BY: P.K GALLAGHER
My breathing was coming out in short, shallow bursts as I hauled my two suitcases up yet another flight of stairs, but I wasn’t sure if this was because of exertion in 80 degree weather or because I was on the verge of a full scale panic attack. I hoped it wasn’t the latter. Sobbing in the stairwell would not make a good first impression on my new neighbors, and if the way I stuttered my greeting to the man checking his mail in the foyer was any indication, I could not trust my ability to explain it away.
I tried to pull myself together. This had, after all, been my idea. What was I even doing here if I couldn’t manage a simple “bonjour” without a meltdown and climbed an inordinate number of stairs just so I could avoid little old ladies in elevators?
I was still irritated with myself by the time I reached the seventh floor and made my way to apartment 706 at the end of the hall. I was stranded outside the door for a moment while I fumbled with a lock that seemed much more complicated than called for. When I finally succeeded, I ventured inside with my baggage—I lugged the suitcases in, too—and got my first look at my new home.
It was flooded with light, something I hadn’t expected. I’d never seen the place, only read the curt description— “furnished 300 square-foot studio in the seventh arrondissement with easy access to the métro, shopping, and dining”—my employer had e-mailed me. I’d expected something so small and cell-like to be…well, dark and cell-like. This was impossible, however, with one window on the back wall and the entire eastern wall consisting of glass and a windowed door that led to the balcony.
I dropped my bags, skirted the cardboard boxes that had made it here before I had, and walked over to it, throwing the door open to coax an afternoon breeze into the stifling apartment. It made no readily perceptible difference, so I simply went out. It was cooler out here in the shade of the balcony above me, and when I closed my eyes, I could almost pretend I was standing on another balcony half a world away with a boyfriend who still loved me and familiar sites all around.
I sighed and opened my eyes, that line of thinking making me feel worse, not better. There was no point in living in the past, besides. I was here now, and that was that. I studied my new surroundings, figuring that if I looked hard enough, they would soon be familiar, too. The street was narrow, lined with bicycles and mopeds that looked in danger of being destroyed every time a car squeezed through. That was how close the apartment building—number 6, I think—across the way was. It made me a little uncomfortable.
I noticed now that I could see clear into the apartments whose windows were open, and no doubt their occupants could see into mine. I scanned the windows a little more closely, and though I’d half expected to see someone peering back at me—more likely than not, sneering at the stupid, uncouth American—I was startled and embarrassed to discover that there was indeed someone watching me, though not with disdain.
He was a little younger than I, may be 19 or 20 with olive toned skin, a mop of errant, brown curls, and an expression of trepid amazement. It was then that I realized he wasn’t looking at me, just taking in the surroundings as I was. In an act of extreme nosiness, I looked into the room behind him and saw that it, too, was filled with boxes, some laying on their sides, contents strewn on the floor. I wondered where he was moving from—his parents’ apartment down the street? A banlieue? Another country? America?
My eyes wandered back to his face, and this time our gazes met. Caught red-handed.
I smiled sheepishly in apology, but the expression froze on my face—hadn’t I been warned against that? You weren’t supposed to smile at strangers here because it was considered a come-on, or something like that?
6 smiled back, however, the expression equally sheepish, so I allowed my panic to subside, and with a nod, vacated my balcony. I, too, had an apartment to unpack, after all.
It was slow going, even though I’d had very little shipped here in an effort to keep costs down. The things I’d so carelessly dumped into the boxes in my hurry to be away from Brendan, away from the pitying looks of my friends, away from my parents’ “I told you sos” now seemed so significant, so vital. Each one felt like a treasure contained in a soap bubble that, if handled too roughly, would burst, taking with it my already tenuous links to home.
I gingerly unpacked the clothes, the keepsakes, the going-away gifts, the memories, placing them with a care I’d never given them in the States as the mound of empty boxes by the door grew bigger and bigger.
The last thing I unpacked was a joke-gift from my sister that I was surprised had made it through customs: a box of cheap, California wine with the words
so you don’t let all that fancy stuff make you forget where you came from
scrawled on the front. I stared at it for a long time, not sure if I wanted to laugh or cry. I settled for taking the carton to the kitchen, grabbing a wine glass off a shelf and filling it with the lukewarm liquid before refrigerating the rest.
I wondered as I made my way to the balcony if something as cheap and undeniably American as this had ever sullied the pretty crystal, and the thought made me giggle.
I looked out into the twilight and sipped the wine, grimacing a little at the burn and aftertaste. Across the narrow street, 6 was back on his balcony, too, a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, the end glowing a dim orange. Past him, I saw no more boxes, and on the window he’d hung a flag I didn’t recognize. I didn’t feel abashed this time when my gaze wandered to his face and once more met his.
He smiled again, a small smile that was oddly familiar on his foreign features, and raised his beer a fraction in my direction. I raised my glass in response, recognizing the unspoken toast: here’s to us, two total strangers, and the awesome, terrifying thing we’ve just done.