
I’d arrive late, Parisian late, but Cloe would not warn me. I’d hug and kiss and follow her up the stairs, and still she wouldn’t warn me. I’d open the door and everyone would turn, familiar faces, and everyone would smile, familiar smiles, and it would then be too late to warn me.
One face would not turn, one face would not smile, not at me, only at a carefully selected point on the wall, and that face, that pronounced jaw, those slim, careless eyes, those plump, sealed lips, that face would be Mathé’s.
“Oh shit, I thought you knew she was here!” Cloe would say.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” I’d say.
And I’d put down my bags, I’d take off my jacket, I’d kiss friends, kiss Mathé, I’d count out the duration to ensure no one got special treatment, but then I’d kiss on, squeeze on, linger on Emma, because I needed special treatment.
“How are you bébé,” she’d say.
“Ça va, ça va,” I’d say.
And then an uncontrollable, unmistakeable earthquake would start in my wrist as she poured me a much needed, much appreciated glass of Pastis. Then I’d drink, then I’d breath, then I’d talk; and I’d be normal, and I’d be calm, and I’d be capable.
And then Texan tourists, Texan friends, thank God for Texans, would call. They had arrived, they were waiting to be let in, and I’d go to get them, but I’d collapse in the stairs first, but I’d forget to breath, but I’d slam my palm into my forehead once, twice, enough to make me remember.
Then I’d let them in, but before I’d let them in, before I’d go back in, I’d make a request, a plea: “Ryan, if I asked you to slap me in the face as hard as you can, would you do it, no questions asked?” And he would, no questions asked, but my jaw would question, my head would rattle, any my definition of “knock some sense intuh yuh!” would forever be changed.
And then I’d finish it out, I’d push through the night; talk simple with Mathé, oops, I just brushed her cheek, refrain from getting drunk, maybe just a little numb, and keep calm, grâce à la gifle.
Yet now, that thing which can never be avoided, now, she’s arrived. No more steps. No more space. No more time. Hindsight is finally here.
And she’s smiled. Just a little curl at the edge of her tamed lips, and I smile back. She’s glanced away from me, to the backpack on my left, and then to the empty chair, the chair farther away, on my right. She’s staring at that empty chair now, her lips parted just only, but the slight smile still remains on her intentionally? habitually? inconsequentially? placid face, and a thought has formed in her head, but has channeled in too many directions, has not yet reached a sufficient, actionable choice.
Seeing the dilemma, I make the choice for her. “Here,” in a grunt as I lift my bag, made heavy by laptop, bike chain, numerous journals, a few books, and the other things she will have to wait, though she doesn’t know she waits, to take back, and I set it with a dismissive thud into the seat on my right.
“Ah, thank you,” she says calmly, confidently in a hushed voice. Whether she really wanted the seat closest to me, practically shoulder to shoulder, whether that even matters remains unanalyzed by me. There’s still much more to see, to hear, I know it would be stupid to commit my mind in any specific direction so soon.
I half rise out of my seat, a quick, friendly faire la bise, and she’s settled in just next to me. The sun, the moment, the now is warm and reassuring. With hindsight only inches away, nothing beyond the edge of our café table exists. I light another cigarette, and I am ready to begin.
<<Sometimes, for some people, you will be little more than a book to thumb through and then leave on the shelf; yet, you must not let that be the end of your story.>>
I’m sitting, drifting in a field of grass with Marine and a few of her other friends, even the drunk, crying, “ya, Mathé, the one every guy wants to fuck,” girl from last week is there. It’s still Saturday, only seven, or eight, or I’m not counting, hours later. We’ve gathered in a small park, little more than two lazy retrogrades which meet in the middle beneath a tall, arched wooden bridge that bounces ever so slightly when the joggers weave through the casual traffic.
Many other profiteurs du soleil spread throughout the park, but it is not enough to make the space feel crowded, merely well appreciated. Some are gathered in groups, a little larger or a little smaller, but much like our own, and the rest are coupled off, some friends, some lovers, half sleeping with their sweaters and jackets now serving as pillows and blankets.
The sun, undisturbed by cloud, still shines overhead, and has turned what began as a chilled morning, into an ideal Spring day. The grass is still cool, slightly damp, which, even under the sun’s full attention, keeps me from overheating. Tall, narrow, dense conifers surround the park, keeping out all the interrupting sounds of the city, and keeping in all the unhushed conversations, clinking beer bottles and bursting, rolling laughter.
On such a day, in such a space, with such people, I should have been just fine. Earlier, seven, or eight, or however many hours, I had convinced myself that I was fine. I’d said what I had to say, I’d done what I needed to do, and I had found the answers I expected to find; though, if I must be honest, not the answers I had wanted. However, in their own frustrating way, expected answers were often more reassuring than wanted answers.
Still, I am not fine. We’re playing a card game, but I’m not paying attention. Instead, I’m navigating a hundred winding, crossing, mixing rivulets, searching for my own final, actionable choice. Hindsight is hanging about between my ears, clarity is creeping up to the tip of my tongue, and it’s all left a strange taste dripping down the back of my throat.
None of it makes sense yet, but in time it will. I know this. The undeniable pattern will assert itself. I can just taste it.
No one bothers me, except when it’s my turn to put down or pull a card. My face reads, “do not disturb,” and behind the locked door of my lips a hushed dispute ensues.
“Mathé, as long as you are you, and no one else, I will always love you,” were some of the last words I had said to her, face to face, before leaving Paris. I had held her soggy cheeks between my flushed palms, and then I had kissed her. Those two simple honesties, what I had said and what I had done, had felt good, had felt right, a drink of purified water on a hot afternoon.
Back at that earlier Saturday morning café, a fresh cigarette, maybe she had been counting how many, but I certainly hadn’t been, tremors between my fingers. Not even her gentle? fearful? careful? grasp had been able to steady that trembling. Maybe it was a side effect of being so open. Maybe it was a reaction to all the nicotine. Maybe, just maybe, it was an amplification of a besieged mind.
Mathé had already stuffed into her bag the gifts I had given back. I had told her that if she did not want them, and it was fine if she didn’t, then I’d merely throw them away.
“I’ll keep this and this,” she had said, only the slightest bit of emotion, the bit no one can never hide, never deny, humming between each word. “And I’ll take care of throwing these things away.”
Why? There’s a trashcan just there, I had refrained from saying aloud, I’ll be throwing this hat, this memento, this memory in there in just a minute.
Mathé was ready to go, she had made herself ready to go the minute she sat down, yet she would not say as much, she was unsure, unsteady, uncommitted.
“Okayyy,” I had said in an overlong sigh, the most effective transition in human language, and she took the cue, had been waiting for the cue, and had parroted it back.
Gathering her things in her lap, she had shifted towards me, and I had shifted towards her, and, with a touch of concern at the corners of her eyes, thin lips held in that same empty smile from before, a smile meant to quiet, to calm her inner most self, she had said the words that, when finally I’d let them sink in, would clarify all.
We leaned in for a final, friendly round of faire la bise, but arms had come up, both mine and hers, to encase? entangle? suffocate?, interrupting what should have been a simple, standard French farewell, transforming into a reassuring, redeeming Texan hug. I had pecked a dry kiss into her cheek, and she had planted a thick one on my neck.
As I sat there in the park, the perfect day all but forgotten around me, all the moments between, half a year before, “Mathé, I will always love you,” and, half a day ago, a careless kiss on my neck, swirled about, creating a hurricane within my head.
Like all hurricanes, this one had an epicenter, an eye, where all was calm, and the sky was clear. I could sense it, I knew it was there, and I would make it there, if only I could get past the crushing, crashing waves of frigid, frothing hate, the oppressive, overwhelming winds of blinding, battering love, and all the detritus, all the debris — coincidences, confessions, calculations — piercing, perforating any shelter I’d try to build.
Hindsight is often a bitch. She will show you things you already know, and make you feel like a fool for needing her in the first place. Just before she had left, Mathé had shifted towards me, and I had shifted towards her. She had placed her hand on my shoulder, looked me directly in the eyes, a gesture I’d always found confusing, a gesture meant to communicate both reassurance and pity, and she had said the words that clarified it all: “don’t make our past more important than it was.”
Hindsight was a bitch, but she was an honest bitch. The hurricane in my head still raged, but as the sun fell further towards the horizon, casting long shadows, signaling the end of our time in the park, I realized I did not need to reach the eye, the epicenter, the calm spot of clarity, to know that it was there, to know what was there. I suddenly realized that I already knew, had already known, even before arriving at that Saturday morning café, even before arriving back in Paris, even before, two long years ago, ever fully arriving in Mathé’s embrace.
A few minutes after Mathé had left the café she had messaged me, “I didn’t mean that kiss on your neck, sorry, I was pointing your cheek.”
Without thinking, because I knew I meant it, I had messaged back, “Good aim.”
As I left the park, trailing behind Marine and her friends, swirling the last gulp of beer around and around in the bottle, breathing more cigarette smoke than air, I realized that I still meant it. I realized that I had always meant it.