Exiled to the rooftops, he sat contemplating the late afternoon settling on the skyline of Paris. His shoulders sore from hauling clothes up seven flights of stairs. He’d only been there two days but the ashtray already teemed with tiny butts.
The winter clouds resisted the vernal sun, but evaporated into the eager sky. The bustle of the city echoed below on the streets just above the Grand Boulevards in a neighborhood that he didn’t recognize. In another situation he would have been happy, soaking in the sense of possibility the Parisian spring always promises. As it was, he only felt abandoned.
This wasn’t the first time he had started over. When Sarah had left him years ago he’d ended up living in a van. What a long winter that had been. If nothing else he had a room now, though not much bigger than that damn Dodge. Solitude’s sudden silence hollowed his bones.
Outside the old bâtiment didn’t delude: solid stone, baroque and ornate, it rose high on the hill in the 9th just before Anvers and sister Montmartre after. Even the lobby was luxurious, gold fittings on the heavy iron gate. But behind the crystal entranceway and before the gilded elevator, a door to the left led to the guts of apparent privilege ; a shoddy staircase spiraled up seven floors of service quarters, long converted into individual cages for canaries. Single students sleeping in pigeonholes waiting for the library to open, femmes de ménage and nannies who worked in the adjacent apartments and more than one displaced lover seeking temporary shelter. At least there was light here up top.
He stamped out his cigarette and hopped in from the windowsill. His bags were still disordered, his few belongings in disarray. She had all his books. The room was stark, impersonal; nail studs protruded from the wall over shadows of pictures that must have hung. He thought to put on some music and tidy up, start getting things in order. Clean desk, clean mind. Then remembered he’d left his hard disk with her. And here he had no connection. Goddamned wireless technology. He gave up and went back to the window to smoke.
He looked out and into the hallway window. It was silent. Only the smell of wet sawdust and old hash lingered in the slats of light dropping down from the intermittent skylights. Saturday, and the young were out soaking up the year’s first true rays of sun. The middle-aged women perhaps off chatting through their afternoon in cafés or parks. Either way, they didn’t exist. Tonight he’d probably hear them tromping in from impromptu gatherings on the warming banks of the Seine or weekend dinners hosted in larger, more accommodating apartments. But for now it was only him, high up and grey like a gargoyle overlooking the city.
He thought about the last three years of his life with Lilah, a sweet dark-eyed girl from Greece. What a disaster. She’d come to Paris out of desperation, either from a lack of opportunities at home or from her intuition that he wouldn’t wait for her any longer. He still wasn’t sure. At first, they’d done it a long-distance, with emails and the occasional phone call. Bimonthly visits then followed, either he in Athens for work or she in Paris on vacation. Then one day she’d packed her bags and shown up on his doorstep. The first few years weren’t that bad.
They’d explored the city together, been to museums and eaten sandwiches in the park. She loved the flowers in the Luxemburg Gardens, he the fall leaves in Père Lachaise. They dined at bargain restaurants, found the cheapest beer. They spent all their time together, when he wasn’t teaching and she waiting tables. They’d both almost given up trying to find other friends. In a city like Paris, decent company is hard to come by. Lots of interesting people, sure. But people come, people go. Friends for a year before they’re called back home or swept off on some new adventure. Only native Parisians get stuck here for the long haul. And native Parisians are harsh beasts. Having a stable confidante is a question of survival. Someone you don’t have to introduce yourself to, someone who remembers your name. Someone who splits the rent. Yes, the first few years weren’t that bad.
But this last winter had killed him. After months in a tailspin, fighting off the cold and mold of their nine hundred and fifty euro a month four by four dungeon, Lilah decided that she needed to move on. She needed to be herself and make it on her own. He remembered doing that not too long ago. How long ago was it? The idea of spending his nights alone made his stomach churn. Or the fact he hadn’t eaten since she’d left.
He didn’t want to even think about going out, meeting people – pretending to be young. He was sick of that same conversation : how long have you been here, what do you do, ah really, I worked with someone who studied there too, do you know so and so and on and on and so forth and on. Their formalities wore his patience thin. Now she was gone too. Fucking hell. He chuck his butt into the breeze and declared himself misanthropist.