There you are, on your afternoon walk looking for a spot to have a coffee, as you often do. And you find yourself in a trendy little neighborhood cafe in Madrid, hidden far from the touristy areas, somewhere in hip Lavapies, and you sit by the window and order your oat milk latte, and pull out your phone to check your messages of which you have none. It is then that you look around only to realize you’ve entered a cafe filled with young expats. Mostly students. Mostly pairs of young women. Mostly studying Spanish and teaching English. And they are sitting at wooden tables or in fluffy arm chairs in the darker parts of a loungy corner, and they are having chai teas and cafe americanos, and other Starbucks-like creations from back home, screeching in their native voices over sophisticated Euro loungy music, about how amazing the universe is to have conspired to get them together, like an impossible trick, like a unicorn, and bring them to together in this very space and time. And even though they’ve only known each other two days through an Erasmus program, they’ve been living parallel lives the past two years.
“And then I studied in Bogota for nine months. And then spent about a month in Mexico.
“You were in Mexico?! Omg. So was I.”
“From there, I went back home to renew my visa, and then I spent the summer in Porto just to find myself (I really needed to do a lot of soul searching), and then I came here.
Ohmygod! Getout! Me too! Only I wasn’t in Bogotá, I was in Medellin and then Quito, and…
And they simply cannot believe that they met each other through Gabriela, who they both hate and have nothing in common with.
And you’re sitting there, with your 53 years dragging behind you like a bag of dead bodies, alone, and you’re staring out the window, wondering how the hell the universe conspired to bring you right to this spot to overhear this ridiculous conversation.
It’s not enough that you feel old and out of place. You’re also in peri-menopause hell, which is causing your entire body to react unfavorably to the cookie you thought you’d try to eat like a normal human being. But either that or the humid, salty air of youth surrounding you is causing probably one of your worst hot flashes ever.
The terrible thought occurs to you: you don’t belong here. And on some level, you deeply realize this. But then, you remember. Paris.
You pay your bill, use the bathroom (because, you know, menopause), and run out into the cold, early spring afternoon to readjust your internal barometer and head down a more respectable street where you can hide among your own people. But your own people don’t exist. They are home, with their families; they are working until 8pm. Women your age aren’t strolling around a European city, sitting at cafes, horrified to confront youth, as if it were a threat.
On the walk back to your apartment (yes, you own one), you start to cry. You forget who you are, you forget the apartment and your twentysomething sons, and how far you’ve come, and you suddenly feel stuck in a past you wish was yours again. You think of that coffee. And all the coffees and cafes that have drawn you in. And you start to replay the memories of your own life abroad in Paris circa 1989, having a cafe au lait at the Saint Sulpice with K____ from London who you first met sitting outside the Alliance Francaise, cutting class, just like you. She was looking in her bag for a cigarette and you were looking in your bag for a match. Neither of you studied in Bogota or soul-searched in Porto. You were scrappier than that. And yet, it was a friendship meant to be. The long walks at night to the Violon Dingue, the crazy men encountered in bars and sitting by the fountain in Saint Michel, the francs you found in the street, the midnight rides on the metro, the fights over who would buy the next baguette or the next coffee, the poverty, the shame, and the heartbreak of having to return home because you both ran out of money. And the cafes, the cafes, the cafes…Les Deux Magots, la Rotonde, la Closerie de Lila, la Mairie, le Dôme… And it was that very month and year and place and time on your lifeline where you think you stopped growing. Or stopped living. Or stopped dreaming, or something. Right there in Paris. You thought perhaps you simply might have grown up. And you did, in other places inside you. But, this part of you, something just grew awkwardly and invisibly off you like a phantom limb. A longing to go back that was never answered. And so it sits, affixed to you, dysfunctional and unusable.
And every time you pass a cafe, no matter where you are in the world, that invisible shadow limb nudges you and says, That’s where we belong.
There is no end in sight when it comes to trying to get back. No recupero ese tiempo ni de coña. A million students will grow up and out of these cafes. But you’re stuck, aren’t you. As Enrique Vila Matas says, “There’s never any end to Paris.” He’s not wrong. It’s an unrequited, aching lust that flairs up like an ulcer from time to time. Or blooms like a wild flower. But it’s yours. It’s part of you now. The universe decided long ago.