The guys from the moving company bring up the last of the boxes and add them to the heap with a weary grunt. The taller one with stubble and coffee breath holds out a form attached to a clipboard. He points to a line on the form and says, "s'il vous plaît, mademoiselle." I understand this, but I'm far from fluent, and often communicate this with blank bovine expressions. For now, everything is pointing and sentence fragments in bashful Frenglish.
Standing next to the small mountain of boxes, I'm disappointed. It had always seemed like my life would stack up higher than this. I count them, make sure they add up to the number on the form. Twenty-seven boxes. Everything I didn't discard or leave behind. The remains of my pre-Paris life, quantified and packed in cardboard.
I listen to the fading echo of the movers' feet and voices descending the five flights of timeworn wooden stairs until they exit the building onto rue Ramey. The threadbare Persian rug muffles nothing on the uneven creaky floorboards as I shuffle to the window and watch the moving truck attempt to enter traffic. They're blocked by another bus full of tourists who've come to wander around Montmartre and hang around the Sacre Coeur while clicking cameras and waving selfie sticks. This time, I guess the herd to be Swedish. The French language is new knowledge I'm still struggling to grasp, but discerning a group of tourists' country of origin by their shoes, bags, and general attire gets easier every day.
Cutting the tape on the first box, I peer inside and find it stuffed with old books. Unsatisfied, I dive into the next one and discover more books. Most of which, I've already read. There's nothing interesting about my old life to uncover.
I throw on my black boots and pea coat. Nobody out there is going to peg me as an American tourist. Not this time. Unless they try to speak to me. Human interaction will definitely blow my cover.
The steps up the hill toward the Sacre Coeur have my legs aching before I reach the top. I zigzag through the curving streets, dodging tourists, Parisians, and the occasional dog. For a moment, I long for the straight, square grid that makes up my hometown. This leads me back to pondering the mound of straight, boxy squares in my tiny room. I've lived here without all those things for the past two months. Two months in a furnished room, living out of my suitcase while working and attending French classes. Two months where I repeated my mantra: "the homesickness will subside once I get my things and have them unpacked."
If I open that twenty-seventh box and still don't feel quite at home here, then what?
Clotilde is waiting for me out on the terrace at La Mascotte. Seated at one of the little round tables, smoking a cigarette, with a glass of red already in front of her, she doesn't look like a customer. Clotilde is part of the Montmartre landscape. She always seems to be at home at any table in any corner of Paris, but up here, she's a descendant of the tribe of bohemians, artists, and philosophers who once brought the village to life during the Belle Époque. Clotilde and her Montmartrois friends claim that the "real Montmartre" has ceased to exist, even though it's they who feed the quiet ghost of l'esprit de la bohème.
I take the chair opposite her. At the same time, a white-haired man with a paunch in a long brown coat passes by. They shout an exchange of what I guess to be bawdy greetings to one another and laugh as he continues down the street. Scenes like this occur whenever Clotilde leaves her apartment.
"So," she says, "everything has arrived from the U.S. now?"
"Yeah. It's weird, though. I thought I'd be more excited once my stuff showed up."
She crushes her cigarette in the ashtray, throws her head back and laughs. It's laughter mingled with coughing, forged over years of smoke and alcohol. "You demand a lot from lifeless things." She catches her breath and stands up. "You want to eat something? On y va."
I'm scooping snails out of their shells with a little fork, and trying to stuff pieces of baguette into the shells to sponge the garlicky butter. Clotilde scarfs down her escargots in seconds, then, one by one, picks up each shell and slurps like she's doing butter shots.
"You can do it zis way. It's okay. It is not impolite."
I do a butter shot from a snail shell.
"But get your elbows off the table," she scolds. "This is impolite."
The blogs I'd read back in the States had a lot to say about Parisian women. Their Parisiennes are tall, skinny white women who never brush their hair and exist only on Pinterest pages.
Their perfect pouts. Flawless, sexy, and fashion savvy. They never get fat, and always have secret lovers after they get married. On and on until I concluded that women from all other corners of the globe might as well surrender their self-esteem at customs when they land at Charles de Gaulle.
They'd never seen a Parisian woman like Clotilde. She kept her mousy brown hair cut short so she wouldn't have to bother with it. A pair of basic wire-framed glasses rested on a face that had probably never been touched by a makeup brush. Her plain black t-shirt and faded jeans ensemble were accented with a fleece jacket and tennis shoes. Tennis shoes a lot like the ones the bloggers warn all tourists from putting on their poorly dressed hooves.
It was my friendship with Clotilde that convinced me I could make a place for myself in a tiny corner of Paris. Years ago, on a chilly September morning. Sitting on a bench in Montmartre cemetery, scribbling in my pocket notebook, alone because my friends wanted to go flirting with French guys around the Eiffel Tower and other touristy areas. Again.
I was taken aback when she sat next to me. A cigarette in one hand and an enormous camera in the other, she put the camera in her lap, set a bag on the bench between us and set to work changing the film. Her smoking hand was wrapped in a cast. She offered no "bonjour" or anything in the way of a greeting. She simply turned her head toward me, looked over the top of her dusty glasses and said in heavily accented but good English, "Hey, American. Could you help me please for a moment?" She held up her hand and showed me her cast.
"Sure," I shrugged, closed my notebook. "How'd you know I was American?"
Then she pinched the sleeve of my Colorado Avalanche hoodie.
"Oh. Right." I slid my notebook into my pocket. "What do you need help with?"
She gestured around the cemetery. "I must take many photos here for a friend of me and with the bag and camera and this injury it is chiant and also, I want to smoke. Please, if you can carry this bag. It won't take a long time."
"Okay. But how do you know I won't run off with your stuff?"
Her expression told me that this thought hadn't occurred to her. "You're a writer." She pointed at the pen still in my hand, as if this prevented one from being a thief.
"A person who writes, anyway," I said.
She let out a raspy yet velvety laugh and rose from the bench. "On y va, American writer. You don't look very fast. It's okay."
I never bothered meeting up with my friends that day. I spent the morning plodding through the cemetery with Clotilde. She was weird, smoky, well-traveled, and completely untethered. I guessed her to be about my mother's age, though nothing about Clotilde was maternal. Then again, there was nothing maternal about my mother, either.
We went to La Cave des Abbesses and in the back, behind the wine shop, we ripped apart baguettes and chattered in between sips of wine and bites of cheese and charcuterie. By the time we exchanged goodbyes that evening at Le Carrousel de Montmartre, we were friends. Just as I was about to descend the stairs into the métro, she said, "Hey, Miss American Writer. You ought to move to Paris. Bring your pen to Montmartre."
A decade later, and I'm here again with my friend. To stay. Because she gave me a job and helped me find a one-room flat that wouldn't deplete the small inheritance my mother left me after cancer devoured her pancreas a few years ago.
And because everything at home and familiar had become intolerable. What else can a person do but come to Paris when they've grown too tired to live, but have no desire to die?
We finish our escargots butter shots. Clotilde shouts at the waiter for another bottle of wine, and I no longer care about the unpacking waiting for me back at my room. Clotilde chides me for not studying French while I was back in the U.S. We talk about work. Her mind is constantly forming grand new plans for her tiny, independent publishing company and her meager troupe of artists and worker bees.
We finish the wine, put away the last chocolaty bites of profiteroles and have coffee. Clotilde staggers away toward her little apartment on rue Berthe and I make my way down the hill, back to what remains of my American life.
I'm still tipsy as I slice through the packing tape. On the street below, a man and woman are arguing in front of the bar on the corner. I'm distracted because I want to watch them. The words they scream at each other mean nothing to me, but I feel as though I comprehend the entire fight. They start kissing and I think they might fall over. When they don't, I'm bored enough to return to my unpacking.
More books and bric-a-brac. I wish I could remember why I found these myriad objects important enough to ship over an ocean. I continue digging until a bit of knitted emerald fabric pokes up from beneath old scrapbooks and diaries. I drop the books on the floor and pull on my mother's sweater. A memory of my mother, her yellow hair tied back as she attempted to repair another hole on this ratty sweater, telling me how her own mother knitted it for her. When I told her to go buy a new sweater, she scoffed.
"Department stores are shit," she'd said. "Anything I buy there, I gotta replace in six months. This is memories." She held up the sweater. "Someone created this from nothing."
"You're just being cheap," I said.
"You're goddamn right."
"As long as you insist on being such a penny pincher, you might as well learn how to knit better."
"Right," she said without looking up. "Because that's what's keeping me from winning the fashion show."
Until the end, she continued with her sarcasm and frugality, refusing to sell her house to live with me; to use the money from the sale and her savings to pay for treatment and medication. I thought she was suicidal, but now, sitting here on the old wooden floor of this little flat, wrapped up in this patchy old sweater, I stare out my window, up at the illuminated dome of the Sacre Coeur and realize she did it all so I wouldn't be loaded with debt. So I could have more. So I could bring my pen to Montmartre.
Days before meeting Clotilde on that bench in the Cimetière de Montmartre a decade ago, I traipsed through Pére Lachaise with my girlfriends, giggling past Chopin and snapping photos of each other with Jim Morrison. Now, I'm weeping at the edge of a small patch of grass with the rest of Clotilde's friends in the shadow of Oscar Wilde. The funeral director speaks in the soft tones reserved for interactions with the grief-stricken. We sniffle and remain silent, doing our best to ignore the tourists passing by as the man pours Clotilde's ashes into the grass.
She knew she was sick when she gave me a job. When she helped me rent my little apartment above the butcher shop on rue Ramey. She just hadn't bothered to mention the cancer eating away at her lungs and liver until she had no choice. When Clotilde could no longer leave her apartment, her secret had beaten her.
I spent my free time at her apartment, doing my best to act sunny as she continued to fill her body with smoke and booze.
"How is your French coming along, then?"
"Merdique," I said.
Her laugh devolved into a terrifying, hacking cough. When she collected herself, she said, "You will be okay."
"No." She gave a weak punch on my shoulder. "You will be okay. Montmartre is your home now. It will take care of you. Tu piges?"
I scanned the room, avoiding her eyes. Clotilde had no television. No large expensive objects. Just a bed, a small workspace where she could create, and walls lined with books, boxes of photos and scattered random objects that were the debris of a lifetime spent traveling and making friends wherever she went.
"Yeah." I nodded. "Je pige. I do. I get it."
"Good girl," she said.
A few weeks later, she was gone. Four months after moving my entire life to Paris to escape the death and disease that consumed my days and nights, and I've escaped nothing. I'm alone in a city without either of these women to show me how to live.
Clotilde's words resonate through every footstep, car engine, and pigeon coo that bounces off the exterior of these old buildings as I make my way home from the métro station at Barbès-Rochechouart. I push past a man trying to sell me cigarettes, and all I hear is her voice saying, "You demand a lot from lifeless things."
Just before I enter my building, I stop to watch the tour bus puke out another horde of tourists. A girl in a hoodie with a book tucked in her arm steps out, and instead of following the rest of her group, she looks around, taking in everything. Clotilde was right. We're easy to spot.
Trudging up to my flat, I step inside, contemplating the mess of books and detritus from my abandoned life. Against the wall, among the clutter, the last two boxes.
If I open that twenty-seventh box and still don't feel quite at home here, then what?
Clotilde's voice says, "You will be okay. Montmartre is your home now. It will take care of you. Tu piges?"
Oui, ma vielle. Je pige.
Rasmenia Massoud is from Colorado, but after a few weird turns, ended up spending several years in France. Once she learned all she could about fromage and cassoulet, she moved on to England, where she writes about what she struggles most to understand: human beings. She is the author of the short story collections Human Detritus, Broken Abroad, and You Don't See Any of This. Some of her stories have been published at places like The Foundling Review, The Lowestoft Chronicle, Literary Orphans, The Sunlight Press, Molotov Cocktail, Flash Fiction Offensive, Black Heart Magazine, Every Day Fiction, Big Pulp, and Underground Voices. You can visit her at: http://www.rasmenia.com/
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