WHAT IS LOVE #1: THE PARISIAN, VINTAGE SHOP ASSISTANT

What Is Love #1

What is love? The great gestures as well as the small details, the romantic proposal and the let me know when you get home texts. Love doesn’t have to be eternal, or consumed, or spoken about, to be real. Love is what keeps this world turning, it’s what makes life worth living, it’s countless other dead horses beaten to death by Hallmark cards and Pinterest quotes. And yet, there’s a truth to all of it. Because what do we live for if not for love?

That’s what these series will be: an exploration of love, through life. Or: an exploration of life, through love. 

The setting is Paris, on one of the last truly hot days of summer. It’s August, and today is my birthday, and I am here alone. Today is mine. It’s one of those days when breakfast and lunch melt into one oversized crêpe with crappy savoury toppings, new year, same trashy me.

I’m spending today in the hipster quartier of Paris, and that’s about all the planning I did for the day. One of the bigger squares of the area is lined with vintage stores, colourful places of calming chaos. The closest one to me has an English sounding name I don’t recall.

As I walk in, he’s dressing a mannequin, his back turned to the door. He’s wearing one of those short sleeved Hawaii shirts, the kind only truly cool people get away with. His hair is curly and messily bleached at the ends. When he hears me come in, he turns around, looks at me and smiles. Our eyes lock for the shortest of seconds, just long enough for me to know that I will be lingering in this tiny store for a while.

What follows is some kind of strange unchoreographed dance, or that’s what the romanticized haze of hindsight makes of it. When I’m in the back of the space, he’s somewhere in the middle, sorting through a rack of busily printed shirts, just like the one he’s wearing. When I move to the front he moves with me, never intruding my personal space but close enough that I see him in the corners of my eye, always. We’re the only people in the store, yet the energy between us is strong enough to fill the entire space.

Then, I spot a jacket, high up against the wall. I ask him if I can try it on. Of course, he says, let me grab it. When I’m in it, he’s behind the cash register, barely two metres away from me. In the mirror I don’t only see myself, but his glance too. “It looks like it was made for you,” he says. Of course I buy the jacket.

When I go to check out, I see he’s working on a pile of items that have to make it into the store. In his hands a corset, in a colour that could be described as almost cream if you’re optimistic, or dusty off-white dulled by time if you’re realistic. I know I have to have it. In that moment, I thought it was because of the many sartorial purposes I invisioned for it. Looking back, I’m not that sure. Maybe it was the fact that he was holding it, having it, that made me want to have it. By buying it, I could in some way make something that was his, mine. I ask him about it.

“This? Oh, I love it, it’s really cool. If you look at the tag here, it says ‘ceinture medicale’. Makes you wonder which medical purposes it was used for!” Somehow, he makes it sound like the sexiest thing on earth.

When I walk out of the store, I feel like a spell has been broken. For about an hour and a half after, I sit in the middle of the square, the paper bag with my purchases in hand. It’s difficult to grasp what just happened. The remainder of the day, I wonder if I should go back to the shop, to the shop assistant, and give him my number. I never do.

What is love? It’s two hours spent in a vintage store the size of a bedroom. It’s going through the same set of clothes two or three times because you weren’t really paying attention, at least not to the clothes. It’s the thrill you get when you and him share a conversation in clumsy English (him) or even clumsier French (you). It’s wondering about possibly missed chances, and smiling. It’s seeing the jacket hang in your room at home and thinking about that day in Paris, now almost one year ago. And I never once wore that corset.

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