City of Locks — Ana Hein
*TOP CONTRIBUTOR IN NONFICTION, VOLUME THREE, 2020*
I wandered by the Seine, alone. It was night, but the street lamps had a yellow vibrance that cast a veneer of warmth over the city. The little booths that decorated the sides of the cobblestone avenues were shut tight, their wares ensconced behind green wood. Patrons of bars and cafes sat at tables, enjoying their meal and each other; the occasional peal of laughter echoed from inside. The cherubic faces carved into the buildings above looked down on all of us in silent judgment from their heavenly perches.
I walked across one of the bridges, lost in the lyrics of Lorde’s Melodrama. As I looked down at the river, I noticed something glinting on the bottom of the elegantly curved iron railing: locks. There weren’t many of them, maybe fewer than a dozen in total. They were tiny. You wouldn’t see them if you weren’t looking down. Some had initials or names carved into them; some had sharpie scribbles that were indecipherable to everyone except the person who’d written them. Some had combinations, others were simple grey padlocks. They were all firmly situated in their chosen spot. They seemed permanent, immovable. They were a statement: We are holding on. Forever.
It all starts once upon a time when a man and a woman fell in love, as they so often do. They lived in a quiet village in the countryside of Serbia. The man was daring and brave, always out to prove his worth. The woman was delicate and ethereal, a creative soul who found beauty in every place she looked.
Every night, they would sneak out of their homes and meet at their special place, the Most Ljubavi bridge, where they did what lovers do.
But then one day, the man was called to fight in the War. The morning he was set to depart, they met one last time on their bridge. “I am yours, completely,” she told her love. “I love you more than anything in this world. I will be here waiting for you, darling. I will never desert you.”
They kissed one last time and then he was gone.
He met someone at the front, a friendly nurse who stitched him back up after he’d been shot; or else a villager he saved from a stray shell; or else a girl who was simply cute and there.
He did not return to the village.
The woman never heard word from her lover. She wandered around the town, a ghost trapped in flesh. She no longer laughed or smiled, barely ate or talked to anyone else. They say that on the day the man married his new love, the woman died. When the local doctor cut her open to inspect why such a young, lovely girl had died so suddenly, he saw something incredible. Her heart that just a few days ago thrummed in perfect rhythm, had somehow turned to glass. And just as suddenly as it had transmuted, it shattered.
The local girls, fearful of winding up like the poor woman, started to put locks with the names of their own loves on the couple’s bridge. Once the locks were in place, they kissed the keys for luck and tossed them into the water below, sealing their fate. They hoped the locks would keep their boys theirs, maintain their love forever and ever.
But what if their boys were bad men? What if they beat them, or spit curses at them, or lost themselves at the bottom of a bottle?
They didn’t think of a way to solve that one.
My name is not written on a lock, but in a notebook. It’s a normal black Moleskin, if I’m remembering it correctly. I think it has a tassel built in as a bookmark. Last time I saw it, it sat on the windowsill bookshelf of the man who sexually assaulted me.
When he was done, he got up, sat down at his desk, pulled it out, and wrote down my name on two different pages under two different lists. One for kisses, one for sex.
“So I don’t forget anyone,” he told me as he puffed on an electric cigarette and turned his head to look out the window.
I couldn’t stop thinking about him as I walked around Paris. He tried desperately to exude the intellectual, eccentrically charming attitude of a beatnik poet. He would’ve thrived in this city. I could so easily picture him lounging outside at a table in his black overcoat, casually sipping on a glass of whiskey. Or he could be standing above me in one of the open, balconied windows, smoking a cigarette while looking over the river, contemplating something deep and significant. Or he could be sitting on a bench in the park, reading a battered copy of Hemmingway. Or he could be taking pictures of the side roads with his vintage camera. Or he could be hooking a lock into place on a bridge before kissing a girl.
They call Paris the City of Love, so it’s only natural its bridges are bursting with Love Locks. One bridge in particular, the Pont de Arts, was famous for the number of lovers it attracted. Its chain railing was completely stuffed with the tokens of affection. Locks on locks on locks.
In 2014, part of that bridge collapsed under the weight of that love. It had over 10,000 locks on it at the time. Eventually, one portion couldn’t handle it anymore and buckled over onto the walkway. It would have been more dramatic if it fell into the river, but life doesn’t always give us the symbolism we desire.
Soon after, the French authorities removed the remaining locks. Collectively, they weighed more than 45 tons. Needless to say, you are no longer allowed to lock up your love.
Once, a boy hid words in the pockets of a girl. He thought he was being romantic and kind and generous, a classic hero in a fairytale, but he was really crushing her under the weight of a story she didn’t know she how to tell, a story she didn’t know was hers at all. It wasn’t until the boy left—they always leave at the end of these sorts of tales, don’t they?—that the girl realized what he had done. She finally understood why her lungs were clogged with metaphors and images of moon-lined skin and springtime cherry trees, why her insides were burning and constricting—there was no room for air any more. The space was all taken up by his gift.
She tried to talk, to sing, to cry—anything to expel what she harbored inside. Words poured out of her, but they were never the right ones. She couldn’t express the story properly. If she could just get it out, tell someone in the right way so that they held her close and smoothed back her hair, she knew she would make it through.
“Are you okay? You haven’t been acting like yourself. Are you still interested in that boy?” the girl’s friends asked her. She told them she was fine, thanks for checking, she was just a bit tired.
She wanted to clamp a lock around his lips so he would know how it felt to hold so much inside of him and not be able to feel release. She wanted him to collapse under that same weight he had given her. She wanted to finally be free of the words. She wanted to let this feeling go.
So she picked up a pen and tried to tell the story again.