Monday, January 20, 2014

Invisible in Paris

There are certain humiliations that seem peculiarly mine—that have struck deep and burrowed in so that I carry them around like malignant tumors. Some examples:

I was an oafish, uncoordinated, mediocre competitive swimmer. But at 10 or so, I won a swim event by a splash—then heard a parent comment as I climbed out of the pool, "Good lord, look at the size of her! Of course she won." 

I was a graceless, inarticulate, depressed, lonely au pair living with an American family in the suburbs of Paris when I was 20. I was taller than most French and wore unfashionable-in-France clothing. I bore the stamp of my country like a scarlet A. Trudging across the Bois de Boulogne, straphanging on the metro, strolling through Montmartre, I was approached by men asking me for favors—"Could you speak English with me?" "Try this on s'il vous plait so I can make sure it's the right size for a customer who's coming this afternoon?" "Can you tell me how to get to the Champs Elysees?" When I obliged with pathetic eagerness to please, they responded by trying to seize a different kind of favor entirely. In the five months I was in Paris, I saw more penises than I can count—slung through the plackets of raincoats, bulging from zippers, pressed against my leg on the subway (sometimes leaving a viscous smear). It was a horror movie. I look back and want to warn the innocent, bumbling me, “No! Don’t go there! Don’t trust him! Get out of there! Scream!” But the innocent, bumbling me was deaf to the smarter, more cynical me. At one point, I confided these experiences to my American hosts. They looked at me, baffled. “It must be something you’re doing,” they said. “We haven’t heard of this happening to anyone else.”

In my senior year in an otherwise undistinguished college career, I got a philosophy paper returned with an A-plus—and an invitation from the professor to have lunch with him ... I guess you can see where this is heading.

The common thread of these humiliations is the exposure of my colossal stupidity in thinking I could win a race fairly, make genuine friends in France, deserve a superlative grade. Being revealed as the dumbest of doofuses—a big-footed flailer, an overeager pleaser, a talentless swot—confirmed the doubts that have hobbled me throughout my life.

In any case, when friends offered Other and me the use of their apartment in the Fifth Arondissement for a week, I couldn't turn it down, but I didn't feel actual joy. Paris was the city I most identified with humiliation. It was where strangers had exposed themselves—and exposed me to their contempt. It was where I had been an ugly American in an anti-American France.

That Paris seems to have disappeared. For one thing, the French are bigger now—fatter and taller—than I remember, and they dress like Americans, in jeans and sneakers. And I didn’t see a single penis in six days. Of course, I’ve changed too. I’m 64 years old now and gray and invisible in that older-woman way. Sometimes I hate that sexless anonymity. But last week I loved it. I could see Paris and die. And no one could see me.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Paris, sans chats

Yes, Paris was beautiful. 

How could we not enjoy seeing Notre Dame, St. Sulpide, Ile de la Cite, Ile St. Louis, the Pompidou Center, the market at Bastille, the Musee d'Orsay, the Musee des Arts et Metiers, Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur? 

And drinking wine that was cheaper than (fancy French) water? 

And eating the lovely (heart-attack) food? 

And reuniting with old friends?

But the greatest pleasure was the freedom from our scooting, shitting, retching, barfing, eating-disordered cats. And from robo-calls.

Inertia helped us survive the "inertia" comment

When a friend asked Other and me for the secret of our long relationship—41 years!—Other quipped, "Inertia." I laughed, of course, then felt a little hurt by his lack of sentiment. (His comment coincided with a particularly unromantic Christmas for which the single item on his wish list was a high-end vacuum cleaner, and he gave me a phone for the hard of hearing.) But thinking it over, I am repeatedly struck by its essential truth. There may be a prettier way of saying it, but inertia provides a stronger bond than all the couples counseling in the world. Of course, whether it leads to happiness is another question.

The gift that keeps on giving

Friday, January 3, 2014


Lately, what with my hearing aids and all, I've been unable to plug into the news with earpods at the gym, so I've resorted to closed captions on the TV attached to the Elliptical machine. The news in closed captions is way more interesting than the real news. There are vehicles called toe trucks that get into a lot of accidents, just like toes. And there is a thing called a threw way that is very dangerous—especially if you're in a toe truck. 

I wonder if this comes in a watch style?

"The clock offered to Charlemagne had ... a dial containing twelve doors. At the appropriate hour, the appropriate door would open and out would drop the appropriate number of small golden balls, which fell one at a time onto a brass drum fitted with a taut square of goat's hide. When the midnight hour had arrived and its twelve balls struck their twelve beats, twelve miniature horsemen rode forth and closed the twelve doors."
    —from The Reasonable Horologist, by the Rev. Kenner Davenport, 1783 (via Tinkers, by Paul Harding, 2009)


Oh, I though they were called cellfies.

The fleeting world

Every day I spend an instant in a corner-of-the-eye world, where I catch a glimpse that is almost too fleeting to register of what might be but isn’t. It’s like Dream World, but different. 

Like when I unexpectedly come home early from work and turn the doorknob and for a millisecond imagine the impossible: That I will open the door and find loyal, dependable Other, with whom I have lived for 41 years, cavorting Hugh Hefner–style with a fetish-festooned lover. Or that Other will be cold and dead on the carpet, heart stopped unexpectedly, like that of his father, who keeled over one night at the dinner table, burying his face in his stir fry. 

Or that during a routine visit, the ophthalmologist will light up my eye and read my death written in the venous scrawl of my eyeball—one blot spelling out how it will end. 

Or that the phone will ring, and this time it will be the one I have been anticipating for all these years, the one that informs me that a parent has died.

One day, I know, this fleeting world will not whirl out of sight. It will stand still long enough for me to step onto it, and then I will live there as it orbits my old world, which will be as out of reach as the fleeting world once was.