Young Writers Project: Paris Amour
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By Basundhara Mukherjee
"Beautiful landscape, isn't it?" The woman in the asphalt-feathered peacoat perches a lit cigarette between her fingers and looks skeptically at the man across from her. She fiddles with her half-empty dark brew coffee, and looks beyond the window with the early morning dew with designs engraved, stained by her fresh coat of nail polish.
"Beautiful, yes?" The man repeats. The woman realizes he is talking to her. She nods with a half-risen smile, turning back to her mushroom cloud of smoke.
"Writer?" The man asks, caressing her coffee-stained notebook. She feels her hands defensively pull the notebook to her chest, scowling fiercely. Perhaps she can convince him she's uninterested. "What do you write?" The woman curls her fingers around the metallic spine of her notebook.
"I don't know yet," she whispers hoarsely and with hostility. Yet, the man is basking in satisfaction at her American accent; he had assumed correctly.
"What do you want to write about?" She looks him in the eyes for the first time, taken back by the striking vitality of his green pupils. She sits up, appearing much taller. She has unconsciously folded the cigarette butt within the ashtray. Her trimmed nails are tapping against the window, and she appears to be amidst thoughts and decisions.
"Love." The woman flinches as she finally mutters this, a trite aspiration for a starving author.
"Paris for love," he whispers knowingly; yet, there is no condescension in his tone. He is intimidating in the way that he doesn't blink when he says this; he is captivating in the way his eyes fervently circle around her eyes, her lips, her well-rounded nose. He doesn't move as the woman shakes her head.
"Paris for memories." She is more confident. She is confident in her ways, yet torn apart by the nostalgia that strikes her momentarily. "Memories," she repeats for herself, under a breath concealed by the silence. The man looks at her curiously. He has leaned his body in towards the center table. The woman does not notice her own eyes, dark-rimmed with melancholy, unraveling words in the form of a story. Rather, she only finds herself leaning backwards, devouring the last drops of dark brew. She uncomfortably averts her attention to passing landscapes. The man, laden with business wear, sits back, eyes glistening with reflections of the woman.
The woman in the asphalt-feathered peacoat wears rouge on her cheeks, self-conscious of the presence of the man. He stares at the window as if all the beauty in the world is concealed within the morning dew. The woman fidgets with her red beret, pulling it over her eyes to hide her life story. She lights another cigarette, furiously blowing drifts of smoke as if to constrict the man with whiffs of tobacco. Ironically, smoke constricts her throat as she begins to cough.
"Yes, it's been a while since I've smoked too," says the man, handing a glass of water to her. She refuses with her expression, half irresolute, half disgruntled. "It's not good, you know." She looks at him after recovering from her cough, almost unknowingly. "Smoking," the man points his chin to the ashtray. "It's not good for you."
"Oh, and what makes you say that?" She feels rebellious. She feels free as the wind whooshes against the window, rustling leaves in a different realm past the thick glass. She feels as if it's her hair caught in the grasp of the wind, her body tumbling on empty fields. She feels as if she is on top of the world. She feels this way in the presence of his striking green eyes, and at this point she has noticed more features about him.
"Death. I've seen the face of death with....that." He seems disgusted, and the woman can feel her cheeks flush with rosy hues. Yet, she has grasped onto the cigarette even tighter, as if to protect herself from the face of death.
"Death?" Her voice trembles, and she is not so rebellious anymore. "How so?" She had meant to say this in her head, but soon finds herself jump at her own voice. Her hand has reflexively stretched itself over her mouth. Yet, she is genuinely curious. The man has looked down at his hands, blatantly frustrated at ever having been reminded. His lines loosen up, as he whirls into thoughts upon thoughts. Suddenly, she is regretful and apologetic.
"She used to be a friend of mine." The woman has caught on thus far.
"Did you love her?" she asks almost rashly, never realizing the intimacy of the question.
"I do," he says immediately, as if it were second nature. "I do love her, and I will. In fact, she's the reason I left Paris." The woman for a second doesn't know how to respond, torn between continuing and tapering off.
Yet, the man continues, sparing details, and while the woman listens, she finds herself drifting away to the bass-heavy voice of his. There are times when his eyes cease to live in the present and dance into the past, when his stories are illustrated by the way his lip curves up on his face. He speaks for himself rather than for anyone else. But the woman listens and she hears, and she empathizes with the surprisingly soothing words of a complete stranger. In fact, she has yet to have learned his name, and she has already felt connected to him. She is so lost in the past few moment, with French-accented words lingering in the air, that she doesn't realize that her cigarette is crumpled in the ashtray, and her pack has crawled to the trash can.
There is no need for an apology or superficial gratitude in this moment, where time has captured words in the way she looks at him with those melancholy eyes. He has trapped himself in her embrace far across the seat, in the embrace through her speckled glasses. He says words one would say to a lover to a woman on the train, a figure who stood in the way of him and his light. Yet, he is to blame, for he was the one who sparked the conversation. Suddenly, he has reminded himself of her notebook, which has printed her finger-markings across its cover.
The woman has noticed the shift in his gaze, and has suddenly buried herself in her notebook, scribbling furiously at the page. The man watches apathetically, though there is nothing apathetic of the way he feels. She places her notebook on the table eventually, striking him as he commits himself to the first chapter of her life.
"No words," he smiles. "Of course, here is the true sto ry." He brushes his fingers over the cave-painting-like figures in her notebook, revitalized by the coolness of the fresh ink and the start of a new book. There becomes a permanent furrow in his brow as he spins the paper, viewing the pictures from different angles as if each degree will be closer to comprehension.
"Most people don't understand," she says boldly. "Paris will bring words to it." But the man has trapped his attention within a specific drawing, a lock that has engraved its shadow throughout the entire notebook. The detail present makes him jump, as if he can feel the cold metal against his skin, as permanent marker is smudged by the trickle of French rain. The man returns to the woman her beloved notebook, to which the key is one's mind. Her satisfaction in her wit is evident, as the man finds himself frustrated. He has turned away in deep thought over the past moments on the train, and the woman has finally turned to the peace of a silent page.
The woman in the asphalt-feathered peacoat who writes until dawn breaks hums Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue in a timid volume, afraid to wreck the crafty chords rather than to wake anyone up. The man has drifted off on a cloud, and the woman realizes, much to her dismay, that he radiates the slightest bit of attractiveness while asleep.
Paris is called above the intercom, as the woman scribbles the last calligraphic letters into her book. She considers waking the man up, simultaneously considering the fact that she can talk to him again. Excusez-moi, she hears in a bustle of falling suitcases and rumbling tracks, and the man has woken from his peaceful abode. He wears that tiresome look, as if the sun has been waiting for him by his bedside in the early morning.
"Puis-je----can I help?" he says in a quick shift in tongues. The woman holds in her hand the last cigarette of the pack, shrugging nonchalantly while balancing her purse and duffel in one grip.
The woman can't seem to remember when she last smoked like this, and she can feel her body revolting silently in a deathly manner. She hopes for some godsend for inspiration, although her notebook has covered itself in sweat smudges in the form of some sort of inspiration.
"Paris, are you ready?" asks the man, sighing his own breath of relief as one would do at home. That's where he was; he was at home. "Paris, such a beautiful city." He breathes again, taking in the air as if it were a drug. "Would you not agree?"
The woman can see barely beyond the train tracks in this misty morning, and her breath has yet to be struck by the memories she left behind once.
"I suppose," she agrees tersely. The man has nodded, returning to that once-curious face again from it-seems-like-years ago since they first met. "I suppose, but I'll never know until I can see it. This damn fog." The man laughs as the woman exposes her personality the slightest bit. He looks into her eyes for maybe the third time in the entire trip, gently caressing her hand and reaching to kiss her cheek.
"It was a pleasure." The woman is dumbfounded by these un-American ways. Yet, she is simultaneously pleased, and she explains this with a symbolic smile. As the plastic doors close behind the man, the woman straightens her asphalt-feathered coat and runs after him. He has left nothing behind, and she has nothing to say to him, yet she runs until the wind catches between the strands of her hair. Before she can yell something, she realizes she doesn't know his name.
"Attendez!" Her French reeks of Americanness. The man is laughing as he turns almost involuntarily to her voice. A few hours, and his mind has trained itself to react to her mellifluous voice. "Attendez!" She whispers in a diminuendo when she reaches him, until she is eye-to-eye with those striking green pupils.
The man is silent, looking down at her with his immense height, with a gaze so captivating, as if they can understand all.
"Mon cher!" The woman hears, as her body is retracted from the deep connection between the two, jostled by the interruption. "Mon cher!" The man's mother falls in between the two, holding the man's face, cupping it in fragile hands, and kissing his cheeks amidst custom.
Yet, the man has not shifted a muscle in the way he smiles, almost in a daze. He pulls the woman by her chest, introducing her to his mother in a tangle of foreign syllables. She is uncomfortably fidgeting like one's lover fidgets in the time of new introductions. For a second, she is so lost in the moment, amidst strangers in an unknown station, amidst new acquaintances in an almost familiar country, amidst her past and present, that she begins to play along, until it all becomes real in her mind.