France, Part 12
All my shoes are wet.
Antoine e-mailed me yesterday morning with instructions on how to get to the meeting point. It was a very stale, cold letter, reminding me to not bring anything with me, to dress warm, to be there on time at 6:30. Every morning in Paris has been the same these days. I sit naked on the balcony eating cereal and watching the 7-year-olds downstairs in their concrete prison yard trying to do backflips off the spiral staircase. I am waiting for the gory fateful day where little [Jacques or Arnaud or whoever] splits his skull and how all the imagery of that will become superimposed on all this sort of mild pleasantness.
My heart has grown adjusted to feeling numbness. When I was in college, my friend Johnny told me about this psychological experiment where they separated two groups and had each group write down phone numbers in a phone book. At the end of the experiment, they paid one group for their time and the other group got nothing. When each group was asked how they felt about the exercise, the group that did not receive money responded more positively. Because without the incentive of money, they had to create their own meaning for participating in the exercise. Many said it was therapeutic, meditative.
When people ask me why I’m doing the things I’m doing, no one is paying me or telling me to do it. I often have to come up with my own reasons, and sometimes there are none. Sometimes I just do things. I like to think that future me will be able to make sense of it–she’ll know what it was all for when she ate that cereal naked. She’ll know why I had incite chaos in Chinatown by asking the French Asian men there all sorts of vulgar things about rectums. But present me can’t seem to acknowledge the fact that future me is a girl not unlike herself–she too has problems… what burden will her problems place on her understanding of today’s events?
What role does every person have on my life? Every utterance aimed at me pieces together to spin the threads of my own timeline in some way that is different than without them there. The other morning, Chris e-mailed me. He said all of these things to me, about how special I am to him. When I think about his words, when I am walking down the sidewalk, when I am voyeuristically spectating…
Two impassioned lovers standing in the Metro entrance: a man with his left hand firmly squeezing against the small of his lover’s back, pressing her sacrum so her hips fall into him.
A little boy gasp in disbelief and then break into a sob as he loses his balloon because he stopped to inspect a cricket drowning in a puddle…
When I smell the air that has the taste of a hundred different stories entwined…
And when I think about his words inside of these observations, I know the way my heart is beating amelodically, both with tempo of love and confusion… lacking a steady beat, lacking a metronome to guide it into harmony… that will always be mixed into that meaty brew of French fragrance.
People will tell you all sorts of dumb shit, but you know, there’s little worse in this world than feeling love for someone and having to swallow it whole because you have nowhere else to put it.
At 5:45 I headed to the Metro over in 17e. There were a lot of roadworks. A lot of the stores here in this part of the city are different from what you will see in the inner arrondissements. Smaller. The storekeepers stand outside smoking. When they inhale, the shape of their eyes changes as it falls on to you. The gaze has sexual connotations, but at the same time, supercilious, smarmy overtones so that the look is sexual but not sexy. When I look at people’s faces here, they are often blank. People are very good at hiding their reactions to their own thoughts as they walk. For me, I am constantly thinking, constantly reacting. My face sometimes shifts from amusement to anger in a moment’s notice as I recall something or I carry out a fake conversation in my head of what events are ahead of me.
When I am walking, I think about friends of mine who are so real with me that it aches at times and things they have said to me about my experiences here. I don’t know if me a year ago could have handled the kind of feedback I get from people like Nick or Luka. They are so blunt with me and I really appreciate it in ways I don’t think I know how to voice to them. I think about how weird our society is that we are still reserved with how much we can value someone as a close friend when they are far away, even though the technology permits the utmost ernest profundity from those friends. They are miles and miles away from me and yet they are open with me in ways that people right before me will never manage to be. I asked Raoul the other day how much he feels people are open with him. He evaded the question. He said my openness is startling. That it seems like I just want to cut the bullshit and get straight into the plot of a Woody Allen film. It turned into which of his films we think the other belongs in. I think he’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. He thinks I’m [cliche!] Annie Hall.
When I got to the Metro, Antoine was outside with another guy, some Portuguese dude. I can’t remember his name, but it started with an F. Something about him made me feel very awkward. I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the eye for more than half a second at a time. He had a very thick jaw and dark curly hair. And he had a very arrogant posture. We walked underground to this dark area–I don’t know if all Metro stations were like this, but I feel like I could have passed by this spot a million times and never noticed it. Noemi was there and she’s holding some flashlights, packs of batteries, rope, and a bunch of other items… it looks like we’re about to go rock-climbing. She has a thin sheen of sweat on her arms and I know she has already gone down.
There is a ladder. Antoine goes down first. They tell me to go next. It’ll be safest because they’ll know where I’m at. The ladder seemingly goes down for a very long time in abject darkness. I can hear the Portuguese guy’s breath above me a bit further up and as I descend, the temperature and ambience change dramatically so that when I exhale, I can feel the humid heat of my breath flash back into my face. I wonder if this is what the rest of the trip will be like. I’m not sure if I’m really liking it yet. My hands are sweating. I wonder if I die doing this, if I would be satisfied with the outcome of knowing I died doing it. I hear a thud below and I know that is Antoine hitting the bottom. It sounds dry and I say, knowing by echolocation that I am relatively close myself, “Are we there yet?” He says, “No, it’s still a few more feet down.”
The ladder ends about 4 feet off the ground and I kind of dangle my legs down, laughing, not realizing I have to drop. When I laugh, I feel like the sound travels for miles. Antoine remarks, “Sorry, I should have warned you… you have to be careful because if you get hurt in here, even the smallest things can be very serious.” There is now a wall that we have to repel down. It is maybe 6 or 7 feet tall. For everyone else, this is not much of a big deal, but given my height, Antoine secures a rope and I swing down and he and Noemi catch my feet with their hands to lower me.
The four of us turn on our flashlights simultaneously and I catch my first glimpse. It just looks like a sewer. There are canals with dirty water. It’s very tiny too. At my height, it is okay, but for the rest, they are crouching and Antoine is all like “suivez moi” and I watch as his legs spread and he walks with each foot on each side of the passage, waddling like a duck. I laugh and he hushes me.
I follow along but sometimes I clumsily fall out of this and my feet land in the water. It is about half a foot deep, my feet are submerged. I don’t know what is in the water, so I don’t ask because in my mind, it’s all bile and formaldehyde. Antoine is telling us about the history of the Catacombs. Most of it I have already read about, but he tells us that in one part, a few years ago, there was a fully equipped movie theater running underground. I couldn’t visualize this because at the moment, the trip felt like hiking and although it was increasingly growing in its appeal, it still had this unwelcoming vibe that made it hard to imagine anyone doing anything within. The funny thing is that the tunnels did not really smell bad. They just kind of smelled like an old person who is almost at the brink of death but not quite–that weird odor that makes you feel just a little uneasy but you’re not too sure why.
Antoine flashed the light at a wall in a big opening and suddenly I saw a huge wall of graffiti. It was unreal. It was skeletons dancing in a blaze of rainbow and fire. Suddenly everything had a new energy. And I realized that when you have these taboo tunnels that are so closed off, all the artistic energy within is contained within, and recycled through all who come inside. It is on you to make the most of that energy–and it was a difficult burden because I didn’t know what it would give me.
Suddenly the Portuguese guy is grabbing my hand and he touches it to the wall and I realize I am touching bones. Whose bones? I don’t know. Who are all these people who have been forgotten? Who are preserved but unmarked, who are revered but unknown? When I die, I want my body donated to science. But when people say that, as some comedian I heard said, people think their body is getting used for something great but you know, your cadaver might go to some flunkie medical student who can’t find your kidney and the professor will come over and mark a big fat ‘F’ on your tit and you’ll be dropped down a chute of forgotten bodies, used only to deem some asshole was too stupid to work in the medical profession.
Antoine calls back from far ahead that we are underneath Pigalle. The “rooms” get more opened up in the space we pass through and I get a little more confident of breaking away from the group. I now know how to direct the light of my flashlight to see the most. My ears have gotten a bit more in tune with locating the rest of the group by the sound of their reverberating breaths. As I turn around a corner, I can faintly hear another breath, two breaths. I shine the light down at the floor so that I get just a sliver of contrast from the blackness. The breathing is labored but rhythmic. It’s sex breath. Two people are having sex. I am curious but not sure how to confirm without it being awkward. I quietly step further into the room, now losing focus on how dangerous it might be to get separated from Antoine and Noemi. But I can hear little whispers. In French. I don’t know what they’re saying until I heard a sudden strained, “Fiche-moi le camp!” and I shine the light directly forward to get a deer-in-headlights view of a very large, rotund woman straddling a thin rat-like dude on a rocky platform. They are both completely naked. I laugh and run backwards. I think it was a prostitute. It was so awkward and as I ran, idiotically, I knocked into Antoine, and out of breath tried to explain what I just saw, but he dismissively and casually remarked, “Yeah that’s normal.”
Noemi starts to sing a French song I’ve never heard. Soon we are in a larger room and other people are there. There is a guy drawing two girls sitting together. One of the girls occasionally lifts her head up and kisses the other girl on her temple. They are in love. Antoine turns back to the three of us and says kind of poetically, “This is what we are here for, to know that all we have is each other, until we are hard and our bones are only here to support for the living.”
When you are in this tunnel, you have no awareness of time. There is no natural light and no events that happen that give you a foothold for how quickly that time is passing. When I left to go home, I felt like I had been away for a full week. I wasn’t physically exhausted, but I felt like someone had shoved a rainbow in my throat, on top of all that I already felt, like someone had wound up one of those little motorized toys… and released me in the street and said, “Here’s life. Get going.”