Laura Legge
"It's Raining in Paris"

There is so much work to be done. Rain has been pounding Paris for weeks. Whole swathes of pavement have come untied, sidewalks once ribboned into four-way intersections, ravelled now with seams exposed, ragged hems no longer travelled by bicycles, sedans, wandering feet.

They say my blueprints will pull us headfirst from this emergency.

In my office, an eight-by-eight cork cubicle on the eighth floor of the Institut de la Ville, I hunch over an early draft I’ve called “Centre City Contingency,” using a line gauge to lay out a series of stormwater drains. Until I sense my boss hovering.

Digging my heels into the linoleum, I turn slowly to face him.

––We are in shit, Serge, he says.

Two days ago, I saw a girl lose her life in a lemon sundress. She was crossing avenue de Choisy, past dusk on a Thursday, parting smoky sheets of rain. I was the only one near her when she was hit. Strangers crowded against the smoggy glass of dim sum restaurants, Hong Kong bakeries, stared hollow-eyed from the whale’s belly of the 183 bus.

Her skin barely held her bones together. Time passed, who knows how much of it, before those same strangers poured onto the wet pavement. A man with pock-marked cheeks folded his nylon windbreaker in half, angled the makeshift pillow under the crown of her head. A woman in a silk turban knelt beside the body––marking with fluttering eyelashes the moment when her body became the body––and let a storm fall down her cheeks.

At some point, an ambulance arrived. Two young medics pressed their ears to the girl’s chapped lips and waited for breath that never came.

Every evening for the past two years, I have followed the same ritual: rolling my blueprints into a drawing tube, buttoning my vinyl raincoat, and fording avenue Kléber to my suite at Hotel Raphaël.

The greatest joy of living in a hotel is that hardly anything you use belongs to you. The bed you sleep in, the tub you bathe in, these are tools you do not have to maintain.

With my forearms, I iron my plans flat across the suite’s Victorian dining table. Bicycle boulevards, civic squares, aquatic reserves, the barbed wire of railroad tracks––a miniature city balances on the Carrara marble.

My boss has fixed a slew of pink sticky notes like chicken pox on the plans. Remember, downtown is our town; The Seine is the yolk that flavours the egg of Paris. I tear them off one by one.

Tonight my hands migrate south on the blueprint, to Chinatown, the shaded elevations of trauma centres, paediatric hospitals. And, as there must be, the depressions.

––You’re unbearably vague, Colette is saying to me. I’ve been with her once, maybe twice. She has deep-set eyes that are at once inviting and distant, like a memory just beyond reach.

She picks up a vanity jar of ground cardamom from the bedside table and rubs the fine powder in the flexures of her palms. I flash to lamb tagine, my Formica mother in a Formica kitchen, shag-rugged and minimal, her slack lips forming unreadable words, proud or pound, love or loaf.

––You’re not handsome enough to get away with being vague. If you were better looking, you’d be mysterious.

I’m lost in a long-gone Christmas, cardamom braids rising in a redbrick oven, an autumn-haired woman riveting her arms around my neck, ornamenting me with eggnog kisses, while Harry Belafonte croons “Glory Manger” on our worn-down record player. I say nothing. Colette turns her back on me.

––You’re afraid, she sends over her shoulder. You’re a hunter with no heart.

And how beautiful her bare spine looks, straightened as if to underline her unkindness. I think I’m beginning to love her.

It seems that my boss has been crying.

––Avenue de Choisy? he asks from the doorway to my office. His hair is rumpled with stress and humidity; he is a stray dog, river-eyed and wild, his matted coat licked against the grain.

––I know what I’m doing.

His cheeks burn red.

––If there are sinkholes in rue de Rivoli because you want to pump all of our efforts into Chinatown, you’ll be out of a job. I won’t think twice.

Through my office window, I make out the north face of Hotel Raphaël––the lace balustrade, the limestone carvings of pomegranates and lions’ heads––and I want, badly, to go home.

My boss lowers his gaze to his polished Valentino loafers. On his left toe, he notices a pigeon dropping and looks as if he might cry again. He is a tweed suit with no man in it; his body has slipped out, vanished into tedium, rain poised to wash away any trace that he may have existed.

In any flood, there are abandoned vehicles. I have flown to Chongqing, Queensland, and Cologne, to plan for rebuilding after natural disasters, and seen miles of sedans deserted, dead headlights wired to dead batteries.

Down de Choisy, the water is low enough to walk through––or, we walk through it because we can’t be still––but nothing smaller than a bus can clear the overflow. I follow the road like a salmon going downriver, netted by the quiet pull of magnetic fields, to Chinatown. At some point, the wind picks up, and I huddle under the domed awning of a magazine stand.

I settle beside the gossip glossies while the proprietor, a man with a puddle for a chin, clears his throat over and over. From there I look out into the street, to an imagined chalk outline overwhelmed by the flood but not washed away, the nipped waist and tulip hem of a sundress.

Here, it takes work to filter beauty from the ugliness, the vibrant trains of mounted paper lanterns from the ones that have fallen, detritus scattered in the ocean, taking on the shapes of pried-open clams, sunfish bones, red coral caked in salt. How to find anything beautiful while sadness folds itself around us, a beach blanket of steel wool?

Before stepping out from under the awning, I raise a newspaper over my head. Two steps into the road, the newspaper is already soggy. Still I cling to it; not for shelter, but for its semblance of structure, as something I can hold in my hands.

Colette paces the Alcove Suite, an architect surveying her building site, industrious but aware of its limitations. I perch on a red-velvet bergère, watching her luminous face as she decides what, together, we have room to construct.

––I can’t believe it, she murmurs. Hotel Raphaël.

While she slips off her slingbacks, I unseal my rainboots from my calves and peel away my socks. We line up side by side on the king bed, each half-starfished on the silk duvet, nowhere touching.

––I went on a vacation once, Colette says, after so much time has passed that I thought she was asleep. When I was twelve, my father and I took a charter flight to Dakar.

Across my mind runs a panorama of a clammy city, the opening montage of a New Wave movie: high-rises sweating like leather, women ripe on hot-waxed mopeds, men with rickety carts hawking dried plums and chevron beads. In this world I expect Colette’s words to be silver floss, to glisten.

––He grew up there, but he was ashamed of growing up without money. When we visited, he rented a hotel room for me to stay in, alone, while he stayed in his childhood home.

––Bet your hotel wasn’t like this one, I answer, unsure of the shades in my voice.

––It was a Radisson. No shred of personality in that place. Not a single honest smell or mismatched piece of linen. Who can stand beige throw pillows?

The sun, which had, for a spell of fifteen minutes, poked out from behind the cirrus clouds, disappears from view. Colette fits her palm to mine, and the darkness we are left in doubles for the low light of intimacy.

Hell or high water, the suggestions have trickled in. Alternative routes for public transit, wider boulevards, new fountains. The people want to revive Old Paris.

I refuse to reshape this city into its own shortcomings. Wider boulevards will only increase traffic; pigeons will drown in new fountains. I will not suffer for someone else’s nostalgia.

The public doesn’t understand. Simply because the city is broken, and we are forced to rebuild, doesn’t make this an opportunity to carve out a dream world.

I uncap a 0.18 mm pen––with it, I could perform surgery––and steady the nib in the heart of Chinatown.

In the next room, my boss is singing Josephine Baker in a vaudevillian boom, filling each wordless bar with the mimicked lilt of an accordion. Paris! Paris! Paris! For people like him, this city is a Vincente Minelli movie––Leslie Caron sipping from a champagne flute, lovers picnicking on the Seine, Gene Kelly serenading a baguette.

As I’m plotting pedestrian crosswalks at the south end of de Choisy, I can almost hear his voice. For the love of God, focus on the downtown core.

A feeling steals into the bones at the base of my skull, not a pain but an awareness, blood pulsing over and over against my temple, like a madman throwing himself endlessly at the same idea. It must be a shift in the weather.

Before Colette, I loved someone as hard as anyone can be loved. Claire called herself Ourson, the masculine of little bear, because she said she felt like a little boy hibernating. She was twenty-six when I met her, and by that time had already lived ten years on the street.

Cities work in a different way for people with no home to return to––subways, gravel alleys serve a distinct utility; sycamore-treed parks far outgrow aesthetics––and I knew that. In my head, I knew that.

We dated for months. We went to second-run movies, and she kissed me in the dark. I often tried to get her to stay overnight, without sounding lonely or expectant. And when I finally bought a place for us to live together––lofty popcorn ceilings, a claw-foot tub that looked like it might run away––I still felt the weight of that trying.

She would wear jackets inside the apartment, two or sometimes three, double her jeans, pile on extra socks and sweaters, no matter how many times I would say, Make yourself comfortable. On her body, she carried everything she owned.

She fled after midnight on New Year’s Eve, while I slept, champagne- tongued. I wish I had been surprised when I woke up alone.

––You really don’t have to stay, Colette says, passing a turquoise ring from one finger to another as she waits for her tailor to finish hemming one of her pantheon of yellow dresses.

I unbutton the front of my overcoat to indicate my intention of remaining with her.

––When the rain stops, I will wear nothing but sundresses, she says. I will be a little sun myself.

She tilts her face down and looks up at me, the coy angles of a child. I can tell she is looking for a response, so I search the hurricane of my brain for a way to please her.

––Lovely as Saturn, but close as the sun.

These the tailor’s words, spilling out as he rises to his full six feet. He hands the dress to Colette, who studies the seams, makes sure no golden threads have been left loose. The little sun needs secure hems.

––Oh, Ray, she tells him, you are a dream.

She leads me outside. Or maybe just walks ahead of me.

––I need to buy persimmons, she says, again twirling her turquoise ring. Will you walk me to the Peking Market?

My nod is a mechanism no more thoughtful than a sneeze. Satisfied, she squeezes my hand.

She begins to walk south, her feet fragile as glass under all the flood water, and suddenly I draw her to my chest, moor the ferry of her body so it does not float––it must not float away from me––but catch her palm in the swing of my arm, knocking her delicate ring to the ground.

My boss sits with legs crossed behind his seagrass-teak desk, imported from Copenhagen on the city’s tab, and flutters visibly between comedy and pain, as if a shadow puppet show is playing on the crystal stage of his cornea.

––I looked at your plans, he begins, amusement deepening his laugh lines. And then, darkly, Do you think nothing of our city’s golden past?

I imagine he is watching two paper cut-outs scale the lattice of the Eiffel Tower, propelled by the power of love, belting out a duet that, at some point, rhymes “bébé” with “mais oui.”

––You mean my work around the 13e arrondissement? It’s vital.

––You’re saving Chinatown and letting the heart of Paris stop beating.

I flex my wrists. ––Blood can’t circulate without arteries.

His sweaty, overgrown eyebrows form a road map of mixed emotions, hills of wonderment at the centre bottoming out into vales of anger near the pink pulp of his tear ducts.

––I have to submit the plans to city council tonight, he tells me.

The choice for him is simple: submit my plans and seem illogical, or ask for an extension and seem weak. A wet sound passes between his lips, the last bubble rising to the lake’s surface above a drowning man.

With his back turned, he carries the blueprints past the recycling bin and folds them safely under his arm. ––If you have nothing more to say, he manages, then show yourself the door.

Colette is a lover of cubism. She tells me on our walk to Montmartre that, at one time, she had a tattoo of Georges Braque’s Le Portugais, but had it removed because too many people asked her what it was supposed to be.

I have come to this neighbourhood only once, to step inside the Sacré-Coeur after Claire slipped away. I was afraid, racing against a riptide of darkness, and had little left to believe in but the spirit of the ancient basilica.

––Look at that townhouse, Colette says, pointing to a grey box with a For Sale sign. Just look at the stone siding.

All I can think of is the gutters to be swept of cypress leaves, the faucets to be sponged and polished, the furnace air filters to be replaced.

––Do you want to live in a hotel forever? she asks, scratching down the realtor’s number on a folded receipt.

––The room service is nice.

––Well, then, she says, slapping the receipt into my palm, it’s me or the lobster canapés.

What I remember of childhood autumns is Bordeaux, hunting wild boar with a recurve crossbow, rifling the life from ringneck pheasants. I would swat horseflies into the oil slicks of my forearms, pressing hard when I caught one between my thumb and forefinger, until I heard a crunch and saw what was inside.

On a boar, tusks gleaming through the gooseberry bushes, you would aim straight for the meaty bell of the mid-shoulder. But the only way to hunt a pheasant is to gun into the air a foot ahead of them, in the direction of flight.

––Boys are mean by nature, my mother would say, and then fold me, star-eyed, into sleep.

In the pond beside our cottage, I sometimes caught flashes of a Rouen duck––black banding on the crown, royal-blue speculum feathers–– when it flickered between the bulrushes. Though it moved like this from place to place, it always went alone.

I was in bed, laid up in eiderdown, when through my window I saw the duck catch his webbed feet on a jag of basalt and snap his legs like sticks of cinnamon. I watched him tumble through the thistled border of the pond, plunge deep below its canopy of lily pads. For hours, I heard the awful scraping of his wings against the water, and then nothing.

I know now, as I knew then. I could have saved that bird.

A cold front has sliced through the humidity, Paris slipping off its mantle of rain. For the first time in weeks, I can sit comfortably in my office.

My boss enters the room wig first. ––I’m letting you go, he says, so nonchalant that he might as well conclude the sentence with “for an early lunch.”

Any possible reaction of mine would satisfy him. So I look straight ahead and ask, without ceremony, ––What’s the city decided for you?

He looks down at the carpet, which is argyled in an unsettling shade of papaya whip, so that his wig stares me square in the eye.

––How I envy you, Serge. You don’t have a family to disappoint.

In the street, a battleship fleet of half-smoked cigarettes floats past my ankles. Though the storm sewers are still overwhelmed, brimmed too full to function, at least, for the moment, things are not getting worse.

Colette runs to meet me in a tunic dress the colour of otter bone; from a distance, she looks airy, figmental, a forward-floating ghost from some unforgotten past.

––Hope you haven’t been waiting long, she says, when she is close enough that I can smell cardamom on her breath. ––The traffic is hell right now.

She must see the clouds forming on my forehead because she pauses. Fashions her hands into small canoes and glides the watery channels of my cheeks.

––Did something happen? she asks.

––Something happened, I say.

She takes me by the bulb of the elbow, where my jacket sleeve is patched with grey suede, and steers me across the flooded street. I feel I could float with the tide, lay back and let it move me, like a sprig of sea kelp, like a caravel skimming some long corridor of blue, easily, with the sun as its sentinel.