I am killing time, walking through the international terminal, when it hits. I go to a window, watch the jets take off and land over the looping freeway interchanges, and sob in a cold panic. I call my best friend, and her voice has that tone it had three years before when I called to say I was quitting life: a tone of calm concern covering terror; leery, cautious, approaching slowly so as not to spook. She asks why I’m panicking and I tell her I don’t know, but I do: I am afraid to be alive — actually alive. I am going to Paris in an hour and only three years ago, practically to the day, I was on the floor of an apartment in Queens, vibrating with the need to not be anymore. I am afraid that traveling — living — will crack me open too wide. I am made for death, I am built of death, I have known this since I was 10 years old, and that sort of thing can’t do this sort of thing. Too much life will rush in and the center won’t hold.
I’d booked this trip just as the fog of my breakdown had finally lifted and it seemed like there might finally be a light at the end of the tunnel I’d been living in for 38 years. A coworker’s news about a fluke-cheap ticket to Paris seemed like a meaningful coincidence, so I did something I’d never done: chose the forbidden fruit of the optimistic. A month later a life-or-death election went the direction of the latter, and I felt like a fool. It seemed sickly apropos, the ultimate gotcha in a life full of them — I finally figure out how to navigate my own world just as the wider one falls spectacularly to pieces.
I spent inauguration weekend down an internet rabbit hole of Paris research — anything to avoid the American reality unfolding on TV. A travel-averse friend sent me a Paris episode of an old Anthony Bourdain travel show, with a text that read, “This is the only thing that’s ever made me want to actually go there.” Bourdain’s no-bullshit, just-a-dude way felt like the perfect antidote to what was roiling around in my brain. I watched hungrily as he talked about simply wandering the Parisian streets — that wandering was inherent to the place, maybe moreso than anywhere else, and that it was restorative, even a bit decadent. He made it seem like to simply exist in this city was to get some glimpse into what life was for, and that sounded like as close to what I needed — as close to emphatically not being here — as I could get.
My Airbnb was an unassuming building on the outskirts of Montmartre with a bright red door that reminded me of the blue one in Notting Hill. Alban, the wacky-haired, smiley hipster owner was about as conversant in English as I am in French, and we chuckled at our linguistic incompetence as he showed me the tricky boiler that failed if you set it below 11 and warned about the crooked floorboards that were prone to trip you at night. It already felt like another world. “What you will do your first day in Paris?” he asked in his thick accent, and I looked at him blankly as I realized I hadn’t thought about it. He directed me to a café up the street with great onion soup and rattled off a few bars nearby, then shuffled to the door with his duffel bag, stopping short just as he reached it. “Ah! I just remember: a tour of walking for you.” His face was child-like excited as he went to his closet and brought out a book of maps, opening it to a dog-eared page with a snaking route marked in pink highlighter. “Because you do not know what you do? I make this tour. You will see the best things of Montmartre.” He gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up, excited to use a bit of American patois, and patted my shoulder. “Bon sejour, Shjohn.”
I came out the bright red door and felt it again for the first time: that rush of panic from the airport. I was here, and I was alone, and just like Bourdain had said, this charming Frenchman and this utilitarian corner of Paris with its pharmacy and miniature Carrefour supermarket and Vespa repair shop, felt different and beautiful, and I found it overwhelming. I thought about turning around and going to sleep until tomorrow— it was about to rain anyway — but I remembered the directive to amble, felt the lump of Alban’s map book in my bag, and did what I was told. I went to the café and had the soup, so good it was like a different dish altogether, then wandered up into the hills of Montmartre, past ancient stairways and houses, a cabaret Steve Martin wrote a play about, the café from Amélie, the hulking white ghost of the Sacré Coeur.
It began to rain, so I bought an umbrella and kept wandering, so long that night fell. I found myself at a dead-end on the edge of a bluff where all of Paris stretched out below: diagonal strands of light jutting from glowing roundabouts, tiny twinkling boats drifting down the distant river, the sweeping searchlight of the Eiffel Tower, all of it almost cliché from millions of movies and photographs and Chanel ads, and yet another world entirely.
My stomach dropped like the first hill of a rollercoaster. This is real. This exists. It always has, through it all — childhood, madness, brushes with oblivion, everything afterward and everything before. This has always been here. It has stayed.
I stayed. I am here.
I cried there in the dark until I ran out, then crept down the ancient stairway beside me. As if by magic, it led me back to Alban’s bright red door.
Every morning I awoke with the same internal monologue.
Get up. You’re in Paris. There’s only so many days left. Go to the Musée D’Orsay. Go see the Arc de Triomphe. Go, go, go, time is finite time is running out you don’t know how much longer you have you don’t know if you’ll ever be here again go, go, go.
And then, what Bourdain said. No, amble. Wander. Loiter, even. Take time.
So I’d get up, mash my embarrassingly American Dodgers hat over my bedhead, and walk down the hill to Au Pain D’Antan for croissants. I’d cram them with ham and cheese and raspberry confiture, and marvel at how something so simple could be so delicious while staring into the courtyard outside Alban’s kitchen, memorizing the cracks in the plaster and the green algae stains from a hundred-or-two years of raindrops, wondering how many people had lived behind each window. One morning I just opened the cupboard above where I’d made breakfast and read the French food packages while I ate. Huh, they have Uncle Ben’s rice in France; the box says “Toujours un succès,” instead of “Perfect every time” like at home. “Always a success” instead of “Perfect every time,” like an amble toward an unbothered, non-committal “good enough.” Even French rice boxes give you leeway to just do your thing.
After breakfast, I’d wander. In fact, it’s all I did. Just walked and looked and stopped to observe and then walked some more. One morning it was pouring rain so I went to the Musée de Cluny, but when I left it had stopped raining, so I went back to wandering: past the Sorbonne, an ancient church, a Roman amphitheater that was now just a park where kids played soccer and an old man read Le Monde. I meandered for hours down narrow passageways and winding streets and ended up at a bistro, where I met a man who led me back to his house around the corner. I let him lead me to things I hadn’t let anyone lead me to in years, since before I’d broken apart. I let him kiss me, and then touch me, and then fuck me. I let him talk to me under blankets for hours afterwards, about where we were from and where we’d been and who we were and what we might be. I let his cat nuzzle me even though I’m allergic, and tried and failed to explain why it was so funny that he was named Garfield, and that the naughty, willful Jack Russell I’d met the day before was named Snoopy, how these cool cultural references in France would be so embarrassingly lame back in the States. The explanation was beyond my language skills and he didn’t get it, but he thought it was funny that I thought it was funny, and we laughed about that until Garfield climbed onto my chest and meowed for attention.
The morning of my flight home, I awoke in the hotel I’d booked for my final night to find the buildings across the street lit so perfectly I ended up out onto the balcony before I’d even remembered to put on clothes. The sunlight was slanting through the buildings of the Avenue Sécretan in a way so magical it seemed put-on, like a movie set. And yet there it was, this perfect morning with perfect light and the perfect amount of haze to show it off. It filled my heart and broke it. I felt in my bones how I seemed to have healed a life in just one week of living, and, I guess, how I hadn’t: When it’s time, I thought, I’m going to die here.
“Was it amazing? What’d you do?” my friends breathlessly asked when I got home. I thought of Bourdain on YouTube wandering streets and markets and back-alley restaurants, meeting random strangers, rhapsodizing about “life” and “pleasure” and “living” as only the French know how to do. And I thought of myself crying in Montmartre, laughing in the man’s bed, filling up and emptying out like a tide on that balcony in the 19th with the perfect foggy dawn.
“Nothing and everything,” I replied.