“It’s not love until you see something you don’t like,” Maria’s mother, Cassandra, told her while cleaning up the dinner dishes after Thanksgiving. Her daughter had graduated college the previous May and had managed to do two things in the last six months: 1) find a solid marketing job and, 2) fall head over heels in absolute lust or love or whatever you want to call it when you’re 23, with a 25-year-old named Oscar. Maria and Oscar were more or less attached at the hip. Or at least, an electronic joint.
Their texts back and forth throughout the day while she was at the office two exits away from him in Boston read as if they were long-time lovers separated by a world war. They did everything together. Like, everything. They refused to be apart seconds longer than necessary. This is why Oscar was sitting on the stool next to Maria as her mother continued with her assessment of their relationship.
“You’ve only just met. It’s not smart to tie your entire identity to each other.” Cassandra looked down at them over her reading glasses which she’d forgotten to take off. She quickly added, “Although you know how much I love the two of you together.”
“It can be,” Oscar insisted. He was a good enough guy by Cassandra’s standards. He treated Maria as if he’d never met another woman before in his life which also, could have been the case. He was smart-ish and hard-working and was very nice to their old cat so none of those personality traits appeared to be red flags. For Cassandra, it all boiled down to this extreme infatuation that he and her daughter shared.
“Which is why…” Oscar reached into his back pocket, drawing out the moment oh so expertly like Regis Philbin on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, “Maria, I want you to go to Paris with me for the New Year.”
He placed an international ticket on the table, a printout from his work office, Cassandra assumed, as he grinned like a moon becoming full. Cassandra was proud of herself for not dropping the large Pyrex.
Maria’s reaction was exactly as you would expect. She cried, hugged, and jumped up and down enough to misalign the family photos on the kitchen wall. Cassandra tried to find some happiness for her daughter. Wasn’t this a magically romantic gift? A trip to Paris? Over New Years? What an incredible experience for Maria. But a mother’s intuition isn’t a cliche for a reason and Cassandra felt her heart sink just a bit. But she knew better than to let it show.
“Mom, isn’t this INSANE?” Cassandra accepted the most forceful bear hug that she’d ever received from her adult daughter and instantly regretted the words that somehow escaped her lips.
“Just don’t get married or pregnant while you’re there.” She tried to make her voice sound joke-y.
“MOM!” Maria may have been a legal adult and wildly in love but, still, the relationship had only been a thing for less than six months and parental embarrassment was alive and well.
“We aren’t going to do either of those things.”
Between the tone of Maria’s voice and the look that she briefly shared with Oscar, Cassandra didn’t feel the least bit reassured. For the next five weeks, the world revolved around Paris, at least in their household.
Maria would come home from work each day and show her family texts of photos from Oscar of the parks that they would visit, the restaurants where he’d made reservations, and the apartment of his college roommate where they would be staying.
“It looks really small,” Cassandra commented, not unkindly, when Maria breathlessly scrolled through photos on her phone.
“Mom, it's Paris. PARIS. That’s how the Parisians live. It’s SO much more sophisticated than Boston. I mean, what are we even DOING with all this space?”
Maria gestured to their not particularly large townhome.
“Oh?” Cassandra perked up, “does this mean that you don’t want to move out now?”
“MOTHER!” Maria barked before immediately swiping to answer Oscar’s call, running up to her room while gushing about an eleven-course meal that was going to take five hours. Cassandra shook her head.
She knows she sounds like such a downer, such a pessimist, but she swears that that’s not the case.
Her attitude towards Maria and Oscar’s relationship was simply one of a woman who had lived a real life. She knew how intoxicating young love could be. She also knew that all humans are capable of hiding the worst parts of themselves for up to a year. At least, that was her philosophy. She figured that she would just have to be quiet and wait until her daughter and her boyfriend had their first spat or misunderstanding or bout of bad news, and that would be the event that would bring them both back to Earth. This Paris trip was throwing a solid metal tool in that plan of hers.
Now, Cassandra was no dummy. She knew the second that Maria sensed even a drop of disapproval that it would send her running even faster (if that was possible) into Oscar’s arms. So Cassandra invited the young Romeo into her home and treated him with all the smiles that she could muster. Dinners were the best because Mama could have her wine.
The day of their departure approached too quickly after the whirlwind of the holidays. Maria’s bags had been packed for almost a week. Every night Cassandra heard her daughter unzip her old suitcase and rearrange, re-pack, and trade one top for another. The mall shopping bags piled up in the corner of her room. On the day of their travel, Oscar picked her up five hours before the flight, even though the airport was only 22 miles away.
“I’ll drive you,” Cassandra insisted.
“No, thank you,” Oscar replied with a smile, gazing at his girlfriend, “I have everything all planned out.”
Now, if you assumed, just now, that Oscar was carrying something else in his backpack, maybe a ring of sorts, you may be right. You may not be. Let’s see.
The flight to Paris truly was magical. Maria’s face flushed with the first sip of champagne before takeoff and she felt herself getting dizzy as she looked out the window at the runway speeding by at takeoff. Oscar held her hand tightly as the plane ascended into the blue sky. It was perfect.
They landed eight hours later at the bustling airport that smelled like cigarettes despite the prolific NO SMOKING signs. They managed to find the correct baggage carousel, pull off their suitcases, and somehow both hail a cab and show the driver the address of Oscar’s college friend, Dominik. Dominik lived with his wife, Dana, and their infant son, Charles, on what the Parisians apparently called the Rive Gauche.
From Maria’s research, their neighbor was cool, fun, and funky. She couldn’t wait to step foot through their door. She looked out the windows at the old churches and the population hurrying to work. She knew what her mother was worried about. And she would be lying if she said that there wasn’t a part of her heart that was hoping that Oscar would propose.
It wasn’t that she was in a rush to get married. It was that she was so truly in love. She gazed across the backseat of the taxi, into her lover’s eyes, and couldn’t think of a single negative thing to say about him. His dark brown hair was so thick, it was always tousled perfectly over his forehead and she loved brushing it away from his eyes. His gravelly voice was the stuff that Elvis's biopics were made of, and the way he always wrapped his gym-strong arms around her waist made her feel like she was the most protected woman on Earth.
When they got to the apartment building, Dominik buzzed them up and Oscar insisted on carrying both of their bags.
The building had no elevator and by the time the couple got to the fifth floor, Oscar’s nose was beaded in sweat. Dominik and Dana were waiting for them in the doorway, little Charles fast asleep in a carrier on Dana’s chest. The two couples exchanged hugs and kisses and nice-to-meet-yous in hushed voices as they made their way into the apartment. It was, indeed, small. Maria and Oscar would sleep in the study on a pull-out sofa bed. Their suitcases would have to stay in the living room, they couldn’t fit now that the bed was made up. But, it didn’t matter, it was Paris.
All four enjoyed a lively conversation of whispers over a cutting board of the best cheese that Maria had ever eaten in her life. That night, they would be going to a fabulous neighborhood brasserie, that they assured Maria she would never find in one of her guidebooks. Maria was ecstatic. She toasted her new friends with red wine poured into a small juice glass which she noted as being the chicest thing ever and tried to remind herself to shop for when she and Oscar inevitably moved in together.
“What time is dinner?” Asked Oscar. Oscar took great care of his body, never missing a day at the gym, which meant that when he was hungry, he was hungry.
“We can go around 10:00,” Dana assured the American couple, “that’s our usual slot with them. And they are so sweet to Charlie. We always bring him.”
Dominik looked at his tiny boy the way that a parent looks at their first baby, “As long as Dana wears him, he just sleeps. All through dinner, all through the night. He’s an easy one.”
Now, Maria was the youngest of three siblings so she’d never spent much time around babies. And she’d worked at her father’s store in high school so hadn’t gone the babysitting route. That said, she knew that a 10 pm dinner seemed off for an infant. Well, she shrugged to herself, this is how they do things in France. Oscar looked at the clock and proceeded to devour the block of Camembert.
The evening was FUN, fun. The two couples bundled up and left the apartment early, taking the visitors for a walk next to the Seine with little Charlie snuggled tight in his mother’s wool coat. Maria gazed at the old buildings and the stars twinkling in the night sky and felt the magic that Paris promised in postcards right down to her bones. Oscar wrapped his strong arms around her tight enough that she could hear his stomach growl. But, at that moment, on that breathtaking, star-filled Parisian night, nothing else mattered.
They made it to the brasserie a few minutes before 10:00. Dominik and Dana greeted the Maître’d with a kiss on each cheek. They were offered a glass of wine which the hosts gladly accepted. The liquid went right through Maria’s empty stomach and right to her head.
The place was filled with flickering candles and cigarette smoke. The checkered floors looked like someone’s great-grandfather had installed them a hundred years ago. The restaurant was crowded and noisy and felt just like Maria had imagined. She couldn’t wait to tell Cassandra about it. She peeked over at Charlie, still sleeping peacefully against his mother’s bosom.
The foursome finally made their way to a corner booth with a red tablecloth. No sooner had they sat down and removed their coats, when the manager strutted up to the table to personally greet them, carrying a bottle to fill up their glasses. After a conversation in French where neither Maria nor Oscar recognized a syllable, the man snapped his fingers for a waiter’s attention and disappeared.
Dominik had a huge smile on his face, “He insisted on bringing us the chef’s tasting menu.” Maria could feel her stomach and hear Oscar’s. As the first, second, then third, and fourth courses were placed on the table, our American couple was shocked by two things: 1) how truly, honestly, insanely good the food was and 2) how truly, honestly, and insanely small the portions were. Each beautifully plated course contained approximately two bites of food. It was a blatant departure from Oscar’s usual dinner of four chicken breasts and potatoes. But they drank and caught up and stayed until the candles burned down to the nubs and had to be replaced by the manager himself.
They walked back to the apartment in the crisp night air and Maria couldn’t help but think what a perfectly magical trip this would be to get engaged. She, in a very secret part of her brain, imagined telling her future children about this specific night. Which, would happen, just not in the way that Maria expected.
When they got back to the tiny apartment, Dominik and Dana went into their bedroom where little Charlie slept in a bassinet next to the bed. Maria and Oscar heard him whimper as the new parents extracted him from his carrier to change his diaper and put on his pajamas. That’s when Oscar rummaged through his carry-on for a stash of protein bars.
“Aren’t you hungry?” He asked Maria with a look in his eyes that she’d never seen before.
“A little, but I’m fine,” she shrugged. She was full on the wine and very jet-lagged and so ready to crawl onto the pull-out couch and sleep. Charlie’s whimpers got louder from the other room. Oscar inhaled the bar and opened a second while he was still chewing. Maria looked through her makeup bag for an Advil.
They fished their sleep clothes out of the living room suitcases, crowded into the coffin-sized bathroom to brush their teeth, and settled into the creaky couch bed just as Charlie’s whimpers turned to wails and the desperate “shushing” of Dana and Dominik permeated the thin apartment walls.
Oscar got off the thin mattress to press the extra pillow under the door. It did nothing to muffle the sound. Now Charlie’s cries grew both in volume and frequency. They were so sharp, so piercing, so cringingly loud, that they could have woken Maria’s grandmother. And Maria’s grandmother was dead.
She and Oscar tried putting the remaining pillows over their heads, humming to each other, turning a white noise playlist on their phones. But poor Charlie’s cries got louder and louder, now drowning out both the growling of Oscar’s stomach and the pounding of Maria’s temples. Thirty minutes passed by. And then an hour. Now it was almost 2:00 in the morning and had been almost a full day since Maria or Oscar had slept.
“We have to go help them,” Maria yell-whispered to her boyfriend.
“We do?” Was his genuinely surprised response.
“Yeah,” the pounding in Maria’s head had somehow gotten worse and the baby’s shrieks felt like shards of freshly broken glass piercing the soft matter of her brain.
“Yeah, of course we do. Or else who knows when he’ll stop? Where’s my sweatshirt?”
Maria fumbled to the bottom of their makeshift bed right as Charlie decided to reach a whole new decibel level. She jerked her head up, the noise shooting through her skull. In the pitch black, at that exact moment, Oscar was moving his head down in search of his own clothes. And those two heads collided with a thump that could have been heard on the Rive Droit.
Now, banging your head hurts. It doesn’t matter how old or tired or headachy or hungry or in love you are. It can make you want to punch the thing that hurt your noggin. It was too dark for either Oscar or Maria to see the rage in the other’s eyes. They stumbled the three steps out to the living room to see a bleary-eyed Dana bouncing the wailing Charlie up and down.
“Can I take him from you?’ Maria asked with what she hoped was a voice that didn’t give away the stabbing pain from behind her eyeballs. She hadn’t so much as finished her offer when she found the screaming babe in her arms. She tried rocking and patting and coaxing and singing. She hummed and walked and foot-ball-carried and bottle-offered and burped and rocked again. Charlie was having none of it.
“Let me try,” the irritation in Oscar’s voice was palpable at this 3 am juncture. He tried cooing and smiling and bouncing but it was no use. Without a word, he handed the inconsolable baby to his father. Maria looked at her boyfriend. His usually cute hair looked maniacal in the middle of the night. It wasn’t an endearing John Travolta in Grease ‘do, it was more Charles Manson in his booking photo. And the well-kept body that she’d been so attracted to had turned him into a hangry nightmare without an ounce of patience. In that exact second, Maria saw a guy who complained incessantly about his job, who didn’t support her going back to school, who spent too much time looking in the mirror and, now that she saw it, absolutely sucked with babies. Charlie noticed too. It didn’t seem possible, but his screams managed to get even louder.
This went on until 6:30 am when, suddenly, for no rhyme or discernible reason, Charlie decided that his concert was over, there would be no encore, and he fell fast asleep back on his mother’s chest where he had been when he first met his new American friends.
Now, Charlie will never remember Oscar and Maria. But Oscar and Maria will always remember Charlie. Just, well, not together.
The rest of the trip was mostly fine. They never really recouped their sleep. Oscar insisted on walking to a McDonalds every afternoon and argued with the servers about wrapping his three quarter-pounders with cheese in lettuce (which they had never heard of and didn’t like at all.) If there was a ring, it never made it out of the box in which it was purchased. The magic dust of Paris slowly disappeared over the next four nights together.
On January 2nd, halfway through the plane ride home, while Oscar snored not-so-quietly next to her, Maria pulled out her notebook and jotted down her New Year’s resolutions. She was going to go back to school. She was going to move out of her parent’s house. And she was not going to have children for at least a decade.
Oscar and Maria didn’t last as a couple for much longer after the trip. With the rose-colored glasses left behind in the tiny Parisian apartment, there was now plenty for the two to argue about. When they finally ended it on a Friday after a disagreement about how to cook the chicken, Maria slumped into her mother’s kitchen. She was worried about telling Cassandra the news of the break-up. She pushed the snacks around the plate on the counter that her mother had made for her. She cleared her throat a couple of times. She then crossed and re-crossed her legs. Cassandra noticed.
“What’s going on, Peanut?” She pulled out a stool and sat down next to her youngest daughter.
“You see Mom, it's just that,” Maria looked up to her mother’s sweet face while being wrapped in a hug, “I know how much you liked him.”
Well played, Cassandra, well played.