I. First Date with Philippe, Beginning of September
“When I was punk and did street fighting…”
Philippe starts the story. He’s speaking French, but punk and street fighting are the same words in both languages, only difference the accent, and it’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever heard.
We’re in the Latin Quarter, and its windy cobblestones streets are barely big enough for normal traffic. Now the crowds of pedestrians weave through the cars, streaming from gallery to gallery. Two teenagers push past us, one knocking into me, and neither of us says anything. It’s Paris—there’s never enough room on the sidewalks. If Philippe needs to fight someone it’ll be late night outside of a club, like the time those teenagers surrounded me when I was unlocking my bike. Instead of peddling away praying they won’t chase me, I’ll have Philippe, ready to kick the shit out of them on my behalf. I can feel it in his energy, see it in his arms, in all the muscles rippling under his thin black t-shirt. It’s warm for September, and he left his jacket with the moto. I kept my blazer on because all I’m wearing underneath is a black fishnet shirt, goth chic. We’re both wearing all black, and I love it.
Philippe’s still talking about being punk, but I lose track of the story because I’m thinking about how, when he leaves me, I’ll have to get over being protected. I’ll also have to get over his motorcycle and riding behind him, arms wrapped around his black leather jacket. When he leaves me, I’ll have to get over this date and the way he called and asked if I wanted to go to les portes ouvertes on the Left Bank, his French patient and polite as we made plans. It isn’t until we walk into the first gallery that I force myself to stop. It’s our first date, and I shouldn’t spend it thinking about how things will end.
Inside the lights are glowing on the bright canvases and graceful people. Philippe does a slow tour, ending in the corner where the bartender is pouring champagne into glass flutes. He passes one back to me, not needing to ask if I want it, and we say, “Santé,” cheersing into each other’s eyes. His are dark, like his hair, and his beard is trimmed shorter than I remember. I wonder if he did it for me.
Philippe weaves his way through the gallery, and I follow. It’s packed like a night club, and I put my hand on his shoulder and step close behind him. It’s what my friends and I do to stay together at parties. It’s a normal thing to do.
The crowd clears in the back, near a spiral staircase, and as I let my hand fall, Philippe takes it in his. “You have very pretty hands.”
“Thank you, but I never played the piano,” I say, letting my fingers glide through his. I don’t know why I said that—I took years of piano lessons.
He smiles, and I drink champagne instead of clarifying, feeling the bubbles run through me. Philippe’s glass is practically full, and it doesn’t look as if we’ll down these and go for another. The first sips feel so good that I’m thinking about my next glass anyway—the champagne shutting off my thoughts and helping my French flow. My accent gets worse when I’m nervous, and booze would balance it out.
Now I want to be bright and interesting, but it’s hard to convey my personality in a foreign language, especially sober. If I get another glass here and the other galleries have champagne, I’ll be able to keep a comfortable buzz and Philippe will see me easy and carefree. I exhale and remind myself that I don’t have anything to hide, that there’s no need to get drunk.
I think back to my New York life, those summer Tuesdays at the Chelsea galleries with Sophia when we’d forge our way to the bar again and again. The magic of free wine made the oaky tang of cheap Chardonnay palatable. It took skill to get drunk in those crowds, but we did it—putting in hours before heading to The Village where her boyfriend played the piano at a gay bar. “We were at the galleries,” we’d tell the bartender, sliding into our corner. The galleries, as if we’d earned our right to drink.
“When I lived in New York I went often to the open galleries in Chelsea,” I tell Philippe, hoping that galerie in French means art gallery, though I’m not sure because Galeries Lafayette is a department store.
“Yes, I’ve gone to these for years,” Philippe says. I wonder how many and don’t ask. There’s gray in his beard, which only makes him sexier. It doesn’t matter how much older he is than me.
Upstairs there are a few people he knows. I could hover by his side and introduce myself, enunciating my name and immediately revealing that I’m American. No French person can ever say my name, Harper—they stumble over the H and garble the Rs. His friends would ask me the usual questions, and I’d have to explain myself, feeding them the easy version of how I ended up here. As I’m hesitating, Philippe walks over without me, so I wander away from their conversation, looking at the paintings as I sip my champagne. If Sophia could see me now, with my single flute.
Philippe’s still talking after I’ve considered every work, so I finish my drink and walk over. He smiles and introduces me to his friends, saying, “Je présente Harper,” without explaining how we know each other.
One of the women asks me if I’m an artist too.
“A type of artist,” I say, realizing that type means caricature. “I’m a writer.”
No one ever understands when I say I’m a writer, an écrivaine, in French. Maybe it’s the pronunciation, and maybe it’s that it feels like a lie. When Grandmère and I started planning my move here, I told her I couldn’t just move to Paris and appoint myself a writer. “Why not?” she said, “Pourquoi pas?” Whenever she’s being stubborn, she slips into her native French.
Before I can try again, Philippe says, “Elle est écrivaine,” holding the N at the end so it rings out.
The woman smiles approvingly, and I nod, trying to feel like I deserve it.
When we head to the next gallery, the sidewalks are too narrow for us to stay side by side, so we walk in the cobblestone streets. The galleries have red carpets out front and garlands of flowers hanging above their doors. I reach up to touch the white petals. They’re real.
We circle around sculptures and small paintings that I’m too tired to care about. Philippe doesn’t say anything until we’re back outside.
“So what do you think?”
“They were”—I search for a word—“interesting.”
“No, I haven’t seen anything interesting.” He glances back dismissively, and I laugh. It’s so matter of fact, he doesn’t even sound rude.
We turn down an alley too small for cars, and Philippe pushes open the door of a dark store. There are no red carpets, no garlands hanging outside. It’s filled with strange old things—dried lizards and sheathed daggers. He does a tour of the back room, then chats a for a bit with an old lady at a desk covered in papers. When they’re done talking, he turns and smiles at me.
Back in the street he pauses for a second, deciding where to go next. My old self would have drunk champagne until every gallery closed and we ended up at the inevitable bar. I would have made it to last call easily—it’s so much earlier in Paris—then waited for Philippe to invite me to his apartment. We would have been careless drunk by then, our bodies falling into each other, lips meeting without thinking. It’s how all my dates go, so I surprise myself when I say, “I’m sorry. I’m going to go home soon.”
Maybe the responsible side of me wants to save this night and knows it’s better to give a vague excuse than turn sloppy.
“Is it okay? It’s very early.”
“It’s okay. I just didn’t sleep much last night. You can stay, though.”
“No,” says Philippe, “we’ll go together. They’re already closing.”
The streets are emptying, and the gallerists are locking their intricate metal gates. The cafés are sparkling; their sidewalk tables are filled with couples smoking cigarettes and drinking wine. That could have been us, but we walk past them to the moto, Philippe’s boots echoing on the paving stones. The sky is lit with the last of the sun as we drive down Boulevard Saint Germain to Place Saint Michel, then cut north across Ile-de-la-Cîté. The sunset is deep pink over the Seine, and suddenly ending the night feels like a mistake. I’m with Philippe and something should happen, but we’re already almost to my apartment, turning right and pulling up on the sidewalk.
Philippe cuts the engine, and we take off our helmets.
“There’s an open studio and then a party in Pantin on Saturday,” he tells me. “Should be interesting.” I can’t tell if he’s inviting me or just letting me know. He keeps talking about Pantin, how they’re converting more and more abandoned factories.
Finally I say, “Thank you, it was nice.” There’s another more complicated phrase about amusing oneself, which I’ll look up for next time. I don’t have any of the words to say how much I enjoyed the night and my single glass of champagne.
“So I’ll call you Saturday,” Philippe says, “and we’ll go to Pantin.”
I smile and nod, loving that he says it as a statement, not a question.
He smiles too, and we lean in, brushing cheeks to say good-bye. Our farewell is less intimate than a hug, though when I’m close he smells like fresh pine or some other, rarer wood.
My apartment, the chambre de bonne Grandmère gave me, is on the seventh floor, and I usually text my friends from New York as I climb the stairs. I take out my phone, but I don’t know where to start. Having to get over his moto when he leaves me? Sipping free champagne in Paris? We didn’t kiss, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like me. He said he’ll call me; we’ll keep seeing each other. Tonight was only the beginning.
On the fourth floor I put my phone away and let his words wash over me. When he was punk and did street fighting. When I lived in Paris and met Philippe.
II. Yoga, a Few Days Later
The Friday after my date with Philippe, I go to yoga to start my weekend. The studio is more beautiful every time I walk in—there are plants in woven baskets, fresh-cut branches and flowers, white dream catchers, black orbs. The roof is a huge, flat skylight, and sometimes cats walk across it during class. There’s a cave of a changing room down a flight of stone steps, with bottles of lavender mist, probably air freshener, that I spray on myself anyway. Even the mats make a peaceful sound when they unroll against the hardwood floor.
My teacher, Anne, is older and slightly taller than me. We both have salon-streaked light brown hair and lithe yoga bodies, though she’s infinitely more flexible. Maybe in ten years I’ll be able to do what she does—curving down to backbend from standing, then walking her legs over as if gravity doesn’t apply. There are always the same handful of women in the class, each one grounded from years more yoga than I’ve had.
Anne says that this month we’ll be working with our water energy, practicing flowing as the seasons change. I sit on a block in half-lotus, my palms up, receiving the energy around me. My hips are tight. They’re always tight, and I breathe into them, letting them fall as the crown of my head rises. I keep my chin inclined, humble. Anne has us bring our hands to heart center. I press my palms together, and we chant Om three times. It’s quiet and a-harmonic. After that Anne guides us through flows; we circle our mats like water, flowing from back to front. She tells us to move our arms freely, and I float my fingertips, feeling graceful, remembering Philippe saying I have pretty hands.
At the end of the class we do inversions—kicking our legs up to practice handstand. I walk my feet in, trying to keep my shoulders over my elbows, though I have no way of knowing what that should feel like. I don’t have any muscle memory of the alignment, and I can’t imagine defying my body’s weight to levitate in the middle of the room. I can’t do the pose because I can’t see it, can’t imagine how it feels.
I come down on my knees and check the distance between my elbows. Then I cup my head in my hands, tuck my toes, and raise first my left leg, then the right. I come into headstand with ease and grace. Two years ago this was just as impossible as forearm stand, yet the day arrived. Next week, Anne likes to tell us; if you keep working, it could come next week.
“Inhale, exhale,” Anne says. Ten deep breaths.
We end in supported fish pose, and I put a block along my spine. My shoulders fall away and down, and I exhale to release all they’re holding. My arms are fully spread, and my heart is wide open. I think of Philippe, how I have to trust that we’ll keep seeing each other. Of course we will: he told me about the studios in Pantin when we said good-bye. I exhale. The light shifts behind my closed lids. I think about how I have to express myself, how I have to smile and keep my heart open.
When we were at the galleries, I overheard one of Philippe’s friends asking about the cool girl he was with. He was talking about me and it was a compliment, but I want to be warm and loving, not prowling at arm’s length.
I feel my shoulders dropping, my heart opening. Light is rippling across my eyelids; I’m a stream of sparkling water. Philippe will call me, and I’ll show him that I can be open and flowing. Anne tells us to stretch our toes and fingers, to come back into the space. When I open my eyes, the cats are padding across the ceiling, basking in the September sun.
After class I change and walk to the library, head clear and creativity flowing. It’s part of the plan that the library and the yoga studio are within walking distance of each other and my apartment. I don’t know if it was Grandmère’s or Mum’s idea, though Mum is the one who told me. “That way you can do yoga in the morning, then go write.” I felt like a little kid being sent away to summer camp—everything arranged so I wouldn’t come crying back home. It’s still a weird miracle that I live here, and I wonder how much they knew about my life in New York. Was my version of keeping it together so transparent?
I pass by two gardens, inhaling the smell of drying leaves and sun-baked plants. It reminds me of the time when I went to yoga the day after I’d blown molly. There’d been a blizzard in New York and I’d thought of Luke, even though we hadn’t talked in months. I imagined him in California, biking along the Venice boardwalk to work, and wanted to text him something about freezing and needing him to keep me warm. I’d deleted his number but still had it memorized. I knew I had to stop but still thought about him all the time.
It had snowed so much that we closed the café, which gave me a day to write. A precious gift, but my room was freezing, and when I pulled the curtains closed I saw snow blowing through the crooked window frame. I was shivery and couldn’t focus, and my third cup of coffee wasn’t making a difference. But there was a bag of molly in my drug box, conveniently located in the top drawer of my desk. It was good shit—brown rocks—so I crushed one, then bumped it with my pinky, my long coke nail, switching nostrils to keep it even.
Thinking back, I can’t remember what I did afterward. I must have kept writing, the guilt of gratuitous drug use enough to keep me in my chair for hours. What I really remember is yoga the next day, when we started our breathing exercises—covering one nostril, inhaling, covering the other nostril, then exhaling. My fragile nose burning, used up, each breath a reminder of how dumb I’d been. We did endless minutes of nadi shodhana breath, the teacher telling us it would strengthen our immune systems and increase our self-awareness. I was already self-aware enough to know that I should never use snorting molly as an excuse to write again. She said the exercise would clear our minds for the rest of class, but all I could think about was that I should never blow anything again—even though, as I thought it, I knew I would.
After I got through the breathing, the class was cozy with Nag Champa and the radiators hissing. And on my walk home the city was magical in its post-blizzard glory, sunlight dazzling the blues and whites. The sky is pure blue today too, but not in the same way. Not in a way that I still feel deep inside me, more than a memory of something I saw. That day the sky lifted me up and made me feel as if my life could be sunny, sparkling, if only I put in the work.
Yoga feels better than molly. Yoga feels better than molly. Yoga feels better than molly. The teacher didn’t ask us to set one, but that became my mantra.
Framed as a year-long diary, PARIS NIGHTS is a novel about recovery, rebirth, and falling in love with yourself. Harper, the main character, moves to Paris in her mid-twenties to become a new person. Though she dismisses her own struggles back in New York City as “generic and uninspiring,” saying, “I’d been under-employed, heartbroken, and drug-addled,” her parents’ divorce, the end of a serious relationship, and her substance use have left her anxious and unmoored. After squandering her post-grad years, Harper is motivated to move by her ambition to become a fully realized version of herself—a writer who lives in Paris. As she records her interactions and internal journey, the story shows the possibilities of anyone’s desire to change and the places to which this transformation can take them.
Harper’s diary begins when she starts dating Philippe, a successful sculptor. She falls less for him than for the city itself. In this way, PARIS NIGHTS is a story about falling in love with the world. It’s about reincarnation and believing there can be a different, better way. Through flashbacks, scenes with friends, and her new romance, we learn about Harper’s failures, phobias, and escapes. She narrates with an open honesty and humor that lighten the mood and lift up the reader—making it easy to identify with what she’s been through and the way she’s processing it. At the end of the year, Harper realizes that there is no single moment of transformation—she’s been transforming the entire time.
Gracie Bialecki is a writer and literary coach who lives in Paris, France. Her work has appeared in The Atticus Review, Monkeybicycle, and Epiphany Magazine, where she is a monthly columnist. Gracie is the co-founder of the storytelling series Thirst and the author of Youth, a volume of poetry, as well as the novel Purple Gold (published by ANTIBOOKCLUB).
Embark, Issue 13, October 2020