During the last year of the second millennium, which Courtney spent in Paris, she would often stop at a franchised corner store that was located midway between her school and the foyer where she lived. The store was open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., hence its name, 8 à Huit. She frequented grocery stores with wider and fresher selections for most items on her list, but it was a convenient place to pick up staples in a pinch, like packaged madeleines or spaghetti.
The proprietors of this particular location were twin brothers. They both looked like they’d skipped more meals than they’d enjoyed. Both had wavy black hair that had grown out just a bit too long. Both had the telltale nicotine-stained teeth and fingers of smokers. Both had striking pale eyes that stood out from gray skin. In spite of all these similarities, Courtney was quickly able to distinguish between the two because of the different ways they looked at her. One looked past her when he thanked her and made change. The other one looked at her like he wanted to take a bite out of her arm just so he could spit it out and say that it tasted rotten.
This made her uncomfortable. He would stare at her, half smiling, while he took his time counting out the centimes that he owed her. Then he would drop them into her outstretched palm, and she would try not to notice his too-long fingernails. Ever eager to please, she would force a smile and tell him in her practiced French to have a good afternoon.
She was intrigued by the brothers. She would think about them as she walked the few blocks back to her foyer. Their appearances suggested that they were maghrébin, maybe Tunisian or Algerian. First generation, or second? If they were Algerian, how could they live at ease in a country that had inflicted so much pain on theirs? Did they have wives? Children? She couldn’t picture it. She imagined them living together in a subsidized high-rise in one of the banlieues, geographically not far from the bourgeois neighborhood where they worked, but a world away. Facing a hopelessly high unemployment rate, would their disenfranchised neighbors begrudge their hard-won success as business owners?
On the other hand, maybe it was unfair to cast the brothers as victims of France’s xenophobia. Maybe they lived above the store in a small but well appointed apartment. Completely assimilated. Was that the goal? She wondered what they’d held onto of their culture. Did they speak French or Arabic with each other in the absence of customers? How did they spend their free time, if they had any? It seemed like they were always in the store. Come to think of it, she never saw any other employees. She also asked herself why she felt uneasy in their presence, and whether it said more about her than them.
Sometimes, especially if it wasn’t raining, Courtney would go several blocks out of her way to pick up necessities at a store called Franprix. It was always so busy that the clerks never paid her much attention. In fact, as the months passed she went to the 8 à Huit less and less. However, it was one of the few stores that opened on Sundays, so one February evening when she discovered that she was critically lacking in papier hygiénique, she had no choice but to go there.
Typical for a Sunday, the streets of the 6th arrondissement were deserted as she made her way to the 8 à Huit. She entered hoping to see the aloof brother, but no such luck. She said hello, the way you always must do in France, and located a packet of little pink squares of toilet paper on a shelf. She was the only customer, which might be why he struck up a conversation. He asked if she was Russian, which people often assumed because of her round face, slanted eyes, and blonde hair. She shook her head.
She didn’t want him to know she was American for reasons she wouldn’t fully understand until years later, but that had something to do with George W. Bush and imperialism and privilege. She was just aware enough to know that America’s brand of democracy and apple pie weren’t palatable to everyone.
“Vous êtes mariée?”
She wished she could lie and say that she was married, but she just shook her head again, avoiding his gaze. She blushed in spite of herself. She hated that he’d had a visible effect on her. She wanted to believe that he was just a lonely store owner making friendly small talk, but it felt more sinister than that. He reminded her of a movie villain who had something on the protagonist and wouldn’t reveal what it was. Louche, she thought. She rolled the word around in her head as she quickly pocketed her change and said goodbye.
She felt him follow her down the steps onto the sidewalk, and her heart quickened. What did he want? She could feel his unnaturally light eyes on her back. What if he grabbed her? Then she heard the click of a lighter igniting. When she had crossed the street she ventured a look back and saw him leaning against the building, inhaling on a cigarette.
Now, many years later, when she remembers Paris and her heart aches for a twilight Seine and the smell of stale Métro air and ritualized meals and warm metal garden chairs and even the impenetrable French and their unwavering faith in themselves, she also remembers the twin brothers and wonders if they are still there.