Paris Syndrome – Rachel Hess Wachman
As Lyla exited Charles de Gaulle Airport, her first thought was not that she was finally in Paris. Rather, she couldn’t stop thinking about Evie’s latest Instagram post and her beaming smile as she posed next to the ivory dome of Sacre Coeur. It had been two years since they’d last seen each other, but this week was a chance to reconnect — and to explore Paris together!
A car horn jolted Lyla back to the present. Around her, people rolled suitcases, yelled into iPhones, and hailed cabs with the ease of city-dwellers. It was almost overwhelming, and yet she reveled in the rush of it all.
“Lyla!” A woman in an elegant suede coat, a red pencil skirt, and shiny heels waved to her from down the sidewalk.
“Evie!” Lyla strode towards her friend, dropping her suitcase before leaning in for a hug, narrowly suppressing a gag at a sweetness invading her senses. Evie smelled like she’d just bathed in a department store. Lyla blinked as her eyes watered, wondering if this much perfume was somehow a Parisian trend.
“Bienvenue à Paris!” Evie kissed the air beside Lyla’s cheeks before gesturing towards the taxi pulled close to the curb, passing Lyla’s luggage off to the driver. Lyla could barely thank the man before finding herself stuffed into the backseat beside Evie, who was chattering away about everything she had planned for them for the week.
The taxi merged onto the highway, and in the distance, Lyla glimpsed the city they drove towards. Her heart sped up. Evie must have noticed Lyla’s fixed gaze, for she patted her arm.
“You get used to it. After all, it’s only a city like any other.” Lyla smiled but kept her eyes trained on the slowly growing buildings, suddenly recalling the strength of all Evie’s opinions. Of course she would say that about the city. She’d travelled everywhere after they’d graduated college together, finally settling upon Paris after a year of jetting between continents. Now she worked at a fancy French firm. Evie had invited Lyla to visit after months of sending her perfect pictures of the food, the fashion, and the sights, and Lyla had jumped at the opportunity. Yet while Evie lived a glamorous Parisian life, Lyla still struggled to secure painting commissions and had used the remnants of her earnings from the last piece she’d sold to pay for the trip.
Lyla let Evie continue speaking, nodding and “mmmhmm-ing” when appropriate while keeping her eyes glued to the window. Then, the chatter stopped, and Lyla looked over to see Evie typing on her phone, a faint smile playing at her lips. The highway around them narrowed as they approached the city until they emerged from a tunnel and were suddenly surrounded by the bustling traffic of central Paris. It stole Lyla’s breath away. Grand stone buildings and expensive looking stores lined the streets, along with cafés sporting brightly colored awnings. Motorcycles weaved through the lane of cars, eliciting horns and a few angry yells from some drivers. The chaos was somehow magnificent.
The taxi turned at the next light. Out the window, the Seine stretched wide between its riverbanks, carving the city into two pieces linked by a series of decorated bridges. The dark waters churned with small waves that Lyla was sure were freezing cold. Despite the temperature, she longed to stand on the riverbank and feel the wind in her hair, on her cheeks. After all, this was Paris!
“Ugh, can you believe how many tourists there are?” Evie frowned at the people strolling along the river. “Some of us actually live here. We can’t just take pictures all day.” Lyla knew Evie’s Instagram page was a collage of flawless selfies with French attractions but refrained from commenting, especially as she, herself, had come to tour the city.
The cab delivered them to the gates of Evie’s apartment building. After they paid the driver and waved him thanks, Evie gestured for Lyla to follow her inside.
“The streets here are always dirty,” Evie scoffed, kicking at a discarded cigarette butt with one foot. “Just because it’s Paris is not an excuse.” Lyla hardly noticed the cigarette, focusing instead on the intricate design of the iron gates they passed through. In the courtyard, Evie pressed a few numbers into a keypad and turned the handle, revealing a winding staircase, which she began to climb, her heels clicking on the stone.
Lyla lifted her suitcase above the first step, suddenly wondering how she was supposed to keep up with Evie for an entire week.
“You really want to go to the third story?” Evie could barely conceal her boredom. Lyla eyed her from their place on the Trocadero’s viewpoint, then she turned towards the Eiffel Tower beyond them stretching towards the clouds. Since her arrival four days ago, Lyla had wandered the cobblestone streets in search of small cafés and independent bookstores while Evie worked. Despite her promises, Evie had more meetings and phone calls than there was time in the day, leaving Lyla free to explore. Yesterday, Lyla had wandered the Louvre for hours until the guards had told her the museum was about to close. On her way back to Evie’s apartment, she’d bought herself a salted caramel crêpe and eaten it while walking. Just a girl in a city — though, one with exceptional food.
“Yes, I’m sure! I didn’t come all this way for nothing.” Lyla flashed Evie a smile before gesturing to the monument beyond them. She tried to conceal the irritation pushing against her expression.
“You know, it’s just a ton of iron that people think looks cool.” Evie examined her manicured nails as she spoke. “And it wasn’t even meant to be permanent. No big deal.”
Lyla wondered why she’d found Evie so fun in college. They’d been inseparable for three years, but now Lyla could hardly recognize the person beside her. The Eiffel Tower was more majestic in real life than in any dream Lyla could have woven for herself. She wouldn’t let Evie ruin it.
“You’re welcome to stay here, but I’m gonna go check it out,” She didn’t even bother smiling this time. “Wanna meet back in two hours? Maybe you can get a hot chocolate or something.” Evie nodded and pulled out her phone then strode to a nearby café. Lyla sighed, suddenly lighter and giddy about the prospect of climbing up the tower before her. She wondered what the city would look like from so high in the air.
Upon reaching the base of the Eiffel Tower, Lyla joined the cue for tickets before boarding the elevator. During the ascent, she stood by one glass wall as the buildings beside the tower grew smaller. Lyla felt tiny compared to the expansive, ancient city beyond her, but tiny in the best sense. By the time she stepped off the elevator, and then the second one leading to the top story, Lyla could imagine painting the view before her, the many blocks of apartments broken up by intersections and monuments. Amidst it all, the Seine, snaking through the city, with the scores of bridges spanning the water and uniting the two shores. Lyla stood on the top of the Eiffel Tower for what felt like hours, staring out at the city until the wind nipped at her cheeks so much they began to burn. She finally dragged herself from the view.
Waiting in the line for the elevator back down, Lyla scrolled through her phone, clicking on a selfie Evie had just posted on Instagram. In it, she stood on the Trocadero with the Eiffel Tower behind her, her lips spread upwards little too wide. The caption read, “This view never gets old.” Lyla resisted the urge to roll her eyes, and yet she wasn’t surprised. The line advanced, and she slid her phone back in her pocket.
Inside the elevator, the world below her grew larger, and then, with a sigh, she walked towards the Trocadero to find Evie.
“Make sure you visit again,” Evie called to Lyla, who stood by the open cab door. Evie’s red lips displayed a pasted-on smile, which Lyla returned with one of her own. She tugged her jacket tighter around her and gave Evie a single wave before shutting the cab door. I’ll be back, she thought, as the taxi pulled away from the curb, leaving Evie standing alone on the sidewalk.
She already knew what her next painting would be of — a girl so absorbed in herself she can’t appreciate the glistening city around her. Paris was everything Lyla had hoped and more — and she knew she’d be able to do some of the magic justice with her paintbrush while hopefully scoring a few more commissions along the way.
Now, the only thought in Lyla’s mind was of everything she’d see on her next trip to the city. Somehow Evie didn’t make the list.
Rachel Hess Wachman is an undergraduate at Wesleyan University currently pursing a BA in English with a Creative Writing Concentration and French Studies. She is the 2021 recipient of the Cole Prize for best short story.