I went to Paris to meet a girl called Monica. I’ve never forgotten it. She was a dancer from Spain. I met her at a wedding in Barcelona where the groom was the only person I knew. We really got on, Monica and me and her boyfriend Victor. We drank a lot and told stories, and Victor and me took it in turns dancing with Monica.
We added each other on Facebook but didn’t really stay in touch. Then, a year after the wedding, Monica messaged me to say she was going to visit a friend in Paris. She wasn’t with Victor any more, she said, and she wanted to see me. I really liked spending time with you at the wedding, she wrote. I bought a Eurostar ticket the same day.
That first night we took it easy and went for dinner at a place beside the Seine. You couldn’t see the river from the restaurant, though, only the stone balustrade that ran above it, a thick band of mauve sky and a stream of cars. There was Monica, me, Tanis, the childhood friend Monica was visiting, and Tanis’s French boyfriend Alex, who was a bit of an arsehole. She was a real talker, and he was always shutting her down.
– Tanis, he’d say, making it sound like ‘tennis’ – Tanis, don’t exhaust our guest. He has only just arrived in our city.
Or – Tanis, Tanis, don’t be so . . . Iberian, looking at me like he was Oscar fucking Wilde.
But I didn’t say anything to him. After all, I didn’t really know any of these people.
– Is Alex always such a dick? I asked Monica as we walked beside the river. Tanis and Alex were a little way ahead of us.
She covered her face with her hands and groaned. – Yes! Always! I love Tanis so much but her boyfriends are . . . are shit. You can’t tell her, though. You try and it’s— she put her fingers in her ears and shook her head. We stopped, waiting for a gap in the traffic. Tanis and Alex were already on the other side of the street.
Where have all the good men gone, Stephen? Monica said, looking up at me, her large green eyes framed by curls of glossy black hair. She said it like she was quoting it from somewhere, like I was supposed to know the next line.
– Where have all the good men gone, Stephen? Monica said, looking up at me, her large green eyes framed by curls of glossy black hair. She said it like she was quoting it from somewhere, like I was supposed to know the next line.
– When I find out I’ll let you know, I said, immediately wishing I’d said something else. I wasn’t smart enough to know that I could have said anything. That at this point the actual words we said to each other didn’t really matter at all.
• • •
The next morning I ate breakfast in the sad little restaurant at my hotel, where everyone else was dressed for business meetings, then went to meet Monica. We took the metro north, to the flea market at Clignancourt. Tanis had told us about it at dinner. – It’s like Blade Runner! she said, – or Thunderdome!
Walking from the metro we crossed the concrete trench of the Périphérique, a torrent of cars rushing beneath us. On the far side of the bridge the market began: haphazard stalls selling handbags, and tall racks of shiny leather coats overlapping each other like scales. Traders were selling phone covers and cuddly toys, fake luggage, baseball caps, basketball shirts, trainers, sunglasses and phone cards. Hip-hop and Arabic pop blared from speakers hooked to the awnings of the stalls, and the air was greasy with burning oil from falafel stands.
We came to a gate in a wall. Passing through it was like teleporting: we left all the chaos and noise behind and walked down narrow lanes with ivy growing across the walls. – It’s like Provence, Monica said. Here the traders didn’t have stalls, but snug garage-like spaces. Most of them were selling antiques, and a jumble of furniture spilled onto the narrow pavements: metal garden chairs, school desks, benches and scarred kitchen tables. Monica stopped beside a chaise longue with a group of porcelain rabbits scattered across it, turning the white fabric beneath them into a snowfield. Beside it a man sat slumped in a battered leather armchair, reading a paper. A knotted trunk ran up the wall behind him, disappearing into a mass of triangular green leaves. Long tendrils weaved out from the leaves like serpents.
– What kind of tree is that? I asked Monica. The owner lowered his paper, studied us for a moment and went back to the news.
– In Spanish it’s glicinas, she said.
– Glee-thee-nass, I repeated.
– Yes, glicinas.
– C’est ‘glycine’ en français, the man said, lowering his paper for a second time and pausing dramatically. – Not for sale.
We took the metro back into the city. We got off at Les Halles and walked through the cobblestone streets of the Marais, past tiny art galleries and expensive clothes shops. We had settled into each other’s rhythm, it felt like, and we were touching each other more and more – my hand on her shoulder, hers in the small of my back or on my arm as she pointed something out. It was a comfortable feeling.
We ended up lying on a patch of grass on a peaceful square surrounded by old stone arcades. Monica’s face was so close to mine that I could feel her breath. Nearby a girl sat cross-legged, sawing at her violin. The way it scraped and squeaked was a disaster, but the look on her face, intense and earnest, suggested it was meant to sound that way.
Monica told me about the next piece her company was doing, something abstract with guns. – Guns are sexy, she said. – It’s corny to say it, maybe, but it’s true. Everyone says America, America, crazy with guns. But look at the stories we watch all the time. All guns. We love the drama of a gun.
– But sexy? Really?
– Of course! Have you fired one?
– I haven’t.
– I have. It feels totally sexy. She laughed. – I sound so fascist! She was wearing these wide-legged black trousers, and as she spoke she raised and lowered her right leg in stages: just above the ground, at forty-five degrees, at ninety, and as her leg rose her trouser leg dropped and gathered at her knee. I watched her calf muscle tense and slacken and tense again as she rotated her foot.
– You’re not a fascist, I said.
– What a sweet thing to say, she said, and laughed again.
I looked into her eyes’ bright green. It put me on edge, the way they shone. I rolled onto my back and looked at the milk-white sky. I reached for her hand. It was sweaty. A little boy and girl ran around us laughing, each one chasing the other. I closed my eyes. Listening to them, and to the girl’s violin braying like a dying animal, I fell asleep.
I must have only slept for a minute. When I opened my eyes Monica was sleeping too. Her hand was still in mine. I studied the crumbs of mascara in her eyelashes, the tiny creases in her lips. She had these incredible swollen lips. When her eyes opened I rolled onto my back and fakeyawned, pretending I’d just woken up.
– We should go, I said, releasing her hand.
I turned and looked at her. Staring at me she shifted her body, rolling onto her back. It was an invitation, but I hesitated. This was exactly what I had come for, but now the tiny space between us felt unbridgeable. To be there again! I was in front of a door I’d been searching for, only now I couldn’t reach out and turn the handle.
– We should head back, I said. We were going to a party that night. We picked ourselves up and brushed curls of dead grass off our clothes. Monica was silent as we walked to the metro. When I said I might walk all the way back to my hotel she only shrugged. – See you in a few hours then, I said when we reached the entrance.
She just nodded and held her fingers up in the shape of a phone. – I’ll call you, she said without turning around, descending the stairway into the tunnels.
• • •
After I showered I lay on the bed, smoked a cigarette and watched the news. A plane had gone down in the Mediterranean: a striped tailfin floated in open water, with smaller debris scattered around it. The footage, shot from a helicopter, showed several small boats circling the wreckage. The report cut to weeping relatives at an airport. The chances were nearly zero, but it had happened to them. And some lucky fucker overslept and missed the flight. I turned the TV off. Thinking about Monica, a thrill of anticipation snaked through me. I’d blown it that afternoon, but next time I wouldn’t hesitate.
• • •
We were going to a house party in the nineteenth, but first we had drinks at an apartment across the street from the Buttes-Chaumont Park. The apartment was on the fifth floor of an old building with no lift. The lights in the stairwell were set on timers so stingy we couldn’t even make it up one flight before they went out, leaving us to grope our way towards the next orange dot. Camille, a French girl who worked with Tanis, lived in the apartment with two guys, Michel and Alain. Loud house music was playing, and Camille and Alain were making jugs of vodka cocktails. Everyone was smoking, and even with the two long, narrow windows open to the night the room – a cramped kitchen–living room – was foggy with it.
It was obvious by the way Michel talked to Monica that he wanted her. He tried to act like I didn’t exist. We had been talking in English – I had apologised for not being able to speak his language – but then he asked Monica something in French anyway.
– Oui, Monica said and then turned to me. – Michel asked if I’m a dancer. Remember, she said to Michel, – Stephen doesn’t speak French.
– Of course! Michel said, inclining his head towards me. – We will all speak his language, then. He turned back to Monica. – You dancers have to look after your bodies very well, he said, looking her up and down.
– Oh yes, very much. Monica laughed, shaking her drink and cigarette as counter-evidence. – Do you guys exercise? she said. – You’re both in good shape.
– Bicycle, Michel answered quickly. – I cycle everywhere. And swim. A few times a week.
You could see it. He had a good body. In my case – no muscle, skinny – Monica was just being polite.
– Tell me more about your dancing, Michel said, leaning his face closer to Monica’s. – I love dance.
I poured myself a drink, lit another cigarette and imagined shoving Michel out of the window.
As we descended to the street our voices echoed in the stairwell. On each flight the darkness would swallow us for a couple of seconds until Camille or Alain, leading the way, hit the next switch. In front of me Monica and Tanis were deep in conversation. About halfway down, as the darkness struck again, a hand held my face and someone pressed their lips to mine. When the light came on Monica was there, smiling at me. She turned and ran ahead to catch up with Tanis.
• • •
It was a warm night, and the courtyard belonging to the flat, a well-like space between tall apartment buildings, was crammed with people. No one had said anything about fancy dress, but a lot of people had come as movie characters and historical figures. A Marcel Marceau, with a white face and a trail of black tears inked down one cheek, looked me up and down and said something in French.
– Anglais? I said.
He looked sad about it, but then he looked sad about everything.
– You didn’t want to wear a costume?
– I didn’t know I was supposed to.
He looked sad about it, but then he looked sad about everything.
I lost track of Camille and Alain; and, happily, of Michel. Monica, Tanis and I moved inside and established ourselves in a corner of the kitchen. We had bought vodka on the way, and on the cluttered counter we found cups and a bottle of tonic, and a bag of ice standing in its own meltwater. I’d had a few drinks by then and was well on the way, which is why I told Tanis she deserved better than Alex, that he was a bully and a bore. She looked confused for a moment, then angry.
– He’s . . . it’s not as simple as that, she said. Monica said something in Spanish that sounded soothing and Tanis shrugged, still looking pissed off, and reached for the vodka bottle. Monica looked at me and pointed towards the living room, packed with dancers.
– When will we dance? she said.
– I can’t dance with a professional.
– You danced with me in Barcelona, she said. – And this ‘professional’, she wagged her fingers around the word, – is drunk.
I went to the toilet and when I came back they were talking to someone called Guy. He was English, living in Paris doing some modelling and what he called ‘odds and sods’. He was excited about going to see some DJ. He said we should come along and I said sure, but Monica and Tanis said they couldn’t.
– Come on, I said, grabbing Monica at the waist. – We’ll dance, just like you wanted.
– No, she said, smiling, swaying a little with her hands on my forearms. – We need to wait for Alex. We can dance here.
– I don’t like the music here. Tell Alex to meet us at the club.
– He doesn’t like clubs, Tanis said.
I was fired up to go. I wanted to swap this house and all this talking for the noise and dark of a club. – Forget about Alex, I said. He can go fuck himself, I thought.
Tanis and Monica had an exchange in Spanish. Tanis repeated a two-word phrase several times, sounding tenser with each repetition. – OK, Monica said. She turned to me. – We promised we would meet him here. We are going to wait. Will you wait with us?
– Where’s the club? I asked Guy. I had him repeat the address to Tanis, who put it in her phone. I could tell Monica was surprised I was leaving, but she didn’t say anything. I got a thrill from upsetting her. It’s ridiculous to me now, but I was furious she was putting that tosser Alex ahead of me. I told her if I didn’t see her at the club I’d call her in the morning, that we’d have breakfast. I held up my fingers in the shape of a phone and walked away.
• • •
– Is that your girlfriend? Guy asked me as we got out onto the street.
– No, I said. – A friend.
– She’s really fit.
Hearing that I wanted to tell Guy she was my girlfriend, and that we were in love. – She’s a dancer, was all I said. – She’s great.
The further we got from the party the better I felt. We were both drunk, and neither of us wanted to shut up. We talked about festivals, clubs we liked, drugs we’d taken. The streets seemed quiet for Saturday night, although I guess it was Sunday morning by then. It was a long walk, but we never discussed getting a cab or finding a train. We went through a tunnel, and past a factory, and down a cobbled street that was mysteriously wet – it hadn’t rained all day, but the cobbles glistened like oil. We walked down a street of mechanics’ workshops, their metal shutters busy with graffiti. We went through a gate into a small courtyard, then passed through a low doorway with a bouncer posted beside it. The club was a single long room: hot, loud and heaving with people. The walls were beaded with moisture. The music was drum and bass: staccato beats riveting the air, and bass so powerful it made the building shudder in long blurs of vibration. The humid air ran across my face like fingertips. On top of all the drink Guy had given me a pill. Dexamphetamine, he said. It wasn’t so strong but I could definitely feel it; I was gulping my beer and chain-smoking cigarettes.
We danced for a long time. It might have been a couple of hours later that I saw Monica and Tanis squeezing their way across the packed dancefloor. Behind them came Alex, looking miserable, then Michel. Monica saw me and thrust her chin up in acknowledgement, but she didn’t smile and she stopped with some distance still between us. She was already dancing, her body flowing. It was incredible to watch her; she didn’t hit the beats but wove herself between them. A harsh melody came strafing across the breakbeat and her body warped in response, as if an invisible force was shaking her. Her back arched, her hands joined one another, and her arms twisted an orbit up around her torso and over her head. I saw Michel behind her, his hands moving to her hips. I stopped dancing and stood there, jostled by the people around me. Monica moved her body against Michel. Her hand went to his neck and held it, held it with what seemed to me at the time, on drugs and fifteen feet away in a dark and crowded room, like infinite tenderness. I started pushing my way through the crowd. I wanted to stand in front of them; I wanted to see the shame on Monica’s face. Tanis waved but I ignored her. Michel was whispering something in Monica’s ear. I reached out and placed my hand on his shoulder. He shrugged it off. I pulled my arm back, made a fist and drove it into his face. I haven’t been in many fights, but every other one has been scrappy and indecisive. This, though, was the cleanest hit: Michel went down so fast it was like I made him disappear. A space cleared around us. Monica – who I never saw or spoke to again – looked at me like she didn’t even know me. Which she didn’t, I realised. I laughed. It was so ridiculous and sad.
If I could go back and talk to that person I’d tell him to open every door you come to while you’ve got the chance; there aren’t as many as you think.
– Time to go, said Guy, pulling my arm. I saw two bouncers ploughing across the dancefloor towards us. We got to the entrance and he pushed me out into the coolness of the early morning, past the doorman, who glanced up from his phone at me. I ran, and when I couldn’t run any more I walked, and kept walking. I felt exhilarated, but I was wiping tears from my eyes. I had been challenged, and I’d met the challenge, but what was I doing now? I should have been in my hotel room with Monica, not walking these pale, empty streets. If I could go back and talk to that person I’d tell him to open every door you come to while you’ve got the chance; there aren’t as many as you think. The sky was purple. I was shaky with tiredness and adrenaline and the end of the drugs, but it was good to be walking. I wanted to walk forever. My hand burned like it was aflame. When the sun broke through, the streets became golden rivers.
Chris Power lives and works in London. His column, A Brief Survey of the Short Story, has appeared in The Guardian since 2007. He has written for the BBC, The New York Times, and the New Statesman. His fiction has been published in Granta, The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, and The White Review, and been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Mothers is his first book.