Truth be told, I was not that excited about going to Paris. I realize that makes me sound very spoiled and unlikeable. In my defense I was seventeen, and back then everything was an ordeal. But so were all of my friends, and they had all been in a state of near constant rapture, particularly Cora – petite and blonde and passably fluent in French. Oh, all right, maybe that was it. I had actually been born in France, a refugee baby, and that was the extent of my language immersion until that summer. I elected to take French out of obligation (parents), but I mostly sat there in class with my book open, the letters and frilly accents retaining their mystery – these were the same accents as my mother tongue, Vietnamese, a language I also did not know. I could write well enough to pass public school French but kept a mime-like vow of silence in class, so the teacher recommended to my parents that they send me on this trip.
So they did, and it sparked off a near constant reminder of how much I was costing them, what with college around the corner and everything, and how I should have been absolutely ecstatic, but wasn’t. I was an ocean away from the love of my life (of 1997), in a country where the streets didn’t make sense, the bathrooms were horrorshows and everything reeked of sewage or cheese or both. French people fawned over Cora, who spoke with a Dallas twang (“SEE-voo-play?”). They called me “chinoise.” We both looked laughable trying on the dresses featured in the tiny boutiques made for tinier frames, but Cora never seemed to mind and would often drag me along with her all over Montmarte. Some days I would escape when Cora was trying on the dix-septième shapeless gray sweater bag-dress of the day, and I would wander around until I found the nearest pay-phone, and dig out one of the dozen or so pre-paid international calling cards my dad had bought for me and use it to call Michael. Once in awhile I’d reach him and we’d spend ten or fifteen expensive minutes swapping professions of love, mine in mangled French (“je t’aime!”) and his in Texanized English (“I miss hanging with you”). Most of the time, though, I wouldn’t get to talk to him (he was, I would later find out, busy making out with the captain of the girls’ soccer team – to this day, I have a bias against Stephanies), but I would cling to hyped-up memories of him, his long stringy hair and his skinny wiry arms around me, clumsily fumbling around for my bra clasp. When the gorgeous maître d’ at the restaurant around the corner, who looked exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio but with darker hair, slipped Cora a business card with his number on it, I used Michael to shield my ego. I remembered that I had my own lover waiting for me at home, and I would not remember that he often had weed-breath and kissed like a singing Billy Bass.
I had actually been waiting around for Cora, when I got mugged. We had been given a free “study” afternoon on the last weekend before we were set to go home, which probably wasn’t the best idea on Madame Henderson’s part. Cora wanted to call Luc (the hot maître d’) but didn’t want to use the phone at the hostel’s front desk, or anywhere out in the open in our neighborhood – “this is how you do a tryst, Sophia,” she said with her usual dramatic flair – so we traveled down a couple stops on the Metro, and walked into random shops, with Cora asking “puis-je utiliser le téléphone?” in her noticeable drawl. Most people didn’t or pretended not to understand us. Eventually we found a shop crammed wall to wall with flowers and ribbons and taxidermied doves; the florist here let Cora use her phone. “Merci milles fois,” said Cora, “c’est de l’amour vrai!”
I waited for her to connect and then snuck out. The soapy flower smells were overwhelming, and it was hot. I stumbled, scent-drunk, to the sidewalk and looked down the street before me. All up and down, people were in constant motion, selling knock-off paintings and silk scarves and baubles. Everything before me was a little dollhouse city, painted in hues of blue and pink and lavender. Women in smart dresses marched up and down the street with purpose, satchels laden with groceries in either arm. An old man on a rusty bicycle slowly pedaled down the street, serenading the passersby with a heartfelt, doleful voice; a little terrier trotted after him on a leash. Both the man and the terrier were wearing matching tweed jackets. Languid piano chords floated from somewhere just above me.
Holy shit, I am in Paris, I realized, staring at the scene in wonder. I had been there for four weeks and hadn’t really stopped to observe where I was. I stood there, enchanted for a few minutes, jolted awake by someone abruptly bashing into my left side: “excusez-moi!” It took another full beat for me to realize that my purse had gone with him.
My passport was in there. My ticket home. Madame Henderson had instructed us all to entrust those precious documents to her safekeeping, and I was totally going to do so but never did, and now it was being carried off somewhere. “Au voleur!” I shouted as I ran after him, finally remembering the appropriate thing to say in a situation. He darted in between the sidewalk stands, wove in and out of bicycles and pedestrians. “Au voleur!” Here, a strange thing happened: it was like that shove had knocked me into thinking in French. Il portait un veste marron, cheveux noir, baskets sales. I ran right into a panier de parapluies, just as up ahead, I saw a man tackle the thief and wrest my purse from his possession. An elderly woman helped me up; she looked at me and tutted, her grip surprisingly strong.
“Merci!” I said, breathless, as I ran up to the hero. The thief had scurried off in the distraction, but my purse was there. “Merci beaucoup!” The man handed me my purse and started talking rapidly; I blushed, as the spell faded and I went back to being bad at French again. “Je suis americainne!”
“Ah, really?” said the man, who looked to be around my father’s age. He had a streak of white through his hair, was slightly heavyset, and had frost blue eyes; he wore a smudged apron over striped shirt and pants. “I thought you were maybe Chinese. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” and he offered me a chair – we were standing outside a cafe, which turned out to be his cafe, and the elderly woman who had helped me up earlier turned out to be his mother. I sat down, dazzled and out of breath, hugging my purse like a teddy bear as he talked and talked.
“Actually I spent some time in America, a long time ago,” he said, while the old woman went into the cafe; she reemerged with a tray bearing a carafe of coffee and a plate of little chocolate bonbons. He told me that when he had been in high school, he’d also studied abroad in the US, and he had not been mugged but had gotten involved in a street brawl with some drunk guys outside of a bar in Mississippi, and had narrowly escaped being arrested.
“No, it was okay,” he said, laughing. “It can make a good story, you see?”
I never cared for coffee, mostly because my parents never drank it and only kept around sugary instant packets for guests. What I desperately wanted was a glass of water, cold and full of ice cubes, but no one ever seemed to drink water here or mind its absence. I took a sip of the hot liquid, acutely aware of sweat dripping down my neck and back. The coffee was strong and bitter, and I felt suddenly more alert and awake than ever.
“You have a boyfriend?” he asked. I nearly choked on the coffee as he continued, “I have a son your age, maybe. He is very handsome, but a little bit lazy.”
“Oh. I already have a boyfriend at home!”
“Ah, boyfriends, they come and they go,” he said. (How right he was, but at the time I rolled my eyes). “My son, he is away at school right now, so you cannot meet him. But next time you must meet him, and tell me how you think of him? He is almost as handsome as me,” he said, winking. He called out something to the old woman, who came back with a tall green vase filled with tepid water, and two empty glasses. I downed nearly the entire vase in one gulp, and he laughed and commented that I was quite the drinker, and I should really come back later that evening to try some wine.
Now that I had calmed down a bit, I braved a bite of one of the little dark chocolates – it melted as soon as it touched my tongue, and it was the richest and most delicious thing I had ever tried up to that point in my life. Magically, more sweets appeared on our table, atop a silver filigreed tray. There was a tower of fruit perched atop a base of custard, and a chocolate peanut buttery confection soaked in a good amount of rum, shimmering in edible gold. My favorite was a tiny, delicate swan, fashioned of crème and clouds. I must have looked crestfallen as he reached towards the swan; he winked again at me again as he set the swan onto a gilded saucer, and presented the saucer aloft in both hands as a gift to me. It tasted like a dream.
While I stuffed my face with sugar, he entertained me with travel stories; he had backpacked throughout most of the U.S. during his twenties. His favorite place was the Badlands – “it was so bleak, lonely and beautiful and terrible, like another planet.” He also liked Las Vegas quite a bit, though he had been stranded there for a few months until he could earn enough gambling to afford a train ticket to continue his journey westward. I told him about actually having been born here in France. “So you are one of us, you are French,” he declared, beaming. I told him about my parents, and about Michael, and even though my troubles must have sounded stupid and petty to someone with actual life experiences, he treated every word I said with gravity. He didn’t offer any advice or lectures or anything, just listened.
Naïve as I was at the time, the possibility of serious flirtation or anything beyond conversation with him never overtly crossed my mind – he was quite an old man, after all, in my eyes – but looking back, after having seen my fair share of twisted foreign films, this could have gone a very different route. But it didn’t. We continued chatting and eating cake; eventually it occurred to me that it was getting late, and I had no idea how to get back to the hostel. I wasn’t even sure which way the metro stop was. Oh, and I had forgotten all about Cora! I had just left her at the flower shop. How far away had I run, chasing after the thief? I blurted this all out at once, abruptly, and he probably understood half of what I said but seemed to get my predicament anyways. He nodded to his mother and then walked with me back to the Metro stop, which was indeed quite some distance away from the cafe.
“Next time you will come and drink wine, and meet my son, and maybe you can be married?” He and I laughed, and he kissed me goodbye on both cheeks. It was during the Metro ride back that I realized that I had not asked the man’s name. He had saved me from being stuck in Paris forever (or however long it took to get a replacement passport), had plied me with endless sweets, and had even offered me his first-born son. In the last few days before we returned home, I thought about going back to the metro stop and trying to find the cafe again, to drop off a thank you note, but there were too many museum trips and French exams crammed in at the end (merci, Madame Henderson!).
I reunited with Cora and the rest of my classmates outside our hostel. She had convinced everyone that in the hours I’d been gone, I had been kidnapped and sold as a sex slave. She had not, of course, confided in Madame Henderson, since that would have involved a lengthy explanation as to what our business was in that random neighborhood. My classmates all hugged me, some tearfully – Cora really had worked up everyone into a frenzy – and we all went to the theater to see “Batman and Robin” because it was in English, and it ended up being so awful that we would have been better off just studying instead.
Aside from the bad movie, I found myself relishing the rest of my time in France. I even discovered that though most art still bored me into narcolepsy, that I actually enjoyed the Musee d’Art Moderne, and lingered in one room staring at a blinking TV display exhibit long enough that Madame Henderson herself had to usher me out. On our last night there, a few of us snuck up to the hostel rooftop with some cheap individual sized bottles of wine we had bought at the neighborhood grocery store. We toasted to the stars, and I secretly dedicated my first sip of alcohol to the man who had saved me.
As we waited in the airport to depart, I remembered something. “I’m sorry if my being mugged ruined your hot date with Luc,” I said to Cora, who was rubbing different samples of perfume onto her wrist and sniffing them.
“Oh, that asshole!” Cora rolled her eyes. “I ran into him at the market a couple of days ago. He was with his wife and kids. And he still tried to corner me and grab my boobs.”
“Yeah. Paris sucks,” she said. We laughed and saluted the city with middle fingers and air-kisses, as we boarded our plane home.
This piece is part of a New Year’s Resolution challenge: write a piece of fiction loosely (and I mean loosely) inspired by songs I listened to on repeat from 2014. Please pardon my French, for I used Google Translate.
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