It was four months ago, almost to the day, that the taxi picked me up in front of my building on the rue Campagne Première and took me to the airport. (You might note for own future reference that early August is a good time to leave Paris. The locals have scattered for the summer. Storefronts are shuttered; the streets are quiet, quiet, quiet. Shoving off feels akin to leaving an embarrassingly flaccid cocktail soirée without saying goodbye to the hostess. Only in this case, you needn't feel guilty, as the hostess herself has gone down the hall to the neighbors' for a drink, and will likely stay there for dinner, not to return until the beginning of September.)
Getting in a taxi is easy. Duh. Anything is easier than the business of moving -- sorting, packing, re-gifting, and shipping one's belongings. (Just thinking about carrying those boxes down four flights of stairs makes my fingers and my lower back ache dully.)
Getting through the airport, to one's boarding gate, and into one's rightful seat is its own thing. It's not easy. It's kind of like show jumping for humans, with luggage; one obstacle after another to be cleared. The challenge is a dual one -- to remain upright while maintaining form and poise. It's only about 300 yards from curb to gate, true. And yet the oxygen and focus that successful completion demands are inversely proportional to the length of the course.
My suitcases that day, I quickly learned, were unbalanced. I needed to get eight kilos from one bag to the other. OK. So with both bags zipped open there in front of God and everybody I reached deep into one of them and promptly broke a nail -- badly. It hurt. And bled. Mindful of form and poise, I somehow overcame my first response, which was to shout at the clerk, "LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO,YOU BITCH." Instead, I calmly asked how much the overweight fucking baggage charge was.
(Actually, the expletive was implied. I don't swear in public like that. Not in front of strangers. I will say, though, that it was the best fucking $150 I have spent in a long time.)
Unburdened of 23 kilos of baggage, and through passport control, it was on to security. Shoes off, laptop out of bag, merci monsieur, merci madame, here is my quart-sized ziploc containing handcream and lip balm, au revoir-merci. I ran through my paces and kept my eyes on the prize -- in this case, seat 18C.
On the other side of security, the sunlight slashed hard off the tarmac and cut through the glass walls of Terminal 2 so pointedly that it made my eyes water. I guzzled a bottle of Evian, drank a coffee, and for lack of proper tools, gently bit my broken nail into manageable shape.
I was headed through the hollow jet way, smiling to myself at the elephantine and helpless thumping noise my feet were making. I had my heavy bag slung over my shoulder, and an entire transatlantic crossing's worth of French magazines in my arms -- L'Express, Paris Match, Elle, and the shameless, occasionally sordid Voici. I thought how familiar this shuffle was, and how it had become a normal part of life.
Normal, save for the fact that in a minute I would board the plane, and after that I would not live in Paris anymore.
The thought made me sad. And baffled me. Had this really not occured to me before? I had only spent the previous four weeks preparing for my departure. But perhaps, somehow, in the course of running my personal airport steeplechase, it had slipped my mind.
Perhaps it was the familiarity that lulled me.
After all, the details were in place -- my coat folded over my arm, my benign sense of dread, the black velveteen slippers tucked in the corner of my bag. And binding it all together, that trademark airport smell of jet fuel, industrial carpet, and the alkaline, nervous sweat of stressed-out humans.
Whatever, it made me sad. Here I was, finally, at the end of two and a half years. Who would have guessed that it would be like this, a Wednesday, perfectly normal, with a broken nail and all the rest? True, I might end up returning to Paris someday, perhaps to stay for even longer, but for now this tour of duty -- this particular chapter -- was at its end.
If you have ever watched the sun set, you know there is that one moment where the narrowest sliver of it is still visible on the horizon. It's incredibly bright, surprisingly so, slim as it is. You know what's coming, it's what you are there to witness, and yet when it happens -- when that sun is well and truly down -- you can feel that something has ended. And not even knowing that the sun is coming back up again in the morning changes the fact of it. For that one little moment, it feels like abandonment.
I might have gotten stuck there, had not the universe intervened in the shape of a Delta flight attendant. "Good afternoon," she said, smiling as she reached for the boarding pass in my hand.
It felt as if she were pulling me out of the water.
I greeted her and headed down the left side of the plane to seat 18C.