Late Paris



This story was read aloud at:



     When Beverly asked me to read a story tonight, I wasn’t sure it was a good idea, the theme for tonight, Time Sensitive, might not work for me.  I am one of those aggressively early people, and I blame my Grandfather, who used to stand next to the front door jangling the change in his pocket while he waited for the family.  I came up blank with a story.
    But in the morning, while writing in my journal, I remembered my journey to Paris when I was 19, and the panic of knowing that I was going to miss the boat.
     So it was first year at University in Canterbury, England.  It was Christmas break and rather then drive straight to the grandparents, I booked a return passage on the ferry and headed off to Paris.  The ride across the English Channel was calm and beautiful, with the white wake of the ship leading backwards to the White Cliffs of Dover, and after the drive across the French countryside I arrived in Paris during rush hour, without a map and no idea where I was going to stay.  So I drove around, lost.  I love this sort of travel, lost with no deadline.  I just drove and watched the sun go down and looked at the city through my windscreen. 
    Finally I came across a quiet section of town, there was a small street market, and an old sign which read  “Hotel American”.  It was the classic Paris house.  I was lead up a thin creaking wooden spiral staircase to my small room.  It was on the second floor and the small twin windows opened upon the market street.  I could envision Hemmingway staying here in the thirties and it was perfect.  When I looked closely at the room, I noticed that the bathroom needed a good clean, and the bedside table had at least twenty cigarette burns on the outer edge, each a small charred line tapering inward.
     I sat by the window, drinking cheap French wine looking down on the slowly quieting Paris streets.
     Now as I told you, I am always on time, but to make up for it I am horrible with money.  And I realized the next morning that I did not have enough money to stay in hotels for the next two nights, but that did not worry me, I was young and alone so I could sleep in my car.
    When evening arrived I drove north of the city, where there were newer houses and found a nice quiet street and curled up in the back seat covering myself with the blanket.
      I awoke as the sun was coming up, so I climbed into the front seat and drove towards the river.  I found a parking space near the Concorde and set out walking along the Seine.  The light was soft and beautiful, the water calm and quiet and I walked slowly up the edge of the famous river, soaking in the flat boats moored along the side, and smiled when I came across a bridge that lead to the twin towers of Norte Dame.   And then I found a row of booksellers, selling books in little wooden shacks along the river and fell in love with a city that would have a collection of wooden shacks against the river selling books. 
     Later I wandered aimlessly through the Louve I came across a painting so beautiful, I sat in front of it for an endless amount of time.  Twenty feet tall, it was a collection of men on a raft, hopelessly adrift in the ocean and each person had a different expression.  Each one had a whole different world going on in his face.  And I sat on the little bench and stared and dreamt of their lives. 
     The next morning I awoke in my car again and set out to take the ferry home. I got lost.  Hopelessly lost, because I still didn’t have a map.  Some people fear heights, or spiders or drowning, but I fear being late, or missing the boat, so to speak.  And I could feel the adredeline starting to pump though my veins.  I could feel the panic rising, and I drove faster and faster around the city trying to find a way out. 
     While driving I suddenly noticed a ticking noise coming from the front of the car, and my brain realized that I would be stuck in Paris with a broken car, forever to sleep in this piece of junk.  I would starve and go crazy.  My palms were sweaty and I could feel my heart.  I pulled into a parking space and opened the hood.  Nothing looked wrong.  I started the engine and saw the problem.  The high-pressure fuel line came loose and the fan blade was slowly cutting a hole in it. 
     Now I had visions of my car burning down in Paris.  And the adredeline kept flowing and I ran to the back of the car and opened the boot and found my only three tools.  A screwdriver, a wrench and a hacksaw blade.  Which was exactly what I needed.  I disconnected the fuel line, cut off the bad piece and plugged it back on.
      So there was one problem fixed, but how to get out of this city.  And then I noticed near my parking space, a local map, showing the area around this Metro station.  I found the way out and headed back onto the road. 
    I sped, rushing my way up the motorway to Calais.  But there was one more obstacle, which I never thought about until I came across the toll plaza.  I did not have the money to pay the toll for this road. 
     I idled in the short line, digging all the change I had available.  I envisioned them taking me aside, and demanding the money, detaining me until I could find the money and that I would miss my ferry and the world would come apart.
     The lady in the window smiled, I clumsily apologized in bad French and handed over the change.  It was about a quarter of what was necessary.  I was sweating. 
     She looked at me, and looked at the money and looked at me again, said Bonjour, opened the gate and waved me through.  Suddenly the weight of the world lifted, and I was at the port and I was going to catch my ferry.   At the terminal they said that I was early for my ferry, so I could take the earlier one.  Early!
     As I stood on the increasingly windy and chilly ferry and watched the port of Calais move away, I realized that my panic was not proportional to reality.  If I missed the ferry, there’d be another one, if the car broke, I would find a way to get it fixed.
     And as the storm began, which was the worse one in a decade, the newspapers said the next day, I sat inside and watched the White Cliffs of Dover rise and fall for four hours.  And I thought of bad things happening at good times.  Like a broken car pointing towards a map out of the city.  Or giving the last of my money to the toll lady, so that I would not have any money to eat, which was fine, because as the boat swayed and shuddered hour upon hour towards England I listened to everyone else lose their lunches.