The girl was studying in Paris. Mostly she studied the effect of her figure-gripping black turtleneck on dissolute Frenchmen of a certain age who soon discovered, despite her diffident wiles tied in a ribbon of quasi-innocence, their louche charms were vapor to the oblivious reactions of a young woman lost in a fragrant haze of vetiver, Gauloises, cheap wine and romantic notions. She didn't lead them on, she couldn't have: she had no idea where she was going.
She was friends with Tomas and Bijan and Jean, from Paris, Iran and Beruit. Jean was wonderful, with a ready smile and sympathetic nature. He was friendly, interesting and interested. His brother Tony was studying medicine and translating T.S. Eliot’s poetry into French. She’d once been deeply immersed in the Four Quartets and hoped he wasn't studying surgery. In their dim bohemian chambers the brothers delighted in telling her about Beirut - how beautiful it was, how marvelous to ski in the mountains, then swim in the Mediterranean on the same day. Their father was a Marist priest who lived in the hills above Beirut, separated from their mother.
Tomas was slim with longish dirty blond air. She met him at an ice rink where he boldly charmed her into skating with him. He put his arm around her waist and held her hand while they circled the rink, winking at his friends on the bench as they glided past. He skated her beyond her mistrust into an always off-kilter spin that in the end left her dizzy and breathlessly happy.
Sometimes Bijan ran a phone scam with a friend of his who worked at a PTT in Montparnasse. He’d tell her when to arrive so she could make international calls for nothing and talk on the phone with her mother for hours. Afterward they'd go to a cafe and then Bijan, who was almost unbearably handsome, would walk her to the metro station and wait on the quai with her until the train came. His lips brushed her cheeks while he told her to be careful. They were all patient with her grasp of the language; when she was hanging by a pinky, they lifted and carried her.
But her true romance was with Paris, with the unfolding map of herself in Paris, with the steep stairs she fell down in Montmartre and the scar on her knee that remained, with the sooted stone buildings and the Seine, with the bridges and the Guimard metro stations with their fleurs du mal lamps glowing in the dusk, with the woman who sold bunches of violets on the sidewalk in November, with the bright scent of the violets she carried through the grey light to her room in the servants’ quarters of an old house on rue Marbeau, downhill from the Arc and near to the Bois du Boulogne, a home for which she traded time and pride to an ill-tempered Canadian diplomat.
She was fond of the diplomat’s wife. Michelle was glamorous and lovely. She described her to other friends as a poor man’s Catherine Deneuve, which absolutely failed to convey Michelle’s graceful nature and loveliness, though she did look like a young Catherine Deneuve with crooked teeth and a less expensive hair colorist. On Michelle's legs, black fishnet stockings were elegant without irony. She was thoughtful and generous. Herself requiring black-out drapes and late morning awakenings, when she saw the girl's bare slanted window in the garret she insisted on making a custom shade for it: one side was dense black cotton, the other hot pink cotton canvas. The girl thought the shade would have given the room a rosy glow on sunny days if it weren't for the black lining. Before she married the diplomat, Michelle owned a dress shop in Brussels. When her husband made fun of the girl’s accent, she was an empathetic ally: he regularly made fun of her own Belgian French. Because her accent was decidedly non-Parisian and often non-French, the girl always apologized for her inadequacies at the beginning of any conversation with strangers. She hoped her humility and vulnerability might allow others to drop their defenses, excepting the snarky diplomat whose superiority was a wall he regularly, with bootcamp encouragement, required her to scale. She forgot - did Hemingway mention the heartburn?