The Vicarious Vacation

ShelleyWood-LocksHe’s back from his day roaming Paris, his tongue tumbling with stories, tired of rolling his ‘r’s and folding into conjugations. He’s exhausted! he exclaims, but lightly, because he knows I’m the one working here while he tries to soak in new neighbourhoods, a new vocabulary. Me, I’m up early and out of the hotel with my laptop while he sleeps,  the streets still shining with the nights’ rain and men in flat hats, white aprons under their padded coats, bid me bonjour, baguettes in brown sacks on the backs of their bikes.

He’s been roving Paris with Natalie, a friend of a friend, who he hoped would be beautiful but is, instead, an eccentric fifty-going-on-seventy-five year old chain-smoker. He’s paying her . . . how much? He doesn’t know yet and it’s bound to get awkward before the week is out. She’s perusing Paris alongside him, his tutor and tour guide, correcting his French, helping him reach back and dredge up whatever he might have learned 20 years ago and wants to learn again. I go to my conference, write stories about medical innovations I hope never to need and can only partly pretend to understand.

His stories are better. In the gloom of a musty 14th arrondissment apartment, Natalie poured him tea, then stepped into a pair of pantalons she’d left lying in a heap in the living room, donned a Charlie Chaplin hat, a red feather boa, and huge Bridgitte Bardot glasses before they set out to the musée Marmottan. She touched, actually touched, the surface of the Monets, stepped right in front of other people who were pondering the paintings so as to get close enough to poke gently at the colours, her smoky French growling on and on and him saying, plus lentement — her too rapt to slow the pace she was setting for his enlightenment.

“Did you take a picture? I ask. I already know he hasn’t, leaving me to imagine her, how they must have looked together wandering through those rich and hilarious hours, him stumbling around in another language, while I, elsewhere, blundered through a cardiological version of my own. Then I try to picture myself in these Paris stories: me with Natalie, me at the musée, me getting misted up for no reason on a stroll through the Tuileries. Me drinking a glass of Sancerre at a crowded sidewalk bistro at noon, all the seats facing out towards whatever happens next.

Exhausted, exhausted, it’s Paris, but it’s work. And it’s the same work I do elsewhere and have done here each year for  more than a decade. My brain is worn so smooth and helpless: come nighttime I can’t string together the syllables to ask any more questions or order anything intelligible from the menu. All my French skitters away from me like a bag of dropped marbles, while he layers story onto story, all of them slivered through with laughter, and wonder. So much so that it’s okay for the moment to bask, vicarious, in his days.

We pop pills at night to lug us downwards into sleep, trying to drop anchor in time’s upside-down harbor. Even so, during the darkest hours, I bob upwards, woken from a dream that I somehow know is about all the things I’ve lost. The voice in my head is speaking French. I’m on a beach by a house I’ve never seen, windows boarded up, golden grasses as high as my heart, a fast, warm wind flattening them as one, this way then that. It is the pelt of some huge and sleeping beast, too out of scale for me to stroke even as my tiny hands twitch me awake,  fingers stretching to touch that soft fur.