About a week ago, Jake went to Brussels to visit his old college roommate for a few days, and I had the opportunity to explore Paris on my own. My first day out, I met a girl at a café in the 14th district. She was wearing an orange summer dress and had a notebook turned to a blank page on the table before her. I could feel her stare as I walked in, but I didn’t pursue it. I assumed her to be a Parisian, and my French is miserably subpar.
I ordered my food, a sub sandwich, and sat at the table in front of her, my back to her. I heard her ask the shop owner for a pen in English. Her accent was American. She sat down and began scribbling. I could hear the pen scratching on the paper, the sound grew louder in my ears. I ventured to turn halfway, face the food counter, watch her out the corner of my eye. She had curly brown hair and olive skin. I felt she knew I was watching.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“New York,” she told me as if waiting for me to ask. “You?”
“Chicago,” I said.
When traveling in a country that doesn’t speak your language, it’s always a relief to find someone with whom you can converse freely. Perhaps this is why I asked to sit with her (something entirely out of character for me), and perhaps this is why, after only twenty minutes of conversation, she invited me to her apartment for pasta and salad later that night. I told her I’d like to come, and she told me to bring the wine.
That afternoon, the weather took a turn for the worst and it began to pour right around when I said I’d meet Maia at her place. I was stuck under a gazebo at Le Champ de Mars with some American tourists struggling with a map when I decided “screw it” and began walking.
I showed up at her apartment door on Bloulevard Montparnasse soaked with rain and cradling a five-euro bottle of red wine. I texted Maia to come to the lobby, and when she saw me she started laughing, “glad you could make it,” she said as she opened the door.
We reached her small studio on the sixth floor. I sat down in an armchair by the door and she offered me a dry cloth. I dried myself while she prepared dinner in the small kitchen in the corner of the room. We didn’t speak much at first, which didn’t seem to bother her much; she seemed content at humming to herself and tossing a salad. I tried to look relaxed, while I was really very nervous. I kept thinking, “here I am, in this girl’s apartment, in Paris. How did this happen? Shouldn’t we be saying something?”
We each ate our plate of salad and bowl of pasta with reserved politeness. I sat in a chair by the kitchen table, while and she sat on her bed across the room, facing me. The sounds of silverware on porcelain, and the occasional remark about the weather, or the salad dressing, or how funny it was how we met one another earlier that day, but part of me began to feel less tense in the spaces between words. Perhaps it was the wine (in fact, it probably was the wine), but soon I began to feel as if everything were as it should be. That no matter what I said could possibly alter the fact that I was there for a reason.
After the meal, we each drank the wine until our heads were pleasantly buzzing, and the conversation finally grew more fluid. She was a religious studies major, she told me, and began speaking about the representation of God in different religions. I’m not sure what possessed me, but, as she spoke, I removed myself from the chair and crossed the room to her bed. Lucky for me, she willingly made room, and I sat, cross-legged, at the edge.
“I resonate most heavily with Hunduism,” she continued.
“Really? I said, “Why is that?”
“I’m not sure. I feel like it captures something that most Western religions don’t.”
“Well, in Christianity for example, I feel like it’s much easier to hate the religion as a whole. Because when you think about it, you have one God, and if that one God does something you don’t like, or doesn’t benefit you rather, you grow angry, you lose faith a lot more easily.”
“I think I see what you mean.”
“Whereas with Hinduism, there’s not so much pressure. You can feel like one God has betrayed you while still feeling in alignment with the others. It’s more balanced, more personal, I think.”
And all the while we steadily inched closer. When the conversation reached a lull, I asked if she had a boyfriend, and when she said “no” I kissed her. It didn’t feel forced or unnatural. It felt as if I were completing a process initiated when we had met in the café. She didn’t resist nor seem surprised either, and kissed me back with equal intensity.
Afterward, we lay with one another looking at the ceiling, my head on her stomach, her fingers running through my hair.
“I don’t really have a place to stay for the next few days,” I told her, “my hosts are kicking me out.”
“You can stay at my place,” she said.
I shifted my head to look up at her. “Really? It’s not a problem?”
“No, I’ve got the space.”
And so I moved into Maia’s place the next two nights. I slept on the floor, next to her bed, used her shower, and cooked in her kitchen. We drank wine and talked about Yoga, watched old movies, one with Marilyn Monroe and the other by Hitchcock, and not to mention the sex, frequent and cathartic, afterward standing naked on her balcony watching the sun set behind the Eiffel Tower.
Strangely enough, this actually happened. I can hardly believe it myself. I’m not one to fall into these kinds of situations. I rarely get laid, nor do I go about looking for sex, and if I do by chance meet a girl at a bar or café, the interaction usually ends in a fiery plane crash caused by trying too hard and not giving a damn. The sheer exceptionality of this event got me to thinking about its place in the larger context of my life.
I’ve realized that my experience in Paris was not only a highlight of my trip, but almost certainly a peak in my life as well. It felt as if every social experience I had had up to that point came together in some strange, inexplicable way. All moments where I’d been rejected by girls, or when I’d fallen in love, or or even the moments when nothing at all was happening, drinking with my coworkers after a shift, laying stoned on my couch in my apartment, or making a grilled cheese for lunch, it all came together in this moment, giving a brief but powerful glimpse of my accumulated self.
But, like all peaks, there’s an inevitable comedown, and the past few days I’ve been experiencing its effects. Jake and I have been having trouble finding places to sleep. Since we hit Amsterdam, we’ve hit a Couchsurfing “wall.” Absolutely nobody will accept us and we are spending much of our days scrambling to find open beds in hostels. This isn’t terrible, but we’re meeting fewer people as a result, and the trip is becoming rapidly more expensive, and I’m running low on money. Oh well. Eat less food, buy less beer, focus on survival rather than pleasure.
Coming down from this peak and slipping into this slump of discomfort has brought about a change in my being as well. I’m beginning to feel a weight in my chest, a weight that knows how good life can be and senses I’m nowhere near its potential. It’s personal as well as universal, it’s necessary and it’s a burden, and I believe it’s something I will live with, something that will grow inside of me, for the rest of my life.
The closer we come to happiness, the harder it is to return to normal life. But it’s not all so bad. Experiencing a peak like Maia in Paris gives me something to work towards, a hill to climb, so to speak. This struggle consistently places me into healthy conflict with the status quo, forcing me to make decisions more carefully, choose my battles more wisely, always with the hope that I might be able to find that happiness again, somewhere else, doing something else. But for now, weighted as I am, I continue moving forward. Again, again, again.