Sunday, August 23, 2009

Arrondissement 4: Notre Dame



His foot stepped over Point Zero, the origin of all measured distance in France.

He walked.

He walked past the chattering pigeons and tourists. He walked with his back straight and his head tilted down, as if the layers of the isle’s history were an archaeological field to tunnel through.

He walked through the entrance of Notre Dame, ignoring the saints and virgins, until he found the stairway leading to the southern bell tower.

He climbed.

He stepped over a rope line.

He climbed higher.

He stopped when he mounted the last set of stairs. When he saw what he came for. The lonely bass bell, sequestered from its four siblings in the north tower.

A man with a blue cape stood beside it.

***

I took in the disheveled American and reached for my phone. Security was third on speed dial. And I had a lunch date to keep.

“Monsieur,” I said. “You are not permitted.”

I took in his eyes. Leaden, like a soldier’s. Bearing the shadows of battles yet to be waged.

The phone stayed in my pocket.

“Are you the one?” he said. “The keeper of the bells?”

I paused.

“Yes, I am Monsieur Fontaine, the chief sacristan.”

The man put his hand on the bell. For support, it seemed. Emmanuel did not budge. His clapper alone weighed 1,000 pounds. Gone were the days of striking hammers and the romantic piffle of Quasimodo’s rope swinging. Everything ran to a computer’s atomic precision.

With my finger on the button.

“I need for you to ring this bell,” he said.

I laughed.

“Monsieur, the bourdon is rarely rung by itself, except to mark the deaths of great and distinguished men, like a pope or archbishop. I am afraid you ask the impossible.” I cleared my throat. “And now you really must—”

“I know why it’s rung,” he said, more quietly.  “As you say: to mark the deaths of great people.”

I caught his distinction and nearly reached for my phone again. This American seemed intent on lecturing me on his tour-book interpretation of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.

Well. If equality were his aim, Death would sound constantly throughout the city. Even the tourist parts. And I would never get to lunch.

But instead of a speech, the man looked down at his feet.

My eyes followed suit.

He did not wear shoes. Or if he did, they were forgotten beneath a pair of yellow hospital booties speckled red. The afternoon sun bathed their trauma in a soft, opal light.

I slowly raised my eyes to his.

“Monsieur,” I murmured, taking a step forward. “I am very—”

He waved me off.

“This . . . she . . . I didn’t know where to . . . ”

True.

“I need to feel." He inhaled sharply. “That someone. Is listening. That someone. Acknowledges it.” He tried to smile at me, but his face would not suffer it.

“You know?”

I closed my eyes.

I was not a man who looked outside my own reality. Or cared to, in truth. But sometimes, when working the towers, it felt like the cathedral breathed. Like she sighed over the wingspan of her centuries, for all that she had been forced to see. During these moments, the bells’ clanging could remind me of a bloodletting. Or an exorcism.

If one believed in such things.

I opened my eyes.

***

He walked down the stairs. Over the rope line.

Down again.

He walked from the cathedral, past the tourists and pigeons, snapping up their photos and breadcrumbs.

He walked because he was afraid to stop. Afraid he might never stop. The river was there. The bridge above it. They pulled on him with the oblivion of mercy.

A solitary note clanged.

Low. Solemn.

Again.

And again.

He stopped walking.

Everyone—tourists, Frenchmen, the stone martyrs—offered him a drink from their silence. All listening, instead of talking. Feeling, instead of looking. Connected, for a brief reverberation, by the atomic weight of thirteen metric tons, swinging.

His feet halted on Point Zero. The origin of all measured distance.

His back hunched.

He grieved.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Arrondissement 6: The Latin Quarter


God. The way he fanned himself with that tour book. The summer sun had spent itself, and the temperature had dropped to seventy-some degrees. Not ninety.

But then, he’d gained a few pounds over the last forty years.

“Can you pass the sugar?” he said.

“What was that?”

The jazz pianist kicked it up in the bar. The music spooled into their candlelit terrace like a memory of silver. The restaurant’s eponymous lilacs were no longer in season, but the shrubs were pleasant enough.

“The sugar. Oh, never mind,” he said, and reached across their table for the packet.

“Sorry. It’s the music. And all the conversation.”

“Yes,” he said. “I’d prefer it quiet.”

Yes. That much was obvious.

He poured the sugar into his coffee. Under the table, she pressed the fork's tines into the tip of her finger.

I’m in La Closeries des Lilas, she reminded herself. The very same café where Hemingway drained his early works like a stopcock left open. (And hadn’t Papa’s image graced their menus, looking vaguely amused by all his new dignity?) The heart of the Latin Quarter, where artists, writers, and vagabonds swapped ideas and stories, in lieu of money.

But these furnishings—the mahogany tables with brass plates bearing the expensive names of famously dead patrons—reminded her of a leather-bound book. The self-consciously old kind, with gold-leaf lettering. Written in a dead language she could no longer fathom.

“How was your duck?” she asked.

He shrugged and scanned the room.

“We’ve had better back home. This place gets by on its nostalgia factor. But the Lilas of ’68 was very different.”

“Yes, it was,” she said, because she could think of nothing else. She looked past the red roses whose edges were browning, and directly into the candle’s flame, until she could bear its burn no more.

She closed her eyes.

There was revolution on the streets, and in their hearts.

It was '68, and the students at the Sorbonne were revolting against the establishment. Revolting against the double-jointed billy club of conservatism and a stale morality. Revolting just because they were young and alive and wanted to add the swell of their voices to the ferment.

And because they chose Paris for their honeymoon, she and Jake were like driftwood catching fire over a waterfall become kerosene. They couldn't ignore the burn, and soon, they didn’t want to. With their new comrades, they shouted protests in French, and seized on signs whose messages held more power for their mystery.

Une jeunesse que l’avenir inquiete trop souvent

All these words. Like marbles spilling from new mouths. And Paris listened. Throats turned raw, and people got bloodied. But they kept pushing. They couldn’t shout loud enough.

Later, back in the hotel, they couldn’t fuck hard enough. They drained every drop from the cup, and went back for more. Always more. Always, always—


She took a sip of her wine, and set the glass down.

He chuckled softly across the candlelight.

“What?” she asked.

“I was just thinking. Of that night in ’68.”

He reached across the table and brushed the inside of her wrist with his fingers. Her blood sweetened to the touch.

“Me too,” she said, and squeezed his hand.

His lips curved up on either side. She understood that smile to be the scale of their marriage—weighing one part love, against one part regret. The balance dipped back and forth.

He patted her hand and returned to his dessert.

But rubbing her thumb over the nameplate on their table, she could finally hear words from the ghost she’d hunted.

The sun also rises.

She raised her wrist to her mouth. Tasting the grains of sugar.


---

The words from the 1968 protest read,
A Youth Disturbed Too Often By the Future:



Saturday, August 15, 2009

Arrondissement 18: Montmartre



Every night, he walked through her wall. And left by the door, before morning dawned.

“Will you stay this time?” she asked.

He touched her face in response.

“What do you do by day?” she said into his palm. “Who do you hold?”

He loosened her hair from its bindings.

“I only live for the night,” she said, as his mouth took the pulse of her neck. “When the gypsy starts his song, that is when I come a—”

He found her lips, and stopped the words. But couldn’t still the thoughts behind them.

The next afternoon, she slipped through the streets of Montmartre to track him. He must have a name, and friends. She imagined him working an ordinary job, doing ordinary things. He saved the extraordinary for her. But it wasn’t enough. She wanted the sun, and the moon. Her days felt too dark.

She couldn’t find him. Nobody knew a thing. He was a ghost without a scent, the cross-hatched alleyways a map without a destination.

That night, he eased through her wall again. After the gypsy started plucking that shimmery guitar.

“How do you do it?” she demanded. “I need to know.”

He looked at her, and smiled. With the trust of a child for his mother.

“You already know, my love,” he said, and took her once again.

Outside, a bottle shattered on the streets, as men stumbled from the adjacent bar to work out the violence in their hearts and loins. The gypsy’s guitar fell silent. A woman screamed. Coarse laughter haunted her echo, and danced with it under the moon's shadow.

The new lights of Paris never touched the dark hill of Montmartre.

He moved inside of her, but she only felt the emptiness to come. She knew then that she could no longer hold him far, or near.

The walls of her mind closed in.

The next evening, she waited outside for his arrival. The gypsy squatted next to the bar’s entrance. She edged closer to him.

“Will you play for me tonight?” she said.

He did not look at her, but he chimed a single chord.

She bent down, and slid the gold pieces from her pocket. “These can all be yours, if you stop your song on my command."

She leaned in, until she smelled the gangrene on his breath. "And if you never return to Montmartre again.”

The gypsy closed his eyes, his fingers sliding into a minor lament. But he took her gold.

Her lover came after midnight. From behind a tree, she watched him greet the gypsy as his leg melted into her stone.

She stepped from the shadows and slashed her finger across her throat.

And the music stopped in Montmartre.

Back in her room, she examined the thick wall. It bulged slightly in two places, roughly her shoulders' height. As if he were reaching to find the darkness's end. The pink flesh of one hand burned through the cold, hard masonry.

She pressed her cheek into its palm. Her lashes crossed his lifeline.

“Darling,” she said, closing her eyes.

“My darling.”


---

Note: the city of Paris is divided into
twenty arrondissements, or neighborhoods.
I will write a vignette for 7 of them.
Any requests?

Also, the above sculpture in Montmartre
honors the writer Marcel Áyme, and his story
about the man who could walk through walls.


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Paris: Ma Vie En Rose



The first group of vignettes I wrote for this blog—my Paris series—is still my favorite. Are they the best I’ve written? I really couldn’t say, as I have no objective metric when it comes to my writing (or anything else). No, I think part of the reason that they remain so powerful for me is that they were my first. And like a first kiss, the newness of the experience left me weak in the knees.

But it’s more than that. I think it’s also Paris.

The City of Lights has been on my mind again. Soon, I’ll be working on the final revisions for Plum Blossoms in Paris, my novel that’s due out next August. And I’ve been questioning why this city still maintains a hold on me. I’ve been there twice, and while I enjoyed my time immensely, that experience of Paris—with me scared of the food (eggs on PIZZA?; now THAT’S a reason to start a revolution), embarrassed by my pathetic attempts at French, and even a bit underwhelmed, at times, by the sites (Mona Lisa, I’m talking to you)—is not, for the most part, what's reflected in my writing.

No, what shows up in my Paris writing is romance. It’s not always blissful. But even the pain I portray feels Romantic, in that splayed-nerve, nineteenth century sense. It is a Paris of extremes, then, that captures my imagination. Yet this vision is likely naïve and derivative to Parisians themselves, who simply see the city as home, with all the boredom and grind that also denotes.

But Paris is a muse for me. And do we question our muses, or simply follow their inspiration? Does it matter if my interpretation just scratches that gilded surface, and feeds a hungry fantasy machine? (It does for some. When my book was being shopped around, a couple editors who rejected it talked about this “clichéd idea of Paris,” which horrified me; perhaps because truth has the saltiest sting) Or maybe the many tributes to this city—in books, in art, in film, in song—have grafted the dream into reality for many of us lucky enough to walk her cobblestone streets. I did sense it while I was there. In flashes. Like heat lightning, or the whiff of ozone after it rains. Which, because a muse’s appeal also draws from her elusiveness, was all I needed to remain infatuated.

All of this meandering does have a point. I’m going to return to Paris (in spirit, anyway) over the next couple weeks and write some more vignettes. I haven’t the dimmest idea what the city will evoke this time around. I’d like to dig deeper, but my reach is somewhat limited by the Atlantic. Anyway, we’ll see what the Seine has to murmur during this visit. In a very self-indulgent sense, Paris is my metric. To see how I’ve evolved. Or not.

As Edith Piaf also sang, Je Ne Regrette Rien.

No regrets.

Let’s go.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Swoon



The escalator flaps
its grey-day tongue
throughout
the student union,
until its metronome
breaks
under the afternoon
prayer call
of a part-time piano man
reviving his god

And I know, as his
black and white downpour
rainbows my everyday,
that sometimes
to be reborn
is not
the leap of faith,
but a
falling back
into arms
that were
(like stairs)
ever always
bent

Thursday, August 6, 2009

33


Nobody puts Leo in a corner.
--Dirty Dancing, the director's cut


Okay, so instead of posting another angst-ridden existential crisis piece about why I'm here and what it all means, I thought I'd post something simple on gratitude. Because it's my birthday, damn it, and I'm grateful for these 33 years.

The circumstances we're born into are uncontrollable and set our fates to a large degree. This is both unjust and true. I'm on the lucky side of that coin toss. This says nothing about me as a person. If I had been born in another place, to different parents, or without the love and support of family and friends, my life would be less than it is today.

Or if I had been born in a different time.

So to further this little exercise in gratitude, here's how Time Travel Me would have celebrated my birthday all those years ago:

Me born 1,033 years ago: Dead. I died 1032 years ago from a terrible plague that wiped out half my village. Crap. On the plus side, life would have been miserable, anyway.

Me born 533 years ago: Dead, also. I died 515 years ago, in childbirth.

Me born 133 years ago: I’m alive (woo-hoo!). On the downside, I didn’t finish a high school education, much less college, and toil all day in the house (if you know me, I’m not one for toiling, in general). And since there is no birth control, I’m on my seventh kid. Only one has died, so I count my blessings. I’ve never written a thing. There are some joys, of course, but I find my greatest solace in church. Because there’s got to be something better than this, right?

I spend this birthday taking care of the six kids, and feigning a headache with my husband at night, so that there won't be a seventh.

Me born 64 years ago, in Hiroshima: Very, very unlucky. And on a side note, I've always felt slightly disturbed about my birth day for this reason.

Me born 33 years ago in beautiful Burbank, California: Thank you, thank you, thank you. I'm going to eat some delicious Mexican food and, with my kids and family, enjoy my mom's birthday cake later on. Because my mom still bakes me birthday cakes.

I've probably mentioned this somewhere before, but I've always been intrigued by Nietzche's idea of eternal recurrence. Basically, it's the notion that you'd be willing to live your life, with all its pain and sorrows, over and over again in exactly the same manner. No, not just willing. You'd embrace it!

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.'

--Friedrich Nietzche, The Gay Science

I feel like embracing that kind of divinity today. And all of you, too.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Communion



Summer is uncertain, my heart,
offering only wet palms
beneath her pale, hunched shoulders,
and an echo of rustling hair
I tease from the pulse of cicadas—

Please
Please

Do they know what they ask?
Or is it the blindness of being
that makes us hunt tea leaves
from a fathomless cup of forest night
that no one wants to see bottomed

Please

And so poetry is our plea,
our stab at a center with no circle,
the tunnel into Fibonacci blossoms
like endless Russian nesting dolls,
a perfectly flawed translation of
things called cicadas
and a place called summer
and the holy human trinity of
earth,
stars,
inconstant
dulcet
moon

We will always be the question,
and its many fleeting answers,
and that is all right with me
if just because it has to be

But please,
please,
let me seek,
and not beg