“Marie arrived the day of the Eiffel Tower bomb threat. She wore a giant backpack and hiking boots, as if this were the Alps instead of the Latin Quarter.”
Marie arrived the day of the Eiffel Tower bomb threat. She wore a giant backpack and hiking boots, as if this were the Alps instead of the Latin Quarter. We lingered in the lobby, arms loaded with Kronenberg and Côtes du Rhône, as she checked in. Not that we heard anything useful, since we were busy telling stale jokes at the top of our lungs, our laughter tinged with desperation. Still, we wanted to give the new girl a warm welcome, maybe offer her a beer or a glass of red. We hoped to give her the grand tour, if she’d let us, kitchen and bunkrooms and coin-operated showers. Mostly, though, we wanted to ask her what we asked everyone:
Where are you coming from? Where are you going?
She paid her Euros, took her key, and made for the stairs.
Bonjour, we said.
Welcome to Paris, we said.
Let us help you with your bag, we said.
I’ve got it, she said, barely glancing at us. Thanks anyway.
Then she trudged up to her room.
We didn’t see her again for a couple of days. Odd. We were always hanging around the place, spinning yarns about our international adventures: wild parties in Madrid, romance in Nice, movie stars in Venice. We embellished our stories just enough to draw out the good parts—anything to kill the boredom of the empty hours. The lobby stank of industrial-strength disinfectant and foot funk, and beef Bolognese wafted up from the kitchen. Travelers came and went. Where are you coming from? we asked. Where are you going? We figured we’d at least see Marie at petit déjeuner—stale baguette, instant coffee, and gray orange juice—since it was included, but no such luck. Then again, we were usually nursing nasty hangovers, so we might’ve missed her.
In the late afternoons, we loitered in the lobby over cans of Kronenburg and speculated about Marie. At that point, we still didn’t even know her name. Interesting people from all over the world came and went every day, but we fixated on her alone.
Could she be Swedish?
We were taking shots in the dark. While most of us were European—Portuguese and Irish, Greek and Spanish, English and Swiss—one of us hailed from the frozen wilds of Canada and had a more convincing theory. The girl was blonde and blue-eyed and fresh-faced. Everything she carried looked brand-new. She walked around like the world owed her something.
She had to be American.
Our suspicions were confirmed the next day. From our table in the kitchen, where we hunched over baguette and clutched our throbbing temples, we watched Marie descend the stairs to the lobby for the first time since she arrived. She wore flannel pajama pants, and her hair was in tangles. Then we heard other voices. Marie’s face lit up.
From this angle we couldn’t see anything, so we guzzled our insipid café au lait, then climbed upstairs to investigate. We slunk toward the shadows, pretending to mind our own business, hoping to eavesdrop. Marie and her friends all looked alike and spoke with marbles in their mouths, but at least we finally gleaned her name. We repeated it to ourselves in whispers over and over. Marie à Paris: it had a nice ring to it, if you said it right. As we filed upstairs to grab our Gitanes, we nodded, smiled, even said hello in our most neutral accents.
They ignored us entirely.
All the TV news channels were replaying the same jihadist video. It was the usual low-budget drivel: black ski masks and military fatigues, swords and AK-47s. They took credit for the Eiffel Tower bomb scare and threatened additional attacks on infidels, claiming the blood of Western dogs would flow in the streets of Paris. From deep within his safe room, the mayor of Paris himself strongly cautioned residents to avoid crowds, remain vigilant, and report any suspicious activity.
Yet Marie and her friends weren’t intimidated in the least. Or maybe they were just that reckless and entitled? We watched them come and go for a day before our curiosity got the best of us, and we started following them around the city. Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and Sacré Coeur, Louvre and Place de la Concorde: they hit all the tourist sights, howling snatches of “La vie en rose” in terrible American accents, not a care in the world. Be careful! we wanted to say. It’s a dangerous world! But they were loud and obnoxious and completely oblivious, yakking nonstop in their garbled patois. They kept entirely to themselves, rarely even greeting anyone else. We didn’t like their attitude.
So arrogant! we said.
Condescending, we said.
Capitalist pigs! we said.
Still, we ogled them at every opportunity. Maybe they all looked a little horsey, but that wasn’t unusual for Americans and reminded us of actresses whose names we’d forgotten. We brushed against their thighs on the staircase and checked out their asses in the corridors. We winked and blew them kisses when they weren’t looking. In the wee hours, loaded and reeling, we solved the world’s problems in loud, slurry voices outside their bunkroom door, just to be close to them.
Marie’s American friends didn’t stay for long. Not three days after they arrived, off they wobbled with their giant backpacks into the wilds of Europe. So what was Marie still doing here? Was she a student at the Sorbonne? An intern at the Banque de France? A politician’s lover on a doomed tryst? We talked it over all afternoon, swilling lukewarm beer.
When Marie returned that night reeking of Budweiser and Hardrock Café cheeseburgers, we were lingering in the lounge, and we leered at her, muttering insults and sweet nothings under our breath. We met her at the landing, then twirled and spun her as we gyrated to an old Johnny Hallyday tune crackling through the ceiling speakers, passing her back and forth before she knew what was happening. Ash dangled from our cigarettes. Marie’s mouth was an ugly slash of disgust. To our surprise, she caught her balance more quickly than we anticipated, elbowing, slapping, and shoving us away.
Hands off, creepers!
One of the Icelandic girls staying in the bunkroom next to ours bumbled onto the landing, squinty with drink.
These Eurotrash losers just attacked me! called Marie.
The Icelander looked confused. This is true, boys?
We were only dancing.
Just for fun.
It’s a good song!
Our Icelandic neighbor grinned, rubbing our backs and pawing our shoulders. These gentlemen want only to show you a pleasant time, she said.
Marie stomped off upstairs.
The next morning, an explosion rocked Notre Dame. Though the hostel wasn’t next door, we could feel the building shake. The blast was all over the news, though in the immediate aftermath, no one really knew anything. Maybe it was some kid’s prank with fireworks. Or a tourist’s cigarette lighter igniting a gas leak. Or a small-scale bombing perpetrated by the very jihadists in the recent video. Lots of blather, as usual, but it was all speculation for the time being.
The real bomb exploded when Marie discovered there’d been a break-in while everyone was downstairs, crowding around the TV news. She shouted and screamed and blubbered for longer than we would’ve imagined possible, her voice echoing through the entire hostel. We followed the clamor down to the lobby, where Marie was lodging an official complaint, so to speak. We knew Jean-Michel’s English was terrible, so we weren’t surprised to find him smirking and feigning interest.
Do you need some help? we asked Marie.
She was bleary-eyed and desperate. But then she recognized us and almost spat right in our faces. These creepers are probably the ones who broke into my room! she wailed.
Why don’t you have them arrested? said Marie. Question them, search their rooms, something!
He has bad English, we explained.
That’s just great. Seriously. Fucking terrific!
You speak French, n’est-ce pas?
Only a little, she admitted, perhaps blushing, though her face was still red with rage.
You would like us to translate?
Oh, sure, why not, she said. You probably already know what happened, right? So tell him. Admit how you broke into my room and stole my passport and phone and money. This oughta be good.
You were robbed?
She shifted her weight, folding her arms across her chest. Like that’s news to you.
This is very serious, we said.
Jean-Michel lit another Gauloise. Mais qu’est-ce qu’elle fout, cette meuf?
Her boyfriend dumped her, we explained in French. Now she hates all men.
Fucking Americans, said Jean-Michel, chuckling.
You think it’s funny? Marie said, slapping the counter.
Jean-Michel swatted at an invisible fly.
He only says you must talk to the police, we explained. He knows about French police, so he has to laugh.
Great, excellent, wonderful. She shook her head and swallowed a sob. Before she turned in disgust to climb back upstairs, she said, By the way, ever heard of a shower? You creepers stink.
The next day, there was a shooting near the Sorbonne, just a stone’s throw from here. Naturally, the hostel was abuzz with the news, but no one could get the story straight. A disgruntled student murdered his professor. A gang leader was taken down over a botched drug deal. A group of jihadists opened fire on pedestrians and motorists. Unfortunately, the news coverage only muddied the waters.
Marie wasn’t huddled around the TV along with everyone else. Too much on her mind. We watched her wander down the steps and out into the morning light. We waited, holding our breath, then staggered out after her.
The first thing she did was buy a cheap cell phone, though where the money came from, we couldn’t fathom. We listened as she canceled her credit cards, one by one. Visa, MasterCard, American Express: why did she have so many?
Then she called Daddy.
Someone broke in, she said, sniffling and wiping at her tears. I’m fine, but I need some money.
She nodded, raking us with her absent gaze. We wondered if she spotted us. We wondered if she knew we were following her.
I have a pretty good idea, she said. Okay, I will. Love you, too.
After a cigarette break in the Jardin du Luxembourg—we’d never seen her smoke—she plodded from gendarmerie to commissariat, trying to file a police report about the theft. We kept our distance, knocking into pedestrians, stepping in dog shit, dodging the rush-hour surge. Even if she ever found the right police station, she would just fill out endless forms no one would ever follow up on. That was the way of things in Gay Paree.
Once that ordeal was finally over, Marie went down to the Métro, and though we were leery of possible terrorist attacks, not to mention completely starving, we stuck right behind her. She purchased a ticket. We rail-jumped, dodged the transit cops, and shoved our way through the car so we could keep our eyes on her. Commuters sank into their newspapers. A blind man sang “Aux Champs-Elysées” in a lovely tenor, then caned through the car collecting donations. The stench of B.O. and creosote hung thick in the air.
Marie got off at Concorde, then trudged up Avenue Gabriel to her embassy. We knew what this was about: a passport. She would have to wait in line, fill out paperwork, talk to some deadbeat functionary. It could take hours. So a couple of us went for burgers at Quick, and we ate them in the park across the street, then smoked Gitanes and told each other fabricated stories about our wild international adventures. Every time some Parisian snob traipsed by, staring, sometimes even glaring, we asked: Where are you coming from? Where are you going? By now it was second nature.
When Marie finally emerged, she looked red-faced and wrinkled. Her eyes were puffy, her blonde locks a mess.
Miss America down from her throne, we said.
Still, even we felt a little sorry for her.
We spotted her at breakfast the next day, wedged into a small table in the corner alone, hunched over her gray orange juice. Cutlery clattered. People muttered in sleepy voices. We wandered her direction, still hangdog and hungover. Chairs moaned as we raked them over the scuffed parquet. We had Marie surrounded, though we hoped she didn’t feel threatened. Other twenty-somethings gazed on with wide eyes before melting beneath our glowers.
Sorry, she said gnawing on a hunk of baguette. Those seats are taken.
We grinned. She held the cup of juice to her lips.
You don’t want to drink that, we said.
Marie sneered. Thanks for that hot tip.
We shifted in our seats.
What is it with you dirtbags? she wondered. What part of Leave me the fuck alone! don’t you understand?
A jolt of electricity crackled through us.
Hel-lo? she said. Earth to creepers?
We cleared our throats. Then one of us dug in a pocket and slid her passport across the table. It was our ace in the hole.
We thought you might need this, we announced.
Is that—? She grabbed it, leafed through the pages, gazed at the photograph. How did—?
We found it in the corridor.
Marie’s expression softened. Omigawd, I can’t believe it! I figured this thing was long gone.
She was right: American passports went for top dollar on the black market, or so we’d heard.
Did you find anything else? Like maybe my phone?
Unfortunately not, we said.
Still, my passport. Marie’s eyes misted over. She took a deep breath, marveling at her good fortune. You have no idea what a pain it is to get a replacement.
A couple of us leaned back and slipped Gitanes between our lips, until a husky kitchen lady bellowed, C’est interdit de fumer, messieurs! We let them dangle, unlit.
How can I ever thank you?
When we heard that question fall from her tongue, when we took in her soft eyes and dimples, we were certain anything was possible. We traded furtive glances around the table. Then one of us said, That’s unnecessary. It was the right thing to do. Anyone else would have—
Stolen it and sold it to the highest bidder.
We couldn’t help our smiles. What she said was true. Still, we held our tongues.
At least let me take you out for a drink tonight?
Now we knew we had her.
You don’t have to do anything, we said. We’re just happy you have your passport back.
She swallowed a smile. Come on, guys. I insist. Let me treat you.
Okay, we said, relenting. But just one.
We met in the lobby around nine that evening. Marie looked even sexier than usual in skinny jeans and a tight black blouse, her blonde locks long and loose. Something on her skin seemed to glitter in the harsh fluorescent light. We breathed her in, a mélange of perfume, shampoo, and laundry detergent, along with a thin trace of antiseptic. Hand sanitizer, perhaps? Americans were obsessed with the stuff. All the same, we wished we could bottle her scent and put it under our pillows.
The bar was just around the corner, a shabby locals-only dive. The down-and-out regulars seemed a little miffed when we crashed through the door, but we didn’t let it bother us. We ordered beers all around, plus a vin rouge for Marie. We toasted her health. She toasted ours. Our desire was gnawing us from the inside out, though we hoped it didn’t show.
We’d never spent any time with an American. We didn’t really need to. We listened to their music, watched their movies and TV shows, felt the brunt of their self-righteous international politics. But now here we sat across from a flesh-and-blood example. Though we peppered her with questions about cowboys and movie stars and college sororities, we realized that she was a far cry from the snobby bimbo we imagined. Instead, she struck us as smart and sassy and funny. She had a quick smile and a ready joke. She radiated a quiet warmth.
We never expected to like her.
At the end of the night, Marie paid the whole tab, four rounds worth, a hundred Euros or more, on a credit card we didn’t know she had. Least I can do, she slurred.
No good deed goes unpunished, we said. It was something we’d heard once in a movie. We weren’t entirely sure what it meant.
Outside, she held our arms and leaned into us, so we took the long way back to the hostel. We felt her body heat and smelled the wine on her sweet breath. She seemed clean and innocent and more than a little naïve, and our imaginations ran away with us. Even as we joked and sang “L’Hymne à l’amour” at the top of our lungs and fabricated new international adventures on the spot, we chewed our lips and cheeks and tongues. It was the only way to keep our longing at bay.
As we poured into the lobby, Marie surprised us again:
Got any wine upstairs? she asked.
Us? we said.
Wine? we said.
Of course, we said. But don’t let it get around.
One of us scampered down to the kitchen for some less filthy glasses, while the rest of us guided Marie to our bunkroom. We opened a new bottle of red, laughing too loudly, shushing each other. We were already deep into quiet hours at the hostel, though stage whispers were the best we could manage. Marie took charge, pouring the wine, and we all toasted. We drank, she poured some more, and we listened to her pledges of undying gratitude.
Then, out of the blue, Marie said, Is it hot in here?
We hadn’t noticed. Now that you mention it, we said. One of us went to crack a window, though all three were already wide open.
She gave us a warm smile, then winked and took off her top. For the first time since we’d occupied it, our room went silent. We could even hear the Icelandic girls’ snoring through the thin walls. We stared at Marie’s black lace bra, at those glorious breasts it cradled. That moment seemed to stretch out for days. But then Marie pitched her blouse onto one of our bunks and said:
That broke the spell. We exhaled and chuckled and peeled off our own shirts.
Better, she said, ogling our naked chests and grinning. Now come closer.
We all wanted to fondle her soft brown skin, to press our lips to her cheeks and forehead, chin and neck, to let our tongues dance across her luscious breasts. Only there were too many of us. We’d had too much to drink. We kept kissing cracked lips, licking stubble, and groping each other.
Time was a drunken slur.
Then we felt Marie slip from our grasp. The door creaked open, and she said, Hold that thought.
Before it clicked shut, we were already sprawling out on the floor or tumbling into our bunks. Our eyelids were leaden, our minds groggy. We’d never felt so tired in all our lives.
Darkness flooded in.
We awoke to a huge explosion that rattled the window panes and shook the building’s foundation. Car alarms squealed, emergency sirens screamed. Angry sunlight poured through the windows.
Marie was nowhere in sight.
None of us could recall what happened. Some of us swore we’d had a wild night with her, but most of us remembered nothing but the darkness. In the light of day, it blossomed at our temples like black roses.
We’d never had a hangover quite like this.
We rubbed our eyes, but they wouldn’t focus. When our vision grew less cloudy, we squinted at the wall clock. Two-thirty? We blinked against the glare and blinked again. How could we have slept for so long?
When at last we sat up, we realized that our room had been trashed. Our backpacks were turned inside out. Clothing littered the floor. Someone had ransacked the closet, whose door hung sideways off its hinges, spewing broken hangars. Our stomachs dropped as we took in the devastation.
Where’s my wallet? we asked.
Anyone seen my phone? we asked.
Didn’t I lock my passport in this safe? we asked.
We all patted pockets and searched bags and scanned beneath furniture. We asked each other asinine questions whose answers we already knew. Because our valuables were gone. All of them. And we were pretty sure we knew who took them.
We clutched our temples, singing “Non, je ne regrette rien” under our breath.
Once we managed to teeter downstairs, we trudged over to reception. Jean-Michel stood behind the desk, squinting at the TV through his cigarette smoke. He grinned when he saw us.
Ça va, les gars?
Have you seen Marie?
The American slut? he said.
Don’t call her that, we said. Have you seen her?
Jean-Michel nodded. She’s gone.
Any idea where she went?
Was she carrying her giant backpack?
He nodded again, knocking ash off his cigarette. She checked out. What do you care?
Forget it, we said, deflated. It’s a long story.
We asked around about Marie, but most people had no idea who we were talking about. We were insistent at first, describing in detail the blonde American girl with the radiant smile, yet in our condition we lost focus and fatigued easily. No one was really listening to us anyway.
Instead, they gathered around the TV, where images of rubble and fire and bloody, weeping Parisians flashed across the screen. Emergency workers scrambled around the disaster site, dragging fire hoses, carting wounded on stretchers, setting a perimeter for the public. The volume was on high, but we couldn’t understand a word.
We searched our pockets for our Gitanes, but they were missing. Maybe Marie had stolen those, too. We felt dizzy and green. We needed to go back to bed for the rest of the week. We could sense that this was the end of something.
Before we plodded away, an Icelandic girl explained that terrorists had bombed the Gare de Lyon. Massive casualties, hundreds of people reported missing, assailants still at large. Could we believe it?
We stood there, nonplussed, for a long moment, TV blaring in the background. Someone lit a clove cigarette, and the smoke stung our eyes. We shook our heads. We felt muddled and at loose ends. When we finally spoke, all we could think to say was:
It’s a dangerous world.
Photo: “Paris-1991” courtesy Flickr