Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Arrondissement 6: The Latin Quarter

God. The way he fanned himself with that tour book. The summer sun had spent itself, and the temperature had dropped to seventy-some degrees. Not ninety.

But then, he’d gained a few pounds over the last forty years.

“Can you pass the sugar?” he said.

“What was that?”

The jazz pianist kicked it up in the bar. The music spooled into their candlelit terrace like a memory of silver. The restaurant’s eponymous lilacs were no longer in season, but the shrubs were pleasant enough.

“The sugar. Oh, never mind,” he said, and reached across their table for the packet.

“Sorry. It’s the music. And all the conversation.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’d prefer it quiet.”

Yes. That much was obvious.

He poured the sugar into his coffee. Under the table, she pressed the fork's tines into the tip of her finger.

I’m in La Closeries des Lilas, she reminded herself. The very same café where Hemingway drained his early works like a stopcock left open. (And hadn’t Papa’s image graced their menus, looking vaguely amused by all his new dignity?) The heart of the Latin Quarter, where artists, writers, and vagabonds swapped ideas and stories, in lieu of money.

But these furnishings—the mahogany tables with brass plates bearing the expensive names of famously dead patrons—reminded her of a leather-bound book. The self-consciously old kind, with gold-leaf lettering. Written in a dead language she could no longer fathom.

“How was your duck?” she asked.

He shrugged and scanned the room.

“We’ve had better back home. This place gets by on its nostalgia factor. But the Lilas of ’68 was very different.”

“Yes, it was,” she said, because she could think of nothing else. She looked past the red roses whose edges were browning, and directly into the candle’s flame, until she could bear its burn no more.

She closed her eyes.

There was revolution on the streets, and in their hearts.

It was '68, and the students at the Sorbonne were revolting against the establishment. Revolting against the double-jointed billy club of conservatism and a stale morality. Revolting just because they were young and alive and wanted to add the swell of their voices to the ferment.

And because they chose Paris for their honeymoon, she and Jake were like driftwood catching fire over a waterfall become kerosene. They couldn't ignore the burn, and soon, they didn’t want to. With their new comrades, they shouted protests in French, and seized on signs whose messages held more power for their mystery.

Une jeunesse que l’avenir inquiete trop souvent

All these words. Like marbles spilling from new mouths. And Paris listened. Throats turned raw, and people got bloodied. But they kept pushing. They couldn’t shout loud enough.

Later, back in the hotel, they couldn’t fuck hard enough. They drained every drop from the cup, and went back for more. Always more. Always, always—

She took a sip of her wine, and set the glass down.

He chuckled softly across the candlelight.

“What?” she asked.

“I was just thinking. Of that night in ’68.”

He reached across the table and brushed the inside of her wrist with his fingers. Her blood sweetened to the touch.

“Me too,” she said, and squeezed his hand.

His lips curved up on either side. She understood that smile to be the scale of their marriage—weighing one part love, against one part regret. The balance dipped back and forth.

He patted her hand and returned to his dessert.

But rubbing her thumb over the nameplate on their table, she could finally hear words from the ghost she’d hunted.

The sun also rises.

She raised her wrist to her mouth. Tasting the grains of sugar.


The words from the 1968 protest read,
A Youth Disturbed Too Often By the Future:


Stephen Parrish said...

She understood that smile to be the scale of their marriage—weighing one part love, against one part regret.

Nice. One of my favorite books is A Moveable Feast.

Karen said...

This is wonderful, Sarah! In such a brief piece, you are able to capture the essence of the marriage now and in its beginnings, the spirit of revolution that fired their lust, the hovering ghost of Papa Hemingway, and the feeling of loss engendered by the passing of time. Your details are so well chosen that none of this movement feels artificial. I love the inclusion of historical detail that propels the vignette. Excellent writing, as always.

I sincerely hope that you are sending out your work for publication. It is of such quality.

the walking man said...

All lasting marriages are weighed in that smile, by far the most telling line of the state of their union.

Well done Sarah. A complete picture of love as it is without flowers and flourishes. The lilacs after all only flower for a season but the bush itself is pleasant enough.

Catvibe said...

I love the opening, a sort of sense of disdain as she observes him. Then details, the bush not in its flowering season. Then memories, the weighing in of the early years, the passion, worrying too much about the future. The way she melts when he has a moment of melting, so sensitive to every nuance. When I read your writing, I get a sense sometimes of a writer who is in her 60's, not in her 30's, the wisdom and all around ability to see things from all angles, and even have the details reflect the angle you are portraying all add up to make you one amazing writer. Karen is right, you should be getting all of this stuff published! A collection of vignettes by you would be totally hot.

Anonymous said...

This piece is so rich and layered. Nostalgia...wanting to be part of something that is gone/maybe never was...defiance...resignation...fatigue...endurance...eagerness. There's really no use dissecting. It's to be experienced.

Sarah Hina said...

Steve, me too. I also love A Farewell to Arms.

Thank you for the warm comment here. :)

Karen, I think you've pinpointed one of the reasons I love to write about Paris so much. The city does so much of my work for me! The details and stories are so many and layered that I can pluck them out to use at will. :)

Thank you so much for your encouragement and kindness, Karen. I may very well put together a book of Paris stories someday. But for right now, I really love the intimacy of sharing them with you all. It's very special to me.

Mark, that is true on both ends. I do think, for this couple, it's possible to recapture something akin to the original feeling, but it will always be shaded by time and made thinner by nostalgia. It's the risk we take by growing older, I guess.

Thanks a lot, Mark. I really appreciate your reading here.

Cat, I did feel like I was cramming a lot in with this one. I wanted to make this one moment very pregnant with the past, and illustrative of the arc of their relationship.

And I'm very grateful that you've hit upon so many of the themes I was trying to explore. :)

You and Karen are very good for my ego, you know. ;) And I would love to do as you suggest someday.

Jason, that's all I want. For readers to experience the moment as something close to real.

Thank you for letting me know I succeeded here. :)

Sarah Hina said...

Oh, I wanted to say one more thing!

This vignette was inspired, in part, by the Richard Bausch story, "Letter to the Lady of the House." It definitely ranks as one of my favorite short stories, and if you can spare the time, you might want to Google it and listen to the reading he made for NPR's This American Life.

It's perfection.

Rick said...

This is a wonderfully crafted piece, Sarah. While reading it, I felt that I was sitting at the table with these two people, mourning for their lost past, their blurred present, and their perhaps not redeemable future. It truly made me want to reach out, grasp their hands and instruct them in the fragile beauties of the heart.

Chris Eldin said...

Ahh...Steve said it first. That was my favorite part.

We're all meeting you in Paris, Sarah. And I'm grateful for the invitation. Lovely vignette. I love how you capture the passage of time in so few words.

rebecca said...

"The music spooled into their candlelit terrace like a memory of silver." What an incredible and visual description.

I'm so happy I stumbled across your blog. Superb writing that is emotive and has the feel of someone much older that is passing down little vignettes of a life well spent.

I will certainly return...

lena said...

It felt so real, not like someone's story, but rather like a story that is happening in front of your eyes where you are a part of it. It is short but at the same time you said everything you wanted to say including so many aspects, combining the past with the present. So many details and all play a certain role in conveying the feelings and emotions.
Loved it :)

Margaret said...

A truly wonderful insight into the hearts of these two people. A nostalgic going back in time with all it's passion and lust of past days.
The Latin Quarter made the perfect setting for these strong feelings of emotions past and present.

Excellent Sarah!

Sarah Hina said...

Rick, I do feel like there was a kernel of optimism in the story. Both in the celebration of their past, which no one can take away, and in the small pleasures of the present. But it is a tenuous moment, and a fragile embrace.

Thank you so much for the lovely comments, Rick. I'm so gratified that you felt the full range of emotions here.

Chris, I'm so glad you're here with me during this visit. I very much remember your being there for the last one (I feel all nostalgic about it myself). And I picture all of us sitting in a virtual cafe together. :)

Rebecca, thanks so much! I'm so pleased you stopped by and commented. And I definitely hope you return. :)

I also very much appreciate your pointing out meaningful lines for you. That's precious feedback for a writer.

Lena, your comment concerning a living reading experience is the highest praise I can imagine, and I thank you immensely for your kindness. :)

Margaret, there was something about the Latin Quarter that makes me think of the highest intellectual energy and conversation. Which is why it was sadder to me that they should be so quiet and withdrawn now.

Thank you so much for the warm words here! You're all too good to me. :)

Aniket said...

I'd hurt both my hands in an accident so had trouble typing. Its a lot better now. Just wanted to say that I have been reading yours (and most other blogs) :D

Like Stephen and Chris I too am bowled over by the stunner line. I am so loving this series of yours and I totally second Karen that you should totally send the collection for publishing.

It'll help Paris tourism too (not that it needs any help :D :D :D)

Sarah Hina said...

Aniket, I can be a Paris missionary! :D

I wrote you an email about your hands, but again, I really hope you're recovering. Ouch. :(

Thank you for all your kindness concerning this series. I may look into publishing these someday, but I know the enjoyment I'd receive from that would pale in comparison to sharing them with all of my friends here. :)

日月神教-任我行 said...