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.