France, Part 8
So I reactivated my OKCupid account a few days ago. I guess mostly out of artificial curiosity of what that culture was like in Paris, not because I’m desperately seeking that kind of business. Set the profile to “looking for: friends” and yet the tone of each message is immediately set to something beyond that as they start to flood in. I feel overwhelmed, unprepared, and really ready to just click “deactivate,” knowing I have no interest in being wooed or romanced. I just want to meet as many people as I can. Anyone. Man or woman. I have no expectations at this point.
I responded to one message from someone named Henri.
Like Raoul, he is a fashion photographer. As I sifted through the initial excitement of “Wow, so many different people with so many different lifestyles!”, it devolved into me entering the reality that regardless of whether these people were interesting or not, the vast majority of them weren’t looking to meet and innocuously chat about culture. But in the mix of messages is one from another American also in Paris–he is in the process of expatriating to Sweden and can’t be in Sweden during that process. So he is going from city to city giving talks at developer events. He asked me, and I thought this was odd, if when I have a string without interpolation, if I use a single quote or double quote. And then, if I have a string without interpolation and take the interpolation out, if I then convert a double quote to single quote.
And so I came to meet Mike.
Last night, I took a photo of a Google Map and that served as my only guide on how to get to this little café nestled in a side street of 9e, Kooka Boora. Here in Paris, I have no sense of time. Which is frustrating because I am so high-strung when it comes to punctuality. I needed to be there by 6:30, so I left at 5. It’s an hour walk. Granted, I could take line 2 straight from Ménilmontant to Pigalle in under half an hour, but I’m still fresh on Paris and I figure the walk there will give me some time to mentally prepare myself after a long day of being isolated in front of a computer screen.
The time leading up to this was confusing. I needed to finish getting my work done for the day. I wasn’t sure what to wear. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be gone. I wasn’t sure if I should eat something before going. In some ways, I felt nervous, but overall, I was largely indifferent and just happy to be around another American for a moment.
As I got near the neighborhood, I realized I was a bit lost. My habit of using these photos of Google Maps is a dangerous one, but I am loathe to admit that I feel a sort of risky attraction to that danger. Sometimes I don’t even write down the address of the place I am going. I think I like the thrill of getting lost. Normally, I won’t take this risk if I know it’s potentially sacrificing another person’s time, but I thought I’d been up Boulevard de la Villette enough times that I’d be fine. And in the grand sense I was, until I got nearby. The roads started to diverge wildly, like a congested capillary network.
I passed the café, stopped inside of a hotel, and rudely interrupted two men having a conversation. I think in the US, one of them would have placated me as a woman. But here, they treated me like a child, shushed me, and returned to their conversation. At first I was resentful of this treatment. Then I thought about it some more. I interrupted them. I sheepishly backed away. After rectifying the situation by apologizing and waiting politely, the time-traveling hotel porter with his 1990s Smash Mouth goatee attempted to help me in a mash of confusing French and English, but we reached an awkward impasse with directions.
With Parisian streets, there really is no north, south, east, or west. Everything winds and spirals and sprawls. As it turns out, this hotel was within a couple hundred feet of Kooka Burra. However, communicating that was odd because it was in the middle of a 5-way intersection. But he took me delicately by the hand, led me outside, pursed his lips close to my ear, and whispered, “S’il vous plaît marcher dans cette direction” as he extended my hand in his hand out in that direction, carefully brushing his fingertip along the fine blonde hairs on my index finger.
When he did this, my entire spine shivered a little. It’s not that he was attractive or even in my age range. But it was such a commonplace interaction delivered with such tenderness. The vibration of it in my ear canal made me feel inexplicably tingly all over, like someone comforting me, telling me, “I know you’re lost, but now you’re not.” And it was at such a close range that there was no slur to the words, as if the man had made a studio recording just to aid me in my journey. And when I turned back to him, when his hand freed my hand, we had a brief moment where our eyes locked and I felt like he had the cipher for my face and knew all the things held in each taut facial muscle. I felt like I was at his mercy, that stranger in 9e, me sputtering a strident “m-m-merci” and briskly jogging off.
From afar, I could see Mike standing in the doorway of Kooka Burra. He was neither tall nor short. He had a messy mop of reddish-brown hair and some glasses on that made me think of Spike Lee. I couldn’t read him by his posture, but awkwardly approached and said hi. As we sat down, the guy working announced that the café was closing in the next 30 minutes. And so, the conversation between us took a very fast-paced tone suddenly. I felt like I was on cocaine or something. But then we went outside and just kept walking.
It was roughly around here that I felt removed from myself and I suddenly saw myself as this blank slate. The past few months have been dramatically different from everything that came before it. Not too long ago, home was Portland. And home was with Eric. And predictably, our weekends were always the same. And despite that routine, despite that regularity, neither of us had any idea where we were going because, despite how close our two lifelines sat, they never seemed to be converging into one another. Now my lifeline is scattered erratically like a sine wave and it is occurring to me that I am sitting in a cafe with a stranger in Paris, talking about time travel.
We are walking everywhere, passing by Georges Pompidou, talking about feminism suddenly. Talking about life. And I am freely speaking and it feels good–because this is just a stranger and I have nothing to lose in being purely honest. We manage to walk all over central Paris, but it all blurs into the background. The sun starts to fall. I haven’t been keeping track of time but suddenly it is 9PM. Unlike hanging out with Raoul, there is a natural flow in the conversation–we have a lot of things in common. Although we are strangers, it feels like we are old friends suffering amnesia, having to relearn everything about one another. We walk back up towards 20e, back towards my place. It is past 11PM, closer to midnight. There are three blisters on my feet, one is between my big toe and the toe next to it and it burns every time I take a step.
He is telling me a story, but I’m suddenly not listening. I start to feel a weird churning in my stomach as I spy David’s flat not far off. I like him as a friend, but I feel nothing more than that. He is cute, sure, but when I think of the way I felt the first time I met Chris, it is very obvious a certain “je ne sais quois,” a covalent bond if you will, is missing. And yet I feel a definite connection–as a friend. But I go to hug him goodnight and I don’t feel any turmoil over it because I had a good time. He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who would care anyway… like me, he seems to be into the idea of meeting as a way of killing time, not soul-searching. After all, both of us are just visitors.
Although I didn’t think about him the whole time I was out, upon returning home, upon laying my head to my pillow, upon smelling the ghost of myself from a night before on the pastel blue sheets, I felt unquestionably more certain than ever that I was definitely in love with Chris. I get up out of bed, I walk over to my laptop, I tab to Skype. It’s 3AM, but he’s online. I open a chat with him. I start to type out the words “I miss you” and then I close the window without sending because I know I can’t do that to him.
And so instead, I turn on NPR’s Intelligence Squared. The debate is on the impact of the Internet on our political preferences, largely that it intervenes negatively. And I fall asleep, pondering what life would be like without the Internet as an adult, wondering where I would be getting my news, where I’d be getting my knowledge, whether I’d be here. I’m such a researcher. You ask me something, I look it up. But imagine, those days where we had encyclopedias and the information quickly became outdated and still we were left with 70 pounds of books. That’s a lot of weight for so much inaccuracy. And I’m proud to live in this age. Proud to live in an age where my intelligence contributes to that voice. I teach her. She teaches me. We’re all helping each other. We’re all that man in the street, holding each other’s hand in the right direction, making each other a little less lost.