Paris Is A Woman
While everyone in the mutual fund department of the bank was busy making money, Sidney Parsons was busy weeping. His crying spells started innocently enough, a few salty tears running down his cheeks while watching the show The Bachelor on TV. "He sent her packing," he lamented to his bewildered wife. "And she loved him."
It progressed from there to a real cry when the piano tuner made a house call and tinkled the ivories. "Beautiful, just beautiful," whispered Sidney, all choked up.
"I haven't really played anything," said the perplexed piano tuner. "I'm just tuning the keys."
"I know," sobbed Sidney.
The final straw came when he was doing the foxtrot with his wife. "I swing as naturally as I breathe," he burbled, the tears cascading down his cheeks.
"What's gotten into you?" shouted his wife, bunching his shirt at the neck in her balled-up fists. The dance instructor had to break up the happy couple.
The next week Sidney went to his family doctor.
"I've been crying quite a bit lately," he revealed.
"There must be something behind it," replied the doctor. "Why don't you tell me what's bothering you?"
Sidney groaned and threw his head back. "I'm forty-four and I've been married to the same woman for twenty years. We were high-school sweethearts. I love her dearly, but she's the only woman I've ever known. I sometimes think about other woman, you know…what it would be like. And there are other things—I've been in the same job a long, long time."
"You're depressed," pronounced the doctor. "I can write you a proscription. Paxil would be a good choice."
"What I really think I need is some stimulation."
And with the names of various medications ringing in his ears, Sidney walked out the door. In fact, he walked out of every door—the door to his doctor's, the bank, and even his home.
"I'm off to Paris for a year. Leaving in a week" he told his shocked wife.
At the airport, Sidney realized his wife had gone into his wallet and sliced up all his credit cards. Shards of embossed plastic. It didn't matter. He took only two thousand dollars from a joint account containing tens of thousands—he would leave the rest to her. He just needed enough for first and last on an apartment in Paris…maybe a bit more.
The train prattled on, lurching and stopping. At Sidney's feet lay a small tattered suitcase and on his back a backpack. All the worldly goods that he brought with him. He considered opening a map he had bought at the airport, but the Metro was too crowded, simmering with commuters. He was wedged in between a punk with a blue Mohawk and a construction worker…the stale smell of unwashed armpits wafted to his nose.
He exited at the wrong station; there was a latch affair on the doors and by the time he realized how it worked, it was too late. Far too late. His heart fluttered with anxiety.
Le direction or la direction? he wondered. "Excuse madame, avez vous la direction au Eiffel Tower?" he finally uttered to a passerby, using his high-school French. But the reply was too rapid and he didn't understand. "Ici?" he pointed to the blue and white Metro sign, pretending. "Oui." He decided to walk.
I spoke French, he enthused. And I'm in Paris..woo…hoo. The blood coursing through his veins throbbed quicker, or so it seemed, and Sidney picked up the pace with each nondescript block. He passed a butcher shop where headless pigs and goats hung upside down. Then past small stores that said Tabac and Café and Baguette. This was Paris? Where were all the museums?
He unfolded his map. Shit, he was really far from where he wanted to go.
The car driver rolled down his window. "Taxi, monsieur?"
Sidney got in. The car smelled of black tobacco.
What a disgrace, he thought, sticking his head out the window and drawing a deep breath. No, no, it's perfect. Exotic. Like out of some book. Une adventure.
The adventure continued as the car motored toward the downtown core where Sidney saw expansive boulevards lined with statues and trees. Oooh, la Champs Elysees, he mouthed silently, eyeing the ritzy shops. Aaah—Arc de Triomphe. Paris' streets opened her arms to Sidney; the window ledge of the cab felt cool to the touch, but his heart warm from the scintillating sights. He passed outdoor cafes where waiters wore black tails; he saw scooters riding up on sidewalks. His eyes blinked and blinked again, a camera lens with the wrong focal length and shutter speed. It was like he had just been born.
After resting for two days in a small hotel near the Eiffel Tower, where he paid extra for a room avec un petit balcon, he walked to Shakespeare & Company, the used book store on the Left Bank. He read that in the 1920s it had been home to many ex-pat American writers and decided that would be as good a spot as any to start his sojourn. If nothing else, he knew that he could at least speak English there.
Sidney stopped on the esplanade outside the store to listen to a poetry reading. At least a hundred people were gathered. This would never happen in Toronto, he thought, amazed.
Inside, his eye caught sight of a sign above a doorway: BE NOT INHOSPITABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE. Buoyed, Sidney walked to the front desk. "I was wondering whether I could crash here a few days," he asked. He recognized the wizened owner, George Whitman, from photos he had seen of the store.
"Are you a writer?" asked George, his voice weak and feeble, like he had lost his lungs.
"We usually let writers stay."
"Not a writer. But when I was in university many years ago, I studied literature. I don't know if that counts."
"No, it doesn't. But I like you, so you can bed down anyway. Think you can operate a cash register a couple of hours every day?"
And so it was that home for Sidney became a flimsy cot on the second floor of the bookshop amidst musty old books. With his six-foot-two inch frame overhanging the edge of the bed, he could look out the window and see massive Notre Dame Cathedral. His throat constricted.
Over the next few weeks, when he wasn't working the cash at Shakespeare & Co., Sidney did the tourist thing. He took day trips to Versailles, Giverney and Chartres Cathedral, learning words like billets, departs, arrives, aller-retour in the process. He visited Van Gogh's house in Montmartre, Napolean's Tomb beneath the golden dome of Les Invalides church, drank an absinthe in the Moulin Rouge and coffee in Les Deux Magots café. He walked the Champs Elysees and ascended the two hundred and thirty steps of the Arc de Triomphe. He spent days in the Louvre and half a day in the Musee D'Orsay. He visited grand churches and wandered the grounds of Pere Lachaise Cemetary, where he stood before the graves of Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Chopin and Gertrude Stein. He joined organized walking tours of the city. They were a great way to get to know the city and, moreover, cheap. There was a walk centred on Hemingway's Paris. Still another on famous churches. Then an art walk through the Picasso Museum and Rodin Museum. The one Sidney liked best was called "Paris is a Woman" that revolved around famous women of Paris—Colette, Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, Coco Chanel, Jospehine Baker. He walked in the park below Colette's windows and took tea at the same place as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
"It's all good," he told George one day. "A slice of heaven."
"Be careful," warned George. "It's not all a panacea."
But it was, at least for Sidney Parsons. For the first time in years, he felt alive. He enlisted in an art class where he studied sketching and dabbled in paint. Bold yellows and reds and blues whirled and splashed on canvas in chaotic designs; Sidney knew he wasn't very good, but felt easy and loose in this new world, ephemeral…a world without gravity. Carrying his over-sized sketch book down the street, Sidney imagined he was walking in the footsteps of Modigliano and Chagall.
He made love to her at night and his movements were deft and skilful. Dissected her body time and again with a mortician's skill.
He lay between the wet sheets in the dingy room and thought: Sidney, you still have it.
This in itself was a grand revelation to him; for the past year, he had been having difficulty performing for his wife.
He dressed, handed the prostitute two one-hundred Canadian dollar bills, and went out into the night air, completely sated and at peace with himself.
Sidney didn't have much money, but didn't need a lot. He bought a used bike and ate whatever food was available; there were snacks in the bookstore, brought in by patrons. He ate candy bars for dinner. And read a lot. Good books by Emile Zola, Camus, Orwell, Milan Kundera and others.
At the bookstore, Sidney met a steady stream of interesting people—actors, writers, artists, tour guides, dancers, students, tourists, the professor of literature who wore the same stained tweed jacket, even in the dog days of summer, and the punk guy who had dozens of metallic ringlets around his neck. Sidney wondered whether his neck might now be permanently elongated, like those slinky figures in Modigliano paintings. Sidney enjoyed hearing their stories. They were infinitely more interesting than his old colleagues at the bank.
The other advantage the bookstore afforded was that he could work on his sketches or paintings. "Multi-tasking," he told George, who didn't seem to mind at all, figuring an artist at the cash, even a terrible one, added some panache to the store.
One day, as Sidney was adding globs of pink and black onto a white canvas, a woman strode in. Her gait was much more hurried than the patrons who normally frequented the store.
"Je cherche un livre…"
Seeing the overly-attentive look on Sidney's face, she abruptly switched to impeccable English.
"I'm looking for a book on designing for small spaces," she said. "You know, basements."
"Je parle francais," countered Sidney.
"I'm sure you do but, you know, I'm in a hurry and I just thought I would help you out."
"Well, we have some books on architecture and design. There might be something there. I'll show you where that is."
As Sidney led her to the alcove where the books were located, he noticed the woman's fingertips were stained yellow; they were also shaking. In fact, her whole body seemed to be quivering.
Sidney stood by as the woman leafed through the selection.
"I didn't think there were many basement apartments in Paris," he commented.
"There aren't. But I found one and just moved in. It's ok except that you have to watch your head. Ceilings are low, you know."
The woman's name was Mona. Sidney found out she was a part-time dancer, part-time artist.
When she found a thin book on decorating basements and attic spaces, Sidney let her have the book for free and paid the money into the till himself.
"I can't believe my good luck," she smiled at him. "Can I do something for you?"
"How about going out pour un café? I mean, if you want to."
Mona scrutinized Sidney's lanky frame. "Seriously?"
"But you're a bad artist and you're old enough to be my father."
"It's just a coffee."
"Then monsieur, it's a date."
They met in the middle of Ponts des Arts. Mona was wearing a purple cowboy hat and a long peasant dress and Sidney wore what he had always worn since arriving in Paris—jeans, a T-shirt, and black and white running shoes, all picked up at second-hand clothing stores in town.
"You've brought your bike, Sidney."
"My only form of transportation here."
"And back home?"
"Oh, I had a car there. Two, actually. All the middle-class trappings."
The native Parisian and the ex-pat Canadian exchanged pleasantries and laughed. They ventured over to the Jewish Quarter where they shared a kosher pizza at Jo Goldenberg's deli, then over to the cobbled pedestrian Rue Cler for some fruit tarts at Tarte Julie.
"You realize that you, you…what's that word…backed out of your promise," exclaimed Mona.
"Yes, that's it, you reneged on your promise."
"I don't understand."
"This was a coffee date and we haven't had any." And with a vow to rectify that omission, the two kissed briefly and parted company.
The following week, a real coffee date was arranged. The day couldn't come soon enough for Sidney. He genuinely liked Mona, her energy, self-deprecating humour and, moreover, she was une artiste—exactly what he wanted. And the kiss, well, it lingered on in his mind, unlike any he had exchanged with his wife.
Sidney rode his bike over, navigating around a couple of broken beer bottles. He had never been to this part of the city before. He sped by the hookers standing on street corners, each one trying to get his attention by hitching up her skirt.
Finally, he stopped in front of a derelict warehouse marked with graffiti, walked to the rear, and found rickety iron stairs leading down. Appropriate space for an artist, he thought to himself.
He rang the bell. Ten minutes passed before Mona came to the door, and when she did Sidney was aghast at her appearance—dark circles encapsulated her eyes and her hair was stringy and unwashed. It looked like she hadn't slept in days. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's not the best day for me."
Sidney stood rooted to the spot. The unmistakable smell of dope permeated the air. He felt like a moron, holding onto a plastic bag that contained "le-croque monsieur" sandwiches, coffee, sugar and cream.
The apartment was less an apartment than a wine cellar. Earthen floor and wine racks built into the walls into which Mona kept her rolled-up sketches.
Sidney handed Mona the plastic bag. "Food," he said, disheartened. "A grilled ham, Gruyere and béchamel sandwich. Coffee."
Mona looked at him through bleary eyes.
"I'm an addict," she sighed. "Do you want to leave? If you do, it's no problem. I understand."
Mona had been a crack addict for three years. In order to support her habit, she took a job as a stripper. Sidney decided he would help. With him at her side, she could beat the drugs and realize her goal of becoming a full-time artist. First on his agenda was to get her moved out of the cold, dumpy cellar. All the design books in the world couldn't help her decorate that place.
But there was a problem. Unlike back in Toronto where he had many resources available to him, here he had none. No money, no prospects, no pull.
He rearranged his work hours at the bookstore and hooked up with a crew of itinerant workers that did manual labour under the table. Mostly illegal immigrants. He figured that a month or two at that would allow him to pay for a decent apartment for Mona.
Each day he showed up for work at six a.m. One day he laid sod at a park, another he filled orders at an automotive parts plant. He lifted heavy objects and cleaned toilets and gutted fish. If he was lucky, the job lasted three days. More often than not, they lasted a single day. Sidney didn't mind the grimy work, but found some of his co-workers intolerable. They were crude, uneducated sorts, prone to telling lewd jokes and saying inane things. Sidney resorted to playing dumb.
During these months of intense labour, Sidney visited Mona often, bringing food. He forced himself to go to the squalid cellar to deliver it so that he would be certain she was eating properly. If she were healthy and strong, it might be easier for her to kick the crack addiction. Nut bread, cheeses, eggs, fruits, soups and vegetables. Lamb. Roasted chicken. Red mullet and baby mackerel. Sometimes he made special trips to Jo Goldenberg to pick up the pastrami sandwiches and blintzes that she was a big fan of.
After two and a half months, Sidney had saved enough for the first few months rent for an apartment. A small but decent one, located in the Marais District above a store, not far from the Jewish Quarter.
Sidney's lower back started to give him trouble. It seized up at times and caused him to double over. It was the cot at the bookstore—there was no support. Adequate for a twenty-year old passing through the city, but not for a forty-four year old man sleeping on it for months. All the physical labor was also wearing him down; his bones ached all over.
He bought her hand-painted plates and cups as a gift for the new apartment. They went out onto the balcony to watch the sun set behind the Seine.
"I've signed you up at an addiction withdrawal clinic. It's free and I want you to go," he implored.
"I can go," she said. Sidney moved in closer for a kiss. He lingered in his bliss a little too long and aggressively and Mona gently pushed him away. Sidney leaned over the rail, swooning. Wanting to blow kisses to the crowds below.
With Mona firmly entrenched in their new apartment, Sidney cut back his manual labour to three days a week. He would have liked to give it up entirely, but needed the money, for Mona, but also for therapy for his wonky back.
One evening, two and a half months after Mona moved into her new apartment, Sidney decided to pay her a surprise visit. From a chocolaterie, he bought a dozen nugget-sized chocolates, filled with cream and fruits and herbs. She deserved the treat—she assured Sidney she had been working hard at breaking her drug habit, going to the withdrawal clinic twice a week.
He bounded up the steps leading to the apartment, taking them two at a time. He stopped outside the door and hesitated. There was a peculiar smell coming from within, one he recognized at once. Instead of knocking, he slowly opened the door a crack with a key. There in the living room, he saw Mona sprawled on the pullout sofa bed. Wispy strands of smoke surrounded her. An open wine bottle rested on a night table. Sidney stood watching. Every now and then Mona would take a drag on the pipe and her head would loll back, like a rag doll.
Sidney quietly closed the door. Outside, he drove his bike in a daze to the Pont Marie. The bridge was teeming with people, but no one seemed to notice when he opened the box of chocolates and flung them into the water.
Raw, every nerve in his body exposed. His eyes misted over. He tried to collect his thoughts. How could he be so naïve as to believe that he might have some sort of future with a drug addict? Where had he gone wrong? He was no Mother Teresa. Why had he expended so much of himself to such a project that was doomed to fail? He had no answers. What he did know was that George was right; it wasn't all fun and games here. It was no panacea.
He called his wife from a phone booth.
"How have you been?" he asked.
"Getting used to you not being here. What about you?"
"Up and down. Right now, not so good. But mostly fine," he replied. "So tell me, what's new?"
"I had a bacterial infection in my arm so I've been on antibiotics for the past week."
Sidney quietly sighed. "That's too bad."
"What have you been up to?"
"Lots of sight-seeing. Learning French."
"How're your crying spells?"
"I think they're gone. There's not much to cry about here."
The answer set her off. "And I suppose there was a lot to cry about here?"
"I can see where this is going," he replied without missing a beat. "And I'm not going there, quite frankly."
Neither was she. The dial tone rang in Sidney's ear like a bunch of angry hornets.
The sound of the lifeless thing dropping into the Seine attracted the attention of onlookers. A small geyser erupted and subsided. Swallowed by black wrinkled water. Then the river was still.
A little girl stepped forward, her face contorted into a crying mask.
"Monsieur, pourquoi vous avez jettez votre bicyclette dans l'eau?"
Sidney pretended not to hear, but snuck a glance. She was six, maybe seven. Pale, watery, green eyes set on a wide forehead. Freckles sprinkled on her nose. Tiny hands and feet. A pink cotton dress with frilly trim.
He wanted to say something that would assuage her tears, but could think of nothing and turned away. The child tugged on his shirt, bringing Sidney to his haunches. He could see the girl's mother a few feet away and nodded sullenly.
"Only my bike is gone," said Sidney, trembling.
The girl gave him a brief look of confusion and then flashed a gap-toothed smile.
Sidney grinned. His heart was still thumping and he took two deep breaths.
The child's mother came over and took her hand.
"She's very precocious," she said to Sidney.
"Not a problem."
As the girl was led away, she continued looking over her shoulder at Sidney. That face: sweetly peaceful, borne of endless possibilities.
Good for her, he thought, but it doesn't help me.
Sidney put one leg over the railing and straddled the bridge. Such a dismal grey day, overcast and drizzly. The late afternoon light refracted through raindrops.
Sidney looked at the people who had gathered close by. Shocked, concerned faces. He signalled with a slight movement of his arm. "It's all right," he wanted to shout, but no words came out.
There was no design to his life, he knew that. The problem wasn't his wife or the bank or even Paris—it was him, Sidney Parsons. What he wanted, what he needed most of all, was faith. Something to believe in, to embrace; everything felt like an abstraction. What exactly he should have faith in, he had no idea. Perhaps just himself. Ah, but maybe it was simpler than that…a mid-life crisis and nothing more. No metaphysical leanings, no dark nights of the soul.
A light mist accumulated on his head. He gazed once more at the worried faces on the bridge; where had they been all these years? Actors. Actors! A performance intended to show him he was important. And just then, just as he was contemplating the falseness of those around him, he had slid his body onto the river's side of the railing and made up his mind to jump. Sidney realized quite suddenly that he had been falling a very long time.
About the Author
Jerry Levy resides in Toronto, Ontario. His short stories have appeared in many literary magazines and anthologies, including The Nashwaak Review, All Rights Reserved, Pilot Pocket Book VII, Steel Bananas' Gulch anthology, The Flaneur, Acta Victoriana, Ten Stories High and Lowestoft Chronicle, amongst others. He is currently seeking a publisher for a collection. He can be found at: http://facebook.com/jerry.levy99.