“There may be more beautiful times, but this one is ours.” Jean-Paul Sartre
The plane trundles to a stop just off the runway. We exit down the stairs and board a bus, which idles on the tarmac. An announcement advises us not to take pictures. We are surrounded by concrete and a patchwork of trees. Dozens of decommissioned baggage trollies are holed up like circus elephants behind a chain-link fence. A British tourist, fair and freckled, asks, “Who would want to take a picture of this shithole?”
In front of me, my seventy-two-year-old mother sits, her backpack secured on her lap, her knees and ankles pinched together, as if posing for a class photo. While others complain about the stifling August heat or speculate about why the bus won’t move, my mother’s expression remains composed and pleasant, well-behaved. It is a look she’s perfected. We are in public after all, and people may be watching.
Elsewhere on the bus, my older sister studies the passengers from our flight. She’ll later accuse me of running ahead, and ask if I saw the man with the big sneakers picking his nose by the exit doors. Behind me a teenage boy says to his mother, “What could you possibly know about love? You’ve been divorced three times.” In the distance, the unspectacular Charles de Gaulle airport waits.
Our hotel is in the 18th arrondissement and shares the look and feel of a Spokane Holiday Inn. There are no balconies. No succulents or horsetails or pear trees to wish upon. No gargoyles or women with buns, or gloved men with lovely moustaches to carry our bags. A gang of pigeons loiters outside the front door. None wear a beret.
But our room is spacious. My mother takes off her sneakers, purchased especially for the trip, and lies down on one of the beds, hands folded in prayer beneath her cheeks, her bangs falling away from her face in snowy wisps. I place a blanket over her legs. She falls asleep.
My sister and I want a glass of wine, not because we are in Paris, but because we are still ourselves. London nearly did us in, our guest room so tiny our baggage both literal and emotional, bruised our shins and battered our hearts. The dresses our mother insisted we pack spilled to the floor, amidst the pill bottles and wounds and the shoes no one would wear. Our family history had followed us overseas, the patterns of behavior as colored and as complicated as the hotel’s ancient carpet. Why is your bra in my suitcase? Your brush in my carry-on? Why is your resentment in my throat? Your regret in my spine?
My sister suggests we find somewhere to eat. Our mother is comfortable walking short distances before the pain of living, not living settles in. We gently rouse her and tell her we’re going out.
“But I’ll worry about you,” she says, eyes now open, on high alert.
“We’ll have our phones,” my sister reassures. “You can text us.”
She begs us to be safe. Don’t get hit by a car. Don’t get lost. Don’t. We quietly shut the door.
It is breezy in North Paris. Stalks of lavender bend through filigree fences. A streetcar lumbers by and lifts our hair. My sister nearly steps in shit. “Who would do that?” she asks. “Who would just leave that in the middle of the sidewalk?”
We pass a Starbucks and the entrance to a mall. It’s garbage day in the neighborhood. Rats, petite and black as revolution, sprint alongside the curb. The first restaurant we come upon is a fifties-style American diner with chrome-rimmed tables and pink accents. The novelty would be appealing, if we were in Detroit. We settle on an Italian restaurant. The waiters look French enough and the chairs are velvet and mid-century green. As we head back to the hotel my sister asks, “Did that shit look human to you?”
Inside the room, my mother paces. “I was worried,” she says. “You took longer than I expected.” We tell her about the nice restaurant and she relaxes. We take turns touching up make-up and changing our clothes. My sister roots through my suitcase.
“I haven’t worn that yet,” I sigh, concealing her pricey Sephora blush behind my back. Our mother chooses a white blouse, which she irons to perfection. I smooth the wrinkles from an outfit I’d never wear at home.
The walk to the restaurant is long. We take frequent stops so my mom can rest her hip and admire one of the many car rental joints on the way. Service trucks back into things. The scent of pedestrian sweat, end-of-day pungent and dense, wafts through the air. “Mind the poop,” my sister warns, our mother’s eyes fixed on the trees that jut between the buildings, their leaves heavy as bananas.
Our waitress is young with wide eyes and dewy skin. She seems confused that she’s there to serve us, that this is a restaurant, and not her apartment where she’s waiting for an Uber to take her dancing. The Bordeaux, though it takes twenty minutes to arrive, is exquisite, and pairs well with the pesto Kraft Dinner I’ve ordered and the texts from home: dad’s trying to force us to go on a hike and the photo: is this ringworm?
The next day we take the metro to Porte de Clignancourt. The rain doesn’t stop the locals from roasting corn in makeshift barbecues. Everywhere, the smell of kerosene and sidewalk. The occasional whiff of the corner KFC. Scorched cobs line the streets alongside vendors pushing watches and sunglasses and garments the color of African flags. It’s warm and bustling. A Saturday. Eventually we reach our destination: Les Marche Aux Puces, the world’s largest flea market.
It is a labyrinth of stalls containing collections of orange chairs and vintage paper and pith helmets. One is simply a ceiling of chandeliers. The shopkeepers are old and angry. They are everyone’s father in a bad mood. I halt at a stall lined with paintings; most depict war, old war with its hackles and muskets. Gold buttons and wooden boats. The shopkeeper plays a succession of French military marches. My hair is soaking wet.
We finish the afternoon at a restaurant converted from a derelict train station. My mother coddles a Diet Coke. We all order the steak, which is served only rare. “It’s a little too pink, no?” my mom whispers. “Don’t you think?” My sister, shivering because she’s worn a dress, examines her meat and shrugs. The server arrives, causing my mom to jump. Not wanting to offend, she aggressively forks a slab into her mouth.
“It is okay?” the server asks.
“Just wonderful,” my mother replies.
“It is prepared to your satisfaction?”
“Oh, yes,” she continues, blood dripping from her chin.
The next day, my sister and I pick up essentials from the grocery store: jam and Band-Aids for our mother, peanut butter, a corkscrew. We find a bakery and buy pastries for breakfast even though it’s almost noon. On the way back, it starts to rain. A bulldog with rosettes on his collar takes a shit on the sidewalk ahead of us. When he’s finished, he and his owner stop at a flower stand. My sister asks, “Is this the worst trip ever?”
Back in the hotel, my mother laments, I’ve come to Paris too late, her back aching and feet blistered. I should have come when I was young. We break bread and present her with jam. “It’ll be a good day,” my sister asserts. “We’ll take lots of breaks.”
It is my turn to bandage my mother’s toes. My sister pours wine in a pair of plastic cups she’s lifted from the lobby. I pull on jean shorts, frayed and mottled with holes. “You’re wearing those?” my mom asks, eyeing the dresses hanging from the armoire. I finish my wine and load the transit app on my phone. “I am.”
We cram an entire Paris Pinterest page into a single day. Tourists with rain ponchos and umbrellas line the top of the Arc de Triomphe like protestors marking a solemn anniversary. A police car nearly runs us down by the Champs. The tarte tatin tastes like a child’s kitchen experiment. The scaffolding on the Notre Dame is dull and expansive. A man sells paintings of the cathedral engulfed in flames and black smoke. After an hour in line, which cripples my mother, we miss the Catacombs by six people.
“How are you doing, Mom? Should we go back?”
Instead, we catch a bus to Place du Trocadéro. The rain has kept people away. We weave through buckets and tarps of souvenirs—some of them twinkling, all of them made in China, all of them subsidizing a newcomer’s rent—and make our way toward the Eiffel Tower.
The mood on the terrace is giddy and infectious. No one cares about the lavish wedding happening behind us. People are consumed only by the ones they are with. An old man stands in a puddle, water up to his shins. He tugs up his pants to show off the damage. His family laughs. They tease him. He loves the attention. Quiet couples hold hands.
We separate. Each of us explores, each of us finds new vantage points from which to photograph the tower as the sky darkens and our mascara drips. Tucked behind me, in the shadows of the wedding and a statue of despair, teenagers kiss. What could they possibly know about love? Everything.
Just before nine, we meander back together and lean over the wall. The Eiffel tower lights up, thousands of lights as if by sorcery, as if by God, as if for the first time. All of us gasp, all of us light up. I snap a photo, return my phone to my backpack and turn to my mother. She is weeping.
Back in the hotel, with our mother tucked in for the night, my sister and I pour wine, our fingers still wilted from the rain. Dressed in each other’s clothes, we sit on the bed we’re sharing, knees tucked, pedicures still intact. The room is quiet except for the occasional siren, the chime of a text from home. “Our mother is old,” my sister says. We sip in silence ‘til morning.
We spend our last day in Paris at a Montparnasse cemetery. Our mother searches for statuary, gothic and blackened with age, angels with broken wings and sad eyes. Tombs. Occasionally, we stumble upon a grave from the eighties, a photo embedded into the polished stone. I find one for a victim of the terrorist attack at Charlie Hebdo, another from the Franco–Prussian war. Flowers, plastic and faded, gather in the cracks. My sister and I are hung over.
From the street a madman shouts. We watch him pass from an opening in the wall, hands flailing, face gnarled. He is talking to himself. A groundskeeper tending a flowerbed doesn’t look up.
I check the time on my phone. We need to head back. We need to fly home. We stumble over dirt paths. Nothing is in a straight line and we periodically find ourselves trapped between crypts, moss on our shoulders, philosophers at our feet. Our mother lets her hair down under the shade of a Japanese pagoda, Paris alive and pink in her cheeks.
We bus back to the hotel and take a cab to the airport. As the plane pushes away from the gate, I gaze out at the tarmac, searching for the place where we waited on the bus just a few days ago. I recognize the chain-link fence and take a picture. A plane touches down and skids to a halt at the end of the runway. Sunlight fills the cabin. I take my mother’s hand.