River of Rats, Part Three – The Bridge
We woke the next morning in the bookstore, pale and ill, my head in a vice grip, my left arm swollen and sore. Joanna’s hair in knots and mascara smeared all over her face, even on her chin and neck. When did she start to wear mascara, I thought.
‘What the hell happened?’ She said.
‘One hell of a night.’
She looked at me, then at my throbbing arm, then over my shoulder and said ‘where’s Marius?’
I turned around toward Marius’s nook; he was gone. His stuff’s gone, all of his belongings, gone. In his place, a young Asian man sleeping, where Marius should have been.
A week after Marius’ birthday party, the manager asked us to leave. ‘Hey, look, I like you guys, but I have people who really need this space and really want to work here, you understand.’
Yes, we did. We understood. And so we took the last of out meager savings and moved into a single room flat on the fifth floor of a walk up building on the Rue de Burc in Montmartre. It was on the corner at the top of the hill. Montmartre was like a dream, all hills and cobblestone streets with two eighteenth century windmills and topped off by the Sacrè Cour. In my fantasies, I saw Picasso and Modigliani and Apollinaire walking the streets at the turn of the century arguing about something or other. I bought a quill and ink set. I imagined a version of myself looking out the window pensively, penning a great work, dipping into the ink and writing on parchment. Instead, whenever I tried to actually write, I’d dip the quill, and leave little droplets of ink like black blood all over the paper, which eventually dried into shitty black splotches. And what window we had was about five feet above the floor and looked out into the inner shaft of the building and a brick wall. The shower was on the first floor; you had the press a button, which shot intermittently boiling hot or freezing cold water at you. When we ran out of the last of out money, we were evicted, almost a year to the day that we arrived in town. I was not disappointed; I truly hated that place. That’s when Joanna said ‘let’s just live on the bridge.’
The Bridge was the Pont-Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, connecting the Île de la Citè to the right and left banks on either side of it. It was under renovation but the city ran out of money so they stopped fixing it. It was closed to traffic and pedestrians thanks to tall chain-link fences that were erected prior to the renovation work. On the bridge lived two men who monopolized it and terrorized anyone who dared step onto it – a bearded old man with a heavy and stained tan leather coat and a younger, acrobatic man who did summersaults and backflips on the broken stone rails despite having a cast on his left foot. The Acrobat was always drunk on Spanish rum and screamed at the moon until the older man yelled at him to shut up. We found a hole in the fencing underneath the bridge and that is where we settled and the two men left us alone down there.
We were right by the river, the stone embankment extended about fifteen feet from the curving wall of the bridge before it angled sharply into the water. Here, the Seine’s current was strong and when we sat on the edge of the wall, there was loud scuttling and squeaking behind us.
‘Don’t the rats scare you?’ I asked Joanna one evening, when there seemed to be an extraordinary large number of them.
‘No,’ she replied, ‘back home, when there are big storms and the city floods, all the rats come out. They drown and float up. There are dead rats everywhere. The floodwater runs down the streets with all the dead rats. It happens so often you get used to it, it’s like a river.’
I shivered and wrapped my arms around her while she stared into the Seine and I thought of a river of rats.