Here’s an essay I wrote about my year in France for English. I read it aloud in class on Thursday. I don’t know if anyone understood it.
I spent 9 months in a city 356 kilometers west of Paris where the last metro creaks into the station at 3:04 am and where it rains more often than not. 273 days in a city in France where two rivers run through the graffitied part of town, where a famous cathedral kisses the sky three streets behind the opera house, where the clouds glow dark purple when they don’t smolder grey. I know a city named Rennes, and I called it home for 9 months. Anyone can research this little white city and find that it’s area spans 50.39 square kilometers or that 208,033 people wander it’s curled streets or that the Parliament building burned down in 1994. They might find that the art museum closes early on Wednesdays, that the Kennedy metro-line runs right under the government offices, or that the streetlamps flicker on at 4pm in December and at 9pm in May.
But these facts don’t define Rennes, not really. No guide book or folded map can explain the important things. Neither will tell you that the Line 5 bus turns the corner 2 minutes late on Tuesday mornings because the driver’s girlfriend comes along to babble on about unironed blouses and dinner parties or that the best place to go if you want to be alone is the dandelion field behind the park or that the post-officers only deliver mail on bikes or that the man selling clipped tulips on the corner of Guehenno and Alleé Sainte Marie asked me every morning if I had enough reasons to smile.
After May 28th, the day I flew back into New York City, the past year began to swirl into a blur of snagged tights, spinning night skies and broken umbrellas. Details faded from my memory, decayed at a rapid pace, and I feared that without them, I would stop caring about what it was like to be 17 in France as soon as I turned 18 in California. So I wrote. Back in California, I continued to fill the 300-page black notebook I had begun in France. I wrote to remember.
Words on paper appeared tangible; they made it easier for me to believe the things in my head existed. So I scribbled dates: November 11 (“Natalie, walk me to the bus stop”), February 8 (Phoenix concert), May 29 (Cathedral Parkway, 110th Street). I jotted down names: Greg, the boy who played Hotel California for me on his guitar when I told him I missed home, Ruth, the girl who lived in the kaleidoscopic apartment downtown, Sophie, the girl who told me about all the times she stole chapstick from CVS. I scrawled times: 1:17 pm (“don’t say it”), 2:32 am (“I’m sorry”), 11:11 pm (I don’t want Olivia to die tonight). My writing in that black notebook was hardly like anything I’d written before. Curling handwriting in blotchy black ink traversed the unruled paper, tangled charts with names and dates coated the pages, and the occasional 7-page-rant varied my unorganized web of ideas. I scribbled comma splice after comma splice to remember soot-covered chimneys, to remember girls lounged under dripping oak trees with daisy chains tangled in their hair, to remember boys who flung elastic bodies through empty streets at 2:32 am.
I had always been okay at English. I turned in the Joyce, Twain and Orwell papers on time, and I (almost) always put commas before coordinating conjunctions. I wrote because I had to; someone had given me a prompt, a book and a due date. So what compelled me to fill that notebook’s empty pages? Stephen King once said, “A little talent is a good thing to have if you want to be a writer. But the only real requirement is the ability to remember every scar.” Before I went to France, I had the “talent” King was referring to (or at least the ability to follow grammatical rules and back up a point with evidence and clarity), but I didn’t have the “scars,” triumphs, connections, experiences, realizations, heartbreaks or whatever else you’d like to call them. In France, I acquired these so-called “scars,” and I filled a black book in an attempt to remember the night Sydney and I sat on Greg’s skateboard, the familiarity of rain trickling down my window pane, the afternoon I had to explain to the drunk man on the bus that I was not, in fact, his ex-wife. Stuff like that.
I wrote about September 5th, the day I got my first “scar” catching my flight from Boston to Paris. I recalled waving goodbye to my tissue-dabbing parents from the security line and standing next to a girl named Kate whose clear, blue eyes resembled one of my California friend’s, the kind where if you look from the side you can see right through. A jumble of sweaty palms and hollow words, I distracted myself by worrying about taking my shoes off in security to reveal my polka-dot socks. Kate didn’t seem like the kind of girl to wear polka-dot socks. She was going on the challenges about packing because she owned so many pairs of boots. I overthought having only packed one pair of boots. That day, I learned to let go of the big worries.
I wrote about September 28th, 2013, my 17th birthday. I recalled the night the five of us started at the ceiling of a balmy, beige hotel room: Sydney, the nail-biting girl with glasses I befriended behind the iron gate at school, Olivia, the girl I sat next to in English class, and Tayma and Lindsey from room 208. Syd cracked the window, and we heard our classmates’ fleeting giggles outside on the beach. We could discern the sand flying up behind their heels, their batting hearts slurred into one collaborative throbbing. Olivia interrupted the hush. “So, why are we here and not out there, then?” In the quiet that followed, I saw the day’s events spiral through my head. Olivia whispering to me about the day she told her mom she was bisexual – it was New Year’s and they were eating Chinese food. Tayma’s furrowed brow in the modern art museum where we saw a statue she perceived as sexist. Lindsey’s shudder at the mention of love. Sydney’s eyes all lit up on the bus when I put one of her headphones in and listened to the song that reminded her of home. In that moment, I realized I could learn more from talking to these four than from a game of flashlight tag. I also realized I had an answer for Olivia. I said, “We aren’t out there, because we should talk.” And so we did. We talked until the night slipped away, and it wasn’t my birthday anymore. Nine months later, I wrote about the day I got the rare, good kind of scar that comes with confiding in four strangers that would soon become my best friends.
I wrote about March 5th, the day I added another scar to my growing collection. I found myself alone in Paris with only 20 minutes to catch a train to the south of France. I loathed clocks then, watched the seconds they shattered, stumbled from Metro A and then to E through tears of despair and shoved past ladies in mustard pea coats and gentlemen underneath top hats with tangled luggage dragging behind the sullied fabric of my skirt. With mascara streaming down my cheeks, I asked around for tissues, jumped turnstiles like hurdles, scrawled phone numbers with lipstick, paused only to scowl at the time on my 2:37 P.M. ticket, longed for a miracle that would keep the ticket-collector from ticket-collecting, and missed my train. No miracle. I wrote about standing in the middle of the Paris Austerlitz Gare, a 17-year old-girl, gasping for breath in the city of lights with an invalid ticket and no place to spend the night. I wrote about feeling alone in a foreign country then, but its funny because in California six months later, I realized that I’ve never felt more like a misplaced foreigner.
After France, memories came back to me in quick, sharp bursts. The thing about nostalgia is you can lock it up as secure and firm and concrete and sturdy and impermeable as you conceivably can, and out it slips in a heartbeat, released by a stranger’s soft lips, an apartment’s peeling paint, the sliver of yellow in the hallway, the murmur “want to know a secret,” a familiar song sliding through the radio speakers on a Monday night, the crackle of my television’s dizzy flickering static, the ashes of some boy’s cigarette glowing in the night fluttering onto the boulevard where he kicks dust off his shoes.
The last time I wrote in my black notebook, I should have been sleeping. At 1:13 a.m. on June 27, 2014, I scribbled:
“I know I will be okay, that one day I will look back and read these dumb explanations and trite letters, and I will have forgotten what Wednesday nights were like in December and what it felt like to be 17. I will have forgotten the sheets of rain that pooled in between my collar bones all the days my umbrella snapped, Madison Avenue, Backstage and listening to 505 for hours in a bed that was too white. I will stop wondering about the man who used his coat sleeve to wipe the bus window so I could see outside and I will stop mailing letters to Sydney and Greg and Lindsey and Olivia and Mike and Abby. I will forget because I cannot remember everything, and one day somebody will stop returning my phone calls, and France will fade away in a red haze.
I imagine that when I am 30, I will wear 2 inch heels and have an arrogant boss who smokes and that some day I will pull this little black notebook out from the back of my closet and I will read it and everything will seem childish and small. I guess that is what makes me so sad. Because these things happened and they made me blush and cry and smile. Right now, I don’t understand why nobody takes the bus in California, why Syd lives 2,782 miles away, why I don’t have a little brother to give girl advice to anymore.
There was a big wooden house that I called home, and I remember that when it rained, the windows got blurry, and I had to call the boy next door because I couldn’t see him from out my bedroom glass. There was a girl with golden hair and rose lips, and she held me when I felt as cracked and grey as the cement we spent midnights sprawled across. There was an ashy, glitzy street where we all went to fall in and out of folded love.
I hope I am wrong, and that I won’t actually forget the careless boys or the golden cities or the white houses, but just in case I do, and 30-year-old me doesn’t remember what it was like to be 17-year-old me, I need the woman wearing a pencil skirt living in a big city to remember that we were dumb and alive; that we were glowing from the inside out, and that everything was green: the green that is so light its almost white, but its not. Its green.”
Friends, family, and strangers alike often ask me the dreadful, dreadful question “How was France?” and to date, I cannot come up with a response that satisfies both myself and the surely well-intentioned (yet ignorant) questioner. I consider the nine months I spent in Rennes multi-dimensional, impossible to sum up in one sentence or a 300-page black notebook for that matter. I guess I wrote in an attempt to capture France as a whole, but by the 283rd page, I ended up realizing that the little details were what affected me the most. So here’s my answer. France was the taxi ride to the train I spent all night on, the night the four of us almost had to take Olivia to the emergency room, lingering fingers, hazy reflections, and the afternoon I had to mail all my sweaters back home at the downtown post office.
France was finding out that rain wasn’t something that only existed out my two-story window, a brick wall, the redbrick coat room in Mr. Solter’s apartment complex, the café where a stranger with a rose in his mouth walked in, slipped it in Lindsey’s mouth and kissed her, the first message he ever sent me: hey what number are we on the math thing? and the last message I ever sent him: I don’t care. she was my best friend. France was grown-up teenagers that would spit out smoke so the chimneys wouldn’t be the only ones emptying smog, feeling as dark blue as my nail polish, the sliding window across from my creased bed where on clear nights I would climb out onto my little corner of roof to wonder about the dots simmering in apartment buildings, the grinning boy who never did his math homework, murmuring walls, and bobby pins. It was a school exactly the same as back home – hallways buzzing with deafening whispers.
In February, Sophie and I went to Paris for a weekend. We had been warned to expect urbanity – cigarette butts, thick graffiti, curling smog, ugliness. Instead, we found ourselves among blushing people whose hearts tapped us through fur coats as we smashed together on the Metro. On Saturday night we went to a concert, and after, we hailed a cab at 4am with our numb fingers. When we squeezed back into our hotel room, the February sun had begun to poke in between the frosted window panes, but we ate candy for dinner and fell asleep listening to songs about 1901 and breakfast tears, our tangled tights dangling off the blue beds. Sophie and I don’t talk anymore. I think the main reason I filled the notebook with memories, “scars” was because I figured if I wrote about these things right after they happened, time wouldn’t be able to change the way I perceived France and the people I met there. Because I know how these things go. The man selling flowers on the corner will start selling cars or something and he won’t be there anymore to ask people if they feel alright, the drunk man on the bus will stop mistaking 17-year-old girls for his ex-wife, and Sophie might even stop stealing chapstick from CVS.
XX, The Girl in the Little Black Dress
P.S. Listen to this song: Death Cab for Cutie – We Looked Like Giants