Women I Dated in Paris, by a Lesbian Who Can’t Speak French
by Shannon Keating
My first date after moving to Paris was at a cemetery. I had been messaging a girl on OkCupid from New Zealand who was looking for people with whom to knock must-visits off her Parisian bucket list; her name was Ruby, and she suggested we meet up at Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. Ruby from New Zealand had only one OKC profile picture, and it was of a small, distant, short-haired figure sitting in a kayak. I had no idea how I’d recognize her in a crowd unless she brought the kayak along with her. But that didn’t end up mattering, since outside the Gambetta metro stop on a sunny spring day, she was the one who found me.
Ruby was pretty: tall, reddish-blonde pixie cut, luminous skin. Her prettiness surprised me. Because I am (like most people on online dating sites, I presume) a bit of a shallow asshole, I didn’t think someone who forewent advertising what she looks like on her profile was someone from whom I could realistically expect sparks. But here she now was, and she was pretty, and sparks sidled into the realm of possibility.
I’m shallow, but not that shallow; Ruby was smart, too, which I’d guessed from her profile and gradually confirmed as we made our way to Oscar Wilde’s grave. She had a law degree from New Zealand and was in Paris on semester exchange for a second degree in literature. We talked about public policy differences between our two countries, and some of the books we loved. It took us an hour of wandering the hilly graveside pathways to happen upon Wilde’s lipstick-kissed tomb long after we’d stopped actively searching for it. We never did find Jim Morrison.
This was not only my first date in Paris, where I was volunteering at a film festival and blowing most of my savings on fine cheeses, but also my first date with a stranger. Before Paris, I’d dated people from my classes and extracurriculars. Now, in the heady flux of postgrad, in a city where I didn’t speak the language and knew next to no one, I’d thought, fuck it. I spent a Sunday drinking two-euro supermarket wine in my broom closet of a studio apartment, filling out online questionnaires. It’s hard enough finding queer women out in the wild, let alone the wilds of a place very far from home.
When we got tired of walking, Ruby and I stopped for coffee. Inside the cafe, she took off her sweater. I drank my espresso and tried not to stare for too long at her bare arms. This stranger, who was no longer too much of a stranger anymore, in her perfect plain black T-shirt, was talking about the representations of women in sci-fi blockbusters and smiling across our table at me. I thought, it really isn’t so bad, all of this.
We dated with relative regularity over the next couple months. Ruby’s kayak profile picture seemed to reveal itself as a side-effect of extreme shyness. Without any personal precedent of being the one to make the move, I became, out of sheer necessity, the one to make the move. It was our third time seeing each other. We’d had wine on the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower at sunset, an embarrassingly sentimental date, though we made enough jokes about the cliche to claw our way out of it more or less unscathed. We walked home to her apartment, where we sat on her couch drinking milky tea. I psyched myself up and put down my mug, tried to play it suave, but ended up blundering through a pause in conversation by saying, “I’m gonna do something and you just tell me if I end up doing something you don’t wanna do, okay?” She nodded, and I kissed her.
Before she left Paris for a six-month solo traveling trip around the world, I’d occasionally wake in Ruby’s loft bed, where I felt like we were two overgrown kids in a fort we’d dreamed up, and where I always tried to leave her resting in the mornings. Usually she insisted on walking me to the metro. We parted, always, gracelessly: kissing each other’s cheeks, two awkward momentary expats playing at a culture that wasn’t ours.
Texting a Tinder match is simple and standardized when you’re an American in France who doesn’t know French: “Hey! Do you speak English?” Most people will not answer because you’ll be presumed a shitty tourist (which, of course, I was).
For the couple weeks before I enthusiastically deleted the Tinder app, a few French girls did answer my shitty tourist texts, and I went out, once, with one of them. I don’t remember her name. We got drinks somewhere in Le Marais, the city’s gayborhood, many streets of which felt like sleek and rainbowed New York bars poked into pockets of Paris. I sipped my wine and listened to this perfectly nice, extremely boring person tell me about going to university for human resources in lilting English. She lived in the southern suburbs with her parents, drove to school every day, and stayed out all night nearly every night.
“I don’t understand,” she said, brushing her lips against my cheeks after we paid our check. “You will now return home so early?”
I will, I told her, and I did. I walked as much of the way as I could, past the crowded bars overflowing with people and light. Then I took a late northbound metro, sprinted the seven flights up to my studio, opened my window, put on music, and ate leftover baguette with honey and brie. The evening was saved.
Lina moved from Morocco to Paris to study marketing, and was more than a foot shorter than me. Meeting up with online dates was beginning to feel more natural, more normal, but I never remembered to check girls’ profiles for height beforehand. It didn’t matter, really. But you picture somebody some way, and then they’re different.
Lina and I read a lot of the same websites and watched a lot of the same television. She had a mean, dry sense of humor and a beautiful accent. We complained about being lesbians who get accused way too often of straightness just because we don’t have alternative lifestyle haircuts. Then she mentioned an ex-girlfriend.
The rest of the evening (terribly, predictably) was overtaken by reflections upon the jerkoffs we’d once loved. An hour later we kissed goodbye hastily on the metro when I got off for my transfer. Texts were exchanged about a second date, but it never ended up happening. Likely nothing good can come from putting people together who inspire the resurrection of each other’s ghosts.
While at an Easter party with my friends from the film festival at a two-bedroom in northern Paris, I met Eleanor. We’d all gotten together for the holiday to stand in for each other’s families. The Italians made lasagna. A girl from Russia brought Kulich cake. We drank champagne and stood at the open window smoking cigarettes. Even after a couple months of seeing everybody do it, smoking indoors still disarmed me; it made me feel like a casual criminal, or like someone from the past. I bonded over this feeling with a coworker I hadn’t yet spent too much time with. Eleanor was American, too.
During my few months in the so-called romance capital of the world, I’d had positive experiences dating women from different countries and continents; in the end, it was an American I fell in love with. She was studying business in Paris for at least the next year, there for the long haul. She was open-hearted and strange; for the unfairly short weeks we had of occupying the same time and space, it was easy, and it was good. Something that also may or may not be relevant: Eleanor was the only person I hadn’t met online, but in the thorny, verdant wilds of real life.
After returning stateside, I’d have plenty of time to worry about what, if anything, this all says about me, and about culture, and about connection. But for the time being, I was passing my days eating pastries and smoking cigarettes in bed with an extraordinary girl, indulging the shit out of every tired cliche about what it means to be 22 and in love in Paris.
A few days before my outbound flight home to New York, Eleanor texted me: “Come outside!” We had just spent the day in Parc Monceau with friends, eating pesto-flavored chips and making fun of each other and lazing in the sun. We’d gone home to our respective apartments for the evening. I hadn’t expected to see her again that night, but I ran down my stairs, and there she was — a small blonde person in jeans and a black sweater, the soon-to-be-inspirer of my gross, snotty tears while boarding a plane at Charles de Gaulle — waiting for me.
“I just wanted to say,” she said, “that it sucks that you’re leaving, because I think you’re really great, and I guess we just have to deal with that. But what’s the point in spending any more time apart at this point?”
We went back to her apartment and played music and cooked and got drunk and laughed like lunatics, after a good few minutes of making out unabashedly in the street. We wouldn’t have the privilege soon enough.
Shannon’s night with a baguette, honey and brie remains one of her top ten dates of all time. Maybe even top five. She lives in Brooklyn and tweets @__keating.