You take my picture, sitting on the thin, cold steps of the Grande Arche. Your face is pink from the sunrise and I want to take your photo too, but there’s only one left and you think we should save it. As if we won’t be able to stay in Paris and buy more film.
Traffic is heavy on the roundabout and we can’t figure out how to get across to the Arc de Triomphe. Did we go see the tomb of the Unknown Soldier eight years ago, at the start of everything? The power is out at the visitors centre on the Champs Élysées and the tourists are mad because they only have so much time. We’ve already had so much time here, who cares if it ends tomorrow? But it won’t end. The cheque will come and I’ll get some more work. The boulevard is thick with tourists shopping for duty-free luxury goods. The air smells of fries and steak and my stomach rumbles, spiralling upward.
“Pardon. Parlez-vous anglais?” says an Asian woman in a black suit. She’s holding hands with an Asian man. We both nod yes. “Okay, we buy bags. Louis Vuitton. There is maximum. Can only buy two bags. You understand?” Yes, I nod. She points across the street to the Louis Vuitton store. “We give you money, you buy bags. Tax-free. I have catalogue.” She pulls a Louis Vuitton catalogue out of a Louis Vuitton bag.
“I don’t get it,” you say. The skin under your eyes is green. Your cheekbones are huge. I say, “She wants us to buy her tax-free bags. I’ve read about this. They can only buy two each and they’ve already used up their limit.” “I want for my sisters. You know?” the woman says. Yes, sisters. I know. I smile at the man but he doesn’t smile back. He looks angry.
Maybe she’ll give us a tip for doing this. Maybe even a hundred euros. She hands me paper and a pen inscribed with “Georges V” and says, “You write,” then flips to page 34 of the catalogue and points to a bag called Keepall. “But no strap,” and “This colour, monogram.” Also the Blois bag, the Porte-Monnaie Zipper and the Porte-Monnaie Billets Trésor, all monogrammed and the same brown colour. She gets out her own monogrammed Vuitton wallet and starts counting out hundred-euro bills. They’re so pretty and brand new. She counts ten for each of us. I put my money in my bag and nod at you so you put yours in your pocket. “Come,” she says and leads the way across the street, smelling like expensive perfume. Her stilettos look like tiny luxury cars. I say, “Where you from?” as if English is my second language. She says, “Shanghai,” and doesn’t ask where we’re from.
We stop at a bench under a tree, just up the street from Louis Vuitton. “I stay here,” she says. She puts her hand on my shoulder and gives me an on-your-way sort of prod. “We should run,” you mumble once we’re out of earshot. I don’t have to look at you to know you’re serious and I can’t believe it. You don’t even take tiny bottles of shampoo from hotel rooms. I don’t want to look back to see if the man’s following us and draw any suspicion. “Two thousand euros. That’s a lot of money,” you say. “We need that money. Let’s run.”
I don’t know what to say. Every language has fallen away from me. I don’t speak any language now, just movement. The entrance is set diagonally on the corner so we have to turn to enter the store. We turn. Everything turns.
“Run,” you say. I know that if I don’t move, you aren’t going to move. I can’t believe it. But then I still can’t believe you jumped on those tracks on the first day, with a train coming and all our dreams in front of us, jeopardized.
We arrive at the Charles de Gaulle airport with two huge suitcases crammed so full that they’ve lost their rectangularity. The tiny wheels on the long side of my case can’t roll more than ten feet before the whole thing topples over sideways. Your wheels are long gone. Everything’s in these cases: our feather duvet, six or seven toques, your cashmere coat, summer clothes for next year and ten brand new pairs of underwear for me that take no room but cost money. We could have used that money to get a taxi. Getting from the shuttle bus to the RER train station is an ordeal and we can’t find a baggage cart or remember the word for elevator, which turns out to be at the opposite end of the building. I’m too irritated to keep righting my bag, so I just drag it along on its side like a poor dying animal. Then the leash breaks and I want to kick it. Part of me says, Just relax, we’re here, the plane didn’t crash, no problems with customs, they didn’t even stamp our passports. But I can’t switch off the irritation.
The elevator door opens on the train platform and there’s a stupid metal baggage cart in our way. I push the cart with my foot, thinking, Where were you when we needed you? The cart careens sideways and, in what seems like slow motion, plunges off the edge of the platform, straddling the tracks with wheels facing up. Down the platform, all the travellers lean forward to get a look at the cart and at us. There’s the sound of the train. It could turn the cart into a deadly weapon on impact, or it could cause the train to derail and come toppling sideways, crushing us. I could be arrested, jailed, deported for vandalism, recklessness, even manslaughter.
“I’m getting that cart,” you say. The wind from the train is picking your hair right up off your forehead. You jump down on the tracks. Nightmares are just like this. I can see the light of the train now in the tunnel and it lets out a long, solemn, ominous hoot. You’re going to die. We’re finally here after all those years of dreaming, with our duvet and everything, and you’re going to be pummelled into oblivion right here in front of me. Your eyes aren’t scared, though. There’s only raw determination, and another thing too: aggression. It’s completely foreign to your face.
You’re not the strongest person, but you pick the cart up over your head and toss it as the train lets out another more urgent holler. It somersaults forward and lands perfectly upright on the platform. Then you put your long, beautiful hands flat on the platform. There’s the silver ring you got in Greece eight years ago, after Paris. I got one too.
I can’t remember what happens next, whether you struggle to hoist yourself up onto the platform. Is your motion awkward, like you’re dangling off a cliff? Or is it fluid, like getting out of the shallow end of a pool? Maybe some things don’t get deposited in memory. The next moment, you’re standing pillarlike on the edge of the platform. The train whistles by, still going strong because we are at the very beginning of the platform. You shake your head and point to the train’s doors, which have two metal steps: we can’t bring the cart. On the train, I grab both of your blistered hands and we can’t wipe the smiles off our faces.
It goes like that through the first couple of weeks, especially crossing the bridges: we grin like crazy under perfect blue skies, squeezing each other’s hands and saying, We made it. How did two people just getting by, month to month, get here? We drink four-euro café crèmes on pretty terraces and order bottles of wine that we can’t afford if that cheque doesn’t arrive.
Who cares if our apartment is tiny and smells like roach motels and—what is it?—lamb chops? Or that we have to wash the dishes in the bathroom sink, beside a rusty toilet that runs constantly. Or that our view is of an apartment complex that looks like a leaky Vancouver condo, maybe the only building in the core of Paris that looks like where we come from. We’re out most of the time, anyway, and when we come home, there’s our duvet to sink into that smells like us, always.
But after you fall asleep, in the futon that slopes on one edge, the image of you being obliterated by the train overwhelms me. I close my eyes and the train smashes you into a bloody mess. I feel strangely embarrassed for you because I can see your bones and things that nobody should see. One night, I ask you why you jumped on the track, if you were scared. You say there was no time for that, you just knew you had to get the cart. When I press, you say you probably just wanted to avoid a potentially bad situation. Eventually, you shrug and say you just reacted on impulse.
You’re just not the kind of person who ever rushed into anything. Even buying socks was a big deal. Remember how long it took you to find a pair of non-leather running shoes with no logo that were made in Spain? I wonder what I looked like from down there, on the tracks, with the train bearing down on you. Was I scowling or looking at you like you were a complete stranger doing some fool-crazy thing? I say nothing. You’ll fall asleep, and in the daylight it’s an impossible question.
The rain starts coming down and the clouds move so fast; you never can predict the weather. The cheque doesn’t come and we keep walking. You say, The money will come soon, don’t worry. The money has to come or we’ll have to join the beggars who kneel submissively in front of the luxury shops with their palms out and their eyes closed. They are so unlike the panhandlers at home, who smile and call out to have a good day or get angry. But then no matter how they do it here, there’s no sense of responsibility when you’re a tourist passing through someone else’s world.
The trees start to lose their leaves and you grab my hand less, even on the wide boulevards. I want to grab your hand all the time, but sometimes I resist and feel abandoned—or at least a bit shy, as if we just met. Maybe you did die there at the train station and this is all some sort of mental-hospital hallucination, with you dead and me gone crazy, pumped up with drugs. One night you say you want to leave everything behind and just start walking across Europe. Or maybe go to Korea and teach English and send money back to me so that I can stay here and live my dream. I want to be with you, that’s the most important thing. But when you fall asleep, I wonder if I’m enough for you or too much for you.
I go through nine of my new pairs of underwear, but I’m saving the white ones for a special occasion, after the cheque shows up. I have lots of older pairs to wear anyway. One night, I tell you I’m wearing the same pair I was wearing yesterday. You say, Me too, and we laugh, and it becomes something we monitor and admit to almost proudly. But we agree to draw the line at two days, so we have to spend thirteen of our last fifty euros on laundry. Everything smells clean and lemony and foreign, except the duvet, which still smells like our collective sleeping and dreaming.
I start running. I can barely feel my legs under me. “Left,” you say as we’re approaching an intersection. That’s the direction home. I turn left and see you peripherally in the middle of the street, running. You with your shiny black hair and your long skinny legs that I fell in love with so many years ago. The Shanghai husband has short legs, shorter than mine even. We can outrun him. You turn right at the next intersection and I continue going straight, thinking, Yes, good, we should separate and rendezvous at home. It makes me want to laugh out loud. It’s a long time before I even look back. By the time I get across the Place de la Concorde and into the Jardin des Tuileries, I’m practically strolling.
You’re not home yet. I count the thousand euros, thinking we’ll go out for dinner tonight and we can pay the rent now for three more months, maybe stay here forever. I start thinking that we’ll have to pay for what we’ve done. But those people don’t need the money or those ugly bags. And they wouldn’t report this to the police, would they? Maybe they’re even gangsters in some illegal luxury-goods business, selling to Communist government officials while fellow citizens starve and are tortured for stealing food.
Maybe you stopped off somewhere to get a bottle of wine, so I take a shower and shave my legs with the second-to-last razor we have. That woman probably doesn’t even have sisters. I will send my sister something nice tomorrow. I put on the new white underwear and a combination of clothes I think will be good for going out for a late lunch in a café and watching the clouds rush.
After two and a half hours, I start expecting to see police officers outside. I get the map and plot out the various directions you might have taken. There aren’t that many routes since the Champs Élysées cuts south and ends at Place de la Concorde. I should eat something just to get my head straight, I think, and my stomach responds in its own harsh, desperate language.
The sun sets and the clouds are neon pink now, moving fast and purposefully, making me crazy. I go out and walk the streets, looking for an ambulance or a police car, seeing stupid Louis Vuitton monogrammed bags everywhere, taunting me. I wonder if they’re real or fake. The fake versions are even worse because they’re made by children in sweatshops. No, when it comes right down to it, people with too much money and people with just enough money are probably the same.
There are no traffic accidents or anything unusual at Place de la Concorde. I go to the Obélisque in the middle of the roundabout and look for you until my head is spinning from all the traffic and pollution and noise. You must be home by now, you must be, so I backtrack along rue de Rivoli. On the pavement in front of one store, an Arab man sits cross-legged, cradling a little girl in his arms, hugging her head to his chest with his huge hand. She’s not moving and I hope she’s asleep. Shoppers pretend to ignore them, but the act of shopping strikes me as an act of violence. If I’d brought the thousand euros with me, would I give it all to them or block them out like everyone else? I have nothing on me, but I could ask them to come back to our apartment. I could tuck the little girl in under our nice feather duvet and give the man what’s left of the bread while I go out and get more food. I could give him everything I have, but I just keep walking. For the first time, I feel like this city could do some real damage to me if I’m not careful.
You’re not here. Maybe for you, running was the turning point. You wanted to keep running away from everything and from me, to a new life, alone. You could be in some bar in Montparnasse, where Picasso used to go, plotting your new life. Maybe this is the worst thought. No, no—worse is you loving me while you ran, thinking we’d go somewhere nice and get drunk and be able to stay here together, and then the Asian man came out of nowhere and tackled you to the ground. No, worse, a car smashed you into pieces, and as you lay there dying you were thinking of one pure, nice moment, like us swimming together in the Aegean Sea all those years ago. I couldn’t bear it if you were thinking, I’m so sorry for dying. You wouldn’t think, Why did she have to start running? No. You’re too good and beautiful for that.
I get out the phone book and call every hospital from here to the Arc and your name’s not listed anywhere. At the last hospital on the list, the woman says an unidentified man who fits your description was brought in three hours ago. She says something about an “accident de la circulation” that I don’t get. A stroke? A heart attack? No, no. An “accident de voiture.” I take a cab to the hospital with one of the new hundred-euro bills. It seems repulsive now, and I squash it into my fist as if I’m trying to squeeze the life out of it. All that’s left is fear. A nurse says the man is dead and it’s like a punch in the stomach. When she puts her hand on my shoulder, I start to bawl. I bawl all the way to the morgue, and when they show me the face under the sheet and it’s not you, I still can’t stop bawling because grief can’t stop when it’s put in motion and because someone must still love this unidentified man.
This time I don’t expect you to be there when I get home. I get underneath our white feather duvet that smells like us. It becomes the only thing left that smells of us.