Millions wept as Notre Dame burned. Why was this cataclysmic event so unifying? What happened that awful night that we could not avert our eyes? These have not been easy times in Paris, nor anywhere for that matter. Perhaps in those glowing embers, we saw up-close what a sad, scorched planet we’ve become.
France holds a unique place in so many hearts. To ignore France, you’re also registering your disdain for romance, food, history and culture. The world collectively wiped a tear as the flames shot into the darkening Paris skies. That rose and ash-tinged sunset is etched in my mind.
Gazing at those images from the Ile de la Cité brought me back to my first love. Paris. A girl. A trip.
I was 26 years old and making it beyond my wildest dreams as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. I wrote a television show for HBO called “First & Ten”, starring, among others, O.J. Simpson and Delta Burke – a pairing so odd that further words do it no justice. Nevertheless, I was on my way up in the biz. That was, until the Writers Guild Strike of 1988. Cut to a cafe near the American University of Paris, where, since I was out of work, I traveled to visit an acquaintance who was studying there.
This friend (we’ll call her Sally) lived in a maid’s flat on the top floor of a classic six-story Paris apartment building, literally overlooking the morning crowds queueing up at the Louvre. The apartment was so small you could not stand up at full height. We shared the lone tiny bed, platonically, at least for one of us.
Which gets us back to that French café. Sally had welcomed me into the most colorful and gregarious bunch of multicultural students I had ever met in my life. We lunched on cheap baguettes filled with saucisson and butter, drank carafes of house wine, and plied the cheap dark bars of the Latin Quarter every night until dawn, often wandering out drunk and singing arm and arm through the empty Paris streets in search of strong coffee and a croissant. In the midst of this carefree youthful revelry, I had fallen hard for Sally’s most tortured and poetic friend, Heather.
It was a bright sunny spring afternoon and Heather and I were immersed in a conversation about Voltaire or Sartre, or perhaps it was Descartes, over an espresso and a Gauloise. My eyes were locked so hard on Heather’s that my glasses were fogging when Sally walked in on us. She took one look, assessed the situation, and drew back her hand and slapped me across the cheek. To this day I can still hear the ringing of that slap.
This being Paris, no one in the cafe even looked up. I mean my god, we were in the city of l‘amour. Being slapped while you contemplated the dark brooding soul of a brown-eyed woman in a tied-back ponytail, V-neck white t-shirt and perfectly knotted scarf, was commonplace, I assume. Even de rigueur. In my immature mind, the slap was a badge of honor. This lowly screenwriter from the canyons of L.A. had arrived at the age of enlightenment.
And so, you ask, what became of Heather and me? Well, Sally put me and my Jansport backpack out on the street faster than you could say L’Étranger. My remaining time in Paris I stayed with my new friends, drank Pernod and Jameson’s until the wee hours, and tagged along with this merry band like a scene out of a Truffaut movie. The soundtrack of my memories was an accordion and the tolling church bells.
Heather, whom I suspect didn’t even notice my heart-wrenching obsession with her, continued to torture my adolescent soul, resting her soft cheek on my shoulder at dark bars for no reason, or taking my hand as we walked and sang, and then letting it go just as quickly. I had no idea what to make of her affections, but my decision was made. I told her that as soon as the WGA strike ended and we finished our show, I was quitting L.A. to move to Paris and start my first novel. It was a great plan. What could possibly go wrong?
On the day I flew home to vote on the strike, Heather drove me in her beat-up old Peugeot to Charles de Gaulle. I removed my backpack from the trunk. We stood on the sidewalk and looked at each other. I stroked her cheek and brushed a stray hair back behind her ear. She surprised me and leaned in for a kiss. It wasn’t romantic, but it wasn’t merely friendly, either. It was just enough – enough to keep me thinking about her on the 11-hour flight home to L.A. And then throughout the rest of the TV season, and that long summer when she balked at my returning because she had to visit her family in Germany. We wrote handwritten letters – though it was mostly me – embarrassing prose no doubt, sealed in thin papery envelopes and stamped with colorful plumage. Par avion. I traveled the 6,000 miles with each and every one of those communiqués until her responses grew further and further apart, until finally, I didn’t hear from her anymore.
Countless relationships, two marriages, four kids and a lifetime of travel to Paris later, I still wonder about Heather whenever I disembark at CDG. Wine-colored thoughts about a 21-year old ideologue strolling the banks of the Seine past the familiar site of Notre Dame, or sitting outdoors at a cafe reading an obscure French novel as she puffed away on her Gauloise.
As Notre Dame smoldered, perhaps we all saw the Heather in our lives. Simpler times uncluttered by ubiquitous static; a hand squeezed, a kiss left lingering. The Cathedral will be rebuilt and future generations of young lovers will stroll the Seine, fingers brushing, springtime blossoms in bloom. From the embers of that awful night, we will forge new beams of heart-strengthened steel.
Romance dies hard. Paris is going to be just fine.