A Summer in Paris

I go to Paris. Just for the summer. That is all I can afford. I rent a room from a former American named Rebecca. Her father was an artist. His bold, ugly paintings are all over the apartment. They don’t look like anything. Rebecca says her father was anti-, anti-establishment, anti-representation. She says her father painted emotions, but to me they all have the same emotion: anger.

Rebecca says he was a complicated man. In her voice, I hear pride and regret. Was it painful being his daughter? Isn’t it always? There is a painting of his in a museum in Brussels that she says I should see. It is called Futility. She shows me the picture on a postcard. A yellow painting slashed with thick, black strokes. Obvious, but striking.

Rebecca is in her early fifties, a decade older than me. She’s a sociologist; she’s cold and superior so she’s probably good at it. I can feel her cool blue eyes on me.

I don’t care. Rebecca’s apartment is a revelation: it is full of light, it has a large, spare kitchen and a corner living room alive with windows, tall ones that open out to window boxes waving with flowers. It is on rue du Turenne in the Marais, a real find for what I am paying. That’s because I was a last minute replacement. Rebecca’s last roommate left unexpectedly.

She fell in love, Rebecca tells me. She can’t keep her eyes from rolling as she says this.

* * *

It is cloudy, the air is moist, I hardly notice the buildings I’m passing though I know they are beautiful. They’re so beautiful, they don’t register. I want to see something ugly, some mistake, a failure of the mind or spirit.

I come upon a loose crowd in front of a statue of Victor Hugo. This is where he lived. A mournful voice is singing:

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river
I’ve been running ever since

He sings with his eyes closed, his mouth so close to the microphone, I can hear each intake of breath.

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come
Oh, yes it will

Afterwards, come the great happy songs. It’s a dixieland jazz band. A middle-aged couple begin dancing, the young students in their scarves and skinny pants keep time with their feet. The straw-hatted singer finishes the set by singing Mack the Knife in French.

His French is atrocious. Like mine. When they take a break, I ask him where he’s from.

He is short and slight with a smiling face and sad eyes. He’s sweating through a neat, striped suit. He’s younger than he looked from the crowd, not yet thirty. But he’s already gone soft in the face and belly and his dusty hair is not what it must have been at eighteen.

I ask him what that song was, the one about being born in a tent by the river.

“Oh, that one,” he says. “Sam Cooke. A Change is Gonna Come.”

He sings the last part again,

Oh, there been times when I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come
Oh, yes it will

I tell him his songs remind me of America, of home. He looks pleased, not bored. Because I am a person who never does this, I ask him if he wants a coffee.

He says he came to Paris five months ago. Before that he was in Austria and Germany, before that Italy and Greece. Soon he will go to Spain. He has loved the nomadic life but he is getting tired of it.

The cafe is crowded with tourists each speaking a completely different language, pushing Rene and me closer.

He says he doesn’t know when he became a person who couldn’t be found. His mother was dead a whole week before they found him, in a hotel in Nice where he had gone to work for the summer.

Votre mere est morte, the clerk told Rene, slowly and carefully, hoping he wouldn’t have to repeat himself. Please call your family.

* * *

One night, Rebecca and I share a dinner in the apartment. We eat bread, cheese and fruit. I can’t help waiting for the main course to arrive. I’m thinking of steaks and big bowls of pasta, a thick, steaming lasagna but there is not even an oven in this apartment. We drink and drink our wine.

Afterward, we take our glasses into that magnificent living room with the windows still open. From below comes light from the street, red, from the cafe’s bright sign, the voices of people carrying up to us.

We are telling about our love affairs. We have taken a knowing, mocking tone as if to say that yes, we knew we were being foolish, but that we were also helpless.

I don’t tell her about William; he isn’t a story yet. Instead, I offer the man who broke up with me and went back to his wife. I even laugh as I say this. It sounds absurd, it really does. I mean, could I have expected any other outcome?

“He left her because she was always cold,” I tell Rebecca. “Even in the middle of summer, she wore sweaters and long flannel nightgowns with lace at the neck. There must have been other reasons, but that’s the one I remember.”

“Oh, dear,” Rebecca says.

“After he stopped taking my calls,” I tell Rebecca, “I began to follow him. A few times. I saw him at the movie theatre meeting another woman not his wife.”

“Before that,” I say, “I actually thought we would marry. I saw it all in my head, the island wedding, the honeymoon on the beach, endless, languorous days. That’s what comes from watching movies.”

“Idiot!” Rebecca says. “But haven’t I been there before?”

Her last lover was an academic like her, like most of the ones that came before him. He taught French literature. People of the mind, Rebecca said, are dramatic and tiresome, they don’t really know how to feel. “I should have married a businessman or a garbage collector,” she says, as if that would have made all the difference.

“We were together six years. Then he said that we had outlived our usefulness to each other; we had gone as far as we could go together. He meant he was bored with me. Why should that be painful? he asked. I would find another man for whom I would be like a brand new day. Hadn’t I left my husband for the same reason?”

“Why was I surprised?” Rebecca continues. “When I look back, he was with a new woman every five or six years. That’s how long it takes to use up a life. But the new woman—oh, tiny stab to the heart—Nadia was my roommate.”

“Don’t worry,” I tell her. “You know what they say. No matter how good she looks, someone, somewhere, is sick of her shit.”

* * *

Rene asks me to meet him at an old Roman fort outside of Paris. He writes down detailed instructions on where to change trains, draws on paper where he’ll be waiting. There he is in a straw hat and pants with suspenders. It’s too hot for his jacket so he has it slung over his shoulder. I am wearing a sundress in a style that was popular several years earlier, a long, flowy Greek affair. We look odd; we’re out of two different eras, but it doesn’t matter, there is no one around. Just large, grey birds swooping in and out of the grassy center. You have to imagine the fort from the walls that are left, the lookout tower still standing, the canon balls piled in a pyramid. Rene tries to take one off the pile, but, of course, they are glued.

We sit on one of the ramparts, legs dangling over the edge. We’re looking downhill to where Roman soldiers in feathered helmets once lined up to seize France. Maybe I’ve got it wrong. Didn’t they build this fort? There’s a wall plaque around that gives all the dates and facts but it’s all in French, and it’s easier to make things up.

Rene takes my hand. He says I look sad.

“Why shouldn’t I look sad,” I say. “I’m a widow.”

* * *

In the morning, I walk to the boulangerie and wait in line to shout, “Un croissant! Un baguette!” to the pink-faced young man in his dusted apron. “Merci!” Along, the way I pass the cafe, the butcher, the bicycle store and vegetable stand. The block is humming at this hour, filled with people and children and dogs, the sidewalk in front of the grocer still wet.

When I return to the apartment, to my room, I lay down on the floor. I close my eyes. I am so tired.

* * *

People say the most extraordinary things when someone dies. The glass half full crowd says it’s a good thing we didn’t have children. You can imagine what the glass half empty crowd has to say on that subject. People told me to move on, move out, take some time.

But time is what I’m afraid of.

After the funeral, my boss, Maisie Lassiter, gives me a check and three months. Maisie writes acclaimed biographies of presidents and movie stars. I, and three others, do research for her. Get out of here, she says. Go someplace new. The far east, the near east, the outback, any place in Africa. A safari! Imagine, where animals can be themselves

But Maisie forgets. I have already been on safari with William. We travelled the whole first year we were married. We went to Australia and New Zealand, to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos, then a month in South Africa, and even traveled for three days on canoes in Botswana in order to follow a herd of elephants. We finally ended in Europe—darker, leaner, a map habitually gripped in our hands, our pockets jingling with differing currencies. We sunned ourselves through Italy, Greece and Spain. We meant to end our trip in Paris, the dessert after a long meal, but in Spain I got sick .

Not sick, pregnant. When we first found out, we laughed so hard it hurt. But then William said, Stop, stop. We might hurt the baby.

It’s funny, a thing like that, suddenly binding two people together.

* * *

The baby didn’t hold. William and I weren’t young when we married, it was never a fact that we would have children. We told each other we could try again, then, that if it was meant to be, it was meant to be. Each month when I bled, he brought me irises, the flower of wisdom. It’s the emblem of France too, now that I think of it—fleur-de-lis.

Later, we told each other we were better off. Lucky, even. There would never be anyone between us. We would always have our freedom. What if we couldn’t travel?

* * *

I’ve come to Paris because it’s a city that must be walked. I’ve become a fish that has to keep swimming in order to live; my body needs to move so that my mind can be empty. There is no end to the streets that are alien and beautiful.

I walk with a pace that is strangely purposeful. Everything slides by me, the wide boulevards and the cobblestoned alleys. There is always something to see but nothing to get emotional about. The best is at dawn when the only other people are strays and street cleaners. The air is bright, brittle, not yet hazy with heat. I walk at night too when I can’t sleep.

* * *

When William and I traveled, it was every which way: by express and local train, on buses that had televisions and buses without windows, on elephants and in carts, in tuk-tuks and on the backs of motorcycles. We came upon accidents, bad ones, sometimes before a blanket could be produced and draped over the victim.

“Don’t look,” William would say, “it’s bad.”

I looked. Always the shoes are thrown clear, nobody going near it.

We looked, the living, at the dead, dumbly, unable to say anything.

* * *

Rene is all nervous energy. He is feeling flush; it is the height of tourist season. On Saturdays, he plays on a bridge over the Seine, the one near Notre Dame. I have never been inside it. Nor the Louvre, the Bastille, the Musee d’Orsay or the Eiffel Tower.

There’s no need. Isn’t that the whole point of Paris? One doesn’t need to set foot in a museum. The whole city is stately, charming, in good proportion. I feel beautifully outside of it.

I don’t go see Rene and his band though I listen to the CD he gives me. I can’t go to the places where he plays because inevitably in the crowd are two slightly worn people in dusty sandals, unfashionably, practically dressed who will sometimes be moved to do a little dance just at the edge of the crowd.

* * *

After a week of intense heat comes a week of rain and cold. I am drinking hot chocolate at the cafe across the street. I have become friendly with the proprietor. He has a nose you could hang a hat on, kind eyes. “Nothing can mar the beauty of Paris,” he says today looking out at the wet street, the golden light slanting down between the gray buildings. Pigeons testing their feet in puddles.

“Thank God,” he says, “that I was born in Paris. There are so many things one can’t choose in life.”

* * *

I meet Rene for dinner at a cafe on the Left Bank. He thinks the music might be too loud, the interior too dark, the jingly jangly belly dancers too much.

I say, “C’est parfait.” It is.

He is too careful with me. At this rate, I will never sleep with him.

“It’s all right,” I say. “I will tell you what happened. We were driving home from dinner, it was snowing and we hit an embankment. We had each had one glass of wine at dinner, and William was not a small man.”

“The crash that killed William broke two of my fingers,” I tell Rene. “That was all it did to me. Look, now they won’t bend properly.”

I had grown used to telling this story in just this same way. It didn’t mean anything to me anymore. Then, a giant rock fell on top of me and the realization slammed me down again, William was gone. I could never—no matter what I did or didn’t do—see him again. My heart was pounding so fast, I had to hold it down with my hand. I felt seized up, both numb and tingly, my mind filled with everything all at once, until it passed. I let out a deep breath.

“Are you all right?” Rene asked. He put his hand on mine.

“Oh,” I say, after some time has passed. “These kinds of thing happen all the time. Death. Destruction.”

He stares at me.

“It is really very ordinary.”

* * *

I said all that when what I really meant to say was, “Oh, no.”

* * *

When William and I were travelling, when we came across something special, something we couldn’t have imagined seeing or doing before—climbing a glacier, riding wild camels, swimming in the Andaman Sea among seals—we would share a look amazed: This will never happen again.

Once, we shared a cigarette with an orange-robed monk who told us that after one more year of monkhood, he was going to become an accountant. “I like business,” he said, his face serene. “Money.” They’re not allowed to touch women, these monks, making an issue of sex, but there was something very gentle in his eyes.

We were sitting across from him on planks that only resembled seats. Long ago, my body had grown numb. But it was pleasant. We slid along the brown Mekong; it would take us twenty hours to go from Laos to Thailand.

The slow boat. The fast boat got there in three hours but wasn’t recommended by the guidebooks or Gary, our hotelkeeper. At that speed, he said, accidents were catastrophic. Bodies flew apart.

We could have flown or taken a bus to the border. But we were too full of dust already. I read a photocopied copy of The Lovers to William. We had started it in Vietnam. There is nothing so soothing as being read to. All children know it.

Near a small village, naked boys played in the water near the shore, their bodies the same color as the river. Their shining black hair, their wide open mouths as they waved at us. I am glad to have seen that.

* * *

Rene’s place is out in the 12th arrondissment. It takes us nearly an hour on the metro. Most of his neighbors are from Senegal. There is thumping music coming from an upstairs apartment, shouts, wild laughter, singing. The smell of food cooking.

Rene says the place is nothing but he loves living there amongst the transplanted Senegalese. “They’re not afraid to laugh,” he says.

Rene’s studio is small and spare, temporary. I recognize it. Before he steps aside into his tiny kitchen to open a bottle of wine, he puts a CD into the player—Billie Holiday. It sounds scratchy and old, but still her voice is right in the room with us, alive.

There is no place to sit except on Rene’s bed. The sheet and blanket look thin but his bed is made up. It is more than I manage to do.

I tried to pay for dinner at the cafe, but I stopped when I saw how it was wounding him. That happened with William too.

He’s young and likes to talk, which suits me. He tells me he wants to go back to school, study music for real. But first, he’s leaving for Spain to learn Spanish guitar. He describes the people he’ll be staying with, he knows many people. That’s one of the treasures a nomadic life gives you.

We drink until we fall back. Billie Holiday sings That man That man. I know what will happen before he reaches for me. Isn’t that why I am here? Isn’t this where we have been headed all along?

Despite everything, the body remembers. It has an agenda all its own.

* * *

His skin is surprisingly supple, brown along his arms and circling his neck. Like another set of clothing, he’s pale white where his clothes would be. It makes him look more than naked. Hidden.

He’s kissing me and asking, “Is everything all right? Is this all right?”

I tell us that it is. Yes, yes, it is.

There are such things as mouths and hands and thighs and feet that can feel so differently. You forget how differently they can feel. Rene’s touch is familiar and foreign. He’s got calluses that leave tracks on my skin that can be felt but not seen. Still, there is no movement of freckles on his back.

At first, I want to resist it—the pleasure, the insistent presence of another, but Rene won’t let me. “Let go,” he says, “let everything go. Everything’s going to be all right.”

“I feel like a fool,” I say.

“Shut up,” he says. He traces a finger around the perimeter of my face, over my eyes, down my nose, across my mouth. “You must have been beautiful,” he says.

For a moment, I want to laugh. That is just the kind of thing I would have brought home to William. Guess what a boy said to me today?

Longing fills me up inside like a balloon.

“Yoo hoo,” Rene says to my ear with his mouth. “Anybody home?”

* * *

As I say, by the end of the trip we were tired. William was especially tired. Then we came home and found out he had leukemia. For two days he lay in bed and didn’t want anybody around. Then he came out and said he would fight. He would try everything—positive thinking, healthy eating, any kind of rational treatment. He did. And won.

Six months ago, it came back. William was angrier, being pursued in this way by his body, and he was less willing to fight.

It was slippery that night and there were numerous accidents.

* * *

It is dark now, the kind that has a weight and solidity to it, a presence on its own. It feels delicious.

Rene’s breathing is deep and calm. I am sure he is sleeping. I’m thinking of gathering my clothes, sneaking out the way I used to when I was young and before I met William, when I feel Rene stirring.

Softly, hesitantly, he begins to sing,

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river
I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long, a long time coming

* * *

Near the end of summer, Claude, Rebecca’s lover, returns. Nadia has released him. She finds him overbearing, old-fashioned, uptight. This is what Rebecca tells me. Claude tells me Nadia left him for someone better looking. He is a fierce believer in truth.

“Isn’t he ugly?” Rebecca asks me happily. “Aren’t I betraying myself?”

“Absolutely,” I tell her.

He is smaller than I imagined, hairier, more defeated looking. Rebecca is glowing with satisfaction as she moves around him, already making changes like the new occupant of a house. Where did you get that awful shirt? Why is your hair so long? What is this cream for?

Claude tells her he is not immune to vanity.

I hear them through my closed door. Tomorrow I leave Paris. My suitcase is open on the floor, half-filled. I am sitting with a book of music in my hands. Rebecca knocks on my door, says it’s my last night, we need to drink more wine.

I say, “wait, I’ll be right out.”

The book is old, thin, the pages gone brittle with age. If you bent a corner, it would break off in your hands. The title is Blues from the South; Rene found it for me in the famed bookstore near the Left Bank. I know why he bought it for me. At the bottom of each page is written Begin Again.

When I go to the living room, Rebecca and Claude are dancing though there is no music. There is just their feet sliding across the floor and the sound of their occasional breathing. I lean against the wall to watch.

I know, I know. One day all of these things shall pass and I will regret it.

Caroline Kim.JPG

Caroline Kim was born in Busan, South Korea and moved to America at a young age. Her poetry and fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in MANOA, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Spinning Jenny, Meridian, Jellyfish Review, Faultline, and elsewhere. She is a member of the Asian American writers collective, Seventeen Syllables. She currently lives with her family in northern California. Find her at carolinekim.net and @carolinewriting.