Things That Didn't Happen
Editor's Note: Originally appeared in Jen Pastiloff's Manifest Station.
1) That day I landed in Paris, alone, no French to pout my lips, anti-gay protests spilled into the streets, shooting rapids of hatred. Queers had to navigate them, no oars. When I walked down Avenue Henri Martin to find an open store, I looked like what I was: an MEC-bedecked North American dyke, shapeless as a continent. Two men radared in. Vitriol tones a language; it hatcheted towards me on streams of spittle. The guy closest shoulder-checked me and I stumbled into a wall, scraping limestone.
Then they were gone, and I still needed oranges.
2) A week later, Rue de la Pompe, arrondisement 16, outside Casino supermarket. Serrated needles of rain raking sideways. No umbrella, just a thin-wire pull-cart I needed to pile with groceries if I wanted to eat, launder, shampoo. A Roma girl hunched on the street, no coat, one-shoed, hair divided into oleaginous shanks functioning as eavestroughs. Shoulders heaving. One foot maimed, red, shaped like a soup bone, the socket of a cow's tibia. A paper begging cup exhausted by rain crumpled under left knee. Trafficked, I thought, tears and misery the tools of her job. But beyond that: something immediate. Maybe, later, when she was picked up again, the gratitude of Stockholm Syndrome or familial bonds or simple lack of options would keep her in her place, but for now, dropped to the Paris pavement by her pimp or aunt or older brother, she was the picture of all that was wrong and nothing that was right.
My anger in Paris was a simmering thing, small at first, then growing. It was at first the size of the palm of a hand laid against a hot burner, but it flared. It was that worst thing, that touristic thing, impotence with a strangling desire to “help.”
“Madame, ça va?” I said as I pressed soggy pastries, fruit, hidden money into her hands. Nothing that would make it better. Nothing that would buy her options.
What do I want with pastries? her eyes said. Are you kidding me?
She was right; I was an asshole in any language.
3) Colors of paint for women’s skin. Words to describe love between women. Sweet love. Soured love. Dancing women. Women laughing. Women being exploited. Corrective rape. Women being murdered. Women honored. Exiled women. Women rising at night to mother. Dependent women. Trafficked women. Women in poverty. Battered women. Women in marriages. Affluent women. Women in lesbianism. Women leaving womanhood. Women arriving at womanhood. Women who made scientific discoveries. Women who saved chimpanzees/pigs/dogs/elephants. Women in literature, in art. Women and feminism.
Hamilton, get a goddamned life, I told myself.
4) And always my pressing question: Was I just one wife away from welfare?
5) Paris, five intentional weeks alone. I’d been married for 18 years to an able-bodied woman, and she had been my legs. I wanted to see if, alone, I had legs of any kind at all. Legs that could transport me towards a future. Was my cerebellum, at least, capable of squats?
6) At the mouths of metros, mothers slept next to children all in a row, biggest to smallest, as if their mattresses were magic carpets flown out of bedrooms on purpose because the pavement was memory foam, because it was the best place to be.
(They dreamed of roast beef and dripping sauces. They dreamed nightmares of their social workers. They dreamed of men who pushed them, pulled them, threw them down. They dreamed of labors where the children arrived as cotton candy, able to turn the world on with a smile. They dreamed of Elysian Fields where poppies blew them towards extinction.)
Watching the babies, I thought: The adults of tomorrow.
Tell me what happened, I wanted to say to the mothers. Wake up. What the hell happened to you? Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.
One social security net with gaping holes, mothers teetering on the lips of buildings, babes in arms, almost falling, falling, falling--
7) Why do you notice these things, Hamilton? Walking down the street with you is not like walking down the street with anyone else I know. Stop meeting people’s eyes. You almost got knifed last time you were here. Didn't it teach you a goddamned thing?
I almost got knifed because a man had a knife and planned to use it.
Because you looked at him.
Oh, well, then. I looked at him.
Don’t look at people. Ne pas regarder les gens.
8) Years ago, I stood in Food Bank lines with my little girls, begging scraps. I couldn't have purchased a cup of coffee, a barrette, a Care Bear.
9) Eventually, I married a doctor.
10) Who left me after 18 years. Who wanted to send me back onto the streets to beg, only now not at 30 and healthy, but at 60 and disabled. I was sliding towards asphalt but just hadn't landed. Jump, woman, jump!
11) In Paris, a few boring things happened and a few boring things didn't happen.
12) I stood by dog crap in vaporous light, unable to move forward. I was seconds away from a slump, to knees, to my side. Short of breath, angina, hips screaming, ankles puffed and pittable, long muscles shrieking. Measure your pain out of 10, I heard my doctors say. “8,” I whispered on Rue de Franqueville. After that, I sat wrapped tight in ice packs and could not go out again for many days until the pain wore away, and so, marooned, while on a bridge not far away lovers’ locks pulled down cement, I painted and wrote. I slept. I wasted Paris. What I wrote was perhaps identical to what I might have written in Vancouver. What I painted was perhaps identical to what I might have painted in Vancouver.
13) I had little capacity in my body, but I hoped my brain, at least, would stop restricting me, would burst, would blossom. But in my borrowed flat, indoors, it was not Paris. Nor London, nor Luxembourg, nor Athens, but stateless and devoid of personality. Because of the pain, I couldn't go out until my larder was stripped bare and choice was minimal. And even then to go out was only to invite more pain. I hung my paintings on the walls as I produced them. There were a lot of them, minimal things, all done on paper of ease of carrying home, a painting a day. When I ventured out, rolling across acute bursitis, rolling through heart failure and torn rotator cuffs, rolling through tendinitis and arthritis and ulnar pain, I gazed at the pale limestone walls, the architectural details, the sky pushed impossibly far overhead and I said: It’s still Paris. A trick of the light. A trick of a plane ticket. A trick of being unmoored from the life I thought I would live until death. Constant pain is only sometimes synonymous with unhappy.
It was Paris. And since it was Paris, I reasoned, something was bound to happen.
14) Small things happened:
My friend, A, from China arrived for a quick overnight and brought me thick tubes of paints and reams of delicious paper. We went to look at an Art Deco exhibit at Palais de Toyko and took weird photographs of the Eiffel Tower through its rain-slicked windows. Pansies opened in my flat’s courtyard. I met D, a psychoanalyst/artist. A friend from Medicin san Frontiére blurred through town and we attended an exhibit of young European photographers, and over bread, cheese and wine discussed what evasive actions she needed to take given that a nearby Syrian medical team had been kidnapped--an IUD to minimize her periods/pregnancy, get her eyes fixed. I met with a poet, and this poet decided to translate a piece of mine for a lit mag in France. I met with a non-fiction author who was writing about the lesbian artist Rosa Bonheur, and a novelist finishing a book on assisted-suicide in Switzerland. I went with the psychoanalyst to the Poo-poo, to dinner, to the Lesbian Archives. In a burst of physical stupidity, I trekked to Auvers sur Oise with a friend from London to visit Vincent van Gogh’s grave site.
15) Things that didn't happen: I didn't grow a set of balls to start helping out the neglected women.
16) I wept only in front of two paintings: The Woman with Blue Eyes, Modigliani, 1918, at Musée d’Arte Moderne de la Ville de Paris, and Fille Rouse, Modigliani, 1915, at L’Orangerie.
Colors and brushwork jumped. Like the models themselves, I became, myself, canvas. Modigliani painted me. I was touched with sable fibers, a cloth, a turpentine, fingers.
17) Define an ekphrastic experience?
18) There really was so little women’s art.
19) Something female and ekphrastic happened to me—here and there. On my other major hike, into Montmartre, I stood in Suzanne Valadon’s house scrutinizing a few of her sketches. In the Pompidou, from a wheelchair D pushed, I saw Louise Bourgeois’s last works on paper. At the women’s centre, I opened the tome of the book Anna Klumkey wrote about her lover Rosa Bonheur. I held buttons from feminist protest marches in 1970’s Paris.
I laughed and talked with women long into many nights, so something definitely happened to me.
Even if not enough happened to me.
20) Maybe this inchoate thing I craved was not satisfiable. Maybe what was to happen to me was not satisfaction, but, eventually, sooner than later, only death. But I had stood with the hooded man and his scythe and had been revived and been set down like a milk bottle into these Parisian streets so couldn't I skim a little milk from under the cap?
21) One week a friend told me that Mavis Gallant had died, and invited me to her funeral. It poured all night the night before, and I woke and fell asleep and woke and fell asleep again dreaming of umbrellas. I was too shy to go even there alone, but I forced myself out the door, down the elevator, across the courtyard. I had a hat, and gloves. I had bought reasonable pants in a second hand store. I short-stepped to the Rue de la Pompe metro, down into its filthy noisy depths, and stood wide-legged on the platform. 4 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute and then I was pressed up against a man in a Canadian winter hat. I changed trains from the M9 to the M4 at Trocadero, and then we rose to the light on line M4, and on our left pressed the Eiffel Tower, close enough to be stripped of its romance, to be just rusted metal pick-up sticks. I scoured faces on the Metro looking some sign of shared humanity, whether, for instance, our aspirations collided (the longing for warmth and affection, a new carpet or pair of shoes, money), the point at which we acknowledged we were more the same than we were different. I thought, If there were an emergency in the tube, these are the people with whom I would share it, who would variously help me or step over me, whom I would crawl to. Which one of us would become a hero, which one would lay broken, which one would sneak away like a cur? What are your stories? I wondered. Which of you is on the way to a birthday party, an English class, a violin lesson, or is going home from an assignation? Which of you has just fallen in love, or lost love? Which of you has danced this week? Which of you is stunted with boredom and complacency? People moved through the underground muted, with their human-ness turned to low.
Used to a car, public disaffection shocked me. In every train there was a woman whose portrait I longed to paint. In every train there was one man I wanted to sketch. In every train, some situation worthy of Mavis’s short fiction played out—secretively, between seats, a woman slid her hand towards another woman; a little kid hopped along on crutches then kicked someone in the ankle. A young woman in a purple hat touched the hair of an old woman sitting next to her so tenderly I ached. A man scratched his groin. A girl picked her nose. A baby chortled and her mother laughed back, delighted.
But most eyes were glazed over, dazed, unamazed: I do not notice; I am not vulnerable. You can’t see me, you can’t hear me, you can’t smell me.
The week before, Mavis Gallant was able to do very human things. What was she now? I wanted to shake strangers on the metro. Tell me, what is death? Goddamn it, tell me. What is death?
Montparnasse Cemetery. Man Ray, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, Samuel Beckett Once Sartre said to de Beauvoir that he wanted to love her with an open door.
A grave is not an open door. On the contrary. But it was through a grave that we had now to love Mavis.
22) Given we were all going to die, all we mourners, and very soon (relatively), were we making every moment matter? Could we rise towards the valiant, the foolhardy, towards forgiveness?
23) My wife had taken me to Paris just before we broke, when she already despised me and was with someone new, and I felt her estrangement but hoped whatever it was would sort itself out because we were an item, a long luxury of love. I was baffled over the purpose of the trip—could it have been that she just wanted to impress the new woman with tales of her largesse? Maybe my kiss-off. The softer version of what shortly became her hard work boot to the door.
(Whoever leaves the marital home loses. Who knew this going out?)
That week with my wife in Paris, I walked 1000 x as much as I could, so that, in memory, pain is what I recall. Paris is a city for walkers, my wife said. I hobbled up the hills of Montmartre and along the Seine under the water jets of Paris Plage, pain in my feet, my diseased hips, pain radiating from my heart, anginally, trying hard to keep up with her, begging her for cabs, and still she kept saying, Too bad, too bad. This would be a lot of fun if you weren't handicapped.
She said, Paris is really not a city for people like you.
24) Once a new friend invited me out, and I, without a phone and too myopic to follow a map, and too language-challenge to understand instructions from people I stopped, got lost, and walked and walked, and then I could not walk any longer, or ask again, and saw a metro with its sleeping mother and children, and I went past them in silent shrieks of pain down the stairs, and home, standing my friend completely up.
25) There were only about 50 people at Mavis's funeral, most of whom knew Mavis well. Mavis had been my tutor at the Writing Studios at Banff in the early 90s, and gave me her address in Paris, but I did not write her, since I had no function to offer her beyond sycophant.
We were a small procession at the Cimetière Montparnasse for a small Catholic roadside service. It had been pouring; the sun came vividly through the quince blooms. Marilyn Hacker read a John Donne poem, and Mary K Macleod, Mavis's executor, read biblical verses. Some others of her friends spoke. The gathered sprinkled holy water on her coffin. The minister read the 23rd psalm and the Lord's prayer and exhorted us to kindness. Pallbearers carried Mavis's coffin to the Péron family caveau and lowered it on ropes. Each of us then dropped in a long-stemmed white rose. I was surprised to see that the casket was perhaps 15 feet or more down; the deep, dark hole knocked the wind out of me, the blonde casket with its subterranean river of white roses, and I started crying. I watched the cemetery workers struggle to put the lid on the grave, sliding it incrementally over a thick metal rod and with crowbars and shims made of fragments of wood, finally settling it into place. I could not bear this; it was hard not to anthropomorphize the dead Mavis. I'm sure I was not alone in my urge to rescue her, to lift her in my arms and run on swift feet down Boulevard Edgar Quinet. Do something, do something, I thought and looked wildly at the mourners. I longed to shout, but then it was too late, the lid was firm in its place. A man with a caulking gun sealed Mavis Gallant into the Earth. Bouquets of flowers were set into place, and Mary K gave us each a yellow rose to take away with us. Later I would fasten this yellow rose, dried, into my scrapbook, and I would hold my hand against it, thinking about Mavis, for some reason about her short story Scarves, Beads, Sandals, about Montparnasse.
26) I sank into the catacombs below Paris. It was foolhardy of me to go alone. There was a long walk (les carrièrres de Paris), many stairs, and I could easily become trapped either by claustrophobia or heart failure.
In the late 1700s, Paris cemeteries began to overflow, and grow in height, and in inclement weather skeletons began to crumble into citizens' basements. Decisions were made to exhume the bodies from 9 graveyards and re-inter them into quarry tunnels below the city. For years, at night, horse-drawn carts pulled black-shrouded wagons across the restless city until fully 6 million skeletons had been moved.
Workers stacked the bones, fibia on fibia, skull and skull.
For more than 100 years now, people had paid to walk among them. To contemplate whatever we contemplated there.
Ghost-din. Deaths from plague, from fever, from childbirth, from accident, from abuse. Someone had written, Pour moi, mort est un gain. Pour moi, pour moi, pour moi, I whispered.
27) I stood at 27 Rue de Fleurus imagining Picasso, Bracques, Barnes, Beach, Hemingway, Cézanne, the Cones, Matisse. Stein, Toklas. All dead. I stood under #5, rue Guy de Maupassant imagining Tamara de Lempicka. Dead. I stood in Montmartre imagining Suzanne Valadon falling from the circus tightrope, a fall that led her towards modelling and then painting. Dead. Her son dead.
Death rose up from the streets of Paris. Death: Paris’s exhalation.
28) A man on the subway played Evening in Paris on the accordion. It was the three-year anniversary of the date I left my marriage, and I was very grateful for that.
We’d renewed our vows under the Eiffel Tower even as she was involved with someone new. We had renewed our vows in other places, too: in a hot-air balloon over the Namib Nauklauft Park; in a tuk-tuk in northern Thailand, at the top of the Empire State Building, on elephant back in Ubud, Bali, under our rose arbour cascading with Ilse Krohn and Ballerina.
29) I wondered if I would ever marry again.
30) In the metro, my friend from London and I were stalked by two men. We retraced our steps. What do you think they wanted to do to us? J asked, and I answered, Rob us, probably. But of course the bigger story was that no woman ever exactly knew what they wanted to do, and robbery was our optimistic hope—the wallet lost, the iPhone scooped. I was aware of my vulnerability, my inability to run away. We waited a few minutes, then tried again. They were still there, hiding while we hid, still intending to ambush us. We got on the first train backtracking anywhere.
31) A boy on the tube looked like young John Lennon—black fedora, mimic wire-rimmed glasses. Man of magic fingers, a deck of cards in his hands that flew alive, climbed in the air and jumped without parachutes.
32) M9 train towards Point de Sevre:
I love Paris, said a bristle-haired man holding a pole.
Dude, fuck Paris, said a young woman holding onjust below his hands. She switched her hair that reminded me of horses’ tails into which I’d braided ribbons. Do you love a girl? A vagina? Do you love a vagina? Ya gotta fuck the city and love a vagina. Dude, Paris! Who gives a shit? Vagina. That's where it's at.
I don't do that kind of thing. He looked down at her, frowning.
Why the fuck not? Are you asexual? Homo? What the hell. Why the fuck not? What the fuck is wrong with you, dude? She cracked gum, blew a turquoise bubble.
She kicked the pole. Married! That is so fucked up. How the fuck long have you been married? Whoa, married! Married is like some kinda thing. You're fucking married?
I could see he didn't want to answer. He swiped at his hair. Five years.
Five years? Are you nuts? Dude. How the fuck long have you been together?
A pause. Ten years.
Like, is she here?
Now he sighed. If he could have pulled his wife through the night-wet air, right then, he would have. No, in Canada.
The woman laughed, pulled her chin back to say how screwed up she thought she was. Well, fuck, dude, is she, like, joining you? Does she have a job?
She rolled her eyes. I mean, like, fuck, a career? Does she have a career? 'Cause a job is nothing, man. Nothing. You can fucking quit a job. A job is like McDonald's. You can quit McDonald's. Don't fucking look back. Why isn't she here?
She has a career, he said, lips thinning.
Is she in the FBI? The RCMP? Surrey? Where the fuck is Surrey? That's in Ontario, isn't it? There's a Surrey, Ontario, isn't there?
Vancouver, he said, his voice now sullen, thick.
There's a Surrey, Vancouver? That's fucked up, dude. Ten fucking years. Dude, you totally gotta get moving. Ten years is way too long to spend with someone. How the fuck old are you? Like, you must be a hundred. I'm 28.
I'm 35, he told her reluctantly.
I tried to imagine how the two of them might know each other.
She leaned forward and licked the pole. Slowly. Then she looked up at him. 35! Dude, that means you've been together since you were 25. That is so majorly fucked up. You gotta get a divorce. Do you love her?
I love her, he said, his voice firm.
And she loves you?
She loves me. I could hear something in his voice, something about love faltering, but he didn't say more.
You gotta get a divorce, said the woman. That's fucking pathetic. You need some vagina, dude. You seriously need vagina.
33) I gave myself Paris because that’s where I found out my wife loved another. And didn't love me. And hadn't loved me (so she said) for 13 years, during the time she asked me to marry her, in the court case to gain the right to marry me, marrying me.
34) I slept with the psychoanalyst.
Come here, my smoky treasure, I said, and held out my arms.
She moved to the bed, stripping her clothing. I expected a black bush, but it was brown, exactly the color of mine though not silken with age. Her hair shot out, wild as Einstein’s.
You are too young, I said and kissed her nicotine lips, pulled long hair from my tongue.
She was an atheist, but, sweetly, she believed that her little grandmother had received a dispensation to go to heaven.
The skin of her breasts was emptied of flesh, pin-wheeled, the nipples fat and brown.
She went down on me saying that if she licked me, I wouldn't need lube.
35) Things I did that were wrong just to do them. Things I would do again. Women like bowling pins I was knocking into my bed.
36) I had raised two children. I had loved long and well and fidelitously. And now, like a failing spring, I had been catapulted into a blue beyond.
37) But even in Paris, I was the spikes I’d shoved into my own heart. I was the burrs I had rubbed against my grey matter. I was the warfarin of my own rat trap.
I didn't need Paris to teach me that. I already knew that spikes, burrs and rat poison were half of all I’d managed to understand in 60 years and that understanding didn't mean cessation.
The other half was beauty. Babies. Silk. A blossom. A sunset. Eyes. A forest. An artwork. A baby goat. A woman. Grass. Skin. Scent. Breasts. Ocean. Palm trees. Butches.
A cabin with a lake.
Moments with friends.
38) Why Paris in February and what was I waiting for?
Just for anything.
39) Nothing happened in Paris except that spring arrived, daffodils like miniature sunshines across the courtyard, hopped up on renewal and promise.
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