Two years ago I canceled a flight to Paris. Which I know, le big fucking sigh. It was a phone call comprised mainly of my bereaved groans—at the hold music, the twang of the operator’s singsong confirmation of said cancellation, and the sound of the empty line I couldn’t hang up; that dead pulse that assures you—it’s not happening. Beep. Beep. Beep. If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and try again. It was almost more painful than the end of the relationship that dominoed into that call. We had already tried again—an exercise in personal tautology.
I hadn’t been to Paris since a trip in 2006, taken with yet another ex—because I am apparently a traveling monogamous clown. We stayed in a loft near the Bastille with Mathilde, where she had once lived with her husband, artist George Jeanclos.
Jeanclos was one of France’s great twentieth-century sculptors. His work, expositions on humanity frailty and love, still filled the loft, still espoused a childhood rooted in the traumatic events of the Second World War when he and his family were forced to hide in the woods to escape round-ups that threatened French Jews. He was barely ten at the time. After the liberation, he saw the corpses of former collaborationists strung up from lampposts and the skeletal bodies of camp survivors. It was all in his work, though he was no longer living.
Mathilde, a twin, a San Sebastian-born artist who had lived in Paris her entire adult life, who taught at Ecole des Beaux-Arts, was a French Mary Poppins for twenty-something-me. She only ate Greek yogurt, which fueled night walks where she’d point out everything. She had knowledge of the trees, of alleys. Where to get the best crepe at 4 a.m. The buildings that looked their best at dusk, dressed down in the muted light. Where Victor Hugo potentially “ate the unknown” during the Prussian siege. The cracks of the sidewalk came alive beneath her feet. And we’d walk. Not leisurely. We’d race—as if imperative to show me an entire history before sunrise. Then we’d do it again. Walk and walk. She wouldn’t let me speak in English, though I spoke maybe five French words. This mattered none. She’d answer the phone in French, move deftly to Basque back to French to Spanish to an occasional English word—like “shit.” Merde, shit, merde she’d exclaim. Which is how I knew Louis, the little French boy I babysat in the 7th arrondissement, was lobbying profanities at other children in the park.
Je suis, sorry… was all I could communicate to finger-wagging French mothers, and then I’d promise to boil him a œuf because I knew he liked them, and I knew I could pronouce egg.
Mathilde and I communicated predominantly in Spanish, and though I spoke entirely in the present tense, she’d tell me trying is better than English. S’il vous plaît raccrochez et réessayez.
When I told her I wanted to see the Eiffel Tower she scrunched her face in confusion, as though she had no idea to which most visited monument in.the.world I referred. The EIFFEL TOWER. Eiffel Tower, I repeated, teeth gritted. Ahh, she replied smugly, Le Tour Eiffel. Go to the Catacombs, aller dans les Catacombes. So I did (both). Breathing in the musk of six million dead and breathing it out on the upper platform of the iron tower. Whatever lesson she was teaching me, and I still can’t put my nose-to-finger on it. I got it. And I felt like I was on the precipice of life.
That was then.
I was in the mood to dissolve into the landscape, whether the living or the dead. Chasing dreams felt like footsteps.
This is now.
I haven’t left the country in a little over three years. Considering that only thirty percent of Americans have passports, this is a peripatetic gripe of lux, but man-altered landscapes and conference calls make chasing dreams now feel like catching elephants. I couldn’t dissolve if I tried. So I look around and blame everything for my lack of motivation, and I sing my generation’s rally cry: What the fuck do I do with my life. That is the talking point from our twenty-nothing pulpit.
It’s not so much a question anymore, rather a monotonous whine, coupled with the sound of assistant work and tumblr’ing. The sound of waiting for something to happen. The sound of please hang up and try again. Despite our protests that we were bullwhipped by life, society, the economy, the love of our parents, before life even began, the reality is often the contrary. In what part of the world is a generation allowed to complain that they were loved too much? That they were too educated?
But I was reminded of Mathilde the other day when, on my monotonous drive home from my monotonous job, I Mathilda’ed something to happen. Wishing, waiting for something interesting to happen to me, I moved one car into another with my eyes. From the annals of my boredom, I willed a hit and run. At least that’s how it felt at the time. Poor gray mini-van. The SUV assailant took off, and naturally I took off behind him, ridden by guilt and plagued by my mother’s chant, only boring people are bored. I chased him through the confusing, sometimes one-way streets of downtown in my vigilante Prius. Great for drive-bys, not so much for accelerating.
When I called it in, I couldn’t tell the dispatcher what direction he was heading. East, maybe?
After all was said and not done, I sat in my car and thought about a couple of things. I thought about Mathilde, my excitement for that last trip to Paris, about Jeanclos and his ability to make beauty from something truly tragic. I wondered why on earth I was so terrible with directions—the blame I placed on Catholic school with a side of inept Girl Scouting. I thought about that precipice. How it has nothing to do with Paris, or cancelled flights. It has nothing to do with the unfortunate and stark contrast between Mathilde and now.
It’s still up to me when to jump. It’s up to me to hang up and try again.
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