A Black Sheet
He tells us that Paris isn’t the same at night over the dinner table. Emily and I had been traveling half of Europe with a student ambassador program for the last 20 days with him as our guide, and it’s the first time he’s spoken directly to us for more than a few fleeting moments. For some reason he sat with us that last night, when there were thirty others he could’ve dined with. He says that it’s another world in the black sheet; that we can’t leave without seeing it.
We listen through cracked walls as he rings a cab in his room. His thick Liverpool accent is in a low hush. We’re young, minors, but he’s a man and has money and a sense of direction and wit. We trust him with our lives yet we’ve only known him for three weeks. We don’t want to leave.
It’s just Emily and I. We sit waiting, hoping, lips bit and eyes shut, for a miracle. He knocks on our door.
He’s in our hotel room. The shades are drawn so the supervisors can’t see, even though he’s one of them. I tell him about the man on the train who kept touching my dress. He gets angry at someone who isn’t in the room, then grows softer. He hugs me. We wait.
It’s curfew now. A boy and girl are kissing near the lake. Michael checks on the cab.
He takes my hand. I’m unsure but Emily is ready, running, and he pulls me to catch up with her. She and I both wear a dress, he’s in a white shirt and black dress pants.
I’ve never noticed how strong his jawline is. Lights shine through the window from the third ring of Paris. Then the second. He glances over at me, sapphire eyes gleaming, and takes my hand. Emily is staring out the window.
The cab driver has a stack of books in the passenger seat. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Old School, The Bluest Eye, and American Cowboy. He smells of cigarette smoke and coffee. Michael tells him the name of two streets.
We’re standing in the middle of Paris, covered in the black sheet. He was right, it’s different than in the day. There’s a golden glittering beacon not far off in the distance. A woman and man are kissing against a lamppost.
We’re climbing up the stairs of the tallest tower in all of Paris. Breathless we laugh. We can see the stars.
I wrap my fingers around the chained fence that keeps me from falling into the rest of the world. I can see Berlin, London, Oslo, Dublin. I can see him standing next to me. Emily closes her eyes and leans against the chilled metal. Michael is looking at only us.
We sit in the field below the tower. Michael has bought a blanket with cheap red hearts printed on it from a nearby shop, along with a bottle of champagne. We can taste the stars.
A boy named Louis joins us. He’s an intellectual, attending a University in the city. He rolls his own cigarettes and has a thick proper accent. Michael met him in secondary school. Emily talks to him about the Lost Generation and Shakespeare’s greatest work as I lay silently next to Michael.
The night is cool and the streets are quiet. A solitary car passes every few minutes and a driver will shout foul language. We’re all a little drunk and Louis has bought another bottle.
We tell each other our secrets with low whispers and pinky promises. Michael; that he had lost his virginity in a club when he was seventeen. Emily; that she hadn’t missed anything from the past since she entered France. Louis; that he was failing his classes because he spent too much time reading. Mine; that I had wanted to kiss Michael from the first day.
None of us spoke. Louis and Michael both held a cigarette with one dot of an ember on the end, smoke drifting gently into the night. The stars were brighter than they had been earlier. We were clustered together, sharing the mutual silence of the moment.
Armstrong’s La Vie En Rose floated through the air as we ambled. We had abandoned the cheap cloth and bottles and now walked with a serene sense of nostalgia. The streets held only us and a few others, just the lonely and the lovers.
We were all fully drunk now, whether on happiness or wine and champagne I don’t know. We strolled through the streets without a care or sense of destination, speaking about Chaplin’s movies and if Monroe was murdered or suicidal. We talked of politics and immigration and whether or not the constellations in the skies had already burned up or were just now forming. And we kissed.
Louis had an apartment in a corner of the first ring. We climbed four flights of stairs, drunkenly, nearly tumbling back down, and reached the top. It was a small couple of rooms with bookshelves piled high. French, English, American works blanketed the walls. He poured us all another glass of wine.
We were dancing. A scratched record spun seamlessly on a recorder, wafting incomprehensible French through the musty air of the apartment. Some songs fast, some slow. We laughed at ourselves and the city and cried for the same. Emily and I were leaving the country in seven hours.
“You don’t have to leave. You could stay here with me.” These were the words that changed the night. Emily was tangled in an armchair with Louis, I had my head on Michael’s shoulder. His hand was absently twirling my hair. We didn’t want to go back to the shit hotel in the third ring, to go back to shit reality. Nobody said a word.
A slow song, La Même Histoire, played from an unknown record. We were drunkenly kissing, sobbing, laughing at nothing and for nothing. There were no lights, only candles. My dress was stained with mascara and Emily’s with wine.
She and I both wore Louis’s clothes. He had given us both a dress shirt that covered us to our thighs. None of us knew how we would get home.
Louis is talking about how stars in the galaxy that we wish on each night have already burned up, and does that mean that wishes don’t come true if we wish on the wrong star, and that we’re actually all made up of stardust and that Fitzgerald was ultimately trying to prove that in The Great Gatsby. My eyes close on Michael’s lap. Emily is asleep, cradled with Louis who speaks in a whisper not to stir her.
I wake up on a wool blanket on the floor. Michael is next to me, and next to him Emily and next to her Louis. My head aches a bit and Louis is snoring. Rays of gold cascade onto the scratched wooden floor and secondhand furniture. I just now notice a typewriter stored under the couch.
I drift in and out of a gentle sleep. I’m curled into Michael; I can feel his sleepy eyes gazing at me. Emily yawns. Louis is making a pot of coffee.
Emily and I know we have to go back. We can’t stay. I sip some mouthwash from the washroom and spit it straight out. My lips are stained purple and eyelids shaded a smudged golden grey. I can here children playing outside.
Louis kisses us all goodbye. A peck to the cheek with Michael, a lingering kiss to the lips with me, and a French with Emily. Twice.
We’re waiting on a street corner for the cab. I’m trying to memorize every detail about Louis’s apartment, about the park across the way, about the sky and the cracks in the sidewalk and the smell of fresh bread from an unseen bakery. Emily is watching two small children play on the other side of the road. Michael isn’t looking at either of us.
Room call is in 36 minutes. Our cab driver is gruff and looks more hungover than we are. He doesn’t have any books in his front seat.
We sneak back through the door we came. Nobody has noticed a thing. Michael says that we don’t have to go one more time. He looks at us both one more time. It’s too different now to say thank you or I’m sorry or any other mindless small talk. He looks at us once more and then leaves the room.
We’re in a French airport with too much around us that is foreign from the Paris we learned, knew, traced last night. Words get bunched up in our heads as we look at Michael one last time. He doesn’t wave, just grimaces. La Même Histoire begins playing through smooth airport speakers in a tone that is far less sincere than it was last night. We can’t stay. And so we go.