by Vala Schriefer
On a Napkin
I am freezing. Paris is brutal today, unwilling to yield to the groans of us foreigners, totally and intentionally unromantic. The city grumbles something sarcastic, maybe a little rude and dismissive, “this is what you came for… take it or leave it… this is what I really am…” that sort of thing. Honest. I’ve placed myself at a round table, with round Italian glasses and fake, tacky round candles, and Paris is laughing at me on the other side of the window because I’m drinking milk from a plastic black straw and trying so hard to be French. The woman at the next table has the haircut I want. Short. She leans on the round table, not afraid that it will rock and shudder the round Italian glassware. I assign sounds to the spasms of her lips. People are so beautiful when you don’t know them. But I romanticize. What I need is a cold splash of sea water, something to burn my eyes and cleanse my head. Just today I sat reading Adrienne Rich and was struck by the dreadful coughing spells that have plagued me since the onset of this sickness. I was just in the middle of a line.
Maybe it revealed something my body thought I shouldn’t know. I bought it out of defiance. The woman with the short hair has left the café. She’ll find new tables to tilt with her elbows, I hope she never loses that confidence. I cannot test the furniture of this place because I am not French. I would be instantly exposed, far too obvious, far too American. A TV plays music videos without the audio in the next room. I don’t need to hear the music to know it’s bad. Awfully presumptuous of me, perhaps… but I know I’m right. I don’t have to hide my artists’ arrogance, not here. I want to press my hands against the sidewalk, maybe burn my finger on a café flame, any souvenir of today. But alas, dust disappears in water and these tacky candles are fake. I keep rolling my eyes at the idea of love in this city, or perhaps love at all. I see America in everything, cacti in glassware, stop signs in shoe buckles, the history of American steal in the clack-clack of the subway. And I see America in Parisian
love. It looks staged, directed and rehearsed and cheesy. I’m being awfully cynical, awfully cynical. A couple is holding hands in that declarative way I really abhor, pointing their intertwined fingers south-west, that is to say, in my lonely direction. A really bad Hollywood production, no nuances, no layers. I am freezing. French was only beautiful when I didn’t know it. Now the sonic, rhythmic gurgling means something and I can understand, at least in my American way, which means incomplete and comically unpoetic. A young German couple has taken the empty table once conquered by the short-haired French woman. Her controlled audacity, stoic Parisian poise, still hovers over her table. The Germans don’t know how to deal with the table’s curious rocking. They’re not in their element but speak naturally and freely and avoid making eye contact with the shrug of the round table
so as to avoid the awkward confrontation. The German is quite beautiful. I do not understand it, only one or two words from what my friend Vahey has taught me from her six months in Goslar. The woman speaks of her father. The word is weightless, she puts no wind in it. She must have a good relationship with him, or maybe all Germans say the word father in the same airy way. I can be sure that I am being American, awfully and fatally American. Certainly not German enough to understand who they are, or French enough to even come close. They’ve just clinked glasses to consecrate the evening. But I romanticize. In the book store, absorbing Adrienne Rich, after another major, spastic declaration of my ailment, a man, old enough to know better, sat next to me and the elderly lady flipping through a magazine at the opposite side of the bench. He declared to her that I was his wife. He was trying to impress me with his arrogance. He didn’t know my arrogance far surpasses his and I am far too selfish to have noticed his idiocy. I continued to read but he just talked at me. I flashed the cover of my book in his direction but he had
the legendary obliviousness my mother has warned me about. Quite the clown. I gave him a fake name and a fake number. He was a bad actor, part of the multiple act play of Paris. He had rehearsed his lines and practiced that artificial charm some less intelligent American women find handsomely Parisian and just oh so magical. He dropped the last line of his monologue, “Think about me.” I would have shoved him in my book like a bookmark, placed him on a particularly fiery page, and pushed the book back on the shelf. Maybe then he could taste the irony, but more than likely he wouldn’t because in memorizing his lines he had forgotten all the nuances of real life. But in the end I am another foolish American victim because here I am at this round table drinking milk from a plastic black straw, hearing Paris laugh at me because I am indeed thinking about him.