I hold my bol of café au lait in both hands.
by Bobbi Lurie
I force myself to focus on the ochre tablecloth, splattered with shadows from the vase of gourdon flowers. A sense of life’s brevity fills me. I want to be mesmerized by light and shadow but my mind wanders. I need to somehow feel I am home; I need a place to call my own. Living in Paris was always my dream. And I have made it come to pass. I turn slightly to my left and see the clock tower of the Church of Saint Michel des Batignolles from the kitchen window.
I know I am lucky to have a flat in the 17th arrondisement.
The balcony is too narrow to stand on it. Still, every morning, I open the stained, velvet curtains, pull the shutters back, allow my face to feel the crisp air of La France. I hold my bol of café au lait in both hands. I dip a stale piece of yesterday’s baguette into the bol. Later, perhaps, I’ll buy a croissant, with a demitasse of stronger brew. Lately, all I eat or drink is coffee and bread.
It’s mid-morning and I must decide whether or not to use my limited energy to walk downstairs to La Village Café where they give us blankets when it’s cold. I love that place but walking downstairs means having to walk back up. I must plan my day around this fact. I drink from the bol, using the baguette to soak up the last drop of coffee.
I ran away after The Clinic shut down. I lost access to the experimental treatment. I left after the scans came back; I left in the middle of the night. I didn’t want to go through surgery again. Or chemo. I figured everyone would be fine without me. I left my final will and testament, a single hand-written Post-it note, next to Nathan’s keys. I left my life, thanks to money I saved surreptitiously, while working as a therapist; it’s money I put away in increments, in envelopes; money earned through my ability to listen. But now I desperately need time alone, time with myself, the person who comforts others.
I walk away from the window, step into the darkened apartment: everything utilitarian, at best. This flat was given to me, no questions asked. And I, in return, ask no questions. Whoever lived here before me hasn’t emptied a single drawer of torn underwear or newspaper clippings in a language I cannot decipher; the closet is crammed tight with black dresses. I avoid touching anything.
I fold my clothes on the torn, plastic sofa; I stack my books in the corner. I keep my make-up and medicines in a bag on the kitchen table. My minimal needs and demands make me feel as if I’m entering life as a twenty-year-old, not leaving it at forty-five. I don’t care if I barely have enough space for my meager possessions. This must be home. My last stop.
Un croissant, si’il vous plait, I say, later, in the boulangerie downstairs, using the formal vous, even though I‘ve ordered a croissant from her almost every day of the week for the past six months. Et une demi-tasse, si’il vous plait, I add, with a smile, wondering if the power and blush on my face has managed to cover the state of my health, my yellow skin. Her eyes mirror nothing back.
I sit in the corner by the window, looking out at the gray day, eating my croissant, savoring my demi-tasse.
I need to take the metro. I dread the sharp descent leading down to the trains; I dread being surrounded by my fellow man; man from every race, from every place on earth.
I took on part-time work, provided by a man I met on the plane on the way over. I explained myself to him and he seemed to understand. Perhaps it was the language barrier, or the way strangers are easier to speak to. He was from some Middle Eastern country. I often wonder which country he’s from. I never asked. I just remember him reading The Koran, whispering each sentence, like a furtive message. I tried not to listen when he spoke about the martyrs. I thought of 9/11 and all the dead; the searching for bodies after, for body parts, for DNA; the superficiality of congeniality, and my fear of revealing my true feelings, felt useless and frightening; still, I took the job.
Yes, I said, when he offered, I can do that. I can pick up your daughter up after her school lets out. I never had kids of my own.
He told me I could use one of his flats. Zis lady is in Germany for all ze time now. Ya can haff za place. I give ta ya za key, he said as a question and answer, both, taking a key out of a pocket from his black, leather jacket, and I write down zee place of it. He wrote the address in the notebook I use to keep track of my symptoms. Here, ya call ma ya need ta at zee headquarters. He handed me his card. On zee back ya see za cell phone of me.
The air in Paris was as polluted as it is in Missouri, the people dressed in polyester, just like back home.
The old women were as stooped and alone as they were in Kansas City. Pity is the human condition. Pitiful is what we seek to prevent.
Dr. Lehman gave me a due date for death. I decided I would stay in Paris and await it. I would give up the idea of loved ones, or friends, who no longer felt like friends, who told me to think positive or stopped speaking to me altogether after I explained my situation. I only wanted my solitude; I only wanted to savor the one thing I avoided all my life, the fact that any possible trust must be resting inside myself.
Bonjour, Madame, said Farideh when I picked her up at her school, where the teachers treated children like precious cargo, simultaneously doling out a strictness forbidden in America.
I would walk her to Timgad on Rue Brunel, as always. We would wait for one of the many men who came to get her.
Bonjour, Ma Petite, I had learned how to say a few things in French. I had also learned to wear scarves, to never leave the apartment without makeup; to wake up to my coffee, ma bol of steaming coffee, mixed with hot milk, standing at the window, leaning towards the balcony….the view.
Bobbi Lurie is the author of four poetry collections, most recently “the morphine poems,” published by Otoliths (Australia). Her poems, reviews, essays and fiction can be found in Fence, APR, New American Writing, Berfrois, and Necessary Fiction, among others. Her favorite book is Fernando Pessoa’s The Book Of Disquiet.