by Bernadette Martonik
When I was twenty-four, in 2001, I went to live in Paris and work as an au-pair. In return for watching two school-age girls every afternoon, I was given a small flat in the sixteenth-arrondissement, a quiet, wealthy, mostly family neighborhood. I had finished college, worked for two years in a library, and was hungry for more life experience.
I was raised by my father who was a deacon in a small Byzantine Catholic church for the first half of my childhood. He spoke sometimes of his own visions and mystic experiences, and my brothers and sisters and I never knew whether to believe him or ignore him.
Over the years, I came to understand the world, the universe, in my own way, a way that is still difficult to articulate into words, but which includes the known, the things my consciousness is aware of, and everything outside of that, which I believe is an important part of my life too.
As I explored the streets of Paris, my body seemed to be vibrating on another frequency. I devoured the new food, rich sauces and strong cheeses, the art and architecture of the city, the parks, the rugby and soccer matches that played in the bars, and the people and all of the surprising and engaging stories they had to offer.
One night early in my stay, around nine, I had no plans, so I made myself a mixed drink in a bottle, put it, along with my discman and a few other things, in a bag and wandered down to the Seine River, not far from my place. I took the stone ramp down to the path that ran along its edge, a place for strolling, a place I had never seen cars go. No one was around. I sat down on the stone path with my legs dangling over the wall that dropped into the water, set down my bag, and took a drink from my bottle. I looked longingly across the water to the array of variously lit windows in the impressively ornate, nineteenth century buildings across from me. I tried to imagine all the kinds of people who might be living there. I don’t remember if I raised my plastic water bottle filled with gin and tonic up toward those glowing windows, a toast to the whole city, or if I actually said something out loud, like “Hello!” or “Bonjour tout le monde!” But I know that inside I desperately wanted to share that moment with someone. Maybe anyone.
A short while later a man came bobbing slowly down the ramp. To me he appeared to be in his forties maybe, but it was difficult to tell. Long brown curls hung in his face and over his eyes, his head tilted toward the ground. I didn’t object, or mind even, when he sat down next to me and began talking. I can’t remember at all what we talked about, or even what language we spoke, but for some moments I was pleased not to be alone. The man got out some weed and began to roll and then smoke a joint. He offered me some, and I took a small hit, politely, not really wanting to get stoned. He continued smoking and speaking with me. Finally, he came to the end of the joint and he tried to convince me to take the joint out of his mouth with mine. I said no thank you, and perhaps that was what made all the hair on my body stand on end, made me begin gathering up my bag so that I could break away, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. It felt like I was enjoying mostly harmless company, despite the questionable offer, he hadn’t made a fuss when I declined, and then, suddenly I was not enjoying myself. Something inside me, or outside me was suddenly persistent, “Leave now.”
As I drew my bag to my body, a small car came down the ramp behind us. It stopped, and when I looked over I saw three young people, teenagers, get out of the car, a girl, and two boys. They walked past us and continued about twenty yards, until they were under the car overpass, one of the many romantic bridges crossing the river. They stopped there as a feeling, like fear, or just straight flight, threatened to burst out of me if I didn’t move. I moved.
I got up quickly and said I had to go. I’m not sure what the man said. He may have been too drunk or stoned to say anything. I made my way, not up the ramp, but toward the three people. Toward what my body told me was safety. When I finally reached them, shaking, I asked if I could stand with them and the girl nodded, “okay.” By the time I took one deep breath of relief, the lights from a police car came barreling down the stone ramp and stopped right behind the man. Another moment and he was being taken into their custody. I stood watching, my mind and body stunned as if I’d actually undergone electric shock.
The three began walking back toward their car, and I followed close behind. We walked past the man and the cops. When we reached their car, they told me that was as far as I could go with them.
I remember walking up the ramp, my heart knocking against my chest like it never had before. I do not remember seeing the car drive off. As I crossed the bridge I called my dad and told him what happened.
“You just saw three angels,” he told me, and for the first time I didn’t balk at his supernatural suggestion.
I entered my flat, still trembling as I called my older sister. I believe my frayed nerves continued because I had been so closely caught between what I can only describe as good and evil. My body had been drawn, like a magnet, toward the three, and once among them I had felt protected, but the girl who talked to me had a look that said you have been warned. As I lay in bed afterward, the image of the three, already a silhouette in my memory, pressed itself not only into my mind, but my heart, squeezing it, leaving an impression I could not shake. My body was transfixed with awe. I had come recklessly close to danger. I wondered, for the first time in years, if there might really be someone or something much bigger than myself out there watching over me. And I knew that I could not continue to foolishly throw myself at the world.