I bounded down the narrow staircase, a tangle of nerves and excitement and too many carry-ons. My small suitcase twisted uncomfortably behind me as I navigated the bags and anxiety and the sort of scarf that doubles as blanket. I was breathless and a little unkempt, but dressed in my darkest coat and a wide-brimmed hat I felt shockingly, surprisingly, utterly beautiful.
I reached the landing. Straightened up, took a breath, and there he was. On the other side of the door. Standing so very still.
I had expected him to be in the car or waiting on the sidewalk. And something about the immediacy of his presence unnerved me. But I grinned, untangled my bags, waited for his response.
He didn’t move. Didn’t smile or tilt his head or even register that he had seen me. I must have looked at him strangely because he finally glanced down at the ground, took a moment, and then raised his head and pushed open the front door.
My chest tightened immediately. My thoughts snagging on that particular moment, pulling me back, knowing immediately I now knew something I couldn’t un-know, but still so totally unsure as to what it was.
I shrugged it off. Chose not to think about it. Took the few steps toward him. Allowed him to take my bag.
After all, we were going to Paris. Paris! The city with a name so light that to say it felt like little more than an exhale—warm breath on a cold window, a little foggy but mostly magic.
And Paris must not be overthought.
We hugged, he kissed my cheek, took my bag. You sure you still want to do this? I said. It’s much easier to back out now than at the airport.
Of course, he said, turning away from me towards the car, mentioning the traffic in the tunnel.
Once situated in the cab, my large, open-mouthed purse resting on the floor between us, my passport visible, he asked if he could see it.
He looked at it for so long.
So long I felt the need to say, It’s nearly ten years old, don’t I look so different? Smiling as women do when they know they’re still young, but not so young as they once were.
He looked at me, You can’t travel on this.
What? What are you talking about?
It has to be valid for three months after your date of travel. And this is not.
Are you kidding me?
No. No, I’m not kidding you.
I remember searching his face in that moment. And I remember how it revealed nothing. How it was impassive and expressionless, a hollow sort of look clouding his eyes.
And I remember the silence that followed. And how small I felt. And again my mind snagged on that first moment I saw him through the door. The same sort of look.
We called the airlines, or rather he called at my urging. They didn’t think it would be a problem. It was only four days. I took a breath, It’s okay. See? It’s okay.
It’s not going to be okay, was his response.
I spent much of the remaining ride looking at the window as he asked the driver about the traffic and alternative routes.
He finally reached his arm out. Attempted to comfort me.
Funny how touch can be such a distancing thing.
I read something once. About how young couples rarely think of how their partner will react when racing to the hospital with a sick child in the backseat.
I thought about that passage on the way to the airport.
It was an invalid passport. An honest mistake. I didn’t know, I didn’t know, was all I could say.
He said nothing.
When we got to the airport the ticket agent went through the steps. Asked the right people, looked so very sorry for me when she told me I wouldn’t be able to go.
He gave me a hundred dollar bill for the cab ride home and I walked away from him, my packed bag trailing behind me.
He went to Paris. And I did not.
A two sentence story with an immutable ending.
I don’t think two people can come back from that.
In the weeks leading up to the trip whenever I told someone I was going away for the weekend the first question was always where. And I’d sort of catch my breath, tilt my head, and whisper, Paris.
With your boyfriend? This was always, without fail, the follow-up.
With some girlfriends?
And then would come the inevitable pause, the small quizzical smile, the subtle squint of the eyes.
And I would say, A guy, a friend. We’re just friends.
And everyone would sort of chuckle. Because they sensed my hesitation—my own obvious confusion.
We’ll see, everyone would say.
So many question, all of the answers in France.
Except when you don’t go. Except when the ticket agent smiles so very apologetically after telling you that your passport, while still valid, is not valid to travel on, and then nods to the next guest, but the man standing next to you looks at her and says, Well, I’m still going. And then turns to you, You get that I still have to go, right?*
And all of those questions are answered. At a ticket counter. At an airport in Queens.
And then again when he doesn’t call you to tell you he’s gotten there safely.
Or maybe they were answered in the cab ride to the airport. In the way he looked at you. In the silence he threw over himself like a cloak and in how thin and tight his lips became. How his words, when he did speak, were suddenly distancing. How he so quickly divided you from himself.
I went looking for that paragraph—that one about the sick child in the backseat--I had a hunch where I might find it, so I went looking for it on Saturday, just two days after I walked away from that ticket counter. Just two days after seeing something that I couldn’t then un-see.
It was so underwhelming on the page, sandwiched between other examples I had no memory of …the two of you at forty driving a kid to the emergency room with blood on the backseat…** Certainly nothing resembling a passage. But my memory of how large it was and how the author had detailed it at such length says more about me than anything has in quite some time.
I was meant to go to Paris with a man. And he went without me. And in walking away from him I felt cheap and angry, but mostly grateful.
Because I suddenly knew. I suddenly knew he wasn't the man I'd want driving a kid to the emergency room with blood in the backseat. And he sure as hell wasn't the man I'd want holding my hand when the bad news came, as it surely would. So thank God he wasn't the man by my side when I saw the Seine for the first time, or Pont Neuf, or the Eiffel Tower shimmering in the distance.
Life is not all good or all bad. It just doesn't work that way. And you cannot divorce or divide the one from the other. Mistakes happen. Some within our control. Some not.
No phone calls were made. No attempts to shuffle or reroute. He didn’t even walk the hundred feet to put me in a cab home.
All of which I might be able to forgive.
But that he didn’t smile when I first came down the stairs. That he had no response to me at all.
There’s a guy I know. Peripherally. And only a little. But I know him well enough to know that I like to sneak glances of him when I can. And occasionally, when I’m lucky, he does the same. I said something to him not loo long ago. It was a silly something—nothing really. It was boring and not to the point and he looked up at me and grinned—this sort of wide, loose smile. And it struck me that his response was so disproportionate to what I had said, but so perfectly apt for what was happening in that meaty and wordless territory where two people meet. An altogether different sort of silence. A good one. I did that, I thought as he walked away. That smile—I did that. Not because of what I said or what I did but because of who I am. Twenty-eight years and I’d never consciously had that thought before. I can’t help thinking that that’s the sort of smile a girl should walk down the stairs to. A little bit giddy and little bit unrestrained and so totally guileless.
And to accept anything less would be to miss the point.
And so Paris will wait. It has to. And thank God for that.
*Whenever I tell this bit of the story everyone asks if he was going for work. And no he was not. We were going for pleasure.
**From the incomparable Anna Quindlen's Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake
And the lovely Paris photo by the ridiculously talented Sarah Tucker.
(Please forgive any grammar mistakes, it's been a while sine I've written anything, so some of what comes out will be muck. But I gotta clear the sludge somehow.)