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It’s raining, not pouring down rain, just endlessly drizzling, and that’s the problem. You can do something with a real downpour, but it’s just spitting. If it were really raining, I could curl up in front of a fire, if I had a fire, and read a book, which I do have, and make the most of a domestic day, or maybe clean out a closet if the fire got boring or the book was dull. But it’s not like that, just gray and chilly and wet, a low-flying dense cloud, not enough reason to stay in, and out I go.
Not out to go in again, though. I’m not in the mood for a rainy day solution, a museum or a movie: I’m restless and want out and about, out of doors, out in the elements, out plain and simple. But I’m not sure, when I hit the street, what difference it’s going to make after all. The sky is low and claustrophobic—Paris has been swapped for Amsterdam—and I think I can almost touch it, wanting to duck my head lest I bump into something hard and bleed. The clouds are dark here, a little paler there, but not bright or glaring with a promise that somewhere behind them there is actually the sun and it could come out, too. And though there is no breeze to speak of here on the sidewalk as I turn at the corner and head north, the clouds are moving at what seems an amazing rate. “Scudding” is the word, which I always avoid, but maybe it’s the right one because to my ear scudding sounds as if it should be noisy, and it is plainly astonishing to me that I can’t hear a rumble or a grating, a thump or a boom as they fly by. They are as silent as feathers blowing through the air, peaceful and inaudible in their menace. Head down, I walk north to the park.
It’s deserted, not surprising since anything wet coming down from the sky tends to thin the ranks of parents and nannies with their children on the playground, the basketball and tennis players, the tai chi mimes, the dog-walkers, the joueurs de pétanque, the loose-enders, the readers, the tourists, even the clochards, though I wonder where they go on a rainy day. There’s one I see almost every time I come here, a rough looking guy whose age is impossible to reckon and who meekly and almost voicelessly asks for a cigarette and looks surprised if I hand him two. Fumez-les en bonne santé, monsieur, et bonne journée, which is more likely to provoke a look of alarm than a laugh. I can’t find him either, but that is not why I have come.
From here I can look for the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse and see them on a clear day, so it seems to me as good a place as any to see just how low the sky is. On most rainy days, their tops are gone, but something midway up or down, depending, usually shows itself, a little spooky, undefined, suggested through the shroud, but some declaration of presence, of beautiful iron for Eiffel, of pointless bronzed sheet-metal and glass for Montparnasse. Not today. Gone—and I am in an empty place alone.
Back on the streets and veering to the west, I see some human life if hunching and scurrying, head down, umbrellas held low, and taking gawky stuttery strides define human life, as I guess they do today. The brim of my hat is dripping, creating a secondary drizzle onto my shoulders. But chest out and shoulders up I saunter, trying to raise my head, my spirits, and maybe the roof—fat chance, Joe—but I’ve made up my mind to be out, to find something worth looking at, to be on the march, to stand out in my black clothes like a sharp-edged exclamation point among the blurry bleached-out question marks paying me no mind in the aqueous air. Where to now but the river?
The Seine downstream from the islands is not wide, maybe one hundred fifty metres, if that, but not a trickle, and you wouldn’t want to swim it with rocks in your shoes. It’s running high, bloated and gorged after chowing down for three days running now on thick mist and slosh. But I am guessing because the river, the wet air, the sky, and the stone buildings—rive gauche, rive droite, c’est pareil—are all the same color, and the boundaries between any two are the witness’s presumption of a clear day’s memory. The quais are more empty than the streets, and here as I walk along downstream toward the bend in the river—one destination is as good as another—I am more alone, my black-clad statement proclaiming Someone is here is not heard, understood, acknowledged.
Having abandoned any expectation of finding something to catch my interest, some trifle to snap up, some tickle for my fancy, I keep walking… just to walk, to prove a point, to uphold a principle, out of inertia, out of out? Who knows, but I pick up my pace and go, leaving Orsay and Concorde in my wake—I think I’ve passed them—lengthening my stride, head up and swiveling from one side to the other like a pigeon, ready for anything, willing for anything, plunging ahead into the rain the color of sky, the sky the color of water.
And so I go for another ten minutes, sailing along, full steam, and stop no more than an arm’s length from a man, a man I could not see until he was close enough to touch me. He has long hair, blonde or gray I cannot tell, and his clothing must be pale gray or the hue of stone, but the soaking has turned them both the same color: he is the color of rain, he has gone with the flow, has gone into the flow, become the rain, become this rainy day. He stands silently, his eyes half closed, his mouth slightly open. I am not sure if he is aware of me even if he sees me, just stands where he is, at one with the air and the sky and the river. In my black clothes I am all protest, a sore thumb on the quai, the exception, taking exception. He opens his eyes a little, and we stare at one another, equally understanding, equally puzzled. Who’s right, who is the wise man, who knows something no one else knows? He doesn’t say, and I can’t either. We just stand, more like the ends of the earth than two bookends, waiting for who knows what and God knows how long until the sky opens and the thick mist of the last three days is drowned by an aerial flood, heavy and crushing, obliterating the two of us if anyone had been watching or cared at all.