EXCERPTS FROM ICI
A weight on my chest in certain neighborhoods
So much of what happens is this:
Please, please hang that dishtowel out your window for the rest of my
The lycée I teach in was started by Napoleon. Napoleon! I think
of my father the youth minister at junior high camp, in charge of the projector
showing Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, his chief responsibility to
shield us from the string of profanity in the scene where Napoleon is bowling,
cutting the sound at the last minute rather than covering the subtitles,
so that we could not hear how they said it in French, but we knew that
whatever it was, it meant: shit! shit! shit! shit! shit!
Le dimanche soir
On this particular Sunday evening, we were listening to the Dead Man
soundtrack, maybe because the NY Times Magazine (online, faking like there
was paper in my hands) was all about the American Western. Or maybe because
earlier that week one of my students said I could not have been born in
Texas because Texas was full of cowboys. Or because the night before the
upstairs neighbor was watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (I'd know
that Morricone anywhere). Or because he (J., not the upstairs neighbor)
was obsessed with Neil Young. Or because we were both sort of wandering
through strange woods in our heads, “periodically clashing with violent
thugs and brigands,” listening to Nobody quote William Blake.
(That open window behind me is the fridge. I do not tire of reaching
into the moonlight for my orange juice. My fromage blanc. My moutarde,
my rose petal confit, my tomme de chèvre.)
The upstairs neighbor has geraniums. I know it because when
it rains red petals fall onto my sills.
Je fait beacoup de bêtises, moi. I read an entire chapter of Colette
thinking the word for shadow was the word for promise. It was quite a meditation
on promises slipping past each other and whatnot, until I realized that
the word for shadow is nothing at all like the word for promise, not even
It is easier to understand this one: is that a comb, or is it sorrow
she is running through her long, dark hair?
The metro on strike, the city feels like a snow day with nothing white
falling except for maybe laundry being separated (a few things come clean
a little sooner than planned), and of course sugar cubes being dropped
into coffee, ce café being lingered over, not gulped down. Our aim
was to feel the sun on our faces for as long as it lasted. Our means were
a table by the window and two small cups. There was that feeling that is
both a big okay sadness and also a lightness, that feeling that suddenly
surprises you (because of course you are distracted, making lists in your
notebook of what you could do better) by calling itself happiness. And
the waitress, always nearby, saying: merci, au revoir, merci.
J’aime mon quartier
They're filming something at the end of my block. Cameras and booms
and white screens and big trucks and all manner of artificial lights. If
I were filming something right now, it would be this time in middle school
that a boy in my class, upon being broken up with by his girlfriend, ran
the bases in the field behind the school over and over, singing “Every
Rose Has Its Thorn.” And then maybe someone else singing the same song
but doing something else, somewhere entirely different from that small-town
Pennsylvania corn-edged ball diamond. Like maybe a woman walking outside
at night in Paris after doing a little shopping, carrying stationery and
curry paste in her purse, but thinking of that boy running around and around,
and sort of translating the Poison lyrics into French while she walks.
You know, cowboy is cow-boy in French. They do that with the hyphen sometimes,
like week-end. But the point is that cowboys are just cow-boys everywhere.
Et chacun chante une chanson triste, triste.
In order to appreciate the gardens you must sit quietly
and see the invisible.
We're walking through Les Tuileries. The perfect lawns, the sculpted
hedges, the statues, the ducks, the trees in their straight lines. “You've
got your toughie face on again,” he says. “Why, why?” It's true, I can
feel the tension in my forehead. Something's brooding, the problem of domestic
partnership (a trap?) or the problem of this season's ubiquitous high boots
(meaningless, meaningless), or I don't know. Give me a reason to worry!
Or, if you're lucky like that, sit me down in a corner and turn on the
Tour Eiffel . . .
I have a certain fondness for laundromats that does not extend into
a skill set. Basically, don't ever let me do your laundry. Unless your
idea of la vie en rose includes a penchant for pink undershirts and towels,
like I'm hoping J.'s does and he just hasn't told me yet. I really loved
those tube socks, too. I count them, along with some expensive Italian
underwear I don't even want to talk about, among the more poignant failures
of this venture.
What would the community think
On any given morning, or say afternoon, I will hear someone vomiting
violently from across the courtyard. It concerns me. Someone, clearly,
is sick. AIDS? Cancer? Pregnant? Someone else, or this same sick person,
has a penchant for Whitney Houston, but I am not particularly worried on
the front of other people's taste. As a teenager, did I not have the sheet
music to “The Greatest Love of All”? Did I not dance in my bedroom when
she sang Ooh she wanted to? Then there is la concierge, hosing down the
concrete where everyone drops their cigarette butts. I understand her irritation.
The other day I arranged a clothesline in my window and hung a hand-washed
hooded jacket to dry. When I retrieved it, the fabric was streaked with
ash, a little pile of ash intact in the hood, even. It is not outside the
realm of possibility that the upstairs neighbor was seeking revenge for
some noisy laughing or fighting or fucking sounds from my own open windows.
He does not know the weight of his own footfalls, probably. We bear witness
to each other and forget our own streaming audio. We greet each other demurely
at the door. Bonjour, monsieur. Je vous en prie. We walk parallel lines
toward trains, boarding different cars.
Often I find myself pining for something I've already got.
J.'s building bookshelves for an artist whose studio happens to look
across a courtyard at the 12-foot windows of the studio Delacroix used
to paint in. I went with him Saturday afternoon to make salad and poke
around the corners, suss out how the other half live. This is the part
just after he (J., not the greatest French Romantic painter) dragged an
armchair out on the terrace so I could sit while he worked. I can tell
you these things: circular saw, church bells, seagulls. A woman reading
the newspaper on another terrace drinks coffee, coughs loudly. In the window
catty-corner to Delacroix's, a neighbor peeks through the shutters. Fingers
first, then a face, then the shutters again, pulled tight.
Not fading out, but sort of doing that. In between days, like the pretty
boys sang when I was all of eighteen in flowered skirts on the back of
C.'s motorcycle. This is the alley between the library and the street where
I'll live just a little longer. There are more scooters than motorcycles
here. We're packing, culling. I get reckless with scissors when it comes
to T-shirts. You won't believe how little I plan to carry back with me,
or maybe that's one thing you do know about me. If nothing else, that girl
likes her collarbones unburdened. I broke mine when I was five, falling
off my parents' bed, so maybe it's one of those lucky-to-be-here syndromes.
My bones are pleased to meet you. They appreciate your hospitality and
enjoyed dinner very much. Especially the foie gras. All of it, god, it
was franchement much more than enough.
Amy doesn’t live here anymore
On the last day in Paris we were having a coffee at the café
du coin on our street, when Claude, who sells flowers next door, brought
in a bouquet of hot pink roses and handed them to me. We don't even know
him, but he was pleased with some Converse J. left on the curb for some
lucky stranger, in this case, Claude, and wanted to say au revoir and bon
voyage and sorry we weren't sticking around. If you were looking for proof
that Paris is Paris, I lend you mine.
whole annotated photoset is here.
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