Monday, October 29, 2007

One weekend in Paris, Part III

So, there I was, trapped in a Parisian apartment while my "host" was off doing... well, whatever he was doing. I had no keys to the place, and I didn't even know where the closest Metro station was. By 8 that night, I was scrounging through his mostly empty refrigerator, looking for something edible. I found a couple of unopened yogurt containers and had a modest dinner in front of his tiny black and white TV. Parisian TV? Not so great. I found something that appeared to be the French equivalent of "Saved By the Bell" and pretty much gave up. I turned on the radio and listened to bad Europop punctuated with English-language oddities like Stan Ridgway singing some weird ballad of a dead Marine named "Camouflage." I looked out the window on a silent street, knowing that just a short distance away, the City of Lights was, well, lit up.

I found some paper and wrote up a list of the places I wanted to see and made the most of a very quiet night. I figured my best bet would be to find a hotel the next morning and just write off P. and his insanity. It was my first week off work after ending my contract in Moscow, and I suddenly was very, very tired. I crashed out and overslept horribly. I woke up when I heard a key in the door, and P. came in, dressed in yesterday's clothes, stinking of smoke. He was laughing and singing and manic beyond belief.

I, on the other hand, was angry. I let him have it both barrels. But I did it very coldly.

"So, where's the pizza?" I asked.

He laughed and fell onto me on the futon, trying to wrap me in some creepy hug.

"Oh!" He giggled. "Well, I had some pizza last night, hahahahahaha!"

I pushed him off me and got up, grabbing my things. "I'm hungry, I'm furious, and I want you to just drop me off at a decent hotel. I'm done with you treating me like shit. You're just as insane as you were in Moscow. Worse, actually. I'm done."

P. just lay there on the futon, watching me aggressively repack. Slowly, the truth hit him, and the smile vanished from his face. He reminded me of one of those dinosaurs with the brain in the tail, the impulses slowly reaching that primitive mind. "You just don't treat people this way, P. You just don't. I don't know what's really wrong with you, but you are sick and pathetic. Why the hell did you invite me here and beg me to come if you didn't want me to come? Kак вам стыдно!" How shameful of you! It's one of those things that is worse -and means worse - in Russian. And sick or not, P. needed to feel shame over how he had just treated me - like garbage.

P. looked down and said nothing. I locked myself into the tiny bathroom and threw on fresh clothes. When I came out, P. was on the phone, this time speaking in Russian. This I understood. He was making arrangements to return to his office in Moscow the next day. When he hung up, he said to me, "I am so sorry. I don't know why I did it. I just don't. I just do these things, okay? I have this life here, you know?" Honestly, I didn't know what life this was. Just clubbing and staying out all night, doing God knows what or God knows who. I sometimes wonder if he's ever picked up HIV or AIDS in his careless (I'm sure he'd think of it as "carefree") lifestyle.

He dug through a small dish on the windowsill and came up with a key. "Look, here is the spare key. You can just stay here. Stay for a week, if you want. I will not be here. The apartment is yours." He looked down again. "Je suis désolé." The same empty words he'd offered in Moscow after locking me out of my apartment all night. "Je suis désolé."

It meant nothing, really.

P. actually spent the rest of that day with me, mostly silent, very sober. He took me on the Metro to a Moroccan restaurant by the Stalingrad station. The restaurant was run by a couple he knew, friendly, but wary. When P. excused himself briefly, they asked me if he was being a horrible host. When I said yes, they apologized. Clearly, they had seen this before. After lunch, we picked up P.'s car and he drove me along the Champs d'Elysee and we stopped for an astoundingly overpriced coffee somewhere en route. I let him pay for everything. I really didn't care if I abused his hospitality for this one day. I made him stop at a bank and a little shop for me to get French currency, some food for the fridge, and a map of the city. As we went along, we barely spoke.

When we reached his place, P. quickly gathered some things and left. There was no real goodbye. He simply told me to leave the key in his mailbox when I departed. Where he planned to spend the night before his Moscow flight, I didn't know, and frankly, I didn't care. I felt nothing for him. No pity, no sympathy, not even any anger by then. He tried to do a little double-cheek kiss with me, but I pulled away. I just said, "Appreciate the use of the apartment."And P. left. As I heard the sound of his shoes echoing down the hall, I finally felt something.


I laundered the futon sheets in his tiny washer. I put on some rubber gloves I found under the sink and scrubbed down the kitchenette and the bath. I took a long, hot shower, put on jammies, ate some ham and a croissant with a big glass of milk, and then slept like a baby.

For the next few days, I was a free woman in Paris. I walked for miles and miles. I took the Metro everywhere, drank coffee at little outdoor cafes. Went to Versailles on a bus with a group of Brits who thought I didn't understand English and made snide comments about me until I told them to fuck off. (That was fun.) Enjoyed the pleasant gloom of Notre Dame and the breathtaking view from the Tour Eiffel. Saw Mona Lisa's smile and the limbless glory of Winged Victory and the Venus de Milo (and got hopelessly lost in the galleries of the Louvre). Drank more coffee. Ate more fresh pastry than any human should. Bought cheerful yellow cafe au lait bowls from the clearance rack in the basement of Galeries Lafayette.

It was lovely.

I just broke the last of those cafe au lait bowls this week. Maybe that's why I finally decided to write about P. and the trip to Paris. Exorcising old demons.

I've heard from P. twice since then. Once, when he showed up in DC with this guy named Brian, an African-American clothing designer living in Paris. He'd grown up in DC and wanted to show P. the city. Brian could have been a character on "Absolutely Fabulous." He was flamboyant and silly, and when I asked him what he designed as we sat in some overpriced raw bar on the edge of Georgetown, he responded "viscose men's shirts - it's the only fabric worth working with, dahling." Really, I'd just expected him to say "menswear, ladies, eveningwear..." To this day, I smirk when I read the word "viscose." P. wouldn't cop to Brian being his lover or partner. He was still working on some pointless illusion, and I let it go.

They'd invited me out for dinner as apology for the fiasco in Paris. I'd never eaten at a raw bar, and, with apologies to my sushi-loving friends, I prefer my food cooked. I nursed a glass or two of champagne while they packed away a couple hundred dollars worth of oysters and caviar. Brian was unimpressed with my plain lumpiness, and P. wanted to party in Dupont. I left, emotionless, not expecting to ever hear from him again.

But I did. It must have been 1999 or 2000. I was in Tbilisi, Georgia, managing logistics for a conference. I was staying in a very posh hotel in the middle of a people's strike -- Georgia had been without electricity after dark for ages by then, and the citizenry, finally fed up with the situation, had started to protest in the streets, burning tires. Black smoke crept into every opening of every building in the heart of the city, and I developed pneumonia after a couple of days of breathing cold, acrid air in the autumn chill of the Caucasus Mountains. The phones didn't work for the most part, but, for some reason, the Internet still functioned in the business center. Unable to sleep one night (and sick as a dog), I went to check my Hotmail in the middle of the night. And there in my in-box was a message from P. He had friends opening a restaurant in New York. They wanted him to manage it, but he couldn't get a work visa. Would I be interested in a marriage of convenience? He and his friends would pay me for my trouble.

I remember starting to laugh - I laughed so hard, I had a coughing fit, waking up the old guy snoozing at the front desk. I wrote several responses:

"You've got to be fucking joking."

"Go to hell."

"Good luck with that, asshole."

But, in the end, I didn't send any of them. I just deleted his e-mail, and I've never heard from him since.

I don't know where P. is these days. I have no idea if he's alive or dead. I'm still irritated with myself, years after the fact, that I was taken for a fool by him.

I feel sadness for him now, just because he was sick and pathetic and surely deeply wounded and twisted by abuse at the hands of his own family. And I hope, if he is still alive, that he's gotten the help he needed so badly. It would be nice if he could be out and stable.

And I also hope I never hear from him again.

Like that last broken cafe au lait bowl, I've swept P. away into the past.

But, really, Paris was nice.


Anonymous said...

I don't know you, but after reading this I would like to give you a great big hug. I'm sorry (but thank you for the wonderfully woven story).

Anonymous said...

Glad to know that your impression of Paris is not completely skewed by the bad part of the experience. It is an amaizing city if you take the time to get to know it...

Bill said...

P. always seemed a bit creepy to me, too, but I had no idea he was THAT big of a creep. He really should be ashamed for how he treated you, in Moscow and afterwards, but somehow I don't think he "gets it."