Issue 17 / Spring 2019
I called Benjamin from a Paris cafe on Avenue De Clichy. “I locked the keys in the apartment.”
He laughed. “Tu rigole?” He spoke in French, I spoke in English, but we understood each other.
“No, I’m so sorry, but I’m not joking.”
“I am so, so sorry. Do you have a spare key?”
“Mais non, il y a pas! Putain! Reflichi!” He started talking faster and I ceased to understand all of what he was saying—but I knew some of the words were cuss words and that he was furious.
We had been seeing each other maybe six months—and I had no idea where the relationship was going. He was seven years younger, on probation for carjacking and international drug dealing and 18 months clean from heroin. We lived 8,000 miles apart. He had a “temp” job in an office and he lived in a “therapeutic apartment.”
Why was I still seeing this guy?
This was the first time I’d come back to Paris, where we met, to stay with him. I had my own place in Los Angeles, where I had been living the last thirteen years. And outside that apartment I had a hidden key, in case I locked myself out. Didn’t everybody?
When he came to meet me at the cafe his deep-set blue eyes were slammed shut. I had never seen his face this way. I was actually a little scared. I gathered my coat up and we walked the wintry streets back to the apartment in silence. He had already called the landlord, which was the association he’d been referred to after rehab, and they had no key and no way to contact the owner of the apartment because it was Sunday.
A locksmith met us in the foyer and we walked up the five flights of stairs. He looked over the door and told us it would cost 1,000 Euro to open it. Did he say what I thought he said?
“Mille Euros,” Benjamin repeated with a look of rage on his face. That was as much as he made in a month. He shifted from one foot to the other.
“We could get a hotel tonight and call back in the morning,” I offered. But by this time the owner had called the association back, even on a Sunday, to say he too had no spare key.
We had to open the door. We had no choice.
I went into a kind of a dreamscape where I could see the scene from above. I saw myself and Benjamin and the locksmith rotating in this small triangle of space, the tops of our heads replacing one another like chess pieces. I saw the stairs and the welcome mat and a hand reaching through the keyhole. It was a woman’s hand with a cuff of black lace— franticly pointing. She was trying to reach me. She was trying to tell me something, but what?
The word for ghost in French is fantome.
The locksmith turned and shoved something into the crack between the door and the wall jam. The door popped open. It was so easy. You only had to have the right tool.
We returned to breathing.
Once inside, the man turned to Benjamin. He had done the job; now he wanted his reward.
“J’etais boxeur,” the locksmith said. Why was he saying he was a boxer? What could he mean? Did he intend to start throwing punches? I looked around for a weapon. He was inside our home now. The locksmith was about the same size as Benjamin and in his late twenties, wearing tight jeans, sneakers, and a down vest. Benjamin stood with his feet apart and puffed out his chest. The room was so small.
“Look what if I pay you in cash?” I asked, sitting on the living room couch.
“Five hundred in cash,” The locksmith said. He actually spoke very good English. He stood in between the TV and the door, his stance as solid as a Pitbull, his jaw set.
“Trois cent.” Benjamin had his back to the kitchen sink. Three hundred.
We each had our dream. In Benjamin’s dream, there were flashing blue police lights, a splash of blood, another kind of door altogether. The word for nightmare in French is cauchemar. In the locksmith’s dream, money fluttered through the empty stairwell like falling feathers, down all five floors, collecting perfectly in a suitcase at the bottom. The word for Boogeyman in French is croquemitten.
The next thing I knew, the three of us were in the locksmith’s car on the way to the ATM. I tried to chat amiably in English, and he spoke fairly well. He was from somewhere else too—Israel, I think. His eyes darted this way and that. Benjamin was in the back seat. I would feel better if I could see him. He would be biting his nails now.. I just kept blabbering—my American version of nail-biting. At the corner, I hopped out of the car, got the cash, and handed it to the locksmith. Benjamin got out too and we walked back to the apartment.
I was the first one to speak. “What was all that about boxing?”
“I think he thought we weren’t going to pay him.”
“Je peux pas fais le bagar comme ça. It would break my probation.”
I realized he was afraid of losing his apartment, his freedom, all he’d fought for in the last eighteen months, because of my carelessness. He had been in rehab after rehab since he was seventeen. And, like me, he had survived awful car accidents and multiple trips to the hospital. He had lived on the streets at the end, and one night had been kicked out of a bar and found on the street later with his feet nearly frostbitten. Locking myself out had seemed like such a small thing to me. Now I was ashamed. No wonder he had reacted like he did.
“Let me take you to dinner to make up for this,” I told him. We went to Wepler on the Place De Clichy, which I was told had once been Henry Miller’s favorite restaurant. We sat beside a window where we could see the monument of Marshal Moncey on his horse—at his feet dead soldiers, a warrior goddess, and those who mourn the dead. It stands in the center of the roundabout with cars sputtering around it and people marching by on the sidewalk in their hats and gloves.
A tall, elegant waiter brought us both escargot. My first. I felt as small as the tiny fork I poked into the shells to dig out the meat. I had judged him for his anger; now I saw that I was the one who had been small-minded.
“Je ne sais pas pourquoi t’es là,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know why you’re with me. I don’t have any money.”
I had just paid 300 Euros in cash to the locksmith, and now I was taking him out to a nice dinner. It must have seemed like I did have money. But, really, I was making about the same amount he was. What I had was faith. I was in recovery, too, but whereas it had been eighteen months for him, it had been ten years for me. In that time, I had not only stayed off mind-altering substances, I had done a lot of work on myself. I had a lot of help—a therapist, a meditation teacher, a strong social network. I had become someone I liked, and most of the time, I was able to be authentic. I could manage my emotions. I could see beyond myself.
“Money is good,” I said, consciously affirming my abundance as I’d been taught in umpteen self-help books. I thought about how he had waited patiently for two months before I would spend the night with him. He had never pressured me. Instead, he had texted me every single day since we met. I thought about how good it I felt when he kissed me. How I knew he would have fought that locksmith to protect me if he had to, and how much courage it took not to start a fight.
“What is inside you is what matters. The truth is that only love is real,” I said after a moment. It sounds cheesy now, but I could see it was what would resonate. I pressed my hand flat against my chest.
My lace-cuffed fantome reached through the keyhole again—the keyhole was there all along—placing her hand on top of my hand right there in the restaurant. The steady pulse of my heartbeat extended to Benjamin and the waiter and the tinkering of the silverware and the lights spelling out Wepler and the Metro and the cars until it was unrecognizable, until it was everyone’s.
Benjamin’s eyes grew red and they looked into mine for a long time. Then, he went outside to smoke a cigarette.
This had been our first fight. The Dalai Lama says that “great love and great achievement require great risk.” I had thought it was me taking the bigger risk. Now I realized that was not true.
Love is a leap into the unknown. We are vulnerable when we take this leap. I had ten years of recovery, ten years of trusting myself, ten years of coping skills and ten years of solid relationships. I could not have taken this leap any sooner. I wanted to. But I was not strong enough. This man was taking a chance on me now—me, a middle-aged actress from Los Angeles with a bad back and a jagged track record in love.
I had thought I was the key, but in fact I was the lock.
In America, we believe everyone deserves a second chance (and sometimes a third and a fourth). It is one of the things I was most proud of about my country. But the French and second chances? Not so much. And who could blame them? For centuries, they were defending their borders on all sides. All I had to do was look out the window at the memorial in the square to be reminded. Their idea of trust was not the same as mine.
The next day I tried to have the keys copied. Of the two copies I had made, only one ever worked. When we moved in together last March—not far from the square where we’d had our first fight— I again tried to copy the keys to our new apartment to make a spare, knowing that locking myself out was a foregone conclusion. After spending 47 Euros on keys, not one of them worked.
I had copied the keys at a nearby shop.
“Il faut un serrurier,” Benjamin said, when I explained how the store would not give me my money back for the keys which did not work. A locksmith. I should have gone to a locksmith. He shrugged his shoulders as if this was common knowledge.
“What is the cordonnerie?”
He laughed. It was the shoemaker.
“If he’s a shoemaker, why is he copying keys?”
He gave me a sly smile. “You want me to go and beat him up?”
Dufflyn Lammers is now touring festivals and treatment centers with her One-Woman Show DISCOVERED, a 2017 Duende Distinction Award nominee in its debut at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Lammers is a Certified Professional Coach and a regular contributor for TheFix.com, the world’s leading resource for addiction and recovery. Her essay “Tinder in Paris” won a Silver Medal in the Love Story category for the Twelfth Annual Solas Awards, 2018. She has been published in Iowa Woman, Adelaide, the Museletter of the National Association for Poetry Therapy, and in Poetry Slam: The Competitive Art of Performance Poetry edited by Gary Glazner. She has appeared on Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam, Criminal Minds, Entourage, and in Belly from Artisan Films. Lammers co-edited the spoken word anthology Chorus with Saul Williams (Simon & Schuster, 2014). In 2011 she wrote, produced, and starred in the short film Raven, winning Best Experimental Short at the LA International Underground Film Festival. Lammers graduated from Sara Lawrence College in 1995 with a BA in Creative Writing. She won the 1993 National Silver Medal in Poetry Interpretation from Phi Rho Pi. Originally from Palo Alto, California, she lives in Paris, France.