When Patrice Hughes turned forty, her gift to herself was a week in Paris, alone. It was the Eighties, when the married women she knew rarely traveled alone. Her husband had no objection. He was happy to take care of the home front: the house, the dog, their son, Alec, who was thirteen. She and her husband were estranged, though still living together. She knew he hoped the trip might help her stay in the marriage.
At the airport, he said, “Don’t worry about us. We’ll get along fine. Right, buddy?” He winked at Alec, whose small square face with its straight brows and cool gray eyes—her face, people invariably remarked—was furrowed in concentration.
“Mom, will you go and see Jim Morrison’s grave for me?”
“Do you know where he’s buried?” She was only vaguely aware of who Jim Morrison was, or had been.
“In Paris somewhere. Bring me a picture.”
Alec approached everything seriously, even rock stars, especially rock stars. She reached out and touched his shoulder. “I’ll try.”
On the plane over the Atlantic, she read a story in Newsweek about Picasso. A new museum of his work had just opened in Paris, twelve years after his death. There was a photograph of the artist taken when he was in his seventies. He looked bronzed and powerful with his bare chest and naked head. She thought what a pity it was she had never made love with him. Her sudden, absurd desire for Picasso pleased her. She leaned back against the seat and closed her eyes, mildly excited. Then, as though it were part of the same sensation, she had a sense of loss so profound she thought she might weep. She returned to the magazine and began reading a different article, one in which she had no interest, but before turning off the light and trying to sleep, she found Picasso’s picture again and tore it out and put it into her bag.
In her hotel room, she wrote a letter to her husband and son relating a little scare in the Paris airport about her suitcase, her nervousness before it appeared on the luggage conveyor, and her conversation with the taxi driver in her schoolgirl French. Oui, je suis touriste. Non, je ne suis jamais venue á Paris. She described her room on the sixth floor of a small hotel near the Luxembourg gardens; its wallpaper of blue flowers, its white bed, tall armoire, and a single dormer window where a desk had been placed. She tried to convey in the profusion of details how happy all these things made her, though this happiness (was that even the word for the floating state she was in?) was so delicate she herself almost failed to grasp it. Certainly her husband would not understand how sitting for hours at the window of a French hotel could please her so intensely.
He was a hearty, gregarious man, a successful real estate developer, who used to tell people he had rescued her from bohemia. “Patty was in art school when I met her,” he would say coyly, as though this were code for something sexy like a massage parlor. A few years ago this had stopped being funny and she had told him, in a burst of fury, she wanted to leave him. Why? He had asked. They got along all right. If there was no other man—there wasn’t—why shouldn’t they continue to live under the same roof and raise their son together? She had not known how to answer. She didn’t dislike him. She didn’t want to hurt their son. She had not left. Now, looking out on a cityscape of black slate roofs under a gray Paris sky, she could only dimly picture her husband’s face or recall the sound of his voice.
At dusk she went out, bearishly hungry, also nervous and shy. The city had a warm, rank smell, part gasoline, part old stone, and something sweet like overripe fruit. The sidewalks reflected a neon glare. The noise of traffic was terrific. What am I going to do here? She wondered as she walked in the direction of the river, passing small shops and cafés filled with people. She found herself glancing into windows as though she were looking for someone. Perhaps she was. Perhaps that was why she had come.
The next morning, in a café on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, she spread a map of Paris on the table. It had been given to her by a friend of her husband’s, a man a decade older than she, who had studied at the Sorbonne in the Fifties. He’d been a spy, paid by the CIA to pass money to Vietnamese students in exchange for information about those who were Communists. He’d told her about all this when they first met, about the students, the clandestine meetings, a glimpse once of Ho Chi Mien with his little beard. Her friend was a pathetic figure now, divorced, living alone, unable to work because of a bad back. The stories he told her were about women he pursued in bars and at art openings.
When she mentioned that she’d always wanted to go to Paris, he had given her this map. It didn’t matter that the map was old, he’d said. Paris had hardly changed since the big boulevards were built. Take it. He would never visit Paris again. It was then she made up her mind to go. She looked at the map now, the creases, the markings he’d made, then folded it, placed coins for her coffee in the little tray, and set off walking. She felt alert and eager. Mornings for her were always a time of hope.
An hour later she was climbing a cobbled street that led uphill past old houses and trellised gardens. It was Sunday. There was little traffic. The sounds of the city were muffled. She saw traces of the vineyards that had once covered the hill. She walked slowly. Everything pleased her: the yellow stones, the shadows of branches on the street, the fragrance of lavender. She passed a house with a small plaque that said Van Gogh had lived here. She kept walking, thinking about other artists who had lived in Montmartre, painted here, drunk at its cafés. She remembered that once she had believed she would be an artist.
She arrived at a square near the top of the hill and looked up at the white dome of the Sacre Coeur. A few people were entering the church, mostly older women. She hesitated, then sat down at a café with piped music and ordered an orange drink. The tables were filled with groups of young people, couples, families in their best clothes, children sitting like little adults drinking from straws, a scene Renoir might have relished. She had a vague sense of having achieved something, coming to Paris, sitting here among people enjoying themselves. Then a fierce longing came over her, a grief for something she couldn’t name, and she had to struggle to keep from crying. After a while the feeling went away. Soon she grew bored and left.
She spent the afternoon at the Louvre, wandering from gallery to gallery. She hardly looked at the paintings. She realized she did not want to see art. She wanted the living city whose carved facades and pitted stones made her feel she was part of something ancient and important. She walked through the streets of La Cité, past the old prison and Sainte-Chapelle. She stood on the Pont-Neuf watching barges pass on the river. In the evening, she went to a wine bar that was touted in her guidebook and drank three glasses of an expensive Sancerre. That night she slept badly, waking to dreams she couldn’t remember.
It was the third day. She stood in line for the change in the gare Saint-Lazare, staring up at the enormous vault of steel and glass, trying to see it as the nineteenth-century painters had seen it, charged with batteries of steam and smoke. Cleansed, the great vault seemed sterile. Who would paint it now?
The man said, “You are speaking English?”
He was no taller than she, with a large head and long hair receding boldly from his forehead. When she replied that, yes, she did speak English, he exclaimed, “Ah! Americaine.”
As they waited, he told her about the time he had lived on a houseboat in San Francisco. He mentioned names she didn’t recognize, members of a band, his friends. They had moved all together around California. He himself was a musician and cinematographer.
When he paused, she asked, still shy with her French, “Savez-vous où se trouve la tombe de Jim Morrison?”
He grinned. Jim Morrison? She was wanting the tomb? Sure, everybody knew this. As soon as they were getting their money, they would move there all together. Okay?
Mais oui. Okay.
They approached the cemetery from below on a flight of narrow steps. It was raining lightly. The steps were slick. “Lentement, s’il vous plait,” she called. Please slow down. He looked back at her with a sideways grin, and then led her into a dense landscape of mausoleums, luminous in the rain, colorless as tea. Far away she heard the music of Paris, the cacophony of car horns, the sporadic beat of traffic. He pointed to a stone slab where an arrow was drawn beside the word Jim. There were more arrows, more words. We love you Jim. Jim ti amo. The tombs swarmed with graffiti in all languages. The refuse of pilgrims lay everywhere, bottles, clothing, cigarette butts.
She handed him her camera and he took her photograph in the doubtful light, standing beside Jim’s marble bust next to a gravel-strewn grave. The bust too was busy with messages: Jim (on the marble forehead where her hand rested), we want the world and we want it now. A half dozen young worshippers watched them silently. A boy leaning against a shaft of pimpled stone mutely held out a bottle of brown liquid to her, which she refused.
Then the man said he had to leave. He named a suburb where he had to go to get some money. Perhaps he was suggesting she give him money—a tip for guiding her to the grave? This was new to her, meeting a man like this in a strange city. She couldn’t bring herself to offer money. They walked together to the gate. He insisted on writing his address and telephone number in her notebook. She should call him later in the week and they would move all together somewhere. The way he said it made her picture the two of them dancing through the gray Paris streets, arms linked, like actors in a Fellini movie.
She didn’t call. She told herself she wasn’t lonely. If she needed to talk, she talked to waiters, shop people, her concierge. She walked. She avoided museums. On the fourth day, in the Marais, she saw a long line of people waiting to enter a handsome stone building—the Musée Picasso. She walked on.
She began entering churches, drawn to them by something she didn’t understand. She was not religious. Perhaps she liked the churches because, except for Notre Dame, they were quiet. Her favorite was Saint-Sulpice. The interior was very large, columns rising to a tall arched ceiling fraught with shadows. She walked slowly around the periphery of the sanctuary. On the other side of the church, another woman was also walking, a small, trim woman with a determined step who reminded her of her mother. They were like two shadow figures, she and the woman, moving at the same measured pace. At some point, she looked away and when she looked back, the woman was no longer there.
On the fifth day, walking on a quiet leafy street in the seventh arrondissement, she stopped at an open gate. A small sign said the building had been a convent in the reign of Henri IV and was now une ecole des beaux arts. She wandered in. The courtyard was deserted, the building black with age, the windows also black. She wondered whether it still functioned as an art school.
Standing in the empty space, she remembered a painting she had made when she was a student. It was one of her first abstract efforts. She had worked on it for weeks. “You have talent,” her instructor had told her. He was a hawk-faced man who spoke with a hint of irritation, as though he wondered what this unsophisticated girl would do with her talent. He advised her to go to New York to study—or even better, Paris. “Get out of the South,” he said. Then he kissed her, his tongue probing her mouth for long seconds, before he turned and walked away.
After that, she had found it difficult to speak in the instructor’s presence. His kiss had made a mockery of his praise. It sickened her to think of it. His advice angered her. Why should she leave the school? It was a good one. He himself taught there, didn’t he? Her work deteriorated. The teacher no longer noticed her. One day she took the painting he had praised and shoved it into a garbage bin. She left the school and took a job as a designer for an advertising firm. She married a man who had nothing to do with art. She had a child.
She was shaking. The memory still made her ache with anger and shame. She left the courtyard and walked furiously along unfamiliar streets. She had made a mistake, a wrong choice. No one was to blame, not herself, not the instructor, not her husband. Paris was a mistake too. She had hoped that something might happen here without knowing what that might be. Her trip would soon end and she would leave with nothing.
She sat in a park across from a pair of teenaged lovers entwined on a bench. The girl wore tights of a violent purple and seemed to be all legs, her face and upper body hidden by the boy who bent over her like a carapace. She found herself remembering the painting she had destroyed years ago. She recalled it in every detail, its bold, sinuous lines invoking two figures, the colors—a deep blue, a clear, burning yellow. She left the park and found a shop selling art supplies where she bought a sketchbook and pencils. The rest of that day and the next, she sat on benches and in cafés making drawings of people, the facades of buildings, trees.
On the seventh day, she was in the tiny garden of the Church of Saint-Germain des Pres, painstakingly drawing Picasso’s Head of a Woman. Her hand seemed to know it, the big nose, the heavy cheeks, though she had no memory of seeing the sculpture in any book. She was suddenly tired of drawing. She left the garden with her sketch unfinished and went into a café and ordered tea. After a while, a man sat down at her table and took out a newspaper. A little later, when she stood up to leave, he raised his face and she saw that he had once been handsome but now his heavy lids made his eyes sorrowful like those of a medieval Christ. It seemed to her that he was about to ask her to sit down and talk with him. She waited, but he turned back to his newspaper without speaking. She went out and found a telephone kiosk and called the man who had shown her Jim Morrison’s grave.
He lived in an eccentric building in Montmartre. All the apartments opened off little courtyards or staircases. His consisted of one large square room. There was no furniture other than a bed on a wooden platform. The floor and window sills were stacked with clothes, books, cameras, video machines, tape cassettes and, in a corner, a set of drums. She recognized something desperate here, all the paraphernalia of a life condensed into a single room for reasons she would never know. Still, there was something cheerfully domestic about the space, with its pots of ferns and rubber plants. Here and there, she saw some small droll object that made her smile, a party hat, a bow and arrow, a Mickey Mouse doll. Over the bed hung a huge National Geographic map of the moon.
“Beaucoup de choses,” she exclaimed—many things, words a child might use.
He nodded cheerfully and guided her through the clutter to a cushion where he motioned for her to sit. She did, enchanted. He smiled at her, a crooked, clownish grin. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. His arms were thin and white. While he gathered papers and put them into a briefcase, she leafed through a book about film technology.
After a while, he knelt in front of her and asked, “How are you liking Paris?”
“La ville la plus belle du monde,” she said and added without thought, “Je suis artiste.”
He asked what kind of art she made and she described her paintings, how they flowed in ribbons of color. She gestured as she talked, reaching up as though to the top of tall sheets of canvas from which colors poured like lava. She was amazed at the precision with which she was able to invent her paintings. When she stopped talking it was because she lacked words in French.
He told her, also in French, that he knew many artists. No one was selling anything except those with Arab connections. He himself had not worked for a long time. Perhaps he would be having a job soon making a film in Guadeloupe. She was missing whole chunks of his conversation. Once, in the middle of a monologue she was barely following, he said in English, “Life is tough, man.”
While he made coffee in a kitchen alcove, she wandered around looking at things. She went into the bathroom where a potted plant bloomed in the bidet. A stream of sunshine illuminated a small basin of clothes soaking. From the open window came the fuss of birds and the sweet-sour smell of decay. Bells began to chime. Over the neighboring rooftop she could see the dome of the Sacre Coeur.
They sat on the bed and drank thick sweet coffee. The telephone rang and while he talked, she studied the map of the moon on the wall above them, marking the lunar seas, the Mare Imbrium, Mare Fecunditatis, Mare Tranquillitatis. She had rarely felt so alert. She continued to feel this way while they made love. The man was gentle. His face so close to hers was like the moon, pale and large, whose contours she traced with her fingers, her mouth. Nothing escaped her: the noisy birds, the church bells striking the quarter hour, the sound of her breathing, his.
Afterwards, they stood at the window and he told her that his street was the oldest in Montmartre. It was late afternoon. She had planned to treat herself to an expensive dinner that night, her last night in Paris, but she didn’t want to leave. The man seemed in no hurry either. After a while, they made love again. Finally, she told him she must go and he said he would help her find a taxi.
On a steep street halfway down the hill to the boulevard Clichy, he motioned to a nondescript two-story building with a wide door. “Regarde. L’atelier de Picasso.” She pushed open the door and saw a white foyer, a staircase, a set of mailboxes; nothing remarkable. They continued walking. When at last a taxi appeared, they kissed awkwardly. Au revoir. They would, of course, never see each other again. He waved as she drove off. Just before the taxi turned into a side street, she thought she saw his thin white arm still raised but she could not be sure.
She leaned back against the cracked seat. Cars closed in around them. The buildings were a rich mustard color in the evening sun. She took out her notebook and began to sketch the man’s face, the lines in his cheeks, the crooked mouth, the flat dark hair. She drew with a sureness that astonished her. Paris would not be the only city she would visit; he would not be the only man.
At home she gave her son the photograph taken in Père Lachaise. She could barely make out the fuzzy outline of Jim Morrison’s sculpted head and her own ghostly image beside it. “It was raining,” she said as she handed him the picture and Alec tossed her a fugitive smile. Then, because she had brought nothing else from Paris, she showed her husband her sketches. He leafed through them without comment until he came to the drawing of the man she had slept with. He turned and stared at her, an expression on his face she’d never seen, and she thought he must know everything. Then she heard his big bluff laugh and felt his arms close around her. “My arteest,” he murmured, holding her so tightly she could hardly breathe. She could have pushed him away, to free herself, but she didn’t.
Kate Blackwell’s writing career began in journalism. She worked for newspapers in North Carolina and did freelance work after moving to Washington, D.C., including writing three books on consumer subjects as co-author with Ralph Nader. When she turned forty, Kate began writing fiction. Her stories have appeared in So to Speak in 2001, New Letters, The Literary Review, Agni, Sojourner, The Greensboro Review, Prairie Schooner, and Carve, among other literary magazines. “My First Wedding,” won first place in The Nebraska Review fiction contest. She was also winner of the 2004 Larry Neal Fiction Prize, District of Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities, with the story “Scaffolding,” later published in The Potomac Review. Her story collection, published in 2007 by Southern Methodist University Press, was reissued in paperback and ebook in 2015 by Bacon Press Books, Washington, D.C. She has taught fiction writing at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, MD, and received fellowships at the MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In 2001, she was a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.