In Which We Almost Go To Paris

A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance


When I was eleven or twelve years old, before I was expelled from the Nederland School for Boys, Celeste decided that we should move to Paris. To me it seemed that the decision was made suddenly, although in fact it was probably the crystallization of years of longing, nourished by Godard festivals at the Film Forum, friends who had the money to vacation in Europe, a new translation of the letters of Simone de Beauvoir. It happened at dinner, one evening in the spring; we had finished eating and we were still sitting at the table, talking about Lucy Kerckhoffs, one of Celeste’s fellow teachers at the Holy Name Day School, who was leaving the profession to get married, and how strange it was that women still did that, got married and left their jobs, when Celeste said, as though it followed from what she had been saying before, “Don’t you think we’d all be happier in Paris?”

“Paris?”

“America is in decline,” said Celeste. “I think we should move to Paris.”

I expected Marie to object, because she usually did when her sister generalized, and also because Marie didn’t like French things, she preferred the bright colors of Africa and South America, a fact that I found useful when buying her presents. But all she said was, “Paris.”

“It makes sense,” Celeste said. “We can get a bigger place than this over there for what we’re paying. The exchange rate is good. We could work for UNESCO, or teach English, or art.”

Celeste talked about how they could get their visas, and what it would cost to fly, and how much money they would need to save before they could go, and suddenly I had to think, Paris?

I didn’t want to go. I had a teacher at Nederland, Mrs. Booth, who went to Paris every summer. She was a big woman who wore a big gold necklace, who laughed at me for saying je suis chaud, when the correct phrase was j’ai chaud, but wouldn’t tell me what was funny about the mistake. I imagined that all of Paris would be like Mrs. Booth, made-up and overdressed, laughing at me for something I had unwittingly done wrong.

“And in the summer,” Celeste said, “we’ll visit Italy and Greece.”

In the summer, then, I wouldn’t go to Thebes. Panic settled in my stomach, a cold aching spot above and to the right of my navel. I couldn’t say that I didn’t want to go, or Celeste would only become more determined; I knew that about her by then. So I had to listen in silence as Celeste described the life we would all be living in less than a year’s time, how we would get up early to shop in the markets and stay out late on summer evenings, walking up and down the boulevards.

It was the pain in my stomach that gave me my idea, because wasn’t the appendix to the right of the navel? I knew kids at Nederland who had scars where their appendixes had been taken out. They’d gone to the hospital, and spent weeks recovering, I thought. So that would be my defense against Paris, appendicitis, if only I could time my rupture right. “Are there any potatoes left?” I asked. Marie passed them to me in silence. As I ate, I pictured myself in bed in Thebes, recovering from an appendectomy, scarred, weak, but alive, and in Thebes, talking to the Celestes on a transatlantic line, keeping our conversations brief, speaking loudly into static. I ate until I was full and I kept eating.

“What do you think about Paris?” Marie asked me.

“I don’t know,” I said, my mouth full of bread. “I hear French girls are pretty.”

Celeste laughed and hit the table with her fingertips. “He’s going to be a Casanova,” she said. “Won’t you be a Casanova?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “What’s a Casanova?”

“A man who women like,” Marie said.

“Your father was a Casanova,” Celeste said.

I nodded gravely and added the fact to my hoard of information about Richard Ente. “I might be one,” I said, which made my mothers laugh.

“He’ll love Paris,” Celeste said. “Let’s go tomorrow.”

“I don’t know,” Marie said. “Let’s think it over.”

French music filled our apartment. Waltzes, tangos, polkas and fox-trots for clarinet and accordion while my mothers made dinner, then Brel, Piaf, Greco, singing softly while we ate. After dinner, Celeste put on an old gypsy song and reeled around the kitchen, washing the dishes and wiping the counters. Tes troublants yeux noirs, prometteurs d’espoir…. Your disturbing dark eyes, which promise hope…. Her dark eyes met the dark eyes of her sister and moved hopefully away. It was part of the strategy she had devised to entice Marie into agreeing to go to Paris: Celeste maintained a musical barrage, an unending onslaught of sound, so that the beauty and elegance of the French would not be forgotten for even a moment, and the sound of their instruments and their intricate French rhymes would become the background against which we lived our lives, like the whisper of traffic on Riverside Drive, a sonic marker of where we were, which would have alarmed us if it stopped.

Nor was music her only weapon. Celeste made concerted assaults on Marie’s palate, and incidentally on mine, once or twice a week, which varied in their success as Celeste was not consistently a good cook. Her chicken, or, as she called it, poulet with haricots verts amazed us, but her cassoulet was a brown inedible mass of expensive ingredients, and she was betrayed by her dessert, the same tarte aux too-sweet fruits night after night, because she couldn’t bake and the pastry shop on Broadway had a limited selection of authentically French fare.

Celeste made up for these deficiencies by shifting our meals to a “European” schedule, which meant that we ate dinner at eight-thirty, by candlelight, and had our salad after the main course. The Celestes had always drunk wine with dinner; now Celeste took a bottle of liqueur from the bottom of the linen closet after dinner and poured a glass for herself and her sister; as they sipped their drinks, and we listened to Brel sing on and on about the port of Amsterdam, she would sometimes light a Lucky Strike, tilt her head back, and blow smoke through her teeth at the ceiling. If we had gone to France then, I think we would have been disappointed at how American it was; certainly we would have remarked on the quiet. But there was nothing wrong with our new life; our French dinners were just as good as the American ones had been, and the music, irritating at first, gained a giddy charm when Marie showed me how to dance to it.

Also, Celeste was happy. Normally, when she washed the dishes, she was certain to break a glass, sometimes two; now nights and even weeks went by when we didn’t hear the Fuck! of ruined glassware. She laughed more often, sometimes she even giggled, a sound I had never heard her make before, and which seemed to transform her, so that she became even younger than her sister. At dinner she talked more about herself, and the things she was going to do. She revealed to us that she had wanted for a long time to learn how to weld metal; now she’d asked a friend who taught at the Cooper Union, and he was going to initiate her into the mysteries of the blowtorch.

“Where are you going to weld?” Marie asked, even though we both knew the answer.

“When we move to Paris, we’ll have a studio, a big studio.”

Even as she deferred the ultimate fulfillment of her dreams to the time when we would live in Paris, the thought that we were going, that we might go, inspired her to take the intermediate steps that she had been putting off for years. She sent in an application for a grant from the State Council on the Arts, because, she said, you could still be a New Yorker in France; she got out her sketchbook and drew metal ovals and long metal limbs.

What was even more striking, the way she talked about other people changed. The faculty at the high school where she taught were no longer those jerks or those idiots, and the students were no longer slow and troubled. The super’s family problems vanished from her conversation, and the super himself followed; the students and the faculty and the school itself came up less and less, as though they had comprised an unpleasant but exciting event, an elevator breakdown or a friend’s illness, that was now over, and was fading into the past. New York itself was disappearing from our living-dining room, one inconvenience at a time: the subway went, and the grocery store, and the neighbor whose son was learning to play the piano; the dogs vanished from the park, then the park vanished; only the weather remained, and the ominous knock of the pipes, which were still heating our apartment even though spring had begun.

Celeste was happy because the world was vanishing, and meanwhile I pursued my plan to make my appendix burst. I ate the French chicken down to its American bones; I devoured the beans, the bread and butter, the soft yellow cheese that smelled like an unwashed person; I ate the last éclair. I had stomach-aches every night and went to bed happy, dreaming of Thebes. “You’re getting a little tummy,” Marie said to me one morning when I was coming out of the bathroom, a towel stretched around my waist. It was true, I was filling out, becoming round, I needed new pants and in the locker room at Nederland I changed with my stomach pressed into my locker, as though that would escape notice. It would all be worth it, I thought, come the day.

I wonder what would have happened if we had gone to Paris. Would Celeste’s transformation have been permanent, or would she have begun to complain about those bitches in the UNESCO typing pool, the crazy prices at the covered market, the concierge’s drinking problem? Would she have found another city to pin her hopes on, and filled our Paris apartment with incense and the droning of the sitar? I like to think she would have been happy, that we would have been happy there. I include myself, although I never abandoned my secret plan, and kept hidden under my bed an old, increasingly noxious square of coffee cake, that I thought was certain to blow out my already tortured appendix, and that probably would have killed me if I’d eaten it. Paris, that music, those tarts, was becoming a part of my daily life, and I might have been happy about it, except that the spring was warming up, and with it, unbidden, came my memories of Thebes. The cherry trees in Riverside Park produced white-pink petals and I produced memories, of the old green mountains, the Summerkill, the man-made lake with the sandy beach, my grandparents’ house, the little yellow room where I would lie and read.

Even as Celeste circled advertisements in the back of The New York Review of Books for Paris apartments to rent, I was thinking about the hot wooden smell of my grandparents’ attic and the cool stone smell of the basement. The spring tortured me; the summer tied my thought in knots. Pink-white blossoms covered the ground; New Jersey vanished behind a bank of smog; you could go outside without a jacket; still I waited in the apartment, watching my mothers as a dog watches its humans. Were we going to Paris? There were only a few days left in the school year when a letter came for Marie, offering her an assistant editorship at S, a women’s magazine, a position she’d applied for almost a year earlier.

The Celestes talked about it over poulet basquaise that night.

“What I want to know is, where do they get all that money?” Marie said.

“From women,” said her sister. “It’s those fat people, you know. Like Jan Engeler.”

“Oh, Jan!” Marie giggled. “The lady with the cats.”

“Another glass of wine?”

Celeste poured for both of them. My mothers talked about the horrible people they’d known in Thebes. Marie laughed louder each time her sister made a joke at their expense, but Celeste wasn’t laughing. There was a terrible intensity in her face; she leaned forward on her chair, her shoulders pulled in close to her chest, and looked at her sister as though she were an oracle about to speak. Whenever Marie’s glass was almost empty, she refilled it, and they went on talking, now about Thebes, now about the magazine. “And those models!” Celeste said. “It’s the culture of starvation.” But she was careful not to criticize S unequivocally, lest Marie rebel. “Of course, it’s the women’s magazines that make the rules. You could put fat models in, and people would start eating again.” Celeste cleared the table and brought out dessert.

She took the liqueur bottle from the cabinet and poured glasses for herself and her sister. “Santé!”

“Santy Claus to you, too.”

With this the sisters fell silent. We ate the tart.

“It’s a lot of money, though,” Marie said.

“That’s true,” said Celeste. “It’s more than I make.”

She patted her sister’s hand. “Maybe you should go for the interview.” The look she directed at Marie, though, was one of pure anguish, and Marie saw it.

“I don’t know, I’d just be sucked in,” she said, “and there’s France…”

Celeste lit a cigarette. She leaned her head back and blew smoke at the ceiling. “I hear they have magazines in France,” she said. This was her best argument, and after she had advanced it, she stopped speaking, for fear of undoing its charm.

Marie sipped her liqueur. “I have to think about it,” she said.

She got up from the table and went into the kitchen. Her glass was still half-full of green liquid; Celeste studied it, then, with a swift, angry motion, drank it herself. Soon afterwards I left for Thebes. I was relieved that I hadn’t needed to burst my appendix, but I still had that tummy, which has, in fact, never left me, and which I carry with me even now, a souvenir of a trip we never made.


© 2008-2021 Paul La Farge. All rights reserved.