After weeks of gracious hosting by lovely people all over the Pays Basque and Provence, we were back in Paris and I had an entire Saturday to wander around by myself! First stop,
the Bastille street market – blocks-long aisles three-deep, offering every conceivable vegetable, flower, bread, cheese, fish, fungus, unpronounceable and mysterious sauce, jewelry, watches, CDs and DVDs in exotic languages, clothes, shoes, black market perfume and homeopathic remedies for an array of startling disorders, frequently involving the word, foie (liver.) In France the liver is, apparently, the seat of most ills. But not all, as I’m about to see.
Next I sneaked into the corner Hippopotamus, a sort of French Denny’s considered too tacky for words by my hosts. And it is tacky, offering Americanish food I can eat without the usual, hard-to-hide terror. I’m deliriously happy, wolfing a Caesar-chicken sandwich and fries (without ketchup, a depth to which even Hippo refuses to sink) and looking forward to dessert – profiteroles gourmandes made with Ben and Jerry’s! (Scroll down the menu in the Hippo link above to see photo of profiteroles.)
Still, this is not Denny’s and I find myself watching a peculiar drama at a table for two against the back wall. A couple are sharing a little carafe of what looks like rose’. His back to me, I see an expanding bald spot, leather coat and fashionable scarf draped over his chair. They aren’t young, maybe late forties. His back exudes confidence, a businesslike detachment. He could be an accountant, insurance adjuster, bank officer. But something’s wrong.
She’s facing me, her gaunt face scrupulously made up, big eyes made bigger with liner, shadow, fake lashes and mascara. The makeup looks expensive and her short, dyed hair is either well-cut or a trendy wig. But even though she’s painfully thin, her sweater is too small, as if she’s borrowed it from a child. She’s so thin, and yet there’s nothing on their table but the squat carafe of pink wine, the glass-and-a-half size meant for one person. It’s lunch time, she obviously needs to eat, and yet there’s no food on the table. As I watch, she flirts with him. Desperately. She bats those big eyes, looks at him with vampy, retro-eroticism so often and with such clear intent that she becomes a caricature – Betty Boop as tragic figure. He doesn’t seem to see or hear her, just relaxes with his wine.
I want to send her a note on a napkin saying, “Don’t do this! I’ll buy your lunch!” but I’d never get the French right and I sense that I’m so “other” in her context as to be invisible. I wouldn’t even qualify as an obnoxious, meddling stranger. And I don’t think it’s lunch she’s after anyway.
The wine finished, they stand to leave and her coat slides from her chair to the floor. He doesn’t lean to retrieve it, doesn’t seem to see either the fallen coat or the woman. Shaking, she bends, her too-small sweater sliding up in back to reveal the bony vertebrae moving beneath transparent skin. Her body, absent the makeup that has created her face, is a skeleton in a fragile veil. A skeleton that has just played a dangerous game very badly, and lost.
He leaves a few euros on the table, shrugs on his coat and seems quite content as he walks out into the cold, bright day, never looking back. She struggles awkwardly with her coat for minutes after he’s gone, her face still attractive but blank now. The charade is over; she has no expression left. Not a soul in this red plastic restaurant looks up as she passes and vanishes into the street.
And I’m left wondering if she was really there at all, but rather a ghost replaying some forgotten moment in which the one thing, or one man, that could have made a difference, didn’t. The buildings of the Place de la Bastille are fairly recent, built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries but of sufficient age to have housed countless pivotal moments. I choose to imagine this as one of those, in which long-dead bones in painted glamour and stolen clothes return to recreate with the oblivious living some amour fou or grim monetary transaction lost in time and unchangeable. Unless, of course, the guy at the table had been able to see her. ;)