L'Étrangère

The first apartment I visit is the one I end up taking, though of course I don't know that when I walk in. My life here is still bordered by the soft edges of illusion: it's concrete not yet hardened, waiting to dry. I go in and am not sure if I'm trying to fit the apartment into what I imagined or fit what I imagined into the apartment. What I imagined is hazy but there were wrought-iron balconies, engraved moldings, a view. Here there is a courtyard but not really a view. No moldings but the roommate is a philosophy student at the Sorbonne, his Plato lying half-opened on the couch. He plays the guitar and asks if I like Bob Dylan, hums some slightly off-key "Hurricane." We laugh nervously and I wonder what it would be like to live here.

I've never gotten to know a city this way. I duck in and out of metro stops, checking the maps, reaching a cross street and then often having to turn around, because you never really know where you are when you emerge from underground. The next apartment is owned by a 20-something Finnish girl, quiet and blond. The melancholy of the place pursues me out the door.

Another flat can only be reached through a code that won't work. I call to tell the owner and he texts me the same code. The door still won’t open. I stand outside in the gray and the wind pushes a flyer up against my shoe and it sticks there until I shake it off. I try once more, text once more, walk away quickly up the street without looking back. Ten minutes later he calls twice in a row. Both times I press ignore.

I don't know what I'm doing, really. At most of the apartments I forget to check the bathroom, or see if there's an oven, a washing machine. I'm asked if I have questions and wonder what they should be. I've never been very good with practicalities, and here it's harder, in the city of lights and love. Hemingway and Fitzgerald—that 1920s cohort—were hardly the only expat American writers to project onto the city their own ideal of it, so that even its stories that are real aren’t really.

I've never been here before so most of the stories are not mine. A friend tells of a proposal from a stranger at a late-night crêperie. My grandmother recalls a long-ago trip and an afternoon café where she and her husband were caught up in a mass of students protesting in the streets. There's no college football in Paris, said their expat friend and tour guide—this is what the students do instead. I walk across the Seine and these dialogues mix with stray lines from movies and books and the bridge creaks under their weight. I wonder what's there in the raw reality, once the dreams are scraped away, the layers peeled off. It’s a reality I realize I haven’t yet reached, even though an apartment awaits me, with a pony-tailed roommate and a classic rock chord.

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