The wind was blowing from the north: a hint of rose in the air, mixed with the smell of shit, a breeze coming both from a parfumerie and the Seine. It brushed back the fine hairs on my arms and made my skin prickle.
From somewhere in the apartment, the chocolatey strains of ‘Ave Maria’ slipped between the hinges of the balcony door and wisped away through ivy leaves into the night. The moon hung full above, looking for all the world like a movie prop, like a sigil proclaiming oui, this is Paris, this is la ville d’amour.
It was cold out. I was in the mood for that. And the ivy that wound around the wrought-iron bars of the balcony, creeping up the brick wall to sprawl over the roof, itched between my shoulder blades as I slouched on the floor. I was in the mood for that, too. A few bats wheeled over the great, fat moon, probably twittering in a French accent, and I rested my head back against the railing.
This wasn’t my balcony.
I’d gotten to it from the roof, smiling at the doorman and taking the stairs two at a time until there weren’t any more stairs to take. I’d shimmied onto the slope of the roof, slipped, and slid down the shingles like I’d meant to fall in the most undignified way it could be done, and I’d landed on this balcony so hard that the metal had screeched. I’d thought surely somebody would come because of the noise.
Nobody had. Music had been playing, and I’d slumped over and stared at the faraway ground through the grated balcony floor, feeling bruises blossom on my knees.
There were some flowers in pots up here, and they smelled better than the distant perfumery. I hunkered closer to them. I plucked a few and braided them into my hair.
I definitely hadn’t processed the end of the world.
Or rather, not the world. My world. Somehow, I think, I had believed this roof-climbing nonsense would help me come to terms with it.
An exclamation rang out from inside the flat, and then the glass door slid aside with a sharp tack as it hit the end of its rail. Warm air from inside gushed out over the balcony.
“Qu’est-ce que vous faites ici?” a voice demanded. It sounded female, young but maybe a smoker, and I made myself look up. I offered a smile and a halfhearted little wave, like finding strange foreign girls on one’s balcony at midnight should be a perfectly normal thing.
“Sorry,” I said, and realized the cold had made me numb and I sounded a little drunk. “Hello.”
The girl in the doorway had short black hair and wore a motorcycle jacket, and she made a tch noise through her teeth. “An American,” she said, as if finding strange foreign girls on one’s balcony was completely normal, but only if they were American.
She looked me over disapprovingly once or twice, but on each pass, her eyes softened. They caught on the pitiful details: my unintentionally-ripped jeans, torn on the way down the roof. The stain on my blouse that could maybe pass for wine if nobody looked too close.
The girl smelled like cloves and cigarettes, but not clove cigarettes, and I found the mixture startlingly pleasant. I focused on that instead of her increasingly-interested eyes when she spoke: “How did you get here?”
“The roof,” I said. “I fell off the roof.”
She nodded, like this made perfect sense. “Ah,” she said sympathetically. “Well, it could happen to anyone.”
Without any hesitation, she beckoned me inside. “I have brandy. You need it.”
“Wait.” I blinked at her, confused. “What?”
“Brandy,” she said, and then seemed to question whether she’d gotten her English correct. “Brandy? To drink?”
“Right,” I pushed myself up, making the balcony creak. “Sure. Thanks, I guess.”
“De rien.” She slid the door closed behind me, and gave me another strange look before she busied herself with a glass and honey-colored alcohol. “Why were you on the roof?” she asked, setting a glass of brandy down on the table in front of me and keeping the bottle for herself.
I looked around instead of answering. It was a very cozy flat, with grandmotherly hangings over the backs of armchairs and paintings on the walls that depicted flowers, lily ponds, and one lovingly-rendered motorcycle. The tile floor was scuffed, and somehow that gave the whole place an air of weariness. “I like your flat,” I said.
The girl--I decided she was probably around my age, early twenties or maybe younger--looked around, like she needed to remind herself what I could possibly be complimenting. “Oh,” she said, a bit confused. “Merci.” She glanced into the neck of the brandy bottle, clearly contemplating drinking from it, but then scowled and found herself a glass. I sipped my own; I’d never had brandy, but it was pleasantly warming on the way down. “What were you doing on the roof?” the girl asked again.
I sighed, remembering the exhilaration of such height, the cold wind, the relief of being alone. “I don’t have an answer,” I said.
“You don’t want to tell me?” Her tone made it clear that she found this rather rude, and I supposed that it was. I’d intruded on her balcony, after all, and she’d given me a drink instead of calling the police.
“It’s not that,” I said, shaking my head. My hair, shorter than I was used to, brushed against the sides of my neck.
I shrugged. “I just don’t know why I was on the roof.”
She looked confused, but curious, too. “You don’t know how you got there?”
“I don’t know why I got there.”
“Oh,” she said with a frown of faint disappointment, refilling my glass, which evidently I’d emptied. “That’s not very exciting, is it?”
Contemplating that for a moment, I wondered if it was a mindless thing to say, or if I just didn’t know what she meant.
Unlike me, the French girl didn’t seem opposed to conversation. “What’s your name?”
The question caught me off-guard for some reason. “Finch.”
“Your name is Finch?”
“You can call me Finch.”
“Hm.” She sipped her drink, brown eyes roving over her flat. “I’m Amelie.”
She didn’t seem to expect a ‘nice to meet you, Amelie,’ and I didn’t offer one. “Why are you doing this?”
She shrugged, but didn’t hesitate. “You look interesting.”
She pointed to my shirt, and I noticed that in the whole summer I’d passed in Paris, I hadn’t seen more than five Parisian women whose nails were less than manicured. But Amelie’s were bitten and ragged, adorned with a couple of hangnails. “Is that blood?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s not mine, though.”
“I don’t know,” I said, plucking at my shirt. “Not a person, don’t worry.”
The girl leaned forward, elbows on the table. “You see? Interesting.” She twirled the ends of her hair between her fingers. “I want to hear this story.”
I owed it to her and I knew it--as payment for my trespassing, and double payment for her kindness in light of my trespassing--but I didn’t feel like telling it. “There’s not much of a story,” I mumbled.
“Then it won’t take long to tell.” She inclined her glass to me, as easily as if we were friends, then slipped a hand into her motorcycle jacket to pull out a cigarette and a lighter. The smell of smoke filled the flat, settling into the smell of older smoke.
My glass clinked when I set it onto the wooden surface of the table, and I let out my breath all at once. It didn’t hurt when I remembered, but it was numbing and made me feel tired.
The past few months had passed in a flurry of blue eyes and black hair. There had been tangled sheets and boxes of candies, and the scent of laundry detergent that wasn’t mine clinging to my skin more often than not.
And then, suddenly, there wasn’t.
“Just a boy,” I said.
The French girl scoffed, tapping her cigarette off into a nearby glass ashtray. “A boy,” she said, “is not a story.”
That almost startled me. “What?”
“A boy isn’t a story,” she said again. Her accent made her sound very knowledgeable. “A boy is a boy.”
“Well, fine,” I said, bristling a little bit. “Then what he did is a story.”
“And what did he do?”
I pressed my lips together. “Nothing,” I said eventually. “He didn’t do anything.”
He’d let the smell of waiting rooms and hospital hallways overwhelm the smell of his laundry detergent on my clothes. He’d let the feeling of cold latex gloves, worn by people I didn’t know, replace his warm hands on my skin. I hadn’t argued, but after everything was done, I realized that I had wanted him to.
“Say,” I said. “Could I have a cigarette?”
Obligingly, Amelie tapped a cigarette out of the carton and handed it over. I held the little roll between my lips and leaned in while she lit it for me. I hadn’t smoked in years, but the feeling of familiarity and nicotine made me feel more stable. Steadier.
“We had been together all summer,” I said. “I had thought maybe he was going to marry me.”
Amelie pushed her spent cigarette into the ashtray and crushed it down absently, waiting for me to keep speaking.
I chuckled humorlessly. “He wasn’t much. I knew that, and anyway, he’d told me so, but I’d still thought…” I shook my head, and licked my lips, and took another drag on the cigarette. “I was going to have a baby,” I said finally, and to my surprise, Amelie’s eyes did not widen with scandal.
Instead, she picked up her glass of brandy and swirled it around. “You’re not anymore.”
“No.” I looked down at the edge of the table. It was full of dents, and was probably as old as the apartment itself. “I’m not anymore.”
“Was that his wish?”
I hesitated at that, but then I shook my head. “No. Yes. I don’t know.”
She tilted her head.
“I suggested it,” I said. “It was my idea.”
Perhaps, at the time, I’d proposed it because I wanted him to stop me. But then he hadn’t stopped me, and I’d done it. And it was done. And I wasn’t going to have a baby, and I wasn’t going to get married.
Amelie frowned thoughtfully. “So you climbed the roof?” A thought seemed to strike her, and she set her brandy down a little too hard. “You weren’t going to jump, were you?”
“I don’t think I planned to,” I said. “I don’t think I thought at all.”
When everything was over, we had gone to his father, a butcher in the 17th Arrondissement. I had thought he was going to tell the old man that yes, we had perhaps made a mistake, but we had fixed it and we were still in love and maybe would get married someday. But he didn’t say any of that.
He’d stopped at the mistake.
And so, I realized, had we.
The old man had come close to striking his son. The son had moved aside--probably an instinct, nothing personal--and his father’s fist, covered in the blood of some or another dead animal, had connected with me instead. It hadn’t really hurt. He hadn’t been trying to inflict hurt, not truly. But his hand had left a smear of red over my belly, and somehow, seeing that had been too much.
I had run out of the charcuterie, leaving the black-haired, blue-eyed boy behind.
He hadn’t followed me.
“I don’t think I was going to jump,” I said. “But I think… I think maybe I wanted to fall.”
“You didn’t do a very good job,” Amelie observed.
“No,” I said. “I suppose I didn’t.”
Outside, the ivy rustled on the wrought-iron balcony, and the round, romantic moon washed everything in cold light. “I don’t think falling would be like you think,” Amelie said after a while.
I snorted. “And how do I think it would be?”
She tapped the backs of her fingers against the ashtray, making little clinks. “Freeing.”
That took me aback for a few breaths.
Maybe she wasn’t wrong. The feeling of the wind in my hair as I neared the ground--the hair I had cut so that I looked good, like a responsible girl, when we talked to his father in the butcher’s shop--and the knowledge that I was beholden in that moment to nothing but gravity… that might be very freeing.
“It wouldn’t be, though,” Amelie said. She shook her head. “Not worth it.”
“How do you know?”
Her shoulders rose and fell. “I know.” She stood, pressing herself up with her palms flat to the table, and started putting the brandy away. “You want your own self back, no? You want what you want.”
“I don’t know what I want.”
“Best find out,” she said, closing the cabinet. She nodded at my bloodied shirt. “That man of yours will, new men will, women will… everyone will tell you what to want.” She walked to the door of the flat, and it took me a second to realize that she was showing me out. “No more falling, yes?”
I ground my cigarette into the ashtray and got to my feet, went to the door, stood at the threshold. Amelie’s face was questioning, one eyebrow raised.
“Yes,” I agreed. “No more falling.”