Here’s a short story about a lesbian couple taking a spontaneous trip to Paris in the midst of a crisis. It won 3rd place in a recent short story contest.
Paris at Sunset and Into the Night
A new beginning, she said. A chance to reconnect. To say we needed one was more than a little misleading. We’ve never been closer. I was more than willing, however, to accept Annie’s reasoning on calling it a new beginning on our year instead of on our lives. It’s only early June and I’m ready to pack this year away and never look back on it. When Annie mentioned Paris, it took me three seconds to say yes.
And now we’re here and I’m trying my best not to regret our spontaneous decision. We’ve left so much chaos back home, I find it difficult to focus on anything else.
“Remember our first trip here?” Annie says. We’re holding hands and standing in the middle of the bridge closest to the Eiffel Tower. It’s where we come at sunset to see the sun turn the Seine into a river of liquid gold just moments before the tower bursts into life with its spectacular light-show. “Remember how we didn’t know about the lights? How we both gasped in disbelief as it began?”
“Yeah,” I say, squeezing her hand a little tighter. “It was pure magic. You never get first times like that ever again, though, do you?”
“Nonsense, Margo,” Annie says with a hint of laughter. “Shame on your pessimism. Just you wait. It’s almost time. Don’t you remember?”
The sun begins to sink behind the buildings in the distance. I don’t feel the joy I felt the first time. There’s too much weighing on me. The first time, we were young. Invincible. And relatively new to each other. It seems like a millennium ago now. Though we’ve been back since, I’ve never been to Paris bearing such a burden as the one I now carry. This time, it’s different. Tainted.
“Our first time was over forty years ago, Annie. You can’t remember to take the garbage out. Besides, I’m almost certain you’re mis-remembering the lights. They didn’t start until sometime in the eighties. Our first trip here was in 1977.”
“For the Marche des Fiertés LGBT.” Annie turns to me and her smile is more than I can bear. “First one. Of course I remember it, Margo. I’ll never forget it. We were warriors.”
“There were no lights that first time. Or, at least no light show. Not like they have now.”
“Semantics,” Annie says. “First trip, first trip with the lights. Whichever. You knew what I meant.”
I did. And it’s not the first time I’ve called her on things. I can’t get away from myself these days. All I do is nitpick and whine.
“Let’s just enjoy the lights, shall we? Then we can head back to the flat before it gets too late.”
“We have all the time in the world, sweetie,” Annie says, her voice dreamy with misguided optimism. With lies. “No need to rush the evening away.”
Time has recently become the only thing in the world we do not have enough of. I turn to say something, but Annie puts a finger to my lips. “Ut tut tut. Don’t spoil the moment. You promised.”
Another thing I hate about myself of late. I keep making and breaking promises. There’s no way I can keep them all. One of us needs to be realistic. One of us needs to take this seriously and see it for what it is.
I relent, for her sake. I turn back to the view of the river and try to enjoy the way the sun’s rays melt into the golden chop of the gentle current. Just as I turn back, a big Bateaux Mouches passes under the bridge and comes into view below us. Voices from excited tourists on the top deck rise up to greet us. One of them catches my gaze and waves up at me. I return the wave and call out a quick, “Hello.”
Soon all heads on the open deck of the boat turn upwards and everyone waves. Annie’s smile blooms anew and she practically jumps for joy as she returns their greetings.
“See, Margo,” Annie says as the din of greetings dies down. The boat stops in the near distance to give the tourists a premium view of the upcoming light-show. I’m sure they paid a ridiculous premium for the vantage point. “Magic happens in this spot. It’s our spot, here. Our Paris.”
“I love you, Annie Willis. All of you. Completely.”
“What brought that on, sweetie?” Annie says. “Those are the first kind words you’ve said to me since we got off the plane. This is not like you.”
“Oh, please, Annie,” I say. I cringe because I know she’s right. But I don’t know how to calm down, take things in stride. “Just shut up and tell me you love me back. I’m war-torn and tired. I’m trying my best to navigate this landmine on your terms.”
“I’d give you the world if I could, Margo Wright,” Annie says. She winks and pulls a bottle of champagne from the grocery bag she’s been carrying since she arrived back at the flat and told me we were going for a walk down by the Seine. Before I have a chance to react, she hauls out two plastic wine glasses. “It was true when I fell in love with your dumb ass forty-three years ago, and it’s true today.”
I take the glasses from her as she sets the bag against the railing of the bridge and makes to open the champagne.
“Why are you the one who always gets to be so full of surprises?” I say. “I swear.”
“Because I really do love you,” Annie says. This has become a constant reply to this type of question. She’s as predictable as she is full of surprises. It’s what I like most about her, what drew me to her. She was home, only different. Better. “And you, on the other hand, are only sticking around for a good time.”
She couldn’t possibly be any further from the truth. It was here in Paris that I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this crazy woman. Back at that first Marche des Fiertés LGBT. Looking back at pictures, two things were obvious from that first trip we ever took together. One, the seventies would mock us from afar for the rest of our lives. Perms, flares and day-glo lipstick do not age well. And two, the way we looked at each other in those pictures. Fists raised to the sky in revolt and reverence, arms wrapped around one another as though we were afraid we would float away if we didn’t hold on. Those pictures scream love. Undeniably.
“Shut up and pour,” I say, holding the glasses out in anticipation. The cork shoots off and into the air above us. It unexpectedly arcs out over the river and plunges into its current. Annie covers her mouth, which is frozen in an O of shocked exclamation.
“Oops,” she says. There is laughter in her eyes. It is there always, come what may. I wish I could learn to take things in stride like she does. You would think some of her positivity would have rubbed off on me after so many years together. I seem to have learned nothing.
Annie fills both glasses and sets the bottle down beside the shopping bag. As she takes her glass and raises it into the last of the dying sunset, she says, “To us! To how far Marche des Fiertés LGBT and all the other marches have come, and to us! We’ve had such a great life, Margo. We’ve seen so many wonderful moments. Like the city of lights, we are immortal. To us. Forever.”
I bite my tongue. I have to.
“To us, baby,” I say, choking back tears as the solemnity of the moment does its best to smother me in its grip.
Our glasses find each other and offer a faint dull plastic click as they meet. Someone from the boat sees our raised glasses and offers up a hoot into the relative silence. This is followed by a growing round of applause as the rest of the tourists spot our toast and join in on the celebration, even though they have no idea how somber the moment is between us.
Or maybe they have the right idea.
For the entire two months since her diagnosis, I’ve been fluctuating between gratefulness and despair…thankfulness and hostility. I’ve always been the frugal one, the level-headed one, the pessimist, the ballast keeping Annie’s exuberance from floating us away like balloons on a trade-wind to someplace more exotic and unpredictable. I’m Debbie Downer to her Mary Poppins.
I almost said no the other night when she whispered, “Let’s go to Paris,” as I began to doze off. It was out of the blue and she caught me just before my final plunge into another night of bad dreams and restless sleep. Perhaps being caught off guard is what saved me this time.
Even though it took me mere seconds to say yes, the no was the thing that came immediately to my lips. I pushed back against it and banished it away, forcing it back down my throat as the yes rushed out. I have a long history of saying no and it’s a history I can no longer get back. I can’t bear to think of the missed opportunities I shot down for one insignificant reason or another.
We sip our champagne even though I have no idea what it is I’m celebrating.
“We saw the world change around us, pretty girl,” Annie says. “We have time to see more and you know it.”
“I’m scared, Annie.”
“You know me, Margo,” she says. “Nobody likes a challenge like I do. We have lots of work to do back home. I’m stubborn enough to stay long enough to get it done. This trip? It’s just a breather. We’re here to regroup.”
“I’m sorry. I should be more supportive. I’m just scared. Sixty years isn’t enough. We haven’t done all the things I’ve said no to yet, Annie.”
“Never apologize, Margo. You’re the sane one in our relationship. You keep me grounded.”
I swipe an errant tear as bile rises in my stomach. It’s the anger I feel with myself for the wasted bits. Annie merely smiles. She hands me her plastic glass, now less than half full, and bends to grab something else from her shopping bag of surprises. When she comes back up with the two pink pussy hats we made last summer for the Washington rally, all I can do is laugh. I’m not sure how to stop.
“What?” she says. “You didn’t think I’d leave home without them, did you?”
“Annie,” I say, grabbing one of the hats and pulling it down over my head, not giving a good goddamn what it does to my hair. “What the hell am I ever going to do with you?”
We laugh, but somewhere deep down inside I’m asking myself a very different question. What will I ever do without her?
“I’m not done yet, my love.” Annie puts the other hat on and reaches in to plant a kiss on my unsuspecting lips. Our teeth click together and we giggle before managing to get it right.
Annie poses us for a selfie with the tower in the background. It’s very similar to the ones we’ve taken all along in this spot, long before they were ever called selfies. Smiles on our faces and pussy hats blazing, she snaps the shot. I know she’ll post it soon on either Instagram or Facebook, and it’ll be accompanied by some harsh words of condemnation and battle cries for revolt…but the thing most people will see is what will make the heart of the shot and give it likes and mileage. Even after all these years, at the heart of it all we’re just two girls in love.
The tourists in the boat below us rise up into another cacophony of applause. This time, though, it’s not for us. The Eiffel Tower bursts into light as the darkness becomes complete.
I hand Annie back her glass before I finish my champagne and toss my own glass into the bag at our feet. Annie finishes her drink and bends down to pack things away properly. As she straightens up, I reach in for another kiss. We pull away and take in the shimmering display of lights on the tower. The world around us has fallen into a hush as everyone flocked about the tower looks on in awe.
Annie stands beside me in all her pussy hat splendor. I wonder at the way she takes in the lights like it’s the first time she’s ever seen them. My lone thought fills me with hope. The world still needs Annie Willis just as much as I need her. This truth soothes me more than a spontaneous trip to our favorite city ever could. Annie’s not done fighting. The least I can do is be in her corner.
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(Pictures are my own, taken during my 2014 trip to Paris with the LEFT BANK WRITERS RETREAT.)