I still remember the glow from the clock. Little green numbers. 2:33 AM.
The only other light was coming from those awful industrial lamps, the ones that only illuminate a small area. Sketchy spotlights. It was nearly fifteen years ago and I was waiting in a dark, secluded parking lot with my mom.
My head was gently resting against the car window. I tried not to doze, as today was special. It was the day I had been waiting for since school let out for summer.
Because today, I met Marion.
When my seventh grade Spanish teacher asked if anyone would be interested in hosting a foreign exchange student, I jumped at it. After the last bell, I rushed home and begged, BEGGED my parents to consider.
They agreed, with just one condition.
“It has to be a girl,” my father had said firmly, taking a long sip of water.
I volunteered my bedroom and started planning. As an idealistic, imaginative 12 year old girl, there was nothing more exciting than the chance to make a new friend from another country. I filled out all the necessary paperwork and tried to sell our space the best I could.
A friendly family of six that was willing to host. A house in the country with the dog. She’d have her own bedroom, a quiet space with just a N’SYNC poster to remind her she wasn’t at home.
The bus finally pulled up. The crowd of other sleepy, yet eager families perked up as the lights inside the coach went on. I spotted her immediately. Like her picture, she had short brown hair. A warm smile. She recognized me as well, a short, mousey looking girl.
Tangled, dirty blonde hair. A slightly crooked grin. Big eyes.
We waved at each other, and for the next couple of weeks, Marion and I were inseparable. We stayed up late talking about everything from what Americans and French people ate for breakfast to Taylor and Zach Hanson. We went on vacation to Thousand Islands.
I was crushed when she left.
For the years following, our families stayed in touch with Christmas cards and the occasional note. It was Facebook that helped me find her again, enabled me to reignite a friendship with just one short message:
“I’m coming to Paris.”
Now in my early 20s, I stood outside St. Christopher’s Hostel in Paris, waiting. I was sleepy this time, too. It was partially because I had been up working late, but also, emotional exhaustion. A two weeks earlier, I had left my boyfriend in England.
Idealists, we had sought out our European backpacking with feverish excitement. But as the trip went on, we suffered through silent bus rides and awkward, post argument walks back to our various hostels. The reasons we decided to break up half-way into the trip are unimportant now, but at the time, pretty stereotypical for a young, newish and overcommitted couple.
After days of being frustrated about at him, I opted to hop a train out of Marlow, the small, English town we had been house-sitting in. Before the doors shut, he rushed on briefly, grabbing my arm.
“I love you,” he had said.
Then he got off the train.
The evening before, sitting in the bar area of the Parisian hostel, the memory of him rushing through the closing doors played over and over. Swigging a glass of cheap red wine, I attempted to explain to my co-worker, Jasmin, how I knew Marion, an explanation immediately followed with –
“You’re going to stay at her house… and you haven’t seen her in fifteen years?”
A Volkswagen pulled up and the same girl – short brown hair, a friendly smile, waved at me from her car.
Apparently, I was.
My first night with my former exchange student was filled with heavy pours and non-stop talk. Nibbling on unfamiliar cheeses and crackers, we crammed fifteen years into just a few short hours, covering everything from family updates to preferences in music. Marion’s husband made his best effort to keep up with our quick back and forth Gilmore-esqe chatter.
(Insert my modern day co-worker Chris interrupting this story to yell “girl conversation!”)
We went on and on, gesturing wildly, almost spilling the off-white, bubbly wine sloshing around in our glasses. Laurent, perhaps wise beyond his years, had paired our delicious Parisian dinners with bottles from his personal collection. This inevitably resulted in a long-winded conversation about the texture, taste, color of various French wines.
And a serious buzz. At one point during the evening, we somewhat drunkenly Skyped with my parents.
When I told him I couldn’t wait to get to Italy to drink, this only spurred up another passionate conversation as he insisted (with his French accent) that French wine was much better than any Italian wine.
Their French flat was dimly lit with a few candles, I remember. It fit the mood, a romantic mindset with flutters of excitement as it sunk in where I was. This was paired with occasional, heart stretching feelings of faint loneliness as Marion described how she met Laurent, how they fell in love, when they married.
As I drifted off to sleep that night, I could still hear them talking – little bits of words that sounded decadent, heavy.
I awoke the next morning with a headache. Sunlight poured into the window, streams of light streaked over their young daughter’s La Petite Prince poster. I rolled off the air mattress lazily, stalking out into the hallway in just a t-shirt.
I’d be home alone today while the couple was at work, I recalled them saying.
My mind wandered to the evening before, the city’s strange Parisian magic lingered. The sensation that was nearly palpable, best described as electricity in the air. Similar to static. The tingle right before you touch a door handle, knowing that you’re about to get –
The buzzer rang.
Puzzled, I walked over to the intercom. Marion had showed me how to use it, a lesson I had thought unnecessary at the time. It started to make sense as my finger trembled, pushing the button that would trigger the video, the black and white image that flickered as I realized the person at the door…
… was my ex-boyfriend.
Looking back, it was the first cheeky little trick the city would play on me.
For the next few days, we let Paris wash over us. We explored, wandered, and played with their adorable (two years old at the time) daughter, Lou. She was fascinated with my tattoo, and burst into giggles for seemingly no reason.
She would rub her face after kissing Mike on the cheek, intrigued by his beard. When I returned years later, unfortunately, Lou was not as fascinated with Americans. During that first visit, however, she’d squeal “ooooo!” in delight, brushing her little hand along Mike’s face.
We lounged beneath the Eiffel Tower, a sight was so magnificent, it brought tears to my eyes. We pigged out on chocolate croissants, swung by street cafes for cheap glasses of red (that was mostly me), and occasionally argued in front of French landmarks. Days were spent exploring new neighborhoods, nights clumsily following Marion and Laurent’s quick-paced conversations in French.
One of my favorite things was seeing Versailles. I was speechless, in awe of the magnificent space. Then the audio tour mentioned something about grand balls being held there, and Mike and I started giggling like 12 year olds.
We sat on the steps of Versailles with Marion and sampled flavors of macaroons, (fancy french cookies). A heavenly taste, except for the rose ones. As Marion warned us, they tasted like soap.
My filmy, Coppola admiring self daydreamed, imagining myself in Kirsten Dunst/ Marie Antoinette era garb. Prancing around the Hall of Mirrors, tall hair, and beautiful, porcelain pale skin.
And of course, lots and lots of shoes.
Marion and I were ecstatic when we realized a mutual appreciation for Vanessa Paradis and the French chick flick Heartbreaker. We discussed it, sitting outside on her porch, then leaning in and whispering to each other when Laurent and Mike walked away. We sipped wine and laughed and laughed, as if we had been doing it for years.
(The language barrier obviously didn’t prevent endless conversations about typical girl things.)
One afternoon, Marion brought us to her family home. They spoke very little English, but before long, I was laughing along with her parents about Marion’s visit to America. We looked at a journal, letters, and photos from her American adventure, reminiscing about the experience.
I promised her I’d be back, with friends or family, and told Laurent we’d go to the French wine country. His parting gifts were heavy bottles of his favorite wines (pictured below). I gave Lou a hug and kiss goodbye, knowing the next time I saw her, she wouldn’t be as tiny and would be speaking fluent French.
On one of our last afternoons, we decided to stroll over one of the bridges over the Seine. Locks hung from the various rungs, simple declarations of love and devotion. I read a few of them, snapping a few pictures of the more interesting or amusing ones.
In my hand, I held a cheap, novelty lock, purchased from one of the local stands.
With exception to having a marvelous adventure at midnight (that would happen a few years later), and hanging with Fitzgerald, I thought about how Paris had so romantically and somewhat heartbreakingly, lived up to my expectations.
Still not knowing where I stood, perhaps just not in this relationship but also in life, I scribbled a simple, yet still meaningful message on the smooth surface.
That was enough for now.