a return

We slipped out late last night and had chocolate dessert at the French bar. M. drank coffee and watched me nurse a pink mon cher.

This is how they do it in Paris, I joked as I took a forkful of warm, dense cake to my lips. Just a few weeks away, our trip. The thought of it makes my heart race.

The last time we were in Paris was in winter. It was cold and we were not prepared. On the day we landed, freezing rain, and we wandered the streets of the city, disoriented, confused, chilled through.

Do you remember how we saw a fight break out in the street, he asks. And we laugh at the image I had forgotten. How we stood back, dumb and open-mouthed, clutching the bags we carried, as the men went at each other, shouting and throwing punches.

Mostly I remember the cold. And how blessed was the steam rising up from tiny cups of café au lait that we sipped in the museum shops, where we took refuge from the crowded streets, the icy wind.

And I remember how we tried to see the things we were supposed to see, but how it was difficult to be in the presence of such things: the mythology, the weight of them.

I am all mythology and weightiness these days. Living in imagination, too steeped in expectation. It is exhausting, I think, to live too much in dreams.

We stood in line for hours outside the Louvre and when we finally got in, more lines, longer lines. We marched in single file past the Mona Lisa, so tiny behind layers of glass. The roped lines snaked around and doubled back seemingly endless, recursive. M. stood aside in a kind of protest. I pleaded with him to stand in line with me: This is not how I imagined it would be  – but instead, he waited for me to walk past, barely seeing – and then we moved on. I could not tell you a single detail of what I saw.

Beneath the statue of Charles de Gaulle, we fought and pouted. We had lost our way, again. We had stopped taking pictures, no longer sure what we would want to remember.

To look and then to not look is the only way to really see a thing, he said. But by that time, we were barely speaking.

How is it possible to imagine Paris? The images you have seen – multiplied, consumed. The idea of it – its mythology – unreal, magical. Dreamlike.

The way you imagine it: in love. In love with the idea of love. In love with the imagining of love.

This: Walking the Champs Elysees in the late afternoon, as the sky turns dark.

And this: Being held beneath the Arc de Triomphe as night falls.

And also this: Being taken – hungrily, urgently, breathlessly – against the ancient stone of the arches of the Pont Neuf, the Seine flowing past, timeless.

The way imagination can become memory and back again.

When we return to Paris, ten years will have passed. We are the same, but we are not the same. These lives that we have lived. The things that we had feared that have come to pass. The things that we had hoped for, prayed for, that also have come to pass. 

To look at a thing, and then to not look. To look away and then back. 

And then, there was this: New Year’s Eve on the Place de la Concorde. How we walked all those long city blocks from our hotel. When we grew tired, we stopped for coffee and a croque madame, but then walked on again until we reached the river. The ferris wheel was aglow in the distance. The Roue de Paris. And when we counted down, we were one with the crowd, and we cheered at the top of our voices as the old year slipped into the new. Our bodies – bundled and wrapped, but close, so close. The streets were so quiet on the way back to the hotel. The pitch black night and cold.