By Steve Clark
There was no way, as he walked under the Parisian foliage, the autumn light dripping over him like a thick syrup, he could know that he would die today. But yes, it was true, he’d die by the end of the day; and since there was little he could do about it, if anything, it was probably just as well not to know.
He had left his wife at the rental on rue d’Assas because she was feeling fluey, a word he didn’t like but she’d used to describe the spasm of congestion that had planted itself behind her nose like a turgid jellyfish, not to mention the flashing aches in her joints and lower back. At first she’d thought it was the monthly gloom, but the intensity made her rethink her initial prognosis and stay in bed that afternoon.
The boys (ages three and six) were playing with their Uzbekistani nanny in the Luxembourg playground across the street. His wife had paid the two-euro-per-child-per-day entrance fee for the week so she could air them out when their levels became savage. For the first time in months, maybe years, he found himself on an aimless walk. He hadn’t been to Paris in seven years (his wife had pointed this out, he thought it more like three) when they had spent four months, the first three pleasurably, the last anticipatory, as they waited for the renewal of his then not-wife’s American visa. (After the third month, the glow of his wife’s favorite city had dimmed, as did the allure of sleeping in rented beds as they pushed up against the invisible bars of the United States immigration system.) But how they loved Paris! She in particular. It made her glow. The midnight dinners in tiny bistros, the warm croissants in the morning, oysters at midday, the long, long walks, making love in the afternoon, the drinks at Bar Hemingway, the classic concerts in small churches, the art shows spilling onto the streets, everybody smoking, (even the dogs in cafes seemed to have their own studios!), the language perpetually thrown over the shoulder like a cigarette to the wind, the poetry / graffiti on the walls. What was there not to love . . .
He was not thinking of any of that as he walked along rue Bonaparte toward the Seine, but that remembered-joy percolated in his blood, making the walk more pleasurable than if he hadn’t lived those four months seven years ago. Of course, he had been to Paris other times, and it was those moments that now appeared before him quite randomly. Like sepia prints coming into focus in a darkroom, but instead of chemicals, offering up scents, emotions. One was having dinner with an American painter (she would later become his lover) when he was in his early twenties in her Paris flat, sitting on the floor, amidst some loud Italians, consuming a huge salad, steak and globs of red wine. How she had a pointy Rimbaud face, and pretentiously ended all her sentences with a question mark. He had brought his best friend Gregory, a musician (they had randomly bought clogs that day), and she drew sketches of both of them. Vainly he thought she’d made his face too round, while Gregory’s was rendered narrow, artistic. He of course blurted this straight out, and she agreed that his friend was more interesting. Somehow this assured him they’d go to bed together. Other memories invaded, writing at a cafe but having a panic attack, and having to leave, barely able to pay as he spat into a napkin . . . Walking home alone at night, just managing some French with a well-dressed homeless guy. Lamp lights. Saint-Sulpice. Falling into bed with his shoes on. The books, the countless books, with their faded, poetic covers.
He remembered filling up on mini-burgers at L’Atelier; and after four years of not smoking, sitting on a bench, turning to a stranger, asking for a cigarette and lighting it. That terror of nicotine slamming his throat giving him a fast buzz as the Vespas sped past him. He noted now, at forty, he was happy he’d quit; and though he still enjoyed second-hand smoke, had no urge to pick up the vile habit again. He passed one of the cozy brasseries, and immediately thought of what he’d have for dinner. He was craving a steak frites and bottle of chilled Brouilly. The thought of that gave him satisfaction. A few teenage girls passed, all wearing crop tops; and he marveled at how little he had in common with anyone under thirty, and wondered how he appeared to them. A girl from the take-out counter at a sandwich shop smiled at him; and he smiled back, thinking, How unlike New York, a woman just smiled at me for no reason. That felt good, though it was likely kindness not flirtation. As the Seine appeared before him, he was thinking about tattoos, and how everyone seemed to have one. He did not. Also how most of them now entailed words, sentences, and he tried to read them as they passed but that was impossible. When did everyone get tattoos? His wife didn’t have one either; and though he had nothing against tattoos, he was somehow certain, that part of the reason he loved his wife (and he did love his wife) was that she was the kind of person who’d never get a tattoo. A horn blast from one of the tourist boats, bateau-mouche, stopped him, and he thought, Well, that’s obnoxious, and remembered a rather conservative childhood friend, who once told him, «Horns should be twice as loud inside the car, so people will think thrice about using them.» He thought, Now, that’s a fantastic idea.
As he walked along the Seine casually looking at the books for sale on the wooden counter tops wrapped in plastic, here’s what he was not thinking about: What happens when we die? Is our life governed by chance or fate? Is there a God, and if so why does he allow such horrors? Though he wasn’t thinking about these things, he had thought of them and here were his answers in order. Nothing. Chance. There is no God.
Now something peculiar happened. As he was casually browsing the books he came across the familiar cover of a poetry book he’d written in his twenties. The book was called Last Thoughts First and had his painting of a flower with handwritten script underneath. The background was brown, the flower was light blue and the script was ochre. The publishing house had insisted on using it. It was odd to see his book there because only two thousand copies had been published; and though he had an unexpected (in depth, mostly positive) review in La Libertad (for it was published bilingually in French and English due to an interested though unknown French writer), few people outside his circle of friends had read it. He picked it up and saw it was inscribed in black fountain ink: To Jacques, with all my love, Isabelle. He couldn’t help but chuckle. Isabelle Fontana was the translator, and it was pretty clear either Jacques did not love her back or he detested the book. Both were equally possible but for the sake of the beautiful day and his pleasant mood, he decided it was the former. He hadn’t read the book in many years so he flipped through the pages wondering if it held up. It was his only book of poems, as he’d been sucked into business matters after his father’s death, and now spent most of his time overseeing the investments of his family office. He knew what terms like Price / Earnings ratio (or PE) meant and what EBITDA stood for. Frankly he had forgotten about the book, and a small pleasure overtook him as he read his own words and decided he was not embarrassed by his youthful work. He thought it was good. At page 49, he stopped and thought how funny, I don’t remember (though he vaguely did) writing a poem based in Paris, but there it was . . . And as he read it (murmuring to himself), he thought who was this writer? It certainly didn’t sound like him-himself, but him somebody-else who was probably more him than him. That’s what he liked about writing, when it was going well, you were a stranger to yourself, but more you than you. He felt that a bit, but also thought of the day it was loosely based on which was an afternoon spent at the Rodin Museum, very hungover (a usual occurrence at the time) when he was certainly not in love (though this was a love poem) but was aware, he must have been, of longing, mostly from poetry books, and one poem in particular by C.P. Cavafy about looking back at all the extinguished candles of his life, and fearing how few lit ones lay before him. He read the last line which he now remembered for certain was not directed at any person-person but the idea of a woman, the idea of love, which made it somehow fake to him, though not in a bad way.
I want to be light and water and hold her in my arms
once more while I am young
and my eyelids hang beneath my lips.
Hang beneath my lips, he repeated, and shook his head. Strange line. He thought about buying the book and sending it to his former translator with a funny note about Jacques, but decided against it, set it on the counter, thought for a moment whose hands the book would fall into, what stranger would read those exact lines, and what his or her reaction would be to the book in general, if any, and then quickly let those thoughts go too, and continued along the Seine.
I suppose this is where the story begins. It was at the corner of rue de Beaune and Quai Voltaire that he saw an ex-girlfriend. A French girl he’d dated for three years in his early thirties. He had walked away choosing to be single rather than marry. She had an erotically Jewish nose and masculine thumbs, and always seemed to have her hand on her hip as if she were at a chic cocktail party (which she often was). Even in movement, when she walked down the street, as she was now, she retained this demeanor of casual elegance, and it seemed impossible she could be unaware of all who noticed her, many turning, as she–partly confused but mostly ethereal like a ghost from the 1920s trying to find Picasso’s studio or a High Ball– whisped by yet another cafe. But possible it was, as she had no idea of anyone noticing her whatsoever. In short, she was original, and a good, now-known photographer. She had a son, now perhaps ten, named after a famous film director (he didn’t remember which one) who walked alongside her, handsomely, more solidly, more actually there, than his mother.
She quickly turned on rue du Bac, and with a last flash of her stylish Mom jeans, loose silver blouse, and–even now at what would be 36–her youthful delusion, she was gone. He ran after her in a very un-Parisian, un-casual way, but when he got to the corner, he only saw a portly woman sweeping cigarette butts onto the street. Where had she gone? She had disappeared like a bubble pricked by the past.
Why had he run after her? Not for any lingering romantic affection, but mostly, if he were to be honest (and immodest), because he thought she’d be happy to see him (and he, her of course); she’d always been fond of him, regardless of the failed romance, so he thought she’d get a kick out of running into him after what must’ve been eight years. She’d always called him by his last name, and surely she would’ve again, and her smile would, as always, be genuine. After they’d broken up, she’d gotten together with a French art dealer; and the one time they’d all run into each other in New York at an opening, the fellow, a handsome congenial sort, had said, «Thank you for breaking up with her, I’m happy to be her second choice,» with a rich laugh, and no undercurrent of jealousy. He’d been impressed with her new man’s confidence and ease, and as she rolled her eyes at the comment, he remembers being happy that she’d found such a simpatico partner.
He took a breath and leaned against a lamppost. Once his heartbeat settled, he wondered why he could breezily jog five miles as exercise but any exertion in real-life expunged his lungs almost immediately. Was it even her? It must’ve been. He thought when he got back he’d write her an amusing email (even maybe a little story) about a woman passing an ex-lover without a thought . . . How we all pass lives that might’ve been without knowing–the spider web of endless lives, loves, vibrating invisibly around us. No– too serious, philosophical, she’d think he’d become sincere. Something more self-deprecating about her being rightfully unaware of his klutzy, eager presence as she sashayed past as if in a foreign movie. He was thirsty and walked into a market, bought one of those awful, ubiquitous (even in Europe) plastic bottles of water and set on finding a place in the shade to rest and think of nothing at all. He walked across the Pont Royal to Tuileries Garden and looked for a bench, which, since they were in Paris, was not hard to find. He found a quiet one just outside the gate of a children’s playground. He thought this would be a relaxing spot. Children, who’d been virtually invisible to him, had become tolerable almost interesting after having his own. Or at least watching the way parents interacted with their children, how they parented, had become interesting; their levels of impatience and degree of punishment as points of comparison to his own style. It was a language he understood and thus found soothingly familiar (especially as an observer, perhaps only as an observer). Content, he sat and sipped the cool water. He watched the kids run and scream and swing and play . . . the quiet ones, the screamers, the observers and loners, the boisterous little groups popping with shrieks and imagination, until suddenly, he saw his eldest with his straw-colored bowl haircut run past the swings (he sometimes had an unusual side-ways run) and duck inside a wooden boat. Wow, she brought them all this way to a new park. What a great nanny, he thought as he often had about her. We’re so lucky. He looked around, she must be close by, probably playing with the younger one. But he couldn’t see her. He scanned the playground for the little one who was hard to miss for he was very tall for his age and screamingly blond. Nowhere. He thought, Pretty irresponsible leaving the eldest alone, he was a mature six, but still six the same, and he didn’t speak French. He got up, unlatched the gate, stepped into the playground and ducked underneath the boat but his son wasn’t there. Where is he? He started to question whether it was his son, or had he imagined it? No, it was him, the kid was even wearing the T-shirt with the rainbow and «All Good» printed on the back in bubbly script. He couldn’t have imagined that. Strange. He took another look under the boat, then peered around. He looked at each kid. No. No. No. No. The sun, high and bright, wasn’t helping. He sat down on another bench, now inside the playground, and looked around hoping one of them would pop out from a covered slide or an underground ladder, but nothing. His throat was dry again. He took the bottle out of his jacket and swallowed the last of it. The water was warm.
What an unusual day this was becoming, and he wondered if he too didn’t feel fluey. He felt his forehead with his palm (no fever), and took his pulse, though he didn’t know how, was more just checking if his heart was beating fast, and it was, but what did that mean anyway? Wouldn’t anyone’s heart beat fast if their son had appeared and disappeared in a strange park just like that. He was not fluey. He didn’t dislike, but hated that word. He took a last look around and even called out the name of his eldest, then youngest, then nanny. He knew he looked ridiculous. Alarmed, some parents looked up and followed his gaze, in a purely symbolic gesture of help. He opened the gate and walked toward home.
He had gone about six blocks down the rue de Rivoli when he saw his father walking toward him. He was wearing a dark blue suit and carrying an old-fashioned tan briefcase, the bulky square kind with the gold latches. He stopped and stared. As he walked by he could barely say the word, Dad? But his father didn’t look up, just kept walking. He only made out the kerosene blue of his eyes as he passed. He groped his way down a side street and sat on a step. Everything was bending above him, the mansard roofs leaning toward each other, almost liquefying. His heart was certainly pumping now; and he thought he might be having a panic attack. One of those hysterical episodes of his twenties when he’d need three drinks to steady him. When he next looked down, he was reading his poetry book, but as he tried to close the book, the pages crumbled like sand to his feet. He got up and ran, knowing, or at least very strongly feeling, that the only way he could get through this was to get home to his wife. She would pour him a glass of Japanese whisky and put him to bed. He’d lie right next to her, hold her tight. This kind of stuff can’t happen when you’re holding your wife. Now he was sprinting, and hoping the physical exertion would overtake his mental collapse, or whatever the hell was happening, that it would distract him enough to get him home. An old French couple stopped and stared as he ran, a woman yanked her Yorkie out of his path; he didn’t want to imagine the frightful look of terror that must’ve been on his face. He got to the Seine and was breaking a sweat, when it overtook him; he knew he wouldn’t make the apartment. It might’ve been the sky opening up that sunk him, no crowded buildings to protect him, but instinctually and for what he perceived as pure survival, he took a hard left down the steps, jumping three at a time, toward the river. He sat on the dirty cement close to the water, took off his shoes and rubbed his feet with both hands. He did this to remind himself that he was still here. That he was a human being. That he was ok. He sat there a long time.
It was unclear how long he’d been out, but it must’ve been a while, because the colors had changed. The heavy magic gray of late afternoon had coated the buildings on the other side of the river. He got up, collected his shoes, felt dizzy, stepped back from the embankment and sat on yet another bench. He pulled on his shoes, and leaned back, looking at the water, which was sparkling a little now. The animal terror had left him, and he almost smiled at the ludicrous day. He thought, I will sit here just a while and then walk home. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, happy to be back in his body.
When he opened them he began to make out a little raft toward the center of the river, bobbing with the current as if anchored. It was one of those bamboo ones, with the shoots tied at their ends by coarse rope. Something he imagined Huck Finn would float down a river on. When he looked closer, he saw there was a girl of eight or nine sitting on it. She had on a funny frayed sun hat and was smiling. She was somehow familiar to him, and had seemed to have shaken off all of life. She was fresh, pure but not because she was a girl on a raft in the middle of Paris, but for some other reason. He wasn’t sure. She uncapped some ChapStick and applied it. After she finished, she popped her lips, and opened her mouth. He could see her white teeth. He thought of his wife. As a child. He thought she would’ve been like the girl in the hat. Bobbing. On a raft. With a hat that was more tear and cloth than hat. He stood up and walked toward her, but didn’t call out. He wanted to surprise her.
Around this time, his wife had gotten out of bed and fixed herself an omelet. The boys were still playing in the Luxembourg playground but would be coming home soon. She felt well enough to open a bottle of chilled Brouilly. Why not, she thought.
When they found him, he was seated upright, hands folded in his lap, an untouched newspaper by his side. Only the position of his head gave it away. The sun was low now. Some red and yellowish light falling over the Seine in bursts like rain showers. Under different circumstances, perhaps any, he would’ve agreed with her about Paris.