It’s February and we’re standing beneath a gray, birdless sky. Arm in arm eating mangosteens purchased from a wrinkled old man in a woolen hat and heavy coat. He speaks to us when we leave but we don’t understand his words. Perhaps he’s seventy years old but she thinks that he’s younger.
We walk. She takes my hand.
She gives me the discarded rind to carry in my free hand and it stains my chapped skin purple. I watch her open another round fruit. We stop, our hands alone by themselves for the moment, then she pushes the glistening white meat between my lips.
I flew here from another continent because I can’t help but want to be with her. She’s American and an actress and is here to study theater.
We ride the subway, walk the city. She takes me places and introduces me to operas, flea markets, cafés, jazz clubs, hidden nooks along the Seine. Every day a different place. My visit will last for three weeks.
She kisses my palm, gives me hers to kiss in return. I inspect it, run a finger over the lines I find there, then do as she wants.
I want to. I want to understand why we’re going to the cemetery and she says, for the third or fourth time, “Because it’s your birthday. And because we haven’t been here before.”
I bring the back of her hand to my mouth and I smell flowers. I touch her black hair and when I pull my hand to my face my fingers smell like trees. Her body is a composition of hills and rivers, and they, too, are fragrant. Like fertile earth mixed with rain.
I sniffle and her breath, a fruity cloud of heat in the cold air, covers my red nose and I’m warmed. She wraps my scarf over my face and ears and then only my eyes and forehead are bare.
“The scarf,” she says. “It matches your eyes.”
I remind her that my eyes are green and my scarf gray, but she says that under this sky they look the same.
We buy bread. We pick off pieces and throw them high into the air and jostle with each other trying to catch them in our mouths. My scarf has dropped. The bread careens off our cheeks and chins, tumbles to the ground.
We run down the street and tiny cars blur past and the windows of colorless and dignified buildings are frosted over. I hear pebbles of salt crunch beneath her heels and I hear her softly laugh. Ahead of me I see the scuffed soles of her knee-high leather boots and the hem of the back of her black coat that teasingly lifts and falls. She has stopped and I catch up, and when I grab her from behind her body is rigid as marble.
“We’re here,” she says. “Let’s wander.”
We walk through the gate of the cemetery, beneath its pale arch. We stop on the other side. Paths lie before us but all we see are structures that house the dead, that give homage, or its likeness, to so many famous people.
“I have to go,” she says and looks at me.
I point to a small WC sign in the distance and she runs to the far bathroom.
The cold becomes another foreign terrain and I move through it slowly, but still I follow after her and note names above the tomb inscriptions I cannot read. This one is Balzac. That one, Wilde. Further down, Hugo. Stein. Colette.
I stand by the door of the WC and listen to her sing Happy Birthday. Her voice is a deep sweet alto when she sings and when she does this I take close-up photographs of her in my mind. Her brow, eyes, lips and throat are only a few examples of what I look at when I look at her closely and she’s singing.
Sometimes we’re silent together and we share this silence like we share a blanket, or a bottle of wine, or some small space in the world we think is beautiful.
When she comes out of the WC her hands are dripping and she complains that there are no towels. It’s cold and so I open my coat and let her dry her hands on the chest of my sweater, which offers a warmth I’ve been protecting. Her ears are red and now it’s my turn to warm a body with breath.
She says, “Ahh. Breadbreath.” I stuff our holding hands inside my coat pocket. Still grinning she asks me,
“Are you hungry?”
I am, I say, but not enough to do anything about it. I say that the bread and fruit have filled me. Her lips, quickly, taste like foreign fruit. The taste stays with me. For a moment Paris’s wintry light recedes. Standing close, we grow warmer.
David Joiner‘s nonfiction and fiction have appeared in The Ontario Review, The Madison Review, and The Honolulu-Star-Bulletin. He’s served as the fiction co-editor at The Sonora Review and as a reader and workshop teacher for Our Stories Literary Journal. David currently teaches writing and literature online for the University of Maryland and is completing a novel set in Vietnam, where he’s lived off and on since 1994. More of his writing can be found at his website.