A Guided Tour of Life
Richard moved to Montmartre from Washington DC, where he’d worked as a financial risk analyst at the World Bank. He’d spent his days assessing the investment potential of various pension funds, his map of the world an Excel page. Like most bureaucracies, the purpose of the WB was the promotion and protection of the bureaucracy itself. He had somehow wanted to lend a hand to the less fortunate peoples of the world and instead wound up recommending investments for NGO retirement portfolios. The highlight of his day was the Pho with spicy chili sauce in the international cafeteria downstairs from the atrium on level C-1.
He didn’t want to live like this anymore. He wanted to live like spilled paint, splattered into unpredictable patterns. Like in the Donne poem, he wanted to travel, sojourn, snatch, plot, have, and forget. Most of his friends preferred the paint by numbers approach. Most of his friends wanted ordinary life to masquerade as adventure. He didn’t.
As the cool, wet days of spring rolled over into the warm humid days of summer, he decided to quit. There was too much order in his life, the quadrille pattern of a formula existence. He’d tied his tie hundreds of times without question; then one morning he woke up and questioned. It wasn’t that he wanted to pursue some romantic dream of becoming an artist, and he’d seen the hypocrisy of international aid from the inside so he understood the futility of wanting to change the world; no, what he wanted was change in his own life. He wanted to get off the treadmill and take a leap at a flying ladder, unyielding into some sojourn of self-indulgence and risk. One Saturday afternoon at Politics & Prose, he’d thumbed through Miller’s Quiet Days in Clichy and took it as a sign that Montmartre was where he should be.
His life collapsed like an old tenement building. He flew business to Paris and sublet a two room flat for the summer on an interior garden filled with chestnut trees and blossoming lavender, the iron-gate entrance on Boulevard Clichy surrounded by sex shops and halal kebob stands like the entrance into paradise from the road to hell.
Miller had seen the Wepler prostitutes as precious, the princesses of France, the antithesis of the bourgeois machinations of the marrying class, saviors of the down and out. Walking down the slope of rue Andre Antoine toward Boulevard Clichy at twilight, he saw one of their descendants leaning against the wall of a corner apartment building, next to an open ground floor window. She was the saddest, most worn-down woman he’d ever seen. Mid-twenties, Third world refugee, no doubt trafficked from some rural village in mist-covered tropical hills. No princess of the down and out, no antithesis.
Snatch, plot, have, and forget.
Afterwards, he tried to forget. Summer ended, he left.
Kierkegaard For Beginners
Richard lived in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg, near the East River, in a designer loft in a former mayonnaise factory, among the tattooed skinny-jeaned bearded hipsters, grungy artists, Polish immigrants, and troops of twenty-somethings who didn’t know what they wanted to do with their lives other than stroll down Bedford Avenue in their Rat Pack-style hats and white v-neck t-shirts, eating locally-sourced tacos, shawarma sandwiches, and drinking microbrews at late-night happy hours. He worked as an architect for a boutique firm in the West Village specializing in design interventions in rundown neighborhoods near the zero point, helping rejuvenate them from urban crisis to abundance. The firm was currently working on transforming a former sweater factory in Bushwick into designer living spaces for other professionals who wanted a bohemian artist lifestyle while working 80-hour weeks in Manhattan firms.
Richard, who lived the bohemian artist lifestyle while working 80-hour weeks in a Manhattan firm, often felt like he was floating on the surface of life, wondering what lay on the bottom beneath him. He’d never touched bottom before, the zero point, unlike the panhandlers outside subway entrances or the buskers pitched below, and given his professional accomplishments he couldn’t foresee a time when he ever would. Not that he was particularly deep; on the contrary, his life was a shallow pool of needs, desires, and easily available fulfillment. He was dating a 23-year old finance grad who worked as a waitress at an Irish pub on Bleeker while waiting to join the Peace Corps. For the moment, she satisfied his needs and desires without making any other demands of him.
One evening walking down Driggs to meet a colleague at a Basque wine bar on Grand, he passed by a first-floor condo that was floor to ceiling windows, the owner’s life as transparent to passersby as a reality TV show. He wondered how someone could live like that, their every move on display unless they hid behind thick blackout curtains. He looked down at the sidewalk and noticed someone had graffiti-stenciled CHANCE? right where he stood. Was it all really chance or just stages on life’s way? Life’s way to what? Was their purpose? Was there a point? Does anyone ever really find the answer?
Richard saw her waiting at the taxi stand, outside the bus terminal in Bab Doukkala. Hot, dusty, bleached sunlight, buildings earth brown. They would turn pink at sunset, but he hadn’t been here long enough to see that. Medina walls in the distance. Traffic, noise, people, clamor; heat sucked through the taxi windows, the backseat a torn black vinyl wasteland. They hadn’t seen each other in nine months. The last time had been in the D concourse at De Gaulle, one last moment of promises and tears before he took the escalator down to the departure gates.
Their relationship had been defined by departures and arrivals in different cities, on different continents, nearly three years of arrivals and departures, breakups and get- togethers. It had been impossible, a cliché, no, more than that, a shared belief in something other that had made it possible. Together alone had been enough, even when they weren’t together, the future possibility of together carrying them through the long weeks and months alone. Over, then rekindled, then burning once again. This was not custom, not ordinary life, but something more, an escape from a purgatory of boredom, the malady of the quotidian.
He’d flown in from Dubai, rounding the skull top of Africa: Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, nine hours of nervous flight time, a vast, flat desert void below, finally descending and landing in Casablanca; not the Casablanca of movie lore, of Bogart and Bergman and Rick’s Café Americain, the French-built train from the airport south to Marrakech passing through cardboard and corrugated metal slums, strewn garbage, whirlwinds of plastic bags, wrecked lives beyond his recognition. He sat in première classe with other Western tourists, next to the window, watching the misery flow pass through his scratched and smudged reflection. We live reflected in other people, he thought, but the mirror distorts, warps, reflecting untruths, fictions. This — this is not my life, watching a young man piss against the side of a metal shack; this is something else, something not-me, untrue. They had not seen each other in nine months.
Over the last three years he’d felt woven into a narrative. His life had taken on shape and structure, purpose and plot. There was meaning in arrivals and departures; surprises and subplots to be discovered, jealousies to be fueled by speculation and doubt. Behind the events, beneath the emotions, beyond the doubts there had to be purpose in doing all of this, something more than just adventure. Magic. That was the life he was looking for. She said he had an aura, a blue aura surrounding his face. How could he even doubt the power of that kind of magic? He felt her at night, next to him, even when they were thousands of miles apart. They had conversations in his mind that were not just in his mind alone but in hers as well. They were connected, they had a story, and the story was what drove him forward, to discover just what it meant and how it would all turn out; if the promises and tears were true and would prove to remain true over time. It was avoidance of the tedium of the day to day, a suspension of everyday life, an uncertain now of continual border crossings. She called it their experiment in happiness.
There. She stood in the heat and dust, wearing faded jeans, a rust colored long sleeve shirt covering her arms to the wrists, touching her knees, a tan scarf covering her hair, not a tourist trying to fit in like a local but someone gone local. She had been here nine months working for an NGO, setting up a business co-op in a small Berber village located over the High Atlas Mountains near the edge of the Sahara. Over the first three months her emails had been frequent and detailed, then they became infrequent and distant, then they came not at all. She had simply disappeared until a week ago, when she’d written and said I need to see you now in Marrakech. Departures and arrivals, an uncertain now of continual border crossings.
She walked over, opened the door, and dropped into the back seat. They looked at each other, they stared at each other, and then he saw the fear in her eyes, the doubt, the disbelief. He reached out for her and she bolted out of the taxi and disappeared into the thrum and chaos of the Bab Doukkala bus terminal. Shallow breathing for one full minute, then he reached across and closed the taxi door. And yet: he still expected to hear from her again.