As Jayne made final preparations to leave New York for Paris during the first few days of June, a heat wave turned the sky ashen with trapped pollution and unshed rain. The people she passed on the street seemed more short-tempered than usual, and no one met her gaze other than schoolchildren who glanced up at her with innocent apathy. For a long time she had assumed that poverty or loneliness, or both, would force her to flee the city, but instead she had met an older man who invited her to trade Manhattan for his home in Paris. She said yes with little hesitation.
The air was dry and the sky free of glowering clouds as her plane landed in the gray northern sprawl of Paris’s exurbs at seven thirty in the morning, the highways already pulsing with cars and brightly painted tradesmen’s vans. She had not slept on the flight from JFK because she was thinking of the man who waited for her on the threshold of tomorrow morning, someone who sold other people’s art after finding it impossible, years ago, to sell much of his own. She was leaving her friends, her native language, her family, her doctor and dentist, her library card, the purposeful little dogs, some dressed in sweaters and plaid coats on winter days, that she saw walking with their doting owners on the streets near her apartment.
For six independent but mostly hand-to-mouth years she had lived in Manhattan and had not been to Paris since college, nine years earlier, but she had thought of it every day, as if it were someone important she hoped without reason to become indispensable to. Each quarter had its own manicured parks and public squares, and thousands of Parisians walked or rode bicycles or took the train to work and to the narrow-aisled stores where they often shopped at the end of the day, filling net bags and small wheeled carts. When she first saw them as a student, the stately, weathered buildings with their stone facades seemed to encourage romance. She found Paris more serenely beautiful than the other cities she was familiar with, many with fuming smokestacks and superhighways driven like a stake through their thundering hearts.
One of the first things she intended to do after her arrival was visit Sacré Coeur and the hilly northern quarter it presided over and look upon the miles of rooftops descending like stair steps, its spires and soot-darkened chimneys and riverine belt at the middle. At twenty she had stood on the same hilltop and believed without question in her right to everything she desired: prosperity, love, the admiration of friends and strangers, a long and healthy life. She had been in Paris with a group of four or five other American students, sharing a bottle of red wine, its plastic Monoprix bag poor and slippery camouflage. They were all confident in their glamorous futures as playwrights, painters, concert pianists, dot-com entrepreneurs, but they remained as unknown now as they had been then—one had become a speech therapist, two had married and started families, a fourth had moved to Peru to work for his aunt’s tourism business.
Liesel, her closest friend, saw her off, pretending on the long cab ride to JFK from Jayne’s apartment on East Second Street that she fully supported Jayne’s move overseas. But as they said good-bye a few feet from where the security line began, Jayne was startled to see that her friend had started to cry.
“Liesel,” she whispered, her own throat threatening to close over. “I’m not leaving forever.” She stared down at the dirty floor, its dull white surface streaked with black slashes from the thousands of rubber soles that had already shuffled over it that afternoon.
“You don’t know that,” her friend said softly. She wiped her eyes, embarrassed.
The last time Jayne remembered seeing Liesel in tears was at another friend’s birthday party three summers earlier, when someone had slipped in a DVD of The English Patient, thinking it high comedy to couple the film with the party’s Pogues sound track. The prankster had underestimated the movie’s appeal to some of the drunken guests, Liesel especially, who in high school had seen it in the theater five times. Jayne herself had seen it three.
“Of course I’ll be back,” said Jayne.
“You don’t know when, though.”
“No, but you can come visit me, can’t you? And I’ll be on the other end of the phone anytime you need me.”
“Six hours ahead of me.”
“Yes, but I’ll still be there. We can Skype and e-mail too.” She took one of Liesel’s small hands in her own, noticing that the freckled skin of her friend’s arms had turned to gooseflesh inside the over-air-conditioned airport. “For all I know, I’ll be back next week.”
Liesel shook her head. “You won’t be.”
“So come see me. Or I’ll have to fly back and kidnap you.”
“I’d better go before it gets any later. I have another hour or two of work left at the office,” Liesel said, trying to smile. She hugged Jayne one more time, hard, as if to hurt her a little, and fled. Jayne stood blinking after her friend, bereft. When she turned to look back a moment later from her place at the end of the security line, Liesel had already disappeared, her brown ponytail and yellow blouse no longer visible in the crowd of harried travelers.
Two redheaded children complained to their father about sore feet, neon-green backpacks slung over their narrow shoulders, one of the packs stuffed to sausage-like rigidity, the other limp as an airless balloon. Near them, a woman in pink shorts and a black tank top was snickering at something a man in a Yankees cap had whispered, his mouth hovering at her ear. He had an overgrown blond mustache, and Jayne wondered if the woman sometimes dreaded kissing him—probably not, considering the way she was leaning into him. Jayne heard her phone chime, the sound almost lost in the cacophony of departure. It was a text from another friend, Melissa, who had not been able to find a sitter for her six-month-old son and ride with Jayne and Liesel to JFK. Miss you already. I’m jealous & would do what you’re doing in a second if I could. Melissa had been married for two years to a man she’d met on a backpacking trip in Colorado. She had not intended to have a child so soon, but as she sometimes said, this was nothing to be sorry about. She was nuts about her adorable son, who was healthy and a frequent smiler, and who, to Melissa and her husband’s surprise and relief, had begun sleeping through the night at three months.
The image of Liesel in tears stayed with Jayne as she passed through security and settled at the gate in the Air France concourse. That her friend would miss her terribly—or the opposite—had not been foremost in Jayne’s thoughts as she’d made plans to leave New York. Until they’d said good-bye a few minutes earlier, Liesel had not seemed very upset by Jayne’s move to Paris, only a little wistful that she wasn’t going too. Jayne didn’t believe, in any case, that she would remain in France for the rest of her life. A year, maybe two or three at most. Any duration beyond this was difficult to fathom.
On the plane she had a window seat, the two passengers on her right an older couple, a woman with voluminous iron-colored curls in the middle seat. More than once her elbow grazed Jayne’s arm, her head also drifting down several times to rest on Jayne’s shoulder until she twitched awake and righted herself, mumbling her excuses in accented English. Her husband snored next to her, his gray head nodding forward, chin sinking into his chest. Jayne wondered where they lived, and if, like Laurent, the man who had invited her to live with him in France, they were residents of the eighth arrondissement, which she knew was one of Paris’s toniest quarters. Maybe they were Laurent’s neighbors, or else had purchased paintings from his gallery on rue du Louvre?
CHRISTINE SNEED’S story collection Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry won the Grace Paley Prize, Ploughshares’ John C. Zacharis Prize, and was a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. Her debut novel Little Known Facts won the Society of Midland Authors award for best adult fiction and was named a top ten debut novel of 2013 by Booklist. Her short stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories and New Stories from the Midwest. Sneed teaches at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign and lives in Evanston, Illinois.
Adapted from Paris, He Said, by Christine Sneed, Copyright © 2015 by Christine Sneed. With the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury.
Author photo credit: Adam Tinkham