Marie wants to go to the hotel first, and I want to go straight to the Mona Lisa, and so we have a fight right then and there, waiting for our luggage at Charles de Gaulle.
She has a lovely smile. The blatancy of her upturned edges of lip reveals a toothy mouth, fronted by perfectly spaced white incisors and alarmingly large canines—called fangs on other mammals—that have always made me want to please her.
The smile only starts in her mouth. It prompts dual perfect-circle dimples at the edge of rounded cheeks, with a depth to them that makes me want to dive in and splash around until sunrise. The end of her Roman nose upturns and slightly quivers. Her nostrils flare. Her ears wiggle a bit. The pronounced widow’s peak of her hairline raises; it’s a dramatic sight to behold, an anatomic magic trick, like a fully-functioning scale model of the world’s first electronic garage door opener. The wrinkles around her eyes, unapparent in somberness, surprising to find in a woman of thirty-five, explode into a labyrinth of encoded fractals and equations that undoubtedly hold elemental secrets to our existence.
None of this is currently visible in the unsmiling stare Marie gives me in front of the baggage carousel at Charles de Gaulle.
My bag arrives first. I pull it from the conveyor belt. Marie’s bag is not in sight. For a moment, I consider fleeing the airport alone and hailing a taxi to the Louvre. But there would be hell to pay—though her denying me this first glimpse of the Mona Lisa is not at all nice, I decide that abandoning her at the airport would be downright rude, and if I make a run for it now we probably won’t have sex during our week in Paris and then for a long time after, and I really want to have sex, especially in Paris, especially for a long time after.
So, I decide to reason with her. I say, “It’s a classic gender thing. You want the hotel because the female needs to nest, and my desire to see the Mona Lisa reflects the male need to spread his seed.”
Her face grows completely blank. She glances at my anticipatory hand on the handle of my suitcase and then returns to studying the row of luggage.
She says, “No. Don’t even. You will not bring gender differentiation into this discussion. And spread your seed? I don’t even want to think about what you might be planning to do in front of the Mona Lisa.”
Well, I find that very funny. Even though we’re having an argument, I break into an unanticipated and genuinely goofy laugh, which involves involuntary snorting. Many French people regard me with the weary displeasure that tends to accompany a civilization that is very old. Also, my laugh sounds like a pig, and I know that pork is a staple of the French diet, and suddenly I stop laughing with the fear that a group of grouchy Parisians deciding to roast and eat an obnoxious American in the Air France terminal is probably de rigueur.
There’s Marie’s bag. She drags it from the belt onto the floor, lifts the handle, and rolls it away. She knows Paris. I’ve never been here before. Meekly, I follow. We stop at an escalator.
“We need money,” she says. “Go downstairs. Go straight. There’s an ATM right in front of the post office. Withdraw a hundred Euros. I’ll be here.”
“Come with me,” I say.
“No,” she says. She taps one of two vertical poles in front of the escalator. “In France,” she says, “this means you can’t bring your luggage.”
She’s right. In addition to the bars, I see a metal stand with the international sign for no luggage. I let go of my handle. I lean forward to kiss Marie. She gives me her cheek. I kiss it and quickly stretch around to kiss her other cheek. I feel tres French.
* * *
In this improbable yet apparent scenario, I’m probably two-thirds down the escalator when I hear frantic yelling from above. I turn to see a suitcase sliding quickly down the metal stairs, gaining speed. The smart thing to do is grab the handrails and loft my legs into the air to let the suitcase pass, but there’s a little girl right in front of me, and now in my calculation I’ve lost the precious time necessary to turn and stop the suitcase with my palms or shoe, and so I brace myself the best I can. The suitcase hits my right ankle with a dull, unnatural thud. The pain is tremendous. It shoots into my brain, ricochets back down my leg, and then adrenalizes my entire body. The little girl, now off the escalator and oblivious, runs toward a candy store. I reach the landing and crumple. My eyes water. I bite my tongue, but the pain is too intense and I let out a scream that brings all sorts of attention.
There’s Marie, who immediately tells me it wasn’t her suitcase. Three policemen. Two soldiers with gray-green camouflaged fatigues and assault rifles. A couple of paramedics. Marie translates my version of the incident and my pain into French. In French, my pain sounds very lyrical and dignified.
They gently wrap and inflate some sort of rubber blanket around my ankle. The uniform pressure feels almost good. They put me in a wheelchair, roll me to a room behind the post office, and deflate the blanket. Everybody stares at my ankle. Marie translates. They want to take off my shoe and my sock. It will probably hurt, says Marie. I tell her to tell them that it already hurts and that my foot will probably smell but that’s their problem, not mine. Everyone but me smiles; throughout the world, bridging linguistic and cultural differentiation, there is a universal understanding that you can be less concerned over a man who cracks self-deprecating jokes in his moment of adversity.
A paramedic unlaces my shoe and does his best to ease it from my foot. As the pain shoots through my body again, I groan and grab hold of the nearest object, which is the barrel of a soldier’s rifle. We’re supposed to be vigilant these days, but the soldier intuits the situation and does not pull away, and I do not bite the bullet but instead squeeze an Uzi, and I only hope that his safety is on.
It’s likely just a sprain. Une entorse, they say. They wrap my ankle with a bandage. Marie says they want to transport me to a hospital for X-rays, but I’ll have none of that. “Get me a pair of crutches,” I say, “and let’s get out of here.”
Into the room comes a flabby man with matted hair and round silver-framed glasses, but even the shleppers in France move with a whiff of dignity. He’s impeccably dressed in a shiny black suit with a yellow silk handkerchief in the breast pocket. He’s the most somber man in the world. I can’t decide if he looks more like the director of a funeral parlor or Benjamin Franklin.
“Bon jour,” he says. “Parlez-vous français? No?” He shakes my hand gently and introduces himself as the assistant director of this and that. “First, I will ask if there is anything at all I may do for you to increase your comfort.”
I determine my advantages and decide to start small.
I look him in the eye with honest pain and say, “An espresso, s’il vous plaît.”
The man squints at my ankle with one eye and raises the eyebrow of his other. “Certainly,” he says. He nods at someone behind the door and then turns back to me. “And now I will ask how you would like to press charges.”
“Charges? I don’t want to press charges.”
“But of course. This is the procedure. We have given the perpetrator of your accident a citation for his violation of airport escalator policy and are awaiting your instructions.”
I say, “Listen, Jack—”
“Jacques,” he says.
“Listen, Jacques. No charges. I want two ibuprofen and a pair of crutches, and I want to leave.”
“This is highly unusual,” he says. “Litigation is the American way.”
Well, I let Jacques get under my skin. My intense hatred for people assigning national stereotypes combines with my pain to produce a grimace that looks eastern European.
I say, “Oh, my god.”
“But,” he says, “if you would be willing to sign a hold harmless agreement, I can certainly accommodate your wishes.”
“No,” I say. “I won’t sign anything. The way I see it, Jacques, a runaway suitcase ran down your escalator and sprained my ankle. If I were to go for litigation, it would mostly likely be against you and Charles de Gaulle for the bars at the top of that escalator being too far apart. So, speaking on behalf of all litigious Americans, I think you’d be better off fetching me the aspirin and the crutches. And since you started it, I want to see the Mona Lisa today. Like, right now.” Jacques stares at my ankle. “Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa,” I clarify. “The one in the Louvre, not some Mona Lisa café.”
I hear Marie give an impressed exhale. I’m impressed, too. I’ve suddenly become the quintessential ugly American, but I don’t care. My ankle hurts.
Serendipity shines on us. For Jacques’ brother is an assistant director of this and that at the Louvre, and he makes a phone call, and Jacques, in essence, pays the fine without admitting wrongdoing. There will be free passes waiting for us, Marie and I will get a free ride in an official airport car to the museum, they will send our luggage ahead to the hotel, they bring us two croissants with our espressos, we’re terribly sorry for the inconvenience, if you could return the crutches as you leave the country that would be nice, and we hope you have a most pleasant stay in the City of Lights, bon jour, au revoir.
* * *
Marie needs to be here to close a deal. She’s the assistant director of this and that with an upscale U.S. cosmetics company that has developed the unoriginal yet profitable idea of repackaging European lotions and powders for American consumption, and the rub is that listing ingredients and descriptions in both English and French gives Americans some sort of false but benign sense of worldly sophistication.
Marie’s French is fluent, and her boss isn’t even fluent in English, and so Marie is in Paris to close the deal while her boss is sneaking home at lunchtime to watch “Sesame Street.” As for me, I continue to collect unemployment while I work on my novel. I haven’t actually written much, but I have many big ideas. Right now my book starts with a man who gets hit by Samsonite on an escalator in Paris.
Marie and I have been dating for half a year. We moved in together last month. We’re mostly responsible and loving and playful. Our arguments are usually petty and resolvable. What continues to shadow us are the angry, pestering, stalking phone calls of our previous lovers. Ron, a lawyer, calls Marie about once a week, mostly to hear her voice and then hang up. Cindy, a social worker, calls me about twice a month, mostly to yell and blame, still, until I hang up. The ironic duality in our situations doesn’t so much bind us in mutual embarrassment, like I thought it would, as it does expose a plateau of mutual irritation, as if Marie and I both have an unreachable itch in the center of the back.
So, then, en route to the Louvre, it is Marie’s cell phone that rings, and Ron spends a moment of his precious billable hours to hear her say, “Ron, do not call me again.” By now, Marie’s command has adapted a tone void of force or conviction. Once I heard her say, “Ron, I’m in a meeting. I can’t chide you now. I’ll chide you tomorrow.” I grew to love and appreciate Marie’s resignation and acceptance of condition. Ron would continue to phone; Marie would continue to rebuff. In this approach stood a tacit acknowledgment that old lovers could haunt like a twelve-step program—you change what you can, you accept what you can’t change, and you reach not for victory but stasis. It’s not a perfect world.
Maybe in my novel, our protagonist won’t be struck by Samsonite but will fall down the escalator like a piece of luggage as he argues with his ex-girlfriend on the phone. And then he’ll bump into a woman, a woman who works for a cosmetics company, who’s having her own argument with her ex, and then they’ll go to the museum and look at the Mona Lisa and fall in love.
* * *
Out the airport car, onto the esplanade in front of the Louvre, through the stone archway that lends access to an enormous courtyard, and there’s the pyramid, like the future fallen onto history. It gets better. We go into the pyramid and—oh, it gets worse. There’s an escalator. A moment of panic washes over me but I quickly regroup and decide that my life will not be commandeered by a moving staircase machine. I turn, check for large luggage, and, spotting none, set my crutches and make one small step for man. We sally forth. We descend.
They’re ready for us. We receive a bon jour, laminated passes, audio guides with headphones, and invitations for espresso. They’ve already circled the exact location of the Mona Lisa on the museum map. I decide that in France anybody can be a celebrity VIP if you twist your ankle and promise not to sue.
Up and out an elevator, then down a corridor, we turn and enter at midpoint into a huge arched hallway with Italian Renaissance paintings on either wall. In any other circumstance, just standing here would be overwhelmingly impressive. But I have plans. I’m on a mission.
A black velvet rope filters us into a gauntlet of world travelers on the exact same mission, and our hallway width remains fixed but our access is narrowed, and isn’t that so true about life the older we get? Marie and I turn a corner and there it is, there she stands on the narrow wall of a rectangular room, yet another rope preventing close examination but that’s okay because the line is shorter and the crowd less dense than I thought it would be.
As we approach my object of desire, a retreating woman says in her cockney accent, “Well, I thawt it would be bigga and brighta, I don’t know whyy,” and I say, “Oh, fuck off,” and she’s about to confront me but sees that I’m on crutches and she holds her tongue. I know this is not the best way to approach the Mona Lisa, but here I am, here we are, not at the hotel, and there she is.
In truth, well, I thought it would be bigger and brighter. She’s behind a pane of glass, off which myriad camera bulbs flash, and there’s hush and murmur, and the Mona Lisa’s eyes mesmerize me, and I whisper “I love you,” and Marie whispers “I love you, too.” In my novel it will be much more evident that the man is declaring his love for the woman next to him and not the Mona Lisa.
* * *
Marie, she’s been here before. She’s already seen the Mona Lisa. She asks if I’m okay, gauges my steadiness on the crutches, and tells me she’s going to look at the Flemish. We agree to meet me back here in forty-five minutes. I already know that I’m not going anywhere.
First I stare at the painting itself. It’s a nice picture, a good picture, a great picture. In my eyes, it’s the true source of certain T-shirts and socks and coffee mugs and Nat King Cole singing about Mona Lisa. I know nothing about art.
My attention shifts to the people. I spend half an hour watching them come, linger, reluctantly leave. I’m a skeptic, but there’s no denying that something happens to us in the presence of the Mona Lisa, some subtle, ethereal shift in the life force.
People abandon their babies in their carriages in order to bunch close. She’s a pause in time before we continue our lives. No matter whether we feel perfectly tuned into da Vinci’s intentions and realization or don’t get it at all—in that space outside time we are with her, curious, breathing, campaigning to absorb before we break free to find our babies again. I decide that we approach the Mona Lisa as a community and leave as individuals—in this case, a community that gives extra space to the guy on crutches.
I listen to the audio description over and over again. The voice of an Englishman says, “Leonardo resolves the problems of perspective using light rather than design. He uses a technique which he developed called s’formato, meaning ‘evaporated like mist’ and which attempts to create depth and accentuate forms by softening contrasts and contours. This is combined with another technique, nonfinito, or ‘unfinished,’ where forms in the distance are only vaguely sketched in.”
The Englishman says, “But of course it is the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile that has always inspired admiration. The smile has often been used in art to express an interior serenity . . . Leonardo felt that one of the main purposes of art was to achieve this serenity, as it symbolizes the impermanence of man when confronted by the world around him.”
I decide that Marie has that same enigmatic smile. While her laugh is easily decipherable into joyful or ironic or pleased or mocking, the meaning of her smile remains evasive to me. I decide that I love making Marie smile because it inspires admiration and allows me to momentarily grasp the interior serenity for which da Vinci was striving. Marie’s smile becomes my whole world, reminds me of my impermanence. When she smiles, the nonfinito, unfinished, vague forms in the distance don’t matter, and I want to live forever.
When Marie finds me, still staring at Mona Lisa, and says, “Hey, you okay?” I nod my head and marvel because, well, because I’m smiling. I’m the Mona Lisa. That’s odd. I hobble on my crutches back into the time-space continuum, out of the Louvre, up to the rest of the world. In the taxi on our way to the hotel, I lean against the door and study Marie’s enigmatic smile, and all of Paris through the window behind her is nonfinito.
* * *
The next morning, Marie helps me with my socks and shoes and leaves for meetings with her French colleagues. I find a café and wrap myself inside my previous afternoon with the Mona Lisa and convince myself that I now have the foundation for my novel, though only in broad strokes. For one thing, there’s no plot. I hover my pen over my notebook until early afternoon and finally chisel out a first sentence: “I went to Paris.”
* * *
Now we arrive at the big dinner to sign the contract that will put French with English on lotion labels. I didn’t know I would be invited. I’ve overdressed for the occasion, but the Hickey Freeman suit I wear for weddings and funerals and bar mitzvahs feels elegant and French chic.
Marie’s French counterpart arrives. His name is Pierre. He’s as handsome as a young Yves Montand and has a confident glimmer and excellent eye contact. He’s wearing jeans. He kisses her on one cheek then the other and says something in French that makes her laugh. She answers in a flurry of words I don’t grasp at all. I give him my best Mona Lisa smile. When he excuses himself to confirm our reservation, I ask Marie to translate.
She says, “He wants to know if you’re my bodyguard.”
I say, “Why would you hire a bodyguard on crutches?”
“That’s why it’s funny, doofus.”
“So, what did you tell him?”
“I told him that you were my fiancé.” I lose my Mona Lisa countenance and gulp. She says, “Don’t worry. Fiancé means something else entirely in French.”
I don’t believe her. I’m suspicious that Marie has engaged us for business purposes. I’m hungry, our table is ready, my ankle throbs in pain, and I’m lightheaded. I need to sit down for a number of reasons.
Marie and I take the booth. A waiter takes my crutches away and slides the table up to our stomachs. We’re trapped. Pierre disappears and returns with a woman who, in my novel, will be described as heart-stopping. She looks like a young Grace Kelly, with a sculpted neckline and superb cleavage, sparkling black eyes round as pennies, sensuous bee-stung lips, a high and flawless forehead under silky auburn hair. She carries herself with an elegance sufficient to start a revolution.
I know I should stand to greet her—I certainly want to kiss her buttercup cheeks—but the table is pushed against my belly and they’ve stolen my crutches and all I can do is shake her hand and point apologetically to my sprained ankle, which she looks at, and unless she has X-ray eyes there’s no way she can see the Ace bandage, but she nods with what I’m pretty sure is approval of the pants of my bar mitzvah suit. All of this will be rectified in my novel.
Marie translates the menu for me. I’m interested in a particular dish because the name is intriguing—tête de veau—but Marie tells me I don’t want it because it’s veal brains. Well, not exactly the brains. It’s the gelatinous membrane that surrounds the brain. I thank her and order a steak. It’s Grace Kelly who orders the veal brains. I’m appalled. In my novel, there will be much discussion about beauty being a beast.
The conversation over dinner is free-flowing, sophisticated, and in French. I don’t understand a single word. I sit there between bites of steak with a ridiculous Stan Laurel smile on my face, nodding like a language tutor at the excellent progress his students have made. Grace Kelly’s tête de veau is a truly disgusting wobbly mass of translucent Jell-O, yet she eats it as though spooning succulent berries into her mouth.
My own mouth gets trapped on a piece of gristle. No matter how determined my chew, it will not reduce. It’s too big to swallow, and I’m too self-conscious to reach in and pull it from my between my lips because what will I do with it? Sneak it under my green beans? I am convinced that the chef reserved this piece of beef for an American. I’m not paranoid; I am an American in Paris in 2004.
The absurdity of my situation overtakes me: I should be worried about discarding inedible gristle while Grace Kelly is eating veal brains? I keep the mass in my cheek like a chipmunk and work around it. Suddenly, a piece of Grace Kelly’s veal membrane slips from her fork, lands on the table, and wobbles to a stop against the pepper shaker. The conversation continues. The French, they’re in denial about so many things. I stare at the blob. Amazingly, I see my reflection. And what stares back at me is the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa.
In the reflection, as in the novel, the Mona Lisa reaches up, removes the gristle from her mysterious mouth, and places it nonchalantly on her plate. There is a physical pause at our table, and silently I indignantly defend what my dinner companions undoubtedly consider gall. As far as I’m concerned, what I pulled out of my mouth isn’t half as disgusting as what Grace Kelly has been putting into her mouth.
Over espresso, Pierre pulls the contract from his briefcase. Marie reads through the terms and points to a particular clause. There is a brief exchange between them, polite but firm. Marie is visibly shaken. She excuses herself to use the bathroom. I know that if Marie doesn’t bring home a signed contract her job will be on the chopping block, and then, god forbid, I’ll have to get a job and my unfinished novel will remain unstarted.
I sit there, facing the man who has upset my girlfriend. Grace Kelly looks at herself in the mirror behind me.
Pierre says, “It is a bit of a misunderstanding.”
I say, “I understand.”
“But you do not speak French. You cannot understand.”
“I understand perfectly the nature of a negotiation. I understand the temperament of my girlfriend, and I know intuitively that this clause has upset the mettle of a good, honest, superb woman. So, it’s none of my business, Pierre, but what you say you just take your pen and cross out this line on the contract that has sent mon petit and tres upset fiancée to the bathroom? Oui?”
He regards me with the poker face of a polished negotiator. I regard him with the look of a man who has just witnessed Grace Kelly eat gelatinous veal membrane.
Pierre says, “You love Marie?”
I say, “But of course it is Marie’s enigmatic smile that has always inspired admiration. Her smile expresses an interior serenity that symbolizes man’s impermanence when confronted by the world around him.” Pierre looks at Grace Kelly. He sighs, looks back at me, and nods.
Marie returns. Pierre takes his pen and runs a line of ink through the clause in question. I feel Marie’s eyes on me. I feel that viewing the Mona Lisa and all the nonfinito behind her is the pilgrimagic responsibility of every able world citizen. I feel the Renaissance returning.
Marie signs the contract, and if I say I’m not at all clear about the veracity of these events—about the murky abyss between the real and the imagined that fills with description and dialogue to create a narrative—would it truly matter?
* * *
“Where were you?”
“The ATM line was long.”
“My god. Let’s get out of this airport.”
We hail a taxi and put our bags in the trunk. Marie says nothing. I hesitate, then tell the driver the name of our hotel, s’il vous plaît.