Archives: April 2014

Mounir

I was taking my clean laundry back to my room when it occurred to me to knock on Mounir’s door. I had met Mounir shortly before October break, in the main hallway of the building. He’d introduced himself when he noticed my American accent. He had told me that, years ago, he’d befriended an American studying abroad, and had through this friendship learned some of what it meant to be an American living in France. He himself had emigrated with his family to Poitiers from Tunisia when he was still in elementary school, and later had moved to Paris to earn a degree in finance. Now, for reasons unknown to me, he was temporarily living in Niort while he taught math at one of the professional high schools. On the weekends he often left to stay with friends, in the countryside south of Niort, in Parthenay; or he went up to Poitiers where, he said, there was an actual nightlife, at least compared to Niort. He had given me his room number, and said to feel free to stop by.

He was at his desk, sipping a glass of white wine and grading tests. Ah, Dan! he said. I asked him if he wanted to get dinner after I folded my laundry. He asked me to excuse the mess in his room, though it actually appeared neat and tidy—the home of an ascetic, if anything. We agreed to meet in the main hall in fifteen minutes.

Back in my room, I began folding my laundry but stopped after I realized it would take me too long to finish. I wondered why I had asked Mounir to dinner, when I saw that it was already nearly nine in the evening. But not only was it too late to change my mind, but I didn’t want to eat spaghetti, which was all I had. Nonetheless, I deliberated for what seemed like an inordinately long amount of time over whether I really wanted to be up late, when I had a whole day of teaching the next day in St. Maixent, and had to be up before seven to catch the train. Increasingly, I was aware that making simple decisions had become a source of undue anxiety; perhaps because, with few exceptions, I had so little to do, and without the weight of necessity, I floundered, as if the most trivial of things were actually critical and required great consideration. And they did, because I had to consider something.

Mounir was already in the lobby when I arrived, and I apologized for being late. Did you fold your laundry? he said. No, I told him. We decided to go to le Donjon, a restaurant named after the eleventh century dungeon which stood across from it. It had a sleek, modern interior with uniformed servers and (I made special note of this) a decidedly state-of-the-art bathroom. Although I had not been to many restaurants in France, in Niort or elsewhere, I somehow knew that it was all in poor taste. It was as if it were trying, too hard and unsuccessfully, to belong to another, more cosmopolitan city. It was in this atmosphere that we dined.

Mounir expounded on his ideas about life. He followed his instincts, he told me, and sought pleasure in what he knew was – relative to me – an uncomplicated way. He wanted to be drunk, he said, drunk on life. He was not, however, a mere pleasure-seeking, nihilist hedonist, he said. And nor did it seem that way. His speech was studied and measured, (although it occurred to me that he might have been speaking that way just to assure I followed him). That he had these ideas, about himself and his life, and that he was ready to elaborate them, was curious (though not un-admirable) to me. I had my own thoughts about my life, and what I wanted out of it, but they were not consistent enough to be worth formulating in a coherent way (for they were, deep down, incoherent).  Furthermore, I doubted my ability to reach sound conclusions about myself. I told him that I wanted to be drunk, too, and that I used to take a lot of drugs. Of course! He said. Because you need them to be drunk on life. But you must let go!

Let go of what? I said.

That’s for you to figure out, he said. But whatever it is, I can see that you’re holding on to it.

You’re right, I said. I didn’t know what it was I had to let go. Nor did I know what made it so apparently transparent for Mounir, who had only talked to me on one other occasion. The food had come and while I chewed I thought about what I thought about my life, and why I was the way I was. I said to Mounir, I was drunk a lot – as you take it to mean, figuratively, but also literally, before I came here, and perhaps now I’ve calmed down. I do not know if this got across in my French. But it’s what I meant to say.

Bah! Mounir said. I don’t believe it. You’re still young!

And nor did I, really. We paid our bill and walked to another bar, at Mounir’s insistence. The décor in this place was nearly identical to the restaurant, except the lighting was dim and there was club music playing. Eurotrash. We went to the roof and sat at a table next to a group of rowdy people. I regretted not wearing a heavier coat. I was cold. In fact, I didn’t have a heavier coat that I could have brought. I didn’t understand most of what the people next to us were saying. They might as well have been speaking no language at all. They were laughing. I did catch a few curse words. I wanted to pick up on our conversation from dinner, and get to the bottom of it, and express what I truly meant. But I didn’t mean anything.

Without me understanding, Mounir made a remark to the group of people. He did this with great ease and confidence. I had been right when I’d wondered if he had another way of speaking than the one he adopted for me.

The center of attention of this group was a shortish man with a receding hairline and, most notably, a piece of string or necklace around his neck, and in the place where the locket would have been, there was a piece of saucisson instead, from which the man didn’t hesitate to take bites. He introduced himself as Manu, short for Emmanuel, and was with another man and two women. I’ve since forgotten the other man’s name, but the two women were both named Manon. Manu, he told us, was a social worker from Niort. He did not explain the saucisson, but he did take bites from it whenever he wanted to emphasize a point he was making. An American! he said, biting it again. I lit a cigarette. I didn’t know what to say to the guy. He started to speak English to me but it was unintelligible.

I always wanted to…hm…comment dire?…I need to speak French! This fucking language, English! he said, chewing on the saucisson.

It looks like you’ve got a bad addiction there, Mounir said. Manu took another violent bite. One of the Manons turned to me and asked what I did in Niort. I started to reply but Manu interrupted.

I want to know what is with this ‘pardon my French’ bull shit? he said. I asked him if French people cursed more than other nationalities.

Not at all…it’s insulting…He switched to his broken English. I say, ‘oh shit,’ or ‘fuck dat,’ and I have to say ‘pardon my French’? What the fuck is this? It’s fucking bull shit I say, motherfucker!

I said maybe French people do actually curse a lot. He looked at me blankly, as if I hadn’t even spoken. What the fuck is this? he said again.

I think what Dan means, Mounir interjected, is that maybe the French do curse a lot.

Fucking shit! Manu said once more, taking a bite of the saucisson.

The banter went on but I couldn’t follow most of it once it was no longer directed at me. They were lively and laughing. This was difficult for me to see, because I considered myself a funny guy, and yet I was just sitting there, like a stick in the mud.

The other Manonasked me what I did. I told her, but with no enthusiasm. The enthusiasm had been sucked out of me – by what, I didn’t know. It did not feel to me that I was where I was, although I did not know where I felt I was if not there. It is really not an easy matter, being somewhere. I lit another cigarette, for lack of anything better to do. It made me feel tired. I told Mounir I would head off because I had to be up early, and he said he could stay longer, but he didn’t mind leaving with me, either. Manon asked me what I had to be up for. This was the same Manon as before, or perhaps the other one, it doesn’t matter. I said I had to teach a full day in Saint Maixent, the next town over.

Oh! she said. My father works right near there. If you like, we have a spare room, you could stay there and he’ll give you a lift first thing in the morning.

Really?  I said. I entertained, briefly, this proposition, but it seemed to offer little advantage over staying in my own bed, especially seeing as I slept poorly in foreign atmospheres, as if my own bed wasn’t already foreign enough to me. I told her, finally, that I was better off sleeping at home, because besides, my things were there. She said she wouldn’t mind waiting for me to pick up a change of clothing; she would even take me to my place now, and then we would be on our way. I wanted to say that even then, I was liable to forget something important like a tooth brush or my pajamas (I couldn’t sleep without them). But I didn’t say that because it was too complicated to say. Instead I said: How will I get to work? My father will drop you off, she said, on his way to work, like I said.

I tried to imagine this whole scenario. A drive to Saint Maixent (I didn’t know how long the drive would be) with Manon. I didn’t know where I would be sleeping, on a couch or a futon, but I didn’t want to ask, because I would have seemed ungrateful. In either case I would feel strange as a house guest in someone’s house whom I had only met that evening. Most of all, the morning would be uncomfortable, when I would meet the father (or if I met him that night, that would be uncomfortable too), and then ride with him to school. I was sure he would find the situation peculiar too. I would have to talk to him, which was a difficulty in itself, and answer his questions about my stay in the area. Perhaps he would be put off by my presence and resent his daughter’s generosity. And furthermore, what was Manon, a girl in her mid-twenties, doing living with her father in a small town? The whole thing didn’t sit well with me, the more I thought about it, so I thanked her for the offer again but said that it would make more sense if I stayed at my apartment.

When Mounir and I were about to turn the corner, Manon called out. The other Manon. She ran up to us and handed Mounir a piece of paper. Call me some time, she said. Of the two Manons she was the more graceful. It was surely a gratifying moment for Mounir. He said he would call her.

When she’d rejoined her friends I told him that I was impressed. You’re very charming, I said. Très charmant. You’re a lucky guy!

What about you? He said.

I didn’t know what he meant.

Manon invited you to her home. You could have slept with her tonight, he said.

I was about to say that she had merely meant that I could sleep in one of her spare rooms, or the couch. Then I understood. What? I said.

Yeah, he said. The truth was apparent. The truth was that I was obtuse. That didn’t change that I thought her proposition strange, and I wasn’t even sure if I would have enjoyed myself. Surely I would have regretted it, at least in part, I thought. There was always regret. But at least it would have been something.

We walked back and I bemoaned my ineptitude to Mounir, to which he just said, ah, there will be other chances. I’m not so sure, I told him.

I was thoroughly dispirited and an overwhelming sense that I wasn’t myself, and that this was a strange, unfortunate dream, overcame me. I felt almost as strange as I would have inevitably felt if I had gone to Manon’s house. My recent memories of Nashville seemed to belong to someone else entirely. I was appalled.

I never saw Mounir again after that night, though not because I was actively avoiding him. I just never ran into him again, and his phone number had been deactivated the next time I called him. Once or twice I knocked on his door, but he was never home; later the building secretary told me he had moved, but to where she didn’t know.

Paris, France, late September, 2012

At the airport by the security check-point for international flights I saw families and lovers saying their goodbyes. I’d said mine to my parents a few hours earlier at the bus stop behind the Dunkin’ Donuts. What an indifferent setting for such a thing, I’d thought. My mother had cried and I’d felt neither moved nor unmoved, if such a thing is possible. The Newark airport wasn’t any less indifferent to these partings but at least it was bustling with life. I recalled standing at another security check-point there years before and seeing a young eastern European girl watching someone from her family leaving. Her eyes had welled up with tears. My eyes misted, a manly misting, at that thought.

On the plane I found myself next to a French-Canadian man headed to Paris on business. We chatted for a while but it was a small struggle for me to follow him, and several times I had to repeat myself, paying special attention to my mispronounced vowels. When the stewardess came around with beverages, I availed myself of the complimentary mini-bottle of wine. It didn’t taste very good to me, but wine never tasted very good to me. I used it to swallow a few Xanax, hoping these would allow me to sleep for the rest of the flight.

I woke up about an hour later. The rest of the time passed slowly, tediously. The wine gave me heartburn.
At Charles de Gaulle the RER train into Paris was delayed. I listened to music on my headphones and waited, yawning periodically, half awake, half alive. Finally the train came and since the platform was filled with other delayed travelers I wasn’t able to get a seat. I stood by the door and looked outside the window at the ugly Parisian suburbs passing by. Even though it was warm outside they struck me as cold and sterile and unforgiving, though perhaps I am just confounding that with the view from my window now.

I left the train at the Luxembourg Gardens stop. Much to my chagrin when I tried to pull the handle out of my rolling piece of luggage it wouldn’t budge, so I had to lower my right shoulder and twist my arm awkwardly behind me to drag it along. By the time I made it outside I was sweating, I could even smell my own body odor emanating from my pits. Strange, I thought, that I’d started out at a desolate bus station in eastern PA and now I was on Boulevard Saint Michel in the Latin Quarter. I must have made a clownish figure, heaving and sweating, six inches taller than everyone, wearing stupid-looking sneakers, for in those days my footwear taste was questionable. I pulled out a map I’d drawn with directions to Camille’s apartment.

Making my way east, I followed a narrow street that opened into the Panthéon. Every 50 yards or so I had to stop, stretch the arm and shoulder that had been pulling my luggage, hitch up my pants, and re-situate the duffel bag sitting on my suitcase. I had to do this in front of a group of stylish looking high-schoolers standing outside of their lycée smoking. I felt ungainly, but they paid me no mind.

Finally I made it to Camille’s building. She buzzed me in and I waited in the lobby, expecting her to greet me at the bottom and help me carry my luggage, but after a few minutes I realized she had no such intention. I hadn’t seen her for over a year, and something in the tone of her emails suggested that she wasn’t overjoyed to be putting me up for a night. I struggled up the stairs.

When she saw me we kissed each others’ cheeks, as the French do, but the gesture felt empty to me. I inquired about the bathroom. You can’t argue with the body. It felt like there was a huge stone lying in my stomach but when I tried to let go of this burden it stubbornly resisted. Constipation is one of the great metaphors for how we are constantly at odds with ourselves. One has to admire its symbolic transparency.

Since Camille was preoccupied with other matters, and wanted only to study, I decided to leave her place and spend the day visiting my favorite spots from years ago. I walked back to Boulevard Saint Michel and turned right to head towards the fountain. I stopped in a book store and bought a French dictionary, a notebook, and a copy of Madame Bovary, then headed farther north and passed a few of my favorite movie theaters. The French Connection was playing at the Filmothèque, where I’d seen Badlands with Katrin and Dan over three years ago; afterwards we had met up with Jackie for her birthday dinner, which somehow led to a small fight between me and Katrin.

In front of the fountain was a circle of touristy types watching a performance. I crossed the street and looked at Notre-Dame and down at the Seine. Where I was standing was part of the circuit I had regularly jogged; I saw myself running over the stone path next to the water, having intimate thoughts naturally, probably not unlike the intimate thoughts I was having now, only less refined and more juvenile. I felt old in that moment, old and tired, defeated. But I was on the brink of a new life. I decided to head south again.

Walking down rue Mouffetard, a small, old-world passageway with no cars and heavy foot traffic, I passed a Kebab place where I’d met Andy once for dinner. Later we’d gone to a concert together with Katrin. I hadn’t spoken to either of them in over three years, and it was strange to think of these people and feel absolutely nothing. Yet one can only have so many feelings, I suppose, and god knows I already had a lot.

I wanted to visit the François Mitterand library. Passing by an unsightly shopping center in the Place d’italie I looked to see if the same street performer was in front of the building, an old man who had danced to a portable radio playing generic, tiny-sounding electro beats. There were only a few beggars sitting against the wall with signs. Maybe it was his day off, or he’d died, or found a new spot.

My bowels still weighed on me. A coffee was in order so I bought a pack of cigarettes and sat on the terrace of a cafe in Chinatown, hoping this combination would provide the desired results. But it simply wasn’t going to happen, I couldn’t shit in a random restaurant bathroom, and it struck me as all the more unseemly to drop my fetid American load in a dainty French toilet.

I remained on the terrace for a while, nearly in a trance, contemplating.

After some time I got up and made my way to the library. It was comprised of four symmetrically placed glass towers, each holding an untold number of volumes, and in the center was a large sunken garden. Seagulls flew around. I walked to a small footbridge and smoked another cigarette, admiring the more contemporary buildings situated along the Seine. The area had all been constructed in the last few decades or so, and there was nothing classical about it. There, I felt I was in the anywhere Paris, not the somewhere Paris of books and films where I had been earlier. Only a few people were out strolling around. I asked a passerby the time, as my phone was dead, and had to re-pronounce my “r” several times for him to understand me. There was still time to kill before dinner.

Across the river was Bercy Park, another recently constructed area. I ambled around, admiring the fountains and trees, as well as the foliage and the flowers. This was inevitably a place of memories, and I thought of Katrin and walks we took there. I noticed the spot where I’d introduced her to Stacey, a girl from my neighborhood growing up who had happened to be in Paris at the same time. When she’d arrived Katrin and I were eating strawberries and Katrin offered her one. “That’s so cute, you’re eating strawberries,” Stacey had said, the irony in her voice thick. She was right to be ironic. We were young and insufferable.

Most of all I remembered this place as a place I’d visited by myself. There I was again, by myself.

I found a bench near a long, narrow fountain and watched a little girl and her father play with the ducks. Everything coming to mind, the images of a younger version of myself and figures from my past, I had not considered for years. These memories were so distant that it was a surprise they belonged to me at all, instead they seemed to be part of somebody else’s story. I felt resigned, resigned that I would simply never have the same feelings of a young guy abroad for the first time. My vision had been so short then, I could never have imagined all that would happen to me. But now, was my vision any less short?

A nostalgia descended on me. This was more like a cemetery than a park, a memorial ground for my memories, and I was a rootless, constipated phantom visiting his old haunts. Occasionally my thoughts take a lyrical turn. I caught myself beginning to doze. It was still summer but the air felt cold. No, it wasn’t summer, it was fall.

I walked on Boulevard Vincent Auriol back to the Place d’italie, where I would hop on the metro. This stretch had always struck me as peculiar street for Paris, as the buildings were neither contemporary nor quite classical, just nondescript in a city otherwise so descript, if that’s a word, and the truth is it isn’t. But this complimented my melancholy mood, and in fact there was something appealing about this image of myself. Strange, that vanity could operate even in these circumstances—it’s a sentiment that knows no bounds, apparently.

Back in Camille’s apartment I met her roommate, an Italian bomb studying in Paris. She spoke English rather well, and her French wasn’t bad either. I felt decidedly provincial around these international types. I tried to shit again, to no avail. Soon we left to meet Camille’s friend Audrey for dinner at Chez Gladines, yet another of my old haunts. Camille warned me that she had a lot of catching up to do with her friend, so I might not enjoy myself or even be able to follow the conversation. “You’re doing everything you can to make me feel welcome,” I said. No, I didn’t, but I thought it.

“You’re going to Niort? I’m French and I don’t even know where that is,” Audrey said. I was dipping some bread into mushroom sauce. To my right I saw the table where I’d sat with my two friends three years ago to celebrate my birthday. I recognized the bartender and his sly grin.

“It’s apparently our mutual insurance capital,” Camille said.

“How do you know that?” Audrey said.

“Dan told me.”

Indeed, I had told her. That was all I knew about the city where I’d be teaching the next year. The conversation thus turned briefly in my direction, they resumed their reminiscing about their undergrad days. Suddenly I remembered eating at Chez Gladines only a few days before I’d left Paris the last time. Katrin had been in a sour mood up until when the food came, after which she was back to her usual, loving self. Then, my séjour was coming to an end; now it was just beginning.

There was something cheaply sentimental and hackneyed about these recollections—my youthful, European romance. Platitudinous! It was as if they belonged to the realm of fantasy. Constipated, jet-lagged, headed to a remote, unknown French city and facing the cool distance of these two Parisians—this was real. But is much of youth, in a sense, a fantasy, at least in memories? Yet I was still young, so what would this seem like four years later?

It was around 9 when we returned to Camille’s place and I feel asleep in the spare room instantly.

But my internal clock was naturally still all out of whack from the flight, and a few hours later I was wide awake. My loins rumbled; it was time. The apartment was rather small, and assuredly Camille and her old-world-beauty roommate could hear every move I made, so I crept as silently as possible to the bathroom. But there was nothing I could do to be quiet in there, it was like a minor gas explosion, and I tensed up imagining them being woken by my bowel struggles—which of course only made the struggle all the more difficult. I had to flush twice. Decidedly, this was one of my darker moments. And lying in bed a few minutes later, only partially relieved, someone went to the bathroom. “That stinks!” I heard.

A few hours later I was on the TGV train to Niort. The sun had only just risen and I admired the flat countryside rolling by. I tried to imagine what my life would be like the coming year but I only saw a blank.