I was seventeen that summer, and I thought I was unstoppable. Invincible. Seventeen and a dropout, seventeen and a runaway, seventeen and convinced of the romance of Paris.
The café where I found work was sandwiched between a pâtisserie and a chemist. The tenant in the upstairs flat came in every day to drink tiny cups of espresso and complain about the noise of the café. I’d told myself that on my days off I’d climb the steps of the Eiffel Tower, that I’d get lost in the catacombs and smoke thin cigarettes in sultry dive bars. I’d befriend locals and become a proper Parisienne. Instead, mostly, I walked endlessly along the twisting Seine or hid myself away in my rented room, listening to the neighbors argue next door.
Summer rain fell in the streets, and tourists came and went. I stayed. The manager at the café proposed marriage or, when I refused, a fling. I left. The gilt had worn off. I’d saved enough by then to pack my bags and buy a series of train tickets, with a final destination of Warsaw. I knew nothing of Poland, spoke not a word of the language. I thought it thus less likely to disappoint than Paris.
I met him in a faded restaurant in a small, rainy town on the main line between Brussels and Paris. There were mirrors on the walls all around the room. A porter at the train station had directed me here when I’d asked for somewhere cheap to eat and spend the night, and I’d regretted it as soon as I’d walked into the damp hotel room, where a daddy long-legs had made itself at home in the tiny bathroom sink. No expectations, I’d reminded myself.
The restaurant was better. Drier. I watched the few other patrons in the mirror, watched them watch me. At last a man made his way across the room and sat at the bar, two stools over, carrying an amber-tinted drink in a glass tumbler. He was Italian, he told me, trying his hand at a new life in Belgium. I lived in Warsaw, I told him. I saw him appraise me: not blonde, not quite white, wearing a British brand of shoe and lacking a Polish accent. He only nodded, told me that I was far from home.
We sat in silence. He was older than I, though I could not gauge how much. He did not offer to buy me a drink, did not ask where I was spending the night. He too was holding back, I thought. I broke the silence by scrounging up the few Italian words I knew. His face remained blank, and I concluded that he was as Italian as I was Polish. Our mutual subterfuge reassured me.
He was an artist, he told me, perhaps trying to change the subject. His work was showing in a gallery nearby. Perhaps I would come with him to see? I had not been born yesterday, and I said as much. He shrugged and pulled a pen and notebook from his pocket. The gallery address, he said, his handwriting a quick scrawl across the page. He tore out the sheet and pushed it across the sticky bar top to me. Maybe he would see me there later. And then with a tilt of his head he was gone, leaving only a hint of stale aftershave and an unpaid bar tab.
I missed my connecting train to Cologne, by accident or by design. The woman at the ticket office was unsympathetic, uninterested, unrelenting. Il y a un autre train demain, she said. Tomorrow was too late, I protested; I’d miss my next connection. She shrugged and turned away. Outside the rain trickled down, cold and unrelenting. I tugged my hood tighter over my ears, adjusted my grip on my suitcase handle, and stumbled back out to the street.
It was inevitable, perhaps, that I would find the gallery address in my pocket. I’d told myself I would leave it in the mirror-paneled restaurant, told myself I would tear it up and leave it in the hotel room, told myself that nothing would or should or could come of it. And so I found myself clutching the rain-smudged paper as I sought directions from a stranger and wound my way back through the streets.
You came, he said. The gallery was between a shoe-repair shop and a vacant storefront. An easel stood empty in one corner, as though he was uncertain if his exhibition was truly complete. I came, I said. He said nothing about my suitcase, only tucked it behind the door and ushered me closer to see the drawings on the wall.
His work was portraiture. Dozens of images hung haphazardly on the wall, none framed, none quite complete. In one, a young man stared insouciantly out of the paper, a cigarette lifted halfway to his lips; he might have been handsome but for that his eyebrows had not been drawn in. In another, a girl perhaps my age was bent over a book; the hand she used to turn the page had not been finished, leaving her with two fingers and a ghostly outline of the rest.
For a time he allowed me to study them in silence. When he spoke, it was not with the offer of lodging that I had half expected and been prepared to refuse. I’d like to draw you, he said. Doing what? I asked.
Sitting in a bar with mirrors covering the walls, he said, and dreaming of another life.
Will my portrait be complete? I asked, and he gave me a half smile and gestured at the walls. There is always something missing, he said.
Yes, I said. Yes. My coat was dripping on the cracked floor tiles. I slipped it off and followed him to his easel so he could leave my dreams unfinished.