A small, portly man forced his way through the narrow corridor between the seats, wheeling a trolley of stale sandwiches and half-melted chocolate bars. He smiled with the smug air of someone taking full advantage of their limited authority; as if daring any of the carriage’s occupants to think of catching his attention or buying his wares. At the moment food was of no interest to John who was morosely watching the landscape rushing past his window. He sat back with a sigh. The view, which moments ago had consisted of wide tracts of snow covered field and hills, which, in his mind, were both imposing and inviting, had now turned a rather bleak shade of grey as the train sped into the outskirts of Paris.
As the landscape had changed from open vistas to darkened industrial buildings, so had John’s mood slipped quickly from quiet exuberance to a deepening sense of melancholy. The currents of John’s previously unexamined emotions had taken a turn for the worse. The exhilarating feeling of adventure which had hitherto filled him to the brim had been replaced by a sense of apprehension bordering on dread. It had seemed like such a promising endeavour, a romantic adventure; to meet the beautiful girl in a city completely foreign to him. Now it seemed like a mistake.
They had met for the first time only a few weeks ago in Florence and had had such an exciting time that John had instantly agreed to see her again, this time in Paris. Now that he actually took the time to think about it, though, he realised that he had not put any thought into the idea beyond the pragmatic details necessary to make the trip. He had booked the upper rooms of a small hotel in a picturesque part of the city and he had set aside both time and money for the weekend. He had even chosen the time and place he would meet Andrea, but not once along the line had he thought to dissect the motives behind his actions or their inherent implications.
With this in mind John reached his left hand into the small rucksack placed on the seat next to him and withdrew a cheap bottle of whisky. Using his encumbered right hand, which was holding open a thick, well-read paperback he twisted off the thin metal lid and took a swig. Just one, he thought, for his nerves, and because it was the right thing to do. In the novel he was reading the protagonists were constantly drinking, and while it was obviously damaging their lives as a whole it seemed to add an aspect of romanticism to their actions, which, to John, was far more important than his health. John thought of his life as if it were a novel. He wanted his actions to be such that later they could be recalled in a passionate voice that brought hidden meaning to his otherwise unfulfilling existence. It was for this reason that he had leapt at Andrea’s suggestion of meeting again in a city he barely knew in a country whose language he couldn’t even speak. It had seemed like such an obviously set-up for a great story which he could tell and retell for years to come. That was all that had mattered to him at the time. The details had not mattered to him since the storyline was so solid.
It was the details which were giving John trouble now. It was the first time that he had ever really given them any thought. What would he say when he met her? How would she react to seeing him again? They had spent very little time together after all; just two days in the Italian city which had passed in a blur of alcohol and adventure. The important difference, he told himself, was that during that first trip he had the help and support of his friend and travelling companion, Pete. Pete had been there to give him advice and take the burden of attention and conversation away from him. Now it would only be John and the nagging voice in the back of his head that constantly second-guessed him. He had another drink of whisky.
The train began to slow. Outside the snow was falling in light flurries under a darkening sky. John zipped up his bag and stood up, swinging his coat up over his shoulders as he did so. He liked the coat. It had been a recent acquisition. John hoped that its sombre classic cut would give him an air of maturity and style but knew better than to rely on it. He had realised long ago that his appearance often fell short of the romantic figure he pictured when thinking of himself. Five minutes later he was still waiting in a lengthening queue to exit the train. Eventually the doors opened and, after checking yet again that he had all his belongings, he strode out into the cool Parisian air.
He had expected more. He didn’t know what of, though, perhaps something more imposing and stately. He had been a child in the company of his parents the last time he had visited Paris. All he remembered was a feeling of wonder at the immensity of the buildings, the streets and the exotic way of life. As it was the train station and its surroundings looked like that of any major train station in Europe. It was cavernous and grey, full of bustling people and smelling faintly of piss. John hoisted his ruck sack over his shoulder and strode forward. Then, after a few steps, realising that he didn’t have the faintest clue as to where he was going, he stopped again. He needed a plan. He decided he would check into the hotel first, maybe have a drink at a quintessentially Parisian Cafe and then, once he had regained his previously calm state of mind he would head back to the train station to meet Andrea.
He looked around for a kiosk, found one and picked out a map of Paris. The cashier served him with severe, tight lipped disdain and quickly waved him on. Not a word had been spoken during the transaction. John wondered whether all his interactions on this trip would be so cold and efficient. Previously it had been unthinkable to him that the trip would not be packed with outgoing people and extravagant experiences, yet now he conjectured that the universality of human self-absorption might make this trip just as devoid of life-changing moments as his daily life in London.
John wandered through the grey streets of Paris, his coat wrapped tightly around him, trying to find his hotel. He doubled back several times. He was having difficulty finding the street names and even more placing those in the context of his map. His wandering mind didn’t help; he was constantly distracted from his task by the pedestrians passing him by. He wondered about their lives and what stories they could tell. Would they be dull and mundane or full of self-awareness and original thoughts? Could they change his view of life if he talked with them for a while? John was particularly transfixed by the girls that walked by him without a second glance. With each he felt a twinge of melancholy that he would never know what they were like as a person; how they talked, their moods or even how a smile from them would make him feel. He longed to wake up with one of these girls and see her look at him in the morning light, knowing that her gaze in that moment was his and his alone, to cherish and keep close. Wasn’t it for such an experience that he was here in Paris? He knew he had to somehow make sure that this weekend went perfectly, that he would be able to take the long train trip home knowing that he had lived something worth remembering for the rest of his life.
After half an hour of searching, John finally stumbled across the hotel. It was hidden down a small cobbled side street filled with tall grey apartment buildings. There were only two businesses on the street, as far as John could see. One was a small squat tattoo parlour whose darkened window contained examples of uninspired designs, most of which seemed to show bright licks of fire and at least one skull. John stopped and considered whether or not it would add to his experience to have a souvenir of his weekend permanently etched to his skin. He shook off this idle fantasy and walked on, his head bowed to the cold. John felt that no matter what occurred this weekend he wouldn’t need a tattoo to validate it as a defining moment in his life. He was looking for an experience which would leave an imprint on his soul and character, not his body.
The other business, which John now walked past, was just as dark and dangerous looking as the tattoo parlour. Unlike the parlour, however, there was no sense of edgy style. It was a building with a purpose and that purpose was the accumulation of money. John looked up at the red neon light which read Pussycat club. From this and from the scantily clad women lounging suggestively around it’s outside, he deduced that it was a brothel, thinly veiled as a strip-club. John wondered for a moment about the name. He realised that just as English restaurants tried to capture some aspect of class from typically French names, so had the French owners tried to borrow easily recognisable sleaze from the English cliché.
He was positively surprised, therefore, when he arrived at his destination a few blocks down. He walked through a large and imposing set of gates and a small courtyard to the hotel’s demure building. It was plain white, clean and oddly quiet; it reminded him of some apartment complex of his childhood, lost in pleasant memories of innocent games and laughter. It was comforting. The building seemed to belong to the past, attached more to the solid history of the cobbles on the street than to the atmosphere of resigned despair emanating from the Pussycat Club.
He walked through the front door trying to find the reception, but there didn’t seem to be any sign of it. He was directed by a cleaning lady to a small mailbox of sorts underneath the stairs above which hung a set of instructions. It requested, in misspelt English, that he leave the money for the room in the larger section of the box and then retrieve a key to his room. John was perplexed at the lack of security inherent in such a system but was unable to find anyone to question further, apart from the cleaning lady who was busying herself pointedly in the corner and who, John found, could not, or would not, speak a word of English. He didn’t mind. Not knowing what else to do John took his key and headed up a cramped winding staircase to his room.
From the dingy atmosphere in the staircase and the uninhabited feel of the whole hotel he had expected his room to cramped and musty but he was again pleasantly shocked, this time to find a relatively luxurious room waiting for him. This hotel seemed full of surprises. Standing in the doorway John took in the open expanse of bedroom, the square windows overlooking the old city and the large double bed.
Well at least that solves the question of the sleeping arrangements, he thought to himself, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. To his left an open door led on to an en suite bathroom with what appeared to be solid stone counters. He couldn’t believe his luck.
After setting his bag down and having a look around, John realised he was missing something. So he left the hotel and headed to the nearest supermarket where he bought two bottles of wine and a six pack of beer. He returned to his room.
Something still seemed to be missing though. He investigated the stairs and found a small door a few landings up. It led to another smaller and darker set of stairs. He followed them up and arrived onto the roof of the hotel. It was breathtaking. Not so much the grandeur of the view, since it had none, but rather that such a secluded island of peace existed among the neighbouring buildings, all of which showed signs of bustling lives. There were clothing-lines strung up over alleys in a scene which John previously thought had only ever existed in old fashioned mafia movies. He went downstairs grabbed his book and came back up to read with a few bottles of beer. He read for about an hour before looking at his watch and realizing that it was time to go meet Andrea. He found a corner to hide the empty beer bottles,checked his looks in the mirror and headed back to the station.
Waiting for Andrea’s train to arrive, John began to feel increasingly nervous. His heart beat wildly as he tried to imagine how he would greet her and what he would say. He knew that he was a little tipsy from the whisky and beers but even his light headedness paled in comparison to the apprehension he felt. Eventually he heard the whistling of the approaching train and steadied his nerves. The train slowed and eventually came to a halt. People began to stream off of it. He studied the crowd, trying to find Andrea but also wondering where each of these people were going and what their destination was.
John saw her. The first thing he noticed was her long brown hair flowing over her down-turned face. She was wearing a simple black shirt under a small leather jacket and, on her legs, a pair of old jeans. Yet despite the simplicity of her clothes she seemed to emanate a sense of sophisticated composure.She was beautiful. Behind her she wheeled a large black suitcase.
She looked up at John who saw her face light up in recognition. He felt a smile spread across his face and stepped forward to hug her. Suddenly he didn’t feel so nervous. Meeting Andrea seemed so natural. Of course he had to be there, with her. People streamed past their embrace.
Eventually they broke up and began to talk. What they said wasn’t important to John. It was all small talk, nothing real, nothing important. He relished it simply because it gave him an opportunity to hear her speak, to listen to the sound of her voice and watch her mouth as it shaped itself around each syllable. His eyes moved up to hers and he found himself bound up in her gaze. He saw in her expression genuine pleasure to see him and he wondered at how lucky he was to have found himself there. In that moment John was happy. He grabbed her bag in one hand, one of hers in the other and directed her out of the station.
On the way back to the hotel they didn’t talk much. Andrea realized that John had changed since they had last met. In Florence he had been quiet but in a more reserved, anxious way; he had leaned heavily on his friend to move the conversation along. She had had to take the initiative to make sure that they got together on their second night there. Later it was her that had gotten his e-mail address from the concierge at the front desk of his Hostel and who had suggested the trip to Paris.
Now John walked briskly and confidently along, dragging Andrea with him as he navigated through the crowds of the light-filled main streets and, a little later, the darkened smaller rues. He turned into the small street of their hotel and hoped that it wouldn’t be too deserted; that it’s dark emptiness wouldn’t intimidate Andrea. They walked by two couples walking hand-in-hand and an old lady who smiled at them before they finally reached the hotel doors. John didn’t hesitate to push them open and lead Andrea up the stairs. He was intent on getting her back to their room where they could be alone, he felt that then he could finally talk to her and find out what interest she really had in him.
Once inside the room he took her jacket and offered her a drink. She had a beer and sat on the edge of the bed. John didn’t know what to begin by talking about but to his relief he found that Andrea was driving the conversation entirely herself. She was a person to whom conversation came easily. They talked about their good luck at having such a secluded room and how excited they both were to see Paris.
After a glass of wine, however, John began to think that he had to find a way to increase their intimacy. He had always found it easier to be around women when he knew that they were attracted to him physically. It seemed as if a promise had been fulfilled, afterwards he would be less inhibited. He stared out the window for a second, contemplating the lights of Paris before turning to Andrea, who was still sitting on the bed, and pulling her to her feet. He felt the the alcohol he had drunk give him courage as he pushed her against the white wall of their room and kissed her strongly. In his mind’s eye he watched the scene, detached, analysing it for narrative power. He wanted her to feel the passion of of all the embraces she had read about and seen in movies. He wanted their night to be worth experiencing. He pushed her towards the bed.
Later on they put their clothes back on, took a bottle of wine, and headed to the roof. Conversation came more easily to John now. He was beginning to enjoy himself far more than he had expected to. He started to think about the next day and the one after that while Andrea sat, beautifully illuminated by the soft moonlight.
The next day John woke, dazed. He couldn’t believe that he was in a hotel room in Paris with a beautiful girl lying next to him. He knew he was living a moment that he would re-live countless times throughout his life. Wasn’t this what living was about? What great novels were about? It was a romance in a foreign country and yet it was so much more. He didn’t know how to think about his situation, how to deal with it. He wanted to grasp this moment and make it a part of himself.
Instead he slid himself out from under the crisp starched sheets and tiptoed to his bag, being careful not to wake Andrea. She lay with the sheets wrapped in a cocoon around her, her hair making a halo on the pillow above her face, one leg spread out from under the covers.John thought that she looked breathtaking. He wondered again how this situation had arisen. What succession of events had led to this single moment. If only he could understand what magic had occurred, how to replicate it, then he might, he knew, be able to find some happiness in this life.
He found his bag and, turning his back to the sleeping figure, took out the bottle of whisky and raised it to his lips. It felt harsh and unpleasant so early in the morning. He slid the bottle back guiltily before heading to the bathroom to brush his teeth.
He looked at himself in the mirror and tried to make himself more presentable. He wasn’t an alcoholic, he didn’t drink for the sake of drinking, he told himself. This weekend was just special. He had to have the courage and the nerves to be the man he had always wanted to be and the only way he knew how to was to drink. Without the alcohol he would always second guess himself to the extent where he became consumed by anxiety. Anxiety which would eat away at him and destroy ability to converse freely, act with any ease or even have enjoyable sex. He had learned to live with the anxiety for most of the time but he wouldn’t allow it to ruin the weekend.
When he walked back into the bed he saw that Andrea was stirring. He lent over and kissed her before lying down next to her.
“I was scared you’d left” she whispered.
“There’s no way I could” he replied, and knew it to be true. He couldn’t remember ever being so happy. For once in his life he felt that his life had true value. He was important because this one, brown-eyed girl, who he barely knew had smiled at him and meant it. He kissed her again. And again.
Later they went for out for breakfast. They walked slowly down the Rue de Vaugirard, enjoying the light rain, until they found a quiet Café. John felt embarrassed at his inability to speak the language, he saw the impatience in the waitresses’ eyes as he stumbled over his order. After it was done, though, and he looked over at Andrea he realised that she didn’t judge or feel pity for him. His inability to speak that language became just another aspect of his personality. Andrea spoke beautifully in French and English and did the ordering for the both of them from then onwards.
Later, when they had drunk their coffees, they went back to the hotel. They had sex and slept and had sex again. She complimented him and he felt that she was being sincere. They headed back to the roof and talked over the second bottle of wine.
They went out that evening as the sun was starting to go down. John took them to a Café where Hemingway used to drink and tried to explain his writing to her. She listened and smiled politely but he soon realised that her interest in the subject was limited.They had some more to drink.
The next day John decided not to drink so much. He felt comfortable enough with Andrea not to need to. They went to see the Eiffel tower but didn’t join the monstrous queues of people waiting to climb it. Their interest wasn’t in sight-seeing, John realised, it was in each other. They walked together through the parks, sometimes sitting on benches, together discussing the backgrounds of the people walking by. Time seemed to rush past. For the first time John felt as if he didn’t need to second-guess his actions. He felt as if he was living each moment as it came, not living for a later time when he could look back and analyse everything that had happened. He felt happy.
Too soon it was evening and time for them to head back to the hotel room to pack. Andrea would be leaving while John was staying one more night.They took the metro, barely noticing the crowds, brought together by an awareness that their time together was ending. They walked slowly back to the hotel in a comfortable silence, both with so much to say but knowing that the time wasn’t right for it. John felt Andreas fingers intertwine with his and he looked contentedly up at the darkening sky.
Back in the room Andrea packed her bag slowly. She had enjoyed the weekend and knew that it ending would mean the return to her normal life. she couldn’t delay it much longer.
“So I guess we have to say goodbye” she said “we won’t ever be seeing each other again”
“That doesn’t have to be true” John replied, shocked at the bluntness of her tone.
“You know it does”, she replied softly.
“Well at least say that we’ll meet again or until next time. Goodbye is too final. Even if we don’t see each other again can’t we pretend for a little while that we will?”
“I can’t John, I’m sorry. I’m getting married, I can’t ever see you again”, she sighed and looked at him. John seemed especially young under the room’s dim lights.
Andrea sat down on the bed. She told him about the life she was heading back to, how it really was. She felt it needed to be said. She knew that John had romanticised her, created a vision of her which she could not possibly live up to. She wanted him to understand that things were never that perfect. She told him truthfully that she had had an amazing weekend and that she would remember it for a very long time but that she had a real life to get back to. She explained that from then on it would have to be a memory. Then she got up.
John grabbed her bag and carried it downstairs to the main entrance. He didn’t say anything. He was in shock, he couldn’t believe what had happened.He felt betrayed and yet still didn’t want to let the moment to pass.
Andrea kissed him one more time before walking through the doors.
“Until next time” she said “try not to drink so much”, she let the door slowly close behind her. She was gone. John walked slowly back upstairs and let himself fall backwards onto the bed. After a while he got up to get what was left of his whisky.
The next morning he woke up feeling better than he had expected. Lying in bed he thought about his trip. He realised that while he hadn’t understood what he was experiencing, his emotions had been real. What he had felt was worth feeling and he would still hold onto those memories forever. He got up and began to get ready. He brushed his teeth, had a shower and packed. Then, once his coat and boots were on and he was ready to go, he sat down on the bed, in the same spot that Andrea had been sitting when she explained her life to him. He knew he should feel worse, that others in his situation would feel regret and shame, but he could only feel a slight sadness that the weekend had passed and that he was heading back to his normal life.
As he walked through the Paris mist to the train station he thought about Andrea. He knew that though she wasn’t the woman he had thought she was, his experiences over that weekend hadn’t altered, what he had felt was still real and had changed him in an unalterable way. He had still spent two days in Paris with a beautiful girl and those two days had been perfect. He knew he had to hold onto that thought. Eventually time would erase the beauty of what he had felt but for now he could still feel it warming him, making him feel real. He felt grateful; grateful to Andrea, to Paris and to everything which had led to that weekend.
Time has a tendency to diminish everything in life, he knew, but he felt sure that he would remember his time in Paris for a very long time. He had had a meaningful experience, he told himself, and hadn’t that been the point?
After a while he stopped thinking about anything much. He had a coffee at the train station and then boarded his train. Once in he sat back, opened his book and waited for the landscape to change.