I spent my last night in Paris with a Turkish tour guide, a Middle Eastern banker, my husband, and my brother-in-law on a cocktail tour that ended with me stepping through a refrigerator door in a pretend pizza restaurant. What was behind that door? My future.
“Ah, I told you guys not to drink,” Pete looked annoyed when he arrived at our agreed upon meeting place. He walked. We ubered. We had time for one last carafe of cheap wine. He was waiting for the good stuff. He used a parents’ best weapon. Guilt.
“This is a cocktail tour. It is not a pub crawl. We are going to go to bars, try different kinds of spirits and learn about cocktails.” It was a lecture.
Paul and I looked at each other and waited for Pete to move towards the door. Together we raised our glasses and gulped the rest of our wine. Paul grabbed his coat and I pulled my wrap off the back of the chair. In Paris I didn’t wear a coat. I wore a wrap. It was quite theatrical when I flung it across my chest and over my shoulder.
“We’re meeting the guide at the corner up there.” Pete marched ahead and I followed him. Paul brought up the rear steering me, holding up my wool wrap that kept sliding to the ground and keeping an eye out for pickpockets. One of my favorite Paris activities was to scan the crowd on the Metro and decide who was the guy most likely to lunge for my purse. No one did. Paul would say it was because of his protection, but I believe the potential crooks read “screamer” all over my face when they considered me.
“Great I am glad you are here.” Dicle, a young girl from Turkey was leading our tour. An aspiring actress, she talked Airbnb into offering a cocktail tour to get the real vibe of a working-class neighborhood on the eastern edge of the city.
“Here’s Mohammed; he’s joining us too.” Mohammed, dressed in black, stood a little away from the group. He kept his eyes averted and walked in the street instead of cramming onto the sidewalk with us.
Dicle explained to us that the tour was really ours—we could go anywhere we wanted. Pete suggested whiskey, I suggested anything as long as it was pink, and Paul suggested he would decide when he got there. Mohammed, out of the shadows said, “I’d like whiskey too. I’m on the Keto diet.”
“Oh, me too,” Pete said turning around. “I’m at my lowest weight since 20 years ago, 224 pounds.”
Paul and I were quiet. We had just spent two glorious weeks in France gorging on chocolate croissants and café au lait for breakfast, bread for lunch and dinner, butter sauces on our fish, and fries with steak. We washed it all down with dry rose wine whenever the opportunity presented itself. A carafe was less than a whole bottle—at least that’s what we told each other.
“Damn,” Paul muttered. “I’m not the skinniest Klenk brother anymore.”
Bar #1—Dirty, but interesting seating.
We had to duck our heads under a low doorway to get into the first bar. Old, grungy couches hugged the dirty walls and endless techno music made my teeth grind together. The only seats available were little preschool-sized woven straw stools lined up and facing each other. We lowered ourselves down and sat hunched over, our elbows resting on our knees. While sipping our drinks—whiskeys for Pete and Mohammed, a rosy-hued spritzer for me, and an unknown drink for Paul—we relaxed.
“Mohmmad, where are you from?” Dicle asked. She was drinking water.
“Saudi Arabia. I am from there.” He took a long drink from his glass and raised his head. “I like whiskey.”
I practically crawled over Paul’s lap to hear Mohammad’s soft voice.
He was handsome with dark skin, possessed all of his hair (Klenks, not so much), sported expensive clothes, and, I checked, didn’t wear a wedding ring.
“Hey Dicle, I want to go to Turkey. I’ve always wanted to visit there and drink Turkish Coffee,’’ Pete said.
“I know,” she answered. “But, it’s funny, did you hear that it isn’t really from Turkey? The coffee is from Greece!”
“But Turkey got back the meatballs the Swedes stole from them. The recipe was originally Turkish.” Pete was nimble. He could pivot on any conversation. He was an attorney.
“You know what is only in America?” Mohammed asked. We all shook our heads and leaned off our tiny stools to hear him. “Hooters!”
He was right.
Bar #2—Reminiscent of college but with a surprising twist
I trailed behind Paul, Pete, Dicle and Mohammed and fiddled with my phone.
“What are you doing,” Paul asked grabbing my wrap before I stepped on it. “Are you texting?”
“I’m not. I’m taking notes.” Paul looked to the sky as if patience would rain down on him.
We walked into the second bar, coughing through the smoke. We grabbed a table at the back. The table and stools were constructed of pallets. There wasn’t a single cut. At one point I thought Paul went to the restroom, but then he popped up from under the table. He was studying the craftsmanship.
“The bartender doesn’t really make any official cocktails,” Dicle observed. “He’ll make anything you want. Just ask him.”
“Whiskey?” Pete asked.
“Whiskey?” Mohammed echoed.
“Sure,” she answered. “Just ask him.”
Paul ventured to the bar and brought back a margarita presented in a champagne flute. Mohammed and Pete got their whiskey in jelly jars. It was my turn.
“Bonjour,” I pulled myself up on to the bar and shouted over the noise, “make me your best drink.”
The pony-tailed bartender began grabbing bottles above his head and from the tall shelves behind him. When he presented the tall glass to me, it was amber-colored with Thai basil shoved down into the ice. He stuck a sprig of rosemary into the top. I reached for it.
“Wait,” he said. From behind his back he pulled out a butane blow torch. He blasted the rosemary until it turned black and slumped into the drink. “It makes it taste smoky,” he explained as he handed it to me over the sticky bar.
“What’s that?” Pete asked as I struggled to climb up onto my pallet stool.
“A Rosemary Basil Smoky,” I lied and took a long drink through my straw. It was unknown, scary, but still delicious. “Are you okay with the tour?” I asked. I wondered because Pete loved the science and the art of making cocktails. Recently divorced, he was looking for both whimsy and stability in a potential partner—not an easy combination.
“Oh, I gave up long ago, but this is fun.” We clinked glasses.
“I am married,” Mohammed announced holding his glass up to us. “I drank whisky before I came so now I am, what do you call it?”
“Tipsy?” I offered.
“Yes, that is the word.”
I glanced down at my phone in my lap. I was typing words with one finger and swigging my drink during breaks in the conversation.
“My wife wants to see you,” Mohammad said holding his phone aloft in FaceTime mode. I couldn’t see her face as his arm swept across our group, but I shouted,
“Everything is fine.” I imagined her home and alone. “Absolutely fine.”
Bar #3—unremarkable until the shock at the end.
It was after midnight when we reached the third bar. It was quiet with benches pulled up to large tables. We faced each other, and I was finally able to hear Mohammed talk. He loved Paris. He had been coming to the City of Light since 1999 when he graduated from college. He was an investment banker. He was presenting at a conference on Monday. He had been married for a year. After the Keto diet, he explained blushing.
I saw Paul and Pete look at each other behind me. If they had been wearing watches they would have tapped them.
“So, I want to know. Are you like a princess or something?” Dicle asked me.
“What? No, I don’t know what you mean.” I looked down at my black linen palazzo pants with the wide cuffs, my peach silk blouse, and, my hand went immediately to my birthday present, a strand of extra-large freshwater pearls.
“Yes,” Pete and Paul chimed together.
“What do you do?”
“I,” I stumbled over my words. “I work in education, but I’d rather write. Like this.” I held up my phone and showed them the notes I was taking.
“I’ll write a blog when I get home,” I explained.
“Cool. Here’s my email address. Will you send it to me?”
“There’s one more place you might want to go,” Dicle said pulling on her jacket and winding her scarf around her neck. “It’s a speakeasy called Moonshiner.”
“A speakeasy? You mean like in the 1920s?” I felt my pulse beating in my neck.
“Yeah. You just go there. It looks like a pizza place. A guy will let you in. Just go through the refrigerator door.”
Standing outside the bar, Mohammed and Dicle melted away. Paul, Pete, and I had a “discussion”, which actually means I used my princess status to get what I wanted. I didn’t care if it was 1 am, or we had to take a taxi to the airport at an ungodly hour in the morning, or it might be closed. I was going to the speakeasy, even if it meant I would have to create my own Uber account on the spot.
“Are you sure?” The uber driver slowed the car to a stop. Silent warehouses lined the streets. There were no cars, no people, nothing except for a brightly-lit store front with a blinking, neon pizza sign. Inside the window I saw a man sweeping the floor and another man cleaning dishes in the sink.
“Yes.” I threw open the car door and jumped out leaving my wrap tangled in the back seat. I ran up the two steps. I wasn’t cold in the frosty night. “Hi,” I said stepping onto the black and white tiled floor. “I’m here,” I breathed. “I’m here.”
The man with the broom pointed to the back of the store.
“Open it,” Paul said easing the pizza door shut as he and Pete joined me. “Go first.”
I turned the handle on the wood paneled refrigerator door and stepped into a storage closet. Bags of flour and cans of tomato sauce lined metal racks. It was dim and dusty in the room. A plain wooden door stood in front of me.
“Keep going,” Paul said and pushed me gently. My wrap was slung around his neck.
I stretched out my hand, turned the handle, and pushed the door open.
If I had looked hard enough, I believe I might have found Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in the crowded room. Jazz music played on an old stand up record player in the corner. The walls were covered in gold chevron-striped wallpaper, and chandelier lights were muted by small lamp shades. People stood at tall tables, sat at the bar, and hid in the depths of wing chairs pulled up to secret corners. The tin ceiling, embossed and polished, reflected the lights behind the bar that illuminated hundreds of bottles of liquor. Candle flames fluttered on every surface creating shadows on the walls. Velvet drapes covered all but a sliver of the night sky outside.
The bartenders were dressed in black with grey vests and bow ties and moved like graceful ice skaters behind the bar. They tossed bottles up, the liquor careening into the glasses. They stirred, measured, crushed, sniffed, eyed, and tasted. We ordered drinks.
Pete whistled low as he tasted his drink. “I’ve waited for this Side Car all night. This is done perfectly.”
“Are you happy?” I asked my husband.
“Are you?” he answered.
“Yes. Except I have to go to the bathroom.” I slid off the too-high bar stool and snaked through the people towards the toilette sign. I hesitated. There were two doors, and it was dark.
“Not that way.” The voice seemed familiar. It was soft and hesitant with a whisper of an accent. With a touch on my arm, he turned me to the left. “Goodnight.” He eased away into the shadows.
I cannot say for sure, but I think it was Mohammed.
We left the Moonshiner at 3 o’clock in the morning. We hugged Pete goodbye. Once again, he walked and we ubered. I watched Paris go by outside the window and thought about all the people I know and love. How many would tremble with excitement at the idea of going to a speakeasy? How many would walk through the pizza restaurant’s refrigerator door and step into a supply closet confident it wasn’t the end? The real question was, why is it so important to me that there be something more on the other side of the door?
“Because you have to get to the other side,” Paul said yawning.
Paul is right. I’ve crossed to the other side. Time is ticking away. I have to decide.