The Siene beneath them was bracketed by an artificial valley of buildings, every conceivable shade of tan. The language all around them was unfamiliar and strange. Caught in the ebb and flow of tourism they moved from place to place with the ubiquitous crowds of camera wielding people no different from them. The first day was a whirlwind of luggage and metro stations with unfamiliar names. He could, with effort, draw upon a single solid memory: their hotel in the 4th arrondissement, pressed on all sides by buildings clotted in history.
Even if it all becomes a blur, they will keep it safe in photographs. They point the cameras back at themselves, creating the proof they crave. Jacob Foster and Rajiv Sansotta have escaped. Together they have broken the shackles of the mundane. Jacob is grinning like a madman. The child playing soldier in the backwoods, running through the overgrown gardens amongst the blue bottle trees – he would never have imagined himself in gay Paree. It was a miracle. For a glistening moment, looking down the expanse of the greycapped river, hearing the cascade of voices and the rush of traffic, he felt free. All of history lay behind him and finally he had achieved that thing he had always longed for.
The city was beautiful and novel. And while Jacob Foster did not think himself an idiot, while he knew that this all was cliché, trite almost… while most importantly it had been done before… what mattered was that it had not been done by him. Maybe Jacob Foster could find himself here. In Paris.
Maybe it wasn’t too late.
The next morning the two wandered without plans, stopping when hunger or vague curiosity compelled them. They walked for hours along the riverbank. For the fog, they could not see the Eiffel Tower. Rajiv made a note of it every time they snapped a picture. They walked in silence through the Norte Dame.
-It’s a little better than the Basilica of the Assumption, I’ll give it that.
-A little. One assumes. Raja smirked. You know they still have services here?
-Well, yeah, it’s a church.
-Still odd. You’d think that places this old, they wouldn’t need to use. I mean I feel like they could keep it to look at but they’d have figured out something better to replace it.
-Like an iChurch or something?
Emerging into daylight, Jacob Foster stared out, blinking, into the unfamiliar world. He could not help but feel provincial, self conscious of his voice when he had to ask for directions that one time in the shopping district. Seven days and they will barely see a fraction of a fraction of it all. It will all slip away. It already is. Streetnames he grasped only for a minute are out of his head. Their names are unfamiliar on his tongue. Rue Mazarine. Qaui de la Tournelle. Boulevard St. Germain. Even Raja stumbles on them, flushed with embarrassment.
-Not so loud, Jacob teases. They’ll figure us out. They’ll know.
-Know we’re tourists. And then they’ll never stop trying to scam us. Have you noticed that they only come up to us when they hear us speaking English?
-Everyone here is a tourist, Jake. We’re waving around cameraphones and your shirt is a very American style of hipster. Neither of us speak a word of French. I think they just maybe can tell. But don’t worry. I know where we’re going. I have the map.
-Can I see the map?
-I’ve got this, man.
-We’ll I don’t see… Oh god you really don’t trust me? That’s hurtful. I’m hurt. Give it back.
They orient themselves along the Champs-Élysées for a lack of anything better to pick. It is straight and the triumphal arch is at the end, and the glass pyramid of the Louve at the other. It reminds Jacob of the National Aquarium, back home. Except they are the exhibit. Tomorrow they will wander wide eyed through the statues. Moorish swords and Ottoman rugs. Long dead faces of Egyptian kings.
They walked among endless rows of paintings. The Louve is a maze of culture. Rajiv is stunned into uncustomary silence.
-Well that was a museum.
-It was. Nice one though. They have the same thing stateside, don’t they though, don’t they? Museums, art. Jacob Foster could not help but feel a bit disappointed.
-What’s next on the itinerary? The Marquis de Sade exhibit?
-That’s not at this one. We’ll do that Thursday.
-I thought it was. Dammit.
Atop the Sacré-Cœur they paused for a cigarette, Jacob leaning against the balcony, Rajiv pacing idly. The city should have stretched out before them, but the grey expanse of clouds concealed any view. But if Jake turned around, he could see the Basilica. Another beautiful building. This place was clotted with them. After a while you became desensitized.
Raja handed him a cigarette and Jake leaned forward so his friend could light it. It was cooler here than he expected.
-Photo? Jacob pulled his smart phone out of his pocket. This would be a good one. One worth the remembering. Not like the one they took of the Eiffel, while jostling through crowds and gaping at the steel monstrosity.
-Sure. Raja stubbed out his cigarette and let it fall. I like it up here, Jake. Fewer gypsies trying to sell you things.
-I don’t know if they’re gypsies.
-You’re right. One shouldn’t make assumptions. Especially when it comes to gypsies. They’re the worst but if you start assuming you know how they’re going to scam you, that’s when they hit you with the long con. I saw this tv show about it. Trust me.
-Ah right. The classic long con.
-Yeah. Its like a normal con… but it takes long…er.
-Want to go in? Jake laughed.
-But of course.
The next day, after seeing what was, in Rajiv Sansotta’s expert opinion, the best the Marquis de Sade exhibit had to offer – an enormous fish tonguing a naked woman in ecstasy – they found dinner at a little cafe, one of the better ones they’d stopped in. They drank overpriced wine and ate equally overpriced food, and Jacob Foster could feel the euphoria of the past few days slipping away. From their seats outside, they watched the crowds and Jacob found himself inventing stories about each one.
That man, with the tight-fitting peacoat – maybe he was an Irishman, on business in Paris. Maybe he worked for Google. Dublin had the European corporate office for Google. Jake knew that because he had seen it when searching for jobs. Secretly, the man in the peacoat was having an affair. He was never content.
That woman, in the dress and scarf, let’s say she was French. She was very self-conscious about the poetry she wrote in her spare time, and would never share it with the world. Her lesbian lover was from Algeria, and together they ran a charity which secretly helped Russian spies get into the country. Plausible? Probably not.
That child would never remember his vacation to Paris. He was way too little. But he’d have the photos, and like Rajiv he would always get to wave them around and prove that his life had always been interesting.
It was the interesting one beside him who like always dragged him from his daydreams.
-This is it, Jake. Escape. Maybe now you can stop bugging me about rent? I told you I earn my keep.
-Really? Jacob Foster asks, whirling around. Rajiv’s face was half-hidden in shadow, and unreadable besides. Is now the time?
-You’re right you’re right. Sorry man. Hey, what do you want to do tomorrow. In the afternoon I figured we’d…
That man… hmm… he’s an accountant for a major firm. Secretly, he moonlights as a male stripper. He is very good at both of these jobs. Shockingly so. Is it that hard to believe? He has the right build for it, but a certain intellectual air to him.
-Hello? Are you even, listening to me?
-Not really. I was inventing, er, backstories for the people. Jacob confessed, smoothing back his hair, fiddling with his shirtcollar.
-Oh. I understand. Planning these sorts of things is always so boring. But it’s worth it, isn’t it? Seeing the world. Maybe when I go back to school, I’ll look into studying some place in Europe. Maybe you could come too. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?
It becomes hard to remember it all. Sitting in the hotel, feeling more than a little buzzed. The metro is a whirlwind of light and dark, apparitions and lights. They sip beers out of Raja’s backpack. Whole worlds glide past in dingy shadow.
Like everything else, Jacob will forget. It won’t be real after he gets on that next plane. Just a feverish dream. A drug that only works for a little while and leaves you wanting more. But how long will there be any more? If Jacob is honest with himself, he can realize he is nothing more than a passing object of interest to Raja. And one day Sansotta, like he always does, will vanish back into whatever alternate life he decides is the most welcome relief from boredom. It’s happened before. Jacob has been burned before.
Raja will leave again, in all likelyhood. He can see the whole timeline stretching out before him. He can see the warning signs. The flakiness of the past few weeks, the sudden desire to go to Paris. Rajiv will betray him again as he always does. Sure, Jacob knows how he can postpone that inevitable fact – not bugging Raja about the rent would be a good start. Not complaining about how Raja took the bigger room in their apartment. Letting him smoke inside. But it won’t last, and when it doesn’t, Jacob Foster knows he won’t even be angry.
Sure, he will for a time. He’ll be bitter, and he’ll spend more time with his coworkers, or Andrea. He’ll meet new people, even though he has no idea how to do that in the dying city he calls his home. But he’ll forget. He’ll meet up with Raja again, after a few years, just like last time.
He won’t want to be bound by the past, after all. And Raja knows that about his friend just as Jake knows that about himself. Jacob Foster will always be addicted to the narcotic of escape that Raja can provide.
Jacob Foster sat in the hotel room, finished off another beer, tossed it into the trashcan by his bedside, and lit a cigarette, staring out the window. The view was blind, just like in his apartment. The Parisian skyline was obscured by the adjacent building, giving them a view of ivysprawling plaster and red-framed windows.
-Have a good last day?
-The club was fun. Really, um… intense. Fun. That fucking cab though – I always forget how much the exchange rate is a bitch.
-Don’t worry about it. I’ll cover it. I’ll get you back, um. Here. A shuffling of feet. Rajiv stuffed a crumpled fifty euro note into Jacob’s hand. Cigarette cocked in mouth, Jacob smoothed it off, folded it into his own wallet. Checked his phone on the hotel wifi. Ashed the cigarette into the beer can. He felt unaccountably tense and stiff, in spite of six beers, four jaegerbombs and a glass of red wine. No, no, seven beers. Still not at all drunk. Must be the caffeine. Feet sore from dancing.
He does not thank Rajiv for the bill. The next morning they bid goodbye to Paris, winding through the northern part of the city, a sprawl of industry. A woman plays guitar on the train, begs for money while the occupants stare forward pointedly.
At Charles de Gaulle they stumble blearily through lines. It is curious how actions repeated, locations revisited all pass in a blur. They might have spent a lifetime in Paris, the city prolonging their visit with novelties. Their second trip through the airport is a mirage and it is done before it is even realized.
Soon they are in the clouds.