by Sonya Ribner | December 14, 2022
Thomas settles into the most lived-in velvet on the train and says that he and Noelle might break up.
I acknowledge the information with a nod and lift and lower the ball of my foot on the metro’s rubber flooring. The train’s pretty deserted. Thomas keeps pushing back the time he picks me up. He doesn’t care when we eat because it’ll happen at some point. When he talks about his relationship like he wants me to have an opinion, it seems like a challenge.
“Where do we get off?” I face him and think about my smile.
“Stalingrad’s next,” he replies. He brings up the gallery show he came from before this and observes that the metro car looks like one of the photos. “Life intimidating art,” he says. Not sure if he deliberately got the idiom wrong. Thomas showing me the ‘real’ Paris is the pretext for these Thursday nights when we deviate from the straight line of our otherwise unaligned schedules.
December slaps us in the face when we exit the station. Yellow skies slide into a dark blue that hangs from scraggly branches and slips into exchanges made in Jardin d’Éole. We grab a bite on La Villette Basin. The hostess checks our passe sanitaire, we’re the cutest couple she’s ever seen, and he winks at me. They’ve stopped serving, but for us, us, she’ll make an exception. On the outdoor terrace, a dying heat lamp flickers above Thomas and me. He orders a beer – “Want one?”
“I’m fine, thanks.” And when our chilly soups arrive, Thomas says he cheated on Noelle with Marie: “Very much a Covid thing. I’d been with Noelle for so long, and Marie…,” he sips the beer and swishes it around his mouth, “Well, same with her boyfriend.”
Marie and I met during my first week in Paris at Thomas’s soirée. She stole my hand from a cheese plate and whirled me into her orbit. It gave a this-might-work-after-all kick of hope to my decision to study abroad, like inserting the final screw into an IKEA set-up. That night, Thomas said Marie and I should be friends.
“So when you said that Noelle doesn’t like Marie…?”
Thomas dips bread in my soup and bites into it. He says, “I feel like you and I know a lot about each other, but we’re not that close.” I never know if he’s very direct or if he just doesn’t have the right vocabulary to be indirect.
“I think we’re close.”
He glances at my interlaced hands on the table. “Not even wine?”
“Why do you keep asking?”
“You’ll enjoy the jazz more.” The club doesn’t charge at the door on Thursdays because the performers who study at the conservatory nearby get paid in alcohol. “Although it’s not very good.”
“It’s not that surprising.”
“Yes, well it’s free.” He’s slightly offended when he thinks I agree.
“No,” I look straight at him. “You, Marie, Noelle. I’m not surprised.”
Marie yanks back the door to her Montrouge studio and throws her arms around me. Her bergamot and lilac wrap around our embrace. “Thomas isn’t coming, by the way.” I’m not sure why she whispers that as she hands me a bottle of champagne filled with sparkling water. She adds, “Make sure I don’t get with Louis. He’s starting to take me seriously.”
Louis is the kind of person who translates niche food items on menus for me when we all go out, without making me feel bad, so I dislike that Marie makes me an accomplice in rendering his actions meaningless.
Étienne sashays across the room and wraps his arm around me. “Meuf, you left this at the bar yesterday.” He slips my lighter into my clutch with one hand and twirls me with the other. Étienne studies Classics. Words like philology and hermeneutics mean something to him so he moves quick and often to stop himself from overthinking.
“Been looking everywhere – thanks.”
He grips the kitchen counter and leans forward. “But you don’t smoke?”
“A special person gave it to me.” No one ever questions that.
Every quarter-hour, laughter rises an octave and music gets more relevant. Someone protests against going out at all because the vibe is so good here, but Louis fires back that we’ve been in lockdown for a whole fucking year so we’re not missing a chance, tonight is the rave. And Marie is cosmic after midnight – that very unique joie de vivre of a ballerina who busted her ankle and had to quit her passion for a degree in Biomedical Sciences. More dancing, ket for anyone who wants on the kitchen counter, people filling reusable bottles with vodka. Étienne slurs in my ear this is a catastrophe. He claps his hands, “Mask up bitches!” All fourteen of us file out of the apartment and board the 8 to Lourmel.
When we arrive, the storage facility appears deserted. Up-tempo techno thrums something low and ill-defined. Marie and I wander towards the indigo glow ahead and start to sense the simmer of people losing their minds together. Ultraviolet on the walls reveals: JE PENSE PAS, DONC JE SUIS CONTENT. Louis rushes Marie from behind, she kisses him hard, and he ropes her into the rave’s indistinct heartbeat. I should follow, be a good friend and all, but maybe that’d be overcrowding, so I hang back.
Étienne snags my hand and weaves to where his boyfriend has carved out dance space for our friends. And, of course, Thomas is here.
“You have more of a social life than I do.” He’s continuously surprised by me, and I can’t figure why I feel accomplished for clearing the hurdle of his underestimations.
“Who’d you come here with?” I ask. He knows the subtext.
The plainness of blue jeans and a white tee gives Thomas a dependable look against other people’s variations of black and the jerks of an ever-changing BPM. “Look at Marie!” He points to her making out with a girl I’ve never seen. “Really in the moment. She got this way after she broke up with her boyfriend for me.” His eyes always start a sentence that he waits on me to finish, telling me to do something, to act, to do it, and to do it now.
“If I split with Noelle, I’ll probably go wild too.” Thomas guides me into the centre until we can’t avoid colliding. He drops his head to my shoulder, hair grazes my neck, smooth lips going up, up.
I look over and around Thomas for Étienne but only find tightly packed bodies and the sweaty spaces between their curves.
“You look tired,” Thomas says.
“Want a drink?”
“No.” I move in closer to him. “Is Noelle here?”
Thomas dances and nods – half to me, half to the people around us.
I start to edge away through the crowd over to the musty wall in a no man’s land of the rave. I sink into my craving for a drink. I must be an optimist because these things are always better in my head. I stopped having alcohol a few months ago when I realised that I relied on it to make me fun, but that it also explained my inability to control the things around me. It’s hard on these nights, because that burn chews me out and makes me aware of all the space I take up, and that I’m not having fun.
Now we’re veering toward 4am and an aimless contempt. Alcohol tiptoes on the dark side of our subconscious. No one assumes responsibility for every little big thing we wanted to happen tonight that didn’t happen. Marie texts, let’s go, and I trudge out to find her.
“Hi.” She’s slouched against a trash can and pats the cold concrete for me to sit down. “Je me suis pris un râteau ce soir.”
“You hit yourself with a rake?”
“No!” Marie lets out a hard laugh, “No.” More pensive. “I got rejected.”
I offer my hand. “Louis?”
“Never Louis.” She staggers to her feet and throws her arm around me. “This guy said he liked me, but tonight? Let it go. I wasn’t in love, but it hurts. I get why you don’t drink.”
“That’s not really it.”
Marie throws me a side-eye, “Big night?”
I scruff her hair, and a smile gets the best of her. “Why’d you mention Thomas before?”
“Back at the apartment. Did he say something to you?”
Marie giggles to herself. “J’ai dit. This guy.”
We walk through the early morning, crisp with fresh rain. Soft halos encircle yellow streetlamps. Back at my building, Marie drags her feet on the carpeting of the fourth-floor hallway and says she feels dirty. We head into the shower room where the glint from the dinky bulb is cruel to our self-images but we’re past caring. She tears her clothes off, turns the faucet on, and sinks to the brownish tile, trembling. I run to warm the bread, and when I’m back, she stares at the toast as if it’s the biggest decision she’ll ever make, then retches. I comb her hair back with my fingers and bring the crust of the bread to her lips.
Eventually we shuffle back to bed. She snuggles into the sheets. By the time my makeup’s off, Marie’s asleep. I peel off the comforter and lay beside her.
I didn’t know that Marie hooked up with Thomas for a second time as I stood in line at Carrefour City, clutching Sprite and a package of Le Petit Beurre to my chest. The person behind me lifts their chin so that I move forward because I’m still in my headphone-slumber-airplane-mode. I twist my tongue around my dry mouth and walk slowly to self-checkout, rubbing crud from last night out of my eye.
When I get back to my place, Marie tells me that it happened again a couple weeks ago like she’s trying to prove a point. She laughs short and coarse and pours some of the Sprite into one of the glasses on my dresser. She exhales after another gulp and says she appreciates me getting the soda and biscuits, and also that it’s frustrating how being a student makes you less generous, never knowing if you’ll get anything back.
I often think about how close Thomas and I sit on the train together, as though it excuses why when people talk about him it sounds personal to me. It’s a closeness that’s different to what we have when we dance. I rub the nape of my neck.
Marie and I do la bise and agree to check out some guided film viewing happening at the university soon. I go to my desk and try to focus on a paper I’ve got due tomorrow, but the blank page’s cursor blinks at me one too many times. I’m tired of hearing myself think. I take a book to a café by Saint Sulpice.
Some time passes, and now it’s Thursday night. At 9:47 p.m., Pigalle Station coughs out Thomas and me onto Boulevard Clichy. Loud neon signs find their reds and blues stretched by wet pavement. Soles of the city hopscotch in and out of tonight’s technicolour.
“Did you have a good time at the party the other night?” Thomas asks.
“Noelle and I, of course, got in a fight about whether she should go to my place – well, our place – or her family’s apartment afterwards.”
“Forgot how many students live with parents.” Sometimes I wonder if our company is a means to an end. With us the end always approaches, which is worse than the end itself.
“Cost of living and all.”
He pauses. “We’re probably going to break up.” ∎
Words by Sonya Ribner. Art by Evelyn Homewood.