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I wanted my boyfriend, Mark, to propose to me in Paris. It was embarrassing how much I longed for this to happen, this cliché, this thing I had not longed for, or even barely thought about, until two weeks before our plane was scheduled to take off. Suddenly I found myself entertaining scenarios: maybe he would do it on one of the bridges over the Seine? In the Jardins de Tuileries? I imagined myself brazenly ignoring astronomical roaming fees to send all caps texts to my friends, to call my mother, to update my Facebook status. I imagined myself saying yes.

The timing was perfect: our fourth anniversary had just passed and we were the right ages. We had been living together for the past six months, so we knew things about each other, like that we fit. Maybe not always perfectly, but snugly, cozily.

I thought about the proposal as I packed, as we took a taxi to the airport, as we went through customs and were asked the purpose of our trip. For pleasure. The real purpose was to visit my younger brother, Paul. He taught English at an international school and although he had initially planned on staying for a year, two years had passed and he still had no immediate plans to return. He had a girlfriend, a co-worker named Krisztina, who was from Hungary. The two of them shared a rented flat in Montparnasse and Mark and I were going to stay with them. We didn’t have much money for a hotel, and they had offered us their couch.

When we arrived, Paul and Krisztina were still at work, but they had hidden a spare key under a flowerpot. Their apartment was small and because I hadn’t seen any pictures of it beforehand, I was surprised by its gloominess. Everything was dark, the living room messy. We turned on the lights, but the windows had wooden shutters and we couldn’t figure out how to release the heavy brass latches.

“You made it!” Paul said when they got home. Mark and I had fallen asleep on the couch in the dark, the kind of disorienting, post-travel thud of a nap that leaves your body heavy and prickly. Paul leaned down kissed us on both cheeks like a real French person, but then I got up and hugged him too. Krisztina also kissed us and Mark almost brushed her lips by accident when he went for her other cheek. He blushed.

“Are you tired? Are you hungry?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said, but when she suggested that we go for dinner at their favourite nearby restaurant it sounded like a good idea.

Walking cleared the jet laggy weariness from my bones. I let the three of them get a few feet ahead of me, took out my phone and snapped a picture of their backs lit up by the early evening light. I previewed the photo immediately, already feeling nostalgic. I was happy.

The narrative of a trip to Paris was something I believed in: the grey and the church spires and the little cups of espresso and the bottles of red wine. The neighbourhood bistro. I’d felt a kind of relief when Paul had finally opened the windows in their apartment because it was transformed in the sunlight and then fit better into that narrative.

And I wanted visual proof. I could use my phone, but I also had a new digital camera that I’d bought before leaving to replace the one I’d been using for the past three years, its battery held in place by an elastic band. I also packed a Polaroid camera and some packs of expired film I’d found on eBay. My first picture was taken with the Polaroid, nothing special, just the row of apartments on Paul’s street, and that picture looked more like my imagined Paris than the real thing, the dirty stone bathed in soft yellowy light, all romantic and easy and elegant. I knew I wasn’t supposed to like it more than the real thing, but I kind of did.

• • •

During dessert, Krisztina brought it up first. “Did you tell them?”

“Tell us what?” My mind was on proposals, so I briefly wondered if they were engaged and then immediately felt a rush of panic at the thought of my little brother getting married first. He was only two years younger than me, but still.

Paul looked uncomfortable. “It’s not a big deal.”

“What is it?”

“I’m thinking of going into a business deal.”

“Business deal?” I looked at Krisztina for more details, but she shrugged.

“A friend of mine offered to let me in on something.”

“It sounds like you’re going to tell us you’re dealing drugs,” Mark said.

“It’s not. It’s legal. Importing goods.” The fact that Paul qualified the deal as legal made me think that it couldn’t be. Legality was something implied, taken for granted.

“What kind of goods?”

“This time around it’s shirts.”

“Shirts?” Mark and I asked at the same time.

“Yeah, men’s shirts.”

Paul described to us an Italian friend he’d met recently who had an import/export business. Over drinks one evening Paul had confessed that he’d always wanted to start his own business. This friend, Michele, gave him the opportunity to go into a transaction with him. He was about to buy a shipment of designer shirts, barely out of season, purchased at a low price from a contact he had in Milan. Once he had the shirts, he would turn them over to a liquidation store in Paris. If Paul chipped in a certain amount of cash to pay for part of the shipment, he would get a decent return and also get the chance to see how Michele worked.

“It sounds too good to be true.” I said.

“I’m simplifying the whole thing,” Paul said. “That’s just the gist of it.”

“So you’ve already given him money?”

“Not yet. I’m still thinking about it.”

“Why does he need your money?” Mark asked. “Can’t you just observe what he does with his own?”

“It’s complicated.”

Our dessert came, and Paul changed the subject. At home, everyone fell asleep quickly, so we never got back to talking about it. When Mark and I woke up the next morning, the apartment was empty and dark again.

• • •

On vacation Mark and I mostly walked around and sat in parks. In the morning we would fold the couch back up, shut the windows and head out into the world. We were lazy about waiting in line for museums. We had been to Paris separately before knowing each other, so we weren’t overcome with the urgency of visiting a place for the first time. In the evenings we would sometimes have dinner with Paul and Krisztina, but mostly we kept to ourselves, a little travelling cocoon.

On the streets of Paris, I imagined Mark and me as a married couple, the vast expanse of a shared future before us—all that time, all those days—and it made me feel languorous and calm. We were approaching the starting line and I was ready for it. Expectant.

• • •

Three days into our trip, we came home in the late afternoon to rest. Paul was sitting on the couch, and looked startled when he saw us.

“You’re home early?” I asked.

He looked at me and said, “So, I did it.”

“Did what?”

“Gave Michele the money.”

“Did you sign a contract or something?” Mark asked.

“No, but he gave me a cheque.”

Apparently the deal was that, since it was his first transaction, Paul would get his money back right away, out of good faith. Well, almost right away. He had to wait a day before cashing it, so some other cheques could clear, but after those twenty-four hours, the principal plus margin was his. If he wanted to continue working with Michele, he could, but he could also stop, no strings attached.

“The cheque looks weird, though,” Paul said.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m sure it’s fine, but it just looks weird.” Paul took it out of his pocket and smoothed it on his knees. It was for over 15,000 euro.

“That’s so much money,” I gasped.

“It’s okay,” he said.

Mark and I huddled on the couch around him. The cheque was larger than average, almost comically big, like a novelty cheque. It had a seal printed in the upper left-hand corner and it was issued from a number company in San Marino. There was an email address under the address as well.

“What do you think?” Paul asked.

“Maybe it looks different because it’s from San Marino?” Mark suggested.

I googled cheque from San Marino on my phone, but it didn’t help.

“Things always look different in different countries,” Paul rationalized. “You know how letter sized paper is longer and thinner in Europe than it is in North America? That fucked me up at first. I kept forgetting to change the setting on my laptop.”

While we’d been staring at the cheque, Krisztina had come home. “If you have problems with paper, maybe you should stay away from more complicated things.”

Krisztina knew more languages than all of us combined, but because she was the odd one out when it came to English, her contributions to the conversation sometimes had the misfortune of sounding awkward or naive. This was one of those times. Paul ignored her.

Apparently San Marino was a tax haven and even though Paul said the number company was a holding company, Michele also had a warehouse in San Marino, so it wasn’t just a front. He had some family there too.

“Do you pay taxes on any of this?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about it,” Paul said.

We kept studying the cheque, trying to verbalize what was strange about it. The seal, for instance, was too ornate for a cheque. And the font used for the company address, too big? And what was with the email address? Not just any email address, but a Hotmail address, a problem in itself. Which is when I noticed it: a spelling mistake. Instead of @hotmail.com it said @hotmial.com, the kind of error your eyes skimmed over without noticing because you simply expected it to be right.

Mark and I sunk back into the couch. Paul got up and started pacing.

“It’s not a big mistake,” Mark finally said. “They just mixed up two of the letters.”

“Yeah, he’s right.” I suddenly felt guilty that I had spotted the error and so triumphantly called it out with an Ah-ha. “And it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the cheque. It’s not like your friend would just take your money and run, right?”

“Guys,” Paul said. He took the cheque back and didn’t say anything else.

Krisztina rolled her eyes. After a bout of silence she spoke up. “We should eat dinner.”

Paul stopped pacing. “Yes, let’s eat.” He went to the bedroom to change and she followed him and we could hear her saying something to him in French, her tone of voice implying a scolding. Mark and I looked at each other and he did the thing to his face where he widened his eyes and gave a tight smile. It always made me laugh, and it still did that night, but only a little.

We went to another nearby restaurant, but the food wasn’t very good or I’d chosen my meal badly. My omelette was rubbery, the salad was wilted. Before coming home, Mark and I had shared a bottle of wine, and while the cheque examination had sobered me, I could suddenly feel it again in a delayed, wobbly way.

“So, what have you guys been up to?” Paul asked. We gave him a rundown of our day and I wished we had better stories to tell, something to disperse the gloom we were all feeling. We got engaged, I imagined saying. That could change the course of the evening, make everything celebratory again, but it wasn’t the right story and it hadn’t happened yet.

Everyone had separate things on their mind. I imagined thought bubbles suspended above our heads the way they were in comics. Someone from afar could read them, but we didn’t have the right perspective. The bubbles were too high up. I could approximate what Paul and Krisztina were thinking, but I wasn’t so sure about Mark.

Krisztina and Paul went back to their apartment, but Mark and I went for a walk to leave them alone. We ended up at the Champ de Mars. The field was strewn with people having picnics.

“I can’t believe my brother might lose 15,000 euro,” I said.

“Well, less than that since the cheque includes his return, but, yeah.”

Maybe in the grand scheme of things, over the course of a lifetime, it wasn’t enough to ruin a person. It was still too much for any of us to let slip through our fingers, to just give away like we were lending a co-worker five bucks to buy lunch. Pay me back whenever. That money was my share of a year’s worth of rent, it was vacations where you didn’t have to sleep on your sibling’s couch, it was student loan payments, it was what you needed in the bank to feel like a responsible adult with foresight, it was an RRSP contribution and a tax deduction, it was more than enough for a wedding. It wasn’t my money, but I felt sick to my stomach at the possibility of my brother losing it.

“Krisztina seemed pissed too,” I said.

“Totally, although it’s not really her business what he does with his money.”

“They live together; it’s kind of her business.”

“They’re not married.”

“They’re practically married.”

“It’s not the same.”

“What about us?”

“What about us?”

“We’re practically married. If you were doing something with your money, I think I should have a say in it.”

“You don’t.”

“Does this mean you want a prenup before you get married?”

“First of all, we’re not getting married any time soon. Second of all, no I don’t want a prenup. Neither of us have any assets anyway.”

“I have assets,” I said, stung.

“Like what?”

“My car. The cat. She was mine first.”

“You can get custody of the cat.”

“We’re not even married, and you’re talking about divorce?”

“You brought it up first.”

We were joking, but I could feel disappointment spreading through my body like that first moment when you realize you’re drunk, everything sharp and blurry at once. I didn’t want to be disappointed that Mark wasn’t going to propose on this trip. Don’t be disappointed, I said to myself. It doesn’t matter. I don’t know why I’d been so sure that he would when there were no signs pointing towards it. While we had talked about marriage in broad, lofty terms, neither of us had discussed the real possibility of doing it, if we ever would. And he had said, “We’re not getting married any time soon.” This was not something you said if you were going to propose to your girlfriend within three days, which was the amount of days left on our trip.

African men kept walking by and trying to sell us bottles of wine, water, cigarettes.

“Do I have your permission to buy another bottle of wine?” Mark asked.

“Yes,” I said.

We drank and were quiet and occasionally made fun of tourists. At nine, the lights on the Eiffel Tower went flicking up the sides like fireworks and then the entire structure sparkled in the dark. It lasted a few minutes, a little show for the crowd. The people around us clapped. I did too. It fit into the narrative.

Back at the apartment, Paul and Krisztina were in bed. Mark fell asleep quickly, but I couldn’t. I looked up pictures of San Marino on my phone. I had pictured it as a small town, sun bleached and dusty, its inhabitants squat round women in skirts or men who started off sexy and thin and then one day woke up balding and swarthy. I imagined it had one central bank, one post office, but three or four bakeries spaced in such a way that a tourist couldn’t understand how they could all stay in business. I wasn’t sure how designer shirts come into play, but maybe they were boxed up in some half-built cinder block factory on the edge of town, mangy security dogs barking their way around the perimeter. But San Marino was actually much nicer than that. In Italian it was called Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino. The Most Serene Republic. It was all hills, mountain sides, castles perched on stunning, precarious points. I still couldn’t imagine something as vulgar as a warehouse fitting into it.

• • •

I woke up the next morning when Paul tiptoed past our bed. I got up and joined him in the kitchen. It was small—there was no room for a table or a chair, barely two people. He was standing over the sink, eating yogurt directly from a big tub.

“Did I wake you?” he asked.

I shook my head. “Is Krisztina still sleeping?”

“She left already.”

“She seemed mad,” I said.

“Don’t tell Mom about the money,” Paul said, like we were children, not wanting to talk about Krisztina.

“I’m not going to tattle on you. When do you find out if the cheque clears?”


“Have you heard from Michele?”

“I called him last night, but he didn’t answer.”

I didn’t say anything; I didn’t have to. We both knew it was a bad sign. Maybe getting a cheque upfront that could be cashed twenty four hours later seemed like good faith at first, but now it seemed like an impossibly long time that one could use to funnel the money elsewhere and disappear.

“Was that all your savings?”

“Of course not.” I knew he was lying. His face looked like he was about to cry, and my body tensed up, like I was willing him not to. Had I ever seen him cry, other than we were kids?

“It will be fine,” I said.

I didn’t understand why my brother even wanted in on a sketchy clothing import business. I never would have thought to do the same thing, to risk so much, but the scary thing was that the more I considered it, the more it started to make sense. Was desire as simple as that? Contagious?

I crawled back into bed after Paul left. Mark woke me up later that morning. He was wearing a towel and his hair was wet.

“Get up,” he said. “It’s almost eleven.”

I didn’t want to sleep in so late, but my head hurt. “What are we going to do today?” I asked.

“What do you want to do?”

“Whatever you want,” I was tired of planning. I closed my eyes again and thought that if we were in a hotel, I would pull him into bed with me, but we were at my brother’s apartment on the couch and maybe if I was closer to twenty than thirty I wouldn’t care, but I did care, and I was annoyed that we’d been too cheap to put a hotel room on a credit card.

• • •

That evening we only saw Paul for a few minutes. He was on his way out.

“Did you talk to Michele?”

He shook his head and left.

I woke up in the middle of the night and saw the light on in the kitchen. I got out of bed and there was Paul running the tap for a glass of water.

“Everything is cool,” he said when he saw me.


“I saw Michele and the cheque cleared. I didn’t lose anything.”

I was surprised by my relief at the news. Or maybe not—all that money, thank God he hadn’t lost it. Money doesn’t change anything specifically, but it changes things fundamentally. He had made a few thousand dollars in twenty-four hours, just like that, and it had given him confidence. He already looked different than he had the day before.

• • •

On our last full day in Paris, there was no proposal. But it was okay. We kissed and held hands and sat in a café and all of these things fit into the Paris narrative I wanted anyway. I had neglected my Polaroid camera the whole trip and took eight pictures in a four hour span, so it looked like we had spent most of our time in this one neighbourhood in the Marais.

On the way back to Paul and Krisztina’s, we walked over the Pont des Arts, which had a chain-link fence laden with padlocks. People, mostly teenagers, carved their initials on the locks, fastened them to the fence and threw the key over the bridge. It was romantic and tacky and when I told Mark that we should buy a lock for us, I meant it both wholly and not at all.

• • •

Our flight home was at six in the morning, which seemed reasonable when we booked it, but then I realized the metro wouldn’t be open and it looked complicated to go by public transportation. We decided to just stay up all night and take a cab.

Paul and Krisztina stayed up with us until midnight and because Paul was so excited about the transaction working out, he brought us all out to dinner, back at the restaurant from the first night. He ordered us Aligot, potatoes mashed with cream and cheese served in a big, copper dish, and we all had dessert and drank too much wine. Paul and Krisztina were tired and sleepy drunk by the time we got back to their apartment, but it wasn’t even midnight yet and Mark and I still had another few hours before we left for the airport.

We started dozing on the couch, but made ourselves get up and went outside to keep us awake. The streets in Montparnasse were mostly quiet and empty, and the signs that we’d previously seen lit up were dark. We tried to find a bar to have a drink, but nothing felt quite right. I was the one being picky, but I didn’t want our last memory to be a mediocre bar. Instead we wound our way back to the Champ de Mars, and I looked at the Eiffel Tower one more time. There were still tourists milling about, and I liked knowing that there were people who felt like me, who wanted to see something solid and iconic at this hour of the night.

When the taxi showed up outside the apartment, I knocked on Paul and Krisztina’s bedroom door and stuck my head in the room. “We’re leaving now,” I whispered. “Thank you again for letting us stay.” Krisztina was sound asleep and didn’t say anything, but Paul sat up and rubbed his eyes.

“There’s a hundred euro on the kitchen counter,” he said, half-muffled.

“I don’t need it,” I said.

“Just take it.”

Mark went outside to bring our luggage to the cab. The money was on the tiny counter, and the bill was crisp and green. I didn’t want to want to take it.

In the cab, I sat with my backpack in my lap as though it were a baby and leaned my head against Mark’s shoulder. The cab driver didn’t say anything to us and we were too tired to speak to each other. The city looked hushed, gentle, and it felt inappropriate to sully the air with words, especially loud, English words. When we got to the airport, Mark opened his wallet and paid the driver. I didn’t mention anything about Paul’s money. I don’t know why. I guess I felt like it was mine.


Teri Vlassopoulos is a writer living in Toronto. She has written a collection of short stories called Bats or Swallows (Invisible Publishing) and many zines. Her new novel, Escape Plans (Invisible Publishing) is out now.

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LF #033 © Teri Vlassopoulos. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, January 2013.


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the most
serene republic

by teri vlassopoulos