A short story set in, surprise, Paris. For your isolation consumption…
The Light Here Makes it Real
“They talk about the light here as though it were some great shakes,” Reeny says. “The light in Paris. The light in Paris.”
She takes a sip of her latte and lets the cup drop noisily back onto its saucer. “But they never mention the rats, do they? Not when Ted and I lived here. Not in the brochures, not in the movies I’ve seen, and not in the books I’ve read. Not a goddamned rat among the lot of them. Not one. Cripes.”
“You can find all the bad bits if you look hard enough, Reen,” I say. “But are the rats really bothering you? They’re just wandering about the shrubbery, going about their business. Don’t look. Ignore them.”
I know my reply doesn’t help, but Reeny is exhausting at the best of times. She gave up on Paris before we even reached our taxi at the airport two days ago. She’ll never see its beauty. Not again, anyway. Not after Ted. “Every city in the world has its bad bits, Reeny. But if you squint, they disappear. That’s when the light gets in.”
“Christ, Annie,” she spits. “You sound like a brochure. Are they paying you to say this crap?” She swipes at a tear and sighs. As usual, she’s unwavering in her ability to hold onto negativity and sadness. In Reeny’s eyes, it would be wasteful to abandon these anchors that keep pulling her back down into the abyss. They’re character building, and she’s under reconstruction.
I can see Notre-Dame Cathedral from where I sit here on the corner of Rue Saint-Louis en L’ile and Rue Jean du Bellay. It sits just beyond the little bridge. We’re at the same cafe table where we began our day yesterday. Croissants, latte, orange juice and biscuits. Reeny will probably have the same breakfast every morning. She does not stray far from what she immediately becomes comfortable and familiar with.
I’ll give her today, but come tomorrow I will order on my own. I will choose whatever strikes my fancy on the menu and I’ll ignore the raised eyebrow of consternation she delivers. We’re on vacation. I will not conform to her demands here. Not in Paris, of all places. Paris is a feast and I shall partake, come what may.
“Who flies a goddamned kite in the city, anyway?” Reeny says, seemingly out of the blue. It takes me a moment to locate her point of reference. A crimson red dragon with an impossibly long tail floats above the buildings in the narrow streets across from the cathedral.
“It’s lovely,” I say, smiling at the whimsy of the dragon as it dances in the clear blue morning sky.
“They’re asking for trouble,” she says, looking at it scornfully. “It’ll get stuck in the trees, or wrapped around a pole. The string’s bound to be cut. They’ll lose it forever. The end.”
“My heavens, Reeny,” I say. I take the last swill of my orange juice and wipe my mouth with my white linen napkin. “You’re being so negative. We’re in Paris. We should try to enjoy our time here.”
“I’ve never been accused of being negative before,” she says. I guffaw, but immediately regret it.
“What?” she asks, astounded that I would be amused by her statement. “What did I say?”
“Reeny Persaud, come on now. I’ve known you since grade school and I have called you out on your negativity for a good forty years now. Negativity is at your very foundation. It’s the very core of you.”
She begins to pout but can’t keep a straight face for long. A smile begins to form on the outskirts of her mouth and she gives in and allows it to blossom. I return the smile and add a wink.
“Ooh. You make me so angry, Annie. Why are you the only one who can manipulate my emotions like this? I want to bask in my misery. God, I hate you sometimes.” She laughs.
“Come on,” I say, tossing my napkin at her. “We’re done here. We’ve wasted enough time on breakfast, if that’s what you want to call it. Let’s get out into this beautiful day before it’s gone. A day in Paris is worth a week anywhere else in the world.”
“I question your math, but okay. Please remember, though. I’m in mourning. I’m allowed to be moody. I’m allowed to wallow. Please don’t take that away from me.”
“Understood,” I say as I rise from the table and leave a couple Euro under my saucer for a tip. “But I’ll not have you disparaging innocent kites and wishing them dead. I’ll call you out every time you try to kill a kite, my friend. Their only crimes are dancing in the wind and looking pretty.”
“Stop being so bubbly,” Reeny says. She looks down at the table and then back at me. “You do know you’re not supposed to tip in Europe, don’t you?”
“I’m sure the money will assuage their contempt at my breach in etiquette. Let’s go, Reen. It’s looking very much like a Montmartre kind of day.”
We take the Metro to Abbesses Station. I hope I’m right in assuming Reeny and Ted didn’t spend a lot of time in Montmartre while they lived here. I’m trying not to pour more salt on the wounds I opened up for Reeny yesterday by taking her to Luxembourg Gardens and the Tuileries. These places meant far too much to her and Ted. They carry too many memories. My hope is that Montmartre is safer ground to cover.
As we climb up out of the underground, Reeny confirms my suspicions. She looks around as we climb the steps to street level. Her smile is a good sign.
“Believe it or not, I haven’t been back here since our senior year class trip,” she says. She points to the sign above the steps that reads Metropolitain. “Remember when Rob Kenner tossed Cheryl Demsey’s sweater up over that sign?”
“I do. It was hilarious until we all realized nobody could reach it. My God, Ms. Dubois was furious. ‘Merde, merde!’”
“I learned a couple French curses that day,” Reeny says. “Thank God for the horrendous clown on stilts who took pity on us and saved Cheryl’s sweater. With her theatrics, it was almost an international incident.”
“Ha,” I say. “Absolutely.”
“So what exactly are we doing in Montmartre, anyway?”
“Well,” I say as I lead her off in the right direction. “I thought we’d begin with Sacré-Cœur and end up somewhere near that pretty pink restaurant and stop there for something to eat. It’s such a lovely place.”
“La Maison Rose. Ooh. It’s been a while since I was a tourist in Paris. I always wanted to dine at La Maison Rose. We only got to walk past it with the class.”
“That’s the spirit, baby girl,” I say. I can feel my shoulders relax a little and I realize just how tense with worry my whole body had been. I’m relieved she’s gradually stepping into this day willingly. Perhaps things are looking up. “It’s a ten minute walk. We’ll be there in no time.”
We walk in silence for several minutes, quickly finding a pace that works for both of us. She slows down a bit and I speed up as much as my bad knee will allow.
“I just realized we’ll be looking down at the city once we get to the cathedral. We’ll see everything spread out before us.”
“That’s kind of the point, sweetie,” I say. I turn to look at her and catch her swiping tears from her eyes. I rest a supportive hand on her shoulder, but say nothing more.
“It’s just…It’s our city. It’ll always be our city. I’m not sure it was a good idea to come back so soon after…”
She trails off, but she doesn’t need to finish for me to know what she was going to say. So soon after cancer, after death, after loss. Perhaps this entire trip was ill-planned. I just thought that being in the place she loved the most in all the world would somehow bring her closer to Ted, while at the same time miraculously helping her to let go. I’m a bad friend.
We continue to walk in the direction of the cathedral. She manages this mini breakdown while walking, at least.
“Sweetie,” I say, “I know it’s hard. Remember, I’ve been through this kind of loss with Steven. I know what you’re going through. And I know it takes a long time to find a new normal. Believe me when I say I understand. You still wake up wanting him in your life so badly, you think about staying in bed and giving up. I get it, I really do. It’s been eleven months. I just thought seeing these places would make you feel closer to him. I’m sorry. I thought Paris would be difficult, of course. But I also thought it would give you some sort of peace. I thought you would feel his presence here, in a good way.”
“I do, Annie, I do,” she says. She’s trying. “Ted’s definitely everywhere here. We spent three whole years living in Paris together. It changed us. Of course I see him in every shop, on every corner. But I’m grateful we’re doing this. I, just…I can’t believe it’s been almost a year. I remember when he first got sick, how I couldn’t imagine living my life without him. I do get that you know how it feels. Being here is just so overwhelming. It’s bringing back a past reality that no longer exists.”
“We’re almost there,” I say. I guide Reeny across a narrow street and point off into the distance. “We can turn up this street, I believe, and come up on the church from the back end.”
She allows herself to be led, allows me to take her hand and lead the way.
“It’s overwhelming,” she repeats.
“I know. Maybe it’s good that we’re here. Maybe the places in which you find him will help you in some small way.”
“Maybe,” Reeny says. We look at each other. Her eyes are damp and I feel helpless. Hopeless. “How do you feel about Montreal, Annie?”
“That’s not fair, Reeny.”
“I don’t mean it in a bad way, sweetie. This is not a competition on mourning. But it’s hard for you to go to Montreal, is it not?”
“Absolutely. But I also love seeing the patio where Steven spilled the plate of spaghetti and meatballs down the front of his white button-up. Or the place where my heel snapped off between two cobbles and Steven helped me hobble to the closest shop to buy flats. I love smelling that particular sweet pungency of the Quartier Latin, and how nowhere else in the world smells the same. I love the way—”
“Okay, okay,” Reeny says. She laughs and it sounds as lovely as Paris rain. “I get it. And, yes, I feel the same way. Why, the only reason I attacked that kite earlier was because I had a momentary tinge of happiness remembering a kiss Ted and I shared on that bridge by Notre-Dame. You know the one, where they have all those ridiculously infuriating love locks now.”
“Reeny Persaud, you take that back. They’re not ridiculous. Love is not ridiculous, especially in Paris. L’amour n’est pas ridicule. Did I get that right? Just, how dare you! Those locks are precious.”
“Okay, okay. You’re really keeping me on a short leash today. Precious, indeed. But that kiss, that day. It was perfection, Annie. We spent hours upstairs at Shakespeare and Company. You’re only allowed to read the books up there, you know. Ted found one that enthralled him. We sat on one of those horrid little benches that, if you patted it, the dust motes would rise and fill the air. It was wondrous.”
I guide her past the final turn and the back of the cathedral looms before us. I slow our pace, because it’s good that she’s talking, remembering, reliving.
“I leaned into his shoulder and daydreamed about nothing while he sat reading, turning pages like it was a marathon he wanted to win. And after, we were crossing the Seine and stopped in the middle of that bridge to take it all in. Like we were tourists in love with the light. Like we hadn’t lived in the neighbourhood for two years already.
“Paris is like that. You go about your daily life, forgetting its beauty. You just live. Then one day you see it, you sigh and think to yourself, Mon Dieu. C’est trop belle. My God. It’s too beautiful.”
We stop walking and face each other. We both smile, but Reeny’s expression holds a pain so deep it wounds me.
“Yes,” I finally say. It comes out as a whisper. I move to wipe a tear from Reeny’s eye and she allows me to do so.
“Look at me,” she says, laughing. “I’m a mess.”
“This is a good mess, Reen.”
“The thing is, it’s never too beautiful. Beauty hurts because it’s supposed to hurt. But it’s a good hurt. A hurt that brings deeper love.”
She’s lost her train of thought. She attempts to find the thread while I think of the kite and hope it made it through the morning intact. Reeny will find her way back, if I give her enough time. We begin to walk alongside the cathedral. As we approach the vista at the front that opens up onto the entire city of Paris, she lets out a deep breath.
“The thing about that day, Annie,” she begins as we continue onward. “On that particular day, we sighed at the same time. We both fell in love with the beauty of the city at the same precise moment. Ted turned to me and he said exactly what I was thinking. He said, ‘The light here makes it real.’”
I put my arm around her as we stop at the top of the stairs and prepare to turn our gaze onto the city below.
“He was talking about the city, yes,” Reeny says. “But he was also talking about us, about our love, our life, our world. We kissed. By then I already knew I’d love him forever. But that day, the way we fell into sync so perfectly. The way the city re-bloomed for us. The way the light hit the Seine, and the cathedral, and the trees. That was my one perfect moment. You only get one.”
“And I’m sure it was his too,” I say, because I don’t know what else to say. I know she’s avoided looking at the panoramic view so far. “Ready to see this?”
I take her hand in mine and squeeze. We smile at each other and she shrugs. We turn to take in the city. Reeny looks at it for several minutes in silence before turning back to face me. Tears course down her cheeks.
“That’s the thing about Paris, Annie,” she says. Her sides hitch as she attempts to keep her composure long enough to complete her thought. “The light here. It makes everything real.”