This is where she finds herself. On a corner, under a lamp, night, drizzling, waiting, Paris; the Hediard patisserie and a Burberry store closed behind her. She looks at her watch and messages Kirk on his cellular phone — got here, where are you — and pulls her scarf closer around her neck. Had she been standing under some other lamp on some other street, clearly alone, clearly a girl, Maggie might have hugged her bag to herself as well. But she’s at the Place de Madeleine, so she stands without looking around and holds her umbrella erect. I’m drunk on cold and rain, she thinks, and the world is blurred and wild and lovely.
“Maggieee!,” someone shouts.
Two figures in red walk quickly towards her. She goes to them, boot heels clicking. Kirk starts talking from three streetlamps away. “Damn metro got held up because there were these kid pickpockets and an undercover cop caught hold of them. Searched them and returned a wallet to some Norwegian tourist who hadn’t even noticed it was gone, God, complete chaos, Maggie I’d like you to meet my friend Phoebe. She’s in the Bryn Mawr program with me, is actually from Bryn Mawr. Phoebe, Maggie’s from my school, she’s friends with my girlfriend.”
They smile at each other, exchange pleasantries, walk toward Buddha Bar, the kind of chi-chi bar-lounge that people talk about knowingly with breathy adulatory adjectives. Maggie’s made the necessary reservations (“you need reservations just to get in, ridiculous,” she wrote in an e-mail to her friends that afternoon). “Kirk and I stayed out until 6 in the morning last night,” Phoebe says. “Went bar-hopping then ended up at this guy’s apartment, walked home as the sun came up, got up at 9 for class.”
Phoebe’s outfit is almost straight out of Vogue’s fall bohemian pages, Maggie thinks. Slouchy suede ankle boots, white and red shirt-skirt peasant ensemble, brown Gucci bag, an interesting look but the boots kind of shorten her legs. “You’re not tired?” Maggie asks.
“On est jeune,” laughs Kirk. We are young.
As they walk, they see, weirdly, a smashed cake on the cobblestones. Maggie says, “You know what this reminds me of? The night before finals freshman year when we ran around making noise and pissing everyone off. When I got home my favorite sweater was ripped at the sleeve and I had cake in my hair.”
That reminds Kirk of a lengthy anecdote — “and then Sam says to the waiter” — but Maggie thinks a little longer. It was midnight, only first semester, when everything was still new and we didn’t pretend to know anything just yet. There was snow on the ground and we had pots and cans filled with pebbles and even a saxophone. People were yelling from their windows for us to shut up and two cops were chasing us around making threats. And at some point Will from downstairs stopped short and pulled himself up next to one of those statues, brandished a pot lid and called out in his best Braveheart brogue, “Aye, fight — and you may die. Run — you’ll live. But dying in your beds many years from now, would you trade all your days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance” — and here he was interrupted by another blare from the police so we ran again, shrieking partly with laughter and partly just to make noise. The lights burning with the intensity of all the students studying, us running in Dionysian delight, the clanging and the shouting, and finally the cake in my hair.
Talking and laughing, they turn into a side street and walk to the door and fight their way through thick crowds of thin people to the bar, shouting to be heard through an insolent fog of smoke and music and candles and people in black, ordering slightly odd drinks like ginger martinis and champagne caipirinhas. “Let’s find a place to sit!” Kirk yells.
After walking around the lounge a futile three times and glancing at the monstrous gilt namesake Buddha, Kirk grabs their arms, “Over there,” and points at a crowd of suited men and silky women gathering jackets and pashminas and extinguishing long cigarettes.
So Maggie, Phoebe and Kirk stand and wait for the crowd to leave, poised and prepared to rush in, when Maggie notices three blonde women and a mildly overweight thirty-something man approach from the side with the same intent expression on their faces. Shit, she thinks, they outnumber us. But the man glances at her and gestures, “You are look at these seats already? I am sorry but it is because of women with me, please will you then join and drink with us? Do you speak English.” The man speaks a French that could only come from a fellow countryman.
Maggie says, “I’m American. We all are.”
He is thrilled. “I’m thrilled! I’m John, I’m American too, what’s your name?” he yells. “Please, why don’t you and your friends have a drink with us and we’ll all sit together.”
People pull up ottomans and sit around a small low table with one candle and John is, he explains, in Paris for the first time on business. John works in mergers at a small investment bank in Rhode Island. John passes out business cards.
The music throbs and the three blondes who accompany John smile. He asks Maggie what she likes best about Paris. “The best thing,” Maggie shouts into John’s year, “is moments like being able to sit in the Luxembourg Garden, thinking that this is where Cosette and Marius met in Les Mis. Wondering, like, which bench? Or walking along a street and seeing that it’s called Les Chats Qui Pechent, The Cats That Fish.”
He smiles. Maggie turns to Phoebe on her left and says, “Wonder who all these woman are.”
“Probably his escorts or something,” Phoebe yells sotto voce.
Maggie laughs at that and turns back to John, but feels guilty when immediately afterwards he asks, “What would you kids like to drink? This night is on me.”
It turns out, as a more introductions are made and more drinks are brought to the table, that one woman is John’s wife, one is a business partner, and one, the youngest, is a client from Germany. The German girl is really pretty, Maggie thinks — pretty in a quietly blond, dusky manner that says, “Though I sit with these nice rather loud Americans, I certainly am anything but.” Phoebe and John’s wife find out that they are both from Texas; Kirk talks to the German. Then there are more voices as more people come, more acquaintances and friends of John’s business partner, and everyone shakes hands and yells and a thirty-something woman, Dior clutch in one hand and a drink in the other, turns to a man and says, “Bill, there really isn’t a single decent martini to be found in this city.”
John continues talking to Maggie, who recalls with something of a start, her head spinning from the ginger martinis and the smoke, that she’s twenty and a week old. She had celebrated in Barcelona by meeting a friend and partying until all hours but she had been sad, pensive, not liking growing too for her teenage years. She nods at John as he talks and smiles and tips her head to the side to seem more attentive while she remembers hurried conversations in European history class about first kisses until Mr. Watkins would stop his lesson and say, raising an eyebrow, “Girls, as I am certain that you are discussing dialectical materialism, pray have the kindness to share your exciting insights with the rest of us.” She remembers being able to answer with answers trenchant enough to make Mr. Watkins laugh and continue his lecture. She remembers being terrified of tampons. She remembers bad poetry about existential angst, kiwi-lime lip gloss, tennis lessons, friends’ older brothers and code names like Bigfoot, cafeterias and cliques and linked arms — gone, now.
And more, better, sweeter: the easygoing rainy Saturdays when she’d stack books by her bed and read, appreciate, toss, read, love, toss, her mother coming in with cherry tomatoes from the garden, organic peaches from the farmer’s market. June nights with lamps aglow, flawed Chopin flying from her fingers, one or all of the four dogs yelping at the giddiest passages. Missing a geometry test because she’d stayed up all night with Flaubert. Gone and relegated to myth and memory. But then, even on the night before her tenth birthday she had cried alone in her room because she was entering the dimension of double digits and would therefore, surely, one day die.
It won’t be the same from here on out, Maggie continues to think, nodding at John as he talks about financial derivatives. I don’t want to be a part of this, this cavalcade of sleek, cold, happy, unreal people of unreal cities. And yet I do. Emily Dickinson, that quote of hers, about living with “soul open to ecstatic experience.” I don’t know how she could have done it, living the way she did in an attic or whatever and avoiding people, always wearing white, always flying, but I don’t know how you could do it this way either.
There’s a break in John’s conversation. Maggie sits up taller and thinks, Ugh, Maggie, shut up and get over yourself. She asks him a question about his recent merger.
* * *
This is where I find myself. In a bar-club kind of place, a boite — bwat — as these French call it. It’s a nice place. It’s our last night here so we thought we’d celebrate a little, have drinks, stay up. Tomorrow we fly back to the land of the free, and though this is a nice city, I won’t necessarily be sad to leave. The pastries are wonderful but the taxi drivers never understand what the hell I’m saying and all these creamy foods are going to make me put on weight.
We’ve run across these nice university kids, Maggie, Phoebe, Kirk — American, remind me of being in college. I’m talking to Maggie about my job, I’m in banking, and she’s an economics major, she says, so she seems interested in hearing about my work and is asking smart questions. She’s wearing a skirt with those flounce things in it, and I find myself thinking thoughts that aren’t to be thought with a wife at my side.
These kids must be having the time of their lives. When I was fresh out of college, I wanted a year to enjoy myself before starting work so I stayed at my uncle’s cabin in Aspen for a year and skied my heart out and worked on the side as a bartender. Had friends there, lots of girls passing through, wouldn’t have traded it for anything, but this thing of doing Europe doesn’t sound bad either.
“So I love my work,” I finish up. “I think that’s damn important, too, loving your work. Otherwise you just can’t do it.”
She nods, “Once, I was thinking about what would happen if I never like whatever I end up doing in life so I tried to put psych class to good use and I said, ‘If you tell yourself something enough times you’ll believe it yourself.’ And my friend laughed and said, ‘Yes, until one day you blow your brains out and create a nice piece of modern art on the wall behind your head.'”
I laugh at that, too. “Listen, well, I’ve already given you my card. So if you’re ever looking for another internship and want to see what it’s like in Rhode Island finance, feel free to give me a call.”
She smiles and thanks me, says she’ll keep that in mind. At that, someone flicks the lights on, and all the talking and laughing die down. I look at my watch — it’s two in the morning. People finish their drinks and drift toward the doors — some people want to go home, some people want to go to another bo”te. I look around at everyone and propose that we all go ensemble to a club that closes later on. My wife and Susan and our client are up for it, but the kids respond in the negative. Kirk says, “Phoebe and I were actually out pretty late last night” and Maggie smiles, “Yeah, and I already seem to be having five espressos a day, I don’t think I should test myself any further.”
I get up and at that, Kirk, a khakis and sweater kind of guy, stands up to shake my hand and thank me. Everyone stands up, and the two girls thank me too, smiles everywhere. “You’re sure you don’t want to join us?,” I ask. “You’re young! You ought to be having the late nights, not me.”
Everyone laughs. They’re sure.
We say our goodbyes and go outside. Thank God, it’s not raining anymore. In the cab, I pull my wife to me and give her a kiss on her head. “Are you having fun?,” I ask.
“They were good kids,” I tell her thoughtfully. “They’ll go far.” n