There were no differences, no, there weren’t. For Dana and for Mark, together, but isolated together, comparisons were impossible because there were no references there in France in Paris. They knew no one, nothing. They daren’t fight. The hard white skin of a delivery truck and the smooth white skin of a gray haired lady passing and smoking—Dana and Mark viewed everything as unique, the one of that kind—the truck being just truck with nothing inside to deliver or to make it go, the gray haired smoking woman a wheezing machine leaving behind the unique white swirls of just that cigarette.
“It will rain today,” Dana said.
“You think so?” Mark replied.
“Maybe it will.”
They were sitting together outside a café prettily placed in a small park between two small buildings. Just then a scooter shot by—in and out of their view—along the street. There was a skidding sound, a slap, and several voices together pronounced, “Oh!”
Mark stood up to examine the events. First, in the street he saw rolling and rolling towards the gutter a cigarette burning, then the face of that exact gray haired lady lying down in the center of the street.
A man knelt beside her and lifted her head. He looked up at Mark, and motioned for his aid. The man in great precision explained her condition and his intentions, Mark supposed. The man’s forehead was dotted in sweat. Mark felt, himself, a sweat rising on his forehead and saw the lightening of images of shock. Mark determined not to faint, if fainting was what he was about to do and took her right shoulder in his hands which excited further sharp barks from the French man.
“I don’t speak French,” Mark said, and motioned for the man to show him what he wanted. The Frenchman gestured and Mark understood him to mean to take her under the arm. When he did this the Frenchman pushed his hands away, spoke loudly to another man and shoved Mark away.
People stood all around in groups. They were looking at him, then, at his failure, he supposed. People, in stopped cars, sat and were looking at him. At the sidewalk, talking people parted for him to pass. At the café, Dana was gone.
It had been her plan to go to France since before the two months she had known him. It had been his idea to go with her. She had agreed and now she was gone.
She was not in their hotel room. Outside the window of their room, he could hear the busy noises of a Parisian street. He had never really thought of Paris. Now, he heard a strange police siren quacking like a strong mechanical duck, the tap-tap of car horns, senseless foreign chatter. But, no, there he was understanding something—a voice, a woman’s voice mixed though it was with the others was distinctly in English. He heard something about “experts,” something about “competing colors.” He knew this was not Dana’s voice, but he went to the window to look down anyway. There she was. Unlike Dana, her hair was blonde and cut short. Unlike Dana, she was short and heavy, American style. This woman seemed to be directing children.
She said, “As I explained before, just because Van Gogh is said to be insane, he wasn’t insane when he painted.”
Mark turned away from the window. The idiotic comment yet spoke to him and loudly. He could not seem to focus on the fact that Dana wasn’t there. Apparently he had been abandoned for the moment by her, but she had become for him more a piece of lost mail, a brilliantly colored but mundane postcard to someone who never answered.
He left the hotel. On the hot sidewalks he thought of running into her and felt vaguely embarrassed. He turned and followed an unfamiliar street. He found he hardly saw the stores, the cafés, he passed. He was talking to Dana in his mind, but he had replaced her image with the top of the head of the woman who talked about Van Gogh. He had heard himself talking. He reimagined the cigarette rolling in the street.
The sensation was so much like being drunk that he thought he should drink. He walked and walked, sun battered and sweating. He had no reason not to drink. She wasn’t there to stop him, as it was her who did not drink much which was a fault—she with those hard, dark, watchful, judging eyes. If she never came back. Well…, well.
He walked up a very long and very steeply graded sidewalk, the sun perfectly in his eyes. The light sand-colored buildings became lighter. He imagined fainting, the gray haired lady’s hot forehead, a former girlfriend who sweated faintly all the time—she smelt vaguely sour—she could leave the mattress damp—she’d hated the sun—her skin was bone white like the buildings passing beside him…. So this was travel, he thought, and stopped in front of a bar open to the streets. There were seats outside, facing him, but they all listed with the incline of the sidewalk so he stepped inside. Left blinded by the sun, he felt as if he’d fallen into a cool, horizontal well.
He could hardly see, in the abyss, the flesh tones of an oval face and pale green of a blouse.
“Uh, a beer,” he said.
He sat and he began to drink, changing restaurants, eating here and there until night had fallen.
He walked towards where he imagined he would find their hotel. But the streets of Paris were twisted. He found nothing. The sky darkened. He crossed a small, dusky park. Water poured senselessly in a straight shot down inside a small fountain that looked like a lantern—not light but water. He imagined what he’d say to Dana if she was there when he got back. He would, maybe, be accusing—she’d left him—or casual— I passed the day. The front door of the little hotel opened into a dark lobby. He walked up the circling flights of stairs. He was breathing a little harder. He stopped before their door. He felt for his key in his pocket—no, not his wallet—oh, there it was—pulled the key out, tried to insert it in the lock in the door but, no. He turned the key over, smooth side up and the key slid in the lock. He unlocked and pushed open the door. The room was dark, the window open as they had left it. He was alone.
When he awoke the room was full of light and sound. “Where is she?” he suddenly heard himself ask. Rage exploded in his face. He took a deep breath, another, another and the emotion seemed to descend into his stomach where it was digested. There was another moment of rage. He swallowed. It swelled in his stomach as he knew that she had not returned—he would have awakened. He checked, none the less, the window open, the television on, the bathroom empty except for him.
At the reception desk he had to ask if there were any messages for him.
Had—had they seen madame?
He confessed that she hadn’t come back that night.
“Certainly Madame have they friends in Paris. She probably is in sleep.”
He didn’t think she knew anyone. Was there someone he could call—the police perhaps?
The hotel manager shrugged, “Oui, Monsieur. Maybe. But you should not worry. She will come back,” he suggested.
It was unbelievable, he thought. He was too late for breakfast in the hotel. He wandered the sidewalks, wandered past cafés. Finally he found a policeman who could speak enough English to say there was not much they could do.
Two days remained. It had been her plan to be here and here he was.
That day was just as bright as the one before, just as warm. Though he wasn’t much of a reader, he passed the time wandering from bookstore to bookstore. As few of the books were in English he twisted his head right and left trying to interpret the titles written on the spines in a foreign tongue.
He found a mystery in English with a nice black and white cover, probably printed in England. He decided to buy it even though he didn’t really read mysteries. At the checkout, a plain young girl with a very tiny waist, but a large chest, said something to him in French. He could read the amount on the register and gave her a blue twenty euro note.
“Sank you,” she said.
He smiled, nodded, said nothing.
As soon as he was on the sidewalk again, he remembered Dana. He tried not to think about her, but he went right back to the hotel. In his room after a considerable amount of trouble he was able to call Dana’s parents. He got their answering machine. He left precise instructions how to call him back.
He went back to that same bookstore, chose a book, smiled at the same girl, looked into her light blue eyes, smiled some more, and left. It was all too incredible, he thought. Had Dana ceased to exist or had he?
He passed the two days. On the flight home he had lots of space—her seat was empty. As soon as he stepped foot in his apartment, he called Dana’s parents again, and Dana. No one answered, so he left messages. No one called him back. As time passed he thought less and less of her.
Wayne Conti has placed stories with Open City, The Brooklyn Rail, Chicago Quarterly Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Anderbo and Pindeldyboz. One of his stories was adapted for radio and played on public radio stations around the country. He is a resident of Downtown NYC, where he is the proprietor of Mercer Street Books.