I was on the south side of the Seine, a little to the West of L’Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame de Paris, where the streets connect at strange angles and just before broad thoroughfares disperse and narrow in the depths of Montparnasse and the Latin Quarters. I was tired from walking all day, my left shoulder was bothering me and my knee was swollen – and I was hungry, but after scanning the menus of the nearest brasseries I was looking for something cheaper. Night was already wrapping the city in grays and blacks. The street lights casting reflections from shop windows and the water that glistened on the cobblestones. One block south of the river I slipped into a McDonald’s and was engulfed in a neon glow. I felt like I had walked out of history and became a character in a video game. And yes, John Travolta’s character in “Pulp Fiction” was right, they do call a Big Mac a Royale with cheese. I sat by the window and tried not to notice the rotating posters attached to the locked-up newstand just outside. The French version of Maxim has no problem showing naked women, and the French, apparently have no problem putting those naked women on billboards. As I devoured my meal I noticed the girl sitting in the corner. She had her back to the window, maybe the same age as me, her hair down to her chin. She was crying, crying hard but trying just as hard not to show it. He shoulders shook every now and again and she deliberately tilted her head so that her hair hung in front of her face, her hands clutched in front of her mouth. I think the fellow across from her was breaking-up with her, or maybe she had discovered his infidelity. Once he tried – tentatively – to take her hand, and holding it, pull it away from her face. She jerked away from his touch. A second time he touched her cheek with his fingers, wiping the tears away. She didn’t move. She wouldn’t acknowledge his touch.
I remember feeling that way once, when the world seems to shatter and break and I no longer recognized landscapes that once seemed so familiar. I remember longing for such a touch and also not being able to respond to it when it came, knowing it wasn’t the same – the touch was no longer intimate, it was apologetic, not passionate.
When I left the girl was still crying, still sitting bolt upright, and the guy was still looking sorry, looking like he wished he could fix everything but knowing he couldn’t.
Paris, they say, is for lovers. A city full of beauty and romance. I guess the harsh neon lights of a McDonald’s end up being an appropriate setting for heartbreak. There you don’t see cathedrals and statues, parks and old winding streets lined with apartments that seem to lean toward each other. There you only have tiles and sticky table tops, bright colored uniforms and glossy ads for coffee and salads – and garbages that are in constant need of changing.
That night I sat for a long time on the Pont Neuf watching the river carve a black path through the heart of the city.