Rue de Rivoli was crowded with shoppers, who rushed along the cobblestone streets to duck under awnings when the rain poured down. Carmen carried a fluorescent yellow umbrella and the two of them continued on, stepping over gathering puddles while Graham’s leather shoes darkened at the toes. He described his minimally furnished apartment in Amsterdam: a bed, a table, and chairs, with the walls left intentionally blank.
“I’m anti-art,” he told her. “I prefer the sun and shadows patterning my walls.”
She walked ahead of him and called back. “How did you end up in Amsterdam?”
“Pardon?” he said.
Her voice was muffled by the shushing of water under the wheels of cars and the pattering feet of pedestrians. “Why Amsterdam?” she shouted.
Graham caught up to her. “You didn’t read my emails?”
She sped up, pretending not to hear, then turned into a narrow side street and stumbled on a cobblestone. He reached out to steady her.
“Damn shoes,” she said, and, looking up at him, noticed the strands of wet hair stuck to his cheek.
“I got a placement from Toronto to work with Greenpeace.”
“Well, that’s what you always wanted.”
“I wrote you about it.”
“Look at you, you’re getting soaked,” she said, and stepped around a fallen ice cream cone, squeezing between boutique windows and parked cars. “I was surprised when you called,” she yelled back. “I had no idea you were coming to Paris.”
Graham grabbed her arm, stopped her. The rain fell on his shoulders, soaked through his thin coat. He pulled her under a department store awning to wait for the storm to subside. The sheets of sideways rain made them press in closer to each other, and also to the others taking shelter. Carmen told him about the Eiffel Tower light show projected onto her ceiling every night and how it was better than any painting she’d seen in the Orsay. Even better than the Impressionists. She jammed her shaking hands into her pockets.
“Are the lights for something special? A celebration?” he asked.
“Well, it was lit up for the millennium New Year’s Eve party, but the Parisians liked it so much they made it permanent,” she said.
“It is. It starts at dusk and sparkles every hour on the hour for ten minutes until midnight.”
She didn’t tell him she normally fell asleep at ten or that she barely went out in the evenings, having cut her social life down to the occasional coffee date.
* * *
The Eiffel Tower lights were imposing in her chambre de bonne — a maid’s room under the roof. She’d prop the skylight open on its iron rod and stick her head out when she felt too claustrophobic. The view was of hundreds of red brick chimneys jutting out every which way, with fluttering pigeons perched and cooing. At night, with this light show, the structures would shift; what was once stable became fragmented and hard to place. No wonder she felt dizzy most of the time.
Her friends back home thought where she lived was exotic, even though she explained over and over that it was only a tiny room under the roof with ten flights of stairs and no elevator. Those Canadians couldn’t comprehend a shortage of space, or the concept of living in a closet. Nine square meters was the legal minimum for each person; it was a state-given right held over from Napoleonic law. But some landlords found a way around the rule, based on overpopulation and the numbers of naive foreigners flooding in. Carmen’s room was eight square meters; she supposed maids never had, nor would have, the luxury of space. Her friends didn’t understand why, with a degree in French literature, she was teaching English grammar to high school students who cared only to memorize swear words.
Her friends imagined a different reality for her: eating cheese and pastries, drinking wine, walking up the Champs-Élysées. Being a flâneur. That’s what they would do if they were fortunate enough to be there; they had told her so. Living in Paris was about finding your fortune, creatively and financially. They offered Carmen weekly suggestions:
— Become a writer. Follow Hemingway’s trail.
— Go to cooking school and learn how to make soufflés. Remember Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
— Become an art historian. There are all those museums.
— Give tours of Paris to English visitors.
— Learn French design, or if you’re serious about making money, take photos of the Métro entrances and scan them onto T-shirts.
— Become a filmmaker. Think Jean Renoir! Louis Malle! Agnès Varda!
— Study cheese. Become a cheese connoisseur.
— A sommelier, yeah, then you’d have a good excuse to drink wine every day.
— Buy an apartment and rent it out to foreigners.
— Be a nanny to the rich and famous, but don’t let the kids put you off.
— Find a French sugar daddy, yeah, that’s the easiest solution. Then you can get your papers and then I can come and live with you.
Her closest friend, Toni, offered the last suggestion on a regular basis: “Get yourself one of those sexy Gitane men. They know how to hold a door open for a girl. Not like the hockey fanatics over here who only know how to hold their beer.”
In any case, Toni and others lived vicariously through her, so that on the weekends she felt obliged to do some touristy things. And she could admit she did enjoy some of them, or simply the act of going outside helped her breathe more easily. But when the dizzy spells started in the classroom and she had to hold on to a desk and look at the floor until they passed, Carmen went to a doctor.
“I’m not pregnant.”
“Are you absolument positive?”
“Perhaps you forgot the protection? Just once in the heat of a moment, is it correct?”
“I’m positively, absolutely sure that didn’t happen. I promise.”
Then there was a beat, a pause, while he looked at her face, her chest, her clothing.
“Alors,” he said. “You have an iron deficiency. We do the blood test.”
* * *
After seeing the doctor, her nightmares returned. The ones where she leaned over Escher-esque staircases going up, down, and sideways, like an interminable rollercoaster ride. Other times, she was pushed by an unseen hand down a mountain, to trip over boulders and tree branches, never reaching stable ground. This one reminded Carmen of her girlhood, when she’d balanced, knees bent, in the center of a seesaw. Just waiting to flinch and fall.
* * *
“Here we are,” Carmen said when they arrived at the tiny bistro: Café Au Temps Perdu.
“Lost time?” Graham said.
She nodded; she thought eating would be a distraction, but he went and brought up the topic of children before the waiter even arrived.
“My girlfriend doesn’t want kids,” he said, picking at wax from a candle. “She thinks the world is overpopulated as it is.”
Carmen’s heart jumped. So the day wasn’t at all what she’d thought it was about. “What about adoption?” She tried to keep her voice even and clear in tone.
“No. Most people have to adopt abroad, and she thinks that taking a child from its heritage to give it white man’s ways is just another form of colonization.” He sipped a mouthful of red wine and savored it. All the while looking at her.
Carmen hesitated, flushed, and looked down. “Oh, I see.” If she had stayed behind, there would be a child sitting between them now, in a restaurant somewhere in Toronto. Babies were not political to her, but a natural part of life. She only had to find a boyfriend to make that happen again. When she was good and ready. Or just ready. She wondered how socially conscious Graham’s girlfriend was and if she actually donated to Oxfam or Save the Children or any of those other organizations. Did they have a good relationship? Did they have good sex? Did she have perfect, shiny hair?
Outside the café, the windows were streaked with rain, and inside they were fogged as if in a greenhouse. Carmen patted down her frizzy hair, and Graham used his napkin to wipe a circle on the window so they could watch people passing by. He drank the wine, served in globular glasses and smelling of strawberries and freshly chopped wood, and she copied him because it gave her something to do. Every time he raised his glass, she avoided looking at the backs of his hands, at his broad fingers, strong knuckles, and ropy veins. The hands that had once held her shivering breasts.
The waiter appeared with steaming bowls of French onion soup, and she dipped baguette into the salty broth. Then, generous portions of quiche Lorraine arrived with crisp green salads covered in a lemony vinaigrette.
She kept her hands busy with knife, fork, spoon, napkin, water, and wine to stop herself from reaching out and putting a hand on his. But then she ate too quickly and burned her mouth. For dessert, she ordered a tarte aux cerises with vanilla ice cream. He drank two espressos, and she tried to remember if she’d ever seen him drink coffee. Beside them, an elderly man lit up a cigarette and blew smoke rings that wafted up and dissolved over their heads.
“Do you still smoke?” she asked.
“I quit a couple of years ago,” he said, looking up at the next cloud of smoke.
“Congratulations.” She hoped that came out sincerely.
“Yeah, I took up jogging. Can you believe it? I’m running marathons now.” The corners of his lips were stained with wine.
“That’s amazing. You must be in great shape.”
“I am,” he said placing his hand on his chest. “Doc says I have a healthy heart.”
Carmen noticed the hand was a bit off target, and then her eyes were tearing and she was getting up, pushing her chair back and wrestling into her coat. She threw thirty euros down on the table.
“Don’t you want your change?” he asked, but she was already at the door.
Outside, the fog blanketed the buildings in an undulating curtain of gray.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I needed air.” Her mouth was getting tired from smiling whenever he looked at her. The arch of his long neck and the way he scratched his tousled hair made her want to escape to a museum or a movie.
They spent nearly two more hours together, and as long as they were walking, she relaxed. The heavy rain turned into a light drizzle as they made their way along the Quai des Tuileries to the Pont Neuf. Daylight faded and the city became illuminated in the fog, light by light, jewel by jewel. On the Pont Neuf, they peered over at a passing bateau mouche full of tourists with umbrellas splayed open. Those with rain jackets were hunched over with their hoods up, all except for one man who stood tall with a foot up on the stern, one hand holding his small hat down. He waved at them.
“Check out this guy with the beret,” Graham said, and leaned over the rail to wave back.
“He’s probably a tourist from California.”
Her laughter came out unexpectedly, and she took a deep breath.
“I don’t meet many French men who wear berets,” she said. “The Americans appropriated that fashion.”
“Sibling rivalry, don’t you think?”
Carmen tried to imagine how she and Graham looked to the man on the boat as they leaned over the bridge with their shoulders nearly touching but not quite.
* * *
Before the dizzy spells started again, she had spent Sundays going for walks in the city, planning a new route each time to explore the various neighborhoods. She watched people together, guessing at their relationships, and by studying their body language and how they carried themselves she made up imaginary lives for them. She tried to look into their eyes before they passed her by, hoping to discover something secret about them: an emotional state, an essence. To find out what happiness looked like. To see it reflected in a face. Maybe it would be contagious? But most of the time she caught only irritation or annoyance, and occasionally, when men looked back, flirtation. Quite often she saw the expressions of dumbstruck awe in tourists who were more interested in manmade structures than in the French people around them. She watched those tourists crane their necks at the Eiffel Tower. Or pose for pictures under the Arc de Triomphe, as tiny dots framed by that overwhelming war memorial.
Carmen looked over at Graham, who was staring down at the Seine. “Do you like asparagus?” she asked.
“No way, I hate it. Why?”
“The French just love asparagus,” she said a little too loudly. He looked over at her. “I was just wondering if I remembered little details about you,” she said. The air and open view had improved her mood.
“Well, I remember something about you.”
“Oh, yeah?” she said.
“You were wracked by nightmares when we…” he said.
She felt the cold metal railing through her gloves. How, out of their five-year relationship, could he pick such a negative memory and bring it up, taunt her with it? Sure, she’d had nightmares while they were together. All of her life, though. Did he think he inspired only bad feelings?
Behind them, a woman yelled at her son, a little boy dressed in a suit jacket with a bowtie and mini patent shoes. He pulled at his mother’s arm, whining to go back, and not forward, across the bridge. The boy is just like me, she thought, living for what has passed.
“I didn’t have time for nightmares. If you remember, we didn’t sleep all that much,” she said. She had to sit on a bench because her head was whirling. Why was she flirting?
Back then, her parents went out of town most weekends, and she and Graham would spend lazy days in bed with cigarettes and smoke-ring competitions, video marathons of foreign films, takeout food, cocktails, and Kama Sutra sex. They threw costume parties for their friends who would appear as gangsters and molls, movie stars and politicians and ghouls. Some of the themed parties had mysteries to be solved or an ethnic dish to be tested. After graduation, she confided her travel plans only to her parents and then packed her belongings into boxes in their basement and left the country.
When Carmen got word that he’d followed her to France, she changed her backpacking route to Spain and traveled around the countryside, staying in remote hostels. She stopped checking email altogether, but when she arrived in Paris to take up her contract at the school, there were poste-restante letters waiting — letters asking where she was, telling her he’d have to return to Canada. She had ripped them up and tossed them into the Seine, where pigeons swooped down, expecting her confetti to be food. “I know what you mean,” she had said aloud to the anxious birds. “Not very tasty.”
It was only a week ago that she’d answered her cellphone to his baritone voice.
“Your parents,” he admitted. “I practically had to pay them for your number.”
He lived in Amsterdam now and would be in Paris on business. Could they get together for an afternoon?
* * *
The rain started again, this time as a fine mist, and the spray crept under her scarf and down her collar.
“I’d better go. I have to teach early tomorrow,” she said.
“It’s only five,” he said. But she shrugged and led him to retrace their steps over the Pont Neuf to the Métro station. When he gave her a quick hug goodbye, the handle of the umbrella knocked her in the face. He apologized — for the umbrella or for the relationship, she wasn’t sure — but she would surely have a bruise on her cheek.
“It was great to see you again,” he said, his voice seeming a pitch higher.
“You, too, it was really great. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Actually, I like to think I have,” he said, and handed her his business card. “Don’t lose it.”
Then she descended the concrete steps into the deep underground tunnel.
* * *
Over the next few weeks Carmen thought about emailing to thank him for his visit, but she couldn’t find the right words, and, anyway, she didn’t hear from him, either.
One night, when she was getting ready for bed, her best friend, Toni, called from Toronto. This was how she learned that Graham had remained single and the girlfriend he’d told her about at lunch didn’t exist. But why would he pretend? Toni suggested he’d wanted to suss her out and see what she had been up to all these years, whether she was married with kids. He wanted to protect himself better this time.
Carmen took the receiver and lay on her bed; she watched the Eiffel Tower lights illuminate her room. It had been three years since she’d left — wasn’t that enough time? When Toni asked if she was over him, Carmen sat up and hit her head on the sloping ceiling and screamed.
She rubbed the palm of her hand into her forehead.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. This stupid chambre de bonne. The walls aren’t where they’re supposed to be.”
There was a silence on the line, and Carmen lay back down. “I’m a bit jumpy right now. I’ve been having the dizzy spells again.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have mentioned Graham.”
“No, it’s okay,” she said, and then hesitated. “I’d rather know.”
Somewhere in the building, a child wailed. “Just a second.” Carmen held the phone against her chest and listened to the sound of little lungs laden with grief or fear or terror, or all three. When he stopped, she went back on the line. “I’d better go, but thanks for calling. Let’s talk again this week.”
“Sure, no problem,” Toni said.
“I appreciate it.”
“Good, then don’t forget I’m here. If you ever want to come home.”
When Carmen hung up, she watched the shifting patterns on her ceiling: diamonds and dots and slashes. Like a flashlight shined into a jewelry box.
Her head throbbed as if she’d been drinking; the child started up again, and the sound pierced her thin walls. She closed her eyes, but the spinning in her head got worse. Lying as still as she could on her narrow bed, she took long, deep breaths, one after the other, but couldn’t get enough air. After all those nightmares, she thought, I’m still falling.