Le Jardin Abandonné

Alone in the cold. Wasn’t that always the way, in the end? Just another Parisian cliche. Nothing ever ends well in Paris, no matter what they tell you. Some emotional catastrophe is always doomed to befall you. Don’t get involved, that was the best advice Sylvain could give to anyone moving to the city for motives of love–whether for it, or expecting to find it. It would come to bite you in the ass (ton cul) sooner or later–probably sooner. And even worse if it was later, for you would have grown accustomed to believing that everything is perfectly twee à Paris. It fucking well isn’t–no matter what Lily Collins tries to tell you with her terrorist propaganda that is an American’s wet dream of how all of France is supposed to look and seem.

Sylvain had long ago dispensed with any ideas of ever falling in love, least of all with an American. They were all impossible. Their idealism brimming forth even to this day as every piece of evidence in modern existence showed them that there was absolutely nothing to be “plucky” about. Emma was just such a believer in “getting what you want” and “always bouncing back.” At first, it was what had attracted Sylvain to her. In addition to her figure, and cascading auburn hair, which seemed to dance for him every time she turned her head. She was constantly “whipping around,” it appeared. Or was that merely a trick that memory now played on him? Those early days of first spotting her every morning at the neighborhood boulangerie. One day, she finally noticed him mesmerically staring at her and asked, “Parles-tu anglais?”

He was somehow taken aback that she should feel emboldened enough to speak to him, just like that. Out of nowhere. Most women would have tried to politely ignore his ogling, but it then occurred to him that the one trait of unattractiveness that outweighed all of her other attractive features was that she was an American. It wasn’t only patent in that disgusting Jean Seberg usage of French, but in the gall of just asking a stranger if they spoke English. He supposed, at the very least, she demanded this in French, in contrast to immediately assuming he spoke it and simply coming right out with a barrage of gibberish. Because the thing was, he actually didn’t speak English. Nary a word. He was one of the few Parisians who didn’t bother. What the fuck was this city coming to anyway? It was almost as though you were somehow deficient for speaking your own country’s native tongue. In the long run, it was this rare “character quirk” of Sylvain’s that strengthened Emma’s facility avec le français.

That first day, enjoying their chaussons aux pommes and coffee together as they walked out of the boulangerie, they headed toward Luxembourg Garden, bien sûr. If he had thought she would have any familiarity with Godard’s 1959 short, Charlotte et Véronique, ou Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick, he would have brought up the fact that there was a scene in it that they sort of just reenacted, albeit Emma was in the man’s role. “Do you speak English?” Patrick (Jean-Claude Brialy) asks Charlotte (Anne Collette) as she sits in the garden reading a book, utterly ignoring his Frenchman’s manner of vexing and indefatigable “seduction.” But yes, Sylvain suppressed his urge to inquire if she had seen it, knowing she was the type to have probably only caught a glimpse of the oft regurgitated scene on the internet of Patrick telling Véronique (Nicole Berger), “Don’t kill yourself, let’s have a drink.” Maybe it was wrong to immediately reduce her to the role of cultureless swine, but how could he help himself? He was French and she was American. The divide was real.

Yet it didn’t feel real. At least not that day, or for the first year spent together. Although she kept renting her room in the Quartier Latin, she started spending more and more time at Sylvain’s Montparnasse apartment. He was an architect, and had an extra room where he could work whenever the fancy struck him while Emma languished in bed, eating croissants that she filled with Nutella, which would always–somehow, some way–invariably end up getting on the bed. This made it look like there were appalling skid marks on the sheets. Some part of Sylvain believed that Emma was doing it on purpose to make sure that any other woman who might enter his bedroom would be too off-put to ever go through with anything. He actually liked that thought. To him, it was endearing–whereas most other men likely would have found the soonest opportunity to get her out of the apartment and ensure she never came back again. Sylvain, instead, wanted to make sure that she would never leave again.

Naturally, she had to. At least every so often. She was still studying Creative Writing at the American University of Paris, and had to show up once in a while to prove her worth. It was when Sylvain realized that she was still in college (even if it was the final semester) that he had to question where, exactly, this could go. If she didn’t get a job soon after graduating, it was more than certain that she would return to the U.S. And that would leave Sylvain inevitably pining. He did not want to pine. Or be one of those archetypal Frenchmen who fell in love with an American only to get his heart stomped on in return. He was suddenly grasping that he needed to cut things off at the pass, before he was in way over his head. He supposed that was around the period he started deliberately acting more impenetrable toward Emma. Driving her away undercuttingly with his curt demeanor and sudden absence of warmth.

It only took about a month for Emma to find Sylvain truly insufferable, and she started to pack the various personal effects that had accumulated in his apartment over the course of their once idyllic relationship. As she walked out the door, she looked at him solemnly and said, “Just so you know, I was offered a job here. They gave me a choice between staying in Paris or working in their Montreal office. I ended up telling them Montreal.” With that, she shut the door. It was a gentle closure, not an abrupt slam–and that in and of itself made Sylvain want to get down on his knees and weep over what he had lost.

***

The rain started to fall more frequently the day after she left. Another Parisian cliche. It didn’t take long for the snow to appear. Paris had become a lonely, frozen tundra, seemingly as vacant and isolated as his heart. Where had everyone gone? Were there no lovers left alive? Was he meant to rot here in what now felt like his horrible apartment until the day he died–forever wondering why he had pushed her away?

The morning he woke up on his living room floor with three drained wine bottles next to him, he knew it would be best if he tried to reach out to a friend. Someone he could unload on. He chose Gustave. He also chose to meet him at Luxembourg Garden.

Gustave pfft‘d at him when he tried to wax poetic about this being the place where he spent his first day with Emma. Plopping down on a chair in the same area that Charlotte was reading a book in Tous les garçons s’appellent Patrick, he lit a cigarette and balked, “People go to Luxembourg Garden all the time together. It doesn’t have to hold some special meaning, you sentimental fool.” He then extended his cigarette pack to Sylvain like it was a sacrificial offering. Sylvain shook his head. Gustave shrugged, “All that time with an American has turned you from a ‘romantic’ to being outright soft. You used to at least know how to smoke.”

“Emma got me to quit.”

Gustave sighed, exhaling a plume of smoke as he did so. “What’s it going to be, Syl–eh? She’s gone. It’s what you knew would happen and you had already built your defenses up so that you would be prepared for it.”

“Well, I wasn’t… I’m not.” Sylvain gazed at the specks of people surrounding them in the distance. They all seemed to have such purpose, radiate such a distinct aura of happiness (despite their dark-toned fabrics) in comparison to him. What was his purpose, and where was his happiness… now that she had vanished?

To be sure, he had often thought of contacting her. There were ways of getting her new number, or he could email. The coward’s way. That meant not only could he not tell if she had actually read it, but there was no real sense of shame if she didn’t respond (oh, but what if she did?–perhaps that would be worse… depending on what she replied). Whereas being hung up on was still one of the most degrading possibilities even in twenty-first century communication. But no, he could never bring himself to reach out. What would he say, really?

Thus, he contented himself with traipsing through the snow-encrusted grass of this jardin abandonné. And it wasn’t just that it was abandoned by her. Fewer and fewer people were out as it got colder, and he appeared to be the only one with a romantic enough constitution to endure the chill of the white flurries that inconstantly blanketed Luxembourg Garden. He stood out there for what felt like ages and no time at all, just gazing at the fountain and thinking back to that initial encounter. When it seemed impossible that this would be the final frame. Yet, how could it not be? For he still believed they would have eventually been torn asunder by some unavoidable edict of the cosmos. An unstoppable force meets an immovable object every day. Just thank your lucky stars when it doesn’t happen to be in Paris.

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