by Sutanya Dacres·
“I’ve been in love before, Odette”, I said to my 80-year-old neighbor as she pushed up the sleeves of her cashmere sweater, revealing a pearl and gold-speckled bracelet that danced on the gossamer-thin skin of her wrist. Just not like everyone else, I silently thought to myself while meticulously applying fire engine red nail polish to her Galouise-induced yellowing fingernails.
“Do you like it?” she asked about her bracelet.
“Yes, it’s striking.”
“I bought it the first time I really fell in love,” Odette continued in a pensive tone.
I know that tone well; it happened often with Odette. She’s a retired cabaret dancer; the sound of a neighbor dragging their feet up the stairs after a long day of work or the way I happened to roll my “r” that day had the power to trigger a memory that immediately required all of her attention. I didn't dare interrupt her during those moments. I can’t imagine having a treasure chest of triumphs and regrets to refer back to when the present moment dulls in comparison to the past—while she finds comfort in reflecting on the sum of her years, mine are just beginning.
My confession was an unsuccessful attempt at appeasing Odette’s confusion and disappointment about my lack of slightly shameful, yet delightfully salacious romantic adventures to share. My life-altering adventures in love have been with the places I’ve lived. New Delhi, or Dilwalon ki Dilli, enthralled me. I can still feel the bass of the sound systems in Kingston, Jamaica pulsating through me; it was there I learned that I could move my waist and hips in a number 8 formation to the melodic sounds of Dennis Brown. My berimbau from Salvador, in Brazil, is one of my most treasured souvenirs and has survived multiple transatlantic voyages.
After years of wandering from hemisphere to hemisphere searching—usually solitary, comfortably on the outskirts of building a community and always thinking about the next destination—I am just as surprised as anyone that knows me that I’ve stayed in Paris for an entire year and a half. Usually, by day one hundred and twenty restlessness seeps in, and at the one hundred and eight two mark me and my weathered cocoa butter brown leather bag headed off in search of an antidote to calm my transient soul. In the past this arrangement worked for me; I had just enough time to take as much as I could from a city without giving anything in return.
Two years ago in Amsterdam, one of the Dutch regulars that frequented the bar where I worked couldn’t hide her disapproval when she learned that throughout all of my years crisscrossing the planet I never lived in Paris. “Darling, you can’t truly resign yourself to a life of a roving bohemian without living in Paris,” she announced with her plummy British English lilt as if this were common knowledge and practice. “It’s absolutely unacceptable, you must change this immediately”, she announced. I smiled and nodded, “maybe one day,” I said as I poured her a dirty martini.
The truth is, I was afraid of Paris.
Paris struck me as intoxicating—discerningly manipulative in her seduction and gradual in her addiction—I felt that she had the power to consume me. And as predicted she did because five hundred and forty-seven days after dropping my bags at 35 rue Saint Vincent, I’m still here.”
A few days after painting Odette’s nails, I delivered her weekly supplies: three bottles of Chablis and a carton of Gauloise. “ I rarely hear the pitter-patter of a young man coming from your apartment,” she said while eyeing me over her glasses. It was difficult to determine if this was an accusation or a question. “Not everything needs to be seen or heard, Odette,” I responded cheekily. “Oh, you little firecracker,” she squealed mischievously before turning around and looking wistfully out of her window down to the bustling street below her.
“You know, Bangla. You remind me of my younger self”, she said with her back still facing me. “Always starving. Never satiated,” she continued. “I take that as a compliment”, I replied. “And don’t forget about dinner at my place tomorrow evening, 8:00 pm.”
“Don’t you worry. I never miss a dinner party”, she confirmed. As I was turning to leave she stopped me and with urgency in her voice she asked, “Wait, wait, before you go. Can I come upstairs a little earlier tomorrow?
“Of course”, I answered, not trying to find a deeper meaning to this request and just assuming that she wanted to indulge in harmless pre-dinner gossip and champagne.
The next day, before the guests arrived, I paced the weathered herringbone floor of my apartment that has become second-skin. I’ve gotten used to the way the floor creaks under the weight of my body and I know exactly where they bend and how they slope. I know the exact amount of pressure needed to completely close the door-sized windows and, most importantly, I’ve fully unpacked. The treasures from all the cities I’ve experienced and the lives I’ve lived are proudly on display.
My pacing was nerve induced, but I knew that I had no real reason to be. My guests were members of the unconventional family I’ve bungled together since living here. In addition to Odette, I invited Jean-Marc, the cherub jovial owner of the local neighborhood cafe “Le Seul Margot’, an eccentric British stylist named Lucille with pink hair and wild stories, and Alain who is either a spy or a very crafty vagrant. Over the last five hundred and forty-seven days this hodgepodge crew of characters cared for me. None of them did anything over the top, they were simply consistent, sincere, honest, and present.
With the champagne and white wine in the refrigerator and several different kinds of cheese on the kitchen counter patiently waiting for their turn to be indulged in at the end of dinner, I started setting the table. It took me a few days to decide on an eclectic menu of small dishes and salads to be shared, family-style, with my guests. I’m neither a chef nor is my apartment a pop-up restaurant but I do know that unpretentious and flavorful food served alongside excellent company is the not-so-secret recipe for a successful dinner. My concentration was broken by a forceful knock on the door; when I opened it I was greeted by Odette in all her splendor. A black long-sleeved velvet dress hung gracefully on her slender body, an elegant chignon was held together with a pearl clip and her lips were painted deep red to match her fingernails. She looked magnificent.
“Look at that table, Bangla. You really outdid yourself”, she said upon surveying the various plates of roasted vegetables, sauces, and dips that dotted the dining table. I felt heat rise through my neck and rest on my cheek; I was surprised by how much her approval meant to me. After pouring her a glass of champagne, she gently tapped a space next to her on the sofa, signaling that I should sit next to her.
“You’re probably wondering why I came upstairs early,” she said. “No, not really. And either way, the company is nice”, I responded with a smirk. Ignoring my mild sassiness, she continued, “well there is a reason for everything, my child. And I want you to have this.” She rolled up the sleeve of her dress and slid her treasured pearl and gold speckled bracelet off of her wrist and slipped it onto mine.
“No, but why. I can’t accept this”, I said in protest but she cut me off, “I insist. On the occasion of your first dinner party in Paris and finding your actual true love. Yourself, Bangla.” My confusion and attempt to protest prompted Odette to fully explain the reason behind this unexpected gift.
“I bought this bracelet for myself when I was about your age. I just moved to Paris, into this very building, decided to follow my dream of becoming a dancer and finally started living my life for me. I’ve witnessed your transformation over the last year and a half. When you arrived you barely spoke, you didn’t smile and look at you now. You have friends! You’re hosting a dinner party! It’s only when we’re truly happy in our own skin that we stop running, we stop searching externally for who we are and the validation of others becomes worthless. That’s when life becomes a sweet adventure. This is when we really start to live.”
I wanted to tell her that she was wrong. I needed to tell her all of the reasons why I wouldn’t stay in Paris; all of the reasons why I kept running; all of the reasons why this gift was premature; all the reasons why my long stay here was a just fluke, but another forceful knock on the door beckoned me and in rolled Lucille, Jean-Marc, and Alain with even more wine and a beautiful bouquet of tulips.
The apartment filled with a lively chorus of “oh la la laaaa” when they entered the living room and saw Odette; I told myself I would wait for a lull in the evening to return the bracelet. That pause never arrived and Odette slipped out before the cheese course.
The morning after, as I gathered the wine bottles that littered the dining table and kitchen counter, the sparkle of the bracelet caught my eye and I made a mental note to return it later that day. I continued cleaning until, between a wine stain and dried candle wax, I saw a polaroid of a group selfie Jean-Marc took the night before. That was when I knew that Odette wasn’t getting this bracelet back; I picked it up and held it close to my chest.
The tradition of passing on jewelry isn’t as simple as giving a gift or as a means of keeping wealth in the family, it’s a method of preserving the memory and history of your life and of those who have left us. Every piece of jewelry has a history, memory, and purpose. When Odette passed on her bracelet to me it became my duty to continue on the journey of embracing and loving my true self and to guide, help, and protect the next young woman that walks through the doors of 35 rue Saint Vincent, exactly as she did for me. Eventually, one day, giving this bracelet to that young woman.
I forgot the exact moment Jean-Marc snapped the photo, but the feeling I had when he took it remained. I picked it up, turned it around, used my mouth to remove the cap off of a black Sharpie marker, and on the back of the picture I wrote, “Bangla finds a home”.