Le Metro

Baker’s Pick
Valaer Murray

Paris was still dark when her plane arrived. Cornelia waited at the baggage carousel with the other, mostly French passengers, some of whom she’d glimpsed sleeping or en route to the bathroom during the flight. Compared to the bustle of JFK, she noticed how empty De Gaulle was at dawn as she waited for the clanking belt to serve up her red suitcase. It was part of the cherry-colored set her parents bought her before she went to Greece, the same suitcase that she had packed while Michel watched, sprawled on the bed in the hotel in Ipsos. Down two escalators and onto the ground floor, the taxi signs got muddled, so she stopped to look around for a moment. A grey-haired man in a navy sports coat rose from a bench near her.

“Taxi? You want taxi?”

Cornelia followed him to an elevator even though she felt sure that the taxis were on the ground floor. Then a young North African guy, dressed in a big, hooded jacket, appeared behind the supposed taxi driver. He jutted his chin at the man, shook his head quickly, and walked off. She turned away and ran towards the escalator, stopping a woman in the hall who pointed her in the direction of the taxi stand.

The cold morning chilled the sheen of sweat on her forehead when she stepped onto the curb around which a long line of taxis curved. The drivers swarmed her as she dug in her pocket for the address she had scrawled on a scrap of paper before she left. She looked in her purse, then her coat pocket, then in the outside compartments of her suitcase. One driver spoke over her shoulder in English, “Where you go, miss?”

“I don’t know!” she wailed. “I can’t find the address.”

He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. “Number?” The taxi driver dialed the number that Cornelia had memorized over the past year. “Hi, it’s me. I’m here!”

“Ohhh good. I am so happy.” He yawned and said something else that she couldn’t understand through his thick accent.

“I lost the address. What is it?”

When the taxi driver heard her mincing pronunciation of Rue la Bruyere, he nodded and led her to his taxi parked in the back of the line. Two other taxi drivers began to follow them shouting in French. The driver calmly walked towards the car, not answering the men yelling at him. He put the luggage in the trunk and said to her, “Get in. Quick.” Cornelia obeyed.

Settled in the backseat, she tingled as her arrival washed over her. After months of scrimping and canned soup for dinner, she was finally here, for a whole week. It was all the vacation time she was going to squeeze out of Bianca, her boss and PR maven, who always managed to catch Cornelia daydreaming. The staccato drum of Bianca’s nails on her desk often snapped her out of reveries about seeing Michel again, recalling his hug or smile. To pass the oozing hours between typing up press releases, she imagined being discovered by one of the agents or managers that were in and out of the publicists’ offices, although coming to Paris seemed like much more of a real possibility and therefore more appealing. When she told her friends that she had finally bought her plane ticket, they took celebratory vodka shots with her, telling her that there was nothing more romantic than being in love in Paris. Tipsy, they giggled and said that she’d probably never come back, that she’d get married and have little French babies. Cornelia smiled with them and chewed the end of a tendril of hair, smoking cigarette after cigarette.

She had first seen Michel on a crowded Greek bus that she and her friend were taking into town. In August, the buses on the narrow island roadways teemed with noisy Italian teenagers and gaggles of sunburnt English girls. He had scruffy hair and an easy grin on his tanned face. His eyes smiled as well, and he wore khaki shorts, a white T-shirt and shell-top Adidas—timeless. The two of them spent the last five days of her vacation hand-in-hand, talking and napping on the rocky beaches and riding around the island on his rented Vespa. Her friend, it turned out, had found a Greek bartender she spent her days with, and Michel’s friends liked to wander off and talk to girls in cafes, so he and Cornelia settled into that snug, ardent couple-dom found only on vacation, when love dangles in the present, shrugging off the weight of the future.

During their intense good-bye at the small island airport, he held her hand and told her he loved her then waited at the gate until Cornelia’s friend pulled her through the door. They made every promise to keep in touch, but after she got back to the States, the fever of it subsided. She was busy moving into a new apartment and catching up at work, but on her birthday in October, he called her, and they spent the winter emailing and sending little gifts with poems and baby photos, sketches done from memory and pressed flowers.

Eight months later, they were going to see each other, and she was a desert succulent ready to burst. During long hours in front of her computer screen, she had planned out their life: the intimate ceremony atop a cliff on the Greek island, the small flat in Paris, the move back to New York after a few years, a whole life arranged precisely like the inside of a dollhouse. Uneasiness had lodged itself in her chest, plucking strings like a cello beneath her ribcage. The cab pulled up in front of a narrow building in the 9th arrondissement near Pigalle, and getting out of the taxi, she saw him rush across the street towards her. He looked anxiously in her direction as he waited in the middle of the road while a car passed, and suddenly he was there, giving her a tight hug, thanking the driver, gathering her bags. As they crossed the street, he put his arm around her shoulders and they beamed at each other—a smile of relief.

In the elevator Michel kissed her with a hard bite that surprised her and pushed her against the mirror. He stepped back and examined her face, which grew hot as she felt his eyes moving down her nose, slight and pert like a mandarin orange slice, to her pointy, witch’s chin to her pride, the lustrous brown hair that came down to just above her small, round breasts. “You look the same. So cute,” he said. She smiled, unexpectedly shy standing in front of him, and fidgeted with his coat zipper. “So do you.” His hair was longer but still scruffy, standing up on one side from the pillow, and he appeared older or maybe his face was puffy because he had just woken up. Then he said, “The flat, it is my cousin’s. He is in Saint Tropez so we can stay here for the week.”

Typically European, he lived with his parents, a dentist and a waitress, in a middle class neighborhood of the 12th arrondissement. In the living room of the strange bachelor’s pad, hung with animal skins and outfitted with a snake in its cage, they sat on the leather couch, pivoted towards each other awkwardly.

“How was the, eh, trip?”

“Fine. Long,” she paused. “I can’t believe I’m here with you after so much time.”

“It is crazy. I know.” They smiled at each other and he squeezed her hand.

“I was so nervous coming here,” she said, snuggling against him. “I didn’t know if it would be like I had pictured or if you would be the same as I remembered.”

“Ah cherie, no worries. I am the same. You are the same, perhaps more beautiful even.”

He leaned down to her, and, cupping the side of her face, kissed her slowly. It was easier to get the awkwardness out of the way with nakedness then settle into an ersatz intimacy. They had thirsty sex with little foreplay but an intense crescendo with one of her legs arched over his shoulder, and after he traced circles on her belly as he lay propped on his elbow, listening to her talk about her life in New York. There was a huge mirror on the wall at the foot of the bed in which she watched his hand loop over her skin, trying to configure her memories of Greece, the handwriting in the letters and the boy in front of her.

The next days were spent walking the city, fingers entwined, interspersed with sitting in little cafes, where they’d smile into each other’s eyes over the coffee and take time to examine each other’s palms. Like coyness, talk had fallen by the wayside, superfluous, and “I love you” was charged enough to exclude all other discussion. He took photos of her next to Hector Guimard’s cartoonish Metropolitain sign; in front of the Place de la Republique, traffic swirling behind her; at the doorway of the Notre Dame alongside a gaggle of other tourists. She never bothered to ask where they were headed—she just hitched onto his arm and was led through the semi-exotic, baroque terrain.

One afternoon, they went to his parents’ apartment so he could get a change of clothes. It was modest, smaller than she had pictured, with food smells lingering in the kitchen dinette cramped by a round table with its pot of silk flowers. The flurry of nerves she felt after arriving had settled in her belly like flattened, rolled out pancakes. Those streaming emotions now seeped and dribbled as she hovered between the reality of her being in Paris and the way she had imagined it, with neither existence seeming tangible. She envisioned his parents as absurd life-sized cutouts sitting at the table, and turning to him, she asked, “Am I going to meet your family at all?”

“Of course, if you want. We’ll come here Friday night for Shabbat. You know Shabbat?”

“Not really. It’s like the Jewish Sabbath, right?”

His mouth twitched into a smile. “Yes, we light some candles, eat some food. But you know, my parents, they don’t speak English.”

“Oh… okay.” She had expected them to speak English, to be very excited to have someone in the family to practice with, and pictured their mothers chatting on the phone every so often.

Riding the metro back, they noticed a duffel bag that seemed abandoned. Michel asked a few people if it belonged to them but nobody claimed it. “How could someone just forget a big bag like that?” Cornelia wondered aloud. She felt sorry for the dejected bag, imagining that someone had cast it off because it was too cumbersome and they didn’t want it anymore. “It is very strange,” he agreed. When they got off at their stop, he pulled her through the crowd, and as they reached the front of the train, he called out to the driver, pointing to the middle cars of the train where the bag lay.

“What did you say to him?”

“I told him there was a bag left there and that it might be a bomb or something.”

“A bomb?” She shivered even though it was hot inside the metro. He hugged her with one arm and kissed her forehead. “Don’t be scared, cherie,” he whispered. “I won’t,” she said, pausing. “We have to go shopping tomorrow.” There were souvenirs still to buy for her parents and friends. She adored finding the perfect postcard, a caprice of a scene that never looked that way in person, always brighter and more lucid on paper.

On a cloudy morning they arrived at the Eiffel Tower, complacent against the gray sky with its familiar form. In line, they refused the West African vendors’ dinky key chains, and once on the crowded elevator, they stuffed themselves into a corner. They smiled at each other, noses almost touching, at which instant she felt his hand edge down into her pants. The shock on her face made him laugh, and the silent tourists peered at the couple. She admired how direct he was, so unlike her, but sometimes his impulsiveness became aggression that broke the surface on Michel’s finish and made him seem untamable. Snuggled against the biting wind, they circled the platform, stopping at each corner to point out where they had been so far and lingering as Michel recounted his teenage pranks, like the time he and his friends stole a flower delivery truck and rode around the city, throwing the flowers out of the back to people on the sidewalk.

When he carved their names in a rail with a plus in between and encircled by a heart, she giggled and took a photo of it. Michel had used a small switchblade that he explained he’d been carrying with him ever since his cousin had gotten beat up by a crew of Arab boys. He told her about the mosque in his neighborhood being broken into and defaced, and the synagogue school that was burned the following day. Walking away, Cornelia took a last look, mentioning that the Tower looked skeletal and menacing. “This is a city of violence,” he said quietly.

The next day she went to the Louvre alone while he was at school taking an economics exam but was supposed to meet her nearby in the afternoon. With little direction or purpose, she swept through a few art-crammed rooms, and then, as if her will was left out to dry and gather dust, she sat wearily on a bench and stared at the couples passing by, wanting to be back in the folds of Michel’s black leather coat. Within their little universe, time and thought was suspended. When she waited in the line for the Mona Lisa, she watched to see how long people stood in front of the protective cube then once in front of the painting, she imitated the expressions on the faces around her, some awed, some expectant. It was nearly three—she’d make her way slowly to meet Michel at the cafe.

“Cafe au lait,” she said to the woman behind the bar. As she lingered over her coffee, she felt the man next to her staring. One elbow on the bar, he smelled his hands, one then the other. With a wry smile, he asked in a heavy accent if she was waiting for her boyfriend. “Yes,” she replied.

“A French boy?”

“Yes,” she answered icily.

“You should not trust a French boy.”

Cornelia turned away. He was almost an hour late. Worried, she wondered if it was a mistake to come here trying to make it all real. She felt the absence of her fantasies, the pretty lies and their great companionship, but she knew him now at least, knew the way he slurped a few spoonfuls of coffee when it was too hot and how his body always shuddered twice right before he drifted to sleep. What she couldn’t get a grasp on was a clear vision of the couple, the two of them together, like their smiling faces were blurred in the photo. She wanted him to have the same ideas of the future, for them to start planning it and making promises; not like a ring and a date but a shared acknowledgment that they were going to be together. Suddenly, ”I love you” didn’t appease.

It was four o’clock by the time Michel arrived. “I’m so sorry,” he sighed. He looked spent, but she was already worked up. The vise clamping down on her feelings had twisted away over the afternoon, and she needed more from him, not just to be led and held and told she was loved, but a gesture that would move her, make her believe it would all work out, remind her of why she had come. Words tumbled out of her mouth. “What happened? I’ve been waiting for an hour and this jerk was bothering me. I’ve been alone all day and you don’t even give a shit. And I’m leaving in a few days. Do you even care about that? Or maybe you’re relieved to have me go home.”

“What? I do care but I had to talk to my professor about the exam and it took so long. It’s not my fault.”

“I don’t know if you really do care. I come all the way here, and I have to spend the whole day alone waiting for you. I can’t even get in touch with you.”

“My love, I adore you and I don’t want you to be alone. Who bothered you? I will talk to him.”

It was something. “He’s gone now. Don’t worry about it.” She kissed his cheek.

“Baby, I’m sorry. Let’s go. We must get to my parents’ before it’s dark.”

Michel let her in through the front door and called out, “Hallo, bonjour!” She could hear the TV before they entered the living room where his older sister and teenage brother were seated on the couch, absorbed in the news program. Both managed to get up and greet her with a stiff ”How do you do?” An elderly man in a cardigan sat in an armchair close to the television. “Bonjour, Pepe,” Michel said, at which his grandfather glanced at him quickly and muttered something.

Then a woman with black, graying hair and wide hips bustled out of the kitchen. “Coucou Michel! Et son amie, bonjour!” She grabbed his head and kissed him on both cheeks. Smiling, they turned to Cornelia. “My mother,” Michel said. The woman kissed her soundly. “Bonjour,” Cornelia managed. His mother chattered on, motioning for them to sit down, and went back to the kitchen. At first, Cornelia tried to be attentive to Michel’s conversation in French with his siblings, nodding and looking at the person talking, but after awhile she gave up and stared at the TV. Minutes later, a man came into the living room carrying a few bottles of wine. “Salut,” he said, putting the wine on the table. “Papa. Mon amie, Cornelia,” Michel said as he stood up. “Hello,” his father said and gave Cornelia a perfunctory kiss.

The sun had just gone down. His mother called them over to a long table spread with candles, wine and covered bread baskets. Standing on one side of the table that they crowded around, hushed, she lit the candles then waved her hands over them. Between the candlelight and the low voice she chanted in, the scene was as if from some sepia-colored photo. When the food was brought from the kitchen, Michel joked to her, “The Jewish-ness is over for the night. You can relax.” She frowned at him. “I’m fine. It was beautiful.” She couldn’t explain the immobility she felt, the catch in her throat, and how she held it all—the present and the future—so gingerly. And how if she squeezed too hard or not enough, the tiny sparrow in her hands would be crushed or fly away.

The metro was crowded as they got on the train to head back to the apartment. Two stops later, a guy began shouting drunkenly at a girl. Michel and some other men admonished him, and the guy replied with an obscenity that Cornelia didn’t catch, but when the retort hit Michel, he shot towards the guy like a coiled snake, knocking her purse from her lap. Its contents spilled onto the floor, makeup, money, cigarettes and postcards scattering. The doors opened at the Monceau stop, and the two boys were on the platform, Michel smashing his fist into the guy’s face. The entire car was yelling but she was helpless to understand. Silent with panic and confusion, she tried to scoop the stuff back into her purse without losing sight of Michel. As the doors began to close, he hopped back on. The drunk, his nose pouring blood, pounded on the shut doors.

“Are you okay? What just happened?” she whispered to him.

“I’m fine. This fucking guy was saying shit to that girl. Really bad shit.”

“But why…”

“I hate to hear a man talk to a woman like that. What if it was my sister or mother? Or if it were you, my woman? I couldn’t have anyone talk to you like that.” Michel sat beside her with a grunt and rubbed his eyes.

“You would fight for me?” she asked.

“Yes, of course. You are my heart. I’m going to spend the rest of my life with you.”

He put his hand on her thigh. Cornelia felt its heat but didn’t notice the streak of blood across his knuckles, nor did she notice that under the seat lay her postcard of the Bastille, which they hadn’t bothered to visit. She was already imagining the fight, a fierce, tumbling wrestle with a tipsy man who would try to dance with her in a club, before the black tunnel turned into the glittering white tile of the next metro station.


“I am currently an editor for AOL CityGuide, an online entertainment publication. As I pursue fiction writing, I also freelance as a music concert reviewer and entertainment writer.” E-mail: valaerm[at]hotmail.com.

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