short story, paris, belleville, buttes chaumont, chloe cotter, chloe cotter writer

Last week a friend asked me when was the last time I’d felt happy.

I started a few sentences but as the breath left my mouth the sounds of unknown answers died on my tongue — “When I…” No, not then. “It was…”No, not then either.

Don’t get me wrong, I have lots of things to be happy about. I’m a young writer spending my days drinking espresso and eating fresh croissants on the sun-bathed patios of Paris and have a family back home that loves me very much. It’s just that the ever-present futility of our existence weighs down on every moment save the fleetingly superficial über-highs, and reminds me that I’m just a side-step away from going over the edge and losing it all.

There’s also the possibility that I read too far into his question as I wracked my brain for the most recent happening in my life that could be irrevocably defined as truly happy. He was probably just trying to make conversation and I had to go and turn it into a soul-searching quest for the truth.

A girl I’ve never met before greets our small group of near strangers and falls into light conversation with the friend she knows. They bridge the gap between the last time they saw each other and today and with my level of French I stop trying to keep up with their rapid-fire colloquialisms. I turn away to stare into the space above the pond and think of the nothing that comes to mind when I think of being happy.

“Chloe?” the girl inquires after a time.

I turn back and refocus.

“Do you ever ask yourself why it all matters?”

Of course. That’s all I think about. The question that courses through my veins and follows me through my days and nights no matter how far away from reality I wander. What’s the point? Why are we here? Whose sick joke was it to drop us into this kitten maze where we’re condemned by the knowledge that it’s only a matter of time before we turn the final corner and run smack into the exit?

But I don’t say these things because the question catches me off guard and it feels silly to be so nihilistic on such a beautiful day. Instead I smile and make up some bullshit about how I’m just grateful to be in such an incredible city on the other side of the world so far from my hometown in suburban Vancouver.

“As I was walking here,” she says, “I looked at my arms and they didn’t feel real. They didn’t feel like they were a part of me. The sun was shining, warming my skin like it is now, but I felt completely translucent, like I would dissolve at any moment into nothing. Like I didn’t even exist. Don’t you ever feel like that?”

“I think it would be nice to completely dissolve,” I say.

“But we can’t just dissolve. That’s not possible,” our friend joins the conversation, then tactfully changes the subject.

We clink glasses and cheers to our gratitude that the stars aligned and we are here, together, enjoying this beautiful day.

And then I think about that time when he hit me like the coward he is and how I packed up my shit while he was at work and moved out like the coward I am. And how I found myself on the other side of the country and then the other side of the world continuing the search for happiness in other people and things and meals and glasses of Bordeaux and the rainbow sandcastle haze of the Sagrada Familia and the dust of the Jardin des Tuileries and the black sand of the beaches in El Médano and the red lit rooms of De Wallen.

“You’re right. We can’t just dissolve. We need to go over the edge first,” I interrupt to bring the conversation back to the only thing that matters.

“The edge?” the porcelain one asks.

“We need to lose track of ourselves. Lose that tiny, pathetic part of us that clings to our insane existence in an insane world, even when our bodies feel translucent and like we’re about to dissolve and float away.”

“Do you really think that?”

“I don’t know. Life is beautiful and I feel blessed and grateful and very much alive. There is no denying my senses. The courtyard outside my apartment filled with the sound of magpies calling to their young; goosebumps shimmering down my arms when I take a cold shower after bikram; the smell of roasting coffee beans; the taste of sweat licked off a lover. But all of those things are external and impermanent. It’s the intangible — the other side of the edge — that is Truth. And I feel too afraid to accept that.”

“Me too,” she says. “What can we do?”

“We have to be content that we even get the opportunity to feel and experience those things. Do we really need more than that?” our friend interjects.

“I think that’s why it hurts so much, because something inside us knows that we need more,” I say.

Our conversation is just one of the many floating along the breeze through this impeccably manicured park in the heart of Paris. The whole city is talking nonchalantly about the meaning of life. About our translucent bodies. About how no matter how far we go or how fast we move, the answer is always within.

[An adaptation of this piece was first published in the Silver Birch Press "When I Moved" Series (August-September 2016) - it can be read here ]