WHAT TO DO IN PARIS
by Sarah Marian Seltzer
At dawn, Amy woke to sounds from the street outside—someone sweeping, a muffled French curse. Her heart rose, so she followed its insistent tug and stood up, went to the window. She had no fear of awaking a companion, as Maddy had chosen to bunk next door with her aunt.
Issue #97 soundtrack: Fake Chatter "Leonard"
This arrangement symbolized the girls’ trip that Amy had saved up for two years to finance. Each day so far, she’d returned from solo morning walks to a jet-lagged, whining late-teenage daughter, whom Amy noted was newly swathed in the freshman fifteen, and sister-in law who had always worn what Amy called the “Mahwah 30”: 20 pounds of flesh, ten pounds of makeup. Both her companions noticed all that was bad about France—the sirens, the sewage smell, the reliable rudeness of waiters—and nothing good, neither a flying buttress nor a charming café. They wanted takeout instead, kept begging Amy to take them to a place called “Breakfast in America.”
Amy closed the door behind her, tiptoed down the stairs, and emerged: a widow on the town in the City of Love. Boulevard Haussmann opened before her in the flat morning light, culminating in the curlicues of the Opera Garnier’s roof ahead. It looked like a cartoon fantasy palace. This magic was what she’d hoped Maddy would see in Paris.
Breakfast in America, of all places. What a stupid idea. Amy shook her head, then entered a patisserie and stood on the line. She exchanged coins for bread and deposited herself again on the sidewalk, inhaling the aroma of her purchase. If a croissant was consumed in a foreign city, and no one saw you taste it, did it even happen?
Not according to her sister-in-law, back at the hotel. “We need breakfast. You know what Maddy and I were saying we’d kill for? A big, cheesy omelet with home fries and bacon. Or pancakes with little packets of syrup.”
“I would die for that,” said Maddy.
Amy sat on their unmade bed and ran a hand through her hair—a new, sleek bob. It left her neck bare, and Tony had always said she had the world’s sexiest neck.
Not that a single French man had noticed her, squeezed in between her fellow Americans. Why had she harbored a tiny, glimmering fantasy that she might meet someone here?
“So, let’s get French omelets,” Amy said. “With fries.”
“But do they have home fries?” asked Maddy.
“No,” said Charlene. “It’s not home.”
For no reason Amy could discern, hysteria ensued. She crossed her arms as the giggles crested, subsided.
“Did you know there’s a Disneyworld here?” asked Charlene, wiping her eye. She held up a brochure for Euro Disney.
“No way!” said Maddy. “I’ve never been to Disney. Mom and Dad didn’t take me.” Oh, the reproach.
“It was your Dad’s dream to take you to Paris,” said Amy. “We used to say so when we’d take bread and tomatoes to the Place Des Vosges and have a…”
“A picnic. Yeah, I know. We know,” Maddy said. She waved a wrist, dismissing Amy. “You and dad had the world’s best picnics, in Paris, without me.
“What I’d actually like,” Maddy continued, “is to see Mickey Mouse wearing like, one of those cute French hats. Those beret thingies.”
“I would take a billion photos of French Mickey,” said Charlene. “Let’s go tomorrow, Ames?”
Amy ripped a piece of baguette off with her teeth, shook her head, and chewed. But she couldn’t swallow.
As refugees from New Jersey, Amy and Tony had sworn a Springsteen-like vow: Once they crossed the Hudson River, baby, belongings in tow, they’d never go back.
At least in a metaphorical sense, they had neither retreated nor surrendered. Family visits were the only occasions that ever drew them through the Lincoln Tunnel. Maddy had been a true city child, playing soccer in a dirt patch, throwing coins in the reflecting pool beside the Metropolitan Museum’s Egyptian temple. In the playground, on one occasion, the kid had toddled forward with pink crack vials in her hands. “Put that down right now, honey,” Amy had said, sharp yet tolerant. Together, she and Tony would rinse Maddy’s small hands in the sometimes anemic, sometimes geyser-like stream of a New York City water fountain. They would smile at each other over its concrete edges. They were worldly, gritty, real: If only our parents could see us, their smiles said.
If only Tony could see Amy now, in a Paris hotel on the Right Bank, with his sister and his offspring, begging them to tour genuine European royalty-inhabited palaces instead of Disney-manufactured ones.
“You don’t wanna go, Mom?” asked Maddy, coming to sit beside her.
“We only had a week,” said Amy. Her grown woman’s hands were fists. She gazed past her daughter to the window with its closed curtains.
“You never understand,” said Maddy with a sigh. The feeling was mutual.
Amy had first comprehended the gap between her and Maddy about three years after Tony died. She’d been steering the station wagon up the on-ramp of the Washington Bridge, delivering Maddy to a playdate, although she wasn’t allowed to call it by that name anymore; it was merely “hanging out.” Maddy had just returned from Ramah in the Poconos, where she’d become newly interested in her Jewish identity and befriended girls from New Jersey. Fleeing to Manhattan, naming their child Madison like every idiot who saw Splash, the drug paraphernalia on the playground, the Met, none of their efforts had kept her from returning, like a homing pigeon, to Jersey.
“What are you going to do today?” Amy ventured a question in the direction of the sullen form coiled in the passenger seat. Maddy was fully absorbed in picking her cuticles. Her fingertips, rough and childlike, remained the only part of her that hadn’t been swept into conformist line, enclosed in trendy t-shirts, barrettes, friendship bracelets.
“We’re going to the mawl,” offered Maddy.
“There is no W in the word ‘mall,’” Amy, falsely jocular, offered.
“What’s a mawl like?” asked Maddy, emphasizing her newfound accent even more, if it were possible. “I dreamed it was like, a castle.”
"A building with stores,” said Amy. She cleared her throat. “In New York, you can, you know, walk down a street with the same stores.”
“Not the same stores. My friends say there’s a Limited and a Nordstrom, you know, where they sell the purse I want.”
They cruised along the bridge's span, and Amy looked up only for a second at the wide river, knowing what lay beyond the scope of her vision: the cliffs plunging downwards to its edge. The wide swath of sky. A day, a world, that her daughter would pass by in the land of Muzak and air conditioning.
Was Maddy just being a teenager that day, or soothing her fatherless soul with the balm provided by multinational corporations? This question nagged Amy enough to make her tolerate her daughter’s proclivities, from that early epoch right through trips to teenybopper concerts and purchases of Victoria’s Secret Pink-branded items for college shopping. She had borne a decade of indignities for love. But Amy couldn’t, she absolutely couldn’t go to Euro Disney.
“I cannot go to Euro Disney,” said Amy, putting her bag on the floor of their hotel room.
“Not even to see French Mickey, Mom?” asked Maddy, snickering.
“You want to waste a day in that suburban shithole? We haven’t seen half of what I wanted to see yet. You’ve been so jetlagged,” Amy responded. “We have two days left.”
“Oh, I’m sorry we’ve kept you from your museums,” sneered Maddy. “It’s getting boring. So many paintings, so many lines.”
At this accusation, her daughter’s tone soured.
“Come off it, Mom. You got your precious trip. Do you have to control everything?” asked Maddy, flopping stomach first on the bed.
“My trip? I did this for you.”
“Oh. Please.” Maddy looked for support from Charlene, who studiously ignored them both.
“I can’t do Disney,” said Amy.
“Dad wouldn’t care,” said Maddy. Amy looked up in surprise. It wasn’t a line she heard often these days. Charlene busied herself with the brochures.
“Tony felt the same way about Disneyworld as I did,” Amy said. “We discussed it when you were a kid. He used to say, the real world is a magic king—“
“He wouldn’t have been so lame,” said Maddy. “I know he’d be down for Euro Disney.”
“No. He wouldn’t have, actually,” Amy said, blowing air through her lips. Charlene sat up. “Tony and I went to Disneyland with our parents, you know. In the 70s. A favorite vacation.”
“I was his wife. Believe me, honey,” Amy stood up. “Believe me.” That’s when she noticed Maddy’s eyes. She’d made her daughter cry.
Well, she was near tears herself.
“You always have to be the one who remembers him right, don’t you?” Maddy asked between sobs. “Bullshit, Mom.”
Amy reached for Maddy’s shoulder, but was swatted away. “That’s not what I meant. The last time we were here, we talked about bringing you…” Amy began.
“I don’t care, Mom,” Maddy’s palm went up. “That was then.”
“It’s what he wanted.”
“How do we know what he wanted? Sometimes I wish…” Maddy’s eyes got big.
“What do you wish?”
“I wish it had been—instead of. I really wish.”
Amy knew what her child was thinking: The wrong parent had a massive heart attack on the 6 train. This cliché. This refrain. It had been years, but Amy had heard it, forgiven it a thousand times. She’d said it, too. I wish it had been me, Maddy. At the worst moment, during the height of the “mawl” epoch, Amy had tried to change a light bulb by herself, smashed the lens of the fixture, and warned Maddy not to walk across the kitchen. There was nothing for dinner, and they were in the dark. It was winter. She’d swept, she’d warned, but done neither enough to avoid a small shard of glass wedging in her daughter’s foot. After she tweezed it out, they’d both begun crying. I wish it had been me, Amy had said. “Mom, don’t say that,” Maddy had wailed.
They had slept in the same bed. Holding her daughter close, Amy had tried to convince herself they’d make it, they’d maybe even get to Paris someday, just like Tony and she planned.
In front of Charlene, the wound from Maddy smarted afresh. His sister had the same thought, no doubt hundreds of times. I wish Amy was gone and my brother was here. How could she not? So at this juncture, Amy had invited two people to Paris, who both wished her dead. Meanwhile the one person who would appreciate the city with her was actually dead.
“Okay. I know what you’re thinking,” said Amy, feeling the welling tears mar her attempt to sound indifferent. “Do Disney.”
She took her half baguette, tossed it on the hotel room desk, and added, “Here. You missed breakfast, again.”
“This city smells like poop,” was Maddy’s final insult as her mother left.
That her daughter had a point only augmented Amy’s disgust.
For the second time that day, then, Amy was alone on the streets of Paris. Without consideration, she began to steer her feet towards the Marais. She had wanted so much to take her daughter, a moderately-observant Jew, to the Jewish quarter, but things never transpired as planned. All that money saved, and she wouldn’t be here again for a decade, and honestly, had Marie Antoinette felt a bigger dropping sensation in her gut when they dragged her to be beheaded at the Place de La Concorde?
Maybe that would pique Maddy’s interest, a tour of Paris’s revolutionary violence. Or perhaps they should find the bridge where Carrie reconciled with Big on Sex and the City. She sighed. Each of these schemes might be effective short-term, coax a smile or two from Maddy’s face, but the distance between them was as fixed as the wide Haussmanized boulevards.
A small perimeter of sweat established itself at the back of Amy’s neck, another at her waist, as she plodded on, trying to excise her anger. The grey light had deceived her, hiding warmth. She took her coat, slung it across her arm and arrived at the Place des Vosges. Yet here the good memories assailed rather than comforted her; nearby, the ghostly recumbent forms of young Amy and Tony sat, a baguette and a few Kronenbourgs between them, feeling oh-so-cosmopolitan and amorous.
Once, walking by the Seine, Tony had done the thing where he took her hand, walked ahead of her, and then swung her back towards him and around him. A classic leading-man move. She’d cried out, taken by such surprise. They weren’t into typical displays of heterosexual romance, not like that, in public.
“You twirled me, Tony,” she’d said. “You twirled me.”
“Hey,” he’d replied, kissing her on the forehead. “Even people like us need a twirl sometimes.” She’d agreed.
Men. She didn’t know when she had transitioned from fearing them as a young widow, to feeling capable of loving every last one of them if given the chance. She might love her daughter’s teachers, young and bearded, knotting their skinny ties and kissing them on the cheek. She could love the older men at the office with families, grandchildren, usher them through their twilight years. Or the men she passed on the subway, the working guys tired after the late shift. She could be there to give them two eggs on toast and put them to bed at dawn. She decided, given the proper cultivation and feeding of the emotion, anyone could fill the spot by her side. What Maddy and Charlene labeled as rigid, but she felt as loneliness.
She ventured now into the Jewish quarter and her senses submitted to the neighborhood; today, Friday, everyone was getting ready for the Sabbath (“Shabbat Shalom, Mom!” Maddy would say tonight), and one could immediately smell it, feel it. Baking, spices, gawking tourists. This, she supposed, was her own culture. People often said of Maddy’s interest in Judaism: see, she shows her affinity for you, her love. But they didn’t get it. Amy had married a goy, spoke not a word of Hebrew.
And where was Maddy now? Cavorting with Mickey Mouse? Maybe. Lying on the hotel bed, sulking? Probably. Seeking a McDonald’s? Wishing death upon her mother? Amy hoped that sentiment had passed at least.
Three men in black hats stood at the entrance to the Rue Des Rosiers, asking passerby: “Jewish?” “Juif?”
Her people. Maybe they offered a spell one could cast to soften daughters’ hearts, to open daughters’ eyes to actual, real, non-corporate culture.
“Yes, yes, I am Jewish,” she said, approaching the middle man, who was short, with golden-brown hair cascading in spiral curls from each temple.
He coughed, looked left, then right.
“I’m Jewish,” she said.
“You have a husband?” he asked. “Son?”
No husband, but I’ve been on thirty dates in ten years, gotten laid twelve-point-five times, she wanted to say. I’ve reached the point where I’d kiss anyone, I’d kiss you.
“We lay Tefillin with your husband, your son?”
Tefillin. If Amy closed her eyes hard, a dusty memory might emerge of uncles in Millburn, New Jersey, little black boxes wrapped around the arms, rocking in back rooms and her mother saying to her, “they’re still praying like that, for some reason.”
“My husband is dead. Why can’t I do it for him?” Amy said to the man. “Pourquois pas?”
“Not woman,” he shook his finger at her, acting like an uptight Frenchman and an overly-pious Jew at the same time. “Men.”
“But why?” She was being perverse but she pressed on. “I’d like to be spiritual.” She looked around. Tourists slowed to observe their conversation.
“I really want to do that,” she said, pointing. “Lay Teffilin.” She did. She wanted those black straps, tight around her body, binding her to something bigger than herself, biting into her flesh, rustling her heart down into comploance.
“Non,” he said.
“Oui,” she said.
He turned his back on her. Had she heard the word “fou”—crazy? It also could have been “foutre” as in “vas te foutre”—go fuck yourself. She grabbed his shoulder before she could remember the religious rules about touching.
Shouts from the man, and then from his friends. She found three, four fingers in her face.
“Do not fucking point at me,” she shouted back, sounding like the Jersey girl she once was: “Do nawt.” “Fuck awf.”
A few of the onlookers crowded in around them.
A cop, who presumably had been strolling by, walked up and joined them.
“What is the problem?” he asked in English. Several people began to talk at once.
The Hassidic men spoke to the cop in French, but the gendarme merely laughed and shook his head. He expelled air through his teeth, dismissing them sonically. One hand on his hip, he gestured for them to leave, and they scattered.
Yet his demonstrated scorn, a cool French scorn, began to give Amy a feeling of complicity. Fabulous. She had enabled this cop to harass the men for their religious practice because of her strange, piqued longing for a ritual she’d never even considered before. A banner day continued.
“These men, they act from another time. Their religion, their God. It makes no sense today,” the gendarme explained to her. He tilted his head down, as though she were a child.
“Well, it’s their right,” she said, her voice like watered-down coffee. Where had the men had gone, and would they come back, start asking people if they were Jewish again?
“You are American?” asked the man.
She shook her head. “Please don’t arrest me,” she said, trying to smile.
He laughed. “You are funny. My name is Jean. And yours?”
She introduced herself in French. He shook her hand, apologized again for the men’s behavior. She tried to change the subject. “What is good to eat near here?”
“I am not working,” said the cop. “I’ll take you for falafel. The best in the world?”
“Oh,” she said. At least it wasn’t jail.
“Come eat, Amy, eh?”
His face was handsome, even if he was officious, snotty and possibly an anti-Semite. One could hardly demur when a cop, albeit a non-menacing one, insisted on a free meal. She felt herself blushing as she followed him like a trained poodle to L’As Du Falafel, Lenny Kravitz’s preferred falafel joint. She’d flipped past it in her guidebook, uninterested in eating food that wasn’t French. It was nice to be led.
Jean — since he patrolled the area — knew the owner. He maneuvered them to the counter, motioned a guy over, ordered her a falafel platter. The relief she felt to have someone else take charge, steer her, battled with her need to be on guard. So she answered his questions with cautious monosyllables, striving to find the French words. “Oui.” “Non.”
But then the food came. He watched as she bit and made a pleasure-struck face. If one ate Falafel in Paris with a handsome man, did the taste improve?
“Better than Israel, than New York,” he said. Like everything in Paris, except her daughter, the food was pliant, buttery. And so, to her surprise, was the conversation. Between bites, they spoke of what she had sampled in Paris. Soon Amy unloaded on Jean without reserve, in English, about baguettes, croissants, coffee, meat and desserts. She moved on to art, architecture, even the clouds above the skyline. He beamed, nodded.
“You had a wonderful week,” he said. “You understand my city.”
Amy shook her head. “It’s more complicated,” she said. “My daughter, she is… difficult. I wish she had a father around.” Had she just hinted that she was single on purpose?
“Children,” he said. “They are all that way, no?”
Amy laughed. “Perhaps.”
Jean paid for her — God, when was the last time that happened? And then he scrawled some numbers on a napkin. “Here is my mobile number. Send an SMS. We get a drink tomorrow before you go back to New York.” He tapped three times on her wrist, which seemed like a come-on, at least judging by the pulse it sent through her body.
“Okay,” she said with a shy smile. She could forget the way he had made those poor proselytizers flee, maybe. They parted, and he kissed her on both cheeks, which was nice, too.
“France!” she said to the wind. Sated by the food, thrilled by what had just happened, Amy began to wander back towards the Place de Vosges. Only imagine — her suspicions that Maddy and Charlene were holding her back, man-wise, had been right.
Two blocks later, she saw her sparring partner, the black-hatted Hassid whose finger had been in her face. He looked young, and morose.
He saw her, too. His face, pale and intense, slackened. She approached him, and he waited.
“American,” he said. “Do you want to have sex? You are very beautiful.”
“I ask for sex,” he hissed, softly. Furtive, he hid beneath his hat.
Amy blinked, embarrassed at the desire that his blunt, awkward proposition had immediately awakened in her, right on the heel of Jean’s pressure on her wrist. This Tefillin-pusher was probably twenty-five, thirty, tops.
“I am here tomorrow,” he said. He looked around like a criminal. “Secret.”
Amy shook her head, nodded, shook her head, and then nodded. By the time she had stopped moving her chin around like a broken Ferris wheel, he had passed on, and so she walked on, too.
But with another block behind her, she had to stop. She leaned against a wall and laughed until her eyes teared. “What the fuck?” she said to no one. Possibly it had little to do with her charms; possibly French men simply assumed American women, alone, picking quarrels on the street, were easy.
She looked around for any more men, any more propositions, lying in wait.
That’s when her eyes lit on Maddy standing under the arcade at the corner of the Place Des Vosges. Craning her neck, gazing at the red buildings that ringed the square, Maddy didn’t appear notably American or chubby. She looked, instead, like a woman in harmony with her surroundings.
Then the spell broke. “Mom! We found you! We wanted to have a picnic to surprise you, but we were intimidated by the grocery store,” said Maddy, rushing over. “So we looked in the book and there’s this place, the world’s greatest falafel,” said Charlene, from behind Maddy. “Lenny Kravitz eats there.” She shrugged, affably.
Charlene was lazy, Amy decided. They could have assembled a picnic if they’d tried harder. But she said nothing. She put an arm around Maddy, kissing her daughter’s hair, letting Charlene snap their picture. They could caption it: “restoration of peace.”
“Look, Maddy,” she said, pointing upwards. “These were real palaces.”
As the sun slid away, Amy donned her coat. They walked back to the Marais. With one day left in Paris, she might go on a date, or two. She could have a rendezvous with a sinning Hassid, drink with a hot policeman. She could get laid. She could get laid, twice! She could get laid twice, eat croissants afterwards, and wash them down with wine.
She laughed out loud, and Maddy said, “What is it, Mom? Tell!”
Of course, she could also spend tomorrow with Mickey Mouse and watch her daughter take pleasure from his stupid beret.
Charlene and Maddy walked ahead, and Amy silently felt the twilight embrace of Paris, which she’d never see in entirety. Unbidden, the full memory of that long-ago afternoon with Tony returned to her; she had wanted to wait on line for the Musee D’Orsay so she could see fabled Impressionist canvasses. Tony, looking at the queue around the block had said, “Amy, I have only so many hours here. Am I going to stand, waiting to see some paintings, or am I going to walk with you along this river? Let’s split.”
She’d consented, but then, halfway to Notre Dame she’d stopped, angry at him. Furious, even.
“Shit, Tony, I wanted to see those paintings. Why did you bully me into leaving? Why don’t you appreciate culture, you Philistine?”
She’d raised a finger, to lecture him. And just then, to muffle her harangue, he had taken her hand and twirled her.
Sarah Marian Seltzer is a journalist, essayist, and fiction writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in many online and print publications. For more, find her at sarahmseltzer.com and tweeting too much at @sarahmseltzer.
Ali S. Qadeer is a graphic designer and educator based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Unlike this piece, most of his work focuses on independent publishing culture and explores the intersections between print and web. For more, visit the artist online at work.iamasq.ca or on Twitter.
Fake Chatter is a 4-piece post-rock band based out of a small, insufficiently soundproofed room in Brooklyn known as the Thunder Palace. Formed in the summer of 2013 when Devin Kelly (keyboards) responded to a Craigslist ad from Chris Johns (guitar/vocals), the band quickly recruited Michael Thies (bass), Tom Hinton (drums), and Will Hagle (guitar), to round out the lineup. Showcasing a melodic and atmospheric blend of post-rock and punk, Fake Chatter released their first 2-song EP, alsace & lorraine, in August 2014. Following that release, the band began playing shows around New York at venues such as Pianos, Cake Shop, and Pete’s Candy Store. Fake Chatter released their second 2-song EP, leonard, in February 2015. Find the band’s live schedule here, check them out on Facebook and be sure to download/stream both EPs on Bandcamp.