I am drunk on Paris.
The city smells like cigarettes and sweet baking bread; like soft perfume and roses opening in the rain. It is a heady bouquet of longing and subsiding regret for lost time that fills the narrow streets. “Paris,” I muse to myself, “is the best of all the women I have ever loved: the first pang of lovesickness, the first gentle word. It is the taste of lipstick on your cigarette and scotch and water flavored kisses before you say goodnight. It is walking down the street, away from her door, replaying the laughter of her voice in your head, feeling her eyes on your back and imagining that she watches you as you fade into shadows. It is lavender and violet powder and the opium-sweetened smoke of her perfume, as rich as tamarind and orange peels.” As I am thinking this, a car nearly barrels into me, horn blaring, and I jump out of the way onto the sidewalk while a group of stoic men sitting at a table outside look at me with a mixture of pity and disinterest. I’m surprised at how good the driver’s English is when he screams, “stupid fucking tourist” and speeds off.
I walk down Rue de Rochechouart. All around me are hands offering bottles of perfume, belts, and kitschy souvenirs stamped out of base metal. People call out to me, “monsieur, monsieur, parlez vous Anglais? Francais? English? You speak English? Un moment, monsieur, un moment…” amidst the hiss of traffic. I hasten through the crowd and turn onto a side street in the hope of getting away from the hawkers, shoulders aching from switching my suitcase from side to side and my backpack straps digging into my neck.
I get to my hostel and check in, stammering in broken French. “Bonjour, monsieur. J’ai une reservation.” The man at the desk—late 30’s, tall, clean-shaven, and wearing a paper top hat covered in silver glitter—answers me in flawless English: a polite way of telling me that my French is awful. The room will be ready at 4 pm. I have five hours to kill before I can take these damn shoes off and throw them into the Seine. I leave my bags stowed in the luggage room, take my receipt, and wander out onto Rue d’Orsel. I turn and walk half a block to Sacre Coeur. There is a carousel slowly revolving in porcelain colors of pink and gold as dozens of African hustlers sell keyrings and bracelets made of thread to obliging tourists.
Small groups of Gypsies huddle and disperse. The hustlers are intimidating in groups, but they are easily avoided and they seem to prefer harassing female tourists. A seemingly endless series of concrete steps interspersed with benches and platforms ascends the green and cement hill facing the setting sun. I sit and watch the long-limbed, beautiful Parisian women walk by. They traverse the streets with no problem; never making eye contact with anyone, in unbreakable bubbles of nonchalance and with aloofness that is electrifying. In painful contrast, I see fat Americans in velour ordering coffee in Midwestern English, their voices like nails driven into my ears. “Is there a Starbucks near here?” I cringe and move on.
I am lonely. Despite the beauty that I feel, this city somehow, is more dream than real. I feel more adrift than ever: a man without a country. The feeling is like falling in love before the words have found their way from your mouth to her ear, before the relief of a soft smile, before the honeyed scent of her neck and the traces of her on your pillow: pining and aching for mutuality. I console myself by buying a pack of Gauloises and ordering a small carafe of Bordeaux at a brasserie. I sit outside, at one of the sidewalk tables and for this, I pay an extra 50 cents. I don’t mind the soft drizzle that has begun to fall as the cobblestones sparkle like wet jewels, sparkling with the waking lights of the cafés.
The wine is cheap and young, but every swallow loosens the knots in my back and washes away the taste of loneliness. I try to write in my notebook, but the words don’t come easily. This is Paris, I think. I should be able to write something. Still, nothing true comes and I am resigned to sketching a picture of my dwindling carafe of wine and the ancient apartments across the street from the brasserie. I fumble some more with words and manage one line that I don’t scratch out until I finally do, and then I order a plate of cold, sliced meats and cheese. It is the first food I’ve had in nearly a day and the salt and smoky flavor of the ham and cheeses makes me happy, content. A man passes by with a small dog that shits on the street near a parked scooter. I stare at the crossed out lines in my notebook and drink more wine. My failure to have written a novel in the two hours that I’ve been on French soil is only slightly abated after two small glasses of claret and a couple of codeine.
I find something true and write it, then take a long drag from my cigarette and watch the smoke curl against the topaz sky cut into rectangles by the gray buildings that line the street, before looking down on the pencil gray letters in my notebook:
It is raining on my first day in Paris. And I am in love.
K.S. Anthony is studying English Literature at Columbia University and busily applying to PhD programs. His supplications to the Muses typically go ignored, but once every so often, he gets lucky. Those strokes of luck may be found, among other places, at http://www.ksanthony.com.