Today I discovered an old laptop, and with it mementos and creations from my first solo sojourns out in the world. One piece of writing had me catching feelings, the beginnings of a book I began in 2009 on the heels of my first trip to Paris. I called it fiction at the time, but it’s really a mirror image of my psyche and spirit, my observations and hopes and struggles, at that time. Six years later, reconnecting with that woman, me, through these words, I’m humbled and inspired. She and her writing are not perfect, but she’s seeing and working through things. And that in itself is beautiful.
I share this piece now, with its punctuation mistakes, misspellings and margin notes, in celebration of that young woman…encouraging her to continue to reveal herself…
SHE MOVED (November, 2009)
She moved amongst a speaking of tongues whose cadence, rhythm and meaning she did not understand. She only understood its urgency, the passion in its delivery, and that was enough to make her feel at home on strange soil. In fact, if she’d been able to understand, it would have immediately zapped the intimacy she felt here on streets so comforting in their unfamiliarity. Ignorance had provided a certain amount of romance.
She was the only one of her kind where she’d come from and so she’d frequently make bold statements of independence with the purest intention of raising some eyebrows. Where all others had pledged their future allegiance to state schools, she’d stood up in 9th grade and said she was going further north for higher learning. New York seemed like the most shocking, contrary terrain to their own and so she’d grasped at that far-off, lopsided triangle of a state. ”NYU!,” she’d declared, eyes straight ahead, faltering only a moment to catch the delicious looks of fear and bewilderment she knew matched the silence of her peers. In 11th grade, when her Mother favored a college roadtrip over other students Cancun springbreak agenda, she’d made it there for the first time. Stepping off of the bus into the streets of New York, she’d gasped internally at the sight of not one but two bums flanking either side of the main gates to Columbia U- the kind who’d been marinating in their funk for years, whose skin had turned ash grey with weathering. ”They were right,” she’d whispered to herself, “what am I doing?” But somehow she’d moved past that intimation and headed North. The fear of not living up to her promise to herself, or to the contrary declaration she’d delivered to her peers, and the pattern that failure to act could cast on the rest of her life, was greater than the fear of the unknown. A defiant notion on a whim, a seedling of an idea had germinated and blossomed into a path, a real road that she realized she could and must follow.
Her Father eventually packed her up and dropped her off even further North, at Brown University, which she’d deemed a slightly milder stretch exercise than the mean, bum-ridden streets of New York. But it was a stretch nonetheless, and it was a good decision. At Brown the world had opened up to her. With a princess from Saudi Arabia for a roommate and a quickly gelled group of friends from India (by way of Chicago), Brazil (by way of Switzerland, Mexico, NYC), and a far-off liberal land called New England, of which she was now a citizen, things got quite colorful in a delicious way. The number of black students finally extended beyond the number of fingers on her left hand. Anthropology, Political Science, Spanish Literature and West African Dance classes unveiled a world more complex than the surface divide of black and white she’d straddled in high school. She found herself sitting around tables at cultural organization meetings and in class contemplating her life experience in a new light, comparing and contrasting it to the myriad of experiences tendered by the students around her. There were enough people, backgrounds, belief systems, points of view to compare. That luxury, in itself, was worth the hefty tuition.
Some 10 years later, having made her way to live and work in New York and beyond, she found herself here, on the streets of Paris; the unknown, the new, the uncharted now so much like home.
She’d come here in search of what she’d always been in search of – true human connection that would unearth a brand new path. She harbored fantasies of coming across a local, like a gallery owner or an antique shopkeeper, who would invite her to a dinner party and then, wah-la, instant entrée into a codified, authentic world. As she walked the streets of the Marais, she kept her sunglasses tucked into her leather satchel, deliberately leaving her green, jewel toned eyes exposed and available to connect with and peak the interests of another. Her eyes had always been a conversation piece, an attractor of those with both good and evil intentions. With age, she’d learned to wield their power.
It was walking the streets of Buenos Aires that she’d discovered this. Actually, before then, it was first in New York City.
On the streets of New York, one develops an assortment of defenses to shield from the crazies, to signify unavailability. Magazines, hefty books and earphones are in the arsenal of the “don’t mess with me” encoutrement that New Yorkers wield in subway cars and on jostling sidewalks. Something about the forced intimacy makes one set material boundaries, yet it’s the close proximity to mankind, no matter how stinky, self-important, belligerent, that draws and keeps true New Yorkers within the confines of its 5 boroughs. Repellation and attraction at once, that is the energy that keeps the city turning and gyrating.
Maya’s chosen instrument of defense had always been a pair of light rimmed frames with blackout shades. She walked down the rue now, smiling to herself in remembrance of the first time she dared to wear them irrespective of the sunlight. She’d been on a subway platform in Brooklyn on the way to work. It’d been sheer mechanics, not vanity or avoidance, that’d kept them on her face. Hands too occupied with a hot coffee, magazines and a hand-bag overstuffed with books and expectant gym clothes to remove the frames from her nose, she’d stood there in wait, feeling a bit irreverent and rude at her statement, however innocent. She could start a conversation or turn her mouth upward into a smile despite the plastic barrier, yes. But the shades gave her the ability to opt out of, to even avoid, interaction. Over the next few months, she’d learned to wield their power, avoiding the unwanted, ill-timed advance of a too curious gentleman, the sad eyes of a woman asking for change, the volatile exchange of an amorously violent couple shamelessly acting out their latest bout in public. She could simply pretend she didn’t see what was around her. The shades provided this luxury; she’d slide them off and on according to her mood and willingness to engage, loosing yet preserving a bit of her humanity.
The shades had made the journey to Paris out of habit. But here, on the Rue de Temple, they were at best a sartorial companion. No need for barriers here. She wanted nothing between herself and this city. She walked briskly now, eyes exposed, shining with expectation.
She veered down path after path, letting instinct direct her footsteps. She paused in a window now, filled with the kind of impossibly perfect confections the French were so well known for, of such a high aesthetic merit that she couldn’t imagine anyone cutting into and then ingesting one of these creations. If she were to buy one, she’d simply let it sit on a decorative plate, an ornament to light up her comfortable yet humble abode nestled under a Mansart roof a few blocks North. She’d yet to buy one because she hadn’t yet formed the words to make it hers. She’d gotten to smiling with the clerk and asking for a baguette, nothing more. She knew she’d need to say no more that “ça aussi” with a finger directed at the confection to indicate her desire to buy but, for some reason, she kept this purchase at bay, for the future, for some particular occasion whose details she had not yet crafted. The clerk stared back at her through the pristinely clear glass now with a peculiar gaze, knowing she wanted to belong, to engage, but not quite giving it to her. Maya was OK with this polite, yet not so effusive reception. It was enough for now, and she knew from experience that she’d find arms flung open on some other corner, in some other boulangerie. She just had to keep walking and smiling, heart and eyes exposed and open.
She walked to the parque and chose a bench near the worn metal see-saw, resting vacant, and pulled her notebook from her satchel. She had a list, of friends and friends of friends she could call when she got lonely, when she needed more than to walk about anonymously in wait of what was to come. It’d be nice to have dinner with someone tonight. She fingered the page, studying the names. The names with the most vowels looked the friendliest and so her finger stopped on “Hamadou”. She eyed the number, wondering if she’d need to dial the (0) 1, and practiced assembling the few words of French she knew. Just enough to communicate that she was a friend of Elise here in Paris for the time being and would he want to have dinner sometime? That was a lot of French, actually, and so she decided to form her mouth into “Bonsoir, vous ete Hamadou? Parlez Vous anglais?” She realized then that her ability to express herself was cut quite short in this foreign tongue, but that was the point. To be out of her element, to be lost a bit, to have to figure things out and the strength all of this was supposed to imbue. Once she met him in person, she’d use her eyes and her hands and her spirit to communicate. And it’d be just fine.
The sun began to fall West and so she gathered her things in preparation for a languid walk the wrong way home. The wrong way in the sense that she would not take the most direct route. She was nothing if not aware of her surroundings; she knew her east from west, her north from south. An internal GPS of the heart picked up on landmarks and other details that connected place with sentimental memory and so she could find her way back from anywhere by remembering a red door and how its hue echoed the color of her favorite matte lipstick or how the latticework around a 2nd floor window elegantly shaded a passerby from viewing the human contents within. She’d need to go 1 block down cobblestone, walk through a place, 1 more block and then 2 blocks North to 189.
“Cent quatre-vingt neuf,” as her friend Elise had helped her pronounce over and over again so that she could feign belonging, at least a sentence worth, when stepping into a taxi and directing the driver to her destination. She’d used it on the way from the airport but had had to give up the act pretty quickly when the taxiste launched into an extensive monologue, eventually searching her eyes in the rear view mirror for a response, or “reponse”. She’d sat listening to his words, trying to pick up on anything he uttered in his self-assured, melodic tone, just in case this very thing happened. But the adrenaline of the moment, the anxiety induced by airports and travel and the pressure of split second decisions had perpetrated and debilitated her sensibilities rendering her deafeningly laconic, without even the know how to reach for her English, to try her native tongue. Again she’d repeated “cent quatre-vingt neuf rue de temple, s’il vous plait,” a look of mercy in her eyes. An amused, pitying look had flashed into the pair of eyes that met hers and they were off. Not a word had been exchanged until they edged up to a white stone building with a great arc, at which point he spoke 2 numbers. The fare and the street number, “cent quatre-vingt neuf,” which he pronounced slowly as he indicated the front door to her new home. French numbers can be so cruel, so many words to communicate so few characters, but she’d survived it and was grateful for the right of passage. Twenty minutes later, having deciphered the key code at the front gate and trying all 8 keys in various combinations, she’d made her way through the outer and inner courtyards, through the vestibule and, finally, up 5 flights of stairs to her door, one of two on a hall whose walls had begun to curve toward a peak, indicating that she was perched above it all.
After all of that, she knew exactly from where she’d come and how to get back home on this early evening, some two days later. But she veered in the opposite direction, her appetite for disorientation, for getting lost and being found, not quite satiated.
She walked with a great deal of awareness, of putting one foot in front of the other, in feeling the uneven cobblestone beneath the thin soles of her shoes, worn down from the previous Fall yet in good enough shape and fashion to don this new one. There were few places within the borders of her own country where she could feel cobblestone beneath her feet. The grates on city sidewalks that led to the subterranean spaces that ran beneath the city of New York, the manholes that must lead to the fantastical world of the Mole People she’d heard about, those existed. But not cobblestone. She wondered why its integration into the planning of the other great city across the Atlantic had been overlooked. Too expensive perhaps, or maybe it was seen as being part of the old World, Europe, which the new burgeoning nation had worked so hard to distinguish itself from. She remembered then that there were areas in the States with cobblestone. The Wall Street area of downtown NYC, which had been home to the first Dutch settlers, and even Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. So it had been incorporated into the city planning of the new frontier; old world artistry and know-how in a brave new world. It still was there, and she suddenly wondered why Wall Street or Williamsburg hadn’t been enough then. Why the original had so much more appeal to her at this point in her life.
She was aware of the delicate balance of carrying the past, making space for the present and carving out the future.
The present moment held a stone wall to her right and the sounds of light chatter and glasses clinking on the other side. She walked to the corner, where a slender arch with a moustache of gardenia and other botanical folly formed a slight entrance. She walked in and cobblestone turned to gravel rocks. Two steps further and she surveyed the scene. 5-6 round wrought iron tables dotted the garden, each having drawn groups of 2-3 Parisians and the smoke from their cigarettes. Like 5 chic smoke signals petitioning the heavens for God knows what. No one had looked up when she stepped in and so she began the first steps of the pas de deux she’d learned in the past few days. Find a place for yourself, casually, without too much muss, sit and wait to be noticed. Never appear desperate, look like you belong. It’s not until you’ve entered a state of sincere indifference that service appears. She began this ritual now, choosing a table that stuck close to the main house, half in the garden and half under a terrace that led indoors. She made an embarrassing screech as she pulled her table, teetering precariously between the gravel rocks and solid stone, further underneath the covered terrace. No one noticed or looked up, of course. She settled in. At this point the sun began its elegant descent, like no other sunset she’d witnessed elsewhere in the world. Underneath the canopy, she imagined it in its full glory somewhere over the open parts of the Seine, dipping pink and almost flirting crimson before blue and slate grey swept in with a swirl. And then diamonds against black, the glitter simulated by the street lamps and electrical pyres of the municipal buildings and world renowned landmarks dotted about. Paris was majestic, even more magnificent, in these moments of transition. Watching her move from day to night is like watching a lover get dressed for a night out, admiring her naked, natural beauty, waiting in anticipation while she dons her dress, sweeps up her hair and sprays a spritz of that scent that melds so well with your own; like being pleased and proud of the end result, yet equally in awe of the before and the in between; like the thought of sweeping her back home and helping her return to a less quaffed state at the end of the night.
Even from Maya’s vantage point now, tucked into a darkening garden, the sunset was a beauty. She sat enjoying the silhouette of animated hand gestures and wine glasses dangling from wrists against a dimming sky. She smacked her lips lightly, into an expectant smile, ready for a verre de vin of her own. Searching the space for an accommodating waiter, she realized that she was in one of those establishments where it was impossible to decipher the wait staff from the clientele, service from consumption. They sat amongst each other, clients removed of the need to signal in need of a refill, waiters removed of the need to circulate. It had the air of a place where the owners and wait staff were too chic and relaxed to don uniforms or follow formalities. In such an environment, a waiter could stay stationary for hours at a time, assuming the languid pose of a customer; a regular could feel free to step inside and grab another bottle of Pinot Blanc, ce n’est pa probleme. The bill was tendered with an “a la prochaine fois” and settled with a “merci,” accented with the slap of hands or a kiss. This was Maya’s kind of place, a space where formalities gave way to real connections. She was at once relieved and unnerved, happy she’d come across such a place and intimidated by what she knew she must do to earn entry. In such an establishment, one’s place should be coaxed and developed naturally, not demanded.
An eye, round and very open, had been fixed in her direction for some time. It was now, as the garden lamps and candles illuminated the scene, that she noticed it. Its partner was obscured by the generous forehead of a woman reaching across the table for something, but this one eye remained steady and exposed. There it was, her entry. She returned its gaze, wondering if its intensity was benevolent or accusatory, welcoming or judgemental. But it was her way in, and she knew she would follow it. She made a comical gesture for drink in its direction, shrugging her shoulders at a questioning angle and moving her eyes from left to right, indicating a search. She smiled. The creases around this one eye tightened, the eye grew smaller but its light was intensified. It was undoubtedly a smile that’d distorted this orifice into a friendly beacon. The eye disappeared from view. The lack of the visual made her other senses more acute, and she could hear the sounds of a man’s voice calling someone to attention, making a request, then a laugh, much more lyrical talking and then silence. The eye returned. Maya sat expectantly, internally alarmed at the brazen way in which she allowed her eyes to meet his, without faltering. There they sat, until interrupted from above by a man in plain clothes. She looked up to study the messenger. A mass of curls toppled over a tan forehead and a patrician nose. This man did not smile, but studied the curls on her own head, the curve of her brow and then cleared his throat with surprise and pleasure as he found her eyes, shining green and clear against her caramel skin and the night. He was beautiful, and she knew the sentiment was mutual. “Pour vouz, mademoiselle, de le table la bas,” and then he was gone. A quartier of rosé accompanied by an ornate yet elegant wine glass from a century past sat below, in wait. She looked up at the eye and smiled shyly in thanks. She wasn’t sure what to do now besides let him watch her, which he did. She picked up the quartier and poured daintily, the pinky of her right hand free and at a delicate curve. She felt as if she were at an elegant restaurant or a wine tasting unaware of the exact etiquette with which to review and taste the wine before full consumption. She decided not to swirl it in her glass, that must be passé, after all it came in a carafe, not fresh from a bottle. It should already be “open” so to speak. She did, however, sniff its aroma before she ingested it; a mouth full of floral made her eyes wet.
FILL IN DESCRIPTION OF ROSE HERE.
She felt alone yet well accompanied in this moment; happy and confident to sit solo under her canopy, observing the flickering garden beyond. She was aware of the power of a beautiful woman alone. It drew attention, as it did right now. It was a power to be handled delicately. Not everyone would have the best intentions, but interactions with the morally devious would teach her something, no doubt, and experiences with the good ones, good people being good for the sheer love of goodness, would make the ugly ones less bitter.
She was ready to go and so she filled her mouth with fragrance one more time as she searched for the eye. It had been replaced by a high cheekbone, refined and defined, an abstract stroke on an otherwise dark canvas. Sensing her attention, the eye returned with that same squeezing of the skin around its borders. She returned the smile with a grateful nod, gathered her satchel and squinted her own eyes in search of the slight archway that indicated the exit. She found it and proceeded, feeling both of his eyes, now lost in the flickers, on her form. She was bold enough not to cover the left side of her figure, which faced him, with her satchel. She left it exposed, on display, and then she dipped out into the streets.
In the dark, the street lamps illuminated a straight route back home to Rue de Temple. She embarked vigorously, warmed by the wine in her chest, counting off the number of things she’d do upon arrival.
She made it home in heat, flying up the stairs, clicking the timed light switches in the hall to illuminate her path. The thought of these hallways lying in wait, in darkness, until the arrival of a human soul, flashed through her mind on the ascent. How egocentrically and environmentally clever that was. The key went click and she was in, fumbling for the light on the right and removing shoes down below. She panted in the doorway, feeling quite alive, ready to keep rolling.
She dialed the number, without the 0(1), as she plopped down on the settee, not so forgiving with its stuffing, but stately and ample with pillows. She pulled one behind her head now as she listened to the flat, monotone “beep” of her line searching for another. How curious it was to use a landline. She imagined it thick and physical, moving with girth between the walls, through the cables down the street, sinewy and electrical and lazier than the lightening quick darts of a mobile phone. The slow, monotonous beeping sedated her slightly, to the point where the quick and sharply inquisitive “Alo?” jostled her a bit. It was him, Hamadou. And so she launched into her French lesson.
“Alo?, you are Hamadou?,” she stumbled. “Yes, who is this?,” he inquired; his voice sounded kind. “My name is Maya, I am from New York. I am friend of Elise.” There was silence on the other end. “Alo?” she repeated. She knew her battered French was not excellent, but she must have gotten the point across. “I am in Paris now. How are you?,” she continued. “Ah, OK, well welcome to Paris Maya. How can I help you?,” he asked. She saw now that this would not be easy. Where she’d been invited in rather effortlessly in the wine garden, she’d have to ask for what she wanted here. And that was OK. “Well, do you want to see me? I am hungry and want to eat dinner now…” The “voulez-vous” that had just escaped her mouth had set off chords of the racey song and line by Labelle in her head, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi.” She giggled to herself at the state they’d both be in had she let that slip. But she hadn’t, she was playing it safe, and thank goodness. She didn’t even know what this Hamadou was like! He replied, “I have eaten but I will go with you. I would like to meet you, this will give me great pleasure to meet a friend of Elise. Where are you now?” “I am on Rue de Temple, very North, near Bastille.” “What number?” “189” “Bonne, I will come there at 22:00?” “Yes, perfect.” “OK, a bientôt.” “A bientôt.”
She hung up, quite satisfied at herself for having completed this transaction over the phone, sans hand gestures and facial expressions as indicators. In her experience, this is how you really learn a language, from being thrown in and having to figure it out. This was one of the main reasons she was here, the most direct and definitive of them all.
She had 20 minutes before his arrival. She used 5 of them to get ready and 15 to sit in wait. She’d only been in that apartment for 2 days, not nearly long enough to get lost in it just yet. She did some visual exploring now. It was 3 rooms. A large sun-soaked living and open kitchen space with windows on 2 sides, a more cavernous bedroom done in blues and whites whose natural light was less direct, more moody, and the best bathroom she’d bathed in in her whole life. Almost the size of the bedroom, it featured the quintessential clawfoot tub, cracked down the center but still glorious, a rattan rocking chair in the corner where she’d thrown her towel, a large mirror in which she could see herself head to toe if she stepped back far enough and stacks and stacks of books and magazines. The previous tenant had left them, along with quite a few other items. Hanging plants, a coffee table strewn with match boxes whose names she noted now and would add to her list of places to explore, 2 unopened bottles of vin de pays, a map which she’d added to her satchel on the first day, and some forgotten articles of clothing. A few tshirts and a cardigan, the latter of which she took the liberty of slipping on now. It enveloped her with the hint of a strange yet inviting aroma. She liked it, actually, and decided to cloak herself in its identity for the evening. She was deciding to take a long bath in the morning and explore the books strewn about when she realized the time. It was 22:05 and so she grabbed the keys, locked behind and bounced down the stairs. She wasn’t sure why her speed was so school-girlish in nature.
Before she entered the courtyard she made a point to gather herself. She wasn’t sure where he’d be exactly. It was possible he’d gained entrance to the inner garden through a neighbor and, given her tardiness, had sat down on one of the benches that lined the path. She hit the timed light for the garden, no signs of him, and so she walked out to the main gate, trying to imagine what he’d look like. There he was through the wrought iron grates, not at all what her imagination had had time to conjure up in those short few seconds, but surely him.
He stood with one hand in one well-accented pocket, slightly inclined to his right, resting on nothing but the black night that surrounded him. She followed his curved arm up to a pronounced chest, not too broad but definitely strong and present, accented by a well-fitted long sleeve sweater with the pop of a white tshirt beneath. And then his face, smooth and placid, unconventional. She’d never seen anyone that looked like him. He had one of those faces she couldn’t quite place, that she’d have to grow used to. She liked that, that there might be more to explore, that his features might gain new life and further depth for her if the universe and time permitted.
Having inhaled quite a bit and slightly ashamed at her brazen intake, she looked away slightly as she opened the gate and stepped through. No words had been exchanged between the two of them just yet. She closed it behind her and stepped into the street. He continued to stand there, looking on, and so it was she who finally spoke.
“D’accord,” with a smile that transformed his face completely, still unfamiliar but friendly. “Shall we go?”
“Yes,” then verbal silence for a few paces as they stepped off in an undetermined direction.
“So, you are here for how long?”
“Ah, that is all? And what will you do in these 2 days? Do you love Paris already?,” he questioned with a playful, French confidence.
“I have walked the streets, sat in cafés, really just absorbed what I have seen. And, yes, I think I do love Paris,” she said with a sheepish smile.
“Nice, and this is what you came to do?”
“Well, those things and learn some French and meet people like you who can show me their Paris…”
“Ah, my Paris…”
“Yes, what is that like?”
“Too much to show you in 2 short days”
“Why only 2 days?”
“That is how long you will be here, yes? It’s really too short, you should take more time if you can…”
“Ah! I said that I have been here for 2 days, I plan to stay for at least 2 weeks!”
“OK,” he said with a laugh, “you will have to forgive me, my English is not so good”
“Better than my French!”
“Yes, this is true.” They paused here, rewinding and replaying their conversation in the context of 2 days spent and 2 weeks to go.
“Well tonight I think we can walk, I will show you some places in Bastille and we can get some food for you, yes?”
“Yes, that sounds good.”
“Parfait,” he grinned. And in that moment, under an ancient street lamp, body akimbo as he outstretched his arm in a gesturally “after you” motion, he was quite striking. His skin was the color of chai, exact mixture unknown.
They hadn’t yet reached the part of the conversation that she dreaded, which was, “so where are you from, what do you do there, what is life like there?” She had come to Paris to escape this all, to figure all of that out, but she realized that she would have to share portions of this life with new friends in a city an ocean and a few countries apart in order to create context. She sifted through her details now, deciding which ones to pick out, brush off and present to this man, who would soon inquire no doubt. What else are people supposed to talk about when first meeting but the past and how it brought them to the present? She became nervous for the first time in this new city. Until then, she’d walked about amongst yet apart from the crowd, observing, ingesting. Now she might have to give something back and she wasn’t sure what just yet…
They walked for some time in silence, listening to the drum and quiet bustle of Paris at night.
Hamadou continued, “I have a question for you…”
Here it comes, she thought.
“Yes?,” she responded, inflecting her tone with a purposeful brightness.
“What did Elise tell you about me?”
She realized then what was happening. He had agreed to see her under the pretense of showing her around, but what he really hoped for was information on or from Elise. She was not offended by this. His masked inquiries prevented her from having to unmask herself for the time being. And so she dove in, informing him graciously.
“Well, she said that she met you years ago, that she has known you for some time, but knows nothing of your life these days”
“C’est vrai…this is true..”
“She said that, if I were to contact you, that she would like to know how you are doing”
“Tell her I am fine, that much time has passed, that I am fine,” his eyes shone strong, but not convincingly so.
“Tell her that I think of her still, even now,” his voice becoming more imploring. He realized this and checked himself. And then divulged again, “I am not sure what happened, it just…”
“Exactly what did happen?”, Maya now saw that there were many things she did not know about Elise and Hamadou. Elise had mentioned him a few times but they were new friends and she knew not her whole history. Until now, Hamadou had existed on a list of many names with no texture, no context, no back story, just a name with many vowels that popped out as friendly amongst the rest. She wondered if she had already said too much, but then she realized she’d said nothing at all because she’d known nothing at all. And so she listened.
“At one time we had promise. I had never met anyone like her. I was in New York at the time, that is why my English is OK,” he said with a humble, reflective smile. “I could not be here anymore, in Paris, and I had the opportunity to go to New York and I took it. I met her a few months later at a friends picnic in the park, in Brooklyn. She was staring at me, I felt it, I knew it. And so I performed a bit for her, raising my voice a bit in conversation so that she could hear. And then I lingered. She eventually came to me. She told me later that she does not do this, but that there was something magnetic there. And so she came, and I smiled and we talked and then I filmed her.”
“You filmed her?”
“Yes, I was doing a short film on my life in Brooklyn and that day was our friends birthday and so I was filming. She was so shy in the camera, she did not know what to say. And I understand, that was the first day she met my friend whose birthday it is…it was, sorry… Yes, so what could she say? But she was gracious and polite… and beautiful in that camera…” He then made a gutteral, emotive noise that Maya would hear at the end of his thoughts regarding Elise for the rest of the night. It sounded like a cross between “ah” and “ugh,” a melancholic yet sweet, reflective sound that allowed him to savor what he’d just said and move on to the next thought.
Maya saw that he was quite receptive, quite sensitive and she wondered if it was on account of these memories or if this was him all the time.
“Yes,” she said coaxingly, “Elise is beautiful…”
“And then the picnic ended and we said good-bye but I asked how to find her. She gave me her number. I called her the next day. I remember being very afraid because my English was not so good then. Even though I was in New York I lived and spoke with only French people. Speaking English with her was something special, and it was terrifying.”
“I understand, especially on the phone..”
“Yes, well that was the thing, I could understand her on the phone,” he said with a tone of quiet amazement, “it was unbelievable. I talked to her that first time for over an hour because I was so surprised that I could communicate in that way. I was proud of myself and I loved her instantly for that.”
They’d been walking for a good 15 minutes at this point. Maya’s hunger had subsided a bit with curiosity but it was not gone. She did not know where they were but she saw a café bistro on an approaching corner. The golden glow from within spilled out onto the tables on the sidewalk. She could see flatware and the stems of glasses rising and falling from table settings. They were still serving. Careful not to interrupt his flow, she gestured gently with her finger and a raised brow. He nodded in agreement and continued..
“I asked her when I could see her and it took a week but I did see her again and…,” he flushed quite generously, “I was stupid..”
“I made too many plans for that day. Qui sait, I think I was nervous to spend time with her and so I made other plans before and after our meeting. We only had 1 hour together.”
“Ah-huh. Was it a good hour?”
“I left feeling like I had not presented myself well, that we had not connected the way I wanted to. I felt a lot of pressure and fear at the same time.”
“You are very aware of your feelings”
“I have had years to think about, to remember all of this”
“And so I didn’t think I would see her again, but I asked. And she accepted. I don’t know why. I was lucky..” Reflection took him somewhere else as he waited for Maya to take a seat and then took his own.
“When did you see her next,” she brought him back.
“She invited me, actually. To dinner at a friends house. It was a strange dinner. The food was not so good and it took a long time. I could tell she felt awkward and embarrassed and that brought us closer. We left the dinner hungry and quite drunk and so we took a cab to a wine bar in the LES. We shared more wine and a plate of small things. She ate it all with her beautiful hands, pausing between bites to tell me about her travels, her passions, her plans. We knew we were sharing thoughts that were very close to our hearts. In that moment it was confirmed. We liked each other, physically and intellectually, and that was so nice.”
He paused now to call the waiter. He asked Maya if she knew what she wanted. When she hesitated, he offered to order for her. She surprised herself by obliging his suggestion. Something about his energy made her feel comfortable with this. She wanted to continue on the ride he was taking her on, and she would eat the food that went along with this journey.
Rapid fire French was exchanged between Hamadou and the waiter, Maya got lost in it’s melodic, sing-song drawl. And then he came back to her.
“That night I let her say goodnight, but I did not want to let her go. When she called me 20 minutes after we parted I was surprised, but not really. I knew that something powerful, maybe dangerous was happening. She told me she had not wanted to say goodnight, that she had been nervous about it. About what we would say, about whether we would embrace. It had been a long time for her and she later said she felt silly and childish.”
This struck Maya as quite curious, the Elise she knew commanded dating etiquette. She said nothing to the contrary, instead listening on…
“We talked until 5 in the morning and, again, I could understand everything she said. I wanted to know about her. I asked her about her parents, if she had any brothers or sisters, how often she spoke to them. She asked me the same. There is something about exchanging those very intimate details. It means something, I don’t know what exactly, but it brings you close. I wanted to be close to her. And I felt more close to her over that phone than I have felt to many women who I have been with physically.”
“I can see how someone could be close to you, you are very open. We have only just met and you have shared so much. I am enjoying it, please continue. But it is not something you encounter all of the time.”
“Forgive me if I share too much; it is just coming back to me, I am remembering so much. It is good for me to talk about this again…,” he said with a bit of a question in his voice as to whether he could or should continue. Maya got the feeling he would continue, regardless of her response. He needed this and so she said, “Of course, it is good for me to hear it. Please go on.”
“At a certain point we fell asleep together, still on the phone. I’d walked all the way home, slowly, listening, and then sat on the steps to my building. She was weary, I could hear it in her voice, but she didn’t want to hang up…”
FLASH TO CONVERSATION B/T HAMADOU AND ELISE 2 YEARS PRIOR…
“Hamadou…. are you there?”
“Yes Elise,” he said savoring the “s”
“Tell me a bedtime story”
“A bedtime story?”
“Yes, I am so tired but I like to hear your voice. I want it to be the last thing I hear before sleep. Tell me one please”
“I don’t know any bedtime stories in English, and I barely remember any in French”
“Make something up…,” she smiled deliriously into the receiver. This was indeed the stuff dreams were made of. She couldn’t remember ever being romanced in this way.
Hamadou lowered his voice to a sweet lull. Words rolled off of his tongue fluidly. Elise lie there, now safely tucked into bed, not having washed her face or removed all of her jewelry, holding onto the sounds. She did not know exactly what he was saying but she could tell that two people were conversing, and she thought it adorable that his voice rose and fell to distinguish between them. The French sounded seductive, sweet. She wondered if he was slipping anything of a suggestive nature in, or if he was making a confession blanketed in the language barrier between them. She reminded herself to ask him to translate someday, if she had the chance. She hoped she would. She’d never been romanced like this before and, now realizing that it’s possible, she didn’t ever want it to go away.
She woke up what could have been 2 minutes or 2 hours later with the phone cradled loosely in her hand. The room was dark, she was disoriented but lucid enough to bring the phone to her ear. She could hear his slight breathing. He too had fallen asleep. She whispered his name, very low. No response. Just the sweet breathing. She repeated it in increasing decibels, crooning his name, until he said sleepily, “Oui, Elise..”
“Oh Hamadou, we fell asleep. Where are you now?
“Still outside, you hypnotized me..,” he playfully accused, groggily.
“Oh my goodness. Go inside please, go to sleep”
“I am safe, I moved inside the front door,” he said with a weak laugh.
“Still, let’s hang up. We can finish this conversation another time.”
“I would like that.”
“Alors,” she said, picking up on a bit of his French, “a la fois prochaine.”
“A la prochaine fois ma cherie…,” he corrected tenderly. “Elise, can I see you tomorrow?”
“Mais Oui. I am going to hang up now, OK?”
“OK….,” she made no move. “OK, really, now, I will really do it now,” she smiled.
“Sleep well, Elise”
“Sleep well, Hamadou,” and then click.
Maya watched Hamadou at the table, still in a daze from having transmitted and therefore relived this moment. She didn’t dare disturb him. She mopped the last bits of gravy from the poulet roti (delicious) with a scrap of baguette and fondled the stem of her wine glass, a garnet teardrop of wine still in its basin, studying it reverently, awaiting his return.
He returned now, eyes moist. He still loved her, had known it but really, truly knew it now. He smiled weakly in admission to the strange yet familiar woman who sat across from him. She represented a way back to his love and he thanked her silently for appearing, for possibly lighting a path back to a past he now wished present.
“How is she?”
“She is good, living in Brooklyn still, working by day, writing by night and whenever she can. This past Summer we took a roadtrip together through the Southwest. She was wildly adventurous with the terrain, driving like a maniac, wanting to see it all in 10 days.”
“Yes, she is curious for life,” he remembered.
“You could say that!”
“I would like to see her again.”
“You should tell her that.”
“Do you think I should?”
A stare met her question and she remembered that there were many things she did not know about their relationship. She’d heard the tender beginning, but not the middle and the end.
“I see,” she said, “well, if you feel it in your heart then act on it. I don’t know how she will respond but it’s clear you feel something very strong for Elise. You never know what will happen until you speak the truth…”
“You are right, I will think about it… so, did you enjoy your meal?”
“I did, and the company. We can talk about this anytime. It is lovely to see a man so contemplative, so aware.”
“Yes, but I am aware too late, and now I am aware in silence. She does not know, but she might, if I can build my courage.”
“You should, I would like to see what happens for you two.” “Oh…,” she hesitated, “maybe I shouldn’t say that, I don’t know the full story, maybe it is better that you stay away from Elise. But you did make the list! She must remember you fondly enough to offer you up as a friendly face.”
Again, a stare tendered from the opposite side of the table.
“And you, Maya, what of you and love? Do you have one?”
“Not a lasting love, not yet”
“Is that why you are here?”
“Yes, in some respects, yes. I came here out of love for myself, out of wanting something different and maybe better for me than what’s in New York. I am very hard on myself there. Here I feel more free, like more is possible. I don’t know, I think it’s the whimsy of the unknown that makes anything feel possible”
“Yes, for sure. The colors change when they become more permanent. That is what happened to me in your city. At a certain point the lights fade. You are no longer a visitor, you must earn your keep and, sometimes, you must fight. You must decide if you will do that. You know, fight.”
“Yes, I can imagine.”
“What can I do to help you here?”
“This, exactly this. And I would like to meet your friends.”
“That is it! Ah, ma belle, you must learn to demand more! Right now, this place is new to you, at this point almost anything you want is possible. You can be whoever you want to be!”
She knew this, she’d felt it for the past few days, walking the streets, meeting the eyes of passersby wearing their curiosity, and potential acceptance, all over their faces. She could choose to answer their inquiries with any myriad of responses. She was still marinating on the possibilities.
“You are right”
The next day she woke up in a tousled bed, her hair matted from the humidity. She’d been with them in her dreams, filling in the detail she had not learned the night before, of how they loved and lost each other. She couldn’t recall the exact rise and fall of it all, but it had been heart opening enough to elicit a physical response, even in her slumber. She thought then about how one can know someone, in this instance Elise, and yet know so little about the intricacies, the soarings and tragedies that have brought them to the place in which you encounter them. A part of her felt strange having learned about her pillow talk and tender conversings through a stranger, and not from her dear friend.
She sauntered to the kitchen and put the kettle on for tea. Thé rose, a tea from Mariage Frère that she’d discovered and began to sip religiously even before this trip, whose daily consumption had given her a pleasant buzz in the heart when making plans to come and stay for awhile in the place of its origin. It smelled woodsy and lightly fragrant at once. She inhaled it now, sifting crushed leaf particles into the French press. For the first time since her arrival, loneliness crept in.
Maya knew the difference between being alone and being lonely. The former was a state of being, the latter a state of mind. She enjoyed being alone, but it required a health of heart and mind that had been difficult to maintain in NYC. Loneliness had become the tenor. Her phone had started to ring less, she’d eventually turned it on vibrate to trick to herself into thinking that calls and texts were continuing to come, she’d just chosen not to hear them. Work had become stagnant. Her creativity, and the brazen confidence that told her she could be creative, an artist, had shrivelled up. She was in need of new breath, of a new challenge. And so, where others would take an exercise class or redecorate their space, she called on her old habits and had bought a plane ticket. An elegant, glamorous version of fleeing, of running away. She’d won two weeks vacation from her office, which had been a feat in itself, but she intended to stay longer. She prayed now that she’d encounter something to sway her path, to keep one foot in the front of the other, moving forward.
“Pretty girl come undone,” were the words that sprang to her mind. She was, or had been, just that. The tinny laughter that’d elicited invitations to random dinner parties by handsome strangers, the bright perspective on life that had drawn many friends to her side in need of advice, the infectious smile and impeccable sense of style that had won many battles in board rooms had started to fade. She would stand in front of her closet, looking at the same clothes, unable to put them together in the same way. Feeding herself had lost its deliciousness, she’d started to shovel it in for nourishment and nothing more. Keeping her impeccable apartment clean, a space many had glanced upon in awe and called their haven, somehow didn’t fit into the schedule any more. The very basics has become burdensome. There was not enough time for anything. And then she’d wondered how she was spending her time, what was eating it all and leaving her lifeless. She’d not been able to answer that question.
She knew how she saw and experienced the world and her place in it was completely up to her. The most unfortunate circumstance could turn around with a lighter perspective. Gratefulness and full breaths were really capable of bringing out the sun. She’d coached herself and many around her for years on this very idea, and she’d seen her life manifest 180 degrees in the right direction because of it. But it’d been harder this time, it had required something else. Like a plane ticket and a journey to a place bigger than herself. She was here.
She carried tea and a quick toast to the table and then doubled back for the phone. It was too early to call Elise. And then she remembered the bath.