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Out of the Past

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Despite Gertrude Stein's help, the book was pretty awful and Gil knew it. The problem, as far as he could tell, was that he had started it when he was with Inez and all the dilemmas of that relationship had found their way handily into his manuscript. It occurred to Gil that there really was nothing original in the world. Those same old thirty-six plots had been done to death way before the time he'd decided to move from screenwriting to original fiction and really, who was he to think he could bust through the mold and come up with something new and captivating?

If fiction was allegory and the allegory was a mirror of his own life, then he had every right to be bored by it. If he as the author was bored by it, then how could it stand a chance of captivating his readers?

The night he left Inez for good, he almost threw the Valium into the gutter on the way to midnight knowing he wouldn't be needing any again but thought the better of it. The pills had come in handy with Zelda once, and odds were they would come in handy with her again. The curse of his particular situation, as far as he could fathom, was in knowing what would happen to everyone down the line. Every time he saw Zelda by the Seine, his heart skipped a beat and dropped into his stomach even though history told him she wouldn't jump. At the same time knew he couldn't really help her. History was going to play out the way it did, and even if he went so far as to warn her against every sanitarium she'd ever set foot in, she would still die in that fire in 1948. He knew it because it was factual during the daylight hours. Ignoring that or hoping it would somehow work out differently became guileless fantasy at night.

Sometimes he wondered what had really become of Adriana. In his mind's eye he saw her at the table with Toulouse-Lautrec, sharing conversations filled with brilliant flourishes of happiness and dismay. Sometimes, he thought about staying in the 1920s. He thought about the way Gertrude was able to cut through everyone's bullshit with a word and a nod of her head, and about the way Hemingway was so full of himself he couldn't recognize the fact, and about the way Picasso fooled himself into thinking he could manage everything at once, and about the way Dali jumped from conversation to conversation. He thought about Scott and Zelda, who were just in the beginning of the most quarrelsome phase of their relationship, and about how everything between them was laid bare on a nightly basis for all around them to see or to ignore as they saw fit: jealousy, talent, affection, dismay.

Maybe that's how he'd been with Inez. When he really thought about her, really gave his mind over to what had happened between them, he realized he'd allowed himself to be swept along by her charm and drive. What she saw in him, he decided, was some sort of potential and that's what she latched onto. Being wanted for what you could represent wasn't nearly as fulfilling as being wanted for what you did represent, though, and he knew even before the trip to Paris that he ought to listen to his gut, which didn't care for Inez at all. Before her, he'd never been anxious. Before her, he'd never been so indecisive. She was brutal, really, in the way she threw him back and forth against the wall, hoping to force that potential out of him. While she read his work, she read it with a critical eye instead of a supportive one even though that was never something he'd asked for. She read it and hated it and told him he was wasting his time. How could time spent in such a personal pursuit be a waste, he wanted to know? The answer always came in an exaggerated roll of her eyes and a door closing behind her as she moved on to bigger and better pursuits.

Their trip to Paris couldn't have been more of a gift. He'd arrived with his eyes firmly shut and like a man newly blinded, held on to everything familiar with all his strength. His eyes were so deeply closed that he refused to see what was going on around him and right in front of him. Maybe it had been his reluctance to open his eyes that had saved him. If he'd been more aware sooner on, maybe he wouldn't have wandered off drunk that night. He wouldn't have gladly let his fiancée fall into that ridiculous affair with Paul the pedantic, but as it was, did he really care? Had he really wanted to marry Inez in the first place? She wanted it. Her parents weren't so crazy about the idea, but he'd had some success in Hollywood so that counted more with them than anything else he'd done, and certainly more than anything he was about to do. The idea of writing a book appealed to him. Hollywood and screenwriting were his business but working on a novel was his passion.

The other thing he was passionate about was Paris. In particular, he loved Paris in the rain and there was another contrast. Inez was Malibu and Southern California. She was sunshine and ocean and glitz and glitter. Creature comforts, money earned, money spent. He could afford them some of that, but not as much as she wanted. On the other hand, he was garrets in Parisian attics, walking past the Seine with the rain falling down, watching the lights pop into existence from the shelter of a nearby café with a glass of wine in his hand and a loaf of bread on the table. What he wanted was the romanticism of Paris, and what Inez wanted was the city's glamour. While he couldn't deny that it was an incredibly glamorous city, the pieces that most interested him were the ones tucked away into its nooks and crannies, into the grit of its cobblestones and hidden behind the scratched glass of its streetlamps.

Paris. Paris in the rain. The night Inez and her parents left, along with her pearl earrings and her suitcases and trunks and the promise of expensive furnishings somewhere down the line with someone else at their showcase home in Malibu, it rained. It was far too early for his ride back to the 1920s and far too soon to return to the same hotel he'd shared with his now ex-fiancée, so he walked. He walked, and the rain fell in gentle droplets that coated the city like tiny glittering diamonds and as he walked, he thought about the first line of his novel. "Out Of The Past" was the name of the store, and its products consisted of memories: what was prosaic and even vulgar to one generation had been transmuted by the mere passing of years to a status at once magical and also camp. When he'd first started writing, he started with those very words. Like most authors, he didn't always start at the beginning or finish at the end. This time, the book had mostly written itself. He had Inez and her antagonism to credit for that. When he first sat down to write, he had no idea how much of his everyday life would show up in his own work but looking back on it from the safety of Paris in the rain, it made sense. It's how his literary heroes wrote.

And some heroes they proved to be. As much as he liked Zelda, he didn't want to end up like Scott. As much as he admired Hemingway, he didn't subscribe to the notion that other authors were to be hated or that everyone was destined to end up in a fistfight. Those things were too limiting, speaking from a long-term perspective. As much as he'd loved Adriana, he knew that she was the thing that had been transmuted by the mere passing of years to that magical status because really, he didn't know her any more than he knew anyone else from the 1920s. By the same token, none of them knew him. He couldn't help who he was and who he'd been. The only thing he could affect was who he would become, now that he was finally in a place that felt like home.

He took a small apartment for a ridiculous amount of money right in the thick of things. Finding it didn't take long. There had been a time when he'd disbelieved in the notion of destiny, but now he lived for it. At midnight, he went back to visit his friends: Dali, Buñuel, Cole Porter, Hemingway, Gertrude and Alice. None of them seemed to treat Adriana's disappearance with any alarm. Then again, none of them seemed to treat his sudden appearance the same way, and that was fine with him. For once in his life, he was a catalyst.

At first he decided to scrap the book, but after consideration, after hearing that Hemingway had caved, read it, and approved, he changed his mind. If the people he idolized could make it in Paris, so could he. Nothing had to happen all at once, except the dissolution of his engagement and that was easy. One less pre-nup for the lawyers, that's all that meant. As he did every night, he stepped out into the broad streets and breathed Paris in as deeply as possible. This was his new home, and he was going to learn it inside out. He glanced up at the clock, not bothering to shield his eyes from the mist. The night was really just beginning, with time to spare before the clocks chimed.

That's when he saw her. Even after a few glasses of wine, he recognized her. "Hey, I know you. The girl from the flea market."

She looked up at him and smiled, shy and radiant and Parisian and welcoming, and her smile felt like a promise. They talked a little, about the flea market, about Cole Porter, about the fact that she lived nearby. About the fact that she loved Paris in the rain.

When the bells rang midnight, the two of them—Gabrielle, her perfectly pretty and undeniably Parisian name was Gabrielle—kept right on walking. Tonight, Gil realized, staying firmly rooted in the present didn't seem like the wrong thing at all.