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Eduardo Santiago

   Looking for a sign of life
   Looking for something to help me burn out bright.
    -Foo Fighters-


     The mere fact that the event happened not once but twice was in itself a sign. Years before, in Paris, along a non-descript stretch of the left bank of the River Seine, a young man picked a ring up off the ground and held it up for my inspection.
     Excusez-moi monsieur,” he said, “Est ce votre anneau?
     I didn’t understand a word but it was clear he was asking if the ring was mine.
     MUSIC CUE: Edith Piaf’s strangled-parrot voice of romantic yearning.
     It was a thick band, golden and shiny enough to make a magpie swoon. The ring was not mine, but I said, oui. I said oui with all my heart, no time to think it over, no room for doubt. I said oui with a bright smile and then let out a feigned gasp of surprise as I noted that a ring was missing from my finger, making a big show of it.
     Mon Dieux! It must have slipped off.
     I took the ring and shifted to shameless gratitude.
     Merci! Merci! Oh merci I said as I covertly tested my fingers to see which one fit the ring. It was my pinky, it was my pinky the first time, and it would be my pinky the next time.
     The man demonstrated misty-eyed excitement at having found the ring’s rightful owner, but our language barrier made it impossible to say more. Under other circumstances, there would have been an exchange such as this:
     Me: I thought I heard it drop. My hand felt light, but I was so busy looking at the sights…
     Man: I saw something shiny near your foot and when I saw it was a ring I thought, this must be his ring! I must return it for I am a very honest person.
     But no such exchange took place. He was a man of dark complexion, with gentle eyes, in dark clothing. He did not appear grimy or impoverished, he was not wearing soiled rags. He looked like a workingman, and not an attractive one at that. He looked the type one encounters in the lesser quartiers, 19th, 20th. After we exchanged gasps and smiles, he moved away, just a few steps, then just as quickly returned. My heart soared. Is it you? Are you the one? I quickly calculated – poor but employed. Decent face, soulful eyes. Not exactly what I had in mind but maybe, possibly. Taste and style can be learned. Love is what truly matters. I racked my brain for examples of mismatched but happy couples. Elton John and David Furnish! Soon-Yi Previn and Woody Allen! Heidi and Seal!
     And he asked for money.
     He wanted a reward for having found my ring. Suddenly, I was not so happy. When he started to walk away I had felt so hopeful, euphoric, but now all I felt was dirty, desecrated and insulted. While I adore wealth, I detest money. When he returned, he stood so close I could smell him, that oddly Parisian mixture of ripe armpit and freshly baked bread.
     The man stood before me, palm extended. There was dirt in the creases of his pink palm, and embedded in the undersides of his overgrown fingernails. I walked away after saying ‘non’ a few times. I also patted my pockets, and gave him a look of sad and complete destitution. I walked away while he was still talking to me, while his filthy hand was still out. He followed, trotting alongside of me for a bit, then fell back, cursing me, probably, for I felt harsh words hit the back of my head, something pithy and hopelessly French:
Nique ta mere!
     I walked on bloated with indignity. How dare he want money for a favor? For returning property to its rightful owner? Of course, I was not the rightful owner of the ring, I had never seen that ring before in my life, but it wasn’t his either. He found it on the street, at my feet. For all he knew it was my wedding band, or an heirloom thrust into my care at a deathbed, my father’s, my mother’s. For all he knew the ring has all the significance in the world to me, and it did.
     Moments later, the whole unpleasant scene behind me, I was delighted with my ring. I had anticipated this moment, this sign. To me, at that moment it signified that romance was waiting in the wings, would soon make its entrance. Clearly, that rude man was just the messenger. I was rapidly approaching forty and had kissed countless frogs – no prince. My foolish heart quickly forgot the whole ugly scene and soared above the city of love, fluttering there, looking down as if my significant other could be spotted below, roses in hand, having sent the ring ahead.
     I wore the ring proudly for days, until it turned brown and my finger green. The Parisian prince did not materialize, but my hope did not die. When I returned to home I put it away with other travel treasures, street maps, theater programs, torn museum tickets. But of all the items in my collection, I valued the tarnished ring most of all.
     Financial hardship had made a return to France impossible. For years, when times were tough, I took down the box of exotic treasures and reminisced. A foreign coin or a post card I never sent would take me back to those days so buoyant with illusion. I stopped doing that long ago. But from time to time I did summon to mind that instant, that brief and sparkling moment in Paris when a strange man handed me a golden ring and said, do not despair, true love is on the way.
     MUSIC CUE: Edith Piaf’s strangled-parrot voice of romantic yearning.
     Years passed before I could travel to Paris again, and to my great astonishment and delight I found myself in the exactly the same predicament. A woman reached down at my feet and came up, as if for air, breaking the surface victorious as a pearl diver, and dazzled me with a golden ring, identical to the one before. Once again, as if in atonement, a golden ring was being offered to me in my beloved city of Paris. No dashing boulevardier this time but a middle-aged woman in an extremely unflattering skirt and blouse ensemble and very worn out shoes. It had to be a sign.
     She was pleading with me in French while I admired the ring I had quickly slipped onto my pinky finger. I didn’t know what the woman was saying although she was speaking quite slowly, trying hard to make herself understood. I didn’t get it, my grasp of French, after years of hoping to learn its mysteries, was still limited to a few simple phrases. But I knew what she wanted because she had one hand outstretched at me, palm up, the international sign for gimme something for nothing. The sentimental way she was speaking belied what she wanted me to do, which was to show my appreciation, not with gasped words and tearful glances, but with a handful of cold, hard cash.
     We were on the same bank of the same river, but further down, between the Invalides metro station from where I had just emerged, and the Musee d’Orsay, which was my destination.
     Moments before, when the woman first showed me the ring, my thoughts ran to this: Love awaits! The first time was a test, this is the real thing!
     The woman’s face was so sweet, the ring so lustrous, I did not stop to doubt, not for a moment, that in a few days it would tarnish or that my finger would show early stages of gangrene. At the moment it was a glowing golden sign from the city that I loved and that was good enough for me. I was in my glory. I was standing by the river in this magnificent city, the day was cool and sunny, all around me stood ornate buildings, majestic statues, all so sumptuous that even the bridge over the Seine seemed inspired by the most luscious of wedding cakes. So awed was I by Paris that most days I did not feel worthy to walk its streets, I felt dwarfed by its beauty. And on my pinky was undeniable proof that strolling somewhere along these wide, shaded sidewalks, or longingly gazing from the window of a smart pied-a-terre, was the man who would at long last claim my heart. I was a catch. At fifty-two, I had finally achieved the desire silhouette. I was a trim one-hundred sixty-six pounds on a five-eleven-and-a-half foot frame, distinguished gray and just arrogant enough to conceal my impecunious circumstances.
     The event and my reaction were stunningly similar to the time before - the ring was the same, my illusions were the same, the woman walked away a few steps just like the man had, and immediately returned, hand outstretched, eyes bright, words unintelligible just at he had done. Yes, it was just like the last time, but for one significant difference.
     This time I was not traveling alone. Cousin Melinda stood steps away from me, or rather, she barely stood. Poor Melinda sprained her ankle three days before the trip, much too late to cancel, not that she ever would.
     “A little pain, a bit of a limp, isn’t going to stop me,” she said, “I’m scrappy.”
Sure, she was scrappy. She was also wealthy and wise. And her injury prevented me from walking away as quickly as I had the time before. I was trapped. It was a question of character, honor even. I was neat, shaved and sober, the perfect traveling companion. What would my cousin think of me? She didn’t know that this had happened before, that this was my golden moment.
     “She wants money, Lawrence,” Melinda said.
     The river was thirty feet below us but now it seemed to rise with a roar. All I could hear was its rumbling in my ears. The woman wanted money for a ring that did not belong to her, for a ring someone had dropped, for a ring I had already slipped onto my finger, for a ring that signaled the end of my eternal search for love. It wasn’t the money that vexed me but her dishonesty – why should I reward someone for doing what was right? She should thank me and move along. But she was not moving along, she was rooted to the spot, smiling a saintly, impatient smile.
     Reluctantly, I reached into my pocket. I was wearing my celadon jacquard-pattern blazer, a light pink Polo shirt, crisp white pants, white loafers, and pink silk socks with dark pink roosters on them. I felt around in my pocket a bit longer, I jiggled around in there while both women looked on. I didn’t want to bring out all my coins nor pull out my wallet. I wanted to tally the reward sight unseen, I wanted the amount I pulled out to be exact so that I could just put the coins in her dry and cracked hands and be done with it. I didn’t want to barter, bargain or bicker. I wanted it over quickly and get on with my day.
     I was rapidly approaching outrage. It was not the money that irked me, although the exchange rate had made me tighter than an orphan’s chaussures. It was not the money! I just so desperately wanted this ring to be a gift from the city of Paris, to me, just like the last time. A golden gift just for being here, just for being me, for being dapper and cultured. Most of all, I wanted to feel fortunate again.
     My tortured emotions clouded my vision. I dropped three or four coins on the outstretched hand. I thought they were mostly centimes, but I couldn’t be sure. The paper money I understood but the coins continued to confound me. Was it too much, I wondered and quickly dismissed the thought. But it pained me. Any amount was too much.
     Her eyes were fixed on me, they were brown, like mine, but there, all similarities ended, for her skin weathered and free of makeup, had a granular texture, as if a light layer of coarse sand had been brushed upon it. Her greasy hair was pulled back with a big plastic pink barrette but not in a stylish manner, strands flew free in the morning breeze. She was careless about her appearance, something I simply could not abide. Was I supposed to honor this mess somehow? A quick glance at my cousin told me the answer was Yes.
     I sensed disapproval, a radiating heat, coming at me from both women. And I was right. The strange woman was insisting, in French, that it was not enough money. She said several words and I only understood one: sandwich.
     But in this most romantic language whatever nasty thing she was saying sounded to me like poetry, like music. She held firm, jabbing at me the very hand that held the coins and going on and on until it just was not beautiful anymore.
     “Give her more money,” Melinda said. “You know this never would have happened if we’d taken a taxi.”
     We’d had a brief altercation back at the hotel. Melinda wanted to come by taxi, but I convinced her that for a true Paris experience, only the Metro would do. I promised her escalators, but there were none, I promised her a seat, but we stood the whole way, crushed and jostled, to my erotic glee, by Parisians. And there was also a small mistake I was being held responsible for - getting off at the wrong station. It could have happened to anybody, and simply led to an opportunity to flaneur around, but it had happened to me and a woman with an injured leg. I felt terribly, every painful step she took, I suffered, possibly more than she.
     “Give her more money, Lawrence or she’s not going to leave us be.”
     More money? What does that mean? What would be the amount? I felt the same horrible anxiety I regularly feel at restaurants when it’s time to decide on a tip. Should one tip based on service or be a slave to an anticipated, demanded percentage regardless of service? I briefly considered returning the ring. But then I wouldn’t have the money already invested nor the ring, and I wouldn’t walk away feeling fortunate, I would walk away feeling robbed. It would bring the entire ‘Paris loves me’ whimsy crashing to my feet..
     I could not let that happen. I live on whimsy.
     I needed the ring and it had to be a gift and if it couldn’t be a complete gift, then it had to be a cheap purchase. I quickly yielded to rationalization: A cheap purchase in Paris qualified as a gift.
     What I wanted to do was grab the coins out of the woman’s hand and flee, I would run with a devil-may-care sneer across wide boulevards, dodging honking cars, raising the eyebrows and disdain of pedestrians and the useless whistles of frustrated policemen, I would laugh a wicked laugh all the way to the safety of the other side. But not only was that a physical impossibility, it would also leave Melinda stranded and furious, in the hands of an angry, vengeful woman. The trip would be ruined as well as my tenuous standing in the family. Worst of all no more free trips to Paris, no more free trips anywhere.
     Melinda paid for the trip. Yes, I only paid for incidentals, and the way she was not reaching into her giant Birkin bag and pulling out the matching wallet to give more money to the woman led me to believe she considered the acquisition of the ring an incidental.
     Melinda could have paid for the ring, she could have paid for a thousand rings. The cost of her handbag could have fed that dirty, unfortunate woman and her family for ten years. Melinda’s husband made a fortune providing indoor plumbing for all the hotels in Las Vegas. Not to her face, for I would rather die than offend her, I called her the toilet heiress.
     I was the poor relation, the traveling companion. It was a time-honored tradition, I paid for my trip with patience and charm. Oh but it was a difficult task.
     I hated the French woman, not only had she interrupted my day but she had managed, in just a few moments, with just a few unintelligible words and one dirty paw extended, to turn my cousin against me. This, after all I had already done to smooth over a difficult relationship, after all the bile I had swallowed, not to mention pride. All the Lawrence honeys I had to hear since our arrival in the city of lights.
     “Lawrence honey can you phone for breakfast while I dress?”
     “Lawrence honey this room will not do can you go talk to those people and get me moved to a room that does not face a schoolyard?”
     “Lawrence honey can you round up some sort of ice pack? My foot is killing me and these French aspirins you got me are useless.”
     “Lawrence honey please don’t make that face every time I ask for the smallest favor, I realize you don’t know you do it, but you do.”
     My cousin, because she is a year older and has known me her whole life, thinks she knows me better than I know myself. But I know her very well, too. Without glancing at her I know what I would see if I did: arms across her bosom, lips tight and drawn, eyes to the sky. This is an expression I have faced all my life.
     Although closely related (our late fathers were brothers), we do not resemble each other. Our lips in particular, are different. Hers are thin and naturally turn down at both ends. Mine are plump as if always in anticipation of a kiss.
     She considered herself pragmatic, a realist, in fact she had me plan this whole trip, made sure all the accommodations were prearranged and confirmed. She had me download transportation maps of Paris and insisted I study them carefully. She made sure I knew what bus or train would take us where we were going and in what instance only a taxi would do. All that happened even before she fell and hurt herself, probably lifting a bag of money.
     The last time I was in Paris I was alone, and I was lost most of the time. I loved getting lost, looked forward to it. I was Baudelaire’s flaneur. I even invented a way to ensure I got lost. I went into Pére Lachaise Cemetery through one gate, and purposely came out another. That was how I discovered Place Edith Piaf, where a urine-scented statue of le chanteuse stands, arms out to the sky, her mouth open in song, sending a silent ballad to heaven. Near the statue I found Le Bar Edith Piaf, a dive where, among Parisians who had seen better days, I drank myself into a melancholy so redolent of her songs it took me days to shake it.
     Nothing like that was going to happen on this trip. Melinda was so thorough (she referred to herself “anal” as if that were the greatest of virtues) that she phoned me on my cellular at four in the morning on our day of departure to make sure I was up and packed. I was neither up nor packed, I wasn’t even home but in a strange bed with a man I had met the night before. I didn’t plan it, it just happened. And at my age, when something like that comes along, you jump on it. So to speak.
     To my face, Melinda said I was a dreamer, a procrastinator and a chump. Behind her back I called her a pessimist, a fear-monger, and a bully. And she was. So much so that she strongly believed that at some point during this trip, if we were not ever watchful, we would be robbed, cheated or murdered. That was the reason why, in spite of our differences, she brought me along, at great expense, “because a woman alone…”

     I agree with her, I am a bit of a dreamer, but I’m also light as air. Unlike my cousin, I don’t have a suspicious nature. People who knew, who’d seen us chew each other to bits, wondered why Melinda and I remained so close. I cannot speak for her, but for me the answer was simple, I found her exotic. I always had. She was my older cousin with the adult disposition. I was and always would be a child in comparison. Being with her was sort of like visiting Singapore – I knew the laws were harsh but I found it fascinating. And love, of course. We have always loved each other. We loved each other as children and had been inseparable in our adolescence, no matter how much time passed we remembered being each other’s only friend. And although as adults we did not see each other as frequently as we had then, and although we argued about politics, something long ago and unbeknown to us had soldered us. We bickered and nagged at each other’s superficial foibles, but our love was bone-marrow love, as deep and disgusting as all that.
     “She wants more money, Lawrence,” Melinda said again, for I had neither moved nor responded. It was a flat statement of fact laced with impatience. For some reason her words made me think of those sugar cubes soaked in absinthe and lit on fire, something sweet and dangerous going up in flames.
     It almost broke my arm, but I reached for my wallet. I extracted exactly one Euro, and I handed it to the woman. She wouldn’t take it. I thrust it at her and she avoided it, I tried to place it on her hand, she let it float to the ground, where it remained.
     Ne suffit pas, the woman said, tears brimming her brown eyes. I’d had enough.
     “Walk away,” I said.
     “But my foot.”
     “Walk slowly, but go, go, go.”
     Melinda never did anything I ever told her to, but she started hobbling away, probably because she was fed up with the scene, or because she will either do something or she won’t. I never knew her to waffle or hesitate. Sometimes she took an eternity arriving at a conclusion, making an absolutely correct decision, weighing the pros and cons, but once she made up her mind she never wavered.
     We turned toward our destination, Musee d’Orsay, where we knew it was safe. Once inside we could hire a wheelchair so that I could push her around past all the beauty hanging there. But Melinda limped along, a hand tight on my forearm for support. I felt she was holding me tighter than necessary, I detected a touch of aggression.
     “Goddamit Lawrence, this is going to put me in bed for a week.”
     “We’re almost there,” I said. But I couldn’t deny the pain in her voice. I knew she was thinking ahead, back at the hotel where she would put her foot up on pillows and boss me around without mercy. How was I responsible? Had I asked the woman to tempt me with that ring? Had I walked up to her and said, Madam, have you by any chance a golden ring? No, I had not.
     The woman was still following us, and following closely. She tapped Melinda’s shoulder because she thought my cousin was on her side. But Melinda only has one side, Melinda’s, so she shrugged her off and even with her afflicted foot, managed to evade her. The woman fell back, not screaming but whining. I did not turn to look but kept my eyes on the museum, on its gigantic clock, a black-and-white eye watching us three hundred feet below. I did not understand the words the woman was saying; I heard only short elongated sounds.
     Ren Dre Lan Neau.
     Ren Dre La Neau.
     Rendre l’Anneau
I was still wearing my new golden ring and I glanced it as we walked. Melinda, ever practical, had her eye on the traffic.
     “One tourist dies every year in Paris from being hit by a car.”
     “That can’t happen now,” I countered, “there’s two of us. Anyway, one a year is not so many.”
     We were at a busy intersection, trying to get across Rue de Lille. The traffic signal was broken and there were three crossing guards working hard to bring a bit of order to the chaos, to keep the one-per-year statistic intact. We managed to cross the street and not only were we still alive but we had ditched the annoying woman, she stayed on the other side of the street, close to the river. Finally, I held up my ring for inspection.
     “You’re not going to believe it,” I said, “but this happened to me last time I was here. A man gave me a golden ring, just like this one, exactly the same ring.”
     Ha! Ha! Melinda’s laughter always had an undertone of mean.
     “It’s a gypsy scam you moron,” she said much too loudly.
     I didn’t want it to be, but as soon as I heard it, I realized it was very possible. We volleyed it back and forth, debating its finest points.
     “How do you know?
     “Oh, come on?”
     “What about the man last time?”
     “Seems he was a gypsy as well, apparently you are a target. You’ve always attracted that type.”
     “What type?”
     She stopped to consider.
     “Lowlife is the only word that comes to mind,” she said.
     Me? A target? Not possible. I didn’t look like a tourist, or walk like a tourist, I did not open maps in public, I didn’t even carry a map. I looked Parisian, from the cold, sharp look in my eyes to the leisurely but determined way I moved, to my exquisite mode of dressing. I was neither visitor nor tourist, I was, if anything, a flaneur.
     “Gypsies are nomadic,” I said. “If they stay in Paris all the time they’re not gypsies. Besides, they’re not called gypsies anymore, the correct term is Roma.”
     “Roma, that’s your new politically correct term?”
     “Yes, Roma people, like saying little people instead of midgets.”
     “Funny you should know all that and not recognize them when they’re in your face.”
     “I’m not sure she was one.”
     “Well, gypsy or not, it’s a con.”
     For a moment I felt the effervescence of life leave my soul. I shuddered to think of how close I had come to being taken, bamboozled, abused. But then I lifted my hand, looked at my ring, and it all returned. I felt victorious. Still…
     “How, explain to me how?”
     “They put the ring on the ground then tap the American tourist…”
     “First of all, I’m not a tourist, I’m a visitor…”
     “…and why Americans?”
     “Because the whole world knows we’re suckers for shiny things.”
     While I pondered this, she added, “It’s the most despicable of scams.”
     “Why the most despicable?”
     “Because both sides are dishonest…and guilty.”
     “Guilty? Guilty of what?”
     “Lawrence honey, that is not your ring.”
     I desperately wanted to compare this to the American political system but we had a pact not to broach politics during the trip. We had entered the museum courtyard. The line was long, there were easily four hundred people waiting in the sun, eager to wander among art and beauty, significance rendered out of thin air, on a hunch, a dream, like the gypsies of Paris who, I now saw clearly, place a shiny object on the ground and hope that someone will want it badly enough to pay for it.
     We took our place at the back of the line.
     “You know, she was just doing her job,” I said.
     “That’s not a job, how is that a job?”
     “Well, if all she wanted was money, she could have just asked for it, like they do back home, but she’s got a business going on, complete with inventory. I mean, she must get those rings somewhere, you know, buy them, and then she goes to all the trouble of creating an event. She takes a risk,”
     I looked up at the majestic museum before us, “Like creating a painting, hoping someone will buy them.”
     “It’s not an event, it’s a ruse.”      “She created a happy instant for me, like theater. In a way, she’s an artist, she created illusion.”
     “What you call illusion is delusion. Yours. I can’t believe you fell for it.”
     “Twice,” I add with pride, holding my ring up for her to admire. “And both times it was a gift.”
     She refused to look.
     “Unbelievable,” she said. “You’re willing to pay outrageously for a night at the theater, but this poor soul you won’t give a dime.”
     “It’s not the same, I choose the plays I attend, I don’t have them thrust at me. I’m sure there are others willing to pay her for her performance. It’s not about the gift or the money, it’s the sentiment.”
     Up to now, she had been looking at the long line of people ahead of us, probably counting them, calculating how long before we got inside, how long before she could get off her feet. But now she looked right at me, right through me.
     “This isn’t about money or theater or art, is it? You’ve got something else going on.”
     I remained silent, but I knew I had to say something, and soon.
     “It looks like a wedding band, doesn’t it?”
     “Does it? Hadn’t noticed.”
     Her eyes burrowed deeper into mine and I returned the look defiantly. Only liars look away.
     “I suppose it does.”
     Only then was I forced to look away because of what I saw, a shadow across her eyes, something akin to compassion, but it also could have been pity, even contempt. Whatever it was unnerved me.
     “We’ve been here for fifteen minutes and the line has not moved an inch,” I said.
     Melinda raised an arm and snapped her fingers, the way she does in restaurants when she’s ready for the check and in no time at all had a uniformed museum guard (much too handsome a young man for his profession), at her side. She pointed at her bandaged foot.
     “Oui, oui, madame,” he said and ran off.
     He returned moments later (even more handsome on second look what with his complexion a high color with all the rushing about) with a wheelchair in tow. Melinda handed me her purse while she boarded it like a courtesan into a chariot, aware but unperturbed that everyone watching resented her. She was whisked by le beau garcon past all the spectators and through the front doors, he then gracefully passed her on to me.
     “Well, as scams go, it’s a very elegant scam,” I said, pausing momentarily in the impressive foyer, a thrill zipping up my spine, my ring glittering on my left pinky. I flirtatiously handed a twenty euro note to the guard. I made sure to graze his fingers and I know I blushed when he thanked me. Could this be him? I could be happy with a museum guard, maybe not forever, but for a while.
     “Yes,” she conceded as I wheeled her towards the Impressionists, where it’s all so pretty, “a very elegant scam.”
     “But I resisted.”
     “Yes you did,” Melinda said, “no fool, you.”
     “That’s a snarky little comment, I’m going to let it pass,” I said. But I couldn’t. I put the brakes on the chair and walked around to face her. I did not have my hands on my hips, but I might as well have.
     “What would you have done?”
     As if she had been waiting for this moment her whole life, her answer was ready.
     “First of all, I would not have taken the ring. It’s obviously a worthless trinket. Second, if I had taken the ring, as you did, for whatever frivolous reason, a holiday whim, or because, even at your age, you seem to get some preposterous thrill from courting danger…”
     “You mean, like sleeping with the occasional stranger?” I chided, knowing quite well how this revolted her. “You know, not everyone is fortunate enough to land a rich and handsome husband at twenty. Some of us have it tougher.”
     She was sick of hearing me say this, had long held the notion that my inability to make a lasting love connection had something to do with obstinacy, so she hit below the belt.
     “And rubbing against them on subways.”
     She had noticed. I was mortified. There is a huge difference between what I do privately, and what she sees, publicly. She knew she had cut me off at the knees, broached an indefensible area. Then surely she also noticed my heart skipping beats for the museum guard.
     “This is neither the time nor place for such a conversation,” I said, “let’s pick it up again soon, what’s better for you, Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner?”
     She seemed to seriously ponder my question while I looked back to the entrance, hoping to get another look at the museum guard, hoping that like the gypsies, he’d followed us wanting more. He was nowhere in sight. I resolved to help Cupid along. On our way out I would hand him my card. Or invite him to dinner. Surely Melinda could do without me for one night.
“Easter,” she said, and chuckled, “so, let’s take a look at this classy joint..”
     I kicked the brakes off the wheelchair and took control. We sailed in silence through the vast wings, natural light flooded the floors through the glass-domed ceiling. Perfectly placed lamps illuminated this masterpiece and that. I was in control, maneuvering the wheelchair at whim. She sat in the wheelchair, her expensive purse on her lap like a napping puppy, while I pushed her towards my favorite paintings and statues. We spent quite some time that way in quiet contemplation, Melinda seemed bored and I hoped the little pills she took for the pain and the would lull her to sleep when, for no apparent reason, she became an active participant. Using her hands she turned the wheels towards a small dark room. I had no choice but to follow. She stopped in front of a painting I had never seen before. In it two men were on the ground fighting to the death while a third slunk away on a donkey. Melinda moved the wheelchair closer to the wall and squinted at the bronze plaque beneath it while she searched in her bag for her glasses. She found them and put them on.
     “Oh, the thieves and the ass,” she said, “clever.”
     Then she removed her glasses, carefully folded them, placed them in their case, and put them back in her bag. Her hands remained inside the bag, feeling the items in it. She looked inside, rifling through it at first with cautious curiosity, then violently, her hands turning to claws, frantically digging through, pulling out item after item and handing them to me until my hands were loaded. While she searched my mind returned to the Roma woman, to that sparkling moment, that magical instant when she walked away from me and stood oh so close to Melinda, her eyes beseeching her, begging for her to intervene.
     Countless objects continued to fly out of Melinda’s purse: miniature bottles of L’Occitane hand cream, tubes of lipstick in three different shades (she blends), hairbrushes, sunglasses, eyeglasses, a roll of Ace bandage, a small jar of prescription pills, a large bottle of Tylenol, a pack of tissue, an unopened package of Donna Karan panty hose, a one-ounce bottle of Eau d'Hadrien, a small canister of pepper spray, a tiny flashlight, a plastic bottle of anti-bacterial gel, two cell phones, her passport, the keys to our suite at the Fouquets Barriere, the keys to her houses and cars, a recently purchased scarf from Hermés, one black glove.
     Before she spoke I knew exactly what she would say.
     “Lawrence honey, my wallet is gone.”
     “I’ll get the guard,” I shouted with a bit more joy, a tad more enthusiasm than the situation deserved. I ran across the polished lime stones floors, past the scrumptious works of art, under the domed skylight. I glanced up at the huge ornate clock for reassurance and it told me nothing-- but the ring on my finger was still shiny and new and I was breathless with anticipation as I lightly tapped the impressive shoulder of my unsuspecting paramour, my intended.
     But he was nowhere to be found. Some other guard returned to the bridge with us, the woman was gone and the river had lost its sparkle. Melinda was outraged, and I spent the next day canceling credit cards and changing airplane reservations while she ranted and raved against the city I once loved. Oh, it’s all too dreary to recall in detail. I do remember that we flew home in complete silence. Somehow the blame fell all on me.
     “You and your goddman gypsy rings.”
     MUSIC CUE: Edith Piaf’s strangled-parrot voice of romantic yearning.
     Now and then, as I did tonight, I take down my box of memories and I reach for the two tarnished rings. Yes, they are shaped like wedding rings, black ones, and in the confines of my rented room I allow myself to dream as the clock ticks away the seconds, the minutes, the hours. All is different, the gypsies have been swept out of France, but so have I. I will not be going back. I still believe, more than ever, that true love is out there for me, maybe not in Paris, but somewhere. It’s only a matter of time.