Passé Imparfait

By CJ Giroux
micheile-henderson-passe imparfait-unspl

            I follow your lead, maneuvering around the orange-table tops, collecting more bruises on my thighs. Everything about the hostel seems a little off, built for someone a size smaller. Forehead meets doorway every time I negotiate the circular stairway. The plaster ceiling sags; beams, centuries-old, bend; the lower bunks lack slats.

            Even though each time I rise from the subway onto Rue Mouffetard, I go left instead of right, I suggest one last trip to the patisserie, the golden domes of bread, peach tarts that glow like morning sun on Michaelmas, baguettes that stand at attention. I now know of the niceties sold with centimes balancing on green plastic pegs, more soldiers in formation.

            You offer a half-smile, sigh, mumble about time, and so I am betrayed again by day-old croissants that scratch the throat, cinnamon fumes of café au lait. I cradle the cup, always surprised by the heat, bitterness, no matter how much au lait is offered. I tap-tap-tap my spoon on the rim, push it counterclockwise, as if conjuring a spell. You translate the clerk’s harangue, holding your cup with your stronger hand. His turtleneck, horn-rimmed glasses remain out of sight, down the hallway, beyond the open door, but the sharp syllables, like the staccato song of cicada, my grandfather’s Timex, tell all. I count the length, terror of his tirade, as if measuring storms’ distance by lightning, thunder. I know some girl, Eastern European, stands, head bowed, with too thin towels that perpetually exude bleach.

            It is Wednesday, March, time to go. The front desk phone chirps like a bird before dawn.

            Monday, you flit like a chickadee about the city, seeking children, au pair positions; I lose myself in museums, sink into lower levels, slip along the curves of Monet’s blooms, his growing blindness. Trees fall off straight edges. I test the waters, stepping among sloped walls, and blues, purples muddy, mix, fill the lens. Fluorescent lights, hidden heat vents hum. I lift the camera, once, twice, again, before resurfacing to gravel paths rippling out from the reflecting pools of the Tuileries. Traffic drones; grey sky falls into drained basins. I wait for you, sink into my scarf, refigure the time in Michigan.

            Yesterday’s warmth has dissipated, and today March in Paris seems like East Lansing in November; leafless trees scrape arthritic limbs against the canvas roof of the empty outdoor market. The creperies’ maroon awnings, drawn tight, rustle in the late winter wind. I close my eyes to cobblestones to recall, inhale the layers of fish silvering in sunlight, the sugared almonds, sprays of white lilac trucked in from the south, the cries of Maman, Maman. Even now, these are what I still single out in my memory, sift from the cries of the aproned couple, themselves foreigners, selling olives. He dips his ladle into his wooden vats; she wraps the wares in waxed paper pockets. I point to pick. No one, of course, has shown up to say goodbye, as if short visits are betrayals. The blinking green cross of the pharmacy tells me to vas, vas, vas. I can, do. You will stay. When does the trip, relationship cease, I wonder, at the end or when the end is in sight? The wheels of my duffel bag clatter on the uneven street; like bamboo chimes in a windstorm, they sound a too-late warning.

            The d’Orsay buzzes with tourists, students on field trips. On the upper level, without you, I follow the abstracted curves of Pompon’s polar bears, penguins, walrus released from marble; the sharp lines of temporary walls, L-shaped. Still higher up, on another floor, I study the clock’s face, the hands that do not point to time but block it, bisecting the Seine snaking below. Now I understand distance means nothing. Now I understand distance is everything, the gentle closing of doors following designated arcs, the silences that resonate larger and longer than the soft click of latched locks, cogs, gears.

            With doors that slide shut with a hiss, the subway is a blur, literally and in memory. What I remember is a gypsy woman, wrapped in black, kneeling before the empty guitar case while her husband sings, his mouth obscured by his mustache. Perhaps they are from this moment, perhaps another trip. A ticking turnstile guards the tunnel, its smooth turquoise tiles the size of cinderblocks. But these, too, are not necessarily from this moment. On peeling posters, models parade in sprawling skirts of  rumpled spinach leaves, the curved parabolas of Russian kale, but their home, Galeries Lafayaette, Boulevard Haussmann, the ninth arrondissement are still sights unseen. What is of the moment, I am sure, is your half smile and the fact that the subway map above the door resembles Tinker Toys—stick, cog, stick, cog. I count the Metro stops, smell the burning rubber, electricity on my skin, the singed chatter of rails. Double-checking for my passport pouch, wedged between shirt and skin, I rest my leg on my bag. I open my coat, move the zipper up, down, clicking along a single track of plastic teeth. We do not, choose not, to talk.                         Somewhere cathedral bells chime the hour. We do not hear. Not at this moment.

            I glide along paths of the cemetery, itself a city built from slanting houses; proclamations beginning “beloved”, “dear,” “demise,” and when the wind is right, a flute rendition of “Light My Fire” washes over me. Angel wings sprout over Oscar Wilde; graffiti grows over doors. A girl with nose rings and a blue hood bears a bouquet. She circles Abelard, Héloise. She runs her hands over mauve heads with saffron centers. I imagine a trail of plucked petals forming behind her. Surrounded by the smell of bitter chrysanthemums, I count the hours til we will meet for lunch, time permitting, the catacombs, Musée de l’Homme.

            Suddenly, I am between stanchions, chains of yellow links, plastic. Again, I do not remember debarking the subway, climbing the steps, reentering the cold blue light of the Gare du Nord in late winter. Behind the glass wall, the ticket agent waves me forward. The timetable above him changes; its straight lines of digital letters, slant, blur, shift, shuffle, repeat. Nothing feels firm. “Répétez, s’il vous plaît,” I ask through the glass. He confuses inability to hear with inability to speak—granted, in my case, the distinction is slight—and repeats his script in English. I request Calais, cliffs, London. He pushes the ticket towards me, no “de rien,” no “au revoir.”

            We move closer to the tracks, and though it may not be accurate, I remember diesel in the air. I promise to write. You promise to find a job, an address, to recreate the résumés you ditched in Hampstead Heath. The train waits; departure draws nearer. Even I can translate this.

            Grey pigeons, a touch of purple iridescence on their wings, scavenge for popcorn flattened under foot. I strip off my gloves to tie my shoe, give you the last of my change. I move behind white picket fencing, plastic, PVC, and promise to visit your mom back in Dearborn. You give me one last hug and the one remaining package of shortbread cookies, their buttery crumbs caught in plastic, and as I nestle them into my coat pocket, Metro tickets fall, fly like confetti. They flip, hop, press against concrete. I imagine these paper stubs stretching behind me, elongating into a line of white pebbles for you to find, a chain of breadcrumbs for some French Hansel and Gretl.

            My luggage in hand, I mount the steps, before letters and numbers marking arrivals, departures rearrange themselves again. Despite our parents’ hope, expectations, this is no romance; it has never been. We know that, and though I will return, in that moment, I do not look back, more worried about negotiating my travels alone. In this moment, as I type these words, I do not worry about translation, conjugation, spelling. This, I now know, is how you say goodbye.

A lifelong resident of Michigan, CJ Giroux grew up in the metropolitan Detroit area but now resides in the "middle of the mitten" in Saginaw. He is the author of the chapbook Destination, Michigan, and he teaches college English.