I'm waiting for you in Paris. Waiting in the Champ de Mars, the park next to the Eiffel Tower. Standing on a patch of grass, wearing a tuxedo, and holding flowers. One among many men who wait, but they're not like me. They stay for varying amounts of time—some holding signs, some sitting under trees—but eventually they leave. Not me. I'm here for you, Jess, waiting patiently, if not excitedly. And when you get here, we'll embrace, and we'll climb up the Eiffel Tower, and we'll be together again, in love.
Three days have gone by. It rained on the first day and my clothes are soggy. I smell like a damp basement. The flowers are OK, but I've taken off my jacket. It's not exactly as we discussed, it's not as clean, but I'll be here when you arrive. Mostly as we discussed, in Paris, next to the Eiffel Tower, holding flowers, and waiting.
A week's gone by. Another man stands in a single spot, holding flowers, like me, except he's wearing a black vest, a white shirt, and a black bowler hat, and he's balancing on a unicycle.
"You too?" I ask him.
He doesn't speak, he signs instead, and I nod and together we form a quick bond. He hops off the unicycle and gets us some hot croissants. I survived the previous week by eating scraps of food left on the ground and sleeping under my coat.
The croissants are delicious and I smile at the man and repeat, "Brad," tapping my chest.
"Jean," he mouths, chewing his croissant, and taps his chest.
The next week I continue a similar schedule: sleeping under my coat, waking up, standing forlorn, and presenting flowers. Jean balances on his unicycle, and I, with my jacket back on, present flowers, which are now drooping, but with Jean, the whole thing is much better. So, too, with the hot croissants, which we take turns buying.
Jean and I know it's absolutely essential to stay in this position. How else will they know we made the effort? It's unspoken between us, but I imagine Jean spends as much time thinking about this as I do, along with many other thoughts, many of the same thoughts over and over, like when will they come? Have they forgotten about us? Does waiting make reunion that much sweeter?
We watch as people meet their other halves. They light up with an expression of joy. In those moments, we hate them. What right do they have to happiness? Haven't we done everything right? Everything they asked of us?
By the end of the month we meet another man. He's German and he arrives with a case of beer. He doesn't stand, presenting flowers like Jean and I, but instead he sits down and starts drinking.
How do I know he's German? He wears lederhosen.
I attempt to introduce myself and, as I do, the German nods and says, in heavily accented English, "I'm Lars." And he burps.
"You speak English?" I say.
"Yes," he says. "And French, German, and Spanish. Many languages."
He sighs and picks up a can of beer.
"Only Americans speak one language," he says and belches again.
I stare at Lars. He looks like no one else in the park. He's huge. At least six foot five, blond, and hulking. As he waits, he removes beers one by one, pouring them into a stein and taking large gulps from his giant cup.
"Are you waiting for someone?" I ask him.
"Yes," he says, "I'm giving her a week. I'm not going to put my life on hold, but she asked me to meet her here, and this happens to be my week off, and this happens to be what I do."
He shakes the stein and looks off at the Eiffel Tower.
"I've never been up that thing," he says. "Maybe I'll go to the top."
"She doesn't want you to wait for her?" I say and look over at Jean who shrugs his shoulders.
"She doesn't know what she wants," he says. "She mentioned that it'd be nice if I did this absurd romantic gesture and I said, 'Sure, I'll do it.' She started to retract her request, but I said, 'If that's what you want, that's what I'll do.' So here I am."
Jean looks at Lars the same way I do, with a mix of awe, surprise, and envy. Why can't we be more like Lars? Assertive. Sure of ourselves. Full of a knowledge that Jean and I don't seem to possess.
After Lars finishes the six-pack, he walks to the Eiffel Tower. He comes back after fifteen minutes and tells me he's going to stay in a hostel.
"Give her this address if she comes," he says and hands me a slip of paper.
"How will I know who she is?" I say.
"Her name's Lydia," he says and walks off.
Jean wheels over. He mimes something like "Lars a big man and what's up with that?"
I make a sign with my hands like "he's a big drinker" and then a facial expression like "he sure does drink a lot."
Jean laughs silently, and I laugh too.
A man starts to play an accordion. I look up at the night sky and see it's a full moon. When I look back down, Jean's hand is out as if to say, "Want to dance?"
"Me?" I mouth.
He gives a big nod. I make an exaggerated thinking face, because this is such a nice gesture: a chance to move my limbs and do something adorably sweet next to the Eiffel Tower. I get up and grab his hand. We make big twirls with Jean, on the unicycle, swerving to the cheesy accordion music. He grins and we dance for three songs. I mouth, "I'm tired."
I am. I haven't moved this much in months. I go back to my spot, drink a bottle of mineral water, and walk over to a tree. I lie down with my back against the grainy trunk, and I look at Jean, who's till twirling. The accordion player stops and grins at me.
"That was lovely," he says.
"Thank you," I say and I drift off to sleep.
The next morning I awake to the sound of Lars chewing a giant turkey leg. He rips off thick chunks of crusty bread with the crumbs spraying out of his mouth in all directions. He extends both the turkey and bread to me, and I'm not too proud for breakfast, so I eat.
"I figure she didn't come?" he says.
"Not yet," I say.
He looks at Jean.
"I hear you guys are buds," he says. "The others were saying you danced under the moonlight. Invite him over."
I look at Jean. He's doing a half-asleep peddling thing. I clap a few times and motion for him to join us. He rubs his eyes and then wheels over to my spot.
Then I learn that Jean does speak. He speaks French. With Lars, he doesn't shut up. He tells Lars his story, which Lars translates for me. That Jean is a mime, but he's on a break, waiting for his lover Carlos, who is Spanish and incredibly handsome, though completely bald. They met earlier in the year at a church social. Their connection was instantaneous. They took a midnight stroll across the Pont Alexandre III Bridge. When Jean invited Carlos back to his apartment, Carlos suggested that they write love poetry to each other in their native languages. When they read their poems to each other, a lot came through in the reading. They soon started a disgustingly cute habit of buying snow globes for each other. When they moved in together, their apartment was filled with them.
One day, as they were planning to recreate the day they met, they walked by a snow globe shop. In the window, Jean saw an Eiffel Tower snow globe and pointed to it and mimed, "Have you been there?" Carlos shook his head as if to say "I've never been."
Jean got the idea to wait for Carlos in the park. At first, he mimed on the side. He got tips and saw tourists pass by, but there was only one person he truly wanted to see. He didn't dare lose his spot for fear of missing Carlos. But eventually the work and the waiting melded into one, an all-consuming activity where he lost himself in the romantic purposelessness. He took a solemn oath to keep waiting.
"He said all that?" I ask.
"Approximately," says Lars.
I hold my hand to my chest to show Jean that my heart is broken. His story is so similar to mine. Perpetual waiting: for what? For whom?
Jean looks exhausted. He asks for a beer from Lars. Lars passes one over. Jean takes it, tips it back, and doesn't stop until he drains the can.
"Impressive," says Lars and he hands Jean another.
I join them in the spirit of camaraderie, though I don't usually drink. The rest of the night we tell jokes, sing songs, and generally have one of the most amazing times of my life. I don't have a lot of friends. I find it difficult to communicate with others. But these men and I, we're similar. And now I jump on Jean's back and Jean tries to teach me how to ride a unicycle. We swerve into some bushes and we both laugh harder.
Back on the ground, Lars asks me, "Why Paris? Aren't there romantic places in the US?"
"That's a great question," I say. "A part of me doesn't even think that much about it. Paris means love and people from my socioeconomic class travel. It's part of a philosophy that says it's worth traveling the world and seeing much. So far, I agree for reasons like this, meeting new people, gaining experiences, riding a unicycle, for example, but what's wrong with the US? That's where I lost love. I'm waiting in Paris for it to return."
Jean pats me on the back. Lars looks amused.
"Paris is the city of love. My girlfriend Jessica is obsessed with it. Her apartment is decorated in Parisian memorabilia. At home, we watch movies set in Paris. She even has a breakfast nook that looks like a Parisian café."
I point to the café where I get croissants.
"But our relationship went south. She says we broke up, I say we need more time. She says it was her decision, I say it's mutual. I came here to wait for her. I want to show her that Paris is a real place where we can be together. I know it sounds absurd, but waiting is all I have left."
A moment of silence. Lars grunts and says something like "silly, sad man."
He's drunk and generally difficult to understand, so I ignore him. He sleepily waves goodbye and leaves. Then it's back to Jean and me. I feel drained, but my spirits are slightly buoyed from the catharsis of telling my story. I mime a small dance and Jean laughs. He speaks and says, "C'est magnificent."
We lie down on the grass. We look up at the night sky, not for lack of things to say, but in awe. Some things are incommunicable. Love is one and so are its complications. So are the feelings I have, light from camaraderie, unsure of the future, but dazzled by the stars in Paris and the world spinning around me like a snow globe. I watch the burning stars until my eyes close.
In the morning a round-faced, blonde-haired woman enters my field of vision. I blink, but she stays where she is, crouching and looking at me.
"You know where my husband is," she says.
"Are you Lydia?" I ask, blinking myself awake.
"Yes and you're Brad," she says. "The men pointed you out. I don't speak French, but I speak English, so start talking."
I lift myself up and wipe sleep from my eyes.
"Your husband's at a hostel," I say. "I don't know which one, I lost the sheet of paper, but he'll be back around noon. That's when he usually comes."
"Great," she says. "So I have to wait?"
"Well, I've been waiting for quite some time," I say. "Close to a year."
"Unbelievable," she says. "Do you want a prize? You sound like an insane person. Some of us have jobs. We can't all wait under the Eiffel Tower, can we? Only sad absurd men."
I feel tremendous guilt. Lydia's confirmed my worst suspicion: that waiting is pointless.
"I suppose not," I say.
"I'm going to the tower," she says. "How do you get up?"
"Elevator or stairs," I say.
"I choose elevator," she says and disappears.
It's then that I realize I'm filthy. I feel the grime accumulating in the area between my sock and ankle. There's a smell coming off me. And this morning is not one where I want to wait. I'll do anything but that. I feel a wild urge to go to the bathroom. This is no longer fun. Jean is asleep and you, Jessica, are never coming for me.
Lars arrives, same stein, different case of beer.
"How are you, friend?" he asks.
"I'm not in the mood," I say. "Your wife is here. She's in the tower. I need to leave immediately."
"Whoa, whoa," says Lars. "What if Jessica comes?"
"Tell her I'm in the public bathroom," I say.
"Won't that spoil the surprise? The waiting?" he says. "You used to care about waiting."
"Emphasis on used to," I say.
"Have a beer," he says and thrusts one into my chest.
I push the beer into Lars's chest and go to the bathroom. My luck, there's a line; a long line. Fuck this, I think. I get out of line and squat on the road. Everyone looks over at me. People gasp. I let loose and feel the best feeling I've felt in a month. This is my choice. I'm doing something for myself. Then two police officers begin to approach me. I quickly lift my pants and run back to the waiting area. Lydia and Lars are together and I hide behind them.
"Whoa, whoa," says Lars, looking back at me cowering behind them. "What's going on?"
"I took a dump near the public bathroom and now the police are after me!" I say.
"You're an absolute mess," says Lydia. "Let me handle this."
The police approach us and Lydia tells Lars what to say. That I'm deranged. That I'm a helpless American man in their care. That she will force me to clean up my mess. That I'm their adopted American pet. That we shouldn't let Americans travel. Etc.
Lydia and Lars work on them. I continue to cower. Jean is asleep. This is what I get for not waiting, I think. I'm pathetic.
The police stop talking to Lars and Lydia. They look back at me and shake their heads. Then they walk back to the Eiffel Tower.
"You need to clean up your mess," says Lydia. "We'll help you, but then you need to leave this park immediately. They say they wish the men would leave. You're more trouble than you're worth."
"Why are you doing this for me?" I say. "You could have abandoned me. Everyone else does."
"Stop feeling sorry for yourself," says Lydia. "Leave. Get another job. Stop waiting."
I think about this as I scrub the sidewalk. Do I desire punishment? Punishment for waiting?
Lars continues to drink. He does the work of translating as people walk by. Strangely, I enjoy cleaning. It feels purposeful and important.
"There," says Lydia. "You made a mess and you cleaned it up. Now take that and do it with your life."
Lars and Lydia walk away. Lars looks back as if to say, "Later, friend." I wave goodbye.
I go back to Jean and I'm struck by panic as I see he's fallen off his unicycle. He hobbles and collapses. I go to comfort him and he starts weeping. Other men weep too, but I see this as self-pity rather than genuine care for my friend.
"Why, Brad?" asks Jean. It's an existential question and I'm entirely prepared for that kind of conversation.
"Who isn't in a state of waiting?" I say. "Everyone pretends they're not, but they are. The other day I categorized all human activity. It's frighteningly limited: eating and drinking, having sex, thinking and wandering, consuming, creating. Are there other ways?"
Jean stares at his legs.
"Look at me, Jean," I say. "You're a good man. You understand me? A friend. Friendship, it's not on my list, but…"
A paramedic arrives. His name is Yakos, and he's from Greece. He's well-built, well-quaffed, and he and Jean begin to speak French rapidly. Yakos makes Jean laugh, and Jean makes Yakos laugh. I stand by, feeling increasingly disconnected from the scene.
"Brad?" says Yakos.
He speaks English.
"Yes?" I say.
"Your friend needs to go to the hospital," he says. "His muscles have atrophied. He wants to know if you'll come with him. I told him not to worry, I'll take care of him. He's very funny."
I look back at Jean. He winks at me. I see the seeds of love.
"That's OK," I say. "The police told me I need to leave the park immediately and maybe this country, too. Can you translate this for Jean? Next time, let's meet in America."
Yakos speaks to Jean, and Jean laughs.
"We," he says, which I understand means "yes."