It’s morning in Paris, and the superlative light comes in at an angle, illuminating the nothing our hosts have spared: bedding crisp enough to register our sleep positions in distinct creases, gold-plated secretary lamp, delicate vase of dried flowers, stacked fat white towels. The door a kind of archway, something a king might stand in.
When we first bought our tickets, we emphatically choreographed our inaugural vacation morning: strolling into a lazy café—steamy pour, late morning sun. Ambling along the Seine, sipping, exulting among the locals.
Audra is still fast asleep, so I set out to locate the necessary cappuccinos and pain au chocolat by my lonesome. I map my way through the neighborhood to find what I thought might be a coffee shop but is, in fact, a bar, empty of patrons save for one serious-looking man reading a newspaper at one end.
“Do you have coffee?” I can see the espresso machine, but asking seems polite.
“Yes,” says the bartender. Barista? Her eyebrows are severe, and she has pretty, milky eyes. She doesn’t bother with French. “One?”
“Two cappuccinos, please,” I say. She looks confused but starts foaming the milk. She hands me two small white mugs. Dust seeps in strips through the bar’s narrow windows.
“Sorry,” I say. “I wanted them to go.”
“To go?” The bartender snorts a little.
The man at the end of the bar looks up from his newspaper. “We don’t to go here. You sit, you enjoy. Then you can walk.”
I feel a flash of tourist shame, but nobody seems that interested in me anymore. So I sit. I drink both cappuccinos, first mine and then Audra’s. Newspaper man nods at me, perhaps impressed by my capacity to ingest espresso.
I’ve always had an appetite. When I was a child, my mother once took me with her to the bakery. She ordered herself a slice of cherry pie. An afternoon treat, she said. What would you like? I wanted the chocolate. The whole cake, I said to the cashier. Please. This girl, said my mother, rolling her eyes, and she and the cashier both laughed as if I’d made a joke. I got a measly chocolate chip cookie like it was supposed to teach me a lesson.
I take out my phone and map to the next-nearest coffee shop, around fifteen minutes by foot. I walk. On the walk, I feel so saturated by how pretty it all is I get short of breath: the jewel-colored awnings, the people with their shoes and their shoulders, the lean blue bicycles adorned in bells and flowers. Maybe Paris just has very strong coffee, or maybe it’s lifting something off of me.
A small white dog passes, nips lazily at my ankle. I am tall, and I tower over the dog’s petite and tidily-dressed owner, who does not engage with me as she pulls the dog past. Which is fine; I don’t love dogs, and besides, I have to keep moving. I’ve been gone long enough now that I will need to bring home something ample and sweet for Audra. Otherwise, she will be angry.
Audra has been angry for what seems like months. About the film of grime on the countertops, about the time we eat dinner, about the temperature, about the tone of voice. About social time and alone time, about cereal, about the cracked mug that keeps falling off its hook, about death.
It glistens, her anger, and I am awed by it. About bananas, about the trains, the scantily-stocked bodega, that jasmine-scented lotion they’ve discontinued. About the sidewalk, the stairs, her mother, her brother, a two-years-ago forgotten birthday. Audra tells me her therapist thinks she should be more in touch with her anger. It is anger, she explains, that she hasn’t expressed her whole life, and it has come time to express it.
For a short while, Audra’s anger did it for me. We’d strip naked so she could consume me, turn on me with the sharp white light of her rage. We’d spin a wide violence across the apartment floor, both of us left panting and stunned. But soon, I wanted quiet. I wanted ease, and to rest. Her anger began to hunt me, to haunt me. Maybe I became angry too, or maybe just very sad.
I never quite imagined it like this.
I am sometimes angry. It comes in hot and then it’s over. Sometimes so quickly, I miss it entirely.
I first loved Audra for her laugh, the way it chugged out of her like something thick from a carton. We held hands through three seasons and, in winter, I moved in with her, burrowing into the queen-sized bed she had pushed up against the wall, even though I insisted it was more luxurious to put the bed in the middle, like real estate was no object. Audra, you see, is particular.
As a kid, I had a postcard hanging on the bulletin board in my bedroom with a picture of the Eiffel Tower, festooned by fireworks. Je t’aime, it said across the top. Why fireworks, I think now. Why is it always fireworks? I think of us exploding all over the horizon, Audra and I. The image doesn’t quite work. Fireworks are sharper and more articulate than anything I’ve known in love.
What about congealed jam, oversaturated sponge, drippy faucet? Sinkhole in the oatmeal, book with half its pages folded over, matted rug, overturned table, runny watercolors, overcooked egg? Busted car, creaky chair, melted television, inverted bucket hat, half-drunk dusty bottle of limoncello?
I don’t know. Love can feel muddled, vast, diffuse; so little to do with the singular volatility of a firework. I hunger for that kind of crystalline precision, though. That clarity. To scream myself across the sky just once—consuming everything in my wake—and then vanish from view.
It is on the way back to our host apartment, no coffee in either hand, that I fall out of love.
It feels like it happens by accident, but I can’t claim to know for sure.
Impossible to fall out so quickly. Impossible to undo everything on one walk. But no. Falling out is too easy. Far easier than falling into anything. It feels like waking up. Like waking up from a dream, your eyes open on impact, not sure where you’ve fallen from, but certain it was some great height.
I have no coffee, so there is that. There will be disappointment, a quick-rising and claustrophobic emotion that makes any room smaller, and our room, while rich in luxury, is small already.
I guess the truth is that I have been falling out for some time now. Have been diffuse and fumbling. But now—at last, at least—something clear. Paris unexplodes me, the exact opposite of that postcard. I have nothing to show for it.
To delay everything that must come next, I stop in a soap shop where I am immediately mesmerized. Six days we have left of this vacation, a carefully-planned itinerary that hasn’t even really begun. This arrondissement versus that one. A picnic, a restaurant, the best wine. Cheese. Outfits. The Louvre. An edgy art party neither of us completely understands the theme of.
What is one supposed to do when one has involuntarily relocated? No longer inside of a feeling but outside of it?
Something inside of me gnashes its teeth. I tamp it down. I am not ready to meet it yet.
Stacked soaps in every color line the walls, a kind of beauty I feel I do not deserve. Pastels and gems, the soaps look like confections and I want to bite into them. Knowing I can’t quite, I begin to finger them all. Smooth and slightly oily on my fingertips, I grow addicted to feeling each bar before I move on to the next. I dig my nails in. Color to color. Curve to curve. In between, I sniff my hands, which are becoming complicated. Lilac and white cherry, musk and amber, cocoa and vanilla and honey and walnut and pistachio.
The shopkeepers, somehow, seem not to notice me acquainting myself with their entire stock. A tourist who sounds Austrian is going on and on about a certain fragrance she is looking for, it smells like summer afternoon, the kind of smell that attracts bees, the kind you smell near a tree but not near flowers, nothing quite so sweet.
When I begin to get real-life hungry, I leave without making any purchases. The little bells on the door ding me out into an alleyway where I find a small bakery. I wonder briefly if I’m allowed to order pain au chocolat to go. I have fallen out of love with Audra; the least I can do is bring her a croissant.
I point to two chocolate croissants. One, two. I anticipate pushback, but the man behind the counter seems bored, drops the two croissants in a bag, and takes my money.
Standing in the alleyway, I realize I am starving. I eat them both. The buttery flakes snow all over my T-shirt and the ground and they are so delicious, I consider going back in and ordering a third. A fourth, just so it’s even.
Around me, the sky looks a wrong color. It is summer, but I feel cold. I am far away from where I started. I don’t know the way back.
I look at my phone. It says twenty minutes to where we’re staying. I say go, and my feet listen.
I think about how I will explain this to the people we know, the people who think we must cling tight to one another, that what we have is a treasure not to be ceded. I consider how I might tell them that love, too, comes out like something thick from a carton. But that sounds gross now, and I’m out of metaphors that seem convincing, or that make much sense at all. I’m not even sure I can explain this to myself. I have lost track of time. I am too full and still hungry, my phantom fingers still scraping phantom grooves into each bar of unbought soap until I’ve marked them all, something to save for later.
How do you explain the process of falling out of love to someone who’s never been to Paris before? For a time, it feels like the lady with the dog is following me. It seems like it might rain. I trip on a cobblestone. I desperately want water. Music comes from nowhere. Help, I want to say, but to whom? And what would help entail? I miss you, I want to scream, but the you is no one I can picture.
I think I am nearing our rental, but I can’t tell.
Am I angry too? Again, my nails in the soap. Again, the gnashing teeth from somewhere internal I can’t quite hear. Maybe I should just keep walking, past the place we’re staying—its fat towels and rich lamplight meant for people who want to bask, who want to stay. Or maybe I just need some rest.
Heavy up the stairs, the sun full-on through all the windows. I am empty-handed, and in the time the world has emptied me entirely, Audra has simply been sleeping. She is still asleep. I don’t know what comes next, or where to go. If anger visits me, if it finally comes to stay, will it be the thing that looks like fireworks? That makes a thundering sound? Will it be the thing with teeth—sharp and unmistakable? Will I recognize myself inside of it? Will it stand for anything less than the whole cake?
Audra sleeps. I stand in the French doorway, licking soap film and butter off my fingers, waiting for her to wake up.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin