Paris was exquisite. Paris was enchanting. Paris was the moment your heart opened to the world and begged for love. You loved Leon and the way he made you feel about yourself. You loved Michelle, demure, petite, feminine and butch simultaneously. You loved Celine, your spirit guide and first true friend. But now, as your body gets pushed back into the seat and the giant aircraft gracefully slides off into the sky, Paris and all of it’s charms has been pulled away from you. Your throat closes up and starts to ache and you can feel tears welling up behind the lids of your tightly shut eyes. Their faces slide through your memory. Moments in time you wish never stopped. The laughter, the tears, and all of it in between. The dream was over. The fantasy of living free beyond the reaches of restriction and subtle repression has slipped away from you like fog from the meadow as the sun slowly rises.
You were heading back to Canada and back to your parents. Certainly you missed them. You missed the manly embrace of your hard working father. You missed how his arms would nearly crush you, burying your head into his strong shoulders. His clothes smelling of pipe and cigar smoke mixed with diesel or some other odd farm odor. The smell was never unpleasant, but unique enough that there was no where else you could find it. You missed your mom who was equally hard working and gave equally rib shattering hugs. She certainly smelled better than your dad and her soft calm demeanor was such a perfect contrast to his rugged rough attitude. Thinking about them now you realized quite definitely that you indeed missed them, but that didn’t make leaving Paris any easier.
Your father was a typical country boy. More on the job knowledge than book smarts. He was the type of man that made decisions based on what was tangible to him. If he could see it, touch it, feel it, then it was a simple decision. The most complicated decision he ever made was to marry your mother, and if you were being perfectly honest it was a pretty easy decision. Your father, while rugged, smart in his own way, and well meaning, was the average sum of average parts. He was a self professed “Jack of All Trades, and master of none.” Your mother on the other hand was strong willed, equally rugged when needed, but had a beauty and finesse that was far beyond what your father would have expected he could land. Although who are you to say where love will take hold and rational thought be cast away.
It was your mother that had advocated for Paris on your behalf. You thought secretly to yourself that she had surreptitiously provided support because deep inside she had wished that she had been able to get to see the world herself. Your mom was typical of her generation. She was married and pregnant before she reached 20. Then pregnant again before 21. She had the good fortune of attending university for one year before her life became so predictable. Your father finished his agriculture degree and moved back home to help his parents with the farm. Your mother joined him soon after, and your oldest brother soon after that. Her life was never in her own hands after that point. She was a mother then, and mothers do whatever they must for the benefit of their children. She sacrificed time, energy, sleep, and above all else her own dreams for the sake of you and your brothers. “She needs an extra big hug when I get home” you thought to yourself, sniffling some more tears away.
A tissue slowly eked it’s way into your view held by the female half of the elderly couple next to you, “Here you go dear.” she cooed as she passed the tissue. You gently took it from her aged hand and smiled, your eyes burning from more tears. “Don’t worry,” she continued, “Paris will be here for you when you get back.” The old lady smiled and patted you on the leg, then reached over to pat her partners leg. He was already fast asleep, his head rolled over to the side and dentures slightly askew. “It might not have been if it wasn’t for him and his boys.” she motioned her head to point to her husband. “But we try to make sure that we say thank you and visit them every second year or so back in Normandy.” The mention of that infamous beach combined with the couple’s age instantly cleared the cobwebs as you realized her husband was part of the Normandy D-day invasion some 60 years prior. Emotionally unstable as you are you think about the sacrifice, the loss, the agony and despair those men went through for a country they had never seen until they were firing shells on it’s beaches. “It was worth it I think.” the old woman started up again, “I know it’s hard to say that when you’re talking about people’s lives. But honestly, that war was fought over freedom first and foremost.” She frowned and continued, “The wars these days, as bad as they are, they aren’t about freedom. They’re about resources, and politics. My man here, he liberated this country from tyranny so that young men and women like yourself can come to France and experience Paris.” She chuckled softly and leaned in closely with a devious smirk on her face, “I hope you got to…..experience…..Paris.” The innuendo dripped off of her words like melted wax from a long lit candle. You smiled back at her but didn’t say a word, inwardly noticing that your tears had suddenly dried.
“Thank you for the tissue.” you say to the woman, “and thank you….for Paris.” looking passed her to her husband, open mouthed and snoring in the aisle seat. The elderly lady simply patted you on the thigh and smiled before closing her eyes and passing into unconsciousness like her husband.
You couldn’t do that so easily. Of course the hum of the jet engines, and the recirculated pressurized air were definitely conducive to falling asleep on the plane, but your mind was on your last week in Paris. Much like the growing pains we all experience when we’re younger, this new explosive personal growth was quite painful. You were coming home a changed woman and like an unwrapped toy, you were unlikely to fit back in your original box again. How would your mom and dad react. Would they be able to tell? Did it show on your face? What will you say to your mom? How do you tell her you don’t want to be her little farm girl anymore? Do you just go on pretending to be the person everyone expects you to be just because that’s easier for them? Oh why couldn’t Celine be with you right now. The ache in your heart felt like it was crushing your insides, your eye well up and you turn to the window to peer out into the bright sunny sky. The clouds reflecting the sun and protecting the plane from the unpredictable weather below. You tightly cross your arms and squeeze your body wishing that you could be held one more time in the shadow of the Eiffel tower.
“No no no NO! Like this, not like this. You go like this because you are you. Don’t try to pretend this is something or pretend this is like this. Bof.” Leon’s voice and thick accent crept through your mind. “These are moments. You are in the moments. You live in the moment. You don’t live like always the day next will be the day that is better. Today is the day. Today is the moment. Now, be here. Be here with me.” The steady click and whine of his camera and lights etched into your memory. He was right though. You were thinking about home, about going home. You were thinking about all the future plans your parents had discussed with you before you left. Everything was chaos now. What was so certain, so sure, so stable and predictable wasn’t anymore. “Bah!” Leon exclaimed in frustration. “I’ve lost her again. Celine, you need to talk to her. Go. You go and you talk, I’m going to have a cigarette.” as he wheeled around and marched out the door of the studio.
“What’s wrong?” Celine cooed as she came up to you. She was a mixed bag of looks. Her rough exterior mask of punked hair and combat boots completely contrasted by soft terry cloth robe she was wrapped in and the concern she had in her dark mascaraed eyes.
You turned to look at her. Your eyes ached and your breath became erratic as your emotions bubbled beneath the surface of your still frame. “Oh Celine.” you gushed and threw your arms around her sobbing. “I…..I….I don’t want to leave. I never want to leave!” Your chest heaved uncontrollably as the sobs barreled out of you. It felt as if you had just opened your eyes. That you were seeing the world for the first time. Like someone that has seen the ocean surf for the first time, or the dominating presence of the snow capped Rocky Mountains. The feeling washed over you and you felt struck by how all of this beauty was always here and you never knew it. Your eyes now open didn’t want to shut. Your heart now open didn’t want to close. Yet, you had a plane ticket in your bag that stated you had to leave. The pain of that knowledge shattered you and you sobbed openingly into Celine’s shoulder. Her arms surrounded you and pulled you close to her as she gently wiped your hair from your eyes and kissed your forehead with tenderness.
“Oh Al, my sweet sweet Al.” She cooed, “I’m here for you.”
You tightened your grip on her and sobbed again, the tears streaking down your face and pulling your make-up with them. You felt Celine’s lips on your forehead, her arms around your body. Her thin frame caressing yours. The sanctuary of her arms was all you needed and all you could feel. So enraptured with her raw sympathy that you had not noticed Leon was back in the studio quietly snapping pictures in the dark.
Your eyes burst open as a jolt shot through your body. “Ladies and gentlemen the pilot has turned on the fasten seat belt sign. If you could please return to your seats as we will be going through some turbulence for the next little while.”
Looking to your left the old couple were leaning up against each other, completely unconscious and very likely drooling on each other. At least they looked adorable while doing so. Looking to your right you lifted the window shade to gaze out on the sky beyond. It was pitch black save for some water streaking across the window. Occasionally you saw the distant bolt of lightning illuminating the form of a thick thunderstorm. You were glad the pilots knew what they were doing. You had know idea how to navigate through this black unknown. Glancing down to your phone you could see there were still quite a few hours left in the flight. The cabin lights were dimmed, and aside from the occasional jostle, it quickly became difficult to keep your eyes open.
“This is beautiful” the sound of Leon’s voice slipped into your mind like the distant sound of a water running down a gentle creek., “This is now. This is today. This is life. It’s l’amour. La vie.” with each statement he dropped another 8×10 black and white picture on the table in front of you and Celine. The candid shots of you and Celine in your most vulnerable moment. They were beautiful. So raw and emotional. He captured your pain like he scooped it into a pot for later consumption. The look on your face, the tears in your eyes. The look on Celine’s face melted your insides. So tender and loving. She clearly cared for you. The pictures flopped onto the table, “These are the moments. This is you my dear” Leon continued “This is the you that is you. This is the you that you hide.” You gaze into your face on each photo, the pain just as real now as it was then. You unconsciously reach for Celine and she grasps your hand, pulling you close to her. Your eyes well up again and she kisses your cheek. This time your tears, though emotional, have more constructive force behind them. “These are yours” Leon states gently, “You keep these. I want to use them, but I can’t. You need them more than I.”
Jumping from Celine you grab onto Leon and exclaim, “Oh Leon, I love you.” then reaching for Celine as well “I love you both. So much.”
“Then promise me,” Celine demanded in a soft whisper, “remember us. Don’t slide back into your old self. Be your real self.” As she finished her eyes started to glisten.
“Promise me you’ll be here for me when I come back.” you retorted grabbing Celine and hugging her as your father would, crushing and without restraint.
“I’ll be here.” Celine sniffled.
“Bah. Me? I could never be anywhere else! I will always be here.” Leon agreed chuckling and allowing the mood to break and the tension to lapse.
“Please adjust your chairs and tables to their upright position as we prepare for landing” the calm voice of the middle aged flight attendant requested gently over the intercom. “Flight attendants will be by to collect any garbage. When we land please stay seated until we reach the gate. The pilot will let us know when it is safe to retrieve your baggage from the overhead compartments.”
You blinked the sleep out of your eyes and stretched, feeling the mini clicks and pops of an awkward sleep. Retrieving your travel makeup bag from your purse you quickly inspected your face to make sure everything was in order. Unsurprisingly your mascara had run and you smirked to yourself knowing you had being crying in your sleep again. “Silly girl” you muttered under your breath as you grabbed a tissue to wipe the mess away. Looking to your side you nearly burst into laughter. The kind old lady beside you had also been busy in her dreams as her hand was quite obviously placed directly on the crotch of her octogenarian partner in crime. His upper dentures had complete disassociated themselves from his mouth and in a mad dash for freedom had made it no further than his chest. It was a pretty sight and made you wish you were allowed to take a quick candid photo of the two love birds.
The gentleman woke first, as if he felt your gaze. He opened his eyes wide and squeezed them shut tightly as old people are fond of doing. Moments later he smacked his lips together realizing something was amiss. He smirked as you looked at him and picked up the wayward denture. You quietly let him know there was more to the scene motioning him to look downwards. He did with a puzzled look, as if he should be looking for crumbs or a mystery stain until he saw his wife hand and blasted into a loud chuckle. “Still got it!” he exclaimed while laughing, putting his arm around his wife and kissing her on the forehead. “Couldn’t wait till we got home huh?” he whispered into her ear as she also slowly came out of her unconscious state.
“Oh Frank you little! Why did you put my hand there! Dirty man!” she laughed.
“Hey I’ve got witnesses. You accosted me when I was defenseless!” he nodded at you and you nodded in turn confirming his account of the situation. His wife just shook her head and blushed. He turned to you again, “I guess she still thinks I’m a hunk eh?” and all three of you laughed.
A few moments later the plane made it’s final turn and began it’s approach into Pearson International airport in Toronto. Coming from a small town it was shocking to see how tightly packed all the houses were. As the plane lowered small details came into view. Dots became cars. Squares became houses. Power lines came into view, parks, shopping malls, parking lots, more houses, they all went whizzing by below the plane giving proof of the speed which it was moving. Then next came the disturbingly loud whir and clunk of the gear going down, then the whir and clunk of the flaps being fully extended. A mix of fear and excitement washed through the cabin as each person prepared for the landing. You looked up to the flight attendants on their jump seats and remarked how utterly bored they looked. You wondered to yourself if that was due to actual boredom, or were they trained to look so blasé that it would function to calm the more skittish travelers. Looking out the window you watch the ground come ever closer. The plane’s shadow rushing up to meet it. The paint indicating the runway number whips by and the expected jolt of the wheels touching down jars the plane and a random gasp squeaks through the lips of one of the aforementioned skittish passengers followed by a giggle. As the plane blasts down the runway slowing gently as it goes the entire cabin relaxes and it’s as if the whole mass of people collectively draws in a breath simultaneously. Conversations that halted mid landing resume again as each individual goes about the taxiing time in their own way.
Eventually the whine of the engines subsided and the attendants announced over the intercom “Welcome to Toronto. On behalf of the airline I’d like to thank you for flying with us, and hope that you will see us again soon. For those with connecting flights please talk to the gate attendant when you leave the plane as your gate may have changed while we were in transit.” You sighed audibly. One more plane to go. One more flight and you would be home. You were now halfway from where you want to be, and halfway to where you were expected to be. Toronto was for you, like it was for many of it’s residents, an unfortunate no mans land. A void space between to points of interest. Quietly you disembarked from the plane after helping the elderly couple with their bags. You felt like dragging your feet. Like holding on to the seats and not letting go. As if somehow removing yourself from the plane was removing yourself from where you really wanted to be. But instead you marched ahead, just as cows in the slaughterhouse. Following the indistinguishable ass in front of you while wondering what that zapping sound was up ahead.
You said your goodbyes to your seat mates and walked over to the gate attendant. Indeed your flight had changed while you were in transit. There was a mechanical problem with the plane and now your flight was going to be delayed until tomorrow. The woman apologized on behalf of the airline, and told you to go to the customer service desk where they would help arrange for a hotel for the night. “Lovely.” you couldn’t help but mutter to yourself as you wheeled your carry-on behind you and made your way as directed. Instead of spending an extra night in Paris, you were spending it in Toronto. Perhaps under different circumstances this may have been a treat. But right now, at this moment, it was another splinter jabbing into the sole of your foot.
You waited at the customer service desk for an age as everyone complained in turn for the disruption. The agent at the desk listened to each story with feigned empathy waiting for her opportunity to interject and advise them that they have a hotel room waiting for them and that the airline was truly sorry for their inconvenience, even though the airline really didn’t care and was more sorry about the inconvenience of losing money paying for hotel rooms. Eventually it was your turn. To the agent’s surprise you didn’t bore her with another sob story, you just asked “Where am I staying?” and “How do I get there?”. You received a voucher for the taxi service and another voucher for the hotel. Taking both you thanked the agent and turned to make your way to the taxi service desk. Your posture stooped and resigned to the fact that this emotional journey home was going to be dragged out even longer.
Once you reached the taxi service desk you noted that they were pairing up people into groups so they could save on trips to the hotel. You didn’t really want to be with anyone right now, but once more you didn’t have a choice. To your chagrin you got paired with a mid-30’s businessman type who eyed you over like a rare steak. Mentally you made a bet with yourself. Would he try to make a pass while in the taxi or would he wait until the hotel. Thirty seconds into the trip you had your answer, “What’s a beautiful girl like you doing traveling all alone?” he asked in a manner which you were sure he thought was a suave and educated. Instead it came off sounding creepy. You thought about pretending to be deaf but social conditioning produced a reply before you could stop yourself.
“I’m on my way back home.” you stated dryly. Not completely answering the man’s question, but it wasn’t a question that really required an answer in the first place.
“Oh I see. So you came in from Paris then too?” he asked. You tried to stifle a sigh as it was apparent this man was intent of talking through the entire taxi ride. Probably a salesman you thought to yourself. They never shut up.
“Yes.” you answer curtly.
“Business or pleasure?” he asked. Your skin crawled with irritation. Business or pleasure? What sort of business would she be doing? Then you decided right then and there to take charge. To be like Celine. To be like Leon said and live in the moment.
“Business.” you answer to the man’s surprise. Clearly he expected a different answer and wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed now that his line of questions had been broken.
“Oh?” he stumbled, “Oh? So..uh….what is it…that you do….exactly?”
To which you turned and looked him in the eye with all the confidence of a lioness on the prowl. “I’m work as a freelance fashion model and I was in Paris for a magazine shoot.” the white lie rolled off your tongue with all the confidence of a high stakes poker bluff.
He tried to regain his confidence saying, “I was going to ask you if you were a model. You certainly look like you could be.” his words came tumbling out of his mouth now. The suave sophisticated well traveled businessman devolving quickly into a blubbering idiot.
“Well I try not to be cocky with it. Both me and my partner are models so it gets tiring defending ourselves from unwanted attention.”
“Your…..partner?” he asked in confusion.
“Yes. My partner. She’s also a model. We sometimes do shoots together.” you continue the lie, enjoying watching the man squirm.
“Your partner, is a girl too?” he manages to stammer.
“Yes. Do you have an issue with that? Because if you do you can feel free to go grab another cab.”
“No….no I just. Uh…well I didn’t expect that.”
“It’s more common than you think.” you state defiantly, “Especially in Paris.”
“Oh…well…I didn’t know that. I….I’m sorry I’m being an idiot. You just…”
“I just what?” you ask boldly.
“You just….I had you pegged as something completely different that’s all.” he answered truthfully.
“Is that so?” you retort, “And what is it that you had me pegged as?” you question, egging him on.
“Well I’m usually pretty good at reading people and I thought for sure that you were alone. That you didn’t have a partner at all, let alone a woman.”
“Is that so?” you reply angrily, eerily aware that the man was actually quite accurate in his assessment.
“Yes.” the man answered sheepishly almost hanging his head in shame. “You looked like you were down and depressed. Like people do when they have to go home after a vacation, and don’t want to head home just yet.”
“I didn’t realize it was because you had left your partner behind in Paris.” You froze. His assessment was disturbingly accurate. “You miss her, don’t you?” His question was dowsed in sympathy now that he was no longer pursuing her as a potential piece of meat.
“Yes.” you admitted, “yes I do. Very much.” trying once more to hold back the tears.
“What’s her name?”
“Beautiful name. Why aren’t you staying together?” the man asked.
“I don’t honestly know.”
“Did she break it off?”
“No, it’s not like that.”
“What is it then?”
“I’m expected home. My parents expect me to come back home.”
“I see.” he says but continues, “if you love her though, I think they would rather you be happy than like this.” gesturing to your now tearing up face.
You sat in silence, contemplating the strangers words unable to formulate a response. The man then in a purely human act, reached out and put his hand on your shoulder, “It’ll be ok. Don’t worry, it’ll be ok.”
The taxi arrived at the hotel a short time later and both you and the man disembarked and headed for the hotel check in desk. After receiving your key cards you both headed to the elevator in silence. Then as the door opened and you started to step through he gently said. “I’ll be in the lobby bar tonight. Come see me if you want to talk some more.” you turned to him and smiled at his surprising sincerity. “No obligation, no worries. Just talking over a couple of drinks.”
“Maybe” you said, smiling as a single tear made its way down your cheek, the elevator doors closing behind you as a curtain falling after act one of a play had been completed.
You turned and walked down the hall to your hotel room. Alone.