Paris broke me down. Sometimes slowly by sex, cigarette and wine, sometimes a rapid disintegration. My complexion flawless and dewy at dusk, the dream was so real that sidewalks lit up just for me. Then dark spells of disillusion. Bats dove for insects at high noon in one of the coldest springs on record. I was agitated with constant hunger so I ate till my stomach hurt. Forced to shed all notions of “the writer” and just sit with myself, I curled up into long stretches of ennui feeling the distinct anxiety of taking a leap for personal progress. Bonjour Tristesse!
The thing about a fantasy is it rarely materializes in its original image but may you live the promise and disillusion of being estranged in a city, may you break down into millions of tiny pieces then slowly, painfully crystallize.
I quit my job and went to Paris to write a book, optimistic I could emulate literary heroines like Marguerite Duras, Françoise Sagan, and Anaïs Nin. My plan was to re-enact their confident commitment and churn out a draft in three months. It was only partially short-sighted as I wrote thousands of words, but not on the coming-of-age story I was finally going to finish, instead, I wrote on how painful writing is, and how to seduce without remorse. I burned through my savings in about 5 weeks on yummy Parisian things like silk scarves, solo dinners, all-night parties, and cab rides to visit lovers.
My growing debt was a secret shame though, one I didn’t mention when talking about my time there. Once, I was invited to brunch with some young, bourgeois Parisians and we were discussing theft because my wallet had been stolen during one of those all-night parties. I explained I was waiting for both my credit and debit cards to arrive by courier. Someone asked the difference between the two and I said one is for liquid cash and the other is credit that you pay interest on. They seemed genuinely shocked when I said that many Canadians use credit regularly, like, to live on. It was apparent that, for them, having even a few thousand dollars of consumer debt was revolting. One of the women stated, “I’d rather not eat.”
Oh, Paris. My first stop was at an apartment in the 2nd that belonged to Mat, a man I’d been in love with for ten years while knowing for five of them that he was gay. We met when I was 23 and he was 17. I was an English language assistant at a high school in the south of France and he was my student. In his eyes I saw some distant, future dream and in older, emotional me, he saw an ‘out’ (at the time I was not aware of just how ‘out’ he sought to be). What followed was a secret love affair for 4 months then years of separation, his reticent yet piercing brown eyes burned into my memory like beacons of an unknowable but possible forever. He would grow up to be beautiful. I just knew it.
He still hadn’t come out years later when I visited him at his university. This meant I retained my hopes while he firmly rejected me. However I was one of the first people he eventually came out to, deep into a relationship with a man his friends and family only knew as his “best friend”. He and I would meet every few years to spend a week together, marvelling at the other, and sharing the sublime still image of when he lost his virginity. My love for him was perfect and mysterious in its quality. He did grow up to be beautiful and successful enough to host me on his pull-out couch in the 2nd in Paris while I wrote my book. He’d known me a long time so he tolerated my binge eating and emotional outpourings and admissions of jealousy. I felt safe there but I still wanted my own space which I got a month into the summer. The time in his apartment was part of our lifelong intersecting. It mattered.
Paris kept me in the throes of new man-obsessions. One that comes to mind is with an original Parisian, a older, charming filmmaker from the 19th with dimples for miles; bringer of the most exquisite first kiss. It's only of this kiss that I'm clear because I lost my mind in the sex. Could not keep it together. When I saw handsome him sitting at the table in that open square, I became nervous in a shy, girly way, that terrible "will he love me?" way, that way I fucking conquered as my summer progressed.
He was in a very strange state of being when I sat down: he began our conversation by telling me his friend’s wife had just committed suicide by jumping off a balcony after a quarrel with his friend while his cousin had been admitted to the hospital with a case of terminal meningitis in her brain. All this death in the air and him moaning,"Tu m'as tué, Carmen, tu m'as tué..." over and over as we fucked. We sat on his bar stools naked in the afterglow listening to Glen Gould, smoking Merit cigarettes and drinking wine, our faces barely visible in faint lamp light, the sound of scooters whizzing by....
I rolled the details over and over in my mind in the days following, telling myself that he smelled right, tasted right, felt right. I obsessed about why he hadn’t contacted me after our encounter. It was torture. I had to push my mind through it, I had to tell myself over and over that I would be there for myself in the end, I would be OK. I would be OK. It was hard. I didn’t feel OK. I wanted him to call me. But I pushed through to the next lover.
Huffing on romantic fumes is different from love. Needing love is different from love. Love is so many things. Love is the only thing that matters.
He hasn’t been feeling well and tells me while we’re walking along the canal. “My stomach is really hurting,” he says, “can I lay down by myself, maybe sleep in the spare room alone until I feel better?” We’ve been so intimately connected for his stay that the sudden suggestion of separation is jarring but I pull it together.
“Of course, yes, take care of yourself,” I say. After tucking him in, I lay in my bed wishing he were near so I could stroke his back when I’m awash with the memory of that night at summer camp 20 years ago. My first love has left to take care of himself and I am waiting for his return knowing he will, trusting he will come right back to me, cuddle right in next to me. It hits me: love is having faith.
And love is letting go.