“L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante
L’amour s’en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme L’Espérance est violente.”
––“Le Pont Mirabeau” by Guillaume Apollinaire
THE FIRST TIME CARLY sensed the passage of time, she was walking through the Louvre and heard music from the light shafts above––harpsichord. She turned about herself, but nobody else seemed to notice. She was certain that she had stepped into a portal, a vestige of the past that recognized something in her, wrapped its old memories about her and, just as swiftly, released her back into the present. Carly was overcome by nostalgia for a time she’d never known.
Carly had helped many a friend through a bad break up, but everyone she called upon to return the favor came up with empty hands and a shrug. Who actually put the fade on a person this hard? She’d heard of ghosting, but even the most transparent of friends would at least give some hint toward their anger or hurt. Not Jack. Jack left a fortress of questions behind him. There was no way Carly could dig through them all and hope to find Jack. In some ways, he had given her more closure than her girlfriends had ever had with their ex boyfriends. There was no question of getting back together, no strange text or email conversations to decipher over wine at happy hours, no midnight text for some quick sex between exes. There was nothing. It was like the past three years had never happened.
The Louvre was more impressive than Carly expected. Its tall ceilings and marble floors made her feel like she was in a painting or walking within an indentation in an elaborate sculpture. She waited in the horde of buzzing people to see the Mona Lisa, but when she got to the front, she was quickly moved to the side by an aggressive tourist who wore oversized sunglasses and a bulging pink fanny pack. At first she turned to the tourist, angry, but decided against saying anything. The Mona Lisa wasn’t all that she expected, anyway. It was small and the colors seemed a little drab.
Outside, the breeze lifted her scarf and the sun felt warm. Carly checked the map on her phone and started off along the Seine. She thought she’d go to the Latin Quarter for dinner. In the guide books she and Jack had pored over last winter, one of her favorite things to imagine was the night they’d spend at one of those tables that sat in the window and opened out onto the street. Soft light from the restaurant would make them silhouettes to passersby. They would laugh over glasses of red wine, order things they could barely pronounce, lean their heads together and look out at the street.
Carly chose a restaurant on a quieter side street. A spot at the window was open but was clearly meant for two or three people. The restaurant was busy, and Carly let the host sit her near the window, but not at the window. She slid into the booth against the wall. A few feet away to her right, a small step up allowed entry into the window seat. To her left, a middle-aged couple in khaki clothing featuring many pockets ate their steaks in silence. The room seemed to be filled with both tourists and locals. Outside, she watched people walk and smoke and laugh across the cobblestone streets.
When the waiter came, Carly used her high school French to order a glass of red wine. She had only fleetingly glanced at the menu and its prices. She knew that upon returning home, she’d be struck with a wave of regret when she looked at her bank account, but for now, she gave herself what she wanted with a romantic kind of abandon.
The bell above the door rang and two men and a woman walked through the door. They were speaking in rapid French, laughing and asking questions of each other, clearly good friends. One of the men gestured to the window table and the host whisked over with menus. They sat down within the window frame, a perfect tableau. When a waiter came and filled their water glasses, the man who had gestured to the table made eye contact with Carly and smiled warmly, unabashedly, as if he had known her for some time. Carly looked down at her napkin. Carly’s waiter came back with her wine and when she looked up to say merci, she noticed that the man was still looking at her, his chin propped up on the heel of his hand.
Carly had only slept with three men. The first had been her high school boyfriend, a sax player and captain of the chess club. The last she heard of him, he was married and working for a prestigious law firm in Washington D.C. The second was Jack and the third was a man named Bodie who Carly slept with sometimes when she and Jack were fighting.
Carly had been the one to ask Bodie if she could come up and see his apartment. Jack had gone home, drunk and angry about something Carly couldn’t remember anymore. Carly ordered a glass of wine and drank it slowly at the bar, watching Bodie pour drinks and talk with the regulars. Just before close, she asked if she could come up when he got off––she knew that he lived above the bar from previous conversations––and Bodie had given her a quick nod that didn’t seem to take too much thought.
The apartment was spacious. Unlike the bar, which was shrouded in thick red velvet curtains and boasted dark mahogany wood on most surfaces, Bodie’s apartment was white and, you could tell, light-filled by day. Now, though, in the early morning hours, weak moonlight washed the apartment in a gentle dark. A blue patterned quilt covered the bed and waist-high stacks of books lined the walls. The apartment was spare, it seemed, to allow Bodie to take up all the space he needed. They barely spoke. Carly thought their bodies felt familiar together, cozy almost. She liked to imagine that these bodies belonged to her and Jack, that the man kissing her was the one she was to marry. She sometimes felt guilty that not only was she cheating on her fiancé, but she didn’t feel a strong affection toward Bodie. Although, he didn’t seem to need anything from her and Jack didn’t know; he was probably sleeping with someone else anyway. Carly let the guilt slip from her mind.
Afterward, Bodie made them tea and asked if she wanted to stay or if he should call her a taxi.
“Taxi,” Carly had sighed. “Jack will already be suspicious.” She flicked her eyes toward Bodie, hoping to catch a glimpse of his thoughts across his face, but as usual, he revealed nothing. Carly wondered if he often did this with women at his bar. When the taxi came, he walked her to the door, but offered nothing else.
They continued to sleep together here and there, and Carly wondered how their exchanges at the bar weren’t more dramatic, infused with the secrets they held about each other’s bodies, but they were always professional and kind.
Carly hadn’t been back to The Huntsman since Jack left. She wondered if Bodie even knew. Probably not. Despite their nights together, they didn’t know much about each other.
Carly ate her dinner of duck confit and soup à l’oignon and tried not to look at the man in the window seat. When the waiter asked if she’d like another glass of wine, she said no. She wanted to finish her meal, pay, and leave. Every time her eyes caught his, it felt like he was drawing out more and more of her secrets. By the time she finished her soup, she was sure he knew every last terrible thing about her, down to the spelling test she had cheated on in first grade.
“Yes,” said Carly. “How did you know?”
“Just a feeling,” he said. “Would you like to join us for a drink?”
The woman at the table leaned back and smiled at Carly. “Oh, Louie, leave her alone. She is probably going to meet her husband.”
“Of course, of course,” Louie said. “You must be going to meet your husband.”
“I don’t have a husband,” said Carly. “Actually, he was supposed to be here with me. On our honeymoon. But the wedding didn’t happen.” She didn’t know why she was telling them this.
“Oh, mon dieu, I’m so sorry,” the woman said. “Please, sit. Let us buy you a glass of wine.” She pulled out a chair for Carly.
Carly could see it all: she’d drink and laugh with these people all night. The woman would lean over and touch her arm whenever Carly said something funny or emotional. Louis would blink at her over his wine glass and smile. They would invite her to a dinner party they were having the next night and Carly would show up in the one sexy dress she had packed––red, with deep V’s in the front and back. She’d bring a nice bottle of wine and Louie would open it when she walked in and pour them all a glass. They’d say, “Salut,” and Carly would feel it, the beginning of her new life unfolding out before her. She wouldn’t sleep with Louis that night, but she would the next. He’d beg her to change her flight, stay a little longer, and recklessly, exhilaratingly, she would. Her stay in Paris would be white sheets and red wine and deep kisses and croissants with jam for breakfast. Hand holding in the garden, afternoon glasses of white, ancient sounding church bells in the distance that seemed to strike and shake out the deep and secret sadness in her heart. It would hit her then, while they rounded a storybook street corner, that she was only ever with Jack as a means to this end. Here.
“So, this is Louis, I’m Sabine, and the quiet, polite one over there is Jean-Marc.”
Louis spoke. “So, tell us, this almost-husband––what happened?”
“Well, it’s pretty simple. He left. I woke up one morning and everything was gone, even his clothes from the washing machine. They were still wet and everything. I mean, I’ve been told I snore, but I didn’t know I could sleep through something so momentous.”
“Christ,” said Jean-Marc. Then: “I wish that’s what my ex would have done.”
The four of them looked at each other for a moment, then Carly burst out in laughter and the others joined in. The server approached their table, presented the wine to Sabine, who nodded, still smiling. More wine was poured and glasses lifted.
“To exes who never do what they’re supposed to do. And to the life that blooms in their disastrous wakes,” said Jean-Marc. “Salut.”
Somehow the wine tasted better at this table near the window with these new friends. Carly settled back in her seat. “So. What are your worst breakup stories? Help me ease my heartache.” She clutched at her heart.
Sabine leaned back in her chair, swirled the wine glass with one hand and drew the other through her dark hair. “Well, I’m afraid I’m the one who’s the heartbreaker,” she said.
“Oh, that is for sure,” Louis said. “At university we all tried dating Sabine, but she wouldn’t have any of us. No, no. Instead, she went for older men.”
“Oh, come on. He wasn’t that old.”
“He was! He was forty and we were, what, twenty-two?”
“He wasn’t forty.” Sabine drank her wine.
“How old was he was, then?” asked Jean-Marc.
Sabine took another sip of her wine, then darted her eyes up over the rim and twitched an eyebrow. “Thirty-nine,” she said.
“No way,” said Carly. “That’s bold.”
“Bold is the perfect word to describe Sabine,” said Louis.
Sabine shrugged and smiled at her friend.
“What about you, Louis?” asked Carly.
Louis sighed. “Oh, mine is a long story.”
Sabine and Jean-Marc drank their wine and exchanged glances.
“But I’ll tell you the short version.” He brightened, sat up a little straighter. “The truth is, I have always been madly, hopelessly in love with Sister Marguerite and could not live with another.” He pounded his fist on his chest.
Sabine shook her head and rolled her eyes. “That’s his neighbor. She’s this old nun who likes to sing opera very early in the morning. She also has four cats. Quite the character.”
They left the restaurant at closing time and walked down the streets spilled over with yellow light from the streetlamps. They walked toward the Seine, Sabine breaking off first with bisous for all, then Jean-Marc. Louis led Carly to the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge that spanned the Seine, he told her.
Carly was glad he couldn’t see her blush in the dark. “Yeah,” she laughed. “Sur le Pont Mirabeau,” she said in a grand voice. “That’s all I remember.”
“It is a sad poem about a sad man,” said Louis.
They stood in the middle of the Pont Neuf, watching the black water below.
“I’m not in love with Sister Marguerite, you know,” said Louis.
“Do you want to know what really happened?” he asked, still looking down at the water.
“I met a girl at university. We had so much fun together. Our families loved each other. She had this thick red hair that matched her laugh. We got married right after we graduated. We had it all––the big church, the white dress, rice in the air, everything. Then we had a baby and the baby died. I haven’t spoken to her in nine years, but I think of her every day.”
“I am so sorry, Louis,” Carly said. She turned to him, put a hand on his forearm.
He kept staring at the dark water for a few moments, then looked at Carly with a sad smile. “I’m sorry. It is your trip to Paris.” He spread his arms before the blinking city, the flowing water of the Seine. His elbows dipped and his hands were limp. “You should be out dancing, out meeting new people and having fun.”
Carly kept wishing that Louis would turn and kiss her. “I am out meeting new people and having fun,” said Carly. “I am glad I met you,” she said and winced. The bridge, the sad man, the city of love and kissing made her want to speak words that were full and weighty with meaning. Instead, she sounded flat, like a Hallmark card.
Louis didn’t seem to be bothered. “I’m glad I met you, too, Carly,” he said. He turned away from the water and leaned against the bridge. “How much longer are you in Paris?”
Carly pictured them holding hands with a shopping bag full of baguettes, smelly cheeses, and wine. Maybe they could put their sadness aside and be happy together. She could change her flight, dip into her savings and rent a small apartment. They could host dinner parties together and invite Sabine and Jean-Marc. “About a week,” she said.
“Only a week, what a shame,” he said. “I have lived in Paris my whole life and always will and I will never see all there is to see.”
“Isn’t that the same with every city?” Carly asked. But then she thought of her own city, all steel and skyscrapers, concrete and small parks with skinny trees and dogs squatting over dry grass.
As if confirming her thoughts, Louis said: “No. Nowhere else is like Paris. Every moment here is a poem that lasts forever. Just like your sad man ‘sur le Pont Mirabeau.’”
They didn’t tumble, arms and legs entwined, into Louis’s apartment like partakers of Parisian one-night stands did in the movies, but instead entered rather awkwardly, Louis motioning for Carly to lead the way into the dark apartment while he reached around her shoulder to flick on the light. The apartment was sad. No art on the walls, no stacks of books. Just an old couch and coffee table, a small kitchen with a table and a single chair. The far wall slanted toward them, a large window giving way to the night. Carly walked over toward it. “What’s your view?” Carly asked.
He rummaged in the fridge, took out two beers, opened them, and walked toward Carly at the window.
She looked at the label. Kronenbourg 1664. “You know, I think this is the first beer I’ve had since I’ve been in France.”
“Oh? Is it okay? Would you prefer wine?”
“Oh no, this is great. Thank you.”
They clinked bottles. Louis sat down on the couch and Carly followed him. After a moment, Louis took the beer from her hand and set it on the coffee table along with his. His eyes were shining with emotions that Carly, having known them herself, though on a smaller scale, could recognize. She knew that as he took her face in his hands, as he kissed her, as he pulled her hips toward him, and let himself fall on top of her––she knew that it was not Carly he was with, but a woman with hair that matched her laugh, a woman he would never truly have again.
In the morning, Carly woke with a jolt. Bright light streamed through the window and she blinked into it. She rolled over and saw that Louis was already out of bed. She got dressed quickly and stepped out into the hall. Louis was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. He didn’t look up.
The air in the room felt too still, like all of the molecules had given up whirring in space and decided to just hang there. Carly coughed. “Well,” she said. She moved from one foot to the other. “I should probably get back to sightseeing.”
“Yes, there is so much of Paris that you haven’t seen,” Louis said. He stood and walked to the door, picked up her shoes and handed them to her.
“Thanks,” said Carly. She set the shoes down and stepped into them. “I had a nice time,” she said, even though she didn’t.
“Me too,” Louis said. “Au revoir.” He leaned in and gave her a kiss on either cheek, then opened the door and let her out.
In the hallway, she could hear an old woman singing opera. Sister Marguerite, she knew. Carly imagined her, singing away in her apartment alone, her chorus of cats weaving about her old feet, and felt like crying.
Carly walked past intricate wrought iron fences, tall trees dappling the streets with shade, and quiet limestone buildings with powder blue roofs. She had no idea where she was and she didn’t care. She was hungry and needed to find a place to eat. Then she could worry about getting back to her hotel and getting herself sorted. She walked past small boulangeries and cafes. She tried to read some of the menus posted outside the doors, but the French swirled together into a mess of confusion. She felt as though she were in a completely different Paris than the one she had been in last night. She turned a corner and came across two familiar sets of gold arches above a sleek looking restaurant with floor to ceiling glass windows. Carly entered the McDonald’s. There were plush chairs, people clicking away on laptops, and ceramic cups of coffee resting on small plates.
Later, after Carly had been married to a quiet engineer for a number of kind, but not particularly romantic years, after she had had a daughter, born quickly, silently in the thin navy of early morning, after she had finally run into Jack at the pediatrician’s––both with their children who played with germ-covered blocks together––and apologized to him, after she had put her little girl to bed, swept her hair out of her face and wondered how she would survive if anything happened to her, she closed her eyes and tried to remember her lonely honeymoon in France. She barely remembered the Mona Lisa, or the sights she’d seen, or the people she’d briefly known. She could only clearly recall a few sounds––harpsichord, a river’s churn and splatter, and the bright laugh of a woman she had never met.
KAIA PREUS is a writer from Excelsior, Minnesota. She currently teaches high school creative writing and English in Minneapolis. She holds her MFA from Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, and her work has appeared in Pleiades and The Briar Cliff Review. She is at work on a novel.