On Never Going Back – A Short Story by Jill Culiner
In the winter of 1973, I fell madly (and briefly) in love with Jean-Paul. I thought he was beautiful. His face was broad with high flat cheekbones, his eyes were green and downward slanting, his beard soft and red. We lived together in Paris, in a closet, which was odd, but also amusing and romantic. Home is where the heart is.
There was no place to move around in that closet, and our narrow mattress was wedged in between three walls. There was a tiny window, really no more than an air hole; and our clothes hung from nails. Because of the lack of space, the bed was not only a chaos of twisted sheets, but socks, sweaters, jeans, books, writing paper and pencil stubs could also be found between the blankets.
Jean-Paul was very brilliant. He designed airplanes. It never did cross my mind to ask why someone who designed airplanes lived in a closet. In any case, I wouldn’t have understood the answer. Jean-Paul spoke French, but no English. I spoke English, but no French.
The closet was in the apartment of Stavros and Marcel. Marcel rarely left his room, but spent his hours writing plays and scenarios that he sent off to producers who rejected them. Stavros claimed he was finishing a degree in sociology at the Sorbonne, but he didn’t seem to spend any time there.
“We all like to think we are artists here in Paris,” he once said. “That it is nice to have no money, that we will all write books one day. But we spend all our time in cafés, eating and drinking. We produce nothing.”
Perhaps it was just as well Jean-Paul and I couldn’t communicate. Other than our mutual highly emotional state, we had nothing in common. He went off to ski in the mountains; I had never skied, and had no desire to do so. He ice skated; I’d had quite enough ice skating in my school days. I adored sitting in fuggy smoke-filled cafés with Stavros, Christian, Janos, Pierre, all the others, listening to long incomprehensible conversations; Jean-Paul hated cafés. He preferred staying home, waxing his skis. Like Marcel, I wrote compulsively, but I don’t remember ever seeing Jean-Paul with a book.
Very early in the morning, when it was still dark, I would watch Jean-Paul dress then go wash in the kitchen — the only sink was there, and it was always filled with dirty dishes, cups, forgotten soggy food lumps. Then we’d go down the three flights of stairs and out into the icy streets.
The first stop was the warm, yellow bakery on the corner. Madame would hand us two pain aux raisins, so hot they burnt our fingertips through their waxy paper.
“Bonne journée,” she’d call.
Then we’d walk quickly up the Boulevard d’Alésia while cars roared by, and shopkeepers set out their wares: bloody meats, tiny piglets, their mouths filled with parsley, dead boars with bloody noses, gentle deer, rabbits skinned to their furry paws.
He would drink a small bitter coffee at the Porte d’Orléans, shake hands, joke and laugh with his colleagues before they all boarded the bus that would carry them into the morning. And I returned home, waited for the real day to begin with its round of cafés, laughter, flirts, and invitations to lunch.
Jean-Paul took me home one weekend, to the town where he had grown up and the small unlovely apartment where his parents still lived. In my ancient car (an Austin Cambridge) we drove along a quiet highway bordered by thick forests, passed appealing little villages with cafés, shops, and cows strolling casually out to pasture on muddy lanes. His mother, a cleaner, was shy, but I did my best, tried out the first few words of my new language; his father was a silent man. We ate in the kitchen, and I watched as Jean-Paul made the salad: crisp green leaves, olive oil, mustard, vinegar, salt. So simple, so good, especially to me, coming from a country where dressings were products that came out of bottles.
Only his bedroom was a disappointment: a poster picture of a couple silhouetted against a setting sun, a slap of decorative fishnet. Nothing else. How could this have been the room of my beautiful wonderful lover? But outside was a different world. Medieval streets, buildings with a crumbling patina, grey thick fog, light rain. A cobbled road led to a green field, to the tumbling wall of an old castle. A man approached through the mist, his frolicking dog at his side. This is the most splendid moment of my life, I remember thinking.
Our clothes steamed in the heat of a brown café. Jean-Paul ordered something harsh and clear to drink; he chatted with old friends. Back out in the street, the drizzle continued. We passed an old building.
“Regarde,” said Jean-Paul. “Regarde. Là dedans. Je suis né là. Tu comprends?”
In there? In that very room? Right in there, my marvellous Jean-Paul was born? Incredible.
“Any day now we will do something else,” said Jean Paul. “We will run away, leave the city. We will become shepherds and live in the rocky forgotten countryside of France.”
Marcel, his baby face pink with exasperation, announced that neighbours had complained that four people were living in an apartment rented only to two. Jean-Paul and I would have to go.
“I will find us a place to live,” he said.
“Why don’t you come live with me instead,” said Stavros later. “I can find us our own apartment. I can pay for one. Jean-Paul can’t.”
“Why can’t he? He designs airplanes.”
“Who told you that? He is only a draughtsman at an aeronautics company. And apartments, even one room apartments, are very expensive.”
“Is this true?” I asked Jean-Paul.
“Of course it is. You will have to settle down, get a job. Contribute.”
What work could I find? I had no working papers; I wasn’t in the country legally. I could, by now, understand what people were saying, but only incompletely.
“And you’ll have to start living like other people do,” said Jean-Paul. “Start eating meat. Stop putting chilli peppers on everything. Stop spending all your time with the others, in restaurants, cafés. Learn to stay at home.” Jean-Paul showed me what that meant. He ate food from tins, finished his meals with ancient morsels of cheese fished out from the back of the refrigerator.
“That’s not the sort of lifestyle I want,” I complained. It was the picture of mediocrity. Did I want a job? Steadiness? Tin can meals? Of course not. Life was in front of me.
“You’ll have to find out how to regularize your situation,” he insisted. “And why don’t you start doing something healthy? Take up a sport.”
“What about becoming shepherds? What about the green hills?”
“Ah, that,” said Jean-Paul dismissively. “That is just a dream.”
Three days ago, a chilly grey winter morning, I returned to Jean-Paul’s former town, determined to find the green road, the castle walls, the fog, all the beauty I’ve remembered for so long. But now, forty-five years later, the road that leads there is no longer a quiet two lane highway, but a roaring major thoroughfare that passes industrial buildings, hypermarkets, do-it-yourself emporiums, and housing estates. The forests have vanished, and remaining trees are scruffy and discouraged, as if they know they are doomed to be wrenched out, make way for more housing estates, more apartments, more industrial buildings. Villages are no longer bustling: cows are locked into barns for the duration of their existence; houses are abandoned, shops and cafés have closed.
In the town, the dreamy landscape is no more. It has become a popular venue, with cheap “medieval” souvenirs, restaurants promising “medieval” specialties. The buildings have been spruced up with cement and modern windows; cafés are bright and unappealing. The charm has gone. It’s a tourist trap like any other, with “authentic medieval” festivals, “medieval” sound and light shows.
Where is the road beside the crumbling wall? Could it have been here, where these new villas stand?
I’ve heard that Jean-Paul eventually became a salesman; Stavros, a company man; that Marcel stopped writing and took over the family business. All must be retired now. I wonder if they remember their dreams?