Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Way Forward: Chapter 7

This is a chapter from my book, The Way Forward. Buy the whole novel now from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.
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My dad had put some money into my bank account for Christmas, so I decided to take the Chunnel train back to Paris rather than spend another full day traveling via ferry and regional French trains.

I took an early express train into London, then the Eurostar train from London to Paris. I was there by noon. Just before arriving at Gare du Nord, I stepped inside the toilet to clean myself up. My face was still purple in areas, but most of the swelling was gone in both eyes and I no longer needed bandages. I looked a little rough, but I felt good -- I was excited to see Allison. I brushed my teeth, splashed some water on my face and shook off what had happened a few days before. Today was New Year's Eve -- tonight, with Allison in my arms, I would leave the bad Christmas behind with all the other detritus of the previous year.

Allison was waiting for me at the station. She was leaning against a pillar, reading, and didn't see me walking toward her. She was playing with her earring and pushing out her lips -- making her little "fish face" that showed she was concentrating. I regularly tried to convince myself it was cute, but it actually annoyed the hell out of me. Damn it, though, she was beautiful. Every time I saw her I felt a rush of life. The rest of the world would melt away. I would feel my chest fill with energy. I felt stupid and wonderful. My heart would pound and skip. My arms ached to wrap around her. Nothing else mattered but her and that moment. I didn't care about Christmas or homesickness or school or money -- all of that was gone. I just wanted to feel her close to me, run my fingers through her hair and feel the softness of her lips against mine. She was my drug, my solace, my world.

Her wavy red hair was pulled into a pony tail and hung down to her lower back. She had on her wire-frame glasses and had even put on a little makeup. She wore a green button-up shirt with the collar turned up to cover her slender neck, a pair of tight jeans and the black jacket (I called it her "football hooligan jacket") I had bought her at an Army surplus store in Portsmouth when she had come to visit.

"One fish, two fish; Allie-fish, blue fish," I said when I came up to her.

I lifted her off her feet with a bear hug and spun her. She swatted the back of my head with her book, "Jesus, Ben. You scared me."

But I was unfazed. I squeezed her tight. Her coat was open, I could feel her breasts against my chest, and I took in the smell of her perfume. The aroma sent my brain into a state of electrical overload. It was like breathing in sunshine. It made me feel all at once weak and powerful.

"I missed you," I said, setting her back down.

I pressed my hand into the small of her back and brought her in close, touching her forehead to mine.

"I'm minty fresh. Give me a kiss," I said, leaning in.

She turned her head, leaving me to kiss her cheek.

"You're sick."
"Not anymore. I was cured by a couple from Hong Kong. I didn't know this, but I really like Chinese food. Come here."

She arched her back.

"There's all these people around."
"It's Paris. City of Love. You're supposed to make out in public here -- it's listed as the No. 1 activity in all the guide books. Come here," I said, touching her face with my left hand and guiding her lips to mine.

She leaned in and gave me a soft, quick, close-mouthed kiss, then slipped out of my embrace.

"Come on. Let's drop your stuff off at the hotel."

As soon as we walked into the hotel room, I dropped my bag to the floor and again wrapped Allison in my arms. She was warm and I pressed her into me. Her neck was smooth on my lips and again I took in deep, full breaths of her perfume, getting drunk with her smell. I slid my hands underneath her shirt and felt the softness of her skin. I inched up from her waist and felt her rib cage in the palm of my hands. I felt dizzy and out of breath. I pressed on her ribs; held her in my hands. Our lips met and I felt my head click and spin as I guided her to the foot of the bed and lightly moved my right hand up her spine to the clasp of her bra. Her kiss was soft and perfect. I was lost in her.

"I haven't eaten," Allison said, stretching to the right to keep me from undoing the clasp. "I don't want to have sex when I'm this hungry."

I looked at her.

"I'm just hungry," she said, and gave me a hug.

...

We ate hot sandwiches served from the window of a shop in the Latin Quarter, and I insisted we take them into a bar, where it was warm and I could wash down my sandwich with a half liter of 1664 lager. The sandwich was basically two spiced sausages, split and buried in pomme frites, then stuffed in baguette bread. I was happy and the spiciness of the sandwich went well with big gulps of cold lager. I had actually been pretty hungry, too.

"I'm genuinely impressed with this. I'm surprised the English haven't come up with such a thing," I said, raising my glass in toast to her.
"You're different," Allison said. The tone of her voice was neutral. "England makes you a little different."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know. Just different than you used to be -- back home. The way you talk, I guess. You didn't used to be… I don't know."

There was a long pause. I looked at her. This was one of those Allison conversations where I had no idea what was being said but I knew it wasn't going in my favor. I felt I was being walked into a verbal trap.

"Do you like it there?" she asked.
"Where?"
"England."
"I hadn't thought about it. Yeah, I suppose I do. Portsmouth's an ugly dog of a town, but I guess it just grows on you. Dirty, cold place. But then one day you're happy to be there.
"For example -- maybe you saw them, Allie -- there are guys who walk around town with their trousers rolled up and they have plain white T-shirts and Elvis haircuts, and that's just the way they look. Apparently no one's told them that they look like they're in a middle-aged production of Grease. They just look like that. I have no idea why. That's just the Pompey style. It's hard not to like a town with that sort of thing," I said, laughing.
"Trousers. You say things like 'trousers.' They're pants, Benjamin. I didn't like it there."
"Your opinion is pants. You were only there for one day. And we really only walked along the sea wall. Because you had said that you loved the sea, which, clearly, you did not."
"I do love the sea. I love a nice warm beach and sand and the sun on my face. Not a bunch of fucking rocks."
"You expected to find warm, sunny beaches in England in mid-November?"

We were arguing now. Lately every time we spoke, we were on the cliff of an all-out fight. Most of the time we jumped off that cliff with reckless abandon.

"Jesus, Ben. Don't start, OK? Don't embarrass me here."
"Why? Are you a regular?"

She gave me a face, looked at my unfinished beer, then at her watch.

"Do you want to see the Champs-Elysées? I made dinner reservations for 8 o'clock. So, if we're going to do any sightseeing, we'd better go."

The Champs-Elysées and the Arc d'Triumph and the Eiffel Tower and all the other things we looked at that afternoon were things I had seen just a few days before. I didn't want to see Paris. I wanted to see the inside of our hotel room. I wanted to hold Allison in my arms and kiss her and run my fingers through her hair and lie in bed and not fight. Instead, we saw all the parts of the city that you see in movies and pretended we were interested.

When we walked past Notre Dame, I suggested we go inside so I could show her exactly where I had sat in the cold for five hours -- suffering from the flu -- "worrying that perhaps you had been killed."

"Don't be a fucking child, Benjamin. Jesus," she said. "We had a conversation about this. I told you I had a paper that was due. I warned you that I might not be able to make it for Christmas. I told you that a month ago."
"I don't remember that conversation."
"That's because you don't listen, Benjamin. I'm sorry you don't find me interesting enough to listen to."

Hooray. Once again I had managed to be the world's worst boyfriend without even trying. Things were going poorly and I could not seem to pull them back together.

After we had seen as much of Paris as time would allow, and far more than I cared for, we returned to the hotel to clean up and change clothes. When she stepped out of the shower, I tried again to kiss Allison but she pushed me away, saying she was afraid of missing our dinner reservation. At dinner, I wanted steak frite but Allison insisted that I try something that I can only describe as pink shit and a duck. I tried to pretend I appreciated the wine Allison had ordered, but fine wine is wasted on me. I enjoy it well enough, but it tastes the same as wine from a box, as far as I'm concerned.

After dinner, as we sipped desert wines, a man came by with a large wooden box and placed it on the table. He opened it to reveal a selection of cigarettes, cigars and loose tobacco. The aroma from the box was sweet and inviting. Both the man and I glanced up at Allison, who scowled, and the box was snapped shut.

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