Paris In Between — A Pseudo-Fiction Memoir
Thanks for Taking a look at my first pseudo-fiction memoir. Below are 3 scenes, titled "Avenue Montaigne Life", "Finding a Place to Work", and "Rafa" that I've chosen as ambassadors for the collection as a whole. I hope you like them!
Avenue Montaigne Life
I turn on my side, reaching towards the nightstand for my phone. 11:13, not bad. Looks like mid-50s and sunny, except with a 30-minute mid-afternoon shower. Thirty-six people have viewed my Instagram story. No emails that I have to pay attention to. A few messages on the WhatsApp thread. Peter sent a picture with a filter that converted his face from male to female, bragging that if he were female, he’d be hot, so Dave then used the same filter, asserting that his female self is better looking than Peter’s.
I lift myself up from the bed and push the button with the up arrow on it next to the balcony, the window shader lifting, revealing the room’s brown wooden walls, Persian rug, and camel wool quilt. Clothes are strewn over a yellow velvet chair, and I select lululemon khaki pants and a black V-neck sweater. It’s what I’ve been wearing for the last two weeks, since the high dipped below 60, and what I’ll continue to wear until it fails to dodge errant tomato sauce.
I brush my teeth in the pink bathroom, the one with a tub in it that I presume my grandmother would prepare herself in in the 70s and early 80s. Spitting and rinsing, I move two doors down to my grandfather’s old brown-tiled bathroom, turning the shower stream up to the number 37, which converts to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. While rubbing body wash over my chest and legs, I consider condensing all of my self-care to one bathroom instead of showering in one and brushing teeth in another, but this is how things equilibrated. The pink bathroom gets natural light, and the brown bathroom has a better shower.
I towel off and proceed through the living chamber’s corridor, turning right into the main corridor, making another right at the front door, surveying the refrigerator’s interior, and setting breakfast ingredients on the counter. Three large spoonfuls of Mavromatis, a Greek yogurt brand that it took way too many unsatisfying Danon cups to discover. Ten red Champagne grapes, half of a shimmering honey crisp sliced thin, mixed with granola and honey.
Bowl in my left hand and spoon in my right, I eat while standing in the kitchen, savoring each grape burst, tongue swimming through the yogurt, searching for honey like snorkelers for sea horses. The silver spoon clinks the bottom of the bowl, and once only the tip of its swiping edge comes up white, I set the bowl in the sink and run water over it.
The maid comes at 12:30, which is — I look at the numbers on the microwave — 10 minutes from now. I walk quickly to my room and put on a Princeton Squash T-shirt and white shorts that I got for playing a league match at the Jeu de Paume club last week, making sure my key is in my pocket before closing the front door. I like to let the maid work alone because walking around on the rug while she’s vacuuming it is awkward.
Calling for the elevator, I again feel my left thigh to make sure the key is there. Yup, and in the other pocket are two thin pieces of plastic — a Vélib card for if my calf strain is re-aggravated mid-run and a credit card for if I decide to stop for food at the end.
The elevator’s dark-wooded interior lowers four floors, depositing me onto the rez-de-chausée. A quick scan. Good, Victoria isn’t nearby — I can walk unhurried on the red velvet carpet, admiring the gold railings and white stone walls. A left at the end of the hall, a quick right, and a nod to the doorman, who forces a smile while buzzing open the door.
The Joseph store in front of my apartment closed a few weeks ago, and I hope it’s Dior or Chanel that takes its place, next to Armani. While jogging passed Plaza Athenée, I remember that my dad had told me to tip the doormen every few months or so, which I still haven’t done because it seems like it would be awkward and also because I don’t have an income. Jogging past Cesare Paciotti, then Prada, I for the first time notice the pointed golden tips on the neck-high gates in front of the retail stores. I had always noticed them subconsciously, but now I’m noticing them consciously, determining that details like these are the final flourish that makes this street so gilded.
The Eiffel Tower reveals itself as Avenue Montaigne merges into Place de L’Alma. I stretch while waiting for cars to pass. A pretty girl is also waiting for the light to change, probably a model because she’s taller than me, and I’m guessing Dutch because she has blond hair and doesn’t seem Russian.
The cars stop, and I jog by the model, onto Pont de L’Alma, crossing it, and traversing down steps to the rive gauche waterfront. The path is an actual road with black asphalt because around 15 years ago it had been converted from a highway to a car-free zone shared by exercisers, lingerers, and skaters.
I stop at the pull-up bar near Pont des Invalides to do a set of ten, continuing the run after, passing Favst, the bar under Pont Alexandre III, and then Rosa Bonheur, rounding a bend to where skaters have staked their territory. One time in this area, I had seen a cute girl with a guy slacklining, so I asked if I could try, falling after three steps and chatting with them for five minutes, friending them on Facebook at the end. Later that night, when looking through their profiles, I learned that the guy, a wide-smiling young man of Senegalese origins, is the skate-dancing world champion. But Abou isn’t here today, at least not at this hour — mechanical engineer is his day job.
Reaching Pont Thomas Jefferson near Musée d’Orsay, I ascend its wooden steps, clanking heavy-footedly onto the bridge’s wood flooring, arriving back to rive droit, crossing a road and entering the Jardin des Tuileries.
I’ve entered at the garden’s halfway point and run past a restaurant and through people reading on benches under trees, the leaves orange and red. At the center of the garden I turn left, continuing straight, passed a fountain and through the front gate, stopping at the cars speeding around Place de Concorde’s obelisk.
Jogging in place, my heart rate is up, shirt wet, upper lip salty. The light changes, and I pass Macron’s residence and the Hotel Crillon, where my dad grew up, continuing onto Champs-Elysées’ wide lanes and sidewalks. It’s the best, or rather, the least terrible part of the Champs-Elysées — a park on one side and Grand Palais’ waving French flag on the other.
Just when the retail stores begin, I turn left at Gucci, back onto Avenue Montaigne, passing Yves Saint Laurent and then Dior homme, Chanel and then Dior femme, LVMH and then Dior bébé, up to Armani and then left inside the doors marked 16, nodding to the doorman as he buzzes me in with an unconvincing smile.
* * *
The thirty-minute shower that the weather app predicted having just finished, the sidewalk’s post-rain gloss frames peacefully resting yellow leaves. I’m feeling good for having deleted a few superfluous paragraphs, and I wonder if Jennifer has already started reading the draft I sent her last week or if it’s today’s newer, ever-so-slightly improved draft that she’ll be commenting on.
At Place de L’Alma I continue passed Avenue George V around the circle to Pont de L’Alma. In October the sun sets behind the Eiffel Tower, and tonight’s is a pink one, so I take out my phone and wait for a tourist boat to move out of the frame before capturing the scene and adding it to my Instagram story. Last week I put up a post similar to this one, with the Eiffel Tower against a purple sky rather than a pink one.
Putting down my phone, I glimpse a pretty young woman capturing the same scene. She’s thin and around my height, with blond hair and outwardly turned feet.
“Are you a dancer?”
“How did you know that?” she lowers her phone.
“Ballet dancers are the only people with such immaculate posture.”
“Oh,” she laughs. “Yes, I’m with the National Canadian Ballet. We’re performing down the street over there.”
“At Theatre Champs-Elysées?”
“How did you know?”
“I live on that street.”
“No, I’m American, but I live here.”
She tells me her company is performing for three more days in Paris and then a week in London, and I say I’d go see the show but I’m leaving tomorrow for Tel Aviv.
“What are you up to tonight?”
“I don’t know. We just finished rehearsal, and I left as quickly as possible to avoid the other dancers. I figured I should probably take a picture of the Eiffel Tower.”
“Are you up for a glass of wine? There’s a place I like nearby.”
“Sure,” she smiles.
I had been planning to go to Café George V because it’s the only place in the neighborhood with a decent dinner for under 20 euros, but for an occasion like this, there’s a better place. We traverse Place de L’Alma’s circle back onto Avenue Montaigne, walking by Escada, on the opposite side of the street from Theatre Champs-Elysée so she won’t cross paths with any co-workers, passing my apartment, reaching rue Francois I and settling into seats on L’Avenue’s triangle-shaped terrace.
“What is this place? Everyone here is so stylish.”
“It’s a famous spot to see and be seen. Models and actresses like to come here.”
“I believe it. The waitresses all look like models.”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t be allowed in without a professional ballet dancer as an escort.”
“Seriously, I tried to come once in the summer and they wouldn’t seat me because I was alone and wearing shorts.”
The waitress comes over, a North African woman in a form-fitting tan dress that blends into her skin. “Deux verres de Champagne et un gâteau moelleux, s’il vous plaît? Et une carafe d’eau aussi.”
“Bon,” she says without smiling, snapping our menus away from us and walking inside.
“Did you say something to upset her?” Elena, the ballerina, laughs.
“No, that’s just how French servers are. They don’t rely on tips, so they treat you like they have better things to do.”
“That’s somewhat refreshing, actually,” Elena laughs, and I laugh too.
The waitress comes back out, setting down our two Champagne glasses and placing chocolate cake between us before zipping away to where she no longer has to smell us.
“What should we toast to?” Elena picks up her glass.
“To your show coming up.”
“We need to add something for you as well.”
“My birthday is tomorrow.
“Happy birthday!” she clinks my glass.
“Thanks,” I take a sip, “I’ll be 29.”
“Wow, I’m older than you. I’m 31.”
“I would’ve guessed 24,” I say, not facetiously.
“Most of the dancers in our group are younger than 24,” she laughs. “That’s one reason I’m not trying to hang out.”
“If you’re still dancing at 31 you must be a prima.”
“Wow, that’s the pinnacle of your profession.”
“Yes, all downhill from here,” she smiles and lifts her glass to her lips.
She asks what brought me to Paris, and I tell her it’s the easiest place for me to be. In the US I worked so hard coding an app that it burned me out, and here I have a free place to stay while taking classes in interface design and editing a novel until it’s ready to be sent to publishers.
“You don’t often hear of people living abroad because it’s easy,” she says. “Especially a place like Paris, where everyone’s dream is to live here for a year or two but most people can’t figure out how to do it.”
“Yeah, I even have a French passport, totally randomly, so I didn’t even have to get a visa.”
“Do people hate you for being so lucky?”
“You’re the lucky one. You get to be a professional artist. That’s mine and so many other peoples’ aspiration, and you’re already there.”
“Yeah, I have to remind myself of that sometimes,” she sighs, going on to explain that she’s as much or more an athlete than an artist. The real artists are the choreographers who tell the dancers what to do, creating the scenes and effects that differentiate one performance of Swan Lake from another. As a dancer, it’s mostly about executing technique, and there’s art in that, but it’s mostly built into muscle memory.
“Interesting. And how did you end up in Canada?”
“I was born in Russia, but my mom moved to Toronto when I was two and have lived there my whole life.”
“Do you like it there?” I cut the gâteau moelleux in half, liquid chocolate oozing from the center.
“I could see myself living in Paris or somewhere less cold, but I don’t want to leave my mom all alone, and Toronto is where all my professional contacts are if I want to switch over to choreography at some point.”
“Have some of the cake,” I say, hoping that it’s not against her diet to do so.
She heaps a big chunk onto her spoon. “Mmmm. The French really are the best at dessert.”
We continue eating and chatting, and when it’s time for the check, it takes fifteen minutes for the waitress to stop pretending she doesn’t see us. I pay, and we exit the terrace, standing on the corner of Montaigne and Françoise I.
“I live just over there,” I point across the street.
“My hotel is up there,” she nods in the other direction.
I consider asking her if she wants to come over, but her body language suggests that it would be better not to.
“Well, it was nice meeting you.”
“You too. Happy birthday and send pictures from Tel Aviv.”
“Thanks. Good luck in the shows and enjoy your time in Europe.”
We hug, and she begins walking up rue François I, turning around after three steps and adding, “And if you’re ever in Toronto, I’ll show you a good drink spot.”
Finding a Place to Work
When my father would complain that none of the furniture in the apartment was comfortable, his father would decree, “If it’s good enough for Louis XIV, it’s good enough for you!”
I have, after several months, discovered the one comfortable arrangement. And it is an arrangement, as contortion is required.
On the 4-foot-long, two-seater sofa, if three pillows are placed on the right arm, it is possible to use these pillows as a headrest, lying horizontal on the couch with bent knees, bookended by the other wooden arm, corralled at the shins, heels dug into the green-velvet edge, toes free in the open air.
Having accomplished this set of gymnastics at around noon, computer resting against my knees, I begin reading through the manuscript, stopping after one paragraph.
Should I go outside? See people, maybe chat up a pretty stranger. It’s cloudy, but I can wear something with a hood. It’s a bit chilly now that November has arrived, but I’ll only be outside while commuting. It’s Tuesday, but people focused on work are no less interesting to observe.
Dissembling the arrangement, sliding computer into backpack, I exit the apartment, direction Bibliotèque Mazarine.
* * *
The weather app said 52, but it feels like 45, and my cotton hoodie isn’t quite up to the task. Oh well, it’ll just be 20 minutes outside, no need to go all the way back up to the apartment.
There aren’t any bikes at the Vélib stand on rue Françoise I, so I walk back up avenue Montaigne, passing my building towards the stand at Place de L’Alma, where there are nine bikes. My slightly chilled fingers rub a white plastic card over a sensor, and a digital hourglass appears, dropping digital sand and then flipping over when all the black specks are at the bottom. After five or six flips, I become aware that the machine’s indecision is lasting longer than usual, and after two more flips, a stop sign appears.
I present my card to the sensor on the next bike, and the same sequence plays out. The bike after it has a reversed seat, indicating that it needs repair, a flat rear tire the obvious culprit. I walk over to the last of the bikes, swiping my card over the sensor and watching the hourglass change to a stop sign one more time before surrendering that something is wrong with this stand and continuing around Place de L’alma to the one on rue Marceau, where there are two bikes. I pass my card over the one without a flat tire, and there’s not even an hourglass, just an immediate stop sign.
Standing in place, determining what to do next, my hands are legitimately cold, but they’re also accustomed to the cold now that it’s been 15 minutes outside. Looking up, I see the 63 bus depart from the stop across the street. Damnit, that was my bus, but there’ll be another. Cars stop at a red light, and I jog to the bus stop, backpack clunking up and down on my shoulders. Twenty-two minutes until the next bus? Really? It’s usually no more than 8 minutes. There’s a Vélib stand at Invalides that I can walk to in 12 minutes, I’ll just do that.
So I cross Pont de L’Alma, walking along Quai d’Orsay, wind rushing through the pores of my hoodie, eyes tearing up, a response my body has to walking against the wind. One time in D.C., in similar weather, a stranger thought I was crying and asked me if everything was OK in a concerned voice. I just wiped my eyes on my sleeve, like I’m doing now.
Finally at Invalides, there are six bikes, three of which have reversed seats. I pass my card on the first one with a forward-facing seat, receiving the hourglass-to-stop-sign response. Letting out a frustrated grunt, I try the second one, and the same thing happens. “Fucking work!” I yell, passing the card over the third and final non-broken bike. Hourglass. Damnit.
Click. The bike unlatches. A go-sign appears.
* * *
After 8 minutes of biking, I park the Vélib at Quai Conti, where rue Mazarine merges with rue de Seine. Walking under an arch towards the Mazarine building’s golden dome, it feels good to have finally arrived. It took a while — 45 minutes since leaving the apartment — but now I’m here, and I’ll work productively.
I look across the street at tourists taking pictures on Pont des Arts before closing in on the entrance, anticipating the bearded Italian man smiling and signaling for me to proceed.
But there is no bearded Italian man. Instead it’s a giant red door with a piece of white paper taped to it. “Bibliotèque Mazarine est fermé aujourd’hui, mardi 7 novembre 2017,” it relays in blue cursive.
Seriously? No explanation? Not even a désolé?
I read it again.
Why? Is it a holiday or something?
I return to the Vélib stand, where, luckily, the Vélib that had worked is still there — and still works.
Gripping the bike’s handlebars, I consider the options. Do I give up and go home? My backpack feels 20 pounds heavier on my shoulders than it did an hour ago. Fifteen-inch MacBook Pros must be more than the 4.49 pounds they claim to be.
I could go to La Coutume or Bibliotèque Saint Geneviéve, both of which are 10 minutes from here by bike. If Bibliotèque Mazarine is closed, BSG could be closed too, and 3 years ago when I was visiting Paris, I met some pretty graphic design students while working at La Coutume, so I know there’s WiFi and well-dressed denizens.
Twisting the gear to three with my right hand, I begin pedaling up rue de Seine, towards rue Babylone in the 7éme.
* * *
Fifteen minutes of biking and five minutes of walking later, I’m entering La Coutume.
It’s the type of coffee shop I’d like to start one day — with a well-designed interior, a cool logo, and an arrogance about coffee. The tables, chairs, and coffee bar all intermix light beige wood with thin aluminum painted white, which I overheard once is a Scandinavian design. Lamps dangle over tables from the ceiling, and a golden coffee roaster is in the back, insinuating a coffee know-how — that the beans are fresh and roasted in-house by a special coffee guru.
I barely drink coffee, but I love the smell and atmosphere in places like this. It embodies society in its easiest and most relaxed form, where the mood is light and strangers are both easy to talk to and have enough money to buy 5-euro lattes.
I set my bag down at a small table near the entrance, so I can watch people walk by through the floor-to-ceiling window. The muscles under my shoulder blades exhale, relieved to no longer have to support extra weight. I take out my computer. No power outlets, but that’s fine, it’s fully charged.
I bring up the word document for my manuscript, reorienting myself to the pages, vowing to fully focus after ordering. The menu has the shop’s logo on it — three dots arranged in a triangle, one brown, one blue, and one beige dot that’s not a circle like the other two, but a falling liquid drop, presumably coffee. Flipping open the menu, I decide on the jus de pamplemousse, partly because grapefruit juice sounds good, partly because when I was learning French I hoped to have the chance to say pamplemousse “in the wild”.
“Sorry monsieur,” the waiter says with a heavy accent. “We no longer allow computers here.”
“Really? Two years ago I worked here every day for two full weeks.”
“Yes, sorry, now we are only for coffee and food.”
“OK,” I flip down my computer screen, determining whether to order the juice or leave. “I’ll have a jus de pamplemousse.”
* * *
While sipping my juice, pulpy and pink, I use my phone to look up what the hell is going on with Vélib. This isn’t the first time I’ve had issues with it — it started about a month ago, and I know that the French are astute enough at complaining to have already filled news cycles about this, maybe even organizing a protest.
Nope, no official protests yet, but there has been a lot of complaining, and there is a lot of pressure on the mayor, Anne Hidalgo (such a mayor’s name), on the issue, according to Le Monde. Apparently last month the city switched the Vélib contract over from JC Decaux, a multinational corporation, to Smovengo, startup. The move had originally been widely lauded because it gave business to a French-based small company over profit-squeezing suits and because Smovengo would make electronic bikes, making it easier for people to use the service for commuting to an uphill destination.
However, Smovengo, a startup, wasn’t ready with enough bikes to transition smoothly from JC Decaux, so at the moment there are about 20% of the Vélibs that there used to be in circulation. Moreover, the bikes that do exist are often impossible to unlock because 70% of Vélib kiosks aren’t connected to the power grid, meaning they rely on independent batteries that often run out of juice. Further complicating everything, Smovengo pays its workers way worse than JC Decaux did, so 80% of the people responsible for changing kiosk batteries and servicing flat tires are on strike.
Jesus. It’s going to be a long time before Vélib works as well as it used to, I whisper to myself, slurping the last of the pink liquid, only stray pulp remaining around the glass’s edge.
* * *
I stand up, and my back muscles scowl at me when I sling on my backpack. Should I try BSG, or should I return home? It’s now 2pm, and Vélib won’t work, so I’ll have to walk to the library, which will take 20 minutes. Or I could cut my losses and return home, where I know for sure that I’ll be able to work.
Two hours have already gone by since ejecting myself from the Louis XIV two-seater. If I’d just stayed home, I’d be 60 pages in by now. But I’m too invested at this point to give up, so my body proceeds east on rue Babylone, passing the Bon Marché on my right, crossing Boulevard Raspail, the ugliest street in the 6éme, at the triangle where rue de Sévres meets rue Babylone.
A drizzle begins as I cross rue de Rennes, passing the statue of the Vieux Colombier before Saint Sulpice unveils itself. It’s five degrees colder than it was earlier, probably around 42, but with less wind. The rain though. My socks are becoming damp, and I can feel my fingers already changing to white as I walk up rue Férou, a 17th century stone street, one of the most beautiful in Paris.
I enter Jardin Luxembourg near the Musée Luxembourg just off rue Bonaparte, opting to meander over the gravel, under the leafless chestnut trees surrounding the park’s tennis courts rather than rounding the Sénat building on rue Vaugirard’s car-fumed sidewalk.
Passing the Jardin’s fountain, it’s odd to see the place with so few people in it. Not even tourists want to be outside today. No day, though, tarnishes the view of the Pantheon’s dome poking out through leafless branches.
Exiting the park, I continue up rue Soufflot, towards that wonderful dome, topping a building that is surely in the pantheon of Pantheons, a building where Voltaire is buried. Veering left at the top of the hill, students are smoking cigarettes at wood tables.
At last, I’ve arrived. I’m here!
What’s this though? Why are there forty students standing in a line outside of BSG? Is there seriously a line to get into the library? It can’t be. Who waits in line to study?
“C’est vraiment une queue ici?” I ask the white button-downed guard.
“Oui,” he nods with slightly curled lips and smug eyes.
“Ça fera combien de temps?”
“Trente minutes au moins.”
Thirty minutes? Thirty minutes! These kids are seriously waiting in line to study for thirty minutes.
I shake my head and walk back down rue Soufflot, continuing onto rue Vaugirard, down rue Férou, my fully refrigerated fingers waiting six minutes for the 63 bus at Saint Sulpice. Direction Alma Marceau.
* * *
In the bus, I don’t have a 2 euro coin for the 1.90 euro ticket, so I end up paying with a 10 euro bill, the bus driver shrugging when giving me 5 tickets instead of one ticket and 8 euros, explaining exact change was required.
All of the seats in the bus are taken, so I squeeze in next to a stroller by the middle door, an old lady glaring at me as my backpack grazes her shoulder. Leaning against a pole, I’m finally able to take off the cumbersome apparatus, my shoulders objecting sarcastically — “Why take it off now? We’ve only been carrying the thing for two fucking hours!”
My fingers begin to defrost as the bus lurches forward. The baby in the stroller next to me starts crying, the nanny pretends not to notice, and I can’t really blame her. Toddlers are only cute if they’re your own or if they’re behaving well. It’s a lesson I learned six years ago, as a 23-year-old, the first time I was living in Paris, when teaching English at an after school kids workshop in Batignolles, pillow-throwing 4-year-olds wreaking havoc.
At rue du Bac, the bus turns onto Boulevard Saint Germain before stopping. A few seats clear, and I move to take one of them, my ankles congratulating me as I sit down. An old man with a cane enters, creaking slowly forward. Crap, I have to give him my seat, I apologize to my ankles, a simple bus lurch would break his pelvis in four places.
The guy nods thanks, focusing intensely on sitting down accurately, and I return to my place next to the stroller, opening up a 3-minute chess game on my phone. I get three minutes, the other guy gets three minutes — a maximum of six minutes per game — I can probably play two games before arriving at Alma Marceau.
Near the end of the first game though, my queen two moves away from making the fatal blow against rashesh4928’s king, the bus stops, and the driver announces, “Invalides! Terminus!”
People start filing out.
What? Why is Invalides the terminus? The 63 ends at Ponte de Muette, all the way through the 16éme. But everyone is getting out, and I’d rather not give the 5-tickets-instead-of-change bus driver the satisfaction of my displeasure, so I pick up my backpack and step out next to Pont Alexandre III’s golden pegasi.
I’ll fucking walk. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll fucking walk, and in 15 minutes I’ll be home, and this will all be over.
So I walk down Quai d’Orsay, crossing over to rive droit at Pont des Invalides, stopping for cars and then continuing forward onto rue Francois I, traversing the circle, turning left onto avenue Montaigne at the Dior store, glimpsing a slim waitress set down a glass of champagne at L’Avenue across the street.
Outside of Armani, three saleswomen huddle under one umbrella, smoking cigarettes and staring morosely into the distance — the embodiment of city’s mood today. I take out my phone, but the scene dissembles before I can aim the lens, so I turn left into the building marked 16 at — I look at my phone — 3:06pm, grumbling passed the doorman that after 3 hours I’m not even able to get a lousy picture for my Instagram story.
“See, she’s a prostitute!” I show my phone to Zach, who looks away.
We’re getting up from our table at La Mascotte, where we both ordered entrecote with frites. I had asked a girl at the table beside us if she was a tennis fan because she was wearing a Roland Garros hat. She told us she was in town from Ukraine for a modeling assignment and didn’t actually go see the tennis, like we had. Before she left, I asked for her Instagram, which was all naked photos — a tragic case of an originally good-looking young woman who never should’ve opted for that extremely cheap boob job because the scars at the bottoms attract more attention than the added bust they portend. Erasing all doubts was the link under her bio to her profile on an Eastern European escort rental site.
“That’s nice, Phil,” says Zach, hoping I put away my phone.
“Should I rent her out for you? I could send her to your hotel.”
We cross Avenue George V along Place de L’Alma, arriving at avenue Montaigne’s origin, progressing passed the Vélib stand, stopping in front of the Armani store, where rue Jean Goujon merges into avenue Montaigne (a different Armani store from the one in front of my building).
“This way,” I point down avenue Montaigne. We’re walking to his hotel on rue Ponthieu, which is just across the Champs-Elysées.
“You say Rafa stays at a hotel on this street?” he nods towards rue Jean Goujon.
“Yeah, at the Spanish one. I think it’s called the Melia.”
“Want to walk down there? Maybe we’ll catch a glimpse.”
I’ve walked down the street a few times this week, never lucking out. It’s a little after 9pm right now, early June, the sky behind the Eiffel Tower orange. It’s a less direct route to Zach’s hotel, but only slightly. “We probably won’t see him. He’s probably at dinner.”
“No harm in checking.”
We continue onto rue Jean Goujon, and the Melia isn’t far down the street, probably within the first ten buildings, across the street from Bar de Theatre. We observe its exterior, a few people standing idly in front, one in a black tuxedo obviously a doorman.
“I guess it wasn’t meant to be,” I say.
“Wait,” I stop at the sight of a white-haired man with a Mediterranean complexion and a powerful build. “Is that his dad?”
Zach is one step ahead. “That’s Rafa,” his voice raises an octave.
My eyes search through the crowd, a little irritated that Zach, whose prescription marks him as nearly legally blind, beat me, who at 29 still has 20/20 eyesight, in a visual perception endeavor. But maybe Zach’s eyes are tricking him, because I still don’t see him.
“There, in the purple T-shirt,” he whispers.
“Holy crap! It’s him!” There he is! In a purple T-shirt and jeans. It’s Rafa, and he looks exactly like he does on TV! Except more athletic, bigger, muscles bulging out, a wide 6’2”.
“He’s bigger in person than he looks on TV,” Zach has made the same observation.
“On TV he doesn’t usually stand next to guys who are 5-foot-8 like us. He’s standing next to other Adoni.”
We’re fully stopped now, mouths agape, admiring. I’ve been a Rafa fan since he burst onto the scene when I was a sophomore in high school, since before he even won his first Roland Garros, which is difficult for people to claim because he won the tournament within six months of playing the tour full time. I’ve read his book, and Zach and I had a poster of him in our golf-course overlooking sophomore-year dorm room at Princeton. He’s the only celebrity who I esteem as beyond human, who I would have this reaction to.
“Oh look, it’s his sister. And his girlfriend too!” It had always been a topic of debate between my brother, myself, and the two other Nadal diehards we know: Is Rafa’s sister hotter than his girlfriend? In real life, it’s less of a debate. They’re both around six-foot, 4 inches taller than me, immediately erasing all brother-in-law reveries there may have been. Both are very attractive, but it’s the girlfriend who stands out, Xisca, with her flowing brown hair and radiant smile. And why wouldn’t she be happy?
“Hey look! It’s Rafa!” a passing American tourist says to a friend. “Hey Rafa! Rafa! Can I get a picture?”
Rafa, obligingly but unmistakably irritated, excuses himself from his team and poses for a selfie with the guy and his friend. It’s exactly like in Rafa’s book, where he says attention from fame is tough for him and he doesn’t like taking photos, but if a fan asks, he’ll do it because he knows it makes them happy.
The team starts walking down rue Jean Goujon, Rafa still with the fans, so we follow the team about 10 feet behind, his dad speaking Spanish with his trainer, sister with mom, girlfriend with PR man, coach with uncle.
“Should we ask for a photo?” Zach whispers.
“You do it.”
“No you do it!”
“We’ll choose the right time.”
The group of Spaniards stops, forcing our hand. We can’t stop too, it would be too obvious, so we continue forward. I say “excuse me,” and Rafa’s mom and sister turn around, mom saying “sorry” like a normal well-mannered person who finds herself in someone else’s way on a sidewalk.
Luckily, Zach is an extremely slow walker, so we continue at his pace, and the Nadal team starts forward again when we’re only 10-feet ahead.
“Benito! Benito!” I turn my head to see Rafa jogging to catch up with the group, apparently with something extremely important to say to his PR person, Benito Perez Barbadillo.
Rafa joins Benito at the front of the phalanx and says whatever he has to say in his incomprehensible Mallorcan dialect.
Now is my chance, with just 5-feet between Rafa and I. I put my thumb up, look him in the eye, and aver, “I’m a huge fan. Good luck against Schwartzman tomorrow.”
His head shifts in my direction, brown eyes looking directly into mine, and what I detect is terror — not that I’ll take out a gun, but that I’ll ask him for a photo. In the look I can see him begging me not to ask but visualizing separating himself quickly from his team if I do. After a beat, he raises a feeble thumb on his mighty left arm and says, “Thanks man,” before continuing his Mallorcan-Spanish with Benito.
“Ask for a picture,” Zach, who had not just stared into the innermost sanctum of Rafa’s soul, says.
“No, he really hopes I won’t.”
We reach the circle at the end of the street, veering left onto rue Francoise I, the Nadal team doing the same just five paces behind us. I look at Zach, and he has the happy smile plastered on his face that is usually reserved for when he’s had a few too many. Rafa’s girlfriend has replaced Benito next to her man at the front of the pack, the beautiful pair holding hands, she an inch shorter than he is, still four inches taller than the two of us.
I take out my phone and pretend to take a picture of L’Avenue, 50-feet away, instead reversing it to selfie mode, zooming in on Rafa and Xisca’s faces behind me, my left eye and bearded cheek in the frame.
I show the picture to Zach.
“Wow. You can really see it’s him!”
We continue forward, stopping for the passing cars at avenue Montaigne, the Nadal team joining us at the light, the primordial left arm mere inches from my plebeian-by-comparison right arm.
“Should we ask him to take a photo of the two of us?” I whisper to Zach. “How confusing would that be for him?”
“If you do that, Phil, that would be the most Phil thing ever.”
I consider saying the words, but I just can’t. I had seen the terror of being asked for a photo lying at the very core of his being, and I don’t have it in me to transgress.
The white walk sign appears, equipo Nadal pushes forward, but Zach and I remain at the corner of avenue Montaigne and rue Francoise I, watching them disappear into the pink sky.
“What a day,” he says, the two of us starting down avenue Montaigne towards rue Ponthieu.
“Yeah. We saw Zverev versus Khachanov and Goffin versus Ceccinato from a mid-baseline viewing angle on court Suzanne Lenglen, we met a Ukrainian prostitute at dinner, and then we walked along the same street as Rafa for five full minutes after dinner. Doesn’t get any better than that.”
“Sure Phil,” Zach says, shaking his head at me for having included the prostitute. “Their group was so cool.”
“They were all smiling and chattering in Spanish like a classic Spanish family who happened to be competing for an 11th Roland Garros title.”
“Yeah. Rafa has the swag of a guy who knows he’s an unbelievable athlete. Did you see the way he walked?”
“Yeah, it was a strut. I wonder where they went to dinner. Maybe we should’ve gotten a picture?”
“Yeah, that was our chance. At least you got that one.”
We both stop to look at the image on my phone, satisfied that the man over my left shoulder is distinctly the 16-time grand slam champion before continuing across the Champs Elysées, Arc de Triomphe to our left, accentuated by a coral-colored sky.