Paris is a lovely place when you’re in love. And something of a psychedelic nightmare when you’re out of it. One can nary walk the streets without noticing just how rife the pavement is with couples young, old and even middle-aged (the hardest age group of monogamists to come by). The thing is, if you’ve already established memories there with a person you were romantically linked to, it can be difficult to cleanse them, especially if it was your first love. For, as Elsa Morante notes in Arturo’s Island, nothing can ever compare to first love.
At least that’s how Ryan felt as he both consciously and unwittingly made his way to the same old haunts he had gone to with Samson. To add insult to injury, Samson was the first man Ryan had ever permitted himself to be with–up until all this time still trying to parade women around for the sake of his Republican-leaning baby boomer parents. But now that he had established some independence in his post-collegiate existence, he felt less inclined to suppress his desires out of financial guilt. Hence, he pursued the flirtation he knew had long been going on between him and Samson, a fellow student two years his junior in the same Virgil and Ovid seminar class. And yes, it pretty much goes without saying that if you’re taking a Virgil and Ovid class, you more than likely have at least some homosexual tendencies.
Ryan supposed that was why the only two girls in the ten-person class were a portly, pale one from Massachusetts and a lesbian who was cruel enough to look like Kate Moss. It was bound to be so, accordingly, that Ryan and Samson should become close, with little else in the way of offers of a study partner available. As the course went on and the exams and papers that went with it grew more challenging, it seemed only to get easier for Ryan and Samson, who could spend entire afternoons discussing the texts of these dead men, in addition to their own fraught personal lives. Samson, openly gay, would often speak to Ryan of his romantic woes with various older Grindr hookups, while Ryan would limit the extent of discussions about his own issues to how his older brother had once again managed to outshine him by proposing to his trophy wife-ready girlfriend of two years, Saire. It only solidified Ryan’s already beta status in his parents’ eyes.
Samson, however, was not sympathetic to these complaints, his mother having abandoned him in a bar in Lower Manhattan when he was just ten and his father never even a thought in his mind to begin with since even his mother didn’t know who that was. In any event, it left Samson feeling cold toward anyone else’s familial so-called drama. Still, he could lend a non-judgmental ear whenever Ryan felt obliged to talk about it.
As the Virgil and Ovid class neared its end, it became a source of worry to Ryan that Samson would diminish his contact. Would gear his rail thin body and electric green eyes toward some other companion. This apprehension, conveniently, came at a time when he was finally ready to show his true identity to his parents after the commencement ceremony honoring his graduation.
It was later that night, at a party he had specifically invited Samson to that Ryan decided it was now or never. Take the risk or always wonder. He didn’t want to wonder anymore–spent his whole life doing just that thanks to a preordained fear of rejection. Well, he decided, the only thing more painful than rejection was unknowing. He had to ascertain if his suspicions about their mutual attraction were correct, or if it was all something he had concocted in his Virgil/Ovid-swirling head. Whatever the answer, he would find out soon enough after a copious amount of alcohol was consumed.
Or so he had wrongly surmised. Instead, what happened was beaucoup de hemming and hawing as Ryan tried to get his confession out but ultimately just fell asleep in a random bed, waking up next to a waiting Samson the following morning. To Ryan’s delight, Samson already knew everything and therefore had an erection ready. So began the summer of what Ryan foolishly believed would be their eternity. That’s both the beauty and the bane of the naïveté of first real love. And oh, how Ryan fell in, all in. Buying trinkets, writing poems, being honest about his emotions.
It was all very retrospectively embarrassing, Ryan thought as he walked through Père Lachaise. Through the very pathways he did with Samson, the ones that led to Oscar Wilde’s grave, obviously their favorite. And here he was again now, two years after the trip they had taken at Samson’s urging–Samson, who wanted to go to grad school there. He never did end up doing it though, opting instead for Berlin. The place Ryan feared the most as a result. Ryan, who in all the stupidity of his supposed wisdom, thought coming back would cure him of his original memories. That if he could just create new ones, he would forget–or not hold on to so tightly–all the old, wipe them out with the secret weapon of the present.
It was not so, he soon unearthed, try as he might to distract himself with the culture and the gardens and the absinthe. But in every sip, in every monument, he saw or heard or felt something of Samson from that first trip. It was a curse Sisyphean in nature–as though the more he tried to forget, the more Memory did its damnedest to remind him, even in the Proustian sense. For he just so happened to pass the very same Thai restaurant that he and Samson had dined in the inaugural night they had arrived in Canal Saint Martin, late in September. He hadn’t tried to come across it, in fact, remembered that they had had difficulty in even finding it at the outset. Yet, there it was, glaring at him in the face and beckoning with its aroma. He instantly looked away from it, not wanting to see the table they had sat at, to recall how full of hope and excitement they had both seemed to be that night before Samson turned on a dime, or ten-cent euro.
Ryan had been a fool to think he could come back to the City of Light–fuck, the City of Dark–and not be constantly reminded. It was still too soon, and he should have at least found a romantic placeholder to accompany him, someone to aid him in his quest to see Paris anew. Even when he visited masterpieces and landmarks he hadn’t seen the last time, it was still Samson’s presence engulfing him from every corner of the city.
Watching the couples teem around him in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Ryan thought, maybe Paris really is the city of lovers, but this includes the discarded ones, those carrying a love that has been dampened by water as foul and unrelenting as the Seine. Samson might not feel for Ryan the way Ryan did for him–maybe never did–but who was to say that they weren’t still perpetually connected in the nexus of l’amour called Paris?