TWENTY-FOUR HOURS IN PARIS
by Eoin O’Donnell
Jeremy followed Rachel to Paris because he loved her. I followed Jeremy to Paris because I loved him. It was like a mini sex conga line gyrating its way to the continent. Rachel was a long black haired, big eyed beauty that we knew in college. Sometimes I used to catch them glancing and smiling in at each other in class. I wonder did she ever see me and Jeremy doing the same. As final exams ended in that summer of 2004 everyone was talking about their plans. Someone mentioned Paris. Rachel said she was going. Then Jeremy said it. So I said it.
She went in June and Jeremy followed a few days later. He and I had spent the week before smoking a lion bar of hash in my miserable excuse for student accommodation in Maynooth. All he talked about was Paris. He said there was only one stop sign in the whole city and that that was a place where he wanted to live. His enthusiasm rubbed off and I was dying to go too. Eventually I saved up enough and reserved a one way ticket. I had no plans beyond arriving in Paris, finding Jeremy and us being in love. I booked myself the cheapest hostel that was closest to the centre of the city. Or at least what I thought was the centre of the city. I filtered the options down to ‘value for money’ and ‘location’ and settled on one place in the 10th Arrondissement.
“A shithole,’ barked the first review.
“Great location but rude staff and terrible breakfast,” bleated another.
“Great value for money. Hot chicks were in my dorm,” this one chirped.
“Not clean, good location,” another crowed.
Always look at the best review and the worst review and presume that the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle.
It was the end of July and I found myself galloping towards Paris. Despite the flight being delayed leaving Dublin and waiting over for an hour for my bag in Charles De Gaulle my enthusiasm was unsoftened. I hopped on a train in the airport and we rolled off into the morning and gradually built up a pace. When I saw the city emerge into view my heart started to thump. I was obsessed with a band called Broken Social Scene and their song KC Accidental was in my ears. It was like it was written just for this journey. So frantic and then stopping and starting and then gathering speed and whooshing off again. It was the perfect soundtrack. I felt a surge of energy. I loved Paris already.
I had stayed in worse places. The staff were fine. The location was ok. No “hot chicks” in my dorm. But it was clean. Actually, this was the Ritz compared to my student house. I would leave a suitably middle-of-the-road review so like-minded travellers would know what to expect. There were twelve beds in my room, all bunks. I plonked my bag on a lower bunk near the window and decided to email Jeremy straight away. I couldn’t wait to tell him I was here.
There were some computers in the reception area so I got a coffee from a machine and composed a lovely, short email to him. I clicked send and then got my first shot of awareness. Like the bang of the front door tells you that you left your house keys inside. Here I was chasing my love around the world. I sat there imagining several negative scenarios in the desperate hope that if I imagined them then none of them would come true. I even imagined a no response so that I would be ready for the disappointment. Nothing was arriving in my inbox so I logged off and went outside for a cigarette.
It was a hot day and the sky was a brilliant blue. Why did the sky look so full and far away? Why did the sky in Dublin feel so narrow and close? I imagined never going home. I could learn French. I could get a job. I could write and live and love and learn. I could find the stop sign. I inhaled my cigarette and looked up and down the street. I liked being a smoker. It was great for confidence, making conversation and not looking like a freak when hanging around waiting for an email. A gang of American girls walked by and I imagined that we were all friends and I went drinking beer with them. I finished my cigarette and went back inside, only then, realising that all the smokers were still inside puffing away. Maybe I looked like a freak after all.
But now this freak was ecstatic. Jeremy had replied.
“Baz – what a surprise. You should’ve told me you were coming. Where are you staying? Meet us tonight. Address below. There’s a gang of us in an amazing old apartment. Just like Maynooth. Except we’re in Paris – ha ha! Come tonight. There’ll be someone there from 5 or 6.”
Oh Jeremy, you magnificent bastard. He had that incredible skill of always finding the party, always landing on his feet and always fitting in wherever he went. He always made me feel like I was the centre of the world too. I took out a celebratory cigarette, sat where I was, and lit up, contently tapping some emails home to friends and family. I slightly exaggerated my experiences so far – “great guest house, French coffee, chatted to some Americans (lovely), have met Jeremy and eating at his place and hanging out tonight”. It was almost true.
Back in my room I changed into something more suited to a party – a burgundy shirt and charcoal jeans. The shirt wasn’t tasteful but, at the time, I thought it was gorgeous. I was twenty two. What twenty two year old doesn’t have terrible taste? So off I went with my shirt, Ipod, head full of ideas and notebook in hand.
I wanted to find a cute café and drink coffee, flirt with someone and write some lines of poetry. Instead I just stumbled around half lost. I thought I might see some of the usual sites but maybe I was in the wrong part of the city. I found a bench for a break and sat there for a while sipping from a bottle of water, sweating in the sun. After an hour or two of more wandering I thought I might as well wander in the direction of Jeremy’s apartment. I would probably get there a bit early but if it was anything like the house in Maynooth, as he had said, then there was bound to be someone there to let me in.
I must’ve been in love. I was swaying from horrible anxiety to mindless joy. I was worried that I was going in the wrong direction and that I was doing the wrong thing. But when I found a seat and settled in I began to find pleasure in simple things. The sites, the smells, the clicks and bings of the train. I leaned back and thought of Jeremy. No doubt he felt at home here. He spoke excellent French. He had studied languages in college, Spanish being the other. I studied English and skipped my French classes. We first met at the Mundo Latino – the Spanish Society. Jeremy was club secretary. I saw a poster and decided to attend. There was a lot of free tequila with bags of lemons and sachets of salt. Students can always sniff out a free drink. The opening evening was in a class hall and after a tonne of shots everyone went over to the Students Union to continue the party. I was loaded on the tequila. More loaded than anyone had ever been. I danced to Depeche Mode and the Strokes but nobody would dance with me. Then Jeremy took pity and joined in. What a night we had. He woke me at the end of the night as I lay sleeping in the corner of the bar. I had sobered up a little and he said he would walk me home. At the train station bridge I wanted to kiss him but he said “kiss me when you’re sober”. He said it would mean so much more. I asked him to stay the night but he just smiled and said he had to go home. But he was right. The sober kiss later that week was so much better.
When I reached my stop I trotted outside and checked my map. As I strolled along the old streets, kind of lost, I inhaled the air and smelled the fragrances and looked to the blue sky. There were patches of white clouds there now and the old grey architecture mixed with the new straight modern was inspiring me. I was still listening to Broken Social Scene. It was a slow dirge called “Lover’s Spit”. I loved this song. And I loved the one after it as if they were written just for me.
The apartment was up some steps and had a big wooden door. There was a series of buzzers to the right of it. I rang each one as there was no identifying names or numbers. No answer. I took a seat on the steps and lit a cigarette. I took out my notebook and scribbled down some thoughts. I liked them and hoped that they could be used in a poem or a novel that I might write someday. Cars passed. A dog ran by. Some Americans. Why so many Americans? I stared at my shoes and put them in various stages of pose as if modelling for an ad. I thought of going back to my hostel. Then I heard my name.
I looked up. Rachel. She looked surprised and then smiled. I don’t think she was too excited to see me. But she wasn’t evil. She gave me a big welcome. We embraced and she asked me a load of questions. She had an incredible gift of acting interested in someone even when she didn’t care. I found that side of her amusing. She had two bags of food shopping with her. She handed both to me as she looked for her keys. On our journey up the three flights of stairs (the lift was broken) and through the second front door I gave her a brief synopsis of my day. I carried both bags. Then I asked about Jeremy.
“You mean Remy,” she said matter-of-factly.
“It’s what we call him here. He feels it’s more French so he prefers to be called that. We’re all feeling more French.”
I smiled at how Jeremy liked to integrate himself into his new surroundings. Some people would say it was pretentious. I wouldn’t. Not about Jeremy anyway. Maybe giving himself a new name was a way for him to move on from college and be a new person. Jeremy was for college. Remy was for life.
“Do you call him Remy?” I asked.
“Well, his name is Remy,” she said. “You should call people what they want to be called. Not what you want to call them.”
She always did that. Announcing statements that you couldn’t disagree with. She would say things like “I hate racists”. It’s not a line that opens discussion. What can you possibly add beyond agreement? Saying “yes” wasn’t conversation. She liked to give herself the final word with the opening line. I began to think that this was the first time the two of us ever had a conversation alone. She looked so serious. I wondered why he loved her. She was such hard work. Or maybe she was just hard work for me.
There had been a long term boyfriend in college and she was only recently single. She unloaded the news the week before exams and that’s when she said she wanted to go to Paris. Then it all seemed to snowball. There had always been a flirtation between her and Jeremy but now it seemed to be legitimised. She didn’t sleep around and neither did he. He had told me he loved her a few days after we had first kissed but he never moved for her. We used to hang out in my house and he spent the night sometimes. He said he didn’t know how he felt and that maybe it was all just an experiment. Like doing drugs. But I didn’t like to think that being gay was like doing drugs. Maybe he meant that being in love was like being on drugs. That was how I felt. Either way, I wanted to be around him. Lying in bed together, him fidgeting with the loose strips of wallpaper over the head of my bed as I sat up on my elbow looking at him. He rambled across various unrelated topics. He had an array of information. My favourite was how Genghis Khan murdered so many people that he caused the earth’s climate to cool. I could’ve stayed leaning on my elbow forever.
She took the food bags from me and started to unpack. Two baguettes, apples, peaches, croissants and two large bottles of sparkling water. We ate some of the baguette and drank the sparkling water. Then I had an apple and Rachel had a peach. The apples were delicious.
“You ate the apple the wrong way?” Rachel said as I tossed the core into the bin. “Most people eat through the middle. Like you. But it should be eaten top to bottom. You won’t notice the core, you get all the nutrients and there’s no waste.”
I couldn’t disagree.
We moved from the kitchen into the living room, smoked some cigarettes and then people started to arrive, just walking in without knocking. Did they all live here? I began to think there wouldn’t be a spare bed for me. Unless I managed to get in beside Jeremy. I nodded to myself and loved the idea, imagining that it was already arranged.
Before long the room was full. I counted twelve. Most of them were Irish. I didn’t know anybody. Rachel opened the two large windows and let the warm air in. Someone put on The Smiths which I didn’t think was music suited to a wonderful, summer evening in Paris. It was an acoustic one, short with no drums. I didn’t recognise it. I thought about the song and it made me sad. But when I had looked up I saw Jeremy. My heart did a somersault. I watched as he raised the two bags in his hands, announcing “wine”, getting a stoned cheer of approval. He passed it to somebody and greeted others and then we made eyes. He looked surprised and then smiled and we met in the middle of the room.
“Barry,” he said and hung his arms around my neck and kissed my forehead. He had a gigantic smile. He looked like he was stoned. We started to speak about my journey and my plans when we were interrupted by someone asking about the wine and the cigarettes. This set the tone for conversation all evening. No one-to-ones or private discussions. No getting to know anybody. It was all very jovial with people talking aloud, over each other and grabbing their chance whenever they could. Lots of hoots of laughter and shouts of joy mixed with some speculation on life and philosophy, movies and music.
Jeremy filled my glass beaker with wine. Dark red. Almost purple. It was divine.
“The French keep all the good wine for themselves,” he said.
This lead to more jabs of speech, opinions, laughs.
“It’s fantastic,” he went on. “And so cheap. It’s a national right to have fine wine.”
Someone called him Remy and he answered. I just sat and stared at him, sipping my drink, as he stood there smoking and holding court. I loved seeing him like this. He was in his element. I just wished I could have him to myself. I planned to corner him in the kitchen later. We could have our private catch up. I felt it was only a matter of time. Parties always tended to disperse into the kitchen at some stage.
The music got louder, the air got hazy, the sun went down and the night moved on. I stepped closer to the windows and looked out into that beautiful, dark Parisian sky. I wanted to stay up all night. Never go asleep. I said to my new friends that we should try to wait up and watch the sun rise. Some of them nodded and half smiled, half hearted, as if I had just asked them for a loan of money. Conversation turned to some book or philosopher and they all tripped over each other to quote a line or passage. Someone rolled a joint. Rachel announced that “poverty shouldn’t exist”. Then someone was asking why the lift was broken. Rachel told us how lifts work and how they stop at each floor. I topped my wine up from an errant bottle on the dining table and wrote some more.
Jeremy was still centre stage. But he was always over there and never over here. The drunker I got the more I loved and hated him in equal measure. Why couldn’t he talk to me?
After listening to a lively but incoherent debate on Stanley Kubrick I decided I needed some air so I stepped out onto the landing. Jeremy was there, leaning on the bannister while a girl and a guy sat on the steps. She was preparing a joint. Jeremy looked warm and experienced in his open shirt, white vest, blue jeans, toking away and bringing the wine to his lips. As I appeared he winked at me and continued to talk. He was going on about the French diet and how it was the healthiest in the world. I settled in on the steps behind the girl and the guy. We all smoked and I said some things that made them laugh. I don’t remember Rachel making Jeremy laugh the way I did. But maybe some people don’t want the person they love to make them laugh.
When we went back inside Rachel and some other girl screeched in delight and grabbed Jeremy. They said they wanted him to make a bong out of a coke bottle and he rubbed his hand through his gorgeous lank hair and agreed. I let them at it and I retreated to the kitchen to top up my glass. A giant bearded man wearing an Anthrax t-shirt was there. I tried to chat to him but he seemed distracted or stoned. The girl beside him looked like she wanted to throw up. The kitchen was a mess and I couldn’t find anything to drink. I went back inside to find the music was louder and more revellers had arrived. I tried talking to some people but they were too far gone.
I decided to go home. I scanned the room for Jeremy but couldn’t see him. I had barely spoken to him all night and was feeling cheated. When Rachel rushed past me I stopped her, awkwardly, and asked for Jeremy. She corrected me by calling him Remy and said she didn’t know. I told her I was going. She said “ok” and gave me a brisk hug and turned away. But I grabbed her hand and she turned back, looking confused.
I was drunk and stoned and in love. Just one of those things will make you do something stupid. And I did.
“I love him,” I said.
She didn’t answer. She just stared at me.
“And he loves me,” I added.
“What are you talking about?” she said, slightly agitated.
“He doesn’t care about you. He cares about me. He loves me. He just wants to fuck you.”
She didn’t flinch. Her face was blank.
“If he wants to fuck me, that’s okay.”
I couldn’t disagree. I felt tears forming in my eyes like when you get in a fight at school. I immediately wanted to say I was sorry. There had never been any animosity between us. My stupid brain or heart or dick made it spring forth tonight and I immediately felt terrible.
Then I just disappeared. An Irish goodbye. It was raining outside and even though it was after 2am I walked towards the Metro in the stupid hope that there might be a train. It was closed. The rain got heavier and I knew I would have to get a taxi. After about twenty five minutes of tramping the streets I managed to hail one. I think he took pity on me in the rain because his light wasn’t on. He spoke English, thank God, so I was able to describe where I was staying and he said he knew it.
As we drove he asked me where I was from. I told him Ireland. He arched his body around, not looking at the road for a good five seconds. He looked excited.
“All the best Irish writers came to France,” he said. “Wilde, Beckett, Joyce.”
He then told me about his favourite Wilde play, that he loved Portrait of the Artist and how Beckett actually wrote in French. Lots of quotes and stories tumbled from him and I was actually glad to sit there and listen. Then he told me that when Beckett lived in the south of France he used to give André the Giant a lift to school in his lorry because André was too big for the school bus.
“Imagine that,” he said. “Samuel Beckett and André the Giant.”
This cheered me up. I had never heard that story before. I patted my pockets for my notebook to write it down because I knew I’d forget it by morning. I checked my front pockets. My back pockets. Oh no. I checked the back of the taxi, down the sides of the seats just to make sure. My heart tripped. I didn’t have it. I must have left it at Jeremy’s. I couldn’t go back. No, no, how stupid of me. I didn’t have enough money to be driving around all night in a taxi. Plus, I’d left under a cloud so I couldn’t return just to retrieve a notebook, could I? I looked back through the window as the streets rolled out behind me. I felt so helpless.
I’m sure someone was leafing through it in a stoned haze. I thought about the things I wrote. What I said about those people. They would find it lying on the floor and just instinctively have a read. I imagined them laughing, scoffing, tearing it apart. Even getting angry. Or worse they would think it was trite and adolescent. Sad and desperate. Or maybe nobody found it. Maybe it was lying there ignored. But if nobody found it tonight, somebody would find it tomorrow. Surely they hoovered the place once in a while?
By the time I got to the hostel the rain had stopped. There was a fresh wind blowing. The driver and I thanked each other and I meandered inside to my temporary home. I was dying to go asleep. Maybe there’d be American girls in the room? Or nobody. Just me. But it was full of drunks. All men. I couldn’t discern the accent or language. But, good Jesus, they were loud. They sang, pissed and puked all night. The quieter they tried to be the louder they were. I think I got about half an hour of decent sleep. I wished I was at home.
Next morning I beat the queue for the shared shower. The smell in the room could have melted ice-cream. There were still six or seven bodies snoring when I left. I sampled the continental breakfast but could only manage a cup of coffee. The thoughts of Rachel or Jeremy finding my notebook caused a sharp poke of nerves in my stomach. The pains made me lose my appetite. Or maybe it was the hangover. Or the guilt of speaking to Rachel. My sinuses were all blocked up and I was breathing like Darth Vader. I checked the internet stations in the reception area but they were all taken. I didn’t want to wait so I went out into the noise and heat of the city. I wanted to talk to Jeremy so I decided to find an internet café and send a note to him. I’d tell him that I wanted to see him and we needed to talk. Maybe I’d mention the notebook. Hopefully he wouldn’t reject that idea. Why would he? We had got on so well last night. I had made him laugh. But when I opened my email there was a message from Jeremy. It was brief.
“Barry – where did you go? Need to talk. I’ll come meet you.”
He named a café in the Pigalle area at midday. Eventually I found it and paid for a stupidly overpriced coffee. Then a coke. Then a water. I couldn’t shake this hangover, this dread. I waited and waited. I wanted to see him so badly. I imagined him arriving. Hangoverless. Looking amazing. He would say he was angry but he understood that I had to speak to Rachel. Or he would say he loves Rachel. Or he would say that he loves me. Or he would say that I should stay in Paris and we should see how things go. Maybe I could move in to the apartment. Take things slowly. But what about the notebook? He might say they read it. Or that Rachel read it. Maybe she was angry about it. But he wasn’t angry. He was flattered that he was worth writing about. He would encourage me to write more. Then he would say Rachel’s moving out. Or that she knows about us. Or that the whole things a mess and I would have to console him.
Whatever was going to happen I wanted to tell him that I loved him.
I looked up. There he was. I stood up and went to embrace him but he kind of brushed by me and took the seat opposite. He ordered an Americano from the waiter and then made small talk by telling me how the Americano got its name.
“American GI’s in Italy during World War II. The espresso was too strong so they added water to it. It was nicknamed the Americano by the Italians.”
I wished I had my notebook.
He looked very hungover. But even with that he retained his striking features. We made some more small talk although he seemed distracted.
Eventually he spat it out: “Why did you shout at Rachel?”
He looked right at me.
I tried to deny it but I didn’t do a good job. He didn’t look impressed.
Then he said: “Barry, she knows about us.”
I took a sip of water. “Good,” I said, defiantly.
“No, not good. She’s my friend and I wanted to tell her who I was. I was waiting for the right time. I didn’t want you or anyone else to do it for me.”
The coffee arrived. Jeremy thanked the waiter and took a drag on his cigarette and blew a mighty stream of smoke into the air.
“Do you love her?” I asked.
“Yes. She’s my best friend. We came here to Paris to live together. Best friends do that.”
He must be confused. He was definitely confused.
“But you said you wanted her? You said you loved her?”
“I do love her. As my friend.”
“But you followed her here.”
“We came over to live here. To look after each other. That’s what friends do, Barry. They look out for each other. They don’t pick fights with each other.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes longer. I think he was deliberately saying nothing, letting me stew. The whole time I was plundering my brain for the right thing to say, terrified of telling him how I felt. Then he stubbed out his cigarette and downed his coffee in what must have been a new world record time.
“And the way you just appeared unannounced.”
I slunk down in my seat.
“It was just a bit sudden”, he continued. “But that doesn’t matter. The thing is the way you acted towards Rachel. And because of that I can’t see you right now.”
“I told her the truth.”
“It wasn’t your truth to tell. It was my truth.”
I sat up straight. My hands were shaking. I tried to say I was sorry but no sound came out.
He dropped a few euro on the table. I went to touch his hand but he pulled away. He went to leave but then turned back.
“Oh, here. I think this is yours. Rachel found it.”
He took it from his front pocket and tossed it on the table. And then there it was. My notebook.
I picked it up but then dropped it again. I wasn’t sure I wanted it back anymore.
“Rachel read some of it,” he said.
I got that jab of a cramp in my stomach.
“And she showed me some of it,” he added.
I went defensive. “I’m allowed have a diary.”
“I know. We stopped when we figured that out. People wanted to read it but she wouldn’t let them. She’s a good person.”
“Jeremy,” I said, sitting up straight but he raised his hand.
“It’s Remy. My name is Remy.”
He nodded at me, slow and deliberate. Like he was saying goodbye. Then he turned and stepped away, moving in and out of the maze of tables, out onto the path. He looked left and looked right and crossed over the road. I watched him walk along the far side towards the Metro, his shirt flapping in the breeze. He descended the stairs into the station. I sat there for a minute. I thought of him, I thought of Rachel. I thought of my flight and my hostel. I thought of the notebook. I thought of the trains and the party. I thought of the coffee. My twenty four hours in Paris. I stood up and dropped some money on the table. Leaving the notebook there I made my way out through the tables and onto the path. I looked left and right and crossed the road to follow him.
About the Author:
Eoin O’Donnell is a writer from Dublin, Ireland. He writes, sings, hosts radios shows, hosts walking history tours, drinks beer and tea and watches Harrison Ford movies.