Here’s another essay I wrote while living in Paris in the 1980’s. The Men of Paris was the first.
April is the cruelest month
Breeding lilacs out of the dead land
Mixing memory and desire
Stirring dull roots with spring rain
So begins The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. My theory is that he was inspired by an April spent alone in Paris.
For one beautiful, radiant week in an otherwise dreary April I walked the boulevards and strolled through the parks of a city superbly designed for love. I was alone.
Alan and I drifted off to sleep Sunday night in a city caught in the final throes of winter, with a cold rain pounding against the bricks of our courtyard and a northern wind rattling the wooden shutters closed tight over our windows. Early the next morning as I waved from the balcony as the taxi took him to the airport I saw that, voila, the amazing yearly miracle had happened over night.
The Eiffel Tower shimmered in the distance, its needle point no longer obscured by haze. The children rushing off to school on the street below had shed their severe blue wool coats. The satchels on their backs now rested against light sweaters of white, blue and pink. The sun warmed my face and hair. The chestnut tree which peaks level with our balcony had sprouted its first buds.
Just a quick walk from our apartment, Parc Monceau teemed with life. I’m accustomed to the way the parks in my hometown overflow with young urban singles on the first true day of spring. There the spirit translates into massive outbreaks of energy – frisbie throwers, bicycle riders, roller skaters and runners joyfully flinging their sweat into the fresh air. But the Paris spirit simmers with a sense of fertility and sensuality turned in on itself, not out to the world.
Grandfathers and grandmothers idled on park benches, watching the little girls in frilly dresses and boys in short pants demurely chase balls, or indulgently paid for sedate pony rides up and down the pebbled paths for these same grandchildren.
Mothers in their late 20’s sat beside their neat blue prams, casting occasional glances at the infant inside, but focusing their attention on the fine features and dark hair of the business-suited men next to them. Judging by the intensity of the glances and the tension of their postures, most of these couples weren’t married. At least, not to each other.
The younger couples, so intoxicated by the taste of these April days and so oblivious to the world around them and the omen it carried for their own futures, retreated into each other, twining themselves into poses of union on those park benches such that I was frequently surprised to find that a particular space was occupied by two people, not one.
That potent April air even seeped underground, into the subway. Riding the Metro early one morning, I watched a timeless drama play itself out before me. He, handsome in a scruffy sort of way; she, plain, a bit overweight, with an empty look in her eyes. He, alternately cradling his head in her lap or stroking her body with intimate gestures, seeking forgiveness, vowing to never do again whatever it was he’d done. She, accepting and willing herself to believe with that age-old expression on her face, worn by women the world over that says, “He’s my man. What else can I do?”
Monday melted into Tuesday, Wednesday revolved into a glorious Thursday, which then merged its radiance with an equally brilliant Friday. I walked on alone, longing for my own lover to return.
The fresh, enticing Paris perfume stirred a memory of similar unfulfilled longings. The previous December, Alan was living alone in Paris, getting settled in his new job, spending most of his time hopping all over Europe. I had shipped off our furniture and remained to finish off my job, renting a furnished studio apartment. The winter was mild that year, and I took frequent, lonely walks through the park. Those warm walks, with large wet snowflakes caressing my cheeks and muffling sounds and snow-covered, brightly lit houses radiating the sense of dinners shared by happy families, aroused my romantic, temporarily single, soul. Of course, when my husband arrived for Christmas, the temperature dropped and we suffered cabin fever in my tiny apartment.
Just so, when Alan returned to Paris that Friday evening, the sky clouded over, the air cooled and the intermittent rain began. To continue for the rest of that April.