“The Seine will keep flowing, my love. You can look away.”
I could not. I had never felt my blood pound as it did then, had never felt so in synchronisation with anything else in my life. Not even when we held hands and lay on our backs, in the park back home, and tried to see the constellations through cloud cover and smog. I felt his hand, calloused from guitar and stained yellow at the fingertips, rest lightly against my shoulderblade. I did not move. I knew that if I turned away, if I looked into his gentle misunderstanding eyes, the Seine would stop—and I would stop pulsing, too.
I had eighty euros left in my traveller’s pouch, and I think he had perhaps a hundred and twenty. I remembered hearing him swear as I alighted the train in Paris, finally, in Paris. I think he wanted to buy himself some food (they didn’t serve you in the economy carriage—you had to pay for first class if you wanted to drink French hot chocolate before you crossed the border) but I wasn’t listening. I never seemed to listen all that much anymore. I would have to get a job. A job in country where I did not speak the language.
Or perhaps I would melt away into the Seine, instead.
It was warm, summer in this strange land. I wondered if Hemingway had sat where I sat now, or Cole Porter, or Picasso with his women. Back home it was winter, and the first snow would be falling soon, I supposed. I didn’t know. I’d been away for a little over a month. I’d been carrying with me my backpack and my traveller’s pouch and the man who loved me more than Paris. I did not understand that. I did not understand how anybody could love anything more than Paris.
The park bench I sat on was splintered and rough, perhaps from too many tourists, or travellers like me. The Seine flowed in the canal beneath me, and behind me, just to the left and back a few blocks was the Notre Dame. If I had had the courage to look away from the murky grey current, I would have seen the gothic steeples rising into the blue sky, a rare blue sky in the city of grey and memory. All along the pathway we had strolled down were red poppies, their content expressionless faces turned up towards the sun, as if praising the warmth in an eternal silent choir. I would dearly like to be a poppy, I thought. I would dearly like to just photosynthesise. If I were a poppy, I would not have to have his hand on my shoulder.
I felt the bench shudder a little, disturbed as he sat beside me. I heard his trousers tear, and a brief muttering of curses while he fussed over the new hole in his pants. I would have to fix that, tonight in the hostel dorm we were sharing with eight other travellers. None of us talked to each other. They lied when they said you met people you would fall in love with in Paris. Perhaps if I did not have him here with me, I would meet a young writer who smoked on his balcony and lived off baguettes and hot tea. Perhaps I was simply too romantic. Perhaps I had read too many books.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he murmured, and finally, finally, he looked at the Seine too. But I do not think he ever really saw it the way I saw it. There was no intake of breath, no fluttering of fingers for something to hold, no gentle scintillation of eyes to look over this dream. Still, I could not speak, and I could tell he was getting restless. Ever since we had arrived in Paris, I had been unbearably silent. I know it tormented him. Back at home, in our dingy little apartment with the terrible telephone connection I would try to call my parents on every month, I couldn’t stand the silence. I would be screeching or reciting poetry or singing Ella Fitzgerald to the moon. But in Paris I was quiet. He could not tell that the city spoke for me.
“I just feel so eternal,” he sighed, looking up at the willows that shaded us. It sounded like something from a bad teen novel. “And I swear in that moment, we were infinite,” or something like that. And then, like gossamer webs spreading across autumn leaves, his fingers began to inch towards mine. I could not see them, my gaze fixed on the Seine as it was, but I could feel them. The girl I was before I arrived in Paris could sense the man I used to love (if I knew love ‘til now), and could know what he would say, what he would do. He would hold my hand, now, and kiss my cheek and sit in silence for a moment or two (pretending desperately to be content with quiet), before jumping up and suggesting Picasso’s gallery and a croissant.
And his fingers were bare moments away, now, and I took in the Seine, and I breathed in the Seine, and I held the Seine inside my heart so that I would remember this feeling of eternity, this feeling of connection forever and ever and ever amen. I would praise the Seine to the moon, two seconds now, and I would whisper Paris to the stars, one second, and I would fly fly fly escape and he touched me.
And I withered; broke.
And the Seine stopped flowing.
And he left Paris alone.
And I was lost in the Notre Dame, longing for the Seine inside me.