by J.M. Parker
It’s an easy mistake for someone older and with more experience to imagine someone younger and with less has none at all. It was one several people had recently made with me, and one I was determined not to make with C. Even now, though, I associate her with the blank blackboard greeting us each week in the French classroom we shared, she on the back row, sitting always very straight in a long velvet dresses. Once she’d followed me outside and down the steps of the metro after class to tell me about the man she had left before coming to Paris, offering one of her frequent maxims, “I always stay with a man until I know he’s not the man of my life.” Shortly afterward, as if she had seen into my own situation, I also left a man who was not the man of my life, and C and I found ourselves looking for an apartment together.
In the first few weeks as housemates, she told me there was, in her experience, nothing more to life than food, sex, sleep and the bureaucracy filling the space between them. I picture her looking into my eyes frankly, making this pronouncement in response to some complicated notion of life I had been blathering about after several glasses of wine. She seemed satisfied with this state of affairs, a life balanced between poles of the dining table and the bed, with occasional forays into the red tape stretched between them. At first, to me, her foreignness only meant that she spoke better English than most Parisians, was taller, aristocratically pale, and had red hair always just several steps from dreadlocks. Yet I still often imagined her as that blank classroom blackboard, on which someone had now scrawled a few sophisticated words.
She had spent a semester of high school in Cleveland, Ohio, which facilitated our communication, though she had been brought up (badly, my friends insinuated) on an island in a northern corner of Europe, where her father played at gentleman farmer while her mother compensated for his foibles by renting rooms to tourists. The farm itself, otherwise ordinary, had the advantage of being extremely well-located. When her parents divorced, the well-located farm and its abutting beaches were sold at a price far higher than anyone had expected. Some odd legal quirk settling the income on C, she bought her mother a house on the mainland and moved to Paris. Once a week our concierge slipped blue envelopes from a British investment firm under our door, and C duly stacked these, unopened, on the mantel. On Sundays she called her mother and shouted into the telephone for half an hour. This was all I knew about her life outside of Paris.
We drank about a bottle of wine almost every night on nights when both of us were home, sitting on the worn velveteen cushions of a sofa found and carried up from the sidewalk – Corbières, which was the least expensive and most frequently restocked by the Arab shopkeeper downstairs, or the cheap Martinique rum from the shelf above it. Early on we came up with a list of reasons why drinking wine makes you more French than drinking beer – it’s less fattening, more languid, warmer. Wine is to beer as cat is to dog, was the final equation we came to. And when you drink enough of the cheap Corbières we often spent our last pocket change on, it tends to make your lips pucker in that bee-stung grimace affected by French actors. We must have spent two or three nights a week in the dusty half-light of our salon, smoking Gauloises, gulping Corbières from jelly jars, puckering our lips and feeling French. These are some of the stories C told me on those nights.
A Moral to the Story
“Tell me a story, C,” I said, one night when she’d come home from a bad date, seen the light in my room, and come in to colonize the foot of the bed.
“Oh, god, I’m no good at stories.”
“Anything. Anything at all. Tell me … about the time your prize racehorse suddenly broke his leg in the last round.” I was extemporizing, but there was a photo of a pony taped to her bedroom door.
“What?!” She collapsed backward onto the bed.
“Tell me how you got your pony.”
“Oh, that. There is a story there, actually. You know where to look for a story when you want one, don’t you? Well. Would you mind if I asked you to pour me a small glass? It all started with this magazine about ponies. They had comics about ponies and games about ponies, and articles about what you should do to ponies, and what you shouldn’t do to ponies. And on the last page they had a contest where you could win your own pony. It was a beautiful pony, so of course I wanted it. But before I could enter the contest, my mother made my father ask my grandfather, if I got a pony could I keep it in his stable, and he said yes. So I entered the contest and waited. Every day I would come home and ask if I’d won the pony, and finally they all just said, well, instead of waiting to see if I won the pony, why not just buy me one? So they did.
“Now. The day we went to get the pony, I took a really hard math test, and I didn’t know it yet, but I failed it. So the night we got the pony, I already loved the pony, but I also didn’t know it yet, so it was exciting but also supposedly dangerous, and we were driving in the dark to get it, so I was scared and excited at the same time.” Her eyes closed, and she smiled.
“So?” I asked.
“Oh, with the pony everything went fine. But the next day I had the biggest lesson of my life. I got my math test back and saw a big red note on my paper. Well, it was an important test, and my teacher had to talk to me, but I had a pony, so I was smiling the whole time.” Evidently, the tale was concluded, for she had stopped, her eyes turned up to mime ecstasy.
“Is there a moral to this story?”
C looked at me as if I hadn’t been listening. “A moral?” She frowned, her eyes shifting toward the window. She never asked what a word meant. She simply found a place for it, repeating it before going on. “I didn’t know you wanted a moraled story. Well, if you want a moral, it’s not complicated. When something you love is waiting at home, everything else is funny.”
I supposed C was right. Everything suddenly turns beautifully funny when you’re in love. That day on the Boulevard St. Michel, I’d seen a dog on a leash wearing a blue fur coat and, finding that that funny, knew I was. There were so many people on the sidewalk, and I knew I would have found most of them funny if the city were not flashing by so quickly. Does love flash an insight into where to look for humor and beauty? Or don’t we already know where they are and, in love, simply decide to look?
The Bouncing Check
It wasn’t a surprise that C’s boyfriend Claudio wrote bad checks. It also didn’t surprise me that she only told me about it after they’d broken up. C was looking for reasons she shouldn’t have been with Claudio in the first place. Bouncing checks hadn’t seemed like a reason not to be with someone while she was with him, but when mentioning it on the phone to her mother, she’d been so severely scolded that now she took the story to me for a moral litmus test.
“The problem is, I’d see him again, but he can’t ever do anything,” she explained, “Because he never has any money.” Claudio was a musician who rented a room in a suburb from a midget who was also a nun. Most of the time when she called him, the nun would answer the phone, and she would turn to me and say, “It was the midget,” with a disconcerted grin. We didn’t know why the midget didn’t live in a convent with other nuns, or why she was renting a room to Claudio. But after they broke up, the essential facts came out. “He never has any gas in his car. The needle is always flat – to empty – and we put another five euros in it, and it perks up a centimeter and falls again by the time we get across Paris. And he parks foolishly, so he’s always getting towed.”
She wanted me to say something about Claudio so she could say she knew but loved him anyway. Getting towed was my first cue to say something. You have to do some pretty crazy parking maneuvers to get towed in Paris. But I didn’t know Claudio, and had problems of my own, mostly about money, but about love, too. She caught me looking out the window, so she decided to move on to check bouncing. “So we’re on the metro to the place where they take all the towed cars. The ticket wanted two hundred euros for it. So he pulls out this check book and looks at me, and I know there isn’t any money in his bank, and we both smile, not because of anything except that we’re in love. And we get to the place and he writes a check and gives it to the man who takes the money.” She looked at me pointedly.
“Well, that’s not quite honest, but it’s not so terrible.”
“Right. It’s more like funny, no?”
“Yeah. Sort of like funny.”
“The problem was, after that, there wasn’t anything to eat. He had just one check left, so we decided to go to Monoprix and put all the food we can eat in a trolley and use a bouncing check. We put in chocolate and honey and everything we liked. Everyone in the store was smiling at us because we were so happy. We went to the seafood for shrimp, and the seafood man couldn’t understand why we were laughing. We were going to go home and even make dinner for the midget, and Claudio wouldn’t have to worry about anything for a week and just write his music. But then we went to pay and it all came out to this ridiculous money number, and Claudio wrote the check.”
“Well, they were nice about it. They said, ‘Oh, sir, do you have another way to pay, perhaps?’ and of course Claudio never had a bank card, so he had to say no. And so they called security.” She paused for a minute. “That’s the part where my mother got mad.”
“Oh,” I said, prompted. “That is pretty embarrassing.”
“Well, not embarrassing, really, but we definitely won’t go back to Monoprix.”
“I guess not.”
“The worst part is, he broke up with me outside the store. He said it was my bad influence and since he met me things started to not function anymore because usually everything functions. But it’s completely normal that they control bouncing checks at a supermarket. They have a machine for it.”
After the sun had set below the roofs outside, C tried calling Claudio again, but the midget answered, and I poured another glass of wine.
“So what does your boyfriend do?” C asked.
“Does he have to do something?”
“Well,” she sighed, “What does he like doing?”
“He likes writing poetry.”
“And where does he live?”
“With his mother.”
“He’s Italian, then?” C fancied she had gathered some insight from several recent experiences with Italians. “How long have you known him?”
“A few weeks.”
“So he’s Italian. You only love them for the first three weeks. You should know that. Anyway, why doesn’t he have a job?”
“I don’t have a job, either.”
“But it’s not our job to have jobs,” she said. “It’s our job to be happy.”
How C told the Police a Love Story
Our apartment’s previous occupant had neglected to tell us about its wiring, but by November we realized the impossibility of running both the radiator and water heater at once without blowing a fuse. When it was very cold, we had to decide around midnight whether to sleep with the heat off in order to have showers in the morning, or to forgo morning showers and sleep with heat. Twice when I had job interviews in the morning we had ended up sleeping together for warmth.
“You know what happened to the last people to live in this apartment?” I said. “It was a night just like this, and one of them had an interview for an English school in the morning. They figured the warmest place in the apartment was the refrigerator, and they found them there the next day, huddled up together, suffocated.” C laughed. “Don’t you know any love stories?” I asked.
“A love story. Well. I know one. But it isn’t my love story. Does it matter?”
“No,” I said. “Anyone’s love story will do.”
“So. I was living in a dormitory, and his name was Bruno. It was a German dormitory, so we had a bar in it. A room where they serve drinks and have music. And in the bar was a guy coming up to me. He looked friendly and he asked if I wanted to go upstairs and smoke a joint with him. So I was like, oh perfect, thanks. So we went upstairs, and he was Bruno. His room was a very hippie room, with Indian paintings and things on the wall, and a big bong he was using all the time. So I would always go there with my friends and we would all cook together, because Bruno was also vegetarian. So we became this group of friends who would always meet at his place and eat there.
“When my boyfriend moved in with me, though, it became more difficult to see Bruno. Because whenever he started to tell me how much he loved me, I always talked about my boyfriend, but then Bruno was always talking about how he was abused as a child. And I felt like I wanted to take him in my arms and all this, but it was impossible because he used every affection as some success that I might drop my boyfriend.
“So one night in the bar, Bruno saw that my boyfriend left to go out in the city and that I was too tired and would stay home. So I went to bed and half an hour later Bruno knocked, so I was like, ‘Hello, you just woke me up, I was already in my pajamas,’ and he said, ‘Oh, I wanted to invite you to drink tea at my place.’ And I was like, ‘Well, this is nice, but I was already asleep, thank you, so good night, take care.’ So in the morning my boyfriend was home and I said, ‘Guess what. In the middle of the night, Bruno asked me to drink tea.’ And my boyfriend said, ‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t keep in touch with that guy.’ And just then, there was knocking on the door, and it was Bruno. So I opened up the door and I was like, ‘What did you want yesterday, come in and explain yourself.’ So we sat down in my kitchen, and I said, ‘What did you want yesterday, tell me, what was it?’ And he was like, ‘What I always wanted, to have sex with you.’ I was like, ‘You want to have sex with me? Even if I had no boyfriend sitting right here, there would be thousands of people I would prefer to have sex with but you.’ So there was knocking on the door again, only this time it was the police, and they asked, ‘Is Mr. Schultz there?’ And I said, ‘No, what?’ Because, at the beginning, Mr. Schultz, I didn’t make the connection with Bruno. I knew that he was called Bruno Schultz, but I thought maybe it was something about pot, and I didn’t want to get him in trouble. But they said, ‘Madam, please know that if you are hiding somebody, you might get into trouble.’ So I said, ‘Well, ok. He’s sitting in my kitchen.’ So they took him away.
“Well, downstairs there were firemen and burned stuff all over the place. And his roommate said, ‘Well you know what? I was waking up this morning and thought it was smelling burning, so I said, well Bruno once again left the oven on, so I went to the kitchen to yell at him because it was smelling bad. But the whole room was on fire and he was in front of the window, and he wanted to jump. He was going, ‘My room is on fire, my room is on fire, my room is on fire,’ and moving his hands like dancing to techno, but really slow. Then he jumped out the window.’ It was the fourth floor, plus a bit more because of the construction of the house. You could be handicapped if you jump. Or maybe dead, I don’t know. Anyway, jumping is a bad idea. But apparently Bruno wasn’t ready to die, because he attached himself to the window sill, and while the roommate called the firemen, he had come to my place.
“So Bruno called from the psychological hospital the next day, and I went to visit him. He had already tried to escape, so they had him attached with cords, and gave him tranquilizers. And he just stared at my eyes until I couldn’t support it anymore and had to leave. After that, I got a special invitation to talk to the police, and it is weird to explain to the police how somebody was in love with you.”
“Tell me a story,” I said to C later in the week.
“Oh, I know,” C said. “I wanted to tell you about absinthe. I was reading about it today. Do you know what it is?”
“It’s this dangerous liquor Oscar Wilde used to drink until it got practically illegal, but some places still have it. I think it’s more of a nostalgic drink now, though I wouldn’t want to drink anything if I had to be nostalgic. Oh, but that’s not a story. And you want a story.”
“Tell me about your first impressions of Americans.”
“Oh, that’s easy. They gave us a class about Americans before I went to Cleveland. To tell us the things Americans wouldn’t like about us that we could change before we went. Never let them smell you, and get makeup and shave yourself almost everywhere except your arms. We thought maybe they were exaggerating, and we weren’t going to do it until we got to America and saw for ourselves. But then one day some Americans came to the island, so we decided to see if it was true. They were all staying in a hotel, and the girls were just like our teacher said, shaved hairless with makeup. So we went home to shave ourselves and get some makeup, and then we went back that night. And so these Americans who got the scholarship from the US government spent the last night for Americans in Europe in the youth hostel drinking all the beer they could drink, and starting to fuck all over the place. So in the lobby you had people in the plants all like an orgy, and in the middle of all this, you had Mormons who it turns out were actually Christians, reading the Bible out loud, and not really fucking. That’s how I met Mike from Texas.”
“Mike from Texas?”
“Mike from Texas. Sometimes I still think he’s the true love of my life. He became a punk when he got to Hannover, and he was really nice and funny – especially funny.”
“Did you ever see him again?”
“Not after that night. I thought I might see him again when I went to America. I thought I might end up in Texas. But I was a vegetarian, so I ended up in Cleveland because the only vegetarian family they had was an Indian family in Cleveland. Anyway, they took me to Chicago once, and the whole time I was thinking maybe I’d see Mike. But mostly we just went to see a lot of other Indian families and ate a lot of Indian food and I didn’t even see a skyscraper.”
How C. Found her Head
“Ah,” said C. “I’ll tell you the story of how I found my head.”
“You see,” she began, “During the war, my grandmother was in the north, where there was not so much war, but refugees, so she worked in a hospital. One refugee was a sculptor, and he sculptured her head. She was only seventeen. Maybe they were in love, but that’s a story I don’t know.” As a child, C had found the head in her grandmother’s attic, and claimed it by coloring it with crayons. When her grandmother died, her grandfather put an announcement in the paper, requesting a housekeeper. C had been in the US, and when she came home for Christmas, she didn’t use the formal address to speak to the housekeeper. Later she heard her talking to her grandfather from the window, saying, “That girl must never come inside this house again.”
“That was when I went to Paris,” said C. “My mother finally said, well, if you’re going to Paris you’re not going to come that often anymore, and I would like to go somewhere else, and I said well, yeah of course. So we got all our stuff out of the house, and my mother left. She was taking care of the furniture. I was taking care of the cat. But I think the cat didn’t appreciate that there was no more furniture, and then I had a party with sixty people that lasted a few days. So after the party I cleaned up, and I was calling the cat and I was like, uh-oh. I wouldn’t have gone to my grandfather’s house, except I was looking for the cat, and there, lying in the high grass at the end of the garden, I found my head. What it was doing in the garden, I don’t know. So I was there with a mattress and my head waiting for the cat.
“Finally, the people who bought the house said, well, we’re going to break down some walls of the house, so you have to leave. And I was like, well, I’m not leaving until my cat comes back. So, another day passed, and then another day, so they said, well, you have to leave, but, as I was crying all the time, they said, ‘We will pay you a room in the most expensive hotel in the village, this way you can always come back and call your cat.’ So I was like, no, I’m not going to a hotel, I will not leave my cat here alone. So finally they said, well, you have to leave the house now because we can’t wait anymore, we already organized everything, you have to leave. So I waited until they already had the crane with – what do you call it, that metal ball?”
“A wrecking ball?”
“The wrecking ball. So this wrecking ball was coming up the street, and I said, well, if she’s not coming right now it’s over, because if she’s coming back to the house and sees all this, she will run away forever. So I was going downstairs with my suitcase, when she walked inside and said, meow. So, the cat and I went directly to the train station with my head. The cat was complaining the entire ten hours on the train, but it was the happiest day of my life. I decided never to let her outside again, but after three days it was impossible because she started to pee everywhere, because it’s a cat that lives outside. Isn’t that a moral?”
This was the last of the stories C told me, as, soon afterward, in a belated attempt to get over Claudio, she decided to go to Spain to take salsa lessons.
An AIDS Test
C was never one to keep up contacts. But a later that autumn I got a call from her. Could I come and visit her at her mother’s on a certain day, to spend the night?
It was a nasty night in Paris. Not that the weather was bad, though it was nothing to get excited about. At the end of the train platform everything was dark red and gray, the seats, the suitcases, the ties and skirts, in shades so somber that you didn’t want to smile at the guy on the platform beside you, though you know you’re going to be sharing a compartment for three hours. In the Luxembourg train, commuters blend into the seats, so you only notice their newspapers and the flash of their spotless eyeglasses. They order drinks from the beverage cart wordlessly, with nods, everyone reading under dim yellow lamps, the racks above stuffed with camel hair and cashmere.
“Thank god you’re here,” she said. She was waiting at the last station on the line, in a blue silk dress and Peruvian toboggan, hair in pigtails. She hefted my bag, took my arm, and we were out in the square. “I was hanging out here waiting for you hoping someone might have some hash, but this town is so stupid,” she said. We walked until we crossed a bridge. “It’s Roman,” she said. “At least the bottom part of it.” We stood a minute looking down at the water, then walked on, past an abandoned factory. The moon was coming up over her house and a walkway wove through the hill to a side door. Inside were a bookcase littered with watercolors and a couple of armchairs, where we sat eating something her mother had left out.
“I haven’t told my mother I’m getting the results of my AIDS test tomorrow,” she said. “She would freak. He told me afterward he’d had sex with forty different women, and I happen to know he dislikes condoms.”
We walked up the mountain in the morning and had a look at the town from above, then went to the hospital for her results. She went right in without looking back. I waited outside. After twenty minutes a woman came out on a balcony and lit a cigarette, looked over the courtyard, saw me, and put her hands on the balustrade. After forty-five minutes, I stared at the stair railing, feeling each minute, my eyes clicking to the side every time I glimpsed movement inside the office, but it was always a nurse or the receptionist. Finally a figure appeared in the doorway, and the corner of my eye detected not just another presence, but hers. There were tears in her eyes, and she was smiling a broad smile. We walked through the market past the Porta Nigra. We were headed toward a restaurant to celebrate with mussels and wine. “Now I can be superficial again,” she said.
“Because now I don’t have to try to enjoy every minute anymore.”
“You’ll have a long life. Just like I told you.”
“Well, there aren’t any guarantees,” she said. “Actually I’m in a high risk group for lung cancer. Two of my aunts got it.” But as we sat in the glimmering restaurant with its glasses and chandeliers overlooking the train station, I could see she had already failed in her latest goal, because she was clearly still enjoying every minute.