Mel goes to Paris
Scene: We find him sitting outside on his usual chair at the small café Maison Sauvage Saint-Germain-des-Prés (also known as Maison Sauvage) located at 5 Rue de Buci in Paris. He had been coming here for some time as it was on a quiet street, and he didn’t want to be bothered. He spent quite some time sitting there, practicing his art, by drawing people as they passed by.
After Mel Birnkrant had graduated from Pratt Institute in New York, he wanted to continue his dream of being an artist and thought that an international flavor of education would greatly enhance his resume. So, in 1958, he found and enrolled at the L’Academie Julienne in Paris. After a long flight, he found himself standing outside the entrance of Charles de Gaulle Airport trying to hail a cab. To where? He didn’t really know. What he did know was where the school was. Finding an affordable place to live, however, was another story. After a few missed attempts, he managed to hail a cab. Between his broken French and the driver’s broken English, they managed to communicate on some level. Fortunately, the driver knew of a place that he could stay, but it was on the South side of The Seine on Rue Mazarine—about a 15-minute ride away from the school. He was afraid of the expense of this commute, but the driver assured him that it was a short cab ride, much less than he might imagine.
The driver agreed to help him find a room on the narrow road, which was bordered with a number of art galleries. t It didn’t take long to find a room for a reasonable rate at a small hotel. He quickly settled in and even made a few friends, Joe and Louise, that first week. For Mel, life settled into a routine: Getting out of bed, grabbing a quick coffee on the corner and then off to school. Money didn’t seem to be a problem as he lived quite frugally. Of course, his night life wasn’t so frugal, but he was convinced that all work and no play was not good for his mental health—or his artwork for that matter.
One of his favorite places to go and spend quiet time was at the Notre-Dame Cathedral. It was simply magical to him. He’d sit and either just read or look around, finding a new fascinating thing to focus on each time he was there. Other than the high vaulted ceilings, which gave the cathedral it’s grandeur, were the stained-glass windows. He had never seen anything so large and colorful. The reds, greens, and blues seemed to reach out to him, and with the sun behind them, they glistened right into his imagination. He would just sit there in awe, imagining a vision of fairies floating in the air. Sort of like Tinkerbell in Peter Pan.
Months went by attending school, studying, practicing drawing, and partying with Joe and Louise. I guess you could say that he was burning the stick from both ends, and it was beginning to show as he seemed to tire easily.
Which brings us back to the beginning scene of this story. It was 1:00 in the afternoon (or de midi, as the French would say), and at the striking of the town square clock, Mel found himself having a bite to eat at the café Maison Sauvage. As he brought his wine glass up to his lips, he felt a slight numbness seep through his entire being, causing him to quiver and drop the glass onto the table. “Damn,” he exclaimed as leaned forward to pick it back up. Sitting back up, he knew that something was wrong. Not sure what, he looked around.
Suddenly, a horse drawn carriage came around the corner and down Rue de Buci… right in his direction. Now, that’s something you don’t see every day here in Paris, he thought. Looking across the road he noticed that the car previously parked there, wasn’t there any longer. Strange, but I guess it must have just quickly driven away. Wouldn’t I have heard it though? his thoughts continued. Wait, is that a man riding a horse down the middle of the… dirt road? Dirt, that can’t be right. Standing up, looking around some more, he realized that everything was dirty and dusty, gas street lamps where there were just electric ones, and no motorized vehicles to be seen.
A man, presumably a waiter, came running out of the café, speaking loudly, “Monsieur, monsieur, I saw the whole thing. That petit garcon running down la rue and knocking the vin out of votre main. That peu urchin, Il a couru away. Here, monsieur, another vin sur moi.” After picking up the old glass and leaving the fresh one, he returned into the café, leaving Mel standing there, dumbfounded. Everything was so surreal; nothing made any sense. Sinking back into his chair, his thoughts went to women’s dresses, the horses, the houses, the dirt street. None of it looked real, except for his hands as he looked at them.
Instinctively, he picked up his drawing pad and pencil. He opened a new blank page and just started drawing whatever he saw—people, buildings, curtains in windows, horses, streets, carriages…everything in detail. He really didn’t think about his drawing. He just drew. It could have been five minutes or five hours—time simply didn’t exist. Finally, he closed his drawing pad, sat down and noticed that numbness creeping over his body again. Oh no, there it is again! he thought to himself. Closing his eyes, he began to quiver, and began to understand that this must be the first signs of some sort of a mental illness. A few moments later, after everything had settled down, he cautiously opened his eyes. With a gasp, he settled back into his chair, noticing that everything had returned to normal. He stood up, collected his belongings, threw enough money on the table for the check, and headed for home.
Later that evening Mel was sitting having a glass of wine with Joe and Louise. After about a half hour of conversation, Louise said, “Are you okay, Mel? I mean, I can count the number of words you’ve said on my left hand.”
“Oh, I’m okay Louise. I’ve just got a small problem that I’m trying to sort out, that’s all.”
“Well, Mel, we’ve known you for some time now and this just isn’t like you at all. Tell us what’s on your mind and maybe the three of us can figure it out together.”
That sounded like a good idea. So, he told them of his experience that afternoon at the café.
When done, Joe and Louise just looked at each other with quizzical looks and then simultaneously turned to face Mel. Joe spoke first, after a few moments of just staring. “Mel, dear Mel. What are you talking about? Do you really believe that happened? Really?”
“Joe, I know it sounds crazy. As a matter of fact, it borders on being damn impossible. But I really think it did happen, and if it didn’t, I guess I should get in touch with a doctor.”
“Mel, is there anyone that saw this as well? Someone that can verify your adventure?”
“No, I don’t think so. There was just the waiter and the small boy that ran into me, and they were both part of my adventure, as you call it. And they both disappeared with everything else.”
“I don’t know Mel, without some sort of proof, I have to say that the story sounds a little fishy.”
Hearing that, Mel just leaned back into the couch and drifted off into his own world, saying nothing.
The next day, the three of them got up and per their usual routine, had a light breakfast and were off to another day. There was no conversation other than to say, have a good day.
That evening, while having a bite to eat, the three amis were engrossed in casual chit chat, about nothing special, when Mel brought up the incident again.
“You know you two, I’ve been thinking about this all day long and I just can’t come up with any sort of tangible evidence or anything to say that would convince you that this actually occurred, let alone myself. So, I’m just going to put this down in the record book as not happening. I’ll just say that it was most likely a dream, based on too much wine.”
Louise started to say, “Mel, I think that is the best thing to…” when Mel suddenly jumped up from the table, exclaiming “My drawing pad! That’s it!” as he ran from the room. Returning, he started flipping the pages. Opening to the one he wanted, he threw it down in front of his friends and said, “There it is, there’s the proof that this really happened.” The two of them, looking down at the drawing, were astonished with what they were looking at. The drawing that they were staring at was done with such perfection and detail that they began to think it must be a photograph. But the longer they looked they could see that it was, in fact, a pencil drawing. The longer they looked, the more detail they took in, and it wasn’t that there were pieces added or wrong, it was what was missing that drew their close attention.
Pointing Joe said, “Wait, look at the corner of this building there seems to be something missing.” “You’re right Joe, there should be a corner brace on the building. I remember about 10 years ago; it was put there due to the eroding bricks,” Louise said. “Look at the front of the café Maison Sauvage. Remember Joe, a plaque was placed there proclaiming the new use of the building as a café, to feed one and all.”
“Mel, if you drew this, why would you leave these details out?” asked Joe. Mel, with a baffled look on his face, replied, “I don’t know Joe. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember drawing this at all. I remember picking up the pad and pencil and opening it to a blank page. The next thing I remember is closing the pad and sitting back down. This is really getting strange, guys.”
The three of them just stood there for a while, absorbing the contents of this drawing. Suddenly, Mel pointed his finger and leaned closer to the image. “Look here,” he said. “There is someone sitting in the carriage. As a matter of fact, that someone is a very beautiful gal, and she seems to be staring directly at me!” He stood up. “How can this be? It can only mean that she knew that I was there. Oh my God.”
Mel left the room in search of their magnifying glass. “I have to see this gal up close.” Looking through the glass, what he saw was, indeed, an extremely beautiful woman. Suddenly, his heart did a little flutter and he was hooked. “This is the woman that will become my wife. I don’t know how, and I don’t know when, but I must go in search of her.”
One major hurdle was that by now, the three of them now believed that Mel had traveled, somehow, backwards in time. That image puts the timeframe in the early to mid-1800s. Of course, they all knew that time travel was impossible, or was it? And if by some chance, this had actually occurred, Mel realized that there were several possible outcomes here. One, he would not pursue her and continue on with his current life; two, he would somehow travel back to her time and remain there; or, three, he would somehow go back to her time and then bring her forward to the present. Stating this out loud, they all agreed that only one option was possible. Do nothing and let things lie where they were.
But Mel was Mel, and as they all knew, he had a fanciful life and believed in the impossible. So, for Mel, all three of these options were possible. He just had to figure out how to accomplish them. Well, the first was easy enough, as it required absolutely no effort on anyone’s part. The other two? Well, he’d have to think about those. They did have one common element though, and that was for him to transport back in time to the exact moment that the carriage rounded the corner. Think Mel, think Mel became his internal mantra for the day. He obsessed about it and couldn’t seem to think about anything else. He didn’t speak with anyone, nor did anyone speak with him.
Several hours passed, and while taking a shower he thought about the moments leading up to his vision of the woman. He remembered where he was when his adventure occurred. He was sitting having something to eat at café Maison Sauvage. As an afterthought, he even remembered what time of day it was. He had heard the town clock chime at 1:00p.m. “As a matter of fact, it was last…” but he couldn’t finish the sentence. He could not remember what day it was. Damn, was all he could think as he tried and tried to put the day of the week along with the time. It just wouldn’t come to him, leaving him with only one alternative. He would be there sitting in that exact chair on each day of the week. He just hoped that his selection of food didn’t matter.
On Monday at precisely 1:00p.m., there he was, sitting in his chair, waiting for whatever was to happen. Nothing. And again, on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Nothing. By Friday, he was starting to feel a little down about the entire thing. I’ve been here each and every day of this week and nothing, not even the tinkle of a bell. Frustrated, he sat and picked up his glass of wine and was about to take a little sip when he felt something strange. It was that numbness running through his body again and then the quiver. He almost dropped his glass of wine, but this time held onto it, figuring that it was about to be knocked out of his hand. In fact, he did feel the bump of the boy as he ran past but he kept his glass steady. He turned looking to the right, at the exact moment that the head of a horse came around the building. Not really believing this was really happening he started moving forward in order to block the path of the horse, thus making it stop. Yes, mission accomplished! With the horse and carriage stopped, he slowly walked back to glimpse into the carriage to see if she was there. As he looked to his left and into the opening, the woman appeared. Both surprised, they stared face to face. She seemed to recognize Mel, but of course, she couldn’t have really. After all, she lived about 100 years before he was even born. Both staring and smiling. In two separate worlds, but one in their hearts.
“Do I know you, sir?” she asked.
“No, not yet but I certainly hope you will in the very near future.”
“I’m not sure why, but you look so familiar to me. Like we have met before. May I ask your name?”
“You certainly may. My name is Mel, Mel Birnkrant and I’m attending art classes at the L’Academie Julienne here in Paris.
With a puzzled look on her face she replied, “Hum, I’m not familiar with that school, where might it be located?”
“It’s located in the Passage des Panoramas, and is a private…” Just then Mel remembered his conversation with Joe and Louise about the year it might be for the woman. They had agreed that this was most likely early to mid-1800s. He also remembered that the school had not been founded until 1867 by French painter Rodolphe Julian. Therefore, there was no way that this beautiful being could possibly know of it.
Not sure what to do, he blurted out, “And what might your name be and where are you from? You speak wonderful English.”
Recovering from her surprise, she replied, “I’m Eunice, Eunice Richards, and if you must know I’m from Dover. If you don’t know, that’s in England.”
“Actually, I did know that, and now know why you speak English so eloquently.”
“So, if I may be so audacious, where might you be from? You speak English as well, but it does seem a little strange to my ears.”
“Well, I’m from the small city of Detroit in Michigan. That being in the United States.”
“Oh, you’re one of those ruffians from the colonies. I’ve heard of your lot.”
“Well, my dear, it would please me to no end to continue this conversation with you and to get to know a little more about you. But your carriage seems to be holding up the entire street. Would it be possible to have your driver pull it over to the side and wait while we have a cup of coffee in the café we are standing in front of?”
“I would be more than happy to join you for a cup of coffee. Although, at this time of day maybe a small glass of wine might be better. As for the driver, he may be on his way. I have simply hired the carriage to get into town, and here I am.”
The next two weeks flew by like a whirlwind. They danced, then consumed wine and bread while laying on the banks of the Seine River, all the while holding hands and dreamingly thinking of their future together. Little did Eunice know that Mel, while he dreamed of their being together, his dream was happening in his future time. He felt that he needed to tell her the truth, but he was so afraid that she’d react wrong, and he’d lose her. There were many times that he could have said something, and most likely should have, but that fear was just too strong.
On one Friday after they began their rendezvous, they were sitting at the café Maison Sauvage. Coincidentally, Mel was sitting in what had now become his normal chair. They were enjoying a light lunch and conversation when he suddenly announced, “Eunice, I know we’ve only known each other for two weeks, but it feels like we have known each other for years. And during this time, I’ve fallen madly in love with you.” Looking deeply into his eyes she said, “Mel, I feel exactly the same and love you dearly. I can envision a lovely life together.” His decision was now made.
Encircling Eunice into an astonishing hug, feeling a slight numbness, they both fell into a very soothing awareness.
And the rest of the story is, as they say, history.
Author Tom Brewer
Edited by Antonia DePace