At the airport by the security check-point for international flights I saw families and lovers saying their goodbyes. I’d said mine to my parents a few hours earlier at the bus stop behind the Dunkin’ Donuts. What an indifferent setting for such a thing, I’d thought. My mother had cried and I’d felt neither moved nor unmoved, if such a thing is possible. The Newark airport wasn’t any less indifferent to these partings but at least it was bustling with life. I recalled standing at another security check-point there years before and seeing a young eastern European girl watching someone from her family leaving. Her eyes had welled up with tears. My eyes misted, a manly misting, at that thought.
On the plane I found myself next to a French-Canadian man headed to Paris on business. We chatted for a while but it was a small struggle for me to follow him, and several times I had to repeat myself, paying special attention to my mispronounced vowels. When the stewardess came around with beverages, I availed myself of the complimentary mini-bottle of wine. It didn’t taste very good to me, but wine never tasted very good to me. I used it to swallow a few Xanax, hoping these would allow me to sleep for the rest of the flight.
I woke up about an hour later. The rest of the time passed slowly, tediously. The wine gave me heartburn.
At Charles de Gaulle the RER train into Paris was delayed. I listened to music on my headphones and waited, yawning periodically, half awake, half alive. Finally the train came and since the platform was filled with other delayed travelers I wasn’t able to get a seat. I stood by the door and looked outside the window at the ugly Parisian suburbs passing by. Even though it was warm outside they struck me as cold and sterile and unforgiving, though perhaps I am just confounding that with the view from my window now.
I left the train at the Luxembourg Gardens stop. Much to my chagrin when I tried to pull the handle out of my rolling piece of luggage it wouldn’t budge, so I had to lower my right shoulder and twist my arm awkwardly behind me to drag it along. By the time I made it outside I was sweating, I could even smell my own body odor emanating from my pits. Strange, I thought, that I’d started out at a desolate bus station in eastern PA and now I was on Boulevard Saint Michel in the Latin Quarter. I must have made a clownish figure, heaving and sweating, six inches taller than everyone, wearing stupid-looking sneakers, for in those days my footwear taste was questionable. I pulled out a map I’d drawn with directions to Camille’s apartment.
Making my way east, I followed a narrow street that opened into the Panthéon. Every 50 yards or so I had to stop, stretch the arm and shoulder that had been pulling my luggage, hitch up my pants, and re-situate the duffel bag sitting on my suitcase. I had to do this in front of a group of stylish looking high-schoolers standing outside of their lycée smoking. I felt ungainly, but they paid me no mind.
Finally I made it to Camille’s building. She buzzed me in and I waited in the lobby, expecting her to greet me at the bottom and help me carry my luggage, but after a few minutes I realized she had no such intention. I hadn’t seen her for over a year, and something in the tone of her emails suggested that she wasn’t overjoyed to be putting me up for a night. I struggled up the stairs.
When she saw me we kissed each others’ cheeks, as the French do, but the gesture felt empty to me. I inquired about the bathroom. You can’t argue with the body. It felt like there was a huge stone lying in my stomach but when I tried to let go of this burden it stubbornly resisted. Constipation is one of the great metaphors for how we are constantly at odds with ourselves. One has to admire its symbolic transparency.
Since Camille was preoccupied with other matters, and wanted only to study, I decided to leave her place and spend the day visiting my favorite spots from years ago. I walked back to Boulevard Saint Michel and turned right to head towards the fountain. I stopped in a book store and bought a French dictionary, a notebook, and a copy of Madame Bovary, then headed farther north and passed a few of my favorite movie theaters. The French Connection was playing at the Filmothèque, where I’d seen Badlands with Katrin and Dan over three years ago; afterwards we had met up with Jackie for her birthday dinner, which somehow led to a small fight between me and Katrin.
In front of the fountain was a circle of touristy types watching a performance. I crossed the street and looked at Notre-Dame and down at the Seine. Where I was standing was part of the circuit I had regularly jogged; I saw myself running over the stone path next to the water, having intimate thoughts naturally, probably not unlike the intimate thoughts I was having now, only less refined and more juvenile. I felt old in that moment, old and tired, defeated. But I was on the brink of a new life. I decided to head south again.
Walking down rue Mouffetard, a small, old-world passageway with no cars and heavy foot traffic, I passed a Kebab place where I’d met Andy once for dinner. Later we’d gone to a concert together with Katrin. I hadn’t spoken to either of them in over three years, and it was strange to think of these people and feel absolutely nothing. Yet one can only have so many feelings, I suppose, and god knows I already had a lot.
I wanted to visit the François Mitterand library. Passing by an unsightly shopping center in the Place d’italie I looked to see if the same street performer was in front of the building, an old man who had danced to a portable radio playing generic, tiny-sounding electro beats. There were only a few beggars sitting against the wall with signs. Maybe it was his day off, or he’d died, or found a new spot.
My bowels still weighed on me. A coffee was in order so I bought a pack of cigarettes and sat on the terrace of a cafe in Chinatown, hoping this combination would provide the desired results. But it simply wasn’t going to happen, I couldn’t shit in a random restaurant bathroom, and it struck me as all the more unseemly to drop my fetid American load in a dainty French toilet.
I remained on the terrace for a while, nearly in a trance, contemplating.
After some time I got up and made my way to the library. It was comprised of four symmetrically placed glass towers, each holding an untold number of volumes, and in the center was a large sunken garden. Seagulls flew around. I walked to a small footbridge and smoked another cigarette, admiring the more contemporary buildings situated along the Seine. The area had all been constructed in the last few decades or so, and there was nothing classical about it. There, I felt I was in the anywhere Paris, not the somewhere Paris of books and films where I had been earlier. Only a few people were out strolling around. I asked a passerby the time, as my phone was dead, and had to re-pronounce my “r” several times for him to understand me. There was still time to kill before dinner.
Across the river was Bercy Park, another recently constructed area. I ambled around, admiring the fountains and trees, as well as the foliage and the flowers. This was inevitably a place of memories, and I thought of Katrin and walks we took there. I noticed the spot where I’d introduced her to Stacey, a girl from my neighborhood growing up who had happened to be in Paris at the same time. When she’d arrived Katrin and I were eating strawberries and Katrin offered her one. “That’s so cute, you’re eating strawberries,” Stacey had said, the irony in her voice thick. She was right to be ironic. We were young and insufferable.
Most of all I remembered this place as a place I’d visited by myself. There I was again, by myself.
I found a bench near a long, narrow fountain and watched a little girl and her father play with the ducks. Everything coming to mind, the images of a younger version of myself and figures from my past, I had not considered for years. These memories were so distant that it was a surprise they belonged to me at all, instead they seemed to be part of somebody else’s story. I felt resigned, resigned that I would simply never have the same feelings of a young guy abroad for the first time. My vision had been so short then, I could never have imagined all that would happen to me. But now, was my vision any less short?
A nostalgia descended on me. This was more like a cemetery than a park, a memorial ground for my memories, and I was a rootless, constipated phantom visiting his old haunts. Occasionally my thoughts take a lyrical turn. I caught myself beginning to doze. It was still summer but the air felt cold. No, it wasn’t summer, it was fall.
I walked on Boulevard Vincent Auriol back to the Place d’italie, where I would hop on the metro. This stretch had always struck me as peculiar street for Paris, as the buildings were neither contemporary nor quite classical, just nondescript in a city otherwise so descript, if that’s a word, and the truth is it isn’t. But this complimented my melancholy mood, and in fact there was something appealing about this image of myself. Strange, that vanity could operate even in these circumstances—it’s a sentiment that knows no bounds, apparently.
Back in Camille’s apartment I met her roommate, an Italian bomb studying in Paris. She spoke English rather well, and her French wasn’t bad either. I felt decidedly provincial around these international types. I tried to shit again, to no avail. Soon we left to meet Camille’s friend Audrey for dinner at Chez Gladines, yet another of my old haunts. Camille warned me that she had a lot of catching up to do with her friend, so I might not enjoy myself or even be able to follow the conversation. “You’re doing everything you can to make me feel welcome,” I said. No, I didn’t, but I thought it.
“You’re going to Niort? I’m French and I don’t even know where that is,” Audrey said. I was dipping some bread into mushroom sauce. To my right I saw the table where I’d sat with my two friends three years ago to celebrate my birthday. I recognized the bartender and his sly grin.
“It’s apparently our mutual insurance capital,” Camille said.
“How do you know that?” Audrey said.
“Dan told me.”
Indeed, I had told her. That was all I knew about the city where I’d be teaching the next year. The conversation thus turned briefly in my direction, they resumed their reminiscing about their undergrad days. Suddenly I remembered eating at Chez Gladines only a few days before I’d left Paris the last time. Katrin had been in a sour mood up until when the food came, after which she was back to her usual, loving self. Then, my séjour was coming to an end; now it was just beginning.
There was something cheaply sentimental and hackneyed about these recollections—my youthful, European romance. Platitudinous! It was as if they belonged to the realm of fantasy. Constipated, jet-lagged, headed to a remote, unknown French city and facing the cool distance of these two Parisians—this was real. But is much of youth, in a sense, a fantasy, at least in memories? Yet I was still young, so what would this seem like four years later?
It was around 9 when we returned to Camille’s place and I feel asleep in the spare room instantly.
But my internal clock was naturally still all out of whack from the flight, and a few hours later I was wide awake. My loins rumbled; it was time. The apartment was rather small, and assuredly Camille and her old-world-beauty roommate could hear every move I made, so I crept as silently as possible to the bathroom. But there was nothing I could do to be quiet in there, it was like a minor gas explosion, and I tensed up imagining them being woken by my bowel struggles—which of course only made the struggle all the more difficult. I had to flush twice. Decidedly, this was one of my darker moments. And lying in bed a few minutes later, only partially relieved, someone went to the bathroom. “That stinks!” I heard.
A few hours later I was on the TGV train to Niort. The sun had only just risen and I admired the flat countryside rolling by. I tried to imagine what my life would be like the coming year but I only saw a blank.