Everyone who loses someone will at some point need to make peace with being in special places they previously shared with their loved one. This essay was written during my first return to Paris after losing my husband.
I leave the hotel purposefully, walking along the bridge that crosses the Seine from the tiny island to the Left Bank. I’m destined for the Latin Quarter, like the first time we came to Paris.
It was 1997. It was our first trip to Europe. Exhausted, jet lagged, and hungry, we settled into a tiny brasserie near our hotel. Tender roast chicken dripping with juices, the skin too crispy to ignore, served with a simple green salad. My first foreign food memory.
“What kind of dressing do you have?” I asked tentatively. I knew zero French and Greg could only count.
“Un, deux, trois…,” he had whispered to me before the waiter approached.I had giggled at him.
“The salad is already dressed,” the waiter said indignantly. The classic Dijon vinaigrette—which I learned dressed every salad in Paris—complimented the chicken perfectly. We devoured every bite.
“For dessert?” the waiter asked. Greg had the sweet tooth, not me. He ordered a small chocolate cake with a molten center. Even I couldn’t resist it.
Chicken, salad, chocolate cake. So simple. So perfect. The memory still so clear.
Tonight I’m determined to find the best roast chicken in Paris, to reproduce that experience. I begin walking through the winding streets of the Left Bank, desperately trying to remember where we ate the last time we were here. It was in the fall, two and a half years ago. Our last vacation with Cindy and Peter. Before.
An ambulance zooms past me with that classic two-tone wail from the siren. Greg loved that sound—it always made us feel like we were on vacation. But that was before he was actually loaded onto one of those ambulances. The sound terrifies me now and I freeze for a minute. I didn’t used to feel like this. Before.
I’m too tired to do any real research, so I wander aimlessly, occasionally glancing at the map on my phone to see where I am, looking for the perfect spot. No, that’s on the busy Boulevard St. Germain and the bus fumes are overwhelming. No, that’s clearly a falafel stand now. No, that’s not what I’m looking for. Why can’t I find it? Where was it?
What am I even looking for?
I quickly send a text to Cindy and Peter. “Where was that place we had lunch? The place our bike guide recommended—the place he said he went with his family.” I wait for a response, but the time difference means they are at work, and it takes a few minutes. I keep walking. I keep searching. For what?
Ping. I glance at my phone. Both Cindy and Peter are trying to help, trying to remember.
“Do you mean the place across from the stand selling mussels?” Cindy asks.
“No, that was where we had lunch another day,” I quickly text back. I picture the scene. I see Greg in the photo from that lunch, smiling beside Cindy. Before.
“Was that after our bike ride?” Peter texts. I tell him yes, but none of us can remember where it was or what it was called, and I don’t see anything that looks right. What exactly am I looking for? A specific restaurant? Roast chicken? The past?
I’m frozen on a corner in the Left Bank when the sky opens up and the huge raindrops begin pelting me. Thankfully I have a raincoat and umbrella, but in truth, I don’t care. I sit under an awning of an ice cream shop waiting for the rain to subside to something reasonable, so I can continue walking. A photographer is huddled next to me with his subject: an impossibly tall and too thin teenage girl. She’s hired him to shoot photos for her modeling portfolio, but he seems intent on something else. It takes a while for the rain to slow, and I fidget.
Cindy sends another text—they are trying so hard to help, because they know how hard this is for me. “Is it the place where you guys sat under the warmers while I went back to the jewelry store?” Cindy asks. I remember the moment and smile. Greg had posed under a sign for a store called “Schmuck” to have his photo taken before we sat down to lunch. Before.
I surrender and call an Uber. I’m standing under an awning in the pouring rain somewhere near the Relais St. Germain waiting for my driver. My feet are uncomfortably wet, and my heart is heavy. I’ve entered an address for the driver, back on the Isle St. Louis where I am staying. Where we stayed. Before.
In ten minutes the driver has returned me to the island, but he drops me at the corner a full block away from where I had requested. “Au revoir,” I say as I exit the cab and pop up my umbrella. It’s still pouring; I’m annoyed. I start to walk, peeking at the menu of the first two restaurants I pass. No roast chicken. Why must I have roast chicken?
I keep walking the short distance to the corner, and as I cross, my eyes scan the menu posted on the side of the building. Poulet Roti. I’m soaking wet from the knees down, drained from my hour-long search. I duck under the canvas awning where the rain is pouring off in sheets. I don’t care at all what I look like, don’t care that I’m drenched, don’t even care that everyone is smoking in the small confined space.
“One?” I ask tentatively, wishing I could speak just a little French so the waiter wouldn’t look at me with such disdain. He doesn’t allow me to sit at first—he thinks I only want a drink. When I tell him dinner, though, he’s quick to offer me a seat in the back of the patio against the wall, securely out of the way of the downpour and the flood that’s now snaking underneath the bistro tables in front of me.
I need a sedative.“Un coupe du Champagne?” I ask him quickly, the only French I know.
As I settle into the webbed chair and adjust my purse and coat and sweater, I realize I’ve been here before. I’ve sat in this exact chair in this same restaurant. Before.
Greg sat right next to me on the right. Before.
I can barely control my tears, barely swallow the massive lump in my throat. There are Germans to my right, instead of Greg, and I make light of the weather situation with them. “You’ll need a boat to paddle out of here,” I joke, hoping to dismiss my pain with humor. They laugh. I sip my Champagne. I can’t stop thinking about before.
The waiter is pressing me to order. I assure him I will eventually, but that I need time. I point to my drink and say, “After.”
I text a picture of the Champagne glass and the rain to Cindy and Peter. From simply the view from my seat, they remember the place. They remember when Greg and I sat here for drinks while Cindy dragged Peter to shop. They remember before too.
I cut into my roast chicken, but it’s not right. The skin isn’t crispy. It shouldn’t have mushroom gravy over the top. It should be accompanied by a mixed green salad with a simple Dijon vinaigrette, not whipped potatoes and carrots and creamed spinach. Greg should be here. Like before.
The next day I enter the Musée d’Orsay feeling slightly uncomfortable before I even start exploring. I know why, but I shake it off. As I enter the main hall of the Impressionist wing, I rest for a minute on one of the benches. A man wearily plops down next to me. “If you sit down you’ll never get up,” his wife says. I’m transported instantly.
On our first trip to Paris, Greg and I came to this museum soon after our arrival, hoping to fight our jet lag instead of succumbing to a nap. Greg hated museums, and after an hour, he’d seen enough. He needed to use the restroom and I told him I’d wait on the bench. “Don’t do it; don’t sit down,” he said. “You’ll fall asleep.”
“No I won’t,” I said, sitting down while he walked down the long hall to find the toilette. By the time he came back, I was flat on my back, sound asleep on the bench.
I savor the memory for a short moment, then pull myself up from the bench near the couple. It’s been twenty years since I first visited this museum. It’s been two and a half years since I was last here with Cindy and Peter and Greg. I pull my phone from my purse as I walk and look at the pictures from that trip. In one, Greg is sitting on a bench on the first floor of the museum, his arms wrapped around me and his head on my shoulder. I was smiling as Peter snapped the picture because Greg was begging me to leave the museum, find a bar somewhere, and get a beer. That was before.
I skip down the stairs to that level of the museum quickly, intent on finding the exact spot. I compare the photo to the room, walking back and forth through the hall, trying to figure out where it was, wanting to sit there again, needing to feel the cool stone bench. The large, ornate clock, and a massive Rodin statue are unmistakable in the photo, but as I wander back and forth in the general area of the picture, I understand. The bench is no longer there. The statue has been replaced with a different one. And Greg isn’t here. Just like he wasn’t at the restaurant last night.
That was before. This is after. After our life together. After our last time in Paris. After the shock of his collapse. After the pain of his death.
Two days later I’m seated in a garden chair in the Tuileries. I’m listening to someone in our group speak, but I’m distracted by the loud crow squawking in the tree to my right. When I look toward the tree to see him, he stops; when I turn back to the group, he squawks again. “Ca-caw! Caw!”
I’m being pulled backwards through a tunnel of memories. I can hear Greg encouraging the kids. “Chris, what does the elephant say?” Chris does his best impression, swinging his arm like a trunk.
“Jon, what does the cow say?”
Jon and Jenny both say, “Mooooo!” at the same time.
In unison, all three kids beg Greg, “What does the crow say?!” They know he’ll do it; he’s told them he has an expert crow voice.
“Ca-caw!” he belts out. The kids shriek and giggle.
One more time I look at the crow behind me in the park. Silence. When I turn back to my group, he squawks again, to remind me, “I’ll always be with you.” After.