you happened to me. you were as deep down as i’ve ever been.
They meet accidentally, strings entangling together beneath the ink of Paris’ night. In the lamplight she is a ghost, hair on fire. He goes to her and the stars turn his backpack into dusty wings.
“Excuse moi,” he starts, enraptured in the pool of yellow light, “je suis- un peu perdu. Pourrais-tu m’aider s’il tu plait?” His accent is broken, the lessons his governess gave him as a child almost forgotten.
She replies, words slipping off her tongue like liquid, speaking as a native does. He’s lost. For a moment he stares blankly at her. Then, the ghost laughs and she is alive. “I’m English too, don’t worry.”
The man (a boy really, eyes too fresh to be mature yet) smiles in relief. This girl is beautiful. Her accent, her English one, bears the soot of coal and the chaotic organisation of terraced houses crammed together.
“I’m lost. I’m meant to be staying at a hostel,” her eyes flick to his backpack,” but I’m sure I took a wrong turning.” His accent is stark against hers, stained with silver spoons and the glimmer of chandeliers.
“It’ll be closed now.” She says simply and it’s the delicate watch on her wrist that tells him it’s midnight. He groans. His phone had died around nine and Paris’ winding streets whisked time away. The girl (a woman really, but only when she stands on the streets of Paris with the stars turning her into Athena) studies him.
Beneath the yellow light her hair is red, orange, hues of the sunset fallen from the sky. Shadows beneath her eyes serve as frames for the green green irises that hold him and her skin is pale, burnt gold in the light.
“Do you think-”
“If you like, you can stay with me.” The soot softens her words, “I’ve got a small flat. Free. Cleaner than a youth hostel - trust me, I’d know.” And he does trust her. Her lips are hesitant, teeth chewing.
He grins. “Really?” It seems impossible that his luck - so shitty up until now, a missing wallet, a delayed train, an outdated map - could turn around.
But she nods and shrugs. “No trouble. It’s you who’ll have to sleep on the sofa.”
“I’ve slept on worse.” He follows as she steps out of the lamplight, hoisting his bag higher on his shoulders.
They walk in silence down alleyways and past small shops that the boy has only seen in paintings from centuries ago. The moon washes everything in white and he knows that coming here was the right choice, even if it did mean leaving everything behind.
He blurts his name once they’ve been too long in silence, only interrupted by a stray cats’ meow or the hum of an engine in the distance. She looks up at him, a question. He repeats it, slower, softer. A nod in understanding.
She tells him her name and it’s a gift.
“Nice to meet you.” They don’t shake hands. Their shoulders brush, barely a glance, and that suits the way the stars blink above them.
The flat is above a bakery, through a cracked black door, up a worn set of stairs, and another door, this one blue like the morning sky, and there it is.
“Emphasis on small.” He stands in the doorway as she steps forwards, flicking a switch and casting the room in light. There’s a kitchen of sorts, an oven, a fridge and a work surface. A mattress pushed up against another wall, white sheets tangled. Books stand in a haphazard pile next to it. The girl moves around easily and he wonders how long she’s been here. To have picked up the accent, decorated the walls of her flat with a collage of memories.
“It’s lovely.” He shuts the door behind him as she quirks her eyebrow in what he guesses is disbelief. She points at a bright fuchsia sofa, heavy with embroidered cushions. Most of the embroidery contains expletives.
“Your bed.” Opening a wardrobe too big to have fitted up the staircase, she pulls out a pillow, a sheet and a duvet.
“Oh, cheers.” He takes them from her and places them on the arm of the sofa.
“The bathroom is in there,” a door the same colour as the second one, “help yourself to food and drink. Whatever you need really.” She checks her watch. “Do you think you’ll be staying long?”
He falters. “I’ll be out of your hair in the morning -”
“Oh.” She plays with the catch on the watch. “You don’t have to. Stay as long as you want.”
“Are you sure? It’s more than enough letting me stay one night.”
“Stay.” Through the wide windows he sees Paris stretched out, twinkling lights and silhouettes. Her voice is a plea.
His voice is a saving grace. “Okay.”
After that she’s is more subtle. Helps him clear the cushions from the sofa, (he counts thirteen) tucks the sheet in, straightens the duvet. Smiles softly before disappearing into the bathroom.
He runs a hand through his hair. Wipes his hands over his face, rubs his eyes. Sighs. Yawns. Strips to his boxers and climbs beneath the duvet, melts into the sofa.
By the time she steps out of the bathroom, he is asleep, facing the wall, hair messier than it had been before. She is silent as she crosses to her bed, changes into a simple white nightgown, slips between her sheets and closes her eyes.
* * *
The stranger (so close to being a friend) wakes to the sound of a shower running. He blinks, finds himself staring at a yellow wash wall, the paint old yet clean. For a second he doesn’t know where he is. Then - the woman stood beneath a street light, a ghost, a friendly face. He smiles.
Rolling over and stretching, he doesn’t wince as his shoulders click, he takes in the flat properly. There are no curtains on the windows and the morning light floods in, bright and soft.
Last night he’d glanced at the layout, not bothered to take in the details. Now he sees the newspapers stacked on the work surface, salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Laurel and Hardy, a small table beside the window, two stools tucked beneath it, books and papers on top, the wardrobe, carved with flowers, her bed still unmade, a book propped open on the pillow, the embroidered cushions in a mountain by the bathroom door, too many fucking idiots, the memories stuck on the wall, pinpoints of her life. He can see ticket stubs, photographs, leaflets, stickers, postcards, badges, lists, polaroids, wrappers, drawings. The collage almost stretches floor to ceiling, the lowest memories just brushing her bed.
The shower stops. The door knob twists.
The ghost (so close to being a friend) steps out, a viciously pink towel wrapped around her, secured beneath her armpits. She freezes when she notices that he’s awake and his cheeks heat. Refusing to let himself look at the expanse of her skin on show, he smiles apologetically.
“Mornin’,” She says, snapping the awkwardness. “Bathroom’s empty. Don’t know how much hot water will be left, that’s my fault, sorry.”
“It’s fine.” He pushes the duvet off of him and is reminded of just how sweaty and grubby he feels. Glad of the diversion to take his eyes away from the woman, who’s moved to her wardrobe, he crouches down in front of his backpack and rifles through it. If he had packed properly he’s sure he would’ve found clothes in a few seconds. As it is it’s a few minutes before he unsurfaces a clean pair of boxers and some clothes.
She’s managed to change into a sundress by the time he turns around, hidden by the wardrobe doors. “Towels are on the shelf.” She says and he pushes the bolt across.
The bathroom is tiny, barely room for a shower, sink and toilet. Like the rest of the flat though, it works. The whole room is steamy and he can see her handprints where she’s opened the glass shower door. A square has been wiped on the mirror and he takes in his reflection. Aside from the dusk beneath his eyes and the shadow on his jaw, he doesn’t look like he’s spent the better part of two days either cramped on a train or wandering lost around Paris.
Yawning, he drops his boxers and steps into the shower. The system is old, antique, but he’s used to antiques.
He stays in the water until it runs cold, which he guesses is about ten minutes, then finds the shelf of towels. All of them are different colours, none of them a shade duller than at least neon. He chooses the least offensive, a bright green, and dries himself quickly. Once he’s dressed he rubs his jaw, tells himself he’s an idiot for not even remembering razors.
“Do you like pancakes?” He opens the door and is greeted by the sight of the ghost (who seems to contain more life than most people he’s met in his life so far), pan held out in front of her, pancake spinning through the air. She catches it with expertise.
She sets the pan back on the heat and then gestures to the table. “Help yourself.”
The man looks and finds a plate, laden with pancakes, set on top of a book. With the view of Paris behind it, it’s heaven sent. He hasn’t eaten since about eleven am yesterday and now, the smell filling the whole flat, he realises it.
They sit opposite each other, eating the pancakes off Dora the Explorer decorated plates with Elmer cutlery. She buries hers in sugar and lemon juice and syrup. So much so that he wonders how her teeth aren’t made of cavities.
“About last night-” She looks through the window, doesn’t meet his gaze, “if you don’t want to stay, that’s fine. You’re more than welcome too, I just understand if -”
“I’ll stay.” Her smile floods the room.
* * *
He learns more about Paris just by being there for a few hours with her than he ever did in school or on the internet. The Seine runs through her veins, overflowing out her mouth, onto his skin.
Somehow she knows everyone who walks past them in the alleyways, they tell out dictionaries in French, leaving him behind. He stands next to her, aches to draw everything he sees. And he learns about her.
Beneath the pale pink shutters she tells him where she grew up, a town forged in fire beneath the ground, full of those who either wanted more or didn’t know more existed. All she ever knew was the smoke until her dad died, barely two months after her mum, and she left. Ran away to Paris with no intention to stay. Until she never left. That was two years ago and he sees the pain in her eyes, isn’t sure if the glint is regret.
When she falters he picks it up, tells her of a house passed down through generations where love was in the very walls, the foundation, the brickwork. A house that was always home. Then his dad died and things changed, not much, but enough. (She nods at this point, and he knows she understands empty rooms, quiet dinners, the loss that welds itself to a home.) How he decided one night that he wanted to travel. So he planned it, said goodbye and got on the train.
“What about your mum?” Her eyes stay trained on the padlocks, flicker to where a couple further down the bridge is throwing a key into the river.
“She wanted me to go. Said she was fed up of me treating her like an invalid, promised that she could look after herself and dropped me at the train station.” The man (a son before anything else) laughs, shaking his head. “My mum is strong.”
“Don’t you know that women are made of pain?” The woman says, and looks at him. Stay. Okay.
* * *
Every day they follow the same routine. She showers, he showers, they eat together and then they go out.
Sometimes she’ll tell him about Paris, point out monuments and walk him across bridges, to places where they’ll queue to get in and then sneak away from the guided tour because she knows the same facts, more facts, better stories. Sometimes they’ll go to a cafe or a park and talk for hours, making their way through Paris’ dessert menus.
Other times they’re not together. She doesn’t ask him, he doesn’t ask her. On these days the man does what he came to Paris to do. To draw, paint, sketch. He starts with the obvious things. The Eiffel Tower is easy, the Seine simple, the Notre Dame repetitive. Then, as he learns more about the city, he paints exactly that. The tourists licking ice cream cones, the market place and the bartering and fresh fruit, the alleys with shutters and giggling children, down along the Seine the stallholders who always have the best deal, the couple kissing in the shadow of apartments which feel like old money.
One day she finds him by the Seine, his canvas capturing the evening’s lights on the water.
“I didn’t know you painted.” She says simply, eyes tracing the glow reflected in the river.
Instead of telling her she never asked, he shrugs. “It’s why I came.”
From then on they don’t spend days apart. She sits next to him, reading, as he sketches two businesswomen smoking by the Arc de Triomphe. As he paints the sunset. As he draws Paris, from a distance, with details, in tonal, in colour.
And then he draws her. Reading. Brushing a strand of hair away from her face. Laughing. Pointing at a boat coming up the water. Without realising it, he’s painted her everywhere. Whether as a passerby, smudged in his watercolour of the Sacre-Coeur, or as half of a couple, or as the entire painting. He has to buy more red paint within a few days.
His sketchbooks fill, a blur of the girl who saved him that night in the midst of Paris, and in the corner of the flat his canvases stand. He hadn’t planned on staying so long. June melts into July. She doesn’t ask him to stay, she doesn’t need to. His toothbrush stands in the pot next to hers, his shaving foam isn’t allowed to take precedent on the shelf with her shampoo and conditioner, his books are scattered amongst hers on the table, he isn’t sure which charging cord for his phone is his any more, the brown sauce she doesn’t like sits in the cupboard, a key to the flat sits in his pocket next to the wallet she haggled for before he learnt how. It feels like home.
* * *
With August also comes art galleries. She insists on taking him to every single one in Paris, and so they go to every art gallery in Paris. Inside the galleries she stands out next to the other visitors, her hair spilling like wine over her shoulders, and he looks at her more than he looks at the art on display. Studies the line of her jaw, the almost invisible freckles on her nose, the scar below her eyebrow, the pink of her lips, the slope of her neck, her soft skin. He thinks about telling her that she is more beautiful than any of the pieces they look at. The words never quite make it out.
They hide behind pillars to take photos in the ‘no photography’ galleries, pretend to be lost English tourists to annoy a pretentious French man who she overheard commenting on the length of her dress, he grabs her hand when they run away from a guard who chases them after she accidentally leans too close to a sculpture. They stand still, a tableaux, in front of Monet and Van Gogh and Michelangelo and Matisse. He lets her push her way to the front of the crowd in front of the Mona Lisa because, even though he’d rather look at Renoir than Da Vinci, she is so proud to show him this.
“Growing up, I never really paid a lot of attention to art. I wasn’t very good at it in school. The only painting in my house was a print, of a girl playing a card game. I loved that painting. That was art for me. It didn’t need to be drawn by some old master, hung in a frame. When I came to Paris and visited the Louvre for the first time I realised that I didn’t need to know anything about art or be good at it to appreciate it. It’s all beautiful.” They’re standing in front of Van Gogh’s Portrait of Doctor Cachet and her voice is soft, inked with the past. He looks at her.
“How are we not art, when our hips and our lips and our hands all fit together like corresponding pieces?” He uses someone else's words because his own are painted with green eyes and wine hair and he’s afraid to say them in case they cut his throat.
* * *
In the middle of August, they get drunk one night. Rain smudges Paris into an oil painting and they drink wine from Winnie the Pooh mugs, curled up on the sofa. There are two embroidered cushions - Sacrebleu! and There’s a fine for any bullshit left behind - between them and her duvet is tucked around them. Candles light the flat, resting on the floor and the table, a definite fire hazard.
They’ve spent the day letting ice cream drip onto their fists, making up stories for tourists beneath the Eiffel Tower, brushing shoulders as they walked along the Seine. The wine is warm in their veins.
Her head rests against the back of the sofa, tilted towards him so her whole face is bathed in candlelight. “Do you remember the night we met?” She asks suddenly, breaking off from telling him about how she once hid a mouse in a teacher’s desk because the teacher told her she was slow.
Of course he remembers that night. The way his shirt clung to his back, trapped between his backpack. How the sky above was teal and navy and indigo and oxford and sapphire. Her beneath the lamp, a ghost with a forest in her eyes. “Yeah.” He looks down at her, rests his cheek on the back of the sofa, searches her face.
“It was the anniversary of my parent’s wedding. Only I’d forgotten until about an hour before and I couldn’t believe that I’d forgotten it… I couldn’t understand how I was already beginning to forget my parents…”
“I’m sorry.” Her hand smoothes over the duvet and, on impulse, he reaches for it, takes it in his own. She looks at him, her eyes dark in the candlelight, and nods once, as if assuring herself of something. Her hand is small in his, delicate almost, a bruise on the edge of her knuckles where she banged them against the counter top yesterday. It’s a galaxy on the edge of her hand.
“You don’t have to be. You came up to me,” her lips curve up slightly, unconsciously, a quiet laugh, “with your crooked smile and hurricane hair and obscenely large backpack.” She looks away, out to Paris. “I was wondering how deep the Seine was.” She must feel his hand tense because she looks back up at him, “Not like that. Not like that at all. I was just wondering if I dived in and swam all the way to the bottom, would I be able to hear the traffic, would I be able to look up and see the lights, would I be able to remember Petunia?”
The woman (eyes far from fresh and yet so bright) takes a sip of her wine, nestles the mug back amongst the wrinkles in the duvet. Looking at her, the man realises that he loves her. Which is funny because he didn’t come to Paris to fall in love and yet, here he is, sitting next to the girl who makes his heart beat faster and his smiles come easier and his laughs louder and his sketchbook fuller. The realisation is subtle, quiet, almost as if he’s known for a while but never quite thought about it.
Was this love? Holding the hand of someone you’d known for two months and wishing you could give them the world? Painting them in everything, seeing them everywhere? Perhaps the books were wrong. Maybe you didn’t fall in love. Maybe you eased yourself into it, dipped your toes in first, let it wash over you until it was all you knew. Maybe it felt so right because it had never, not even for a moment, felt wrong. “I came to Paris to paint Paris. And I ended up painting you.”
“Well, I’m no French girl and you’re no Jack, but,” She smiles and he knows that this is love, “things have a funny way of working themselves out.”
* * *
Something shifts after that night. The man (anything but a boy now) isn’t quite sure what exactly shifts, he just knows it does. Her hands finds his along the Seine, his shoulder brushes against hers as they’re cooking dinner, her foot knocks against his shin beneath the table at a cafe, his feet rest in her lap in the evenings when they’re reading quietly on the sofa.
Standing beneath the streetlight where they first met, she laughs and she isn’t pale at all. She is a thousand colours, blossoming from her hair and her lips and her elbows and her calves. She is so so much and he can’t for a minute believe he ever thought she was a ghost. He smiles at her, so bright and alive, and when she catches her lip between her teeth, he tilts his head, rests his hand on the curve of her hip.
With the lights of the city in her eyes she raises herself on her tiptoes, fingers in his hair, and her lips meet his, soft and red with lipstick and perfect. He pulls her closer, holds her against him, her spine beneath his palm, his eyes burning from how bright she is.
She whispers French into his mouth, flowers in her throat.
He frames her face in his hands, soothes his thumbs over her cheeks, rests his forehead on hers. “Excusez-moi, désolé, je ne parle pas français.”
They run back to the flat, pausing beneath shop canopies and the stars and beside statues to press their lips against each other, their mouths furnaces in the cold night. It’s his key they use to get in and they barely remember to close the door behind them before they’re kissing again, hands tugging at clothes and worshipping skin.
They fall onto the mattress, laughter knocking everywhere, and he pulls his shirt over his head, burns a trail down her jaw, lets her nails dig into his back, blushes when her shirt rips. Whispers travel in the silence, questions, confessions, traced onto skin, engraved in kisses.
Together they shatter, her back arched, a revelation, his head bent, an oath, and in each other they find what they’ve both been looking for.
Stay. Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.
* * *
“I love you.” He (a moth with dusty wings and nowhere else to turn, with no need to turn elsewhere) murmurs into her hair, arms encircling her. She (burning burning burning) feels the strings wrapped around her heart tighten because hearing him say he loves her so casually makes her feel like she’s a supernova, exploding, light crashing out of her, becoming her.
“I love you too.” She whispers into the night and she has never meant anything as much as she means those three words. They fall asleep and dream of Paris nights and red paint and a flat they flooded with themselves.
* * *
* * *
you were inside me like my pulse.