Giselle gets to have more than one cup of coffee a day. She drinks it in a bowl with hot milk for breakfast, then has tiny black cups later on, or bigger cups with crème, whatever she feels like. She also has a pastry for breakfast every morning. She doesn’t give a thought to blood sugar levels or fiber.
Giselle wouldn’t do well with coffee restrictions because she hangs out in Paris cafes to write or talk with other writers and artists and intellectuals and idiots. She’s not nice to the idiots. She’s sarcastic and funny, she rolls her eyes. She notices when they say something smart, though. Giselle isn’t one to keep others from changing and growing.
Giselle’s parents love that she hangs out in cafes. They think it feeds her writing process. They make weekly ecstatic phone calls from la province. How’s your writing process? they ask. Ça va? After she visits, they pack her on the train with farm-fresh eggs, from which she makes the fluffiest fresh-herb omelettes that flip in one piece, every time.
For years in my dreams of France, I never got there at all. I’d realize I was supposed to be boarding the plane, and I would rush to the airport, frantic and already defeated, knowing the runway had long been cleared. Or I was there on time but the plane was just lifting off, on a different schedule from the one I’d consulted. Or I was in the air, across the ocean, almost there, when suddenly the pilot had to turn the plane around, or I remembered some family crisis I had to attend to and we’d turn back.
At some point the dreams started taking place in France. I took this as a good omen, a sign of life changes of sufficient import to register on my psyche. Still, the picture wasn’t all pretty. I would enter the dreams at the end of a trip, suddenly aware I was leaving in the morning and had forgotten to do anything. I hadn’t been to any of the places I loved; I was just now remembering they existed. Or I’d stayed in the city the whole time and failed to visit some sweet little village or Roman ruins or a cave with prehistoric drawings, and it was too late to get there. The time in the city had been wasted too, on work or studies or illness.
Giselle looks just like me, only a few inches shorter and with a great haircut. She wears little pointy black boots instead of Birkenstocks. She loves her small breasts. Her parents are delighted she didn’t pursue a serious career after her academic successes. If anything, they want her brief flicker of a life to be full, fraught, charged with meaning. They’re thrilled she’s in Paris, smoking too much. (Giselle never quit smoking. She never developed asthma and isn’t allergic to any medications, not that she ever needs them.) Her parents want her to stay in Paris and thrive artistically, to come home only if she needs a rest, if she’s suffering some existential crisis or a breakup. Come if you ever need an abortion, her mother tells her in confiding tones.
This kind of thing makes Giselle crazy because her parents won’t get it into their provincial heads that she’s a lesbian. Sometimes they have heated confrontations. Giselle waves her hands in the air and her French mouth moves and twists rapidly, curling into all those Os and Us and Ous. She stomps around in her boots, tossing her great haircut. She thumps an index finger against her forehead to show how thick-skulled her parents are. She shouts, Ça va pas, non?
My friend Nancy used to shake her head at my hair and say, I don’t know, short hair on me just looks like short hair, but on you, it looks — it’s just so nouveau-French or something. This was before I shaved it, then started hacking it off like shrubbery, getting it down to a slightly overgrown crew cut.
When people learn I lived in France for five years of my childhood, they nod thoughtfully and say, I thought you looked French.
Sometimes when people learn Giselle spent a year in Amérique during college, they tell her they see something American about her. She gives them scathing, ironic, half-amused looks. If she feels like it, she thumps her forehead at them. Sometimes she laughs, like I do. Mais non, she says.
Two years ago I dreamed I walked into a pharmacy in Paris and asked the white-coated man behind the counter for a map. I had just arrived and wanted to plan my visit carefully. The man took me out to a table on the sidewalk — Paris buildings spread out all around me — and he leaned his bald head over the map to study it with me.
I woke up with the calm, solid assurance I was moving forward in life. If the France dream said I was handling life better, then it was somehow really true.
During the Gulf War, Giselle was depressed and overwhelmed. But at least she was able to listen to the news, because the broadcasts couldn’t be confused with reporting on high-school football games. She never heard words like stomp or cream or vanquish or vaporize. Walking to the cafes, Giselle didn’t have to march down a flag-lined street. She didn’t see any appallingly offensive T-shirts about missiles. She saw one yellow ribbon during the entire war, in the hair of her friend Isabelle. It was a mustard yellow really, part of Isabelle’s bizarre phase of wearing only off-tone yellow derivatives that made her skin take on a green cast.
Giselle didn’t get up and leave when people started talking about the war. She stayed in the conversation, switched to waving her hands in front of other people’s faces instead of her own. When she listened in on the next table, she leaned over and said Pardonnez-moi before offering a pithy rejoinder to something she’d overheard. These talks were possible because people all around her were thinking, she was thinking, it was understood that everyone was thinking, that everyone should think. No one was saying, We’ve got to get behind our boys. When she heard the word support it was in a conversation about low-cut brassieres with underwires. She pictured them lacy and black.
To this day, Giselle never hears anyone say, It’s a free country. She never hears anyone say her country is the greatest, except in conversations about food. Or language. Or love.
I recently took a trip to New York City with my life partner. Her brother and his girlfriend live in a third-floor walk-up on Perry Street in the West Village. Their apartment is long and thin with modern paintings and old wood furnishings. They pay someone to come weekly and mop up the soot that gathers on the wooden floor. And this is where writers hang out, the girlfriend said in her ongoing tour. And this is the lesbian bar.
Andi and I had rolled in on the train late Friday morning in a state of exhaustion and in an odd time-warp because we’d been told the wrong train schedule; the arrival time was off by two hours. We spent the day dragging around the village in a torporous bliss. The fall had touched the dwarfed city trees with its colors but the sky was still in summer. We spotted thrift shops and shoe stores we were too tired to go into, walked bleary-eyed through an art exhibit, finally collapsed at a sunny outdoor table where we drank coffee and ate onion rings. Our fingers and mug handles got all slippery with grease.
New York made me think of Paris. I know the streets of Paris, I’ve walked on them, I’ve ridden through tubes underneath them, I’ve bought roasted chestnuts from vendors on the corners. In New York we kept passing these stands selling hot candied peanuts and cashews. The odor was vanilla and smoke and salt, delicious and nauseating. Sometimes I veered into it, breathing deeply, and sometimes I hurried past on an exhale.
We had to sleep during the late afternoon and early evening. I hated missing out on one second in the city. I looked out the window before closing my eyes, to imprint the view on my brain. I carried to sleep several building parts, a blue, a gray, and a faded coral-salmon, bits of two fire escapes, plants in a window box, a strip of sky. I thought, This could almost be Paris.
When Giselle visited New York, she couldn’t get over how tall the buildings were. She couldn’t get over how few films the cinemas offered. She wanted a market on Sunday, but settled for the exotic bustle of Chinatown instead. She thought to herself, gazing at the compact Asian people around her, This could almost be China.
Andi’s parents came for the weekend too, and stayed in a hotel. Her mother invited herself and her husband along when she heard their two children would be in one place. Andi’s mother hates missing out on anything. She also hates me because I’m responsible for her daughter’s lesbianism. Never mind the two women she knows about who preceded me in Andi’s bed. Never mind that Andi is so obviously, so inescapably a dyke, it’s in her every cell, it can’t be helped.
This is the kind of thing that would provide pure entertainment for Giselle, of the isn’t-life-more-fun-than-fiction variety. She would not feel stricken with the pain of false accusations, of being misunderstood. She would laugh, then go hmmm, then laugh again. She’d say, Ça alors.
On Saturday Andi and I got up and went running, down Christopher Street, down to the water, deep-breathing city air and city sights. Breakfast took the rest of the morning. The girlfriend made multi-grain pancakes and apple compote from upstate apples. Andi and I put our heads together and pored over the Voice to plan our activities. But first, we agreed to go to Soho with the others.
The buildings there were taller and more imposing than those in the Village, still multicolored and beautiful. They cast a cold shadow, but you could look straight up into a brightly lit sky. I kept falling behind the others to drop into galleries, filling myself with color and texture and sculpted ceiling squares and the oily glare of wooden floors and long stretches of white-white walls. I followed the others into shops I didn’t care about, crammed with ceramics and novelties. We went into an elegant vintage store that only made me long for the thrift shops a few neighborhoods over, where I might actually find something I could afford. I was after Giselle’s boots and some winter clothes.
We strolled our lackadaisical way to lunch. We ate slowly, conversationally. Then family issues entered the talk, giving it an edge, and I found myself catching confidential looks I wasn’t meant to intercept. I angled my chair away from the table and studied the elephant motif in the restaurant’s decor. I’m not supposed to be here, I thought.
They’re not supposed to be here, I thought of Andi’s parents. This was supposed to be our weekend in New York, my weekend in New York. I haven’t been here in six years. I haven’t been to Paris in ten. I never get anything I want.
I feel a frown settle into my face. I cross my legs and start swinging my foot. I whisper urgently to Andi that we have to get away.
By the time we reach the shops we wanted, it’s four-thirty; we’re meeting the family at seven for dinner. I dash into a store to buy a postcard and hear a French song coming over the speakers. Standing in line, I take in the familiar sounds of that exquisite language. It’s a bad song, it rhymes, it’s wonderful.
We shop frantically. I have to pee so bad it hurts. Nothing fits right. We have a rule: we can buy it only if it’s perfect, and nothing is perfect. Suddenly I remember the exhibits I wanted to see. Heading for the shops, I hadn’t quite realized how much of the day — how little — was left. The museum will have a restroom, I tell Andi. Let’s go.
We get there at six-thirty. I feel crazed, distressed. I start crying before I’m done peeing. I leave my stall and get as far as the counter that extends with the mirror across a whole wall. I climb onto the counter, into the corner, pull my chin to my knees, cry and cry. I’m crying in a clean, glossy New York museum restroom on Broadway. I’m crying in the mirror. It’s a lot of crying.
It’s a dream-come-true. Suddenly I’m leaving tomorrow and I forgot to do the things I meant to do. That the day was ebbing away didn’t register early enough for me to walk away from the family, from the mother’s withering looks alternating with solicitous nicey-nice Southern politeness. Now it’s time to meet them for dinner, the day’s gone, the weekend’s over.
There isn’t even time to see the exhibit in the museum where I sit sobbing. You can’t just rush through it and try to breathe it in real quick. There’s no information up about the works; you’re supposed to walk through with a guard and get whatever he or she tells you. That’s part of the point of the exhibit, to get a different show depending on which guard you get. I love the idea. It will remain an idea, as will the exhibit by the gay man, the film by the Mexican feminist, the one-woman theater piece.
I cry because it’s too awful. I cry out of shame for crying. I cry because I really just want to take what life gives me, creatively, and not rave at it for not fulfilling my expectations. I cry because I don’t want to want things I don’t have, and because I want those boots and those outfits.
I cry because life rushes past and you have to make choices and you have to pay attention, and in the long run, in each moment, as you go, you have to take what you get. I cry because I can’t stop crying. I cry because I loathe the part of me that always wants more more more, I hate it, I don’t see where it comes from, it doesn’t fit. Or maybe it’s obvious: it comes from my mother, her mother, my father, his father, America the bountiful, land of the greedy, home of the latest thing. Giselle isn’t crying. Like me, she’s been known to wear the same outfit three days running, but she’s never been overcome with regret on that account.
But it’s not that simple. It’s also wanting to be loved and taken in by Andi’s family. It’s the infrequency of travel. It’s the pulse of the city superimposed on my body. It’s the proximity to my unlived life, the echoes of Paris, the glimpses into other possibilities, the momentary folly of wanting them all.
It’s the pain of growth not yet gained, the longing to be better: I want dreams of France that begin in the middle of the journey, with good feelings about what’s past and the surety more good will come. It’s a slipping into grief for all I am and all I’m not, and all I can’t be and can’t have. It’s distress that I’m still capable at thirty of being the docile child, doing what the grownups expect, instead of the woman doing what she knows is best for her. I could have claimed the whole day for myself — this didn’t even occur to me until now.
Andi stayed away a long time, knowing I needed solitude. She stayed away until I was about to be angry that she’d abandoned me, then she showed up. Her eyes mirrored my sadness. She was calm, completely sane, as always; she took in my rage, my grief, her eyes filling with sorrow. She was sorry. I was inconsolable.
I couldn’t stop crying in the taxi. To divert myself — I didn’t want Andi’s family to see I’d been crying — I asked the driver questions about his work, and he answered at length with great enthusiasm, with a great accent. His name tagged onto the dashboard looked Greek. Focusing on him I finally checked the tears, but I could feel the red in my eyes, and my chest was stretched out and hollow.
The cabbie, the people we stopped on the street to ask for directions — everyone we encountered in the city was terribly human. The two women who came into the museum restroom washed their hands quickly and averted their eyes; they didn’t tarry over their hair or have cheerful conversations. They maintained the solemnity of my ridiculous grief. They were wearing outfits like I didn’t get to buy, outfits Giselle wears every day.
Giselle doesn’t have stereotypes of city people. She does have stereotypes of Americans, though. She thinks they have shallow hearts and minds, and a rapacious hunger for things. She thinks they’re frighteningly self-important and pseudo-moralistic.
Giselle doesn’t live in the woods. She doesn’t keep meaning to get a bird book. She doesn’t get to study golden light filtering through the trees and pooling on the red-brown leafy ground. Her cats don’t breathe fresh air and claw fallen tree trunks and smell like the earth. She never says to herself, Be here now. Sometimes she collapses against her door and whirls with too much caffeine and conversation, and when she shuts her eyes she hears inside herself a sweet sound she can’t name — the hush of a Carolina breeze.