A Winter In Paris
The dawn glowed orange on the creamy gray horizon as we finally shook free of the Icelandic night and started toward morning in Paris. I drank a beer and stretched out in my seat watching the starboard moon’s reflection on the wing. The beer was very cold and I justified drinking it because it was 3 or 4 am in New York, whatever that meant. It occurred to me shortly after that I didn’t need to justify it; that there was no one in my life to justify anything to anymore and that’s why I left.
We were about two hours from France, just over an hour out of Reykjavik. Most of the passengers were sleeping or reading. I was content to watch the morning’s fire yawning before the thin clouds beneath us and the slow shift in gradient as the skies gave way to dawn. It was not long before I fell asleep against the window as I watched the light rise, even as we found soft waves of turbulence that shook the plane and the captain whispered something in Icelandic and then English about the cool air outside.
When I awoke, it was to the rough thump of our wheels hitting the tarmac at Orly under a gray Parisian sky.
Once off the plane, I resisted the urge to buy macarons and coffee at Ladurée. I moved quickly, bought an RER ticket and then got on the shuttle to Antony. At Antony, I waited in the fog with commuters and other passengers then took the blue line to Châtelet Les Halles. I found a seat and nearly fell asleep, paying little attention to the stops before Saint-Michel Notre-Dame: the only one that resembled the Paris I remembered. At Châtelet Les Halles, a police officer stopped me and asked me to open my bags. I fumbled, both in French and English, and she finally settled for squeezing my duffle bag and searching my backpack before she turned her attention to a new batch of travelers. She’s looking for a rifle, I realized. That was new to me.
I walked past the shops and cafés above Rue de Rivoli through the 1st Arrondissement, stopping only to walk into a doorway under a red and white TABAC sign and buy a pack of cigarettes. Une boîte de Gauloises Blondes, s’il vous plait. My French sounded cleaner than I thought it would. The woman there took my five Euros with no further discussion. I left and found my hotel just off Rue Saint Honoré, around the corner from a small fish shop and a bar where people stood outside smoking, their beers sitting on old barrels.
You are a little early, the young Moroccan girl at the desk said.
I can wait, I said.
No, it’s ok, she said. Chambre 478. Leave the key at the desk whenever you go out: it’s easier. She handed me an ancient key on a huge brass ring and I memorized clef quarte-sept-huit because I had forgotten that the word for room was chambre.
The room was tiny and cold. Including the bathroom, it was smaller than my kitchen in New York. There was a desk. A window looked out onto a wall, but there was a ledge and some sad flowers in a planter that had somehow survived the biting wind. The ledge, I thought, would be perfect for chilling wine or beer.
I resisted the urge to sleep, intent on resetting my broken circadian rhythms and forgetting that I never slept more than 3 or 4 hours a night. Instead, I put on my top coat and grabbed my cigarettes, scarf, and notebook and headed onto Rue Saint Honoré so that I could see the Tuileries and the Louvre again.
I lit a cigarette and walked towards Rue de Rivoli. Outside the Hotel Louvre, the air smelled like warm crêpes and as much as I wanted one, I also wanted to wait until the bitter taste of French tobacco left my mouth and the heavy feeling passed.
I sat at Le Ragueneau smoking, drinking Kronenbourg, and eavesdropping on a group of Italian women — out of boredom more than curiosity — as I waited for my croque monsieur. The sandwich was wonderfully warm and the pommes frites arrived in a tiny fryer basket, hot and unsalted. I felt restless, but my tension surrendered to my body’s need for food and after two or three cigarettes and another beer, I began to feel almost calm, comforted by the awareness of my long-anticipated loneliness and the familiar strangeness around me. I paid, then crossed into the courtyard of the Louvre.
There were no crowds and the afternoon had never really shaken free of the gray skies that greeted me a few hours earlier. I paced a bit, frustrated that the faded gardens in the Tuileries were bare and that the palace seemed smaller and in dimmer relief than I had remembered it.
Paris was colder than New York. Something in me felt colder, too.
The romance of the city had left me. It was still beautiful, but gone was the young man who felt his breath leave him when he stood on the Cour Napoléon, staring rapturously at the fortress surrounding the glass pyramid. As much as I tried, I couldn’t see with those eyes anymore and I remembered part of why I came, wondering if C — — — — had stood where I stood, aching to feel some closeness to her by being in the city that she loved, hoping to feel some part of her love for Paris leave its imprint, leave its warmth, leave its light on the faded gardens of my bare heart.
But even that hope that I protected from the world and her and most of all myself, felt distant and lost, and I watched the encroaching night smother it before I lit another cigarette and walked back towards my hotel, empty.
The night had just started to sparkle and it was barely 6pm, so I decided to walk up Rue Saint Honoré. Most of the shops were still open and I thought for a moment about dropping into the bar with the barrel tables, but knew that I would just end up going back to my room if I did.
I continued up Saint Honoré to the wash of the bright golden light of Place Vendôme.
The Vendôme Column was lit like a pillar of steel glowing silver and blue in the sodium lamps that lit the square. I peered into the windows of Boucheron and Charvet and then walked across the square into the Ritz.
I sat for a while in the corner at Bar Hemingway under the austere bust of the writer balanced on an old Corona typewriter, feeling the weight of loneliness that had unpacked itself come to rest. I wanted someone to share all of it — the orange-lit square, the ruby-veined marble, the easy glow of the first and second and third drink — with someone. Not the people who crowded the bar and provided atmosphere, but someone. It was companionship, not camaraderie that I hoped for, all the while self-conscious about it, injured by my own sense of vulnerability and a little ashamed of it.
Occasionally, I’d scribble something in my notebook and cross it out. Eventually I switched to champagne. Then French 75s. The warmth brought on by the first few drinks gave way to a blunt anger: a sullen disappointment that, despite the beauty surrounding me, rendered every square inch of it sterile, antiseptic, dull, just as it had spread its shadow over the Louvre. Before long I was drunk and, growing tired of a loud group of Russian businessmen and their English hosts, took a table in the tiny alcove that looked like a library and continued drinking there.
And then all at once, the atmosphere in the bar changed.
The bar didn’t become any quieter, but all at once I felt calmer. I was daydreaming, watching the bubbles in my drink rise when she walked in.
She had white-gold hair pulled back in an updo and wore a black evening gown and opera gloves. The smell of vanilla and powder and cigarette smoke woke me like cold fingertips caressing a cheek. She was with an older woman, equally blonde and elegant, draped in furs, sparkling with diamonds. They sat at the table across from mine, settling in and shrugging away their stoles.
She caught my staring and smiled at me with pursed red lips.
I immediately broke away, embarrassed, feeling her eyes on me as she laughed at something I didn’t hear.
There was music in her voice.
And its song was that of forgetting.
(Originally published on www.ksanthony.com in two parts)