The day you broke up with me we had cake – a towering Mont Blanc of chestnut cream– and the famous hot chocolate at Cafe Angelina. You said: I’m in college now and I need to be free. I cried even though I knew it was coming, since the night you woke up and had peed the bed. In silence we cleaned up and never spoke of it again. The entire trip was ill fated from the start – you were so embarrassed to have brought your mom along to visit me in Paris. Your bohemian British mother was a perfect foil to your adolescent discomfort. The first evening over dinner in a dimly lit dining room you sat in silence while we chatted away, my father charmed by her perfect schoolgirl French as she visibly came alive, awash in memories of a younger, freer version of herself. At night she went back to her hotel and you came to stay at my tiny apartment in Saint-Germain, with its 150 year-old wooden floors and a grand marble fireplace that I filled with candles.
If you remember, I was deep into photography at the time, armed with an old camera and film I developed in a basement studio near Bastille. It filled me with importance to be doing art in Paris. Like Cartier-Bresson! Like Lee Miller! For one class project I asked my friend to lay in the bath, scattered the water with flowers and placed a miniature replica of the Eiffel Tower over her nipple. Taken in close up her breast was a tiny island gilded in monumental splendor. It was groundbreaking stuff! I imagined doing something similar with your long, lanky body. I had a chess set and arranged the pieces all along the sinew of your torso, so that the queen and her knights became living, breathing creatures. Those photos turned out well, but my favorite was the one with your piercingly blue eye staring right at me, the other blocked out by a king piece.
You were the first younger man I had ever been with. Even by then, my junior year in college, I was overly familiar with the intimacies of older men. Some were only a few years my senior, others a decade or more. You looked at me differently. Even peering down from your six foot frame it was as though you were looking up. The power reversal was new to me, took some adjusting to. You struggled around my friends: “They are all talking about college classes and professors and I don’t know anything about that.” It seems ridiculous now that a two year age gap would be so profound, but at the time it was hard on us. But you! You grew up in Tribeca! The house you grew up in was a huge apartment! I will never forget the light in that place, it practically burst in through the over-sized double hung windows that lined the wall. For a California girl who finally made it to college in New York, it was the most exotic world I could imagine. I remember staring at kids on the subway, backpacks heavy and hair in braids, going to school. What was this life? How does one have a childhood in this hardened place?
From you I learned that the hardness is just the shell, and inside…softness. Laughter. The comfort to be found here and there in that city, the steamy warmth of a perfect dumpling in the depths of Chinatown or the pre-dawn beauty of an empty street, still, finally.