J. was hiding a can of spray paint underneath his coat as we walked down the windy boulevards at the outskirts of Paris. Before we had left the apartment, he had told me to put on jeans and a dark shirt, shoes fit for running, and my black jacket—“for the escape,” he had said.
Tagging some decrepit walls along the way was one thing, but J. had another, more elaborate plan in mind. We were going to climb the fence of an enormous chateau near their apartment, sprint across the lawn, duck into the underground tunnels channeling underneath, and see the castle at night, both inside and out. This was because tomorrow morning, we wouldn’t have enough time to see it.
“The chateau is better at night,” J. told me in a whisper as we strolled casually along the perimeter of the chateau lawn, separated by a fence about twice my height and brush and woods. We were walking behind C., J.’s girlfriend (couples in France, even if they have kids, don’t necessarily get married), who had put on her walking sweatpants after dinner assuming we were just going for a nice stroll in the warm fall evening. She thought we would return home briefly to go to sleep, after having some tea.
C. chattered away, half in French and half in broken English to help me, their American visitor, understand better. She was beginning to resemble her mother A. more and more, and soon she would become A., as they often say daughters grow up to become their mothers. C. had a seven-year-old son now, and consequently she was plumper, more worrisome, more anxious. And so it was no surprise that she began shrieking in horror when J. clambered over the fence and beckoned for me to follow him.
“Non, J., NON!” C. screamed. “I am responsible for this girl, her mother is depending that I take care of her daughter! Qu’est-ce que tu fais!!”
“It’s okay,” J. replied calmly, and winked at me. I was giggling madly as he helped me over the fence and we hopped down into the bushes, leaving C. stranded on the other side. Now instead of yelling she was hissing whispers at us. “J., non.”
“Trust me,” J. told me as we walked farther into the woods. “If this was not safe, then I would not do it.”
Because she could no longer control the situation, C. turned into sentry and looked out for passing cars, then told us to hurry up and stay under the trees. C. disappeared, and soon we came through the bushes and into the vast night chateau lawn spreading before us. It seemed to be as big as a football field: I could see the chateau in the distance, at the foot of this moon-soaked grass, perched silently waiting for us in total darkness like some untouched maiden. Lining the lawn on both sides were long rows of neatly planted trees. J. immediately stole into the shadows of these trees, and I followed suit. J. then warned that if we came out into the clearing the dogs might see us.
“The dogs?” I said.
“Yes, they are very big dogs, and loud. They will chase you, but all you have to do is jump into one of these trees and they cannot reach you.”
I glanced up at the trees we were passing underneath but to my horror saw that their barks were so smooth and bare of reachable, low branches, they would be impossible to climb.
“Can you sprint fast?” J. then asked me suddenly, to which I unthinkingly replied “Yes. What do you mean, fast?”
“As fast as you can,” he said. “We have to run 400 meters at a full sprint when I say go.”
400 meters … These were the numbers that reopened the old wounds of high school track practice, they were the worst sprints because they were too short to be considered long distance yet required both sprint muscles and endurance. All of a sudden I could really feel the bowl of pasta I’d just eaten sitting comfortably in my belly, and felt a desire to turn back. But then I thought about the dogs … and hell, we were halfway to the castle. I couldn’t turn back now.
“Go,” J. said.
He leapt off into a sprint, ducking low as he ran, and I dove forward. I was expecting the roaring of some evil three-headed dog to rise up behind us as we ran, or some fire-breathing dragon, or maybe just the wail of a siren alarm going off. But there was just silence as we sprinted across the lawn, straight underneath the clear sky, and then J. threw himself to the ground in an army crawl. I rolled up beside him, panting but with ears perked for the barking dogs, but we hadn’t seemed to disturb anyone.
J. was an expert at sneaking around the law—I found out he’d done this trick hundreds of times. When he was 13 years old and Madonna was playing a concert in front of the chateau, he and his ghetto friends had managed to sneak their way into the concert for free through the intricate tunnels that lay underneath the castle grounds. Since then he’d been exploring here countless times and hadn’t gotten into trouble yet. He was in his mid-thirties but still acted like a 17-year-old: he’d once told the guard at a museum with an hour-long line that C. was pregnant just to get in without waiting longer than a minute. And it worked like a charm.
And so for the time spent with C. and J. I could be a vagabond in Paris: they sped around the city blasting reggae music, C. still retained a sense of her inner rebel by squeezing me through the metro gate with her so I wouldn’t have to buy a ticket (there was a lot of chaos because of the strikes, she said, so who cares). And when we came to visit C.’s mother and father for a large traditional family dinner spoken in pure French, J. was the one making sure my wine glass was consistently full. “Elle resiste, elle resiste. Elle est ukrainienne,” he told those who protested my drinking more. (“The family is crazy,” J. had said on the way to dinner. “Drink to forget!”)
“Now,” J. said from his army-crawl perch on the grass. “We run up and touch the chateau. We might be able to get in through a window, but let’s see first.”
We ran some more, right up to the chateau, right up to where some dim lights were illuminating its gorgeous white walls. I ran right up to it and touched it, half expecting an enormous alarm to go off as though I were touching the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, but nothing happened once again. Until J. stopped and looked up.
“What?” I said.
“Oh,” was his reply. “Cameras.”
I looked up to where he was staring, and saw the little red light of a video camera blinking down at us. In less than a second J. smiled and waved at it, and then turned to me and said, “Run.”
We sprinted. We sprinted more than the original 400 meters, all the way back to the shadows of the trees, down the long, endless row and finally to the fence which faced the street. We made it to the woods separating the lawn from the fence, feeling safer in its shadows, but expecting the police or something to come at any minute. Then we clambered back over the fence and started walking home.
“I don’t remember there being any video cameras,” J. said after we had caught our breaths. His phone began ringing in his pocket.
He answered the phone and said something very quickly in French, which I did not catch. But from the other side of the line I heard a terrified wail.
He turned to me with a wink, and covered the receiver with his hand. “I just told C. we got arrested,” he said.