A Foray into Fiction:
Paris Is Spinning
The little girls were twirling again. It happened every four years, when humanity briefly fixated on which nations would slide across various frozen surfaces in ways that were superior to those of the others. The figure skaters had the advantage of doing their sliding indoors, accompanied by popular medleys, while wearing sparkly costumes of their own choosing and makeup applied thickly enough to create the illusion of freshly scrubbed attractiveness, exotic beauty, or, at the least, enviable cheekbones.
Emily had watched the quadrennial outbreaks of twirling girls (no skates required) affect various Midwestern cities and swaths of the Eastern Seaboard, had heard reports of widespread cases in California and Colorado, but didn’t know what to expect in Paris. These were her first Olympics as an expat. Perhaps the accumulated centuries of sophistication and a national suspicion of athletic exertion had immunized the young French against dreamskating. Their country was rarely in medal contention these days, and likely lacked a Gallic equivalent to Scott Hamilton, the omnipresent Olympian-turned-commentator whose earnest voice every twirling girl imagined raising an octave or two in delighted disbelief at her gold-medal-clinching performance.
But as February unfurled, they began to appear in Paris: girls leaping into the air, pulling their arms into a tight twist, and landing a half a turn or so later on one sneakered foot, arms outstretched in salute to the god of clean landings. They were acing imaginary double Axels at the Jardin du Luxembourg, popping up in would-be toe loops while waiting for the Métro. Yesterday she noticed a group who had progressed to phantom Salchows, performing for an audience of their assembled backpacks on the Rue du Théâtre. She had been tempted to tell them about Surya Bonaly, the French skating champion from the 1990s, but couldn’t recall the French word for backflip, Bonaly’s signature, scandalous move.
A large hand moved slowly before her eyes. “You’re not listening, Em,” said Vladimir, who had the ability to simultaneously stare at the Seine, spangled in moonlight, and conduct a meaningful conversation.
“Sorry. I was just thinking about Surya Bonaly,” she said, turning away from the river to face him. “I wonder what happened to her. She was like a living Jean-Paul Goude illustration—on ice.”
“I’ve been trying to tell you about Marseille,” he said, passing her his little black notebook open to a page of ink sketches. “Here, just look.”
Vladimir had returned from Provence a few days ago bearing striped shirts and Marseille soap. Technically, it was a business trip, but one that left plenty of time for exploring—as that was basically his job. He was recruited right out of school by an organization that dispatches its well-compensated army of charming American overachievers around the globe to record the exact prices, in local currency, of a predetermined list of consumer goods. Vladimir was assigned to France after a successful stint in Burkina Faso, where he had been thwarted only by “fabric softener, fragrance-free,” “eyelash curler,” and foodstuffs that wouldn’t last a day in the tropical savanna.
The two had first met about a month ago at a pharmacie in Saint-Germain. It was a Monday, her day off from the gallery. She had taken an armful of lotions, cleansers, and creams to the counter and was about to reach for her wallet when the white-coated pharmacienne, whose nametag identified her as Juliette, looked her in the eye and then down at the bottles and jars. Juliette pursed her lips in a distinctly French display of disapproval before reaching in her pocket to retrieve the ivory card she handed to Emily. “Joëlle Ciocco, Epidermologist,” it read in shapely capitals, above an address on the Place de la Madeleine. Juliette winked with the perverse satisfaction of a self-sabotaging salesperson and then hurried off to deter a large woman in a fur coat from investing in slimming potions.
Emily was pondering the job description of an epidermologist when she nearly backed into a man in a cowboy hat transfixed by the toothpaste section, on what she would later learn was an outing to fill in the blank beside “toothpaste, non-whitening, gel, tube, 3-5 oz.” He picked up a silver and purple box, and began to scrutinize it.
“Have you ever tasted jasmine?” He asked in English, not moving his eyes from the shiny box. No answer. He glanced her way. “This is Jasmine Mint toothpaste. Do you think it tastes more like jasmine or more like mint?”
“No idea,” she shrugged. “I use Elgydium. It doesn't taste like much, but doesn't it sound like something Lewis Carroll would name a monster?”
At that point, Juliette materialized with an endorsement of the Amarelli Licorice variety, which she pronounced puissante et très chic.
Emily slipped away and didn’t think much of the encounter until the following week, when she arrived at the exquisite Tuileries apartment of a friend of a friend. Raphaëlla had seized the momentum of couture week to show her latest collection of sumptuous pajamas to those who grasped the laudable innovation of that word pairing. Emily was admiring a black silk ensemble when she spotted a cowboy hat bobbing atop the crowd. Their paths crossed between the presentation’s darkly dramatic backdrop and a window overlooking the Palais-Royal.
“Le cowboy du dentifrice, je présume?” she asked, catching him between bites of a lemon tart plucked from a platter she recognized as the double-layered specialties of Rose Bakery. His eyes widened and he held up his index finger in the universal sign for “Hold on, my mouth is temporarily filled with a delicious combination of lemon filling, lemon curd, and impossibly light pastry.”
“I thought I recognized your decisive cuffs from across the room,” he said finally, pointing at her white shirt. “Good thing we both have sartorial signatures going for us. I’m Vladimir, by the way, and this is Igloo.” Raphaëlla’s dog, possibly motivated by the rapidly shrinking tart, sat at his feet.
Before Emily could ask about the origins of either of their names (he pronounced Vladimir so that it rhymed with “redeemer”), the room was hushed by tines on a champagne flute, so that the host could say a few words.
A gentle tremor jolted her back into the present, where she was back by the Seine, sitting between Vladimir and his hat. She looked down at the black notebook in the palm of her hand—a page of flags whipping in the mistral, a precise drawing of the new museum he had likened to a chance meeting of fishnet stockings and concrete—and turned to see the source of the vibration. A girl with a long braid stood beaming, on one foot, as her parents walked on ahead. Emily heard her whisper, “Triple Axel.”