At the time I’d just recently graduated from college and was working at my first real job, qualifying people for Medicaid and Medicare for the state of Texas. Just two months into the job I already hated it. I felt like I couldn’t help the people who really needed it, and was obligated to help people who were manipulating the system. I felt embarrassed, being so young and green, and wondered if having to be interviewed by me was as humiliating for my clients as it was for me.
So when Jonathan said he’d found a pair of really cheap tickets to Paris online, I didn’t hesitate to give my notice, to leave the harsh reality of public service to go on a whirlwind romantic vacation to the city of lights.
Jonathan and I had met a few months prior after chatting online on IRC, back when that was a thing. We’d only known one another two months when I told him I was moving to Austin, and when I went to look at apartments, I was surprised to find that he came with me. So we shacked up, having barely even dated, and a couple of months later we were on our way to Paris.
I lied and told my mother I was going to the Grand Canyon because I didn’t want her to be unduly worried that I was going to be on an airplane, flying across the Atlantic to a foreign country. I left instructions with Courtney to inform her of my whereabouts should I not return a week later at my scheduled time.
I’d never been on an airplane before. I’d never even been out of the state of Texas. For twenty two years I’d barely ventured beyond the tiny, 500 person town in rural Texas where I grew up. Our first flight took us from Houston to Newark. We sat beside one another, and I gripped the armrest, excited and terrified. As the plane climbed into the big, blue, Texas sky, I saw the ocean for the first time. The blue expanse of it spread out below me and I couldn’t help imagining the plane crashing into the dark depths of the gulf, of using my seat as a flotation device. The flight attendant’s safety speech really made an impression on me.
We had a layover at the Newark airport, so I brought out a book of questions I’d gotten, thinking it would be a fun way to pass the time and a good way for us to get to know one another better. One of the questions in the book was, “If you died right now, what would be your biggest regret?”
After thinking for a moment, Jonathan responded that he’d most regret never telling some other guy how much he loved him.
My biggest regret, as it turned out, was having asked the question. The last thing one wants to hear in the first blush of a new relationship is how much the object of one’s affection still cares about some other guy. I was devastated, and suddenly, in Newark, New Jersey, I began to realize how little I knew the man I was living with, and started to question the life decisions that had brought me to that place.
On the second flight, our seats weren’t together, and for this I was thankful. I had seven hours to collect myself. I had a window seat, and looked out on the gray tarmac with my head pressed against the window, watching it drizzle. When the woman beside me ordered a Bloody Mary, the flight attendant accidentally spilled tomato juice all over me. I barely noticed as he wiped my shirt with a small, white napkin. All I could think about was that the man I loved loved someone else. “He’s pissed.” The flight attendant said in a French accent that sounded like “He’s pieced.”
I managed to get myself together. Having already become a master of compartmentalization, I decided that I would pretend everything was fine and thoroughly enjoy my week in Paris, because who knew when I’d get the opportunity to go again. So the plane landed, and Jonathan and I reunited, our bags slung over our shoulders, a camera in my hand, a map in his, and I smiled as if nothing was wrong.
April in Paris is as beautiful and romantic as the movies suggest. We walked down narrow, cobblestone streets, past pale, stuccoed buildings, through parks covered in cherry blossoms, and over ornate bridges. It rained every day we were there. The Parisians walked past in stylish, black jackets with umbrellas, beneath street lamps, statues, and awnings. My fragile heart was forgotten amidst the beauty and crumbling grandeur of that ancient city.
Jonathan kept us on a grueling schedule so that we could see and experience every historical site, landmark and museum in the short time we were there. He kept his map carefully hidden because he didn’t want us to look like tourists, ignoring my protest, “But we are tourists.” When some obvious tourists asked us for directions in the Père Lachaise cemetery in horrible French, we were both pleased that we seemed like real Parisians. When I answered them in English, the woman said, “Where are y’all from?” It turned out they were from Texas too. They took our picture in front of Oscar Wilde’s grave.
I may have somewhat exaggerated my ability to speak French prior to our trip. I’d taken four semesters of it in college, and while I could readily understand everything said to me in French, I was completely incapable of responding in French. Jonathan understood nothing, but if I told him what to say, he could say it in French, so between the two of us we were able to communicate more or less effectively.
We would say, “Un billet pour le metro, s’il vous plaît,” and a bored, French attendant would roll her eyes and say, “Here’s your ticket,” in perfect English. The only person we were unable to communicate with was the maid in our hotel who didn’t seem to speak English or French, and who only stared at me, bewildered, when I asked her for more towels.
Paris is famous for its cuisine, but Jonathan was too intimidated to order food and would only eat at chain restaurants, even in the states. So we mostly ate pain au lait we got at a market, and McDonalds. Having had enough of this, I ventured out late one night on my own, and got some Lebanese food. I pointed at some meat behind a counter, and the clerk assured me it was chicken, so I had him put it on a pita with some feta and onions. I got lost on the way back to the hotel, and only found myself in front of our building an hour later by sheer chance. It was only after I got back to the hotel that I realized it was chicken livers.
We saw the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, protected by glass, and surrounded by Japanese tourists snapping pictures of it. We walked past tulips, yellow and red, at the Jardin du Luxembourg. I saw real Van Gogh paintings at the Musee D’Orsay. We walked across the Pont Neuf. We stood atop the Arc de Triomph. We ventured into the catacombs below Notre Dom cathedral.
We had awkward sex in the strange, hotel bed, Jonathan rushed and afraid the maid would come in with towels at any moment. We took cool showers in a claw foot bathtub, with water that seemed softer and saltier than the water back home. We played pretend that we were French, that we belonged.
We saved the Eiffel Tower for the last day of our trip, and we’d done so much unaccustomed walking by that point that I could barely climb up to the top of it. The sun was setting, and the city spread out before us. Twinkling lights and rivers, both beautiful and strange.
Back in our hotel the last night we broke up. I asked him to move out of our apartment once we returned to Texas. Surreality took over as T. J. Hooker was playing on the TV in our room, dubbed over in French, and Jonathan was furiously packing his bag. I was terrified that he was going to leave and go back to the airport without me, so I frantically packed my bag too, uncertain of my ability to find my way on my own. We walked to the street in silence as the sun was just coming up over Paris. I took my first ride in a cab to the Paris airport with my now ex-boyfriend.
As the third airplane I’d ever been on took off from Charles de Gaulle, I wondered what was going to happen when I got back home. Suddenly, in the space of a week, I was unemployed and single. But I’d been to Paris. Me, the small town boy, was now a traveler, if not quite worldly and sophisticated, at least a little less naive and romantic than I’d been when I’d left Texas.