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.