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We'll Always Have Paris

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I. Gertrude Stein
"You know how these things are." Adriana's lips purse, but only for a moment before she shrugs and gives that half-smile Picasso entirely failed to capture on canvas. Like most men, Pablo opted for the exaggeration of imagination instead of the celebration of the subtle and whimsical. "You turn the corner by mistake, leave the building when you meant to find the costumery, and here you are. Back where you belong, even if you know in your heart it is not really where you belong."

Zelda grabs Adriana's arm. "I want to hear all about it." She's in one of those phases where fighting with Scott is the order of the day and won't hear anything about it from anyone. In the meantime, Scott drinks to distraction, all the while pretending to have a thoughtful conversation about cognitive dissonance with the American, Gil. "And when I do hear all about this crazy experience of yours, you know what we're going to do, Adriana? We're going to write a book about it, a diary, you and me, together, and it will be better than anything Scott ever wrote. More passionate, more vibrant. Ridiculous. Exotic. Whimsical, believable, delectable." Zelda steers Adriana into the room where Alice entertains the women, artful and skillful as any of them, only better.

I turn back to Hemingway. Words are important with him, yet at the same time unimportant. He raises an eyebrow and the drink to his mouth in that order, and wonders without saying as much whether he can spirit Adriana away again to Africa now that she's finally back. Have a second chance. "Learn your lessons when they're presented," I scold him, maybe a little more sharply than he's hoping to hear. "You can't have them all."

"A real man, a true and brave man, takes what he wants." His eyes shift from the departing Adriana to the pretty smiling woman at Gil's side.

Gabrielle is her name. I'm glad to see her with Pender. They're fond of each other, to say the least, and she fits well with him. An antiques dealer. Right out of the realm of his story, the one coming along at a good pace. I'm not much for meddling, but sometimes Hemingway can be too much real man for his own good. "Horsefeathers. A real man knows when to step back. They're not all yours for the taking."

"That makes me itch for a fight." I can tell he's getting riled up, so I nod Dalí over.

"Talk to Hemingway." My house, my rules, my salon, my Saturday night. If anyone can distract him, it's Dalí.

Dalí grins his manic grin, claps Hemingway on the shoulder, and leads him toward the chairs by the Cezanne Leo and I recently purchased. "You have been to Africa. Tell me about the rhinoceros."

*

II. Gil Pender
"You're not going to believe this, but just go with it." Gabrielle and I sit on the steps underneath the Paris sky, just like I did with Inez. Unlike the time with Inez, there's no fighting and no boredom. Gabrielle seems to have this endless curiosity about the same things I do, which is a relief because it means I can get rid of the Valium once and for all. Since I haven't even thought about taking any since the day Inez left with her parents (good riddance), I decide to just give the whole prescription to Zelda. At least I know it won't kill her. A light rain falls just like it did the night Inez and I sat here, or at least I sat here after she decided to go back to the hotel. We could take shelter under the balcony above the door, but the rain never seems to bother Gabrielle.

It's just a few minutes to midnight.

"All right." Gabrielle is accommodating where Inez was always stubborn. Sooner or later I'll stop comparing the two women, even though I never made it far enough to stop weighing the differences between Inez and Adriana. That's old news, though, and it's all for the best, since both those women left me. At heart I'm just a stubborn American romantic who tells himself if he doesn't think it about Gabrielle, it won't happen.

"Do you believe in fate?" These are exactly the kinds of discussions I was never able to have with Inez, but they're exactly the ones I always crave. Inez would get impatient, roll her eyes, ask what on earth I was talking about, and wonder aloud if I had a brain tumor. That was always her way of describing the differences in our reasoning. This is nothing like that, though. Maybe it's Paris in the rain working its magic, or maybe it's that I finally feel alive again in ways I never did in L.A., and because of that I don't mind asking. Gabrielle never makes fun of me. She doesn't belittle my writing or laugh at me, although we laugh together a lot.

She gives me one of her serious looks, the kind that tells me she's struggling to put her words into English for my benefit. I know some French but not nearly enough for eloquence. Then again, it's only been a month and change. "Fate? I think yes. Is like destiny?"

"Just like it." Her hand, her tiny little hand, is warm beneath mine, and as the clock strikes midnight a vintage car drives around the corner. It slows down, and we get waved over. "Get ready for a ride into destiny." It's such a corny line, and I whisper so that whoever's in the car tonight won't be able to overhear. I have my pride, after all.

"You are always writing," she laughs. "So poetic, your words."

Tell that to Inez. "I can't help it. It's what I do." I tug Gabrielle to her feet and move over to the car, thrilled. "I'm glad you like it."

"Come along," says the man inside. "It's Saturday night, don't hesitate." The door swings open. I help Gabrielle in first, then step up and close the door behind us.

"It's you again." The now-familiarity of it all makes me smile, and I rest my hand on Gabrielle's thigh like we do it all the time. She doesn't push it away. "This is my friend Gabrielle. Gabrielle, meet Tom, I mean, T.S. Eliot. Tom, did you ever get your 40 francs back from Ezra Pound?"

*

III. Gabrielle
I think this is all some elaborate ruse Gil is playing on me, some grand costume party he must have gone to great lengths to set up. I have what my friends call the good humor so I play along, admiring the leather interior of the car and trying to remember all I have learned in the past about Eliot and his poetry. I am maybe not so skeptical like other people, but it is hard to find the flaws in his interpretation. The man looks the part and acts the part, and his English is very good. The car slows near Rue de Fleurus and there is the twinkle in Gil's eye. For the first several weeks I put that down to his Americanism, to his delight at being more unencumbered and able to enjoy the things he likes about Paris: the Arc de Triomphe, late night walks along the Seine, the Eiffel Tower, the markets and cafes, the pain au chocolat, the museums, the way being here inspires his writing. It is a beautiful and vibrant city, and I think I know it well but when the car pulls to a stop, I feel a little dizzy. It is almost as if I have suddenly been transported back in time. If this is a trick on Gil's part he has done an outstanding job, with the period costumes and the changes to the street lamps and everything.

"Gil, where are we?" I know we are standing in front of a house, a very famous one. At least it is well known for one who dabbles in the artifacts of the past like I do, like my boss does.

Again I see that sparkle of mischief in his eyes. It is one of the things I like best about him, that he can be so carefree, that he can embrace all the experiences life presents to him. Most Americans, they are consumed by the price of things or the differences between what Paris has to offer and what they can find in the States. He is filled to the brim with acceptance, Gil is, eager for every moment, eager to explore. We are perhaps still new at being with each other, but I feel excited when I am with him, as if anything can happen.

"Come inside. I want to introduce you to some of my friends."

From the interior of the house I hear the sounds of conversation, of music, of all manner of revelry and for a moment I am suddenly shy and pull back. But before Gil can notice, I fill myself with resolve and smile and step forward. It is a costume party, nothing more. "You have made many friends in a short amount of time. How long have you been in Paris now?"

"Six weeks." His smile is uneven but genuine, as crooked as the nose on his face, and I like it. "But before we go in, you have to promise me one thing. Don't even think about leaving with Hemingway."

"Oh, so Hemingway, he is at this party too?"

"It's not a party, it's a salon. Gertrude Stein's salon."

He is so insistent that it makes me laugh. "All right, I promise. No leaving with Hemingway." I am eager to see which of his friends are masquerading as which famous people from another era. "As long as you promise not to leave with... let me see, with Joséphine Baker."

Now it is Gil's turn to laugh. "I don't even know if Joséphine will be here tonight, but if she is I'll introduce you." His words are earnest and his arm settles around my waist as he opens the door. "Honestly, I'm just glad you didn't think I might ditch you for Dalí."

*

IV. Ernest Hemingway
It's a night like many other nights. People are here. People come and people go and I want to fight them all for their smug faces and the way they move like they were the only ones ever to think they had the right to own the world. Gert tells me with brutal candor that not all women are mine for the taking. I know that, and Pender is all right. Not much of a fighter, but I took one good and honest and brave woman from him already and have lived the experience so I don't need to do it again although I could.

Fitzgerald looks like he had too many gin-and-tonics. Zelda is off with Adriana. Women keep secrets. Beautiful women keep beautiful secrets. The woman with Pender is beautiful and once Dalí is finished wasting my time telling me about dreams and enormous African animals I make my way over to the writer whose story has the potential but only the potential to make me jealous. I warned him not to show it to me. The character progression was obvious. The writing was good. I hated it.

Pender's possessive about his beautiful woman in ways he never was with Adriana or at least in ways I never saw him be possessive with Adriana. This one is real to him and she smiles at me when we're introduced but her eyes stay on him and that is how I know this one is real to him. "So you're Hemingway," she says and for a moment it could be a joke or a frigid draft settling in the air around us.

"Have you ever been to Africa?" I ask her.

Her laugh is small and gentle like the heartbeat of a flying sparrow and she takes Pender's hand. "When I was a child," she says and the light in her eyes is like the sun rising over the savanna with the storks flocking together by the water hole and the giraffes feeding on the high leaves of the acacia trees. "But I did not like it so much, so I do not think I will go again."

Pender looks at her in that foolish and unique way a lot of American men have when they're new to Paris and enchanted by its women, by its beautiful women. "You have?" he asks her. "I didn't know that."

"I think there is much we don't know about each other." She clutches his arm like she's laying claim or taking a stand against enemies and friends alike and leans up to whisper into his ear and he smiles an indulgent smile. I look at Fitzgerald steadied against the wall with the gin-and-tonic in his hand and slap him on the back. This is one place neither of us needs to be and I am man enough to know that much.

"I need to find Zelda," Fitzgerald says, and I slap him on the back again because we're already moving in that direction and because he doesn't yet know that it's his wife and not gin destroying his creativity. When he finds Zelda I'll find Adriana and we can argue about why Africa didn't work for us and she can tell me her stories about visiting with Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin and Degas and I will listen and laugh and say I believe her.

*

V. The Visitor
"That is... remarkable." Gabrielle's eyes fill with light reflecting off the ripples on the Seine. "You can go there any time you like?"

Gil wears the smile on his face as tangible proof of his happiness, that finally, someone from his own time believes him. "As long as it's midnight and I'm in the right place. At least I think I can. I haven't been let down yet." They stop, gazing into the river. The night's earlier rain has long since given way to the parting of clouds, stars arcing over the city like sentinels.

"You know I thought it was a joke, at first." She leans into him, long and tall and willowy. "Especially that line about Hemingway. But he was real, and Gertrude Stein and Alice, and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald."

"Don't forget Dalí." He shakes his head, an affable gesture. It looks like either the city's growing on him, or he's growing to fit into the city. "Not that you could if you tried."

"It was like a dream." Gabrielle stretches and grins lightly. "You know that Gertrude Stein once said ‘America is my country and Paris is my hometown'?"

"Well, Babe Ruth said ‘Paris ain't much of a town,' but I think he got it wrong. Look at it." He gestures to the streets around them, the river, the bridges, the buildings. "I just don't get that kind of sentiment. Inez couldn't wait to leave Paris and get back to L.A."

"And you couldn't wait to leave California behind so you could stay in Paris. There is magic in this city, but only for those who know how to look with their eyes open. It's good you know how to see." She slips her arm through Gil's. "I know a quote about Paris. From Hemingway."

"I knew Hemingway was trouble. A great writer, but trouble. Which quote?" They look off in the direction of the little apartment Gil rents in the Left Bank, not too far from the Rue de Fleurus.

Gabrielle closes her eyes, digging deep into her memory. "He said, ‘There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.'"

"That's a good quote." If he's jealous of the fact that Gabrielle memorized something of Hemingway's, he doesn't let it show. "A long one. I'm surprised you know the whole thing. It's from A Moveable Feast, at the very end."

"I know. I read it. I bought a used copy from that bookseller."

"So you're a Hemingway fan after all. Where do you think he goes at midnight?"

Gabrielle laughs. "I don't know. On safari, maybe. Enough about Hemingway. We should go see Casablanca. It's playing tomorrow night."

"Casablanca sounds good." Gil nods. "It's got one of the best movie lines ever. I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. People get it wrong a lot and say this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but I like the words the way they were meant to be said."

"Me too." He is a screenwriter first and a novelist second, and Gabrielle seems unsurprised at his dedication to the writers' intention. "I thought you were going to say we'll always have Paris. "

"That's a great line too." As they disappear down the street, their conversation fades into the night. From my vantage point on a nearby park bench, I can't help but smile at the scene unfolding before me. These humble adventuresome people! The quaint technology! The little lives, the little moments! The tiny triumphs, the small tragedies, the magic and naiveté of undiscovered science! The year 2010 truly is the best time to be in Paris.

This is my opportunity, the one I've been hoping for. Who wouldn't want to have a chance to meet the brilliant man who wrote the story that gave every reader the key to stepping back in time? I hurry down the street, catching up with them just before they round the corner.

"Gil? Gil Pender, the writer? And Gabrielle?"

Gil and Gabrielle stop and turn to face me. "Do we know you?" Gil's eyes narrow, searching for recognition.

I shake my head. "No, but I'm a huge fan of your book Out of the Past. I've read it a dozen times."

Gil's mouth forms a perfect round o before he turns to Gabrielle. "Out of the Past? I haven't even finished it yet."

His surprise and genuine humility put a grin on my face. "Oh, but you will. Trust me, you will. See, I'm visiting from... listen, how about I explain everything to you both over a cup of coffee?"

Gil looks at Gabrielle. She looks back at him and shrugs. "You're from where, exactly?"

"New York City, April of 2153."

"Twenty-one fifty..." Gil's eyes widen momentarily before he lets out a short laugh. "Okay, but I'm going to insist on one caveat: no telling me how the story ends. I'm really learning to enjoy surprises."

*