I meet Ford at the type of house party in Paris where no one has really been invited. Everyone knows someone who knows someone. Nico, my Franco-British friend, is throwing his house-warming, most likely to make us all jealous that he’s found a one-bedroom near the Lower Canal. The apartment has a real oven, which he points out as soon as I walk in and toss my coat on his bed. ‘You can cook for me now,’ he says with a wink.
He leads me to the living room, where people are swilling their rosé around in their glasses on the couch and smoking at the window. I peer out the window, holding my breath so as not to inhale the smoke. It balloons like speech bubbles from their mouths.
I can just make out a sliver of the Canal from here, one of the rusty green bridges crossing its waters. There is a couple standing on top of the bridge, taking pictures, posing, probably staring up at Nico’s window and wondering what Parisians who live here do. ‘Do you think there’s a party going on up there?’ I imagine they say to each other as the boats sink down onto the locks beneath them and disappear.
Nico taps my shoulder and I turn around from the window to see him standing with a blond boy behind me. There’s a gleam in Nico’s eye, like he is out to pull me away from thinking or looking, both things he says I do too much. He gives the boy a little shove towards me and then disappears into the crowd. He has said before that introductions are beneath him.
I move in to give the boy the bises, but he shoots out his hand instead.
‘Lucy,’ I say.
‘Rutherford,’ he says. For a second, I think he’s fucking with me, trying to make some commentary on this party, the abundance of non-ironic moustaches and black and white striped shirts there are in the room. He just nods though, confirming it. ‘But I go by Ford.’
I look him up and down, though I try to do it through my peripheral vision, as I glance to my right at everyone else. His hair is dirty blond and messy; his eyes are bright blue. He has darker scruff on his face and is wearing a brown tweed jacket, with jeans that are cuffed at the ankles so that his brown loafers are entirely on display. If he cleaned up more, he’d look entirely Aryan. But right now, he strikes me as a Brooklyn transplant. Someone who bumped into a similarly dressed guy on the metro and was ‘down to hang’ at some Canal party on a Friday night.
We stand in silence, the low din of French around us, and I stop myself from staring at how perfectly cuffed his jeans are.
‘Can I tell you a little lie?’ he asks.
‘Your real name isn’t Rutherford?’
‘Nope, that it is. That it is.’
He pours me a glass of white wine. We make our way into the party and stand near the couch. After my first few months in Paris, the couch was always the first place I headed at a party. I had observed enough by then to know that the counter was always too crowded and there would be no beer pong table to gather around. The couch was the best place to go to accidentally fall into a conversation and pretend you belonged.
Ford clears his throat. ‘I was gonna say earlier – I’m really good in party situations. Basically an expert at this kind of thing.’
‘What kind of thing would that be?’ I ask.
‘You know, the kind of thing where you’ve been in a city for two days. You get lost on the metro, and then a really friendly guy starts talking to you in rapid French and then you think there’s some emergency on the subway and so you respond in English that you don’t speak French. He tells you that you’re cute and invites you to a party in some neighborhood you’ve never even heard of. And then you show up and are like, “Yeah no big deal, this is totally normal.” That kind of thing?’
I look at him again and notice this time that his fingers are dancing on his upper thigh. ‘That’s a pretty big lie,’ I say. ‘It’s funny because I’d say from first glance that you look right at home here.’
I think he looks pleased. ‘I’d say the same about you.’
I smile back. I’m not dressed right for this party. I’m starting to realise that I’m not really ever dressed right for anything. I’m wearing jeans and black flats and a white fake silk-collared shirt, like I’m going to a paralegal interview. My thin, light brown hair is tied up in a bun with strands poking out, but not poking out in the right places, the unruly kind of bun that every French girl has mastered. The smoke from everyone else near the window is starting to make me light-headed. I haven’t been able to hold my breath since meeting Ford.
Later on in the night, we head back to the window so Ford can smoke a cigarette he’s bummed off of Nico. I look out to try to find the people standing on the bridge, to see if they’re staring up at the apartment. They’re still there, but they’re just looking out over the Canal, the girl is putting away her phone. Even from here, I can see how bright their faces are and I wish I knew how to draw so that I could sketch them. I point them out to Ford and ask him what he thinks. Wouldn’t they be great subjects for something about contentment? A sketch? A poem?
He takes a swig of wine. ‘I don’t think they look that content. I think they’re waiting for something.’
Ford tells me he came to Paris after graduating from Princeton because his dad is a British citizen, so he had the passport, and he wanted to start taking his photography and collaging seriously. That, ‘And fuck around for a while,’ after the intensity of being at an Ivy League for four years.
He talks about Princeton and growing up in San Francisco like they are decidedly removed from himself now. He says things like, ‘Yeah, back in college’ and ‘God, I don’t miss that about SF.’ I don’t tell him that I call my parents every night after I get back from teaching English at the university.
I have started spending Wednesday and Saturday evenings with him, sometimes Sunday afternoons, too. Usually, we meet at his place because mine is 12 square meters and I don’t have a table. We talk about books I’ve read and drink too much red wine.
Ford lives in the 10th, between Gare du Nord and South Pigalle, in an area just sketchy enough to make it cool. His photography and collages are pasted all along the white walls of his studio. Black men and white men glower at the camera in fedoras. French words like ‘insolite’ are pasted next to stock photos of cacti that are stitched on top of the Buttes-Chaumont park. I nod when he shows me a new one he’s developed of a dog peeing on the Rue Saint-Honoré and tell him that it’s ‘quite interesting.’ I think it’s the reaction he’s looking for.
I pull out my fragmented knowledge on the origins of California rap or how the Kayapo tribe in Brazil believes that a photograph can steal their souls. He smiles when I tell him I will never be able to take a sexy pull of a cigarette and tilt my head like a French woman because I am afraid of smoking and am not sure how to make sexy head gestures. I am aware that I more ‘on’ with Ford in our conversations than I am with Nico, or really with anyone since I came to Paris. Or maybe I am just trying to be more on, I will ask myself later.
When we’re done talking and drinking, he walks me to the door. He asks if I need to be walked home because there’s a sketchy area on the way from his place. I tell him no, that I don’t spook easily, referring to myself like a 19th century horse.
Ford gives me the bises and says, as always, ‘Until next time.’
I walk the 15 minutes back to my house with my cheeks puffed out, filling them with air and then exhaling it all at once. I tell myself I do this because it makes me warmer. The wind is brisk and I feel more sturdy bracing it with fat, air-filled cheeks.
I think I do it because of the way my breath sounds when I’ve exhaled, a soft P. I focus on that sound. I pass a homeless man near the ATM, then three tabacs with groups of older guys standing around outside smoking. If I focus on the P sound, I stop replaying in my mind the stupid things I said to Ford that night or how his hair was scruffed up or how his thigh touched mine, with a pressure that was light but firm, when we sat on the couch. I puff out my cheeks and count the Ps until I am home.
‘What brought you to Paris?’ Ford asks me one Saturday night at his place. We’re drinking red wine on his beige sofa bed and I’m trying not to spill it.
It’s the first time he’s raised the question since we met a month ago, and I want to say something exciting, like I followed an older Parisian professor here who I had an affair with in college. Or that my family name is really ‘de la Roche’ but we changed it to ‘Goldstein’ to hide our French aristocratic roots after the Revolution.
I tell him the truth: ‘My college offered an exchange to teach here for a year as a lectrice at the Sorbonne and I just ended up staying on after, to keep teaching and living here.’
He takes a long sip of his wine. ‘You didn’t come here to write. Or to do something creative?’
‘No,’ I say. ‘What gave you that impression?’
‘I guess because all of your friends are in the art scene.’
I start laughing at that. ‘No, they’re not really.’ Nico works in an art gallery as a glorified errand boy and gets me invites to silly vernissages that we go to for the free wine.’
Ford looks serious. That slight reflection of light in his eyes is gone. ‘But you talk about literature all the time,’ he says. He crosses his arms and sinks deeper into the couch. ‘It’s just, you strike me like you’re here for some reason.’
‘I am,’ I say. ‘I wanted to become fluent in French. I want to be somewhere new. I was sick of home, of D.C., this was a great opportunity.’ I wave my hand around in the air and smile, like it should be a given.
‘You know what I mean,’ Ford says.
‘No, I don’t.’
‘It’s just… Paris isn’t a place you can be without a hunger, you know? Especially as an American. There has to be something pulling you here.’
‘And you don’t think I have something pulling me here?’ I ask him. My voice is cold, distanced from myself.
He scrapes a hand through his scruff of blond hair. ‘I don’t know, Lucy. I don’t know, there’s just some pulse that I can’t find in you.’
My heart is beating too fast and I can feel my body tense up, my thighs and shoulders tighten.
He looks thoughtful for a second, looking down at his big fingers. ‘Like I couldn’t quite figure out why something hadn’t happened between us, you know? Why I just never felt the urge to take this further? But I think that’s why.’
Later, I will run through the things I could have said back to him: ‘Maybe it’s because you haven’t been looking?’ or ‘What the fuck do you think you know about my life?’. I laugh lightly until the moment is broken. Ford starts talking about his art, showing me the photographs he got developed yesterday.
My head is filled with wine when I get off of the couch an hour later and say goodnight. He doesn’t offer to walk me home.
A week later, on Saturday night, Ford texts me to hang out. I pace the ten steps of my apartment. What will keep him interested? What will make him feel bad? I draft and redraft texts. ‘No big deal, but I’d like some space and not to hang out for a while,’ I write. My screen flashes blue quickly with his reply. ‘No worries,’ he writes and then a second later, ‘I understand.’
I curl up on my bed with my phone in my hand. I wonder if Ford is sitting at home, thinking about what he said to me. What does he understand? Is he plotting something, some follow-up text, to show that he’s sorry, that he at least still wants to be friends?
No, I tell myself. He’s out with some French girl he met at some other party. Leading her back to his place, letting her ruffle his hair, pinning her against his sofa bed as he unfolds it, whispering in her ear, ‘I wanted you since the moment I saw you, smoking at the window.’
I spend the week sitting on my tiny couch, rereading his text and trying to calm myself down, trying not to cry. I call my friends from home, asking their advice, then retreating from it, changing the subject to ask what D.C. is like right now, if it’s true that all the guys there are Republicans.
I keep myself together while teaching at the university. I try to smile in the dimly-lit classroom, but one of the Parisian-born English teachers pulls me aside after class and tells me I look terrible. ‘Aw pauvre Lucy,’ she says. ‘You need some rest. You just look so…’ she snaps her fingers, searching for the English word, “haggard, that’s it,’ and she smiles brightly then too.
The next weekend, Nico forces me to meet him for coffee in his neighborhood, near the Canal. ‘And brush your hair,’ he tells me, before hanging up.
The Canal looks muckier than usual, a sickly green, and I try to ignore the unease, almost nausea, that pulls at my stomach as I cross the bridge, on my way to the tiny coffee shop on the other side.
Nico pulls me into a large hug when he sees me, tells me that I’ve brought out his British side.
‘The British hug?’ I ask him and he smiles and orders us two cappuccinos.
We sit down in wooden chairs across a low coffee table. The only other options are the communal tables with baskets of fruit and skinny people laughing over their cups of green tea. The chairs are uncomfortable and I’m acutely aware of the rods pushing into my spine. Nico gives me a once-over, biting his cheek.
‘What happened with Ford?’ he asks.
He has heard the main signposts already. I had texted Nico every time I was walking home from Ford’s: ‘He asked me what I’m doing for Christmas break – that means he wants to see me before I leave, right?’, ‘He lit candles tonight and played jazz while he showed me his photos!’, ‘He invited me to dinner at his place with a Spanish couple. That’s kind of like a double date, no?’
‘Nothing happened,’ I say. My face is blank. I tell him the details of the night.
Nico is silent for a while after I’ve finished. He has gelled his hair back today and is wearing an outrageously long scarf that looks great on him.
‘Luce,’ he says. He locks his eyes on mine. They are deep brown and sparkling and I wonder if part of him is loving this, if somehow my unhappiness fills a longing of his to be the brightest, if he draws energy from my misery. ‘Look, Luce, you are beautiful and intelligent and fucking scarily observant. You know this. And I’ve told you these things a hundred times.’
‘Well, maybe I need to hear it again right now.’ I smile at him.
‘No, you don’t,’ he says. He is speaking quietly now. ‘Because he was kind of right, when he said that.’
I open my mouth to protest, but he pats my arm across the table, silencing me.
‘I’m not saying he’s not a little shit, because he is. But look, Lucy, you’ve been here two years now and you keep talking about everything you want to do here. How you want to do this or that and it’s just like, there is some other version of you, in some other dimension, who is doing all those things she wants to do. Who is like, I don’t know a cultural critic or a literature professor or a writer, who’s just out there killing it. Not hanging out at lame parties with me or wasting time on self-absorbed shits like Ford.’
Nico squeezes my hand and I nod at him and sip my cappuccino and I keep nodding as he keeps squeezing my hand. We both know he is right.
If it is true that there are multiple versions of ourselves in other dimensions, that an opportunity or moment is never really lost, then there is some version of me who left Nico’s party that Friday night and walked down to the Canal, to the green bridge. The couple are still standing there, though the girl has now put away her phone and they are pointing up at Nico’s window, even though it’s far away. I sit on a bench, right below, looking up at their faces, listening in to their conversation.
‘I wonder what parties are like here?’ the girl asks. Her face is shining, her lips are pink, I can tell that just asking the question and waiting for his response excites her. But the guy doesn’t respond. He grabs her hand from the pocket of her blue coat and places it on the railing of the bridge, in his own. They stay like that for a while, looking out over the water.
I sit below them, watching, until they leave, and even then, I stay on the bench and look out over the water and wonder why he didn’t answer her. I pull out a leftover napkin from my purse and a pen and draw their hands on top of the cold iron of the bridge, her shining face, his straight back.
I draw until my own hands turn cold and I am no longer aware that there is still music playing, that somewhere nearby, there are twinkling lights and girls pressing their arms against boys near windows, inhaling clouds of smoke and exhaling promises in raspy tones. Somewhere far away, somewhere forgotten, Nico is throwing his house-warming party.
ANNIE PROSSNITZ grew up in Chicago and moved to Paris in 2013. She is a graduate of Stanford University, where she studied Creative Writing and History. Her poetry has been published in The Bastille, Paris Lit Up, and Two Words For. You can follow her on Twitter @AProssnitz