2009 :: Issue 5/Fall :: Haunting Memories
Sarah and I are staying at the Hotel de France, not far from the Eiffel Tower. We have known each other forty years. We met and became lovers in college. Then she got married. And divorced. And so did I. About five years ago—after losing touch for years—we ran into each other at Columbus Circle in New York City.
“Sarah!” I said, as she passed me by.
She turned around, blinked.
“I was just thinking of you,” she said.
The aura of first love, or young love, never leaves you. There is so much hope and pure good will and energy there that, later in life, after the romantic failures and disillusionments, after the hard looks in the mirror, you turn back to it, wistfully. You think, can I have this again? Can I have this kind of romance again?
After our encounter on the streets of New York, Sarah and I tried for several years to be lovers. We do love one another. But something isn’t quite working at a place where it needs to work. Eventually, we always end up arguing bitterly. Eventually, we are like the Greeks besieging Troy, with the same sense of ten years’ weariness and resolution to destroy.
We are both sixty now. An age where our rehearsal time is over. I think of Cavafy’s poem, where he compares our days to a row of candles. He says, “I do not want to turn back, lest I see and shudder— / how quickly the somber line lengthens, / how quickly the burnt-out candles multiply.” So we have come to Paris, as a kind of last chance at romance. If we do not find our love here, in this city that encourages love as the sun encourages blooming, then where else would we find it?
It rains and rains while we are here, but I don’t care. Paris! Paris! This gorgeous place. I feel I am a citizen of this city, by right of passion.
Sarah and I walk everywhere. I know Paris well—yes, I think I can say that. I am her guide. A man likes to be a woman’s guide in Paris. He feels worldly.
We walk away from the crowds in front of Notre Dame and cross the bridge that links the Ile de la Cité with the Ile St. Louis. Flowing around and about these two charged, elegant bits of earth is the Seine, a river that has probably inspired more artists to greatness than any other body of water that has ever existed on earth. Just gazing on it, I feel I am a better writer.
The odors of Paris. They haven’t changed. I’m so grateful for that.
The rain pours. We walk along the Quai d’Anjou on the Ile St. Louis. How rude is it to quote myself? I once wrote about Paris in bad weather. I still believe every word: “Bad weather brings out the lyrical in Paris and in the visitor, too. It summons up feelings of regret, loss, sadness—and in the case of the first pangs of winter—intimations of mortality. The stuff of poetry. And of keen memories. The soul aches in a kind of unappeasable ecstasy of melancholy. Anyone who has not experienced a chilly, rainy day in Paris will have an incomplete vision of the city, and of him or herself in it.”
When I was twenty-five, I lived in Paris for six months. It was a golden time. My best friend, Alex, and I—he still is my best friend, thirty-five years later—traveled around Europe together in the grandest of tours, for a full fifteen months. We stopped in Paris, because he wanted to live there for a while. I had never been. The gods smiled upon us and directed us to 43 bis Villa d’Alésia to live. It was a sculptor’s former studio, with high glass windows facing the little winding street deep within the 14th arrondissement, and a second floor that overlooked the large open studio space where the sculptor—whoever he was—must have chiseled away in times past. Were two young men ever so lucky? I look back on them now from this great distance with fondness and gratitude. Live, boys, I say to them across time, live!
A black man from Nigeria I once knew in New York had lived in Paris for many years. He said to me, “When you are lonely, Paris can be your girlfriend. She will be there for you.” And it’s true that Paris is a woman. She is round—the city’s form is round, as a womb, and the buildings have an embracing softness to them. New York is phallic, proud of how erect it is and how manly, with its almighty stiff skyscrapers. Paris has just one tall building, and that is such an aberration one ignores it. Every city is entitled to a single large mistake. Paris, hold me, enfold me, you beautiful woman!
I want to show Sarah 43 bis Villa d’Alésia where Alex and I lived in such youthful splendor. We take the métro to the Alésia stop, the next-to-last stop on the Porte d’Orléans line, in Montparnasse, deep within the Left Bank. We find the little street where Alex and I used to live, still quiet, still out of the way. I walk with Sarah, trying to recreate those times, making them, as I am sure so many wives and girlfriends have experienced on similar walks with their nostalgic men, a holy experience. “This is it!” We stop before a building and I point upward. “This is where Alex and I lived for six incredibly glorious months thirty-five years ago. This is it!” Sarah looks reverently upward. I do, too. But something seems amiss. Something detracts from this moment before this Parisian shrine. I squint. I peer. I see that this is 45 Villa d’Alésia, not 43 bis. “Wrong house,” I say.
Well, never mind. Just think of this place! 43 bis Villa d’Alésia, where we lived like Dauphins, Alex and I. Body, mind and heart, remember.
New Year’s Day. Sarah and I spent last night celebrating at a restaurant on the rue de Seine. It is a festive little place, owned by an American. When I think of rue de Seine, my mind goes to the poem of the same name by Jacques Prévert. And then I cannot help but think of her. Of Helena. Of the woman I fell in love with in Paris years ago and with whom I spent a year in the South of France, and who I should have married, and didn’t. My good, beautiful friend Deborah, who knew Helena well, said to me one day, some years after I had broken up with Helena, “I knew when you did that you were on a downward spiral. Helena is not a woman you leave.”
She was a raven-haired Dutch woman, tall, with a svelte high diver’s body. She had the bluest of blue eyes, mountain lake-blue, and I often fell into them, swimming in their azureness. She had devil-dark eyebrows that peaked at the edges near her nose and made her appear devious, which she never was. Her full name was Helena Groote, but everyone called her Helen. She had an exotic dark look that was so unlike her fellow fair-skinned blonde Hollanders. Her skin had a light Polynesian shading. It seemed there might be a jet of Indonesian blood in hers. She seemed more of the East in appearance, though she was Dutch down to her stubborn, frugal toes.
I met her at the Spanish restaurant at the Chelsea Hotel in New York. She and I were with a group of people gathered together for a reason I no longer remember. The patron saint of seating arrangements looked kindly on me that evening and placed me next to her. I fell into those lake-blue eyes, but managed to tread water long enough to say a few words to her. What was her name?
“Like Helena of Troy.”
She was in America as an au pair and worked for a family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Her two years were almost up, and she was about to return to Holland, her country.
Of the three or four correct decisions I made in my entire life, I made one that night. I asked for her phone number in New York and in Holland.
A year later, I was in Nice. I called her in Holland. I asked her, cajoled her, begged her, to meet me in Paris. “Nothing will happen!” I promised. “I won’t touch you! In fact, if I even think of touching you, you can zap me with an electric cattle prod. I have one. I’ll bring it.”
Everybody on this earth ought to be able to greet his or her lover or future lover at a Paris railroad station at least once. I stood waiting in the great vault of the Gare du Nord, with its partially-glassed ceiling and huge arrival board listing the northern European cities of departure: Oslo, Copenhagen, Brussels, Hamburg and Amsterdam. Europeans of all stripes were walking by me, and shabby, blissfully happy students from all over the world, and everything was spoken in French, and I was in one of the most romantic places on earth in the most romantic city in the world, waiting for her. Finally, her train eased into the station and into my life. She was there.
These feelings and memories you try to hide from the woman you’re with, but you can’t. Why can’t she let you savor these feelings of loves long past? Why does Sarah want to invade those memories and destroy them? Maybe because she knows, somewhere, that I don’t love her.
When I was engaged to marry Charlotte—yes, another great soul I left!—I remember walking with her along the Seine and showing her all my treasured places and, suddenly, in one Proustian moment, a huge grin on my face just because I was in Paris, I saw in her face a look of complacency. Though I couldn’t believe it (How could this be?), I said to her, “You don’t like Paris, do you?” I could hardly manage to say the words, so sacrilegious a thought were they. And I saw nothing in her look to deny what I said. “Not as much as you,” she said. The heart sinks.
Helena tried to resist, but she didn’t stand a chance—and neither did I—against the Boulevard Saint-Germain, the Ile St. Louis, the Place des Vosges, and a table for two at La Couple. Every stone, every door, every shop, every light seemed to conspire for romance. We stayed four or five days—yes, in the same hotel room—cheap, at her insistence—but there was no lovemaking. But I could feel her weakening, and me, too. Paris looked on, and nodded, and said, “Others far stronger than you have tried to resist my charms. Go ahead, kiss her.” And I did.
Sarah and I at the little restaurant on the rue de Seine, with ghosts lingering just outside, on New Year’s Eve. I can hardly say the name of the street, rue de Seine, without summoning up Jacques Prévert’s poem “Rue de Seine.” It’s in his book, Paroles (“Words”) that Helena gave me. In it, she wrote, “N’oublie pas commes belles les Paroles et nos paroles peuvent être, et sont!” (“Don’t forget how beautiful Paroles is and how beautiful our words can be, and are!”) But later those words turned bitter, and now I don’t hear them at all.
Sarah and I meet another couple in the restaurant on New Year’s Eve. She’s Danish, he’s French. They’re very merry, and we have a lovely time, but every once in a while, I’ll turn to Sarah, and I can see she knows this trip has not done what we hoped it might. At midnight, when we usher in the New Year in Paris, we embrace not with warmth and great festiveness, but out of obligation. These things are so clear. They cannot be hidden, not with all the clever words we can summon.
We walk back to the hotel. It’s stopped raining, at last. We leave tomorrow. We stroll past Les Invaldies, where Napoleon is buried, a big domed structure brightly lit against the dark sky like a huge white illuminated precious stone. That this city exists should be enough to make any person a believer—in something.
Sarah and I go to bed, but we don’t make love. The first few days we did. But now we are just bunkmates. In Paris! So we are left with something in between affection and friendship—but not romantic love. Even Paris couldn’t provide that for us.
We get up one final morning in Paris. There is that new awkward modesty you have between a man and a woman who no longer desire one another. I dress quickly and go downstairs to take one small final walk in this city I love. It’s sunny outside, and cold. I take a deep drink of Paris. Comfort me, Paris. Embrace me, Paris. I walk aimlessly. What does it matter? Everywhere it’s Paris. My eyes sweep around. A majestic place. You tried your best, Paris. You were everything you always are. It’s only me, Beautiful City. It’s only me.