By Leslie Lisbona
[Featured image: Leslie in Paris in her bomber jacket.]
On a September afternoon in 1986, under a sunny Paris sky, my brother, Dorian,
and I walked into a BNP bank to open a student account. We had arrived from
New York that morning, jet lagged and weary.
I was in my senior year of college, taking a semester abroad. Dorian was 36 and
had decided to come with me and stay for my first few days.
The mood in Paris was tense. There had been a string of bombings in crowded
places, and the French police were armed, suspicious, and everywhere. They
seemed just as threatening as the terrorists, with their machine guns slung over
their chests and their fingers resting on the trigger.
I was glad Dorian was with me. But even though we just arrived, I couldn’t stop
thinking that he was going to leave. This was the longest time I would be away
from home. Queens College was a commuter school, and I lived with my parents.
When I had suggested going away to college, my parents acted like there was
something wrong with me. This semester abroad was supposed to be my chance
at independence. Now it seemed like it might be very lonely.
We had come to Paris a month before my classes were to start because I had to
take a French language proficiency exam in order to enroll in the university.
French was my first language and the language Dorian and I used when I was a
child. Our parents were from Lebanon and spoke French and Arabic and
sometimes a mixture of the two. The exam was scheduled for the next day.
At the bank there was a long line. I told Dorian I wished he could stay in Paris
with me. I told him I was worried because after he left, I was going to have a lot of
time on my own, without any opportunity to meet other students. I pleaded with
him, working myself into a panic.
The line at the bank was moving by small increments. I sat on the marble floor
with all the other students from overseas, waiting my turn. Dorian said, “I’m going
to take a walk.”
The line snaked endlessly, and when I was finally near the front, Dorian
reappeared. “Les, come here for a second.” He wanted me to meet someone.
I was afraid I’d lose my place, so Dorian turned to the guy behind me and unfurled
his French, which was better and smoother than mine. Rolling his rs, he asked him
to hold my spot, and then he took my arm and led me back to the lobby.
There was Terence, the one he wanted me to meet. He was a student, like me.
He went to Parsons School of Design. He was stylish in a Duran Duran kind of
way. Dorian had met him the year before, taking Chinese classes at the New
After the introduction, I turned to leave.
“Wait,” Dorian commanded. “Exchange numbers.” I glared at him, and he said,
“You’ve been bothering me all day about not having any friends.”
I blushed and got out a pen, my hair falling into my eyes. I told Terence I didn’t
know anyone in Paris. He said he had traveled from New York with his classmates
and arrived with his social life intact. This made me ache for my two best friends
Terence and I were both renting rooms in someone’s apartment, so it was going
to be tricky to get in touch with each other. We scribbled our phone numbers as
fast as we talked, and I said, “Nice to meet you,” and ran back to the line, hoping I
hadn’t missed my turn.
The next afternoon, I was seated in a room on a high floor of an old building,
taking the language placement exam. More than halfway through the test, there
was a loud explosion that shook the floor and our desks. The proctor was
startled, but after a few long moments instructed us to continue with the exam.
Minutes later, sirens blared. We weren’t let go until we’d completed the test.
All of us filed down the stairs. As I stepped out into the rainy night, I saw a
commotion nearby. I saw people running. A five-and-dime store called Tati had
been bombed. I learned from the people around me that five were dead, women
and children, with dozens wounded. I dug my hands into my pockets and walked
in the opposite direction, wishing I could speak to my parents, conjuring their
voices in my head.
A few days later it was time for Dorian to leave. I begged him to stay just another
day, then I went with him to the airport and watched him go. “You’d better write
me,” I shouted. “I will,” he said.
When I got back to my apartment, the landlady snarled, “Quelqu’un a sonner
pour toi,” and handed me a paper with her scrawled writing. It was a message
from Terence. It said, “Party tonight,” with an address.
I put on my jeans with the flower applique on one thigh, my tan cowboy boots
and my brown leather bomber jacket and took the Metro to my destination.
Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” could be heard a block before I got
to the building. The sounds of New York accents ricocheting through the stairwell
made me take the steps two at a time. There were many people my age, all
potential new friends. They were more fashionable and sophisticated than my
friends back home, drinking and swaying to the music. Cigarette smoke hovered
above everyone’s heads.
I wandered around the crowded apartment looking for Terence. Someone was
writing on a large paper taped to the wall. As I stood next to him, he handed me
the pen. I wrote, “Dear Terence, I couldn’t find you. Leslie.” I stayed a little
longer, bopping my head to the music; I danced with a boy with spiked studs on
his shoes and then went home.
Soon after, Terence left another message with my landlady for me to meet him at
Place Saint Michel that night. He was already waiting when I arrived, wearing a
long wool coat. We found a table in a tiny cave-like restaurant, and he told me
that he had been in Tati when it was bombed. He had been buying a radio and
cassette player when it happened. His hands were shaking as he described the
scene, the dead, all the blood. How he got out. Then he said, “I just wanted to go
back home. Part of me still does.” He was near tears when he said this last part.
After a long silence, I said, “Why did you take Chinese lessons?” He explained that
although he was Chinese, he didn’t speak the language. He giggled, and it was
infectious, and we both had a good laugh. We finished dinner and stepped out to
the street. “Okay,” he said, “let’s meet next Tuesday in front of the Pompidou
Center, say 6 o’clock?” He raised his eyebrows.
“I’ll be there,” I said.
Leslie Lisbona was a banker when she walked into Susan’s class 12 years ago. The
best decision she ever made.