From Paris With Love

“You’ll never know unless you try,” Pierre said to me as I stood up stretching to moan about how we were never going to finish folding and taping together the paper elephant head. 

A few weeks ago, we had gone to BHV Marais on a lazy Sunday morning for some window shopping, and being a long-time victim of impulse, I’d insisted we buy a pink foldable paper elephant head (I’d waved away the store clerk who tried to warn me with a “Madamoiselle, would you consider an easier level as this is for experts?”) and work on it for the next few weekends so I could upgrade my dismal 17 square meter apartment with a splash of color. It seemed like a beautiful idea at the time, but now, lounging at home eating stracciatella sweets on the verge of taking a nap, it seemed like extra work.

“Perhaps we should take a nap,” I coaxed Pierre, and like always, he didn’t say no. He invited my head onto his arm, and we marveled at the uneven slabs of ancient French ceiling planks until we drifted off into a worry-free slumber. I woke first, excited at the idea of Amorino ice cream, which he acquiesced to immediately. In retrospect, I wondered if he actually wanted ice cream, or just wanted to watch me in the Parisian sunset. He would take my hand and stroll around all the major gardens in the city – Tuileries, Luxembourg, Palais Royal – I enjoyed the exhilaration of expanding my mental map of the city, while he enjoyed my company.

The day we were supposed to meet for the first time, I cancelled on him 30 minutes before our appointment, citing my brother feeling ill and that I had to take care of him (we had to catch an early flight to Italy the next morning). In reality, I was having late afternoon drinks with another boy – a stubby but health-obsessed Canadian boy with light chocolate skin, who had only recently moved to Paris for a new adventure. I appreciated his passion to some extent, but I knew I was finished when I stared at his mouth moving and moving but my ears had closed themselves off. I focused on the environment around me – people laughing and sipping their Aperol Spritzes, the smell of goat cheese and wine permeating the summer air, the vibrant wall decor so different from everything I knew from back at home. Eventually, I called my brother to come rescue me (the Canadian boy had his fair share of wine and was becoming delirious), and we ended our night enjoying live music and Guinnesses at an Irish pub across the street from my apartment in Chatelet.

I only found out later (3 weeks later, when I thought to myself I would never know what I’d missed out on unless I gave him a chance) that I had abandoned Pierre on his birthday, and he had already been waiting at our proposed spot in the mall. I’d apologized profusely much later, but that seemed to summarize the entirety of our ill-fated relationship. He told me he’d never expected me to reach out again after missing our first encounter, but he was “really happy I did, because he’d met the most amazing person that ever graced his presence”. Yes, he really did phrase it like that.

Perhaps he’d already felt the imbalance of our relationship early on, before I called him out to Avenue Kleber six months later and told him it wasn’t working out. Maybe he knew when he arrived at Pizzeria Popolare an hour before it opened to wait in line (the average waiting time was an hour to an hour and a half for that restaurant), and lied to me that he’d waited only 5 minutes; or maybe it was when he surprised me by “accidentally” passing by Amorino in London when we were there for our weekend trip just to see me smile. There was also the time I was visibly annoyed when he had shown up at 9PM for our Valentine’s Day dinner with a single wilting rose he obviously bought from a gypsy in the streets, never mentioning that he spent the whole afternoon dealing with an emergency that had exploded at work. He’d then presented me with a pair of stunning rhombus navy blue earrings and told me how much I meant to him. We drank wine and made out until the alcohol reached my brain and I passed out.

5 months after we met, I hosted my birthday party in Barcelona with a group of friends who had flown in from all over Europe. We’d rented a gorgeous Airbnb for the weekend, and indulged in scrumptious seafood dishes and port wine. Pierre came a day late because of work, and when he’d arrived Saturday morning, he found me still drunk with vomit in my hair (despite my earlier attempt to wash it off with a shower). He held me in his arms anyway, and caressed my head, telling me he was just happy to see me. 

That night, a few shots and a few rounds of darts in, my friends began to notice the angry scarlet glow from my face and neck. I had always taken the precaution to control my alcohol intake especially when it came to eating shellfish, but I was in Barcelona and it was my birthday.

Pierre immediately grabbed me and put us in an Uber home.

“But I don’t want to leave yet,” I protested. He told me that he’d told my friend Daniel that we would be back after picking up my allergy medication at our Airbnb.

Back in the house, I popped the capsule into my mouth. “Now we wait,” I said, not wanting to leave again until the hue had subdued a little bit. I sprawled on the bed and stared at the unimpressive, beige ceiling. He plopped down next to me, but in a much more graceful and controlled manner. Then we turned towards each other on our sides and stared.

“How are you?” I’d asked, mesmerized by his blue-grey eyes. To this day, is it one of the most curious colors I’ve seen.

As I’d expected, he said he was fine and that he was more worried about my allergies. Our conversation drifted towards the uncertainty of the future and other philosophical questions that were seemingly relevant at the time.

“I want you to do what makes you happy, and I will match my future with your decisions. I know you’re worried about where you will end up when you look for jobs. But just don’t worry about anything and do what you need to do. I will adapt my plans to wherever you go.”

This statement startled me, but not as much as what he said next.

“I love you.”

The heavy silence was interrupted by Daniel’s phone call, informing us that they were bringing the party home because Amy’s boyfriend had too many beers.

Perhaps my heart felt something then, but more than passion or happiness, it was a great pain and sadness. Maybe that’s when I knew.

I’d tried so hard to love him, but I felt everything (convenience, comfort, companionship) but love. I would visit him at work for lunch, bringing subway sandwiches and Pockys (his favorite snack from the Asian grocery store) and eat them on a park bench while watching meandering pigeons. We went to Disneyland together, but the happiness I felt was the excitement of being in an amusement park rather than being there with him. The blindingly beautiful Parisian skyline from Montparnasse Tower took my breath away, with him as my French accessory – someone to talk to while I sipped on my 83 EUR bottle of champagne.

When I met Max and it was as effortless as existing, I knew it was over. That day on Avenue Kleber, not all the gaudy bright lights in the bar could overpower the hurt in his eyes. 

“I don’t need a puppet. I need someone who has their own opinion and can call me out when I’m speaking nonsense.”

“I don’t call you out because I think you’re perfect.”

“I don’t believe you.” 

I later found out he’d spent hours sitting in front of the Eiffel Tower that night, wondering to himself what had gone wrong.

Even after that conversation, we’d agreed to remain friends, and he continued to be as supportive as he could – even up until the moment I had to leave Paris.

On my last day in Paris, I checked my phone to see a dozen missed calls and messages from Max and my best friend Angela and knew I’d screwed up somehow. In the chaos of it all – the sleepless overnight packing, the anxiety of leaving Paris, the coronavirus situation – I had interpreted 15:00 as 5PM instead of 3PM. When I’d realized my mistake, I simply ended the call, as my body physically rejected the inundation of negative emotions. 

Looking up at Pierre, who had just understood the situation, I flashed a sheepish smile. “Shall we?” I said, before grabbing my wine opener and putting on my shoes.

We strolled down the alley to our Carrefour like it was any other day, to pick up our usual 4 euro bottle of Chardonnay and a pack of sour Schtroumpfs. Due to the heavy rain the previous week, the Seine was completely flooded. We sat on a bench on the bank with our legs hanging over water from the river. 

A group of female teenagers approached us to ask for some free candy. “Please!” they whined.

Désolé,” Pierre told them. Somehow he knew that today was not the day to share our food. Today was our afternoon with Paris – nothing more, nothing less. Sitting in our comfortable silence, I was so relieved I’d tried nevertheless. 

Culled from by Pooh Chudalla

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