Americans in Paris

This is old as all hell, but why not post it? Not like I have two papers due tomorrow that need finishing (read: starting) or anything.

An odd little exercise I set myself while in Paris on my gap year: observing a group of Americans in my program at the Sorbonne at the lunch hour and creating my own little cast of characters out of them. A fun way to pass lunch time, though reading over it now I’m a bit horrified at my own prose. Ah well. Gotta start somewhere.

A Cast of Characters

They stand in a little half circle around the bench. There are seven of them—no, nine; they are joined by two more boys, their topsiders feebly protesting the day as they’re dragged through puddles and over cobblestones. The semi circle breaks to allow them access and tightens once more. Shoulders hunch, insteps rub calves.

The first girl stands with a studied nonchalance, a cigarette, kissed by rouge, hanging from the first two fingers of her left hand, a carefully crafted reminder: I am dangerous. I am not what you think I am. Her eyes flash a challenge which no one bothers to meet. The toes of her boots are artfully scuffed, but her ankles betray her: rolling outward over and over. Tattered tights and too-short skirt, a long, ill-fitting jacket does nothing for the cold, but at least it’s of the moment. Her lips are a bright red smudge, the only color on her, her fashionably disheveled hair disappears under a knit cap, and the color is bitten from her nails. Her favorite book is On the Road, but not because she’s read it. Her voice is not loud, but sharp as it passes her curled lips, assaulting the air, hanging for a moment, before it hits the pavement and shatters at their feet.

Beside her, one of the topsidered boys drinks vending machine café-au-lait from a plastic cup. In his big, leather-gloved hands, it looks like it came from a doll’s tea set. He’s not tall and he knows it. His perfectly-coiffed hair might be compensating, but it might also be the product of a hard-fought year at another boy’s boarding school. His features are fair and fine—something he needs no reminding of. The bottoms of his khakis are dark with rain and his hightop topsiders never stood a chance, but he wears them proudly and will defend them to their end. His nose tilts his entire face upward and his delicately arched eyebrows suggest that he knows better, though his oversized brown corduroy blazer and his Hotchkiss tee-shirt make this questionable. Weeks later, when they all know each other a little better, he and one of the girls will spend a whole day at Versailles together and both of them will wonder how it happened and why they had a good time. His coffee gone, he crushes the cup, hunches his shoulders, bends his knees and shivers. The tall boy on the bench offers to take the cup and rolls it up carefully in the paper bag that held his lunch.

The other topsider wearing boy had finished his 20 cent black coffee before they even made it outside, but he picks the cup methodically apart between his blue fingers. A spray of acne decorates his nose and cheeks and his mouth is perpetually drawn in a goofy grin. His legs jiggle as he stands in his thin sweater (streaked with powdered sugar from the croissant aux amandes he bought in unashamedly shoddy French from the little patisserie across the way), immune to the cold, hoping someone will announce some course of action soon.

Beside him, a girl whose name has been confused for a Japanese food more times than she’d like to admit fiddles with the stylish holes in her sweater. Her clothes are exhausted, drooping from her shoulders, on their last lap. Her eyes peak out from sloppy smudges of black which might have been edgy had the eyes had any spark. Perpetual pout, slashed tights, belligerent apathy. The ring in her nose seems an after-thought, added in hopes of unifying the whole, and simply succeeding in drowning out the pale freckles. Greasy hair gives way to greasy tone, words slurred and eyebrows raised. She doesn’t need to be here, she wants everyone to know, she could leave at any moment. Be glad she’s still here, putting up with the lot of you. She crosses her ankles tightly, putting her weight on one foot. Her arms go the same way as her legs, her left eyebrow goes higher, simply to prove it can.

A Leprechaun of a boy is next. Short, freckled, and fiery-haired, he moves quickly and jerkily, his limbs two steps ahead of his head. His smile is lop-sided and his sweatshirt (which looks like it came straight out of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air) near swallows him. Soft shoulders, an open face. A girl we haven’t met yet across the circle will fall asleep on his shoulder later that day in class and he won’t push her off, even though they’ve known each other a matter of days. Now, he silently holds out his clementine peel to the boy with the paper lunch bag, asking him to take it with a cheeky smile. The boy does, stuffing it in the discarded café-au-lait cup with a shake of his head, smile quirking his lips.

Moving round the circle, we reach a boy who stands uncomfortably, his hands tucked into his armpits, his knees bent and shivering. His once-white Vans are half-soaked with grimy rainwater, but his hair manages to stay erect: last-ditch defiance. His harsh black eyebrows might, in another face, be intimidating, but this boy hasn’t an ounce of intimidation about him. He wants desperately to belong in the circle and so hovers on its edge, knocking his shins against the edge of the bench, waiting for an opening. His voice is high and perfectly-pitched to grate on the nerves of half the circle. His movements are erratic and exaggerated, his mannerisms studied. Headphones dangle about his neck, playing the faint strains of Bublegum Bitch into his sweater.

Next to him, perched on the edge of the bench, hugging her large purse, is an even larger girl. Her clothes are nice, but look stretched on her frame. Her face is kind, but plain, approaching boring. Her eyes water a bit in the cold and wind and she contemplates going back inside to wait out the rest of lunch in the hallway outside their classroom. She has A Storm of Swords in her bag and she’d much rather be reading it than be sitting here out in the cold, but she doesn’t want to go alone and sit like a loser in the hallway. So she stays with the others, making bad jokes in a loud Boston accent, and picking at a loose thread on her purse.

Beside her is the boy with the brown paper bag full of trash. Short cropped, sensible hair, a large nose, dark brows, and a twinkle in his eye. Ready for most things; content to stay put. His track jacket, from high school soccer, is as practical as his jeans (straight-legged, plain wash) and sneakers (Nike, neither old nor new). The corner of his mouth twitches up as the girl beside him drops the pencil she’s been flipping between her fingers. It rolls down under the bench to the other side and he makes a move to reach for it, but stops when he sees she’s gotten up to retrieve it already. He speaks slowly, and judges slower. Later, he will quietly receive the highest grade in the class, all while pronouncing arbre like arbor and tutoring the little redhead.

The last of them, a girl, short and pale, straddles the end of the bench, backpack hanging off her shoulder, one glove on and one glove off, A Room with a View in her hand. Her face is round and her cheeks bright pink from the cold. The makeup in the corners of her eyes is smudged and her hair is brittle, like she’s fallen asleep on it wet one too many times. Her long, olive-green coat is elegant, but doesn’t fit her as well as she’d like, swallowing her waist and making her look even shorter than she is. She’s careful about her positioning: on the edge of the group, close enough to look included, but disengaged enough to let them know she doesn’t need them. The book is a defense, allowing her to stay out of the conversation so as not to be left out. She glances up uncertainly as the first girl barks out an aggressive laugh, but quickly looks down again, wrinkling her nose a bit and subconsciously checking her phone for texts she knows won’t be there.

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