I knew it was ill-advised. And yet, what does it ever matter when we know something is ill-advised? We’re still going to do what we want to do. Telling ourselves whatever rationalization we need in order to do it. And yes, I had, as a matter of fact, only recently re-watched Frances Ha, the movie in which the eponymous lead character—whose actual name is Frances Halladay (Greta Gerwig)—decides to book a trip to Paris on a whim. You know, because, like everyone, she simply wanted to go thanks to the city holding an unavoidable romantic aura. Not romantic in the gross “love” sense conveyed by those couples that take their engagement photos on the balconies of impossibly expensive hotels overlooking the Eiffel Tower, but romantic in the sense that it has a quality to it that suggests your life can somehow be changed there. You can become one of those people who experiences falling under the “spell” of its charms. Far more than New York, sometimes falsely viewed as its “sister city,” Paris possesses this attribute.
I knew this to be true because I had been there already. Lived there, technically. And maybe leaving was the biggest mistake of my life. At the same time, perhaps I was never really meant to be there in the first place. Maybe the period that I did spend à Paris was nothing more than a fluke that had an inevitable expiration date. Like I was only there “on loan” from some other dimension that would have to rip me back sooner or later (that other dimension, of course, being the United States). And only now do I see what a great trauma it all was, to be forced to leave from the only place in the world where I ever truly felt at home. And I know that it’s lame, a cliché, etc. to say such a thing about Paris, but that was how I felt. So why would I leave, you might ask? Well, the answer to that is simple, and complicated.
Like so many simple and complicated things, it pertains to a man. One who said he would “take care of me.” In essence, I had reeled in a benefactor. My looks had, for once, paid off. And it was interesting to note that I really was becoming more attractive based on how I was starting to see myself through his eyes. Everything was going just superbement until the day he came home to inform me that he was no longer employed as the CEO of a certain well-known airline company. And while that shouldn’t have been such a big deal (I was a woman who could live modestly, after all), it turned out that it very much was as most of the money would have to go toward his “alimony” (a non-legally mandated monthly stipend his ex-wife managed to still extract from him despite the French not really believing in such a thing) and child support payments. Not to mention all the payments he still had to provide as scheduled for various debts and other household properties in France. In essence, the well was going to be pretty dry very soon. And when he asked me how that made me feel, I was more than somewhat insulted. He seemed to assume that all my affection for him was based on monetary gain alone. But that wasn’t true. Over the course of our “tenure” together, I started to see him as a father figure who I fucked now and again. That, to me, translated to pretty much the closest I had ever gotten to love. Interpret that psychology however you will.
When I first met Gilles, it was at an expensive burlesque bar that I shouldn’t have been at. But being a tourist and wanting to go “all out” before having to return to my dreary, unsparkling existence in America, I decided to bankrupt myself while on this trip. Fuck it, who cares, yolo—and all that sort of jazz. Gilles, like any predatory and pathetic divorcé, was perched in the corner, watching girls perform their burlesque hijinks, but pretending not to act aroused. When he saw me at the other end of the bar alone, happily taking pictures and adding them to my story without shame, he decided I would be his best mark for the evening.
“Are you here alone?” he spouted cornily as he sidled up.
I arched my brow, taking in his shortness, his receding hairline and that thick French accent. For whatever reason, I decided to be honest and say, “Yeah.”
This brightened his demeanor instantly, for he took it as some kind of admission on my part that I was “open and ready” for whatever he might want. And what he wanted, to start with, was to buy me a drink. And another and another and another. Until finally, I was very amenable to going back to his nearby apartment in the seventh arrondissement. He lived right across from Les Invalides, and I should have taken that as some kind of omen. Not just because we were essentially fucking next to Napoleon’s tomb, but because our own love was destined to become invalide. When I woke up the following morning, hungover as all get-out, he was gone. But he had left me a pain au chocolat from the boulangerie nearby, along with a note about how he had a wonderful time, would like to see me again and that I should help myself to the coffee.
Biting ferally into the croissant, I looked out the window and reflected upon what it would actually be like to not only live in Paris, but to live like this in Paris. So much lore centered around the city is based on the romanticization of the “artist’s life.” That is to say, poverty. Granted, in the modern world, the only people able to afford being “full-time” artists are those born to the rich. But anyway, as I stared out that window, the wheels began turning, and I couldn’t deny that I saw Gilles as a sort of meal ticket. An entrée into the city I never thought I would have a chance at living in.
As it would turn out, I was accurate to assume Gilles would be my benefactor so long as I stayed when, that very evening, when he took me to Le Dôme, he made the proposal himself. With regard to being in Le Dôme, it was a restaurant that had obviously lost some of its vibrant luster since the glory days of when Henry Miller was living in Montparnasse… now it was filled with nothing but the sort of elderly clientele that could actually afford such absurdly-priced fare. While Gilles felt no embarrassment (in terms of how foul he would look eating this particular item) ordering the sauté de homard bleu, I opted for the bouillabaisse marseillaise. It was, as you might know, a seafood-centric establishment. As he sucked his lobster meat out of the shell, I tried not to focus on how disgusting he was. Tried, instead, to picture my life with him to be a happy one, mainly because it would be a life in Paris—and how could one not be happy in such a place? C’était impossible.
And I was right. For, after that evening, Gilles absolutely insisted that I extend my stay until, well, forever. He put all of his cards on the table. Told me he was a lonely man who wanted someone “fun” and “exciting” (read: young and nubile) like me to spend time with. And that he would assure I was “lavished” if I chose to stay. In effect, I cancelled my return ticket and moved into the residence across from Les Invalides. What did I have waiting for me in the U.S. except a shitty apartment and a stack of bills? Oh yeah, and a minimum wage job that I had slaved away at during multiple overtime shifts to save up for what was to be a six-day retreat from reality. Still, some part of me must have been uneasy, in the back of my mind, about the entire situation, for I chose to sublet that shitty apartment instead of just giving my notice from abroad. So basically, I was beholden to no one, and I decided it was perfectly all right to act as such and make Gilles my whole world.
Most people (women), like Carrie Bradshaw when she went to Paris with Aleksandr Petrovsky, might form some sort of existential crisis as a result of choosing to wrap themselves up entirely in a man, having no real friends or hobbies of their own in a new city. But I honestly didn’t care. I was fine just walking around all day, doing “nothing.” A.k.a. stumbling into whatever shop I felt like after having a long red wine lunch and deciding to buy something as frivolous as an antique armoire. It was Gilles’ fault for giving me an “allowance,” I guess. What did he think I was going to do? Not spend it? Being a high-powered man as he was, it was a wonder that I ever even met him at all, for sightings of him outside of anywhere but the office were few and far between. Which made me feel all the more as though our encounter at the burlesque bar was some part of Destiny’s grand plan. While he “worked hard” for the money, I turned laziness and leisure into its own art form. There are so many people who, to my sheer dismay, truly do not know how to enjoy the time they have on Earth. Which is why, when they’re actually presented with time to “do nothing,” they freak the fuck out and start to look for inane tasks to busy themselves. I was not such a person, and Gilles was never going to catch me doing something like cleaning just for the sake of “filling the hours.” So I guess it was good he had a maid.
I think that seeing me—when he did actually see me—being so relaxed and really embracing my status as a kept woman was part of what set him off. Made him subconsciously want to get fired by slipping at work, allowing his performance to become palpably lacking. Maybe he was jealous. Or maybe, in the end, he wanted to see if I could love him as a pauper. He wanted to know if what I claimed to feel for him was all an illusion. I wish he had decided to conduct this experiment sooner than after the almost three years I had spent living this luxurious, layabout lifestyle (with various stints outside of France in order to not overstay the three-month limit in any given country). How was I supposed to retrain myself into existing as I had before after years of this posh circumstance? It was rather cruel of him to suddenly become all prudish and moralistic about the nature of our relationship. Like he wasn’t the one who deliberately set it up to be how it was by baiting me with his big, fat…bank account. And even when I stayed with him for the few months after he lost his job and the purse strings were markedly tightened, he still didn’t believe that I loved him for anything other than what he could give me. Which really m’a mis en colère, so I left.
I said, at last, “Fine, you don’t believe me and I can’t get a fuckin’ job in this city without any legal documentation to work here, and I’m not gonna fuckin’ teach English or babysit some cunts, so I guess it’s back to the fuckin’ States where I can get another fuckin’ shitty job and return to living a life of total colorlessness.” Yes, it was fortuitous indeed that I had decided to sublet my apartment.
He didn’t seem to understand what he had done to me. How he had totally altered the trajectory of my life for the better, only to create another schism from that trajectory—a crack in the timeline—that would banish me back to where I came from. Essentially, he had improved my life vastly only to then downgrade it irrevocably.
Landing at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, I could feel the lack of refinement wash all over me like a bucket of freezing cold water. There was possibly no place as American as this: dull, a misuse of urban planning, visually unappealing. I wished I had thought about this more clearly. I should have whored myself out rather than deign to return. I should have allowed any pimp to sell me into sex slavery over taking a job at Chick-Fil-A. Oh how the mighty had fallen. From traipsing around the Champ de Mars like it was my own personal backyard to this fucking hellhole. I really wanted to kill Gilles for this. But even worse, I really missed him. And if he could feel what I was feeling, he would know for sure that the love I had for him was not monetarily-based.
As the months passed and I kept my nose to the foul grindstone, all I could think of was getting back to Paris. I still talked to Gilles constantly. And I could feel him growing more distant by the day, ready to cut the cord with me completely but perhaps sensing that I was now lonelier than he had been when we first met. As for Gilles, it seemed like getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to him. He moved into a smaller, more affordable place in the fourteenth, collecting chômage as he tried to figure out what his “true” passion was. This meant painting one week, guitar lessons the next. Obviously, he was of the belief that art was more noble than commerce (for the two so rarely intertwine if you’re doing art “correctly”). I wasn’t so sure. There was a time I thought art was “the thing,” but maybe America had brainwashed me for too long into believing otherwise. It was all about cash, and I was presently determined to make enough to move back. Enough to have so that I could get my own apartment and prove to Gilles that I wasn’t trying to use him for anything. And clearly, there was nothing about his looks that really had me on the hook, so I don’t know why he was so convinced I was some kind of shady love scammer.
On the phone another few months later, after I had told him several days prior that I had booked my ticket to return specifically for a trip to look at different apartments and he assured me I could stay with him while I did so, he, out of the blue, said solemnly, “Don’t come. It will be a mistake. It will only make it harder for both of us to move on, and I’m starting to see someone. She could be good for me. I don’t want to ruin my chances with a woman I know will accept me fully as I am.” God, what a fucking twat, I wanted to shout. In addition to, You really think you’re going to do better than me with this bitch?
As another week went by, I was seething over the idea of either having to cancel my ticket or actually pay for a hotel. Yet I needed to get back there. I just had to. Like Frances, I felt the call, and it couldn’t be ignored. Even though I was afraid of so many things. Mostly that, by going back, I would ruin all the grand, nostalgic feelings I had built up for the city with cold, hard reality. That it wouldn’t possibly be able to measure up to how I now yearned for it. That once I got there, I would see everything as a little grayer, a little dingier, a little more sinister (because, yeah, there actually is something sinister about the rotating flashing light of the Eiffel Tower, as though it has caught someone trying to make a prison break).
The same dashed expectation would happen to Frances, but she at least had the excuse of having never gone before and not knowing anyone apart from an acquaintance to reach out to (and who doesn’t respond until it’s too late). And, as anyone who has ever traveled alone knows, the city can start to feel rather irrelevant to what one saw depicted in books and movies when they have nobody to share it with. Crippling loneliness, in short, makes any city seem…not that magical. And certainly not as magical as it has been built up to be.
Frances, like myself, also often found herself among the types of douchey people who ask questions like, “Do you ever get to Paris?” Being unemployed, Frances replies, “Um, no, not really.” This at a dinner party she’s invited to by a fellow dancer who actually has a legitimate spot within the company instead of being “merely” an apprentice.
Still, Frances does her best to seem upbeat in between awkward comments, saying, “I’d love to go to Paris. I bet it’s magic.” The man, Andy (Josh Hamilton), returns, “Well if you’re ever there…” As in: he “just happens” to have a pied-à-terre she could stay in if she wanted to. She shrugs, “Yeah… I don’t see myself getting there super soon, but thanks.” That was how I felt after Gilles told me he refused to “host” me. I couldn’t possibly afford anything beyond the plane ticket, and even eating day-to-day was going to be a struggle. It was as though he was acting so unreasonably specifically to keep me from showing up and ruining whatever sad little version of a “relationship” he believed he had going on with this other woman. Well, he wasn’t going to stop me.
I suppose, like Frances, I needed a “catalyzing” incident to make me throw caution to the wind and just appear on his doorstep knowing full well there would be no way he could say non to me staying there. At the end of the dinner party, after Frances hears from one of the guests that her erstwhile best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), is moving to Japan with her boyfriend, it sets her off to the point where she decides to declare, “Actually Andy, I think I might be going to Paris this weekend.” Only vaguely surprised, because rich people make impetuous decisions like that all the time based on their wealth of resources, he says, “Oh. Do you wanna stay in our apartment?” She does. And it’s one that just so happens to be conveniently located on Rue de Vaugirard. A rue that Gilles and I often found ourselves on. I took this subtle nod to the street, only detectable in the frame to someone who really cared to notice, as another sign from the universe to ignore what Gilles was telling me and just go.
And I would surprise him, too. I would relent to staying in that goddamn Generator hostel, where I knew only the most annoying of youths and wankers would be staying as well. To boot, it wasn’t even that cheap. Then again, as a beggar, I was in no position to be a chooser on the thirty-euro price I was going to pay to be in an eight-bed dorm on those first couple of nights spent “orienting” myself before showing up at Gilles’ new apartment, which I had craftily procured the address for by insisting on mailing him a rare edition of Marguerite Duras’ The Impudent Ones.
It was surprising to know that I had the foresight to realize the value of this “let me adjust to the time zone” maneuver. Because, just as Frances had, I wasted the whole first day back in Paris sleeping because of my jet lag. Mercifully, I was not as foolish as her in terms of deciding to stay a paltry two days just because she had some superfluous meeting scheduled that could have been moved. Or just been an email.
On the third day, God might have created dry ground, seas and vegetation, but on my third day, I went to Gilles’ abode. Much to my shock, he wasn’t there. Even though I had specifically opted to arrive at an evening hour when I figured he would be. For, even though he didn’t have a job anymore, he still tended to leave the apartment during the day. For a walk, or a class, or what have you. I figured, “Well, I’ll just take a stroll in the Luxembourg Garden (as Frances did) and wait a bit longer.”
I returned an hour later. Still no answer. This is when I could hear Frances’ voice in my head asking the box office agent, “Hello, when did Puss in Boots start?” In her desperation for human connection, she was willing to do anything to pass the time. Particularly a large block of it. To that end, would I be willing to go watch an interminably long film like Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita at the Filmothèque du Quartier Latin? Yes. At the bare minimum, it was more “cultural” than Puss in Boots. When the movie was over, at around 10:30 p.m., I exited the theater, imagining that Hot Chocolate’s “Everyone’s A Winner” was playing ironically in the background the same way it was for Frances. And then, just mere streets away from making my way back to his apartment, I saw him. With the woman he was referencing during our last telephone call. Except she wasn’t really a woman. She looked more like a barely legal teenage girl.
Then I heard another scene in my head from Frances Ha: “Do you have enough money?” “Yeah… I mean I’m still in debt from Paris, that was just stupid.” “I’m sorry we can’t help you out.” Even though, really, how much could two days have set her back, with most of it spent on only a plane ticket and walking around aimlessly? That’s what served as my “catalyzing” (non-)incident, or rationale, if you will. That it wouldn’t cost me that much. Yet here it was, costing me in an entirely different way. Suddenly, I could understand that the real reason Gilles had wanted to do away with our transatlantic attempts at a relationship is because he knew he didn’t he have to wait around for me. That he could and would do better by sheer virtue of being among the few straight single men on this Earth who knew how to give head. Whatever was luring this new girl in, it wasn’t his money. And that was probably a major turn-on for him as well. For he would always associate me with being some kind of gold digger. Even though, as I often reminded him, he was the one who insisted that he could and would take care of me. A promise rendered null over the years as he saw that I was, apparently, enjoying the trappings of his wealth too much, instead of enjoying him. Or displaying some aspect of being the “caretaker” in the dynamic. I guess he wanted me to fuckin’ run to the door with a pair of slippers when he showed up after work and insist that he put his feet up while I made him a goddamn Aperol Spritz or some shit.
That was never going to be me. What was going to be me, though, was Frances Halladay. But worse. Because Frances never got stopped in her tracks by the sight of some very literal visual representation of how a great love had slipped through her fingers through no real fault of her own. Rather, the fault of how socioeconomic status inevitably ends up playing a significant part in a relationship’s demise. That, too, might be why Frances stays single at the end of the film. It had nothing to do with “empowerment,” so much as still being too “broke ass” to attract a second party. And when you’re “just okay” aesthetically like me and Frances, that’s not going to be enough for a man to throw his wallet into the ring for you.
After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I darted behind the nearest building, relieved that they were too busy reveling in one another to notice me. I guess I would be spending almost the same amount of time on this “holiday” as Frances Halladay, departing on the first flight the next morning. I never told Gilles I was there, and I gradually stopped answering whenever he would think to call for the sake of something like “sentimentality.”