“Now that lilacs are in bloom
She has a bowl of lilacs in her room
And twists one in her fingers while she talks.
‘Ah, my friend, you do not know, you do not know
What life is, you who hold it in your hands’;
(Slowly twisting the lilac stalks)
‘You let it flow from you, you let it flow,
And youth is cruel, and has no remorse
And smiles at situations which it cannot see.’
I smile, of course,
And go on drinking tea.
‘Yet with these April sunsets, that somehow recall
My buried life, and Paris in the Spring,
I feel immeasurably at peace, and find the world
To be wonderful and youthful, after all.’”
-T.S. Eliot, Portrait of a Lady
You, insouciant, you, man, looking for your weed because it’s 4/20. I’ve barely had time to arrive and I’ve already been swept around St. François by that hasty gruffness of yours. I’m telling you man, forget it. Ain’t none of that shit here now, bro. Let’s just get to the bus.
It’s dry and windy and sunny, the sort of terse weather that makes things sharp and unaccommodating. As we leave Lausanne, I’d like to gaze out the window at those fields of colza yellow, but you insist on talking. Do you ever think before you talk, I wonder? I’d like to look at the fields – fields I have run in, fields I will run in – I’d like to see that yellow while it is there against dark green mountains and a gray-blue lake. I am not ready to tell you everything, but you are cramming everything into this bus. You know? You know?
You are always on the prowl. And proud of it, too. Green Eggs and Ham is your little game. You tell me that this whole weekend we will look at girls. I will look at girls. But they are your eyes, looking. And it is the breath and breadth of your mouth that dictate.
We get on the next bus from Lyon to Paris. We cannot sit together; everyone has taken seats already. Shame, I had hoped to lean on you to sleep. I go towards the back. One man leans across the aisle and nudges his friend to scoot over. A seat. I sit. That man, next to me, is handsome. But he sleeps on me the whole way. He is in my space. In the early hours before we arrive, he asks me a question. He does not speak much French. I think, how sweet, and I want to be helpful, I want him and his friends to like me. To think I am sweet and pretty.
Spiraling up the endless stairs. We are walking in the dawn now. Up to Montparnasse. I know somehow that it is one of those days. One of those days that begins yesterday and bursts at the heartseams somewhere in the middle of a hot heavy afternoon. And that it does not stop bursting for days after.
We watch the sunrise and I know already that we will see it set today too. We eat a croissant and a pain au chocolat, each. Some of us inhale it. For you know nothing of delicacy. Then we sit in a café that we think is only for the locals and we read short stories and poems to each other. We are like an old couple.
We are walking to meet the others at Notre Dame. What good is it to look at women outside of my league? We are zigzagging through the streets. We will never reach the river. I’m a loser at this game. We only reach triangular street corners pushing us sharply in other directions. The heartseams, they are about to burst. I want to find David and Giovanni. At least Giovanni. And his effusive manner spilling into the streets.
“Are you doing your job?”
No, I don’t want to.
Because you cannot have it, you will police it, take it under your patriarchal wing. Desire is not male because it runs towards females, nor is it female just because it runs towards males. My desire. Is my own.
You are here to flaunt your masculinity. Is that why you need me by your side? As your antithesis?
I am here to see the people and discern what it is that they carry. All the people. There are eyes and emotions in the grass, on the steps, on terraces. People are different.
I am in the waves now, and if you make the slightest affront I will cry. I will cry and I will not stop crying. I cannot respond to you. I am crying over my tea, crying over your incessant talking. I do not care if the waiter gave you tea when you asked for coffee, démerde-toi. I am crying in a street-side café, so all the passants can see. And you will make me the author of my own fragility, in front of all the others.
My voice wavers, but I am still able to read Claude McKay’s Subway Wind. I cannot cry now, I need you to hear my voice, reading this poem. It is an inverted pocket, this poem. I get the city wrong and want to cry.
My turn passes, and when I first see them, I have no idea if they are a boy or a girl. And I do not want to know. They have short hair and a soft delicate face. Forearms a bit muscled. They speak like both a man and a woman and I do not know. I absolutely do not know. I do not want to know. They are impossibly beautiful and that is all that matters and I need to see something beautiful right now.
A wave leaves its froth upon me. Sebastian. His name. He sits like a man, he makes comments about women like a man. I find him suddenly unremarkable, childish.
He points to a strange poster where Notre-Dame has been plastered over a woman’s body, the church’s opening right over the woman’s (and you know already, which one I am talking about). Do I look?
That one beer sends me reeling.
I am looking now, as if from habit, down from balconies, down from bridges, down to the waters of the Seine. That L-shaped contrail in the sky. When that bus left Lyon, I didn’t know it would be for sunset and sunrise. I didn’t know things began before Lyon, before-before to the night before where I did not sleep (we are almost always somewhere). I didn’t sleep the night before because the day before the night before I had seen Livia and Robin, and she makes me want to burst into flames and fizzle, and pop, and he makes me want to melt. For he is sweet, and she is volatile.
Lights and other people. I want to listen to jazz in a pocket, an air bubble, but it is too much, a pocket is not space enough. I am crying through the jazz, yes, through it, my tears are percolating through the music so that it is mushy and damp now in the underground pocket. Oh the singer is so beautiful, I can still see that (you see, I do notice! When it comes…when it is my choice to notice, my desire. is my own). I can feel the music in my rib cage though, inside where my tears don’t follow. The others look at me with those eyes, those atrocious eyes. Quelle folle, mais quelle folle, quelle idée d’être venu à Paris avec toi. I’m going to leave again. You follow me out. You are smoke, without the fire.
“It’s awkward for me too.”
Well, thank you. I’m sorry it’s awkward for you. What do you think it is for me? You insisted that I stay. You do not have to do anything. You do not own me, you are not responsible for me. Karolina comes out too.
“Is everything alright?” I can see the genuine concern in her eyes. I can see it because I put it there too. I am sick, because I do not want to be the child.
“Aww…” She strokes my hair, in that frenetic way that reminds me of that fateful day I had to leave Elena and could only see death on the other side. Frenetic caressing. This is what differentiates man from woman. And Elena, as I stood with my backpack and laptop, dead, empty, stroked me as if she stroked hard enough, she could stroke it out of me. I feel gentleness, I feel comfort, I feel a desire.
“Is it between you guys?”
“No.” Oh really? Then what is it about?
I am embarrassed to have nothing but my own sensitivity make me feel like this. My sensitivity, my fault. I do not feel well at all. I am sorry, for being me.
“I’ll walk you to the metro.” You do not know where the metro is. I know where the metro is. I do not want you or your self-indulging help. You draw me towards you and I hate you. You do not know anything. I hate your abruptness, your bluntness. I hate you. You kiss the top of my head. You vile man. You are not tender. You are not sweet. You are not patient. You are not listening. You are not a woman.
I take the m1, I know where I am going. I step off and into the m12 and ZAH! A band, lively explosion of my underworld! The metro expands with their music, I am awake to all sensation. I see the layers, the pitiful few layers of the metro’s skin, peeling. I am its layers too. Here, stripping my pain in the metro. I am just as fragile. The metro itself is drunk, reeling. The endless tunnels, the wind draft caressing me, the vibrancy of all sorts, it is abrasive, sandpaper for my ears.
You have called me nine times when I finally wake up. The dream opening of a door, but you do not want to sleep in the bed with me. You settle on the couch.
It is morning. It is true. You have slept on the couch. Cramped at that. I tell you that you need to listen more. You have gut me like a fish. Somehow, after your shower, you feel the need to tell me about how great your boxers are. But the placement of your hands tells me more.
And in the tunnels beneath the city, you have more stories to tell me. Of your friend’s mom, moving her finger in and out of a hole made with the fingers on her other hand, encouraging you to take her daughter’s virginity. You, savior of womankind. Have you learned nothing? I do not want to have it or to lose it. You can keep it.
The others ask me if I was juste fatiguée… Karolina asks me what has been going on.
We are walking along the Seine now. Some peace at last, for a third is with us and I do not have to talk to you. I see two men having coffee. Are they the David and Giovanni of our modern day? David and Giovanni should not exist in modern day. Where is my Giovanni? I have so wanted to find him.
There are mirrors everywhere we go. Patisserie, Brasserie, mirrors all over our Airbnb. A city of mirrors. People whose eye contact lingers, what vacancy to fill?
I accumulate the mirrors, they multiply in my wake, my own body escapes me.
You leave our third, and go off with another pretty girl, you are happy I have left no doubt. I disappear. Your confidence is bolstered by the world. I like you sometimes, you know. But as I sit still on a bench in the shadow of Notre Dame, I begin to despise you and your swagger and endless banter. You wear your masculinity as unequivocally as you wear your skin. I wonder how girls can want to be with you. All those intimate details I revealed to you, I wish I had not.
(He took it fairly well, to be honest.)
You knew I would come back; you knew because you know everything, you know where I am in space. Your speech pushes me into two dimensions.
Our last day. Notre Dame and crisp morning silhouettes.
I am here at Rue Christine 6, I feel nothing, but somehow reconciled with Paris. Cold empty ghostal streets of an election Sunday. Streets of art. And I see now how beautiful she is, how much I have wanted to see how beautiful she is. She always looks adoringly when I take a picture. Those pomettes! Emotions they ambulate, they flutter, they weigh of something. People, bodies, they are carrying charge, memories, anxieties. The flesh, the body, it is just the case (is it?), the lines of streets are lines of narratives. Two mirrors is already an infinity.
Bitter cold. I remember an October day in searing Paris sunlight. My eyes are stinging. I am in a cemetery thinking about Elena, a bird is singing, strident as the day. A woman passes by, she must be wondering for which artist I am crying, which century I am regretting, surely I have no family here. Ca va? Oui, ça va, ça ira.
Tu sais, ma chère amie,
Je n’arrête pas de t’écrire,
Je rentre maintenant.
Les sons du plaisir ultime
Résonnent dans l’escalier vide –
Les corps heureux s’enfouissent dans leur amour,
Et moi je grince et je craque, dans mon âme vide,
L’âme vide de jeune femme,
(Ou est-ce toujours celle d’une fille?)
À vingt-quatre ans le sais-t-on?
Faut-il se retourner pour pleurer dans la cour ?
C’est comment Elena d’être amoureux à deux ? Tu ne me l’as jamais raconté…Mais je ne sais pas, peut-être que cela est quelque chose qu’on ne raconte pas ?
I would have liked to have gone back to that cemetery to see if the sunlight was less trenchant, to see if something had really changed between now and then, but I would never have found it. It is part of another geography now, a Paris whose map I have rolled away.
I do not want to leave Paris, for I love lilac-ed Paris. I want to leave you, though. Again, for the window. I want to stay by this window forever. You assume, you always assume that desire is directed towards you, you are its epicenter, you are plaque numéro un of the Paris spiral. You decide what we are going to do together. You do not ask. You say. And the old man listens to you and it is joy.
It is dark and the old couple is gone, and we are alone on this train. Yes, alone. Because now I can feel it. Windows are mirrors too, and you love me.