Paris is empty. There’s no one left except the tourists and the Chinese. All the Parisians and even the other expats are in the south, or in Spain, or on the Côte. Everything’s closed; not one event scheduled until September. Even the blogs and guidebook sites I shoot for are quiet this time of year. I’ve taken every possible photo of Paris. There’s not much to do except walk around and look at shuttered doors. I’m the only person I know who has enough money to live in Paris, but not enough to leave it.
I know I should get out of the house and remind myself why I live in this town, outside of le douchebag who dumped me two weeks after I arrived and ten months of freelancing to prove I didn’t come here for him. So I go. I walk outside and the sounds of motorized scooters and church bells fill my ears, and Place Jules Joffrin is full of people who either have nothing to do, nowhere to go or they’re drug dealers exchanging stuffed handshakes.
Everyone is on my nerves today. All the slow walkers and people who stop in the middle of the sidewalk, the woman on the Métro who leans her entire sweaty, sexy body on the pole even after I put my hand on it to keep balance, the screaming children throwing fits on the train, the hippie twin sisters harmonizing over an acoustic version of “Losing My Religion” at Pigalle. When I first arrived, I’d found Métro musicians so charming. Now they look to me as much like a tourist trap as the Moulin Rouge, drawing in lollygagging Instagrammers like so many glittering cabaret dancers.
It’s also one of those days when all of the crazy people are out. This happens sometimes, when it seems like every strange person has crawled out of his hole and come up to see the sunlight and pass leering gazes my way. It’s not just the homeless people, propped up against the closed doors of boulangeries, their rusted faces pinched and swollen, their chapped lips and cupped hands begging for money. It’s the functional weirdos too – the deformed midgets and bugged-eyed men, and people with whole-face birthmarks, all of whom hobble my way as I transfer from the 12-train to the 2. It’s the orange-tanned woman with straw-dry hair wearing an equally orange bodysuit walking down the street with her cowboy boyfriend, who wears a Stetson hat and spiked leather boots in summer. It’s the impossibly thin hipster who wears pants so tight I can see his dick tucked up to the right.
It’s easy to tell when this mood descends. You see the first strange face and you think, “Don’t stare.” You see the second one and think, “That’s odd.” And by the third strange face you know: it’s going to be one of those days, or nights, and you clutch your purse closer and keep your eyes open.
Don’t get me wrong; it can be fun sometimes, when the crazies are out, because the city has a different energy to it and because not all of them are dangerous. Sometimes if you go out on one of those nights and just watch people being, those are the nights you collect the good photos, as the weirdos jump off lamp posts or start making out with strangers. Sometimes I’m the stranger. Sometimes the crazy is sexual, and on those nights, invariably hot nights, the beats of everyone’s hearts pound close to their skin and their sweat emits a kind of “ready, go” signal. But usually when I see the crazies out, I don’t want to bother, I don’t want to get hurt so I just cross to the other side of the street and stay in for the night.
Belleville is a ghost town. Streets that, in July, were so crowded with people that cars couldn’t get through are now deserted, silent, and the one man I see walking down the cobbled, sloped street looks at me strangely too, as though I don’t belong here now, in Paris, in August. Why aren’t you at the beach? Eventually I find a place that’s open, a little art bar I’ve been to before where the pints are only three euros. During the normal months they have poetry readings, but today I’m the only customer. I decide to read a book. I get bored right away. My mind and my eyes wander, and I stare at the girl working there. She is very young and very pretty, and she leans her sinewy, effortless body over the counter as she scrolls through her phone. She’s wearing bright red lipstick and as I finish paying my bill she holds my eyes for a long moment, and her eyes are very pale, and very blue. My eyes drift down to her lips and I want to lick them like the tip of a cherry popsicle.
That night I go to a jazz club in the Marais. Lara is in Barcelona and Sophia is in America and I haven’t seen my roommate in days, so I go alone. This is the place where Sophia met her Italian violinist, and I have the hope of something, anything, happening, but not much does. The jazz is okay, but it’s missing something, that jazz thing nobody can quite name. A kind of blind passion, I guess, one that Parisians are either lacking or saving for discussions of politics. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Frenchie dance.
I stay out late enough and drink three whiskeys and catch the last Métro home, which is filled with drunk teenagers and tired-looking Arabs. My eyes blur at station after station and I make myself stand to keep awake, even though there are plenty of seats, and a man with beady, dark eyes near the other door catches my eye and I look away.
When I get off at Simplon I notice he gets off too, and I slow down while I climb the stairs to let him pass me. He slows down too, though, and stays behind me as I come out into the night. I walk down a dark, empty street and I feel him a few steps behind me and I get freaked out and duck into La Timbale to get away. I sit at my usual corner table, drinking another whiskey and watching the street outside and listening to men slur their nasal, throaty words. I wonder when Marc, the usual bartender, will be back from vacation. I stay for an hour, until I can go home and pass out, into a dream of being grabbed by the arm and dragged onto an even darker, emptier street.
The feeling continues into the next day, and the air has a slanted hue to it, a kind of warm gasp on the wind. I know there is something I used to like here; something beyond cliché and beyond alcohol. I decide to go sit at a café and look at people because it must be better than staying at home. At Simplon I pass my Navigo and go through the turnstile and some teenage kid hops over and pushes his body against mine to get in on my ticket. I give him a look and mutter “Putain” because I don’t know how to say, “Listen, you punk-ass bitch, if I have to pay, you have to pay” in French. I’ll look that up and practice it later.
The 4-train, its seats facing each other in sets of four, is crowded with people who don’t move in or guys who sit long and stretch out their legs around mine to give their balls some space. Doesn’t my crotch need space? Why should I be the one to tuck my legs in or cross them whenever some guy feels the need to stretch out? I close my body into its most compact form so that I don’t have to touch anyone. All the black people get on at Château Rouge, more at Barbès and Gare du Nord, where they’re joined by tall Swedes with duffel bags and long blond hair. The Goute d’Or riders always smell the same, their spicy North African scent filling the car the same way their voices do as they shout across the aisles at each other. The women wear brightly colored robes with matching headscarves, or their hair in tight braids that they had woven in at the coiffure on Barbés, or Caulaincourt, or Doudeauville. By Chateau d’Eau they’ve all cleared out and the train is quiet again, and I don’t know where I’ll get off but I guess it’ll be whenever I feel inspired, or get sick of the testicles brushing against my knees.
At a café near Jardin du Luxembourg I watch a parade of selective humanity pass before me. Fat Americans, their rolls of flesh heaving as they walk down yet another street, wearing backpacks and fanny packs and wraparound sunglasses and souvenir t-shirts that say “ST. TROPEZ” and shorts that squeeze their thighs in, spilling out above their put-upon, dimpled knees, their sandaled ankles.
The tourists hold hands on their cheap trip to Paris in the off-season, and the crazies mingle in amongst them like salt into sugar. They haunt the tourists like greedy ghosts, a hand in every foreign pocket, and I think that maybe they are the real Parisians after all, the ones who stay when no one else wants to, who never know the inside of a hotel room.
I take a furtive snapshot of an old man who looks like a monk, a homeless monk, with a shiny bald head and a wise white beard that fluffs over his potato sack robe, voluminous over whatever he has hidden and strapped close to his body. And a man walking his bicycle, who has an earphone speaker attachment but seems to just be talking to himself. There’s a three-year-old boy who looks shell-shocked, his dirty face streaked with dried tears, his eyes wide, his mouth agape, silent. Then there are slutty American girls wearing short-shorts and tank tops, and then I realize I’m wearing shorts and a tank top, but at least my shirt’s tucked in and the shorts are ironed.
As I’m walking back toward the train, my hair sticking to my forehead and the back of my neck, I stop into the Saint-Sulpice church. After almost a year I’ve never been inside, and the centuries-old stones must keep it cool, so I check it out. It is massive, as hollow as I am, and smells the same way all Catholic churches do: like incense and guilt. But all the stained glass is in muted colors of pale green and soft beige, and the feeling of sacredness bypasses my body and I’m not impressed so I leave.
I continue on a quiet street near the church, walking close to the wall to avoid bumping into the meandering tourists. I’m looking at the ground and dodging bodies when there comes a man in my path. I move one way to pass him and he moves the same way. I move the other way but the wall is there. I look up to excuse myself and give a polite “Shall we dance?” smile, but before I can, he lifts his hand and hits me across the face so hard that my sunglasses fly off and into the street. The world becomes very bright. I look up at him and wonder what I should do. What a normal person would do.
I begin to laugh. I laugh so hard that I double over and reach for the sunglasses. I laugh so hard that I begin to cry. I’m laughing, and crying, and then I’m not sure which is heavier on my face and in my throat and filling my chest. The sting on my cheekbone begins to throb and I know I’m turning red. He watches me with hollow, hopeless eyes and I say to him in English, “What the fuck?” He doesn’t look homeless, or even poor. There are no frayed edges to his shirt and his tennis shoes are clean, maybe a few months old. He just stares at me with those eyes, so blurred between rage and a desperate sadness.
But this is not my first time being hit. This is not even the hardest slap my face has taken. My college boyfriend and I would hurt each other much worse than this when we’d get drunk and have slapping contests at the bar. Suddenly I miss him like crazy. Where is he, where is everyone I love? Where is everyone when I need them?
I laugh again, bitterly, and hold my chin up to the man. “Vas-y,” I dare him. Go on. I beckon him with my fingers. “Vas-y, motherfucker. Encore!”
But he just stares at me. He stands so still; I’ve never been as still as him in all my life. Before I can think it through, with the precision of many drunken nights of practice, my hand is flying toward this man’s face and I feel the satisfying contact of palm to cheek. But it’s not the cheek of someone I thought I loved, or someone I trusted, or someone whose cheek I’ve felt beside my own. It is sweaty and jowly and unfamiliar. But by the time this sad thought passes through my mind the man has grabbed my wrist, bared his teeth and is shouting something I can’t understand and with his other hand he slaps me again, straight onto my reddened cheekbone. Spots flash white in my eyes.
I swallow and take a breath. “Vas-y,” I feel myself mumble, my head down, as he continues to hold my wrist. He hesitates, and I smell him breathing down on me and out of the corner of my eye I see his fist ball and release, less sure of himself, maybe floating up somewhere nearer to sanity. I look up into his eyes.
“Vas-y!” I scream one more time, and he hits me one more time and this time it works. I feel the skin break open like a universe bursting into being, my cheek wet with spilled stars, and I can’t see anything, and it hurts in its numbness but I take it. I take it like a baby that’s just been born and can’t yet breathe on her own.
When the man walks away, as casually as if he’d shaken the hand of a friend three times in a row, a handful of people come over to me, finally, and ask, “Ça va? Ça va?” I hear a Southern woman walking past saying, “Oh my Lord.” I touch my face and the skin itself is pounding and bleeding and I wonder how bad I look. I’m surprised my purse is still hanging from my shoulder. He didn’t even want to rob me, I think. Maybe he was just as sick of stupid American girls as I am.
The people around me are asking questions, touching my shoulder carefully, but I brush them off. “Laisse-moi, laisse-moi,” I manage, let me go, and I walk away in a daze. I don’t know where I’m going, and I never really do. I never know where to go, I never know, I never know. This place is nothing but twisted streets and being lost and having nothing and needing to be okay with it. I wander toward the setting sun and after a few minutes I notice my fingers ache from clutching my purse so tightly. I cry and I laugh again and the fact that I’m laughing makes me cry.
I come to a clearing, a patch of grass, a park, and I realize I’ve ended up at the Champs de Mars. I sit on the grass and watch everyone around me. It isn’t too crowded. A man sells me some wine and I sip it from the bottle while the sun hovers low, glowing gold and sneaking behind the trees. The air is still and quiet. The lawn is calm. There are honeymooners kissing and backpacking college kids laughing and people smiling for photos in front of their dream. Someday they’ll say to each other, “That time we went to Paris…”
I lie down and put my swollen cheek to the cool grass. Everything is shaking from my neck down, and everything above hurts, bruised and blooming red. But in my edges of broken skin I feel every single wisp of passing summer air, the light touch of hot wind like secret lips, and my shocked heart pushing blood to the surface, reaching for air, reaching for sun, reaching for touch, and the whole of my skin pulses, and pounds, and is so alive.
I watch the day turn into night. When the darkness comes and the tower lights up, everyone gasps at the same time and some people applaud. The echo of clapping hands bounces across the lawn, and I get that old wondrous feeling inside, the same way each time as the first time. Tomorrow is September. Maybe I’ll get a bike.