a tinkling piano in the next apartment
those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant
a fairground's painted swings
these foolish things
remind me of you
... These Foolish Things, sang by Ella Fitzgerald
June 1996, Paris
Alex sat in front of his desk, hesitating whether he should call Maria. Her unhappiness had been hanging above his head since he started this road trip. During the last year, Maria had hinted a couple of times that she needed more than just living together. He had been dreading that she would mention engagement. He simply was not sure, there was something missing from their life but he had not been able to pinpoint it.
Traveling between countries on the continent fascinated Alex. He remembered how his little finger traced these colorful patches on a globe in elementary school, so much in awe with the concept that there were real people living in those patches, children just like him even. He was wondering how it would be like to walk on those patches step by step, he wished he would not miss any of them, some of the patches were so tiny. He promised to himself then that he would be very very careful not to step over any. Now moving from one glorious city to the next, he could see so much possibilities lay in front of him. He had never experienced such freedom.
Since his road trip began, he had realized that he would leave Maria eventually. He simply could not find the right words. Nor the right moment. The more Maria loved him, the further away he ran from home. He had turned down many temptations in different cities. Even his heart was no longer with her, at least he would try to keep his body faithful to her. It had been hard sometimes, but he managed. Even he himself failed to understand this strange fidelity. Maybe in a way I am trying to punish myself for Maria’s sake. Maybe it could less my guilt.
Maria’s email was odd, but Alex was too happy complying before she changed her mind. He choose not to worry. It was the best way to end it, he thought. "I am definitely not ready to settle down yet." He reassured himself one more time, "It would be unfair not to give her freedom. She deserves someone who truly loves her. "
"Hey, Alex." Fred from the next cube poked his head in, "Tex-Mex, tonight?"
"That Mexican place with the beautiful bartender?" Alex tried to remember. Ever since he arrived in Paris, the group of young consultants went to a different place every night, most time he was too drunk to remember the food he ate, let alone the name of the restaurant.
"Yup. Her name is Mina!" Fred winked. "Are you coming?"
"Of Course!" Alex suddenly became very excited.
Last time Alex and Fred went to Tex-Mex after work. The rest of the group showed up two hours late. Fred and Alex sat at the bar and finished two pitchers of Margarita while waiting. On their way to the restaurant, Fred told Alex that he came here often because the bartender had a very hot body. Alex spotted her when they just sat down. She had dark skin, long curly hair almost reached her waist. She was in a tight black tank top and tight black jeans, her facial feature suggested her Arabian origin. She greeted Fred by name, Fred introduced Alex to her. "My pleasure." Her French had a slight accent. Alex found her smile too seductive. She refilled their glasses without speaking another word. But Alex knew that she was listening in on their conversation. Alex told Fred about a kind of shot he had while in Berlin, which required one to drink the alcohol while it was still burning in flame. "It was called Hot Fuck." Alex told Fred. Fred laughed so loud that the entire restaurant was staring at them. Mina came over, "What are you laughing at? You are embarrassing me." Fred told her about the shots. She leaned over to Alex, whispered at his ear, "If you wait for me after I get off work here, I would drink that shot with you." Alex blushed. He fled the restaurant after the dinner, claiming that he had to take Fred home. Fred could hardly walk by then, still he tried to push Alex back in the restaurant, "noo-nonsense, I am not, not drunk. Yooo, you go back. Meeee, Mina is waiting!"
Mina was not working that night, Alex was slightly disappointed. He would have enjoyed celebrating his first night of freedom with her. The group migrated to a nightclub on the left bank after dinner. Many small rooms were set up around the dance floor. Each room was decorated into a cave or a ship cabin with fake rocky material from floor to ceiling, all chairs were wrapped in red velvet, bloody red. Small ceiling light formed light columns through out the cave, like a stage; the cigarette smoke climbed up the light column, disappeared in the ceiling . Each cave was filled with people who were drinking , smoking, laughing, and talking. Small tables were crowded with half empty glasses and vodka or scotch bottles.
Antonio, a young man with large sad eyes struck up a conversation with Alex. Antonio’s boyfriend just died of AIDS complication two weeks ago. They had been together for four years. Alex told him that his girlfriend back home in Stockholm just died of a car accident recently as well. They, too, had been together for four years. Antonio was the one talking most of the time, his lover’s little habits Antonio had come to love, his talent in singing, their mutual passion for performing arts, trips they took together to the South America, quiet Saturday afternoon they spent in the apartment doing small tasks like reading newspaper or writing a letter home while the rest of Paris bustling below their 19th story apartment, his lovers?last days in the hospital, Antonio’s restless nights for the past two weeks since he was gone. From time to time, Alex sensed more stories from Antonio’s mind than from his words. Antonio’s memory reminded Alex of a modern painting exhibition Maria dragged him to see. Thick colors with frantic shapes. Passionate and desperate. Occasionally Antonio would stop and ask Alex of his girlfriend, their lives together. Alex would tell him about their sailing trips in the Archipelago, the moment he treasured while Maria waving at him across from the busy traffic in front of her hotel, her habit of gripping onto the sheet while sleeping, Maria’s passion for oil painting.
They left the club in the early dawn. The scene inside the club resembled a deserted battle field, There were couples fell asleep along the dance floor. They almost stepped on a couple who were still making out dreamily on the floor in the hall way. The morning air was a fainted bluish mist. They passed the gigantic Nortre Dame, quiet alleys, and the tired and still sleepy Seine. Caf?owners started to set up the outdoor seats and tables. They had breakfast at a caf?by the Pompidou. Over coffee and toast, Antonio suddenly said, "You seemed so calm talking about losing Maria. How did you manage that?" Alex looked puzzled for a few seconds. Then he shrugged, "I am not sure myself. Perhaps the travelling and busy work schedule helped.?He managed a half smile, “Time will heal anything."
They said goodbye outside the caf? Kisses on both cheeks, the French way. "Thank you for listening. You might just saved my life without knowing it." Antonio whispered at Alex' ears. Alex shivered. He suddenly understood those despair he sensed from Antonio's mind.
Alex walked to his hotel close by Les Halles. Along the way, he thought about the possibility of losing Maria completely. Never to see her face again, never to smell her boyish hair, never to hear her voice. It was such an abstract concept that he did not know how to make it feel real. Will it be like the state of mind Antonio had shown him during the night? The truth was he knew clearly that Maria would never say no to him if he asked to see her again. Currently he had no desire to do so. That was all he needed to know. He fell into a deep sleep quickly in his hotel room. Outside, the Paris just woke up for another busy summer Saturday.
Meanwhile, 1500 miles away, in a charming apartment on Gamla Stan (the old town) of Stockholm
The morning sunlight woke Maria up, she found herself fell asleep by the canvas. The almost completed picture startled her. It was the image she remembered of her first sailing trip with Alex and Peter. It felt strange to see it revealed in front of her like someone else’s story. Her eyes fell on the half finished painting that leaned by the wall. The image of the computer reminded her of what she wrote to Alex last night, and the incident with Peter during the afternoon. Sadness overwhelmed her once again. She went to the computer to check her email.
Her hands were shaking, heart was beating fast when she saw ‘You have new mail?button was light up. In the summary window, it showed a new message from firstname.lastname@example.org Title "Re: Isn't it over"
It is probably for the best. I think we both need time to be away for a while.
Have a good summer.
Like Alex taught her before, she checked the timestamp of her email arrival time and his reply time. It was merely three minutes apart. Which meant he replied right away, without hesitation, as if he had been waiting for such an email from her. As if he had been waiting.
"Oh, God!" She closed her eyes, hugged herself tightly, "Oh, God!" The whole world was running past her, she was left behind, so behind.