I woke up this morning thinking of you, Sharon.
It’s almost Christmas, and all of Paris is bedecked in lights. It’s cold, unusually cold for this time of year, but I can put on a few more layers. Besides, the cold suits my mood, so it doesn’t feel strange to me at all. The world is how it should be.
I can see a statue of the Virgin Mary right from my window, all lit up in gold. I like to think she’s protecting me.
I spend most days here just walking. It’s a nice place to walk and think; it helps clear the head of all those hot, worrying thoughts. I keep thinking about how I could write this place down for you, but can never really arrive at anything that sounds right. Besides, you know what this place looks like (or looked like), and I don’t really think anything much has changed. Everywhere I go, I just see memories of us when we were younger.
I went up to Montmartre today to buy myself a silk scarf, and just before I crossed the river, I passed St Paul’s, a church over a pretty little square, and children running and laughing around a glowing Christmas tree. I felt like telling them to savour every moment they have together before the magic runs out, but I don’t say anything. As I was walking further up the hill, chased by their taunting voices, I began to reflect on the cruelty of it all, to allow such innocent children to get the wrong idea about Christmas. All that awaits them is disappointment. Miracles do not happen on Earth.
A part of me hopes they get nothing for Christmas, or that they get turned out into the streets. I’m not trying to be vindictive, it’s just that I think it would be better if they learned the truth about the world before too long. Things get taken away from you – places; people, too. And sometimes you have to be alone, and sometimes it’s better that way. I think we know better than most that these kinds of lessons are more difficult to learn the older you get. It’s just unconscionable that we would mislead them like this.
It’s too cold and foggy and I’m too old to join them, but they did remind me a little of ourselves and our own childhood and how long ago it was when we would have been like that. They are happy memories, Sharon, I don’t deny that at all, but their brightness is dimmed somewhat with the knowledge that we were happy because we didn’t understand anything. I try not to harbour any regrets, though.
Looking back, Sharon, I realise now that I wasn’t at all meant to be a child, controlled by people much older and, so they say, much wiser. There’s no freedom for children. It’s no wonder, really, why I was so miserable. But things are better now; I’ve been traveling all over the world. I feel now, and have felt for some time, the thrill of choosing your own path, walking where you truly wish to walk, traveling where you truly wish to travel, journeying with no end in sight or in mind. I don’t like to stay in one place too long, lest the feeling fades as the world stagnates. It is an exhilarating fear, Sharon, the exhilarating fear of adventure. I’m fulfilling my promise to witness the world.
I was wandering around the streets of Paris and admiring all these historic churches that always look prettier on the outside and I haven’t the conviction to admire the insides because I never feel the repentance or the atonement, perhaps because I never know what to confess or whatever I did confess seemed to be wrong. I will never understand why the preacher laughed in this patronising way when I was nine and I confessed to being a bad granddaughter just after my grandmother died, I never again believed in another word of what he said, and I just don’t understand what was funny and then the laughter and those kids – I really couldn’t get them out of my mind, they returned to me like thought itself and the only way I could disentangle myself from them was by thinking about you.
Sometimes I think I see your face in the edges of my vision, but I turn and you’re never there. A trick of the light, maybe.
There are all sorts of lights hanging up, often draped between buildings for the children and the tourists’ children to enjoy. The rest of us are much older, though, so the appeal has worn away. Even the adults that do like them only like them because they vicariously experience the excitement of their children. I always thought that was a bit stupid because you’ll inevitably vicariously experience their disappointment, too. And then it hurts twice as much because it’s not just their disappointment – it’s yours, too.
It’s just a fact of life: part of being a child is being happy during the holidays and believing that everyone else is happy with you. Part of being an adult is realizing that neither you nor anyone else is truly happy during the holidays. Families fight, tears are shed, all we are left with is the vague hope that next year’s Christmas will be better, and the children will be better behaved and there’ll be the right presents under the tree, and we’ll all finally get along. It doesn’t work out like that, though. I gave up on that hope a long time ago.
To me, all these lights and trees and presents are our annual reminder that sometimes things might really be better if we stayed apart from each other and that sometimes we get in the way of our own happiness with our expectations of peace and joy and our hopes of family and belonging and all that. But still, even all by myself, I feel a little melancholy thinking of all the people who are no longer gathered around the table or looking up at the lights or putting presents under the tree. Just another reason why the holidays can’t really bring us together. I don’t much care for the celebration myself, but I figure that those who do should be able to have their hope and have each other, at least.
You always loved Christmas, didn’t you?
Anyway, I was searching for any shop with silk scarves in the window, not paying as much attention as I should’ve – the fog was very thick, anyways – and it was about then, it must have been, when I was going to cross the road, that a bus almost hit me. It was out of nowhere – just stormed through the fog. I didn’t even hear the wheels. Only a metre separated me and death, Sharon. Just a metre. I was careful to take note of all the buses after that.
There are a few scarves that are quite nice, and one in red coiled around the neck of a faceless figure caught my eye. It reminded me a bit of you, and how you always loved bright colours, so I positioned myself right across from the mannequin, the sheet of glass between us, so that the reflection of my face was right where the mannequin’s would be. Just to see what it would look like on me, I guess. God, I look terrible. Maybe it was the light or the glass or the fog obscured something, but my face was just pale, sallow, drooping, sunken. I look so tired; my eyes look dormant even when open and I thought the red scarf only made me look worse, so I didn’t buy it.
I kept walking around, looking for maybe another colour, something neutral like black or grey or even a navy blue until there’s this little girl all alone walking around in the cold. I really think hard about buying something for her, since she really did seem so cold and I felt so sorry for her – besides, that red scarf was exactly her colour – and at least those other kids in the square had each other and were happy in that place (for now!), but this girl had no one and that was a terrible thing, I thought. It was so cold and she was so alone, that I thought that a gift of a scarf might be the difference between life and death for her, and I really felt the need to protect her somehow, just warm her up or something.
Do you understand?
But I didn’t, in the end, because a part of me felt it was better to not disturb her or frighten her. I’m sure I would have looked like some kind of ghoul. Besides, my French isn’t very good. We stepped past each other, further into the cold.
It’s a bleak winter here, Sharon. I didn’t come to Paris for the weather, I’ll tell you that. It was so cold this morning that the Seine flowed in knots, convulsing under a sheer blanket of fog. Do you remember the summer we spent here when the river flowed like silk? We were young and careless, then, and we behaved like it, too. I don’t think either of us cared that anyone knew it, I don’t even remember being looked at, but we must have been, the way we were running around. They stare at me now, too. I think that’s the only thing colder than the weather – those icy stares. They’re sharp, too. Icicles. It’s hard to be around people when their eyes stab and burn you like that. It bothers me much more than the cold, it really freezes you right to the bones.
A woman I knew drowned herself the other day.
I like it here, despite the cold. There is something very evocative about this place, something to do with the history or the architecture or the way the streets of the old town always seem to circle back onto themselves by traveling in straight lines. Something about how many centuries of feet have tread where mine tread now, how many centuries of lives have been lived and lost. I can be a part of something, in this way, just by walking; one foot in the past and one in the present. All the bones beneath me, stacked up in the catacombs.
When I close my eyes I can still see her, sitting on the bed, thin and cold and pale and wet, her downcast stare, and beneath the brush, her red hair falls in a curtain between us so I can never see her face but I had a dream last night that I could and when I saw her face it was yours and then mine and then there was no face at all and that’s when I woke up. But there’s no point in talking about things that aren’t real.
Nobody knows who I am. I am an outsider here – an outsider by choice – because I am a traveler, an intruder, a voyeur who trespasses into the city and barely into the lives of its inhabitants: walking, watching, looking inwards from the edges. They watch me, too, but I am like a dream: When I am gone it will be like I was never there. There’s a freedom in that. We are liberated from our own lives and the troubles that come with them; we exist without consequence. Travel is like dying, in this way, Sharon. You depart from your own life, you become practically no one, nothing. A ghost.
I wonder sometimes whether it should have been me. I feel almost as though we may have switched places because for so long, I was certain that it was going to be me, but then some twist of fate and it was her that drowned and here I am, wandering. Breathing out fog in heaving sighs.
But travel is nothing like dying, then, is it? Because travel is only liberating to an extent – you remain always a prisoner of your own mind. It is a difficult fate to be tormented by your own thoughts. Besides, there is a life for me. Somewhere.
I hope things are better for you, Sharon. It’s been a long time since we last saw each other and I daresay that it will be a long while until our paths next cross. Perhaps in some Chinese tea shop like you always dreamed.
Sometimes I think you look just like that statue of Mary.
But despite all this time and all that’s transpired, we’re not so different, you and I. Maybe you walk this place, too, in some dreamy, ghostly state, always beside me, always out of sight.
Rest easy, Sharon.
I’ve been wandering this world for the both of us ever since you died.