I was staying in a little town in France with a small crew to film a documentary film about French feminism and how men treat women in France. I had been in the country for a few weeks before I was to meet Jacques in Paris. I knew approximately what time he was supposed to arrive in Paris, so I went to a phone booth to try to reach him before I went to join him. I called him at the hotel where he was staying, but the hotel clerk who answered said he was not there. There was a long pause before he said: “Goodbye.” I was a bit upset that he had not called or emailed me to tell me he had arrived.
I had bought my train ticket online, but on the day of my departure, the railroad workers went on strike, as it seemed fashionable to do in France. There was no one to verify my train ticket on board. I was very anxious on the train ride on my way to Paris to meet him after not having seen him in about a month. I was alone on the train because my film crew was going to meet me a few days later when we had arranged to interview a French feminist author who lived in the 6th arrondissement. I was a bit nervous about being alone with camera equipment, and I was afraid that someone might try to steal it from me, if I was not careful.
While I was looking for a seat on board, some men said hello to me with devilish smiles. Everyone in France seemed to greet strangers with a “Bonjour!” so I instinctively started a hello before thinking I did not have to reply. I found a seat as far away from potential thieves as I could, and tried to hide myself by putting a scarf over my head. If I had had sunglasses, I probably would have put them on. Again, I was feeling unnerved from being by myself and of meeting Jacques in a foreign country for the first time. Many months previously, I had told him that no matter what happened, he had to come and meet me in France. I have to admit that I did have a few expectations of how things were going to unravel.
I had met Jacques the previous spring. He was the most charismatic person I had ever met. I swiftly became infatuated with him. Even though I intensely wanted to be with him, somehow, it did not feel quite right.
Because of the unexpected strike, there was a delay before I got to the Gare de l’Est. I looked around, but he was nowhere in sight. For a moment, I thought he would never show up, and that I would be stuck in Paris alone. Then, I saw his panic-stricken face come out of nowhere, and he said he thought he had missed me with all the passengers coming out of the train. He looked as if he had been freaking out. I smiled at this, thinking it was pretty funny.
Photo credit : Anonymous
I knew he really liked lavender, so I gave him a very expensive gift from L’Occitane in the train station. He only opened it later in the hotel room, but when he did, he threw away the gift box I had paid a few extra euros for, and damaged the corners by smashing it on the floor.
“What’s this box for?” he yelled.
For some reason, this was his thing. He enjoyed destroying pretty things. He would damage, drink or eat goods in grocery stores, and put them in the wrong place on purpose thinking he was being comical or acting like an anarchist. A bit later, I was looking at the pictures on his camera, and I saw he had been at a restaurant with a friend of his for déjeuner, a young blond French woman who had a Doctorate in film studies, but who was working at Disneyland in Paris.
Paris’s sky was darkening as I was getting hungry, and he wanted to buy food from a strange street vendor who was selling some kind of shish taouk, but there was no way I was going to eat that after travelling for two hours. We finally decided to go to McDonald’s.
In the hotel room, he told me he had brought many of his ex-girlfriends to this Hôtel République. Anyone who has been to Paris knows that there are dozens of hotels with the same names, but no, he had been bringing his girlfriends to this exact one. Hopefully, not always in this exact same room. It was a cheap hotel, overcrowded with cheesy Hollywood-style decorations.
Later that evening, he seemed more interested in watching a TV program about prostitutes who took pleasure in having sex with disabled people than spending time talking with me or going out. The next day, the Black hotel maids were singing: “Ah! Vous faites des ouh, ouh, ouh là, ouh là!” and were laughing hysterically.
We did go to a nice French restaurant – with one of his many ex-lovers. Of course, he did take the time to inform me beforehand. It was odd because her last name was quite similar to mine, but with a different spelling. I think it is easy to figure out what it means if a man tells you about his “Grande amie.”
We went to the office of this “American woman living in Paris”, Terri, who had a small film company. She had directed and produced one fiction film in which her son had starred, and had worked with many famous European actors. I noticed how shockingly thin she was because she was wearing clunky bracelets that made it even more apparent. The restaurant was called “Le Sporting.” I only had a risotto and a glass of red wine, yet it was so creamy rich, I could not eat the whole plate. It cut my appetite after only a few bites. He ate all the leftover risotto from my plate.
During dinner, he thought it was really funny to mention that there was some place in Paris where lovers go in their cars, and wankers go to watch them. Then he talked about a time when Terri was supposed to hook up with a friend they had in common who made a living by designing posters. She said he could continue being a wanker for all she cared. When we went outside, Jacques whispered something into her ear about having been to a hotel together. She had a little shocked reaction before she asked at which hotel we were staying.
One morning, I finally met the hotel clerk who had answered the phone when I had called to talk to Jacques.
“So you are Catherine?” he asked.
He was probably a lonely hotel clerk because he looked like he enjoyed himself too well when Jacques took a picture of the clerk and me with our hands on the counter. I had banged my head on the door when I had tried to leave the hotel.
A few days later, we went to a restaurant I had read about before leaving and I really wanted to go to even though it was fairly expensive. It was quite far away from where we were staying, so we had to travel a long way on the old metro. When we got there, he didn’t order anything because it was too expensive for his budget, and I ended up paying for myself. Our waitress was very beautiful, perhaps the picture-perfect example of a French woman, and he spent most of the evening trying to start up a conversation with her, even leaving me at the table by myself for a long period of time.
At least my entrée was delectable, the lamb I had was so tender, it melted in my mouth, and the Charlotte aux poires was exquisite. Unfortunately, another waitress who wasn’t as good looking got in his way by trying to get his attention. She was even calling him by his first name by the end of my meal.
During the whole trip, he kept taking billions of pictures of me, especially when my eyes were closed, when I was making grimaces or when I was angry. But at some point, not long after this, I got fed up. I was so livid because of his behaviour that I felt ill. The sparkle in my eyes had died. My face turned white. He took a picture of me next to a metro sign that read, “Blanche.” all the while laughing at his photo concept. I kept thinking how this was the worst idea of my life to ask him to come and meet me. What was I thinking?
“Do you love me?” I asked him.
“Not that much, no.” he replied half-muffled, yet without much restraint.
After many months, it did not make any sense to me why someone would stay in a relationship, even though they did not love the other person. Was it out of sheer loneliness or stupidity? Maybe, it was just because we could. It would have been a good thing, if it had ended right then and there, but it did not. I cried on my way back to the hotel, passing the Moulin Rouge. I was a sad 20 year-old in Paris.
*This fiction story was originally written for a Magazine Writing class at Concordia’s Centre for Continuing Education in July 2013.