Tuesday, January 05, 2010

My goodness, it's been four years

And I've taken a few steps forward and many steps back. I fool myself that I'm the victim of a ruthless economy, but somewhere in the depths of me I know that my present situation is the direct result of my lack of commitment, lack of focus, lack of ambition. I just want to exist, to drift through life, floating on my back over the coolness of a summer lake. I want to think and read. I want to hide in the corner, in my father's large leather chair in the library no one used but me. I want to look outside the picture window upon trees in the snow. I want to be a child again.
I am looking at my adult responsibilities and, although I'm meeting them for the moment, failure is 15 steps forward, over a cliff. Sigh. I don't want to be what I am but I don't know what I want to be. I'd rather tell you a story. So that's what I'll do.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Rue Charlemagne

That summer I bounced through a variety of unsavory housing options before finally crashing at Brigitte's. The room I'd had as a junior in college had not changed despite having sheltered a half dozen students since I'd last slept there. Brigitte ran the Creche on the first floor and the apartment was part of her compensation. My room was tall and narrow, with large picture windows that looked on the alley below. This being the old part of Paris, groups of avid walkers on architectual tours meandered under my window daily, admiring the narrow twists and ancient, asymmetrical buildings that Haussman in his infinite wisdom hadn't touched. I wrote my thesis to the background music of lectures on Louis XV arches and pre-revolutionary waste management systems.

A typical Euro-anachronism of a cybercafe awaited my daily visit half a block from Brigitte's apartment. As the place was generally filled to bursting with acne-cursed high school boys playing computer games, I would have to wait patiently for a computer, and so I would, sipping soda or reading some Salman Rushdie novel (I was obsessed that summer). My time would come and I'd pony up my $6 for a half hour at a lumbering computer. Outside, a wall constructed by Philip XI remained, half crumbled, to shore up one side of an urban soccer field. Lycee Charlemagne faced us, its neo-classical overhang sheltering greasy, skinny Parisian high school students sucking down their cigarettes before/after class. Sitting at those computers, looking at the wall and the school, I'd feel the collapse of time that I'd felt hundreds of times while living in Europe. It's something we don't feel in America, sometimes for better and often for worse. Here's what I mean:

The United States in its present manifestation (the only collective memory we allow ourselves to ruminate on, the prior events too skeleton-in-closet-like) is 229 years old. That's not so old. 12 or 13 generations. Our history is packed with checkered stories, but in span of time it's a blink of an eye. Thus, the 80 years allotted to any one of us seems enormous, and is. In my 80 year lifespan I will see my country morph and change, and we'll have progressed quite far along its arc of history. That's exciting, but also dangerous because it's hard to learn history lessons when we don't have much history to begin with. Children playing football in the shadow of the Roman Forum, however, have a more proper understanding of themselves in time. A better sense of the lessons of Ecclesiastes, if not of history. Their 80 years will not change much. Italy will be Italy. The America I die in could be, and will be, a far different place from the America I was born in, however.

But I digress. On a hot September afternoon, I left my doings in Brigitte's apartment and went to the cybercafe. My inbox contained an email from Nico, but that was not unusual- he often typed me missives aiming to berate me, or humiliate me, or beg me to come back, or any three or four of a number of other negative emotions he felt like sharing. In this email, however, Nico's warped appendage where a hand should have grown broke through the monitor and sacked me.

"I should tell you," he wrote. "I went in for an AIDS test a few weeks ago. It came back positive. We have AIDS. This must be your fault. What were you doing in Senegal?"

There was more to this email but I remember only those crucial sentences. I believe I grew very dizzy. I left the computer on, email open, and ran to the nearest telephone booth. I dialled Nico's work number and left a series of increasingly frantic messages. Where was he? Why hadn't he called? Why would he give me this information in a casual manner in a casual email?

I remember standing in the phone booth, phone card in hand. I had just begun over the previous few weeks to look forward to things. I was heading back to America. I was going to live in New York. I was going to apply to law school. Suddenly everything wavered like water. I was HIV-positive. I had to be. My life would be shortened, and painful. The seconds dragged their feet. I tried Nico again, and again, until my phonecard ran out. I felt old.

Part 2- The End of the Affair

This email message still survives in my hotmail sent box. Nevertheless I thought I'd post it here- I'd hate to lose it.

Voila. Tu dis ce que tu en penses, c'est tres bien. de toute facon, j'en ai assez de me justifier devant toi. Si c'est ce que tu en penses, tant mieux pour toi. Tu dis la meme chose depuis le debut de l'ete. j'essaie toujours de me justifier, sans succes. Si ca t'aide de penser que j'etais insincere, lache, etc, pense-le. A mon avis, je ne l'etais pas. J'etais toujours honnete et sincere avec toi. Mes buts, ce que je voulais de ma vie, ont change. Ca arrive. Ce qui serait insincere ou lache, serait d'etre restee avec toi, par tendresse, et par l'amour, oui, l'amour, parce que cheri je t'aimais beaucoup, malgre tout ce que tu te dis, et de ne pas poursuivre ce que je veux de ma vie. Pendant une annee ou deux ca aurait marche, mais apres? en tout cas, je ne vais pas te changer d'avis. Tu vas toujours raconter a tes futurs amis l'histoire de l'americaine chou chou de ses parents qui ne pouvait pas agir pour elle meme. Et bien, la vie est ainsi. Mais si ca t'interesse, c'etait la premiere fois ou j'ai agi pour moi meme- ni pour toi, ni pour les parents. Oui, c'etait egoiste. Et oui, je ne savais pas ce que je voulais. mais je savais, pour la premiere fois assez clairement, que je devais etre seule pour confronter mes futurs obstacles, pour prendre mes propres decisions.
Et peut etre, oui, j'etais actrice, au moins pendant les dernieres mois. Devant toi, devant mes parents, devant nos amis, j'ai joue la fille heureuse, pour ne pas te faire mal. La, j'avais tort, mais je suis humaine.
Oui, j'etais a Amsterdam. J'avais quinze jours avant mon soutenance, et donc mes parents m'ont distrait un peu. Si tu ne l'aimes pas, tant pis. En tout cas, j'ai eu 16 sur mon memoire. Donc je pense que j'ai assez bien prepare, non? Benoit aurait pu me dire bonjour. Ou est-ce qu'il me deteste aussi?
Cette ete m'a laisse moitie detruit. Ton coup d'email du debut du mois n'a pas aide. Le fait que tu as approche un sujet aussi serieux et delicat que l'HIV dans le cadre de mes "aventures" au Senegal, n'est pas exactement gentil. heureusement, je ne l'ai pas regarde avant la fin du mois. Sarah m'a dit que tu la grille sur le sujet de mon comportement au Senegal aussi. Qu'est-ce que c'est que ca? Tu penses me connaitre? Tu penses que, dans l'etat d'esprit dans lequel j'etais, je ferais l'amour avec quelqu'un? Et sans protection?
Avec chaque email que tu m'envoies, j'ai de plus en plus l'impression que tu ne me connais pas aussi bien que j'avais pense. L'amour que j'avais pour toi, que j'ai pour toi, tu le mets dans le cadre de mes petits aventures de la fac. Eh bien, si c'est ce que tu en penses, tu ne m'as jamais connu. J'ai aime quelqu'un qui reduit ma personnalite a un ensemble de cliches. Qui ne peut pas se mettre juste un petit peu a ma place pour comprendre mes raisons. Qui doute de ma sincerite tout au long de notre relation. Merci beaucoup.
Tu voies bien que le ton de cet email change des precedants de cette ete. J'en ai marre de me justifier. Au debut, je voulais a tout prix t'aider, te faire souffir le moins possible, meme si ca voulait dire que moi je souffre beaucoup plus en consequence. Je ne veux pas dire que j'etais une sainte. Loin de la. J'ai commis plein d'erreurs pendant notre couple et aussi cette ete. Mais je sais que mes sentiments pour toi ont ete sinceres. Et je sais aussi que mes raisons pour t'avoir quitte ont ete comprehensibles. Si tu ne les comprends pas mainenant, j'ose esperer que tu les comprendras un jour.
Ecoute, Nico. Je me dis que tu me meprises, que tu m'insultes, que tu fais tout dans ton pouvoir pour me detuire, parce que ca t'aide. Sinon tu n'est pas l'homme gentil et adorable que j'avais l'honneur de connaitre. Mais je pense que tu l'es, malgre tout.
Neanmoins, cela va etre le dernier contacte que j'ai avec toi pendant un certain temps. Hier je t'ai dit de m'ecrire- je ne voulais pas dire: "ecris moi pour me mepriser."
Tu me manques beaucoup. Couper contact avec toi, ce n'est pas facile. Mais si tu te penses permis, parce que c'etait moi qui t'ai quitte, d'ecrire des paragraphes pour m'insulter afin d'aider ton amour-propre, et que je continuerai a essayer de me justifier sans y parvenir, tu as tort.
Oui, tu m'as enervee. Beaucoup. Si c'etait le but, tu as reussi.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Part 1

Before September 11, 2001, walking from customs into the main terminal of a foreign airport was a novel experience. So it was with Charles de Gaulle. I pushed my luggage cart through the frosted automatic doors, away from my sleepy fellow-travelers, and into the sunlight, blinked at the expectant faces, made my way through them. I was back.

Why was I back? I was exhausted, too thin, still sick. My hair was too short. Adrienne had hacked it off one early afternoon in Dakar, dry curls falling evenly around my chair. "This is the desert. It's too dry for this hair." The woman I lodged with was gone for the day. Her white, unkempt dog snuffled my newly-shorn hair and nosed us gently for attention. We ignored him.

I was back in Paris not three weeks later. My father had come to my room in Cleveland the night before (or was it two nights?) and found me sleepless, crying. "You don't have to go back, you know. You can stay with us. You can write your paper here, send it in. Don't go back." But I had to. I had come home to calm down, but my parents' faces were sharp with worry. I was more anxious at home than I had been in Africa. I had to go back- not to Senegal, but to France. I was 24, I wasn't a child, I had to clean up the mess I'd made of things.

The only time I've ever felt truly depressed, truly hopeless: I was lying on my bed in my rented room in Dakar, staring at a wicker wall hanging for what must have been hours. I think it was early afternoon and I was probably supposed to be somewhere else. A panic attack had driven me back to the apartment. It was spectacularly hot outside but the tile floor and shade trees kept the room cool. I stared at the design on the wall until it began to blur and twirl. It was very clear to me that the life I'd lived, all of it, had been without any sort of aim or point. I pored over it- each detail. I examined it sort of dispassionately. It's hard to explain now. What I felt wasn't pain, but it's like the memory of pain- I remember feeling it- I can force the outline of the pain but not the pain itself.

I knew as I lay there that I was very far from anything safe. I was continents away from anyone who cared for me. I lay on that bed and knew that if I tried to leave the room, leave the apartment, unnameable panic would chase me back in again.

But now I'd returned to Paris. It was June and I had until mid-September to write and defend my master's thesis. A monumental task but I didn't mind it. My noticeable lack of funds was a little vexing, too, but I'd lived 2 years in France at that point on almost nothing. Nico and I made thrift the mainstay of our relationship. Every week we'd stock the freezer with whatever meat was on sale at Carrefour: chicken, pork, veal, beef, horse (yes, I ate horse. It's not terrible). I'd make it through, I'd write the damn thing, I'd find some little maid's room to rent for the summer. But I had to go back to Nantes, too, and as I squinted in the morning light from the airport's large windows I knew that Nantes was why my father was worried, Nantes was why I'd run home to Cleveland. Nantes was why I was still rail-thin, months after two cycles of antibiotics had killed a stubborn dysentery. Nico was in Nantes. That was my mess.