Personal Spaces

by Kate Morton

 

Getting off the Metro

You stand swaying on the metro, gripping the metal loop that is firmly attached to the ceiling of the car. It is crowded: sweaty bodies pressed close together, strangers breathing down your neck, arms and hips bumping into each other. Dressed for work/school/meetings, all of the metro patrons are returning home. The rocking motion of the car gently persuades your exhausted eyelids to close, if only for a second— just one moment. The car jerks to a stop, and your eyes open as quickly as the doors did. Soon the doors will close again, you force yourself to stay awake, swaying in time with the other passengers. All of you share the vacant stare of those who ride the metro alone.

Next stop, doors open, wait, wait, wait, buzzer, doors start sliding shut. As the angry buzz echoes down the platform, a man coming up the stairs starts running toward the car you’re in. “He’ll never make it” you think, as the man chances a desperate leap. He is a millisecond too slow. The doors pin him in their cold inanimate grip, yet he doesn’t cry out, barely even winces, and none of the other passengers look up. Your fellow commuters just sit with their metro stares and allow the man to struggle out of the doors on his own. He gets out, sits, the doors shut, and the car jerks forward.

As the next buzz vibrates the car, a gentle pulse vibrates your hip bone. Quickly, nervously, you pull your phone from your pocket. See his name, his face, his words and you smile the biggest you have since leaving the States. He’s awake in the middle of the night just to tell you you’ll be fine, but he really needs to get some sleep and can’t stay up to talk to you right now. You are strong, he says, you’ve got this. But he really needs to sleep; he has work, responsibilities, and things more important than the tiny breakdown you are having over something as trivial as a timezone. Type as quickly as you can, let him know how much you love him/how well he should sleep/how desperately you miss him before his eyes slam shut like those metro doors. But you are too late. The next pulse won’t be for a few hours. That connection to him/home/life is shut off, consumed by night and warm blankets. Now you’re standing alone on the cold, metallic metro, water creeping to the rim of your lashes. Blink, blink, blinkblink the water away. You can’t handle all of this at once. Put that part of you to bed with him and keep the rest of you in this body gently swaying on the metro.

Next stop, doors open, don’t wait, this is your exit. Stepping onto the dirty platform, the smell of urine overwhelms you. Fluorescent lights reflect off of the slick white tiles stacked so orderly on the curved walls that enclose you. They blind you, yet do very little to brighten the space. With the beginnings of a nasty headache throbbing just behind your eyes, you look nervously around you. You don’t know where you are, and you aren’t sure how to exit. The others who escaped the car with you walk toward a sign marked “Sortie.” You follow, hoping to get out of these tunnels.

Up, up, up some stairs, you move quickly toward the light that streams in from above, softer and warmer than the harsh fluorescents ricocheting throughout the caverns below. Halfway up the steps, it hits you: a heavenly breeze flowing fast and cool over your neck and shoulders, relieving you from the stifled hell of the metro car.

You emerge from the ground and Paris materializes around you: cars and motorbikes humming and speeding down the streets on either side of you, like two rivers much more turbulent than the Seine. Trees pop up from the worn stone of the sidewalk every once and awhile, offering up plush patches of leafy shade. People with jobs and homes and families rush past you; they know where they are going. You wander. Eventually, you sink into a café chair, breathless with relief. This is the first time you have been alone since you arrived in Paris. You put a whole packet of sugar in your espresso and stir frantically.

You sit. You breathe. You think. Think of the hours of sleep you’ve lost to talk to a boy back home who’s sleeping soundly while your eyes are struggling to stay open. Think of the couples embracing openly in the green-rimmed, light-wood lawn chairs in front of the Hôtel de Ville, of how jealous/sad/thankful you are to see them so happy, and of how much you wish that could be you with  him. Think of how you are the same as that man who made a leap of faith to catch the metro: pinned between two forces, stuck with no one to help youbut your forces are less metallic and cold, more romantic and thrillingyour overwhelming desire for adventure and discovery versus the boy who makes you so happy, and you are trapped in the middle, like the metro man. Above all, think of how much you hate time zones.

You finish your coffee. You shiver as the afternoon breeze begins to adopt the bite of evening chill. You wait. You wait until you can turn your key easily in the lock, until you open the door when you intend to instead of struggle with it multiple times before you actually accomplish opening it. Wait until your internal clock rights itself, until you fall asleep while the orange streetlamps peer in through your window, instead of when the afternoon sun is befriending the flurries of dust that drift aimlessly about your tiny apartment. Wait for it to be a decent time to message him again, until you can hear him laugh, until you can see him smile fully, all teeth, happy as you walk out of the arrivals terminal. Wait.

 

La Ventre

In a small studio apartment, foreign/new/scary and home for the next month, there is a bathroom, kitchenette, a desk, two beds, and not much else. The only remarkable aspect, the centerpiece, bright and bold, is the window. Two long glass panes, rimmed in white with a long sheath of cream gauze pushed haphazardly to one side, stand stoic in the middle of the wall at the back of the apartment.

Open them. Pull the latch, first up then in, and push the swinging doors aside. Press your hips and stomach into the cool, metal rail that lies just outside the window’s limits. Look down. Admire the quiet, little street that expands in both directions. With its two long walls of apartment building after apartment building—all lined up, all sweet and simple, nothing modern or ornate in sight — standing firmly on either side. The bright green and soft gray foliage tries its best to make a place for itself in this human habitat by squeezing its way through the seams at the foot of the buildings and in between concrete blocks on the sidewalk. Some of the most daring plants, soft and supple, have crept onto the rooftop directly across from you. There they grow tall, probably because they aren’t being choked by the heavy weight of stone and footsteps. There are no window boxes blooming to the brim with red and pink and blue and white; young people live here, they haven’t got the time to parent plants. Breathe in the sickly sweet scent of cigarette smoke, and listen to your French neighbors babble quickly as they prepare their dinner. It is evening.

It is evening, and the golden sunlight streams down at an angle, creating long slanting shadows on the building across from you. It glitters brightly in the glass panes of the streetlamps hanging from curled iron loops that are mounted down the wall of apartment buildings at regular intervals. French techno music blasts from your neighbor’s apartment. You can hear her singing along loudly. The rest of your neighbors trickle slowly down the street in the setting sun, returning from work. A man walks by in a suit and enters the building across from you. The techno music suddenly turns to jazz and the woman yells at her husband/boyfriend/lover who only issues a short laugh in response. The man in the suit has made it up to his apartment and leans out the window. He is no longer wearing his jacket. You look over at each other and make eye contact across your pleasant, little street. You both hold it for a moment before looking away. This is one of your favorite qualities of the city: eye contact wields no expectation. It is the opposite in the States; even the briefest moment of eye contact requires a smile, or else you will be considered cold or rude. Here that is not so. Eye contact is simply eye contact, and there is so much freedom in that lack of expectation. There is a great capacity to just let moments be. There is room to breathe in this city.

You can see this breath like a misty cloud of cigarette smoke exhaled by the Parisians as they sip something slowly outside of their favorite café. They drink and talk and eat and write and read and breathe. They breathe as they watch people walk by on the congested, narrow sidewalks. They breathe with empty glasses on the table and lit cigarettes in their hands that glow like fireflies in the evening air.

The man in the suit is at his window smoking a cigarette. The gray cloud he exhales turns to gold in the dying light. It dissipates slowly. You smell it a moment later, but it doesn’t smell like the smoke exhaled by cluttered groups of men huddled outside of bars. These clots of men excrete thick clouds of slate-colored smoke that drift around your head and suffocate your thinking. The man in the suit’s smoke smells lighter and sweeter. It had its whole journey across the street to breathe in the refreshing breeze that floats over the rooftops and into the alley.

You look at a building to your right. In certain places the concrete has been chipped away to expose a foundation of brick underneath. Perhaps the brick needs to breathe, too.

The sun sinks behind a taller building, and your quiet, little street is left in shadow. The man across the way retires to his room.

Three pulses, rapid, sound deepened by the cheap wood of the desk your phone is resting on, ricochet through your tiny, part-time home. The corners of your mouth turn upwards. You close your window and retire, too.

 

My Boulangerie  

There is a certain kindness in the way the middle-aged woman behind the counter lets you struggle in French as you try to buy a baguette and a lemon tarte. Here you are, standing in the middle of this bakery, completely butchering the language that soars so fluidly and musically from their quick-moving lips. Yet no matter how hard you struggle, no matter how fluently she spoke English to the other American that was in line before you, she will not give in. She will not speak to you in English.

She doesn’t abstain out of cruelty, but kindness. Like a wise mother, she knows that giving in and allowing you to take the easier path will only encourage you to take the easy path in the future. If she allows you the easy path, you will never learn.

You struggle on in French. You’re beginning to feel like a jester in a royal court. And, in fact, the woman behind the counter does look remarkably like a queen with her piercing blue eyesdistant, unforgiving behind a veil of rimless glassesher blonde hair cropped short and turning grey, her thin lips set stern in her round face.

When she decides your French is passable enough, she gets you what you want. The lemon tarte looks even more delicious now— the glaze on top more shiny, the hills of crust more buttery—after the painful struggle it took to get it. The tarte that was once a treat has now become a reward. A reward for trying, a reward for struggling, a reward for letting go of your comfort zone and forcing yourself to adapt. The woman smiles, closed-mouth, and then wishes you goodbye as you leave the bakery (all in French of course). You savor each bite of that tarte. You have never tasted anything sweeter.

You continue to frequent this bakery. You continue to play the part of the woman’s jester. You continue to get lemon tartes and baguettes. After a few visits, those two words, une baguette and une tarte citron are pronounced confidently, as if you have been saying them your whole life. By struggling with and stumbling over each syllable again and again and again, you feel you earned them.

The queen of the bakery, the woman who stands so proudly behind the counterchest out, shoulders squaredbegins to recognize you. The bonjour madame’s become more familiar, sweeter, twinged with sympathy. She starts to regard you as a client, not a foreigner. Her recognition and sympathy make you feel important, as if you are one of the queen’s favorites. Maybe you are.

On one particular visit, on a cold, cloudy day, you walk in the bakery to pick up your favorite lemon tarte. The woman begins moving toward the tarte before you even ask for it.

Comme nature?” she asks with a closed-mouth smile as she wraps the treat in wax paper. “Like usual.”

Suddenly, you feel that familiar pulse resonate in your hip, but this time you ignore it—at least for this moment. You want this queen to understand that you get the joke, and you laugh in affirmation. She smirks. You say goodbye and leave. You walk back to your apartment on your wonderfully familiar little street, ride the elevator up to floor 2, turn your key in the lock and let yourself in. You open the window, unpack your lemon tarte, and check greedily for the message he has sent. As you lean out and take that first delicious bite you think: “This street has never felt more like home.”

 

A Ravenous Radiance

The French woman languidly sits at a café or on the metro, perfectly at home. She always seems to be wearing an expensive coat, the type that rests impressively on her squared shoulders. She is as monarch-like as the queen of your bakery. The coat is not flashy or gaudy. It is perhaps black or tan and made of fine material. You have never seen a French woman wearing a coat made of anything other than the richest leathers or smoothest silks. She sits, legs uncrossed, taking up the space that she was meant to take up, and not apologizing for anything.

If she is in a café, she will light a cigarette. Eyes cast out, observing the people passing quickly on the street, she smokes. She smokes, and she eats. You have never seen an American woman eat the way a French woman does. French women eat like they’re hungry. They slice off huge hunks of paté and spread it thickly on a cracker. They eat the cracker slowly, savoring each bite. Buttery croissants, café au lait with whole milk, rich chocolate, and thick creamall these culinary delights that American women would deem only meant for “cheat days,” the French women consume regularly and proudly. The French woman eats unapologetically. She walks down the streets at lunchtime taking huge bites of her sandwich and chewing slowly. In the States, women eat as if the act itself were a dirty secret only meant to be done behind closed doors. They nibble on bars and salads, always seeking the next source of calories to cut out of their diets. When they do eat the wholesome, rich food of the French woman, they do so with guilt. American women are embarrassed to have human needs. French women are proud of it.

If she is on the metro, the French woman will put on her earphones. Pink lips slightly pursed, she will bob her head or tap her foot to the beat. Occasionally, she will close her eyes gently as she gets lost in the music blasting in her ears. Even here, on the crowded metro where personal space is altogether abandoned, she sits with her legs uncrossed. She is not afraid to occupy the space her physical body exists in. She is the type of woman who would never make herself smaller so someone else could make themselves larger. She is not the type of woman who grasps desperately for her phone the moment she feels even a hint of a pulse. She has never felt desperate. She is not the type of woman to apologize for existing, at least, not in the way American women do. Take any form of public transit in the States, and you will see an American woman with her legs crossed, bag in lap, eyes cast down, pressing herself into a window so that the man next to her may sit knees splayed wide, chest out, relaxed.  Here, the men are the ones who seem to make themselves smaller. They are the ones who sit with crossed legs and folded arms.

 

The Porte de Vincennes Farmer’s Market

Across the street from Café L’Escale on a narrow strip of concrete, you see it. What was once a barren block of sidewalk no wider than two cars just the day before is now a flutter of activity extending down, down, down the street and out of sight. A kaleidoscope of goods for purchase, a carnival of sound, the farmer’s market is busy. On the way in, people tote empty sacks on wheels, and on the way out, they pull huge heaps of bright vegetables and still-steaming bread down the boulevard, like ants returning to their hill with food for the queen.

Stall after stall after stall, it is endless. Everything is for sale: shoes atop pedestals like statues of Greek gods and goddesses, lingerie thrown carelessly in boxes that tired old women sift through disinterestedly, meats of all sorts, red and shiny, stacked high in glass cases, vegetables crowded together in large, colorful piles still sparkling with dew, wine bottles lined up like soldiers on the edge of a white linen-covered table, and unscaled fish dumbly staring at you from their bed of ice, perfuming the air with the smell of cold, murky water (that sends you straight back to Minnesota and those long, hot summers when you spent every second in the calm, muddy lake before you were afraid of drowning…).

You squeeze past old people dragging carts and young people standing stagnant in lines that wrap around entire tents and make it painfully clear which stalls sell the best goods. Children duck and dodge legs as their parents get stuck in the quagmire of bodies and stores and goods and carts on wheels that congest the narrow walkway. It is a hot day, and the entire crowd shifts together, trying its best to walk in the little patches of shade cast by the white tarps resting heavily on top of the stalls.

There is such a wonderful community to it all. From the way the old women weave easily around each line, each stunned tourist, you think this must be a weekly ritual for them. Every Saturday morning, these women wake up slowly at 7 or 8. They make coffee, their hands shaking as they scoop the grounds into the filter. As the boiling water strips a chesnut brown cup of heaven from these crushed, dried beans, the women spread jam and butter on slices of baguette with arthritic fingers grasping the knife tightly. They drink their coffee, dress, grab bag/keys/wallet, and head out the door. They walk slowly, habitually to the market; they know exactly what they will buy. Entering the colorful corridor of shops bursting with red and yellow, blue and green, they are not distracted. Despite their slow, labored, painful steps, they are the first to leave the market with their bags spilling over with meat and fish and vegetables and flowers: enough food to feed them well into the week to come. They march back to their homes, smiling, satisfied and satiated— at least for now.

The novelty of the market is wearing off, so you leave the crowded, colorful, clutter behind and wander the streets near Porte de Vincennes metro stop. You seek a distraction that will not remind you of home or him. You cannot find it. You stop in a garden. Surrounded by roses and traffic, you write. It does nothing. There is no comfort today. You buy vegetables at a little market near your apartment that is just as bright and beautiful as that other cluttered chaos but far less crowded. You make a cheap but hot lunch. You nap but not for long. You read but are not invested. He is still not awake yet.

 

Getting on the Metro

Out the door, hit the light switch in the hall, lock the door, down the elevator, press the button, wait for the metallic hum of the magnet lock to fizzle out, push the door, glance in the floor length mirror, smile slightly, turn the knob, and enter the street with children on scooters and fathers in suits all heading to work and school, all moving to Bel-Air station in the crisp/icy/windy morning air. A stream of people are trickling up Rue Sibuet, and you, a foreigner, an American, a stranger, are part of this daily river, flowing to the Metro with your neighbors and their children.

You follow the current right, then right again onto a lovely, large street with big green trees and flowers in the window boxes of the apartments. Then you go left onto a little side street, where the white iron gates that enclose metro line 6 rise like sharp, spiky teeth from the screeching rails beneath. The children run up ahead, pause at the street, wait for cars to pass, and walk quickly to the metro station. You pull out your Navigo pass as you enter the little brick building.

Rest your pass on the faded purple circle, wait for the high-pitched beep, and push your way through the metal gates and onto the platform. Wait. Wait alongside familiar faces, the young families who live on your street, the people you now begin to recognize as your neighbors. Wait as the smell of urine mingles with the fresh morning air. Look at the board hanging over the platform proudly announcing the time passing. 3 minutes. Wait.

Wait and think. Think about the person you were. Think about that very first metro ride, that very first day when you were so tired and sad. Think of the desperation, the fear that he would leave, the fear that he would find somebody else, the overwhelming anxiety of it all. Think on it. The isolation that crushed you, suffocated you. Remember it, all of it, then think of now.

Think of now and be grateful. Be grateful for the way you can navigate the metro without fear or anxiety, for your little boulangerie that is so easily passed by if you’re not looking close enough, for the time difference you’ve adapted to, for all of the calls and texts that were sent and shared in spite of the awful internet connection, for your quiet street with its rebellious plants that grow on rooftops, for your window, big and bright, that opens up to the world outside, and, most of all, for the transitory sense of home that has flourished and blossomed with each successive day. Think and be grateful.

Think of what’s to come and wonder. Wonder anxiously about returning to a country you haven’t seen for a month, about getting back home through claustrophobic airports and stuffy planes, about how in the world you will go about bridging the cognitive gap between yourself and your Paris selfthe self who rides metros and walks down narrow, medieval streets. Wonder hopefully about the sweetness of “Hello” and all other English words, about breakfastfull and hearty, complete with bacon and eggs and coffeeabout the softness of your own bed and the spaciousness of your shower. Think and wait and wonder, but be happy. Be happy to have been here and be happy to say goodbye.

The wind rushing around the metro as it slides into the station disturbs your thoughts. The doors open and people spill out like water over a broken dam. Push against this current and get on. Hear the angry buzzer sound, watch the stragglers make their desperate leaps onto the train, and grab hold of the metallic pole as the car jerks forward and you descend into the underbelly of Paris.  

 

Two Years Later — An Addendum

I want to scream at this girl who valued electronic pulses over the pulsing of her heartbeat as she was striding city streets, who wallowed in pity, pain, and darkness when there was so much light around her. I want to scream at her for hiding behind “you” and empty commands because she couldn’t bear to face the change and loss that culminated in a hunger for something he would never be able to give her. I wish that I were not her and she were not me, but I am and she is and this is it. This is all I have of him and Paris and who I was when I felt like nothing. But Paris is still there, and I can be nothing again.


This piece originally appeared in the Spring 2017 Issue.

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