I stood by the open window and watched and waited, surrounded on all sides by the wisteria that clung on as time passed by and forgave nothing. It felt like I was watching the seasons change as the leaves lost their gleam in the sunlight, found their darker shade as the early autumn encroached and finally fell to the ground and withered as winter wound its way onto the deserted street. Our quiet little street with the bench just beyond the gate where I’d watched you, from that same window, smoking outside so you wouldn’t aggravate my asthma, in the rain with a brolly, in the snow with your fur hat, one hand gloved and other taking heat from the cigarette you clasped between your fingers as tightly as I was wrapped around them. Our street which is now graced with a flow of cyclists, can you believe it? Paris, the new city of cyclists, which just gives Parisians one more thing to complain about.
We cycled together once, do you remember, not here of course, in Nice I think it was, in a field covered in red poppies, you at the helm with your soft blond curls unravelling in the breeze and me on the back, with that silly beret you forced me to wear, legs akimbo and arms wrapped around your waist, carried away by the strength and charm of your laughter which was endless and the smell of lavender fabric softener from your t-shirt which I nestled my nose into as if there was nothing more pleasant in the world to inhale when, in fact, it was you I was inhaling, nothing more all-encompassing than simply the scent of you with my head on your back and the world falling away behind us before we tumbled off the bike and tumbled over each other. You still had grass knotted in your hair when we got back to our hotel that night which, of course, left me embarrassed and you elated as the receptionist nonchalantly pointed it out. And so it was, with the memory of all that had once been so palpable, that I watched and waited, watched and waited, finding a certain hope in the sound of every approaching footstep and then disillusionment in the appearance of every human shadow I realised could not be yours.
And yet I’d known all along, from the very start, the foolishness of my folly, my frivolous foray into the past. But I’d convinced myself that it was fate that lead me back, not regret, not loneliness, not quite the truth I finally realised as the days became weeks before I folded up the months and packed them away with other, niggling, neurotic memorabilia in the closet, in the dark, in the past. It was brave though, at the beginning, going back up that staircase, those old timber steps which wound their way to that silly door with the stupid key I never got the hang of, not like you, in all your practicality, standing amused at all my clumsiness. It was audacious to open that door into what had become a marooned mausoleum in our absence. The years had only clustered cobwebs onto our acquisitions, trophies, treasures. I lifted dust laden sheets off the furniture as if undressing the room, as if I’d find you beneath them with that devilish smile of yours, laughing at my inability to find you like you did so often, all those years ago, when you’d hide in the shower, behind the armchair, beneath the bed, like a child at play at hide and seek. But you were nowhere to be found and yet you were everywhere at the same time. Your imprint was etched into your seat, your footstool, your side of the bed. It was brave, I’m not lying, simultaneously brave and hard and cruel to an ageing man seeking only a scent of what once was and finding only emptiness in three rooms, teasing me with everything we once believed to be all we would ever need in the world.
Then slowly life began to move on, as it does; necessities, chores, rendezvous, routines and somehow I found reasons to come away from the window without even realising, new paths that took me in opposite directions to the past which I had been seductively drawn to. At first I’d walked to Montsouris, that park, along the hill you’d always run up before me, because that was you, always ahead, always on front, always seeing where we were going before we actually got there or, at least, before I got there. You at the top cheering me on while I gasped for air and crawled, and I did basically crawl up there, on hand and foot and in that tracksuit you’d bought for me because you knew I’d never have the guts to buy it myself. As usual you knew what suited me more than I did. But distractions came their way and carried me from those painful apparitions, those streets we’d once claimed as our own, walking hand in hand in a time when nothing seemed to matter apart from the closeness we shared amid your humour and my desire, the intimacy we’d embraced in that back room with its red carpet while we entwined limbs, lust and love beneath the sheets of that bed we finally battered to death and the connection we created until we got so lost in each other that I managed to lose sight of who we once were individually.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that I forgot you entirely, not at all. I’d come back for you, come back to find you, no matter how ridiculous that may sound after so long apart. But somehow it dawned on me that there was a difference between waiting and wishing, and actually living. Losing you had been my greatest waste, perhaps our greatest waste if I can still speak for us both, but I couldn’t let myself waste away anymore while waiting for you too. I hope you can understand that. It was I who’d come back, be it more or less in the shadows, but I wasn’t sure if the light of day would be forgiving to all that had fallen in between us. And yet, even in the bare light of day, your shadow still hung over me, shading me, sheltering me.
And then he came along.
I didn’t go looking for him, if that’s what you’re thinking. It wasn’t like that, well, you know me. I’m not what you’d call the outgoing sort, as I’m sure you remember. It was you who’d found me all those years ago. God, it seems like a lifetime and not just a few years that have whittled away. You’d seen me while standing by the bar with your beer, perusing the evenings prey while I sat, tucked away at the back, blocked in by a group of lively fashionistas, a timid dog feeling older than I should have, trapped and probably terrified.
But you came to save me. You, with those blond curls. You, in that brown sweater. You, with those pale blue eyes. You, with that look, that brazened determination to push your way through the dimly lit bar, the crowded tables and floor filled tote bags. But you were never one to let anything stop you, you never minded being looked at, being seen, being heard. You remember that time on the metro, someone got on and sang a dreadful rendition of La Vie en Rose, the one song that every beggar, talented or not, thinks every tourist wants to hear and they’re probably right but do the rest of us, the ones who were born here or the ones, like me, who came here looking for a new life, need to hear it also, day in, day out? It was the fourth time we’d heard it that day and it was by far the worst attempt so you stood up and sang it, full voice, full force, trying your best to drown out the accompaniment, much to the applause of the tourists on our carriage and to the dismay and utter horror of every Frenchman on board.
But that was so you, right there and then, just like it was you back then in that bar, The Open Cafe, mecca to all Parisian men of our persuasion. You, coming towards me, sipping your beer as if nothing stood in your way between you and I, and me, helpless to do anything but be mesmerised by your stare and then, as you came closer, your perfume, but again, it wasn’t the perfume you wore but the scent you oozed all by yourself.
I met him also in Le Marais, of course, where else do gay men go. I wasn’t looking for anyone, like I said. I wasn’t looking for anything lasting at all. I was looking for something that was nothing. Something that was temporary, no, shorter than that, minuscule, momentary, forgetful. It had been so long since anyone had touched me, caressed me, kissed me, that I was almost choking. Like I was becoming a frozen form of what used to be. A body deserted of all tenderness. I know what you’d say, I can hear you staying it, I’m skirting the issue, trying to make something dirty seem more romantic, less sexual, more visceral but acceptable. I know, I haven’t changed at all it would seem. I went looking for sex. Is that better, does that make you happy? Can that make you happy? I can’t even believe I am here telling you all this. I tell you I’ve come back for you and, in the next breath, I seem to be this sex starved old man willing to take whatever he can under the cover of night.
Okay, anyway, I’m telling you what I’m telling you. He was there. This time he was in the back of the bar, another bar, that other seedier bar, with the staircase that I hadn’t been able to bring myself over to yet and if I’d had anymore to drink I probably wouldn’t have made it up those steps anyway, so it was probably a good thing that he touched my arm just as I took the first step and stopped me from going any further. He started to talk and tell me things about himself, I have no idea what it was at the time. I was thrown. I was touched, literally. His hand had not left my arm since that first touch and I realised that it was all I needed. Not just to be touched, as exciting and arousing as that was, but, more than that, I’d been seen. Someone had seen me. Do you know what I mean? Christ, you have no idea what I mean, do you? You were never, not for a single day, never seen, not by me, not by anybody. Everyone saw you, no one could ever miss you or want to. But I wasn’t like that, ever. I was more a reflection at times than an actual living person. Not with you, of course, Jesus, no, never with you. But before you and certainly after you when friends stopped dropping by, at first just to give me space and then later it felt like they’d just forgotten that I existed. We had existed to them and then we stopped existing for them and then afterwards, well afterwards I think they put me into the non-existent box too. But suddenly on the verge of finding a moment of nothingness, fast friction in a dark room, someone reached out and took my arm and I couldn’t move, could hardly breath in case it all disappeared too quickly. I wanted to remember the moment for as long as possible so I could recall it again when it vanished.
I know he was speaking to me because I saw his lips move, lips a touch fuller than yours, eyes your shade of blue but darker. He wasn’t blond though, dark hair, slightly receding which was surprising as he seemed so young. Your height, give or take, slimmer though, not that you were in any way fat, I just mean he was less built, less muscle, less gym I guess, a bit more of a bookworm, not geek but not far from it either. I think I suggested we go upstairs but he wanted to talk, I didn’t want to talk but I didn’t want him to take his hand way from my arm so I let him tell me what he wanted to but the words never sunk in, only the touch, only that tenderness he’d placed on my right arm until eventually I felt it leave me and I shivered, actually shivered. It was august, I’d been back in Paris for over a year, the entire city had taken its usual month-long vacation and it was almost midnight and still 30 degrees and that was just outside the bar and yet, when he took his hand off my arm, I shivered. Funny that, the things that leave us cold in the middle of so much heat.
But he didn’t leave me. He came back with a drink, two drinks actually, one for him and one for me and suddenly I heard him speak for the very first time. And I listened and he asked me questions and I found myself replying and, as I spoke, he put his hand on my leg and I shivered again. It’s silly, I know, silly, trivial, tiny. I don’t think in all the time we spoke that first night that he had any idea what it meant when his body connected with mine, how beautiful it felt to be touched once again and how painful that it wasn’t you.
It rained the first night I walked back to our apartment with him, just as it had rained that first night when you persuaded me to take you home, ever the flirt you were. We had our jackets over our heads to keep us dry, do you remember? One of those tropical rainstorms that graces Paris in August, as if to wash away the dust and heat, though it’s always hot rain, of course, not the full relief the stifling city longs for, mourns for. You can almost see the steam rising from the ground as it falls straight down from the sky. Straight, that’s what I told you that night, which you laughed at, as if I was pointing out the most mundane, the most obvious. But it’s true, and still is. The rain here falls straight from the sky, like water from a shower, not to the left or to the right, not at all slanted, it just drops straight down. You can leave the window open and it never comes in.
I’d fumbled nervously with the keys to the gate when we got to my building, the building that became our building, the home that so quickly became our home, the one that adapted to you and your sounds, leaned in, to your customs, your scent which still haunts the air on random days. As I persevered with the key, you came behind me, kissed the back of my neck and gently ran your tongue along my skin as if to soak up the rain that fell from the back of my hair but I knew it was just to test me and perhaps in part to taste me. It worked. You had half my clothes off before we’d even reached my first-floor apartment and I scurried with the final lock before the neighbours would hear us, or even worse, come out to find us in such a state of undress and desire. I was not that out, I was not that daring, that provocative, but you managed to bring something out in me, something that had been utterly dormant, a certain appreciation of the unexpected, a fondness for excitement, spontaneity, a carefreeness that was infectious. We made love on the living room floor that first night beneath only the lights of the streetlamps and the comfort of our shadows entwined on the wall. Made love, was it that, I said it was that afterwards, actually I think I thanked you for it in some rather embarrassing, teenage way and you joked that I was merely a good shag which you overly pronounced in your heavy French accent which was all the more erotic. There I was, immediately trying to make it all proper and above board, nothing sordid, nothing naughty, ignoring the silly fact that you’d just picked me up in a bar, taken me home to where we’d stripped each other naked and shaken the leaves on the wisteria outside with our sweaty, salty, sensuous explorations of each other.
He didn’t kiss me on the neck when we finally arrived, wet through, to our gate. He didn’t rip my clothes off as we climbed our staircase. He didn’t know that each step I took, I felt more and more guilty, that I was bringing him back here, to our place, to our home and possibly into our bed, or maybe even onto our floor. He didn’t pounce on me when I closed our door, didn’t press his body tightly against mine and steal the breath from my mouth with his own lips because he wasn’t you. He stood by the window instead, looking out across the small garden and over the wall into the empty street, just as I had done for the past year. He thanked me as I took his wet coat and hung it in the bathroom next to mine and then took a seat on my armchair while I made tea in the kitchen. I didn’t even have the customary coffee in the apartment. You were the coffee drinker, the true Parisian, while I sipped herbal, fruity teas which you referred to as piss, continuously. When I turned the lights on, he noticed the candles and asked if I could light them instead. I shivered again. That was always your preference. Not the silly scented ones, of course, too prissy for you, just simply so you could watch the shadow of the light flickering on the wall and make up scenes, monologues to connect with their movements. When he said he liked to watch the light flickering I closed my eyes and imagined it was you.
Was that cruel? Was that too much, too wrong? To be with someone and imagine he was someone else. I held his hand in a taxi while thinking of someone else from long ago, someone said that to me once, years ago, before you, before us, before the emptiness and I thought it to be so horribly unkind. And yet it had become my truth. I didn’t tell him, of course, I would never, I couldn’t hurt someone in such a way, no. But it was how I felt. I was happy to have someone, to hear someone breathing, other than myself again, within our walls, within all that had become our sanctuary and somewhat angry at the same time that who it was in reality was not who it was in my head.
He had a name, of course, what a stupid statement to make. I don’t really mean it like that, it’s more that I didn’t realise at first that I never used it, never referred to him by his given name. I called him boy, pet, hot stuff when necessary, moody occasionally, but I think that was more me. To use his name would have sounded far too real, far too impolite to you, not like I ever mentioned that to him. I’m not that mindless.
He called me Monsieur, at the start, which turned into a continuing joke, then a nickname and then my name, as if my own given name became lost and I didn’t mind that, not at all. I’d given you everything I had, including my name so it seemed appropriate that I became just a noun and nothing more.
And so it went, with the boy and the monsieur; a little story, a little tale unfolding amid all the other daily distractions and, of course, the waiting, well, my waiting.
We’d been living together, the monsieur and the boy, for almost 3 months in our apartment when he first witnessed the illusion he’d created for himself of me being this mysterious, aloof, guarded kind of guy disappear beneath a laundrette and a lot of money. The phrase laundering money was never mentioned so literally before and I saw the shock of who I was hit him, as the mask dropped and the man beneath revealed in his humble state. Somehow he’d formed this misconception that being a writer meant that I had this air of introverted, introspective, subdued magnificence, that my clumsiness was a charm indicative of my mind being elsewhere, dreaming up characters, scenarios, novels in the planning, when in truth I was just hiding out, settling into shadows, comfortable behind the door instead of walking through one and facing people and their complicated realities. Jesus, you know me, I was happiest sitting in my armchair, in my boxers with a book, although you quickly changed the boxers for fitted briefs, house pants and that ridiculous antique artist’s over-shirt which you thought bestowed me with a certain creative look while I thought it to be the perfect cover for a cadaver in a coffin. And yet I still wear it and the boy always laughs at me when I do as if I’m about to make a study of him for a portrait and I get suddenly defensive, can you believe it? I’m finally defending your choice, your taste, your shirt that I only grew to love when you were gone, as if that could somehow bring us closer together. He thinks I bought it for myself. Of course he does, because I told him I did. It was easier telling him that than telling him I wear it because you gave it to me and whenever I wear it I feel like a part of you is wrapped around me. I don’t sleep in it. He likes huggable sleeping positions and I don’t want him to touch you through the shirt. I know, I can hear myself saying it, admitting it to you, of course, not to him, never to him. We are monsieur and boy, sharing a little light on the edge of a life. One of us thinks this is real life while the other is just waiting it out. It’s not all the time, but I still see shadows and wonder, now and then, if they will become you, in time, in hope.
Anyway, back to the boy losing faith in my mystery. The washing machine broke. Saturday afternoon and you know how I like my routine, fresh bread from the bakery on the corner, newspaper, clean the house, do the laundry and head out while it spins to avoid the vibrations. So I went to the laundrette instead, Madame China was setting out her goods on front of her shop and laughed at me which was her way of saying hello. She’s still utterly incapable of speaking French so she just smiles and laughs, well, more like giggles but it still makes me uncomfortable. What do you say to a giggle?
Laundry loaded and so I left and headed back to the apartment where the boy was waiting for a promised shopping spree for his birthday. I never have cash on me, these days no one does, it’s pin this, pin that but for some reason I’d taken out 500 euros the day before thinking it would be easier and fun to shop with cash. I was halfway into the bedroom when I realised, in the rush to grab the dirty clothes for the laundrette, I’d also grabbed my jeans. The jeans I’d worn the day before. The jeans I’d been wearing when I took out the money. The jeans which held my wallet. The jeans which were probably in the last stages of a rinse cycle, in the washing machine, in the laundrette, next to the laughing China woman. And in one single moment, everything changed.
He saw me that day, the real me, a mess of a man on top of a machine, looking more like I was trying to mount it than rid it of money, my money, now laundered money. He saw me and just laughed. I thought he would have panicked, turned and run but he just laughed. He laughed while I cried. The back at the apartment, our old home, his new one, he held me while I sobbed and then he listened while I spoke, broke down, broke it all out, told him everything. Can you believe it? I swear, if the machine hadn’t laundered all my money that day, that ordinary Saturday, I would have stayed, for the rest of my life in the shadows, waiting and wondering. Waiting for you, wondering if you’d ever come back.
But you never could, never would. It’s not possible. So, finally, I find myself here, standing on front of you. Finally back at the last place I left you. We were beautiful, sometimes a mess, sometimes a disaster, it’s true, but we were beautiful all the same. He knows me now. I let him in, can you believe it? I let him into the world I’d kept prisoner in the shadows and strangely, he, the boy, this creature has found a way to let the light in.
I’ll still think of you, I’ll still wear that shirt, sit in your chair, I gave him mine. But I might not think of you all the time.
Well, that’s it, that’s me. I hope you like the roses I brought you. They are white, they are in memory of the light that you once brought to me in a dimly lit bar. I gotta go now, Alex is waiting for me. It feels good to say that. To say that someone is waiting for me now. Alex, that’s his name. He now has a name.
“Au revoir,” he said as he turned and slowly made his way down the sweeping hill and out of the cemetery, feeling a weight lifted off him. Weight, wait, the waiting was over. Death would come for him one day too, just as it came for the others, even those we love and can’t let go of, but for the moment, death would be the one who had to wait because there was still more life to live.
All words and photographs by Damien B Donnelly