I’d been trying for weeks to write this blog post. On a recent trip to Paris, I was lucky to visit the Hemingway Bar and was charmed all round. But my memory of the place felt like a troubling dream. The details of the bar itself were clear in my mind, but I kept trying to recall something more visceral – a feeling, something out of joint with the rest of my experience. It remained just out of reach. I stared and stared at the photographs, trying to rediscover what troubled me.
“Why do you look like that?” my husband asked while I scowled at the photo. He was annoyed that I was obsessing. “It was just a bar. A good drink. Expensive,” he said. He didn’t remember anything out of the ordinary. “What do you think? It was haunted?” he teased.
And that’s when I realized, I hadn’t been looking for a detail in the photograph. I’d been looking for a person.
She was sitting at a table in front of the bar, smack in the center of the room, the first thing you’d see when you walked in the door. But I didn’t see her, not at first. I was too busy looking at the memorabilia, the bust of Hemingway, the old typewriters in alcoves, the framed postcards from his world travels, caught up in the nostalgia and half expecting to hear Papa himself whisper a dirty joke in my ear.
It was dark and so was she, her hair, her clothes, her skin, all black. She was thin, with long arms and long legs, impossibly languorous. She must have been there when we came in but we’d been sitting at our table – and I was facing her, mind you – long enough to order our drinks and take in the atmosphere, before she uncrossed her legs. That small movement drew my eye and it seemed like she appeared out of nothing. I swear, she was like one of those pictures you look at once and see an old man and then blink and see the hidden image of a horse and cart.
I waited on my drink, but I wasn’t talking to my husband or imagining Paris being liberated. I was watching the woman, how still she could be, how she occupied space without disturbing it. Except for the occasional sip from her drink or a nod of her sleek head, she never moved. An older gentleman approached her table, asked if he could take a seat. She was gracious, but not interested. She was young. She was not anxious.
But I was. I started straightening my clothes, worrying about my jet-lagged complexion and my fuzzy hair. I took a drink from my gorgeous, rose-adorned glass and swallowed wrong, coughed. I smiled for a couple of silly photographs with my husband and then we paid the bill. And all the while I kept watching the other woman. I was an American tourist, out of place, giddy and too friendly. She could have been anyone. Or no one. If I blinked, she could disappear altogether. How did she do that?
It was a secret she wasn’t sharing. Still isn’t.
Look. Right there she is, in the photograph I took of the bar. I hadn’t even noticed her yet, and maybe that’s why I’d forgotten her when I went back to look at these images. Do you see her? A dark outline? Will you wonder about her the way I do? Is she a ghost? Is she waiting for someone? Is she lonely?Most probably at some point in her life, she will be all of those things. But for me, every time I look at this photograph, I search her out. Mesmerized by never knowing.
Wouldn’t Hemingway love that? He’d have bought her a drink, I bet. He’d have given her a thousand names.