Thursday, October 29, 2009

Taking Breath

Lesson #9: Embracing the risks and rewards of the world's unknowns--the ones so easily forgotten by the comfortable soul--requires little more than a backpack, sturdy shoes, and some extra pens and paper for the road.


"Taking Breath" was published in the Santa Clara Review, Fall/Winter 2010


Brianne and I arrived at the St. Denis metro in the 2nd arrondissement at 9pm Monday night, after I had eaten with my host family and decided against studying. I often, if not always, find good use out of the "you only live in Paris once" excuse when needing to justify lack of academic motivation. This night was no different.

Brianne, a fellow student from Virginia and my newfound travel companion and adventure seeker, met Adam a few nights prior at a bar in London. Adam, an American vagabond in his late 20s, was meeting us for some company. For what specific purpose this group of people was meeting at the St. Denis metro in the 2nd arrondissement at 9pm on Monday was beyond my knowledge.

She waved her hand through the air, and I turned to see a tall, burly man with wavy blond hair and blue eyes approaching us, grinning eagerly. Without hesitation, this man dove towards my face. His lips met my cheeks suddenly, almost knocking me over. He pulled back and grabbed me by the shoulders, arms outstretched, and boasted "Enchanté!" which loosely translates to "Hello, my name is Adam. And you must be Rachel! Pleased to meet you, Rachel." I thought for a moment that I had met this tall burly man before, perhaps in a previous life, and we were becoming reacquainted after many years of separation.

"This is such a great part of town. You've got to look around when you have the time." We followed him. "That right there is the Arc de la Porte Saint-Denis, built by Louis XIV to commemorate his military victories." He spoke with his hands and his knees and his chest.

Adam, I learned, is a Chicago native and has been living in Paris for eighteen months as an English-speaking bike tour guide. I have always wanted to take a bike tour with a bike tour guide, but did not insinuate that he issue me a personal invitation, as I speculated that Adam would not have appreciated such boldness so prematurely in our relationship.

He led us down various streets until we were interrupted by a perpendicular dark alley lined with prostitutes. "Don't take pictures. They can get aggressive." We followed him. This was the street of his apartment, which I then learned was our destination. My imagination stirred boundlessly and I could only think of the movie Taken and how I was about to be, in fact, taken. My apprehension grew as Brianne and I were led up eight flights of a narrow spiral stair case, and on the way passed a section blocked off by caution tape with a sign that translated as “undergoing investigation.” If we were going to be killed, I thought, which at this point seemed likely, I suppose the very top floor of an old apartment building on a prostitute street is the best place to do it. Brianne chattered casually with her new friend who had not stopped speaking with his hands. I was planning my escape.

The door creaked open to reveal a 2-bedroom flat dimly lit by hundreds of small white candles, jazz music lingering in the musty air. Another young gentleman sitting comfortably on a leather couch rose to greet us. He did not lunge at me with his mouth, which I was thankful for. He offered us slices of a rustic baguette with Camembert and poured 4 glasses of red wine. Adam retreated to the kitchen, and Brianne and I sat and talked with the new man whom I believe was very nervous, as he stuttered frequently. Mitch was currently studying in Paris at an institute for technology and architecture and living a few blocks up the street. We sipped wine slowly, letting the record player occupy gaps of silence, and he began to point out and explain the artwork scattered on the walls, which I had not noticed until this point.

A blonde head appeared.

“How do you guys feel about chopsticks?”

“What're we having?” Mitch chimed from his position on the couch. I was only waiting to hear a response along the lines of, "our guests," but the sizzling of a frying pan had drowned out Adam's ability to hear the question.

“Adam is an artist and this, this one is a painting of a woman with her left leg crossed ninety degrees across her right, but most people, when they see this one, think she is riding a camel. This was one of his first paintings. These are views from various places in the city—like that, obviously, is Sacre Coeur. See Montparnasse in the background? And this one I think is in the 14th. And this one here, this is an imitation of Van Gogh’s famous piece, but I forget the name.” Starry night, I thought. That one, I admit, was very good.

I began to smell aromas of Thai cuisine and my mouth watered.

The hundreds of vanilla scented candles, I found, were a gift from Adam’s mother that had resurfaced while cleaning out boxes, and were not intended for any specific purpose tonight other than getting use out of hundreds of unused vanilla scented candles. I quite enjoyed them.

We emptied the three bottles of wine that lay before us, our hosts assuring the ladies’ glasses were never short of half full, and finished two jazz records. Mitch brought out another loaf of bread, accompanied this time by a saucer of salted oil and vinegar. Moments later, a plate hot with steam was slid in front of my view—a well-portioned chicken dish liberally marinated in an orange tangy sauce (a recipe Adam had brought back from Bangkok) neighbored by seasoned potatoes, peppers, grilled onions, and tomatoes. And chopsticks. It must have been near 11pm when we began to feast, laughing and gulping and trading and pointing.

Brianne encouraged Adam to tell stories of his travels—the ones he had shared during their first encounter at the London bar when they spoke for hours over cocktails. The ones that had aroused in her the enduring fascination that gave us reason to be sitting and eating Thai food in the travelling man's apartment on a late Monday night in the 2nd arrondissment in the first place. And so he did share stories of his travels, and how he has known the corners of the world with his own eyes and ears and feet. He told us how he lived in Morocco with a man who worked as a fisherman trader and spent months perfecting the art of Italian cuisine at a cooking school in Rome. He shared stories in the most amusing way, often with his hand rested on his chest to control the frequent bursts of laughter, hunched over his knees, pulling us in closer. He told us about his nights dancing in Spain (he enjoys the company of Spaniards out of any other people), meditating in Bali and countries lining the eastern coast of South America, and how he learned to speak Chinese in Shanghai. He used his tongue to push mangled chicken to the side of this mouth and spoke in between gulps about his loathing for Australians, helping the helpless in Iran, feeling the sand of the Sahara between his toes, stories about couch surfing, dumpster-diving, and Parisian bike tour guiding…

My legs had turned numb when I realized I was sitting on the edge of my seat.

He told us, finally, about his plans to leave Paris—a city he has fallen in love with—and how he recently bought a one-way train ticket to Germany where he plans to rent a 5-bed room apartment in Berlin, to which he plans to invite anybody and everybody to join him and do art. And he left it at that and continued chewing.

Yes, I am safe with you, Adam. And now it is all clear to me.

I will come with you to Germany, Adam, and I will live with you. I will live in Berlin in your apartment and we will transform it into a studio and we will do art and invite others to do art. We’ll set easels up in various rooms and maybe we’ll cover the floors with tarp or maybe we won’t care enough. Some will draw and many will sculpt and music! Oh, we’ll have music. Guitars and saxophones and a piano—I will play the piano. We will spend our days there and let the light from the windows flood the white walls and I will write and you will paint and we will learn from each other. And perhaps people will come to the studio art apartment and want to live there with us and we will let them. And when everyone is done with their art I will tell you of the times when I thought I knew things and you will tell us of your weeks in Greece and Holland and Dubai and we will laugh about the seriousness that poisons human thought. And then we will admire our art and eat day old bread and cheese and maybe you can cook Bangkok orange chicken if you’re not feeling too tired and we’ll always have one extra wine bottle in the cabinet and we will live there until we don’t want to live there anymore.

I had dropped one of my chopsticks. Brianne kicked my foot and I looked up to see empty plates and the American traveling men perched on the balcony clutching glasses, waving at us to join. My chest heaved. I hadn’t been breathing until now.