It was unnerving to stand in a house peopled by gaunt and scabbed drug addicts. It was even more unnerving to do it while wearing baby-doll pajamas.
It was the ’70s and my sister and I, still in college, had come to the city of Paris with the idea of Hemingway, sidewalk cafes and long days in the Louvre. Instead, we found ourselves in a narrow, four-story house somewhere in a far arrondissement. A house with bare brick walls, no furniture and a hole in the floor that served as a toilet. My sister and I looked at each other and though perhaps we should leave. But where, exactly, were we? And where, exactly, would we go?
We’d arrived in Europe 24 hours earlier, our small duffle bags filled with seven pair of underwear, T-shirts, jeans, bikinis and our cute cotton pajamas with the tiny shorts and blousy tops. We also had a Eurail pass, a list of youth hostels and a guidebook that promised we could live on $15 a day.
Our first mistake was following the book’s advice to look for cut-rate airlines. Our fare may have been cheap but so was the promise to get us to our destination on time. We landed in Brussels nine hours after our scheduled arrival and four hours after every youth hostel had closed.
We were saved from a night on the airport floor — or so we thought — by the arrival of Ali, a guy we had met on the plane. He was coffee-skinned and slender with a warm smile and a nice laugh. His said he was from Egypt but hadn’t been home for a while. We didn’t ask for details.
“Come,” he said when he saw us planning to bed down in quiet corner of the airport. “I am going to my uncle’s house. He will not mind.”
An hour later, we were drinking tea and eating sweet cakes in a house full of aunts, uncles, second cousins and relatives connected by the slimmest of familial threads. The next afternoon, Ali suggested we go to Paris.
“I will show you around,” he said and grinned.
We arrived at the Gare du Nord around 11 that night. Ali, a cigarette dangling from his full lips, had regaled us on the train ride with stories of Paris: nightclubs he would show us, restaurants where we would eat like royalty for $5, hidden shops with dresses from Africa, markets with antique beads from Morocco. We followed him off the train confident that we would see Paris like no American had ever seen it before.
Outside the station, Ali hurried toward a slender man on a battered motorcycle. The two conversed in Arabic with much waving of arms and lots of glances toward the two of us. The Parisian night was muggy and warm.
“Come,” said Ali finally, stabbing his cigarette toward me. “I will take you on the motorcycle.” He nodded at my sister. “And you will go with Assad.”
To this day, I’m not sure why my sister and I agreed. Why we didn’t just say, no thanks we’re sticking together. Instead, I climbed on the back of Ali’s cheap motorcycle and watched my sister disappear into the crowd, her bag slung over her shoulder, her long chestnut hair glowing copper under the yellow street lamps.
Cigarette dangling, sunglasses perched in his curling hair, Ali drove through Paris like we were being chased by Russian spies or by psychotic assassins. Like we were our own James Bond movie. He wove the noisy motorcycle through clots of slow-moving traffic, around buses, down alleys and, once, on the sidewalk. When we would come to a particularly narrow opening between vehicles, he would tap me on the knee to let me know I should squeeze inward. I could feel the brush of metal millimeters from my skin.
My heart pounded as the Paris night streaked past. I glimpsed the Eiffel Tower, the mysterious waters of the Seine. I smelled car exhaust and exotic spices. I saw long-legged women in skimpy skirts, men in white robes, light streaming out of smoky cafes. We roared along noisy streets, then onto quiet ones. And finally we were at a narrow house in a rundown neighborhood, my sister waiting outside with the nervous-looking Assad. I almost cried to see her.
Ali took us up to a third-floor room and handed us a small paper bag filled with chunks of raw coconut.
“OK? Good?” he said and left before we could answer. From behind the closed door, we could hear the thud of footsteps, a muffled moan, loud voices. I remembered the wasted couple sitting on the stairs. The room was empty. The walls were brick.
My sister and I looked at each other.
“Crap,” we said.
“You know why Ali hasn’t been home for awhile?” my sister whispered.
I shook my head.
Eyes wide, she told me that Ali had killed the man who had murdered his brother. He’d been charged with homicide in Egypt. That’s why he couldn’t go home.
And maybe it really is that God watches over idiots and innocents, that lambs can lie down with lions, because my sister and I spread our youth-hostel sheets on the bare floor of a house filled with addicts and fugitive murderers and who knew what else. Then, we ate the coconut, changed into our baby-doll pajamas and tried to sleep.
At sunrise, we took our bags and ran.