I had no idea how long we’d been on the bus, only that I’d fallen asleep somewhere in-between the rolling green peas and our emergence into the City of Light. The boat-lag oscillated between my head and stomach while my eyes opened to a fraction of the enchanted view I’d only previously seen through French in Action and Rick Steves’ Europe videos. Crazy three-wheeled cars and speeding Vespas whizzed and buzzed around our bulky caravan, which mimicked the awkwardness of its 30 or so 16-year-old passengers from the swamp, only recently having matured slightly via the theatres, museums and sparkling tourist attractions of London.
We were allotted about 20 minutes to settle into the dank, muted rooms of this new city before the busy four-day schedule would kick in, a program of more museums plus cathedrals, cafés and fast-food restaurants reminiscent of McDonald’s but serving beer, not on our list of parent-approved substances. Wine was though. And closing my eyes, I can almost imagine that first sip of the dry and sexy elixir on my tongue. It was necessary to chase the rock-hard baguette softened little by the salty, slowly cooked sauces. I would grow to love the taste of wine. Little did our parents know when signing away a one-glass ok that it would translate into a bottle per night, or to whatever was available during a game of Quarters that final evening of our stay. Even Martha, the librarian chaperone, was wasted, screaming “Bonjour, mes amis!” somewhere around 2am.
This city, that would become my first love, and end up more of a mistress than a wife, invoked a freedom I’d never known, and would forever pursue. Freedom, that’s what I felt, freedom. To breathe. To dance. To speak a language that felt natural even if the only words I wasn’t too shy to mutter were Bonjour and Merci. To be whomever I wanted. This was the real me, and I didn’t even know it yet. Discovering streets made for walking, made for shopping, made for gawking. Ghosts past breathed, laughed, drank, danced, beckoned through my fingertips each time I touched a stone pillar, inhaled Notre Dame frankincense, braved crossing a busy boulevard, dodged dog shit on the trottoir and crunched a hot croissant, butter dripping down my chin. I was free, sashaying my way, scented in Anaïs Anaïs and sporting the zip-up/down jean miniskirt my French teacher turned me in for wearing back at school. “I don’t care what you wear here,” she quipped, seeing me clothed in what I thought worked nicely as fashion-capital mode. The Parisian boys seemed to like it, and boy did I like them. Silky brown hair, soft lips, dark eyes casting clichéd yet meaningful glances across crowded rooms. I was noticed, for the first time, and I liked it. The crusty older men in that one smoky jazz bar that mistook Susan and me for prostitutes don’t count. Maybe Mrs. Cyphert was right; that skirt was too short after all. But those other two guys, the last night, I still feel guilty for making out with the ugly one. I know Susan wanted him. It’s just that the cute one was so boring with his serious stories about this monument and that royal. He wouldn’t make a move. I just wanted to kiss. It was all that wine, I think, and missing the boy I’d already met in London, and of course being in the city of love. I wonder where Jacques, the ugly one, is now. Still posing torso-nue on a balcony somewhere off Avenue de Wagram in nothing but a towel and a smile, I’m sure.
The hotel we stayed in is long gone. But my love affair lingers. Now the rush is no longer about dodging the scooters, the dog shit or the desperate old men, but in rediscovering myself, reviving my 16-year-old voice, meeting up with my old, and forever beautiful mistress, Paname. She isn’t as nice to me as she was then. But then I’ve neglected her. And we have both taken on a few years. But love never fades. No, I would be just as excited if I saw her today, so familiar and still sexy after all these years. She calls out to me, and circumstances confine me to instead live with her distant cousin, miles westward. It is not my choice to be so far away, but I promise I’ll see her again. I know, it sounds like something a married man would say. I would love to be with you, but I can’t leave my wife, my kids. One day. One day. Just be patient, my darling. And I curse my cowardice, and I curse the world for not being fair. And I curse the married men I’ve known and trusted, along with the bitterness I felt for them, not realizing I am in their same position now. For one of the best days of my life was meeting my one true love. Maybe time is telling me the moment has come to return to my mistress, my beautiful Paris. Je t’aime. Bonjour and merci.