When I enter the restaurant, it’s empty. Electric lights buzz faintly, illuminating scaly leather seats. An unidentifiable pop song tinkles out from some deep recess, alluding to rooms undiscovered. A waitress stands guard at the door. I long for the familiarity of hotel room service, for truffle risotto and banana splits.
It is my last night in Paris. In theory, I am in the city to write my Great American Novel in cafés on the Seine. In reality, I eat alone in my hotel room for almost every meal, binge-read Joan Didion, and ride the ferris wheel in the Tuileries Garden three times a day. Every night after dinner, I call my father back in Richmond. I listen dutifully as he gives recommendations for the next day. I nod as he talks, pretending to take notes and saying things like “Of course, I’ve always preferred Rubens to Titian,” and “Today, I saw someone ordering coffee with milk. I almost called the police.” One night, to prove to him I was interacting with people besides hotel staff and ferris wheel attendants, I made up a story involving six Brazilians, a nightclub, and a private driver.
Tonight, I am at the restaurant Le Twickenham. My father frequented the place when he was a student in Paris in the 80s, pretending to be Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce or whoever for two years before returning to a corporate job which he never left. He recommended Le Twick (as he called it) for the wine, adding that he could not remember anything else.
The hawkish waitress intercepts me at the door immediately. “Une,” I say dumbly, hoping she will get my message.
She smiles in the way only waitresses can. Polite, at least on the surface. Even with the empty restaurant, she gives me the table next to the door and maître d. Cold wind slithers through the door frame. I keep my jacket on.
Off the crinkly plastic menu, I order six oysters from Brittany and a bottle of the restaurant’s cheapest wine. I feel like a stereotype. I feel like my father.
The wine is terrible, but strong. The oysters are rusty. I peer at myself reflected in their smooth, white emptiness. I imagine myself inside a pearly void, floating in eggy mucus, some anonymous person pulling me into being.
During the meal, I resist the urge to pick up my copy of Blue Nights, which I am reading for the third time. The first time I finished it, I tried buying a new book at Shakespeare & Co. but the place was too crowded with preppy Hemingway wannabes for me to even think of literature. Tonight, instead of reading, I decide to think of my father.
It is difficult because I didn’t have a particularly traumatic childhood. My father did all the things fathers are supposed to do, like take me on insufferable fishing trips with hidden moral lessons when we came back empty-handed, and pretend I was a great ballerina even when I was in the back row during every recital. Everything was normal. Since I began college, even our usual fights had been quickly smoothed over by regular cash deposits. I am here in Paris thanks to one such deposit. I’m sure there is some moral lesson about spending your parents’ money bumming around Europe but I haven’t learned it yet, nor do I have any desire to.
My oysters are finished. I signal for the waitress. She blinks at me from her perch at the corner of the bar. The colored liquors behind her appear like stained glass, her glare almost saintly. “More?” She asks, walking over and crisply fanning menus out in front of me.
“Do you have dessert?”
She pushes forward a peeling red pamphlet with photos of miscellaneous, equally terrible looking microwavable desserts. I choose strawberry cheesecake because my dad loves it. Had he ever ordered the same thing?
It arrives, predictably gelatinous, congealed strawberries leaking syrup across the plate. As I eat, I can’t stop thinking about my dad. I think of our house in Richmond with the wraparound porch. I think of our cat, Sammy. I think of the ski trip to Grenoble I took last week at his suggestion. I think of the obnoxiously healthy foods he insists on stocking in our fridge. I think of the sugars and fats and preservatives I am eating. I feel the strawberries clotting my blood into syrup. I imagine my heart rotting, sugar pouring out the valves. I imagined little maggots, small like risotto, squirming through the ventricles.
Bile rises in my throat. I am done with the cheesecake. Something rumbles through my stomach, like a beast awakening. I stand up, wine-drunkenness rolling across my vision. “Oú trouvent les toilettes?” I hear myself ask the waitress. She points left and I see myself walking, the music growing louder with every step. Past the empty tables is a serpentine staircase with a red SALLE DE BAIN placard on the top step. Letters twist across the sign, pirouetting into each other.
To ground myself as I begin the descent, I hold the iron railing. It undulates under my grip. The music is growing louder. The thing is rising in my throat.
At the end of the staircase, there is a small black door. The music seems to be coming from inside. I grip the doorknob. I have never felt anything so cold in my life. I want to rub my cheek against the metal, moving it back and forth until split skin reveals pulpy flesh. I want to pull myself open, cleanse myself of the thing inside me.
Stumbling inside the bathroom, I grope for the light switch, illuminating a small bulb in the center of the room. A toilet sits demurely in one corner, a sink with a grimy mirror reflecting its image in another. The music booms, jostling against my thoughts. The rumble is getting louder, swelling into rhythmic hissing.
I feel the vomit rise in my throat. My head is going to explode. I hunch over the sink, mouth agape. I can’t breathe. The thing is at the top of my throat. My jaw is detaching from my skull. I am dying. I am going to die. One day they will find me in the bathroom of Le Twick, a pile of shiny white bones.
I look at myself in the mirror. From behind my teeth, I see a set of slitted eyes. I gag and suddenly the thing is out past my teeth, its tail flicking against my lips. Through lidded eyes, a snake looks up at me from the sink. Its mouth is open, music pouring from the gap. I try to listen to it, but it is nothing I have ever heard before.
The ground shifts. I am floating, drawn towards the pearly toilet bowl. I want to curl myself up inside the emptiness until I am nothing more than a speck of brightness. My father will discover a new daughter, a chain-smoking Parisian writer, and I will be content circling through Paris, rising above the city, wrapping my fingers around the hot, white lights until I am just ash, drifting peacefully into the Seine.
Something scratches against my eardrum. Water swirls down the drain. My void tilts. I blink.
“Would you like the check?” The waitress stands in front of me, grimacing and tapping her check pad impatiently. I am sitting in my chair by the door, staring at the line of waiting people curling outside. The restaurant is full, music replaced by lilting voices. An empty plate of cheesecake looked up at me.
“Yes. I’ll pay in cash,” I said weakly.
That night, I call my father. He is sitting in his study, grading student papers. I hear Sammy purring across his lap. “Tell me about your last day in Paris.”
“I saw more Impressionists and worked on my novel,” I say, “ And went to dinner at the Twick, like you recommended.”
“How was the wine?” I decide to be honest. “Spiritual,” I begin.
Ava Ratcliff is a senior at Phillips Academy Andover. A graduate of the Iowa Young Writers Studio, her work has appeared in Chronogram Magazine and New Moon Girls Magazine, among others. She enjoys travel, reading, and visiting museums. Find her on Twitter at bookreviewsava.