She came to Paris with dreams of escape. She thought that perhaps the city of Love would present something different from the world she had always longed to escape. She longed to shed the skin of a blue blood Princess and metamorphasize into the silks and perfumes of a coarse French madam. They were always the beautiful ones, at the end of the story. She ached to be beautiful.
He was sleeping quietly, spent from her work. A faint odor of cigarettes and sweat lingered in the air, and while it might have made her nose crinkle delicately a few short weeks ago, it now felt like home. She slipped away from his clumsy, half-hearted embrace: of course, he did not notice. The floor felt like ice, despite the unseasonably warm March weather, and she shivered a bit as she pulled the flimsy cotton robe around herself before moving to the balcony.
Almost without thinking, she lit a cigarette and drew it to her lips. The first breath of harsh smoke felt like coming home again as it curled down her throat and expanded in her lungs. In the distance, the Eiffel tower winked in its glorified pattern, a distant beacon of hope for so many girls like her. Unfortunately, seeing it every day diminished its beauty. The pictures made it seem larger than life. In reality, it was just a twisted mass of steel and rust. It was a proud beacon of human arrogance – how had she ever thought differently?
She’d come to escape the ringing laughter of the New England upper-crust. She’d spent her whole life with a fake smile plastered on her face, dressed slowly in the white cotton and beige khaki that was expected from people like her. She’d come to escape the headbands and the ice-cold lemonade on a warm July day. She’d come to escape the beach, the sound of seagulls, the weight of expectations. She’d come to prove that she could do this on her own. She’d come to be happy.
Naturally, of course, that was an idle dream of a wistful girl, long dead. She should have realized long ago that when you stand on the outskirts of any social group, an awkward and reluctant smile on your face, it is not the fault of the country. She had always been an outsider, an eternal observer consistently on the fringe of things. It was never exclusion – that was taboo, for someone of her social breeding – but rather a quiet understanding that she did not truly belong. It was a startling realization, when she finally came to it, yet oddly comforting.
She hadn’t told anyone she was leaving. It was a decision she made privately, perhaps the first one that had ever truly been hers. She’d carried that small, private knowledge with her like a precious gift, and it warmed her from within. The comments were obvious. She looked happier, she looked healthier – was she engaged? Questions were met with equally polite answers, of course, and she let them suffer their happy delusion of her finally finding a place in their world.
But her world had never been that one.
She arrived expecting cobblestone, and removed her shoes accordingly. It was raining that day in Paris as she stepped away from Charles de Gaulle and into the unfortunate roar of traffic. French rain, it seemed, felt no different from the unpleasant sheets that fell in Falmouth. Cement smelled the same, regardless of language’s dividing arch. It was then that she realized she would miss him.
Nobody had ever taken them seriously, least of all him. She missed the feeling of his skin, stretched beneath her fingers, like velvet covering something darker and more innate. She’d never grasped the essence of him, but damn if she hadn’t loved those perfect lips. There had always been a distance between them, the same one that bridged the dark abyss between her and what seemed to be the rest of the world. And yet she had been comfortable in this division, happy to know that he was waiting on the other side, hand outstretched just enough so their fingers could brush and their hands occasionally clasp. Those brief moments, when they understood each other enough to hold, were the ones she lived for.
Oh yes, she would miss him. More than she would miss anyone else. He was the only one she ever felt close to. The danger of young love.
Cement felt rough under her bare toes, and cold. She hadn’t made plans to get into the heart of Paris, but a walk in the rain might be nice. Along a highway, not so much. But the dirtier she was, the more she would resemble the girl she’d come here to be.
As she walked, she reached into her small black purse and ran deep red lipstick across her slightly chapped lips. Her mother had always told her it made her look like a harlot – she supposed that was the general goal this time around. The girl, soon to be turned woman, slipped easily into her newly assumed role, and eyes that did not understand followed her as she walked into the city.
The sun was rising, now. How strange – she’d wasted the night staring at the Eiffel Tower and its blinking ludicrousness. The smells from the bakery downstairs wafted through the quiet apartment she found herself in – it made her mouth water. She’d thought she could never tire of French croissants and the flaky deliciousness that could not be recreated in the United States. For the first several days, she’d gorged herself on them. Unfortunately, such quick consumption meant she quickly lost her taste for them as well. But they were cheap – eighty cents – and she could not afford the richer tastes of breakfast Paris had to offer.
She let the long dead cigarette slip from her fingers, and she walked away from it without care. This man, this buyer of women’s bodies, would not have the delicacy to notice the end of one cigarette. There were others, and the red kiss of lipstick told her they were from other girls like her. Without fail, this realization would always humble her. She was not the only one. She was not special.
Of course, the man was still sleeping. She pulled on the ostentatious clothes of her profession and stepped quietly from the room, satisfied in the quiet click that echoed briefly in the air behind her. One night, finished. Money in her pocket. What a glamorous life she led.
The bakery was open, oddly enough. She would never get used to the strange hours the French held, but it was nice to know she would at least have something to eat.
“Bonjour,” she murmured to the woman in the store, who looked shocked to see an American so early in the morning. The baker nodded her head curtly and looked at the girl with the expectant eyes. “Je voudrais un croissant, s’il vous plait. Et, une chocolatine, s’il vous plait.”
The words sounded rough, but the baker understood. Money was money, after all, even if it meant dealing with Americans.