Paris is often referred to as The City of Love. From the author of AN INCONSEQUENTIAL MURDER comes a story of a couple in present-day Paris trying to revisit their love from the past. What they soon discover is that much like the skyline of France's magnificent city, many things change with the passing of time. Sometimes,those changes are not always for the best. A short story from our Nibs literary line.
When she emerged from the Rue Monge Metro exit, I had felt my first pang of disappointment. She had cut her hair! I felt so annoyed that she had cut her hair! Hadn’t she told me once that she loved it so much that she spent an hour every morning brushing it? I had loved the thought of that, that image so much I had had dreams about it—very vivid dreams! Oh, why had she cut her hair?
And worse, as she walked toward me, I noticed that her smile did not have the radiance of old—her face was drawn and wasn’t as shiny and plump as it used to be. And, it was made to look even more unattractive by the short, scraggly lump of hair that surrounded it. And, too, her eyes, which had shone, large and dark like black moons floating midst white clouds, had now retreated into dark caverns of worry. What had she done these past twenty years that had worn her down so?
And then there was the way she was dressed: her lime-green coat made her skin seem even darker than I remembered. And she was wearing sandals! In the middle of winter and she was wearing sandals! God, she was so changed—much more than I had expected.
Of course, I was not unchanged either. I saw my reflection on the store window behind her. True, I was no longer the slim, long-haired youth who could wear an old sport coat over worn jeans and look, as she had once put it, as if my clothes had been cut in the smartest men’s shop in Seville Road. The brown golf jacket and freshly pressed chino pants I was wearing made me look like a retired executive from some fucking California Pleasant Meadows Retirement Community. All that was missing was the checked hat.
Nevertheless, when she crossed the street with outstretched arms, I had to admit that her smile was still lovely, bright, wide, and friendly; it was the same smile of twenty years ago, that smile of the Venus I had met in the Metro.
I used to hunger for that smile, like a dog waiting for a treat. She didn’t need to say, “I missed you,” her smile would say it, and it would also say “I want you, I need you.” And I would run to that smile and embrace her, and say it was unbearable to be away from her, and that we should always be together, close, touching all the time, smiling like that every time we saw each other.
But, even though the smile was still a lovely, white crescent surrounded by the darkness of her face, I couldn’t help noticing it was not quite as warm as before. This was the kind of smile one used to greet friends, acquaintances, people one has to be friendly with for business or professional reasons. This was a practiced smile—yes, that was it, a practiced smile!
And her walk—it was no longer the graceful glide of the dancer; it was matronly—the way a woman strides into an office or into a place where she has things to attend to, or people to see on serious matters. She used to rush, with the gait of a filly, into my arms, to run as soon as she saw me; now she had stridden—purposely, forcefully, like a person that wants to project an impression of determination and energy. This was a professional woman’s walk.
And, her voice! She had called to me not with the voice that had whispered my name on those hot, sultry nights, filled with the music drifting up, floating in through the window that opened on to the small street with the happy, jolly bar across the way, and the moonbeams shining, bouncing off her canella-colored skin, looking as if she were a goddess having come down from those marvelously carved caves in her native India. Where was that breathless whisper or the honeyed passion in her tone?
I realized, as she came closer, that she too had been expecting the young man she had made love to on the floor of that small hotel because the bed squeaked, or the one who drank himself into a stupor that night in Mexico City because he didn’t want to hear her making love to her husband. She might have been expecting the boy whose hand she had taken under the table and in whose ear she had whispered “I’m sorry; I know you’re hurting,” when her husband had turned to call a waiter. Instead of that boy, here was I, a paunchy, gray-haired, middle-aged I-failed-to-be-all-the-things-you-expected-me-to-be retiree.
No, I was not the young man that had raised so many expectations, and she was not that Venus who had emerged from the Metro—not midst waves of the sea but midst waves of people—elegant, radiant, her sari floating in the air that rushed out of the Metro entrance. And I certainly was not that young man who had cried when she told him she was pregnant but could not have his child. I wouldn’t cry about such things now.
As she came closer I saw in her eyes that she couldn’t remember why she had loved me. And, I wasn’t able to hide from her that I couldn’t remember why I had loved her. It was like trying to remember a face, trying to remember a name from long ago. I saw that she too was trying hard to remember why she had loved me. But, I saw she could not.
The sudden dullness that came into her eyes told me I would never again arouse in her the kind of desire she had shown that day in her apartment when we were surrounded by friends, but it was as if we were alone—she gave me things to eat from her hand and kissed me every time she got up to get something or answer the door. And later, in the movie theater she had said, “This is why saris are so useful,” and had taken my hand and put it under the sari, placed it between her legs where I could feel the hot, wet lips of her sex. I could see that now she would not want to do something like that. Her eyes had quieted into the eyes of someone meeting an old friend. There was nothing left in them of the lust, the craving, the ache to be in bed as soon as possible that had given them that spark, the undeniable shine of desire.
Now, as she greeted me, she had used words anyone would say to anyone else—nothing special, no intimacy between lovers, no words of endearment that anticipate the sweet surrender or confess the joy of being together. These were common words—as if they were things without value. Like old newspapers carried by the wind down a lonely street, they were lifeless, toneless, sounds bereft of all sentiment, as when a casual acquaintance asks “How are you?”—as impersonal as the conversation of strangers.
Nevertheless, I had smiled. I had smiled because that is what one does when one meets someone one knows, or used to know. Mine was not a forced smile, but rather an I-am-smiling-because-that-is-what-polite-people-do smile—a smile you would exchange with a stranger on the street.
Then, we’d stood, shaking hands, saying banal things. I really hadn’t expected her to say, “I have missed you these past twenty years and my heart has ached since that day when we kissed good-bye.” So, I said things I usually say to people I meet for lunch or for a drink to “talk business.” I couldn’t very well have said, “Hullo, love!” Or, “I’ve missed you, darling!”
Off we went—walking along the street, chatting like old friends, not like old lovers. My disappointment turned into the dread that I would have to spend a boring day with this woman, this person who was now so alien to me. More than disappointed, now I was annoyed.
But, that was a lie! It was! Because, who was I kidding? I was disappointed that she did not arouse passion in me. I had wanted that! I had wanted to feel again as I had felt back then! As I had felt when I ran to the telephone booth in Charles De Gaulle airport to say, “I’m here!” I did want to feel again the “beautiful ache” as I had when I counted the days until I could take the plane to Paris. I had wanted to feel the way I had felt when I wrote those long, woeful letters, telling her how much I missed her, how much I wanted her, how lonely I felt drinking my cappuccino in the café where we had once shared one. I longed for the beautiful, golden afternoons of Guadalajara’s autumn, which were made more golden by the sweet sorrow. That was the disappointment: I had a longing for longing and my heart broke when I realized she could no longer provide it. I had known it the moment her hands had touched mine--they were cold, rough, hard hands, not hands that would make me feel wanted and loved again.
As we walked, the talk about the weather and how our flights had been had petered out, yet, as if by common understanding, we had not asked each other what we had been doing these past twenty years. It was as if we did not care to know, as if knowing about each other’s lives was not important anymore. It would have been, of course, if we had still been in love. Jealousy and yearning make lovers want to know everything about the time they spend apart. Now I didn’t care if she had had other lovers; it meant nothing to me if she had missed me or not. Perhaps before we met, I might have expected her to ask if I had missed her, but now I was glad she did not. But of course, there was perhaps also another reason why we did not ask each other a question such as that: it was to be expected that we both had had lovers, several lovers, in the twenty years we’d been apart. And those successive lovers had eased and even removed the longing, like the waves that erase promises written in the sand.
When we got to the Rue Mouffetard, I told her that I had rented an apartment there in the 5th Arrondissement, and I asked if she would accompany me to pick up the key. I said this as I would say to a client whom I was meeting for lunch, “Would you mind if we stopped here briefly? It won’t take but a moment; I have to pick up some papers.” No, she did not mind. Why should she? She had come as a courtesy to old times, to something we had meant to each other once; all that was irrelevant, yes, but one can still be civil even in the most awkward of circumstances.