Tell Me About Nerval
. . . and there was that one winter afternoon, after I left the hotel on Montmartre, because sometimes after I would see the other boy, the French boy Alex from the university and the bleak graffiti-splattered classroom building on Rue Censier, then everything would seem more strange than ever, sometimes I wouldn’t go right back to the apartment on Rue Broca, I mean I couldn’t go back there right then and just talk and try to act naturally around Billy, and it was the same for me that afternoon after I was together with the French boy up on Montmartre, and I suppose a better way of putting it would be that I really couldn’t face Billy, I couldn’t face him just yet after having spent the afternoon with Alex in another one of those one-star hotels where we did go in the afternoon . . .

. . . and Alex would laugh, handsome Alex, lanky and his oaky blond hair needing a cut, the old sheepskin coat with its brown suede worn shiny and his black jeans, the long, long red-and-yellow scarf wrapped two or three times around his neck the way that only a French boy would dare to wear a scarf like that, I told him it was “very baroque” and he just smiled, dimples showing, he knew how handsome he was, and sometimes he would almost stand back and watch to see if I, an American girl, was maybe, well, shocked by the place where we would go for the few hours, the latest hotel he had discovered that was cheaper than the last, shabbier, and to tell the truth the hotels usually weren’t even one-stars, and he would smile some more and laugh, this boy Alex, he would say that one-stars were getting way beyond his means, and, in fact, what I learned is that there is a kind of hotel graded below one-stars, old hotels that can’t even get any rating of stars, and inevitably attached to the facade of such a hotel there’s only the standard ancient plaque of sort of polished black stone with gold lettering promising “Tout Confort,” meaning all the amenities, the very premise of that suitably ironic, I never meant to hurt Billy, I know I can still say that I loved only Billy during all that time we were in Paris together, living there in the apartment on Rue Broca, and of course I was excited only a year before back in the snowy dream of Ithaca and when Billy got word from the departmental chairman that he was awarded the grant for the research year, when he was told it was approved and so we would be going to Paris for Billy to finish work on the dissertation for which he already had a book contract, with a university press, it seemed like everything was ahead of us, I mean not just eventual marriage and a life always together but, “Can you believe it, Paree!” which is what my sister Madison sighed when I told her, she was a year ahead of me in college and I roomed with her, and I can admit that before going I pictured just about every cliché of our living in Paris, sometimes I saw myself riding a wobbly black-fendered bicycle down a Paris side street, the cobbles lumpily purple, with a freshly aromatic baguette balanced across the tastefully weathered wicker basket in front, sometimes I saw myself actually sitting with a book and looking suitably and even existentially bored at one of those little round tables with a faux-marble top and a frilly cast-iron stem in the clutter of a café terrasse, probably under the green awning of Café de Flore or the cream-colored awning of Deux Magots, I had never been to Paris, I had never been anywhere, really, I had only seen pictures and movies, and even in Ithaca I always felt more like a townie than a student because I had come there from Saratoga Springs, from one place in the low mountains of upstate New York for me and my sister and then to another place in the low mountains of upstate New York, I had never been anywhere at all, and Billy had been my grad-student TA for the one French-literature class I took, a survey course which I didn’t even do well in, it fulfilled a humanities-distribution requirement I had during sophomore year, so how could I expect to think in anything but clichés, and that particular afternoon with Alex it wasn’t much different, it was an afternoon in late February and Alex undressed me at the hotel up on Montmartre, he would always do that, undress me slowly himself, he was a French boy, he really was, and Cornell was letting me transfer credits from the confused attempt at a university with the classy name and called Sorbonne Nouvelle there in Paris to cover what remained of my course work at home, I was a senior, and if being away from campus meant having to wait until the hot, cicada-buzzing summer in Ithaca to graduate, what did a few months matter, I could finally get everything done then with a couple of required-to-graduate courses, two semesters of each course crammed into one summer session, more distribution requirements for my degree, a class in government and a class in geology, or I saw the basic geology as being the easiest way out of the undergraduate science-distribution requirement, at Cornell it attracted all the oafish hockey players, “Rocks for Jocks” is what they called the course, and before we left, even then when we got our visas and we made our many plans, back in Ithaca, Billy would tell me about Nerval, and I don’t know why it was Nerval I always wanted to hear about, always wanted to know so much more about, I suppose, and with Billy doing his study of the French Symbolists it could have been any of the other poets, and it could have been Baudelaire, or Verlaine or Rimbaud or Mallarmé, all of them who came after Baudelaire and who were really the Symbolists, the way I understood it, or the way Billy explained it to me, all of them who maybe learned everything they knew from Nerval, who had come along even before Baudelaire in what amounted to that spookily dark and therefore wonderfully mysterious nineteenth century of French literature, and I was just a bonehead sociology major, why, I had even been in a sorority for my first couple of years simply because at Cornell my sister saw that as a major accomplishment in itself, especially the fact that we were in the same sorority my mother had been in at Cornell, all over-the-top mock Tudor and color-bursting maples in fall, all over-the-top mock Tudor and equally color-bursting lilacs and forsythia in spring, my sister Madison who probably would have been a home ec major as my mother had been if they still had a major called that, Madison clung to tradition, it was all foolishness, the keg parties at fraternities were foolishness, the big dances where a date should definitely be a member of one of the best fraternities were foolishness, and when I met Billy everything suddenly was different, and even if he was finishing his PhD, Billy my TA for that French class, he was only a few years older, and with Billy I realized how much I had missed, he was quiet and even shy, he knew things, which is what I tried to tell Madison but Madison didn’t understand at first, or I don’t think she understood any of it, she couldn’t figure out why I was even with him, until she realized that my being with Billy would mean my getting to live for a year in Paris, then she was giddily envious, Madison was like that, she talked about the wonderful clothes I could buy in Paris, the fashionable restaurants I could go to, her fantasies of Paris maybe more skewed than mine, and for me just the fact that Billy had come from New York City to Cornell seemed important, so brainy that he had graduated from CCNY at twenty the way brainy kids only in New York City somehow do, and that seemed to speak a whole other world to me, one of books and ideas, and when we had our first dates he was very kind to me, we would go to a movie and then have cheese-gunky pizza afterward and he would tell me it was amazing how I noticed things, I would look at the heavy rain running off a rooftop at night and splaying in a cascade, finding it beautiful as we walked along under his umbrella after the movie, let’s say, and he would say he loved how I noticed things, and even when I tried to make his interests my interests, when I, too, wanted to learn about the Symbolist poets that he studied so hard, he gave me a book that he told me would be a good introduction, a paperback reprint of an old book written around 1900 or something, Billy said it was definitely as good as anything ever written since then when it came to the Symbolist poets in France, it was the book that introduced all of England and even T. S. Eliot to the Symbolists, Billy said, Billy adding that T. S. Eliot was an energetic imitator who stole from the Symbolists, Eliot proudly admitted it, Billy said, and to be honest I didn’t get too far in the book, the writing seemed old-fashioned and slow to me, but I kept thinking about the cover of the paperback Billy had bought at a used bookstore on the Commons in downtown Ithaca, the book was called The Symbolist Movement in Literature by a man named Arthur Symons, and this particular edition was one that had been reissued and given a new introduction in the 1960s, with a cover trying to be hip, and I checked inside the cover for the reprint date, 1967, but it was that cover itself that I really kept looking at, I still think of that cover even today and it brings back all the sadness, what eventually happened to Billy, and the cover was beautiful even if it was hokey, really sixties-ish, all right, it said at the bottom of the cover that originally the book cost only ninety-five cents, I couldn’t believe that any book ever cost just ninety-five cents when new, the used paperback was so old, and the cover had a black background, and up top there was the title in bright white letters and then the author’s name in bright orange letters, both against that black, which was the black of night, I suppose, and below that there was a drawing that filled most of the cover against all the surrounding black, and it showed the opened palms of a person’s hands, sort of cupping a beautiful butterfly, the markings on its spread wings bright orange and bright white and very bright turquoise blue, as if the hands had found what the person had been searching for at last, there was the it, there was the secret to everything, and once Billy caught me just sitting at his desk in his room in Ithaca, a room with so many stacked books from the library that it smelled of musty paper and Uris Library, dull, pulpy, but sweetly so and nice, I was staring at the cover, and I almost had to snap out of it, the kind of trance the cover left me in and simply the idea of it, I maybe whispered low, more to myself than to him, “The cover is very beautiful,” and he looked at me sitting at his desk with the book, Billy with his glasses, steel-rimmed and perfectly round, like two quarters shining, Billy’s mussed brown hair always seeming as if he had just woken up even if he hadn’t just woken up, and he said again how he loved how I noticed things, and he even chided himself aloud for being so caught up in what he said he was always caught up in, words and words and more words, he told me that he had never as much as looked twice at that cover, and then he said it was, in fact, true, and this was what his Symbolists were all about, a search for the it of everything, the secret hidden in the black darkness of night that could suddenly somehow be there like a butterfly in your own cupped open palms, entirely as if in a dream, and right then Billy leaned over and gently kissed the top of my head as I sat there at the desk, he said not only was I beautiful but the way I noticed things was the most beautiful thing of all, Billy was like that, kind to me, and to be honest I didn’t want to read that book or any other of the stacks and stacks of books Billy had, it was better when Billy would tell me himself about all those poets, and, as I said, the more he told me about Gérard de Nerval the more I wanted it to be only the story of Nerval that he told me, and Billy said that early on in his research he had made the major mistake of overlooking Nerval, Billy told me that earlier, when he hadn’t read enough Nerval and had just heard scattered facts about the writer, he somehow categorized him as just another effete aristocratic French madman dabbling in poetry, until he learned more about him, his life and his work, the “de Nerval” part of his name wasn’t aristocratic but merely something he had concocted to replace his real surname, part of the sadness of his early life, Billy said, because Nerval’s father, a field doctor with the army in the Napoleonic Wars, had brought his young wife with him on the campaign, the woman setting off to accompany the father only months after Gérard was born and then handed over to the care of relatives back in France, and she died of fever in a camp somewhere on the front in Poland, Gérard was raised by an uncle in the Valois region of northern France, and Gérard simply made up the name with the “de Nerval” in it to represent some anchoring in his life, to say where he was from, and actually he was quite modest, and when he did drop out of medical school in Paris, Nerval an only son constantly disappointing his stern father the doctor, yes, when he did start publishing his dreamlike poems and stories and plays and accounts of travel in very dreamlike faraway places, like Cairo, a white city in maybe 1850 shimmering under the Orient’s sun, or Istanbul, a city of spired mosques at the time and rising even more dreamlike under the stars and moon of the Orient’s inky night sky, he often signed his pieces with only his given name, Gérard, entirely modest, shy, soft-voiced, not all that big in stature and prematurely balding, falling hopelessly in love with actresses whose presence there before him in costume frills and heavy makeup under the glow of the bright gas stage lamps made them ethereal for him, entirely otherworldly, women he idolized from afar and was hesitant even to try to meet, Billy told me that you could read all the biographies in the world about Nerval and never find anything bad anybody had to say about him personally, and often I would ask Billy to tell me about Nerval again, I think I just liked hearing the words spoken like that by Billy when we studied together in the Greek coffee shop near campus in Ithaca or in the dark of his room after making love, and, true, Nerval was institutionalized on and off throughout his short life, considered mad by some, and, true, he did end his life by hanging himself in an alley one cold January Parisian night when he didn’t even have the money for a room in a cheap lodging house, but that wasn’t what Nerval was really about, Billy said, and for Nerval it was all a matter of what the title announced in Nerval’s most important work, the novella called Le rêve et la vie, dream and life, one maybe the other, no difference whatsoever, and when I asked Billy to tell me about the lobster again, because I liked the way Billy told that story, Billy said it really wasn’t true, or in all likelihood it wasn’t true, it was just part of the Nerval madman legend, but I told Billy I didn’t care, I wanted to hear it again, how Nerval in black top hat and black frock coat, his clothes admittedly frayed, could be seen around the Palais-Royal colonnade arches right in the center of old Paris and across from the Louvre, walking a pet lobster on the leash of a pale blue ribbon, Nerval apparently calmly answering anybody who asked, telling them in his soft, smiling way, that he had always liked lobsters better than dogs, and lobsters didn’t bark and frighten everybody, lobsters knew the true mysteries of the sea, the messages of the Ocean Floor itself, gentle Nerval explained, mysteries that were maybe like the beautiful butterfly held in cupped palms, I knew, and the French boy, Alex, that afternoon we met again after classes, he suggested that we take the blue-sparking Métro to a hotel up on Montmartre, I told him I wasn’t sure and . . .

. . . and we were standing there in front of the coffee machines in the foyer of the classroom building, where it seemed that most everything that went on in that building, the classes upstairs, almost didn’t matter, the lobby was more important, everybody congregating there in that lobby amid all the half-euro coffee machines, everybody even smoking there and not caring how signs everywhere said there was no smoking allowed in the building, green rubber tile and bright yellow-and-green walls in a giant free-form patterning that somebody must have thought at one time was modern and very daring in the run-down reinforced-concrete block that was the classroom building off Rue Censier, not far from the domed Panthéon, and Alex told me I had to go with him, I had to be with him that afternoon, it was a perfect winter day to be on Montmartre, he looked so handsome, but he always looked so handsome, and I had my book pack over my shoulder, and I was standing there with a sugar-syrupy espresso just bought from one of the machines, it was in a tiny translucent white plastic cup and I had to balance it, keep it from spilling, I couldn’t push him away even if I wanted to, and there were all the other students standing around, the pretty French girls in their jeans and tight sweaters cursing about professors, the guttural-voiced boys with them doing the same, everybody shoving in and out of the big doors covered with more broadsides pasted over the older peeling broadsides, shabby the way that everything associated with education in France seemed shabby, the buildings anyway, the windows in that big foyer fogged up with steam from so many people there and because it was cold and damp outside in the gray afternoon of trees with coathanger-bare black limbs, the rich smell of exhaust sooty in the air, Paris in February, everybody buying those little cups of espresso that truly were wonderful, coffee out of a thumping machine that was probably better than any coffee in a coffee shop you might get back home, strong, good, and it was as if Alex liked the way he had me cornered, I was in a nook away from the crowd about to sip my coffee and he found me standing there, where he knew I would be waiting for him after class, he was tall, his oaky blond hair touched what could have been the ruff of that red-and-yellow scarf he always wore, wrapped in loose loops around his neck and the tails of it cavalierly dangling, he had a movie star’s strong jaw, he had dimples, and with me still attempting to balance the little coffee cup that way, he started nuzzling his face around my neck, kissing me, whispering to me about what he told me was my beautiful hair, whispering to me about what he said were my beautiful breasts and what he called, above all and specifically, my “very, very beautiful bum,” because that was the word he used, a British word, really, and whenever he was with me he wanted to speak only English, we didn’t speak French together, and if I was back at Cornell or any other school in America, surely, something like his fondling me would have meant a scene, but in Paris it was no scene and nobody else so much as glanced our way, and in one class I took, the professor, wanting to get the class started, would repeatedly have to call out to a girl to please come in from where we could all see her vigorously making out with her boyfriend in the hallway and take a seat so that he, the professor, could begin his lecture, and in another seminar where we all sat around some marred light-wood tables arranged in sort of a U, one gruff, curly-topped boy, decidedly Belmondo-ish, announced to everybody at the start of class one day, shaking his head in consternation, that he simply had to move and take another seat, because too many of the smiling girls sitting across from him were wearing short skirts that particular day and he would only be looking under the table and at, well, those short, short miniskirts and beyond, and he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on the class discussion at all, the dowdy female prof nodding in agreement and fully understanding his point, she calmly told him it might be a good idea indeed to move, and it was something that if it had happened back in the States would have gotten the boy tossed out of the room, immediately, sent directly to some stern assistant dean of students and then referred to rehabilitative campus counseling on so-called gender relations or something, but the French were so relaxed about sex, and even the huge and utterly stark white-tiled lavatories smelling of their disinfectant in the building were entirely unisex, and I now told Alex that I should get back to the apartment on Rue Broca and work on an assignment for my History of Central and West Africa class, and he continued to nuzzle and whisper who knows what around my neck, lifting my hair to do so, his breath tickling, warm, letting his other hand firmly continue to explore the shape of what he continued to call my “bum,” kneading one side of me there and then the other in my jeans, it was hot in that foyer, literally steamy, there were giant, blowing fan-heaters overhead and the windows were thoroughly fogged up, I couldn’t do anything, really, I was laughing low and girlishly, saying to him, “Come on” or “Quit it,” he called me “chérie,” maybe the only French word he used right then, he continued nuzzling and pawing, I was trying not to spill the full cup of espresso, still holding the thing with both hands, he had me where he wanted me, and I liked it, and then we were, in fact, outside in the gray day together, we were in the Métro heading up to Montmartre, because Billy would be logging his long hours of archival research in the new national-library complex for the entire afternoon, the library all shining steel and tinted glass, futuristic, the François Mitterand complex right beside the wide green river in the Thirteenth Arrondissement, Billy carefully transcribing his notes to his silver laptop, hours upon hours of poring over old letters and manuscripts in the huge reading room, more tinted-glass windows and more clinical, gleaming stainless steel, he wouldn’t be back at the apartment until after seven, and he wouldn’t even have to know that I hadn’t been in the apartment all afternoon studying, or maybe studying nearby at one of the everyday cafés with their video games and authentically inattentive waiters at the tiny asphalt traffic circle at the Place de la Contrescarpe not far from Rue Broca, and the Métro line up to Montmartre was one of the old ones, the tracks narrow or something so they had to use the older and smaller cars on it or something, and the car was almost antique, glossily buff-colored inside, the bench seats facing each other were actually trimmed with varnished wood, the latches for the wheezing automatic doors that opened at every empty stop then in mid-afternoon were old-fashioned and chrome, like two S’s with knobs on the curlicues of them, I was trying to lose myself in details, it wasn’t a matter then of a butterfly spreading its beautiful half-dreamt wings slowly in your cupped palms and revealing the ultimate secret at last, it wasn’t a matter of sweet little Gérard de Nerval, half-broken but more than half-saintly, too, in his threadbare frock coat and top hat walking his pet lobster as it happily crawled along, and I suppose I was trying to lose myself in details in order to forget everything else, as I did open my eyes once in a while to look around and then closed my eyes again, continuing to return Alex’s hard kisses with all the energy I could now, the train’s wheels ground loud with the sound of metal agonizing on metal, slow on all the curves on that line up to Montmartre, the electrical connection sparked blue in the tunnels, like lightning but silent lightning in a dream in this swallowing blackness, very far away from everything else that had been the first twenty-one years of my life, my sister Madison and her worrying about who was paired with who for sorority-fraternity dances, my own predictable kidhood there in Saratoga Springs, where even if our father was a doctor, a GP, we lived pretty simply and just like everybody else in our neighborhood of winding tree-lined streets, everything picture-perfect, American, my mother the former home ec major taught Madison and me how to bake, how to make clothes from rattling tissue paper patterns and carefully piece together the cut cloth at the musically humming and aptly named Singer sewing machine, Madison and I were hopelessly American kids, yes, my mother the homemaker, my father the kind, levelheaded doctor who cared so much about his patients, why, my parents were so suburban that they even bought station wagons, Volvos, Madison and I had been nowhere, we knew nothing, really, and Cornell with its imposing gray stone buildings and the Clock Tower’s chimes melodically announcing the hours and the start of classes as students hurried across the crisscrossing, argyled walks didn’t even feel like anywhere anymore, because I was here, and the car was almost empty, we pretty much had it to ourselves, so it didn’t matter whatsoever if we smooched and smooched and crazily smooched like that, he tasted fresh, his teeth clicked against mine, he was hungry for me, I was even more hungry for him, if that was possible, I almost didn’t want to hear him ever talk again, because when he did talk it would only be about American television shows that he thought were “cool,” American rap singers or American rock bands that he thought were “cool,” stupid things, really, and for a minute or so I looked up, once when the doors opened as somebody stepped out at the stop and then the eerie flügelhorn sighed its long, lingering note and nobody got on at that empty stop, because most of the people in the car had already gotten off well before, maybe at Châtelet-Les Halles, the doors did thump shut, I did see what I really hadn’t paid much attention to before, the little decal on the window of one of the doors with a circle and inside the circle the outline of a Scottie dog with a diagonal red line drawn across it, no dogs allowed, though below that symbol, I knew, it gave the hours that dogs were, in fact, allowed to ride on the trains, like now in the empty mid-afternoon, and the strangest thing was that just when I looked at that decal, I also looked around the car while Alex continued biting softly at my neck, he had one arm around me and the other hand was slowly moving, touching, moving some more, eventually to my jeans there at the lap, where I knew he could already feel what was surely my dampness, he said “Nice,” and I saw sitting at the far end of the car an old woman, alone, and very neat and proper, with rouge and powder and gray hair in a perfect perm, sitting very upright and wearing a good winter coat, beige, maybe cashmere, and a matching tam, and she had a little wicker basket on her lap with a dog looking out from within it, a black poodle with iodine eyes, a tiny pink tongue, and I got a little dizzy to wonder if I really was seeing her, or if I just imagined her because I had seen the decal on the door about dogs, the hours they were allowed to ride, maybe nothing was real, after all, and Alex’s hand was there again, his beautiful fingers were moving there again, I said the only thing I could say, “Mmmm,” or at least something like that, I was short of breath and dizzy, because, true, maybe I wasn’t where I was, Billy said I noticed things, but maybe I noticed too many things, or maybe I noticed nothing at all, because when you think of it maybe there is nothing at all to really notice, and once Alex and I got to the Montmartre station we walked with arms around each other, staggeringly, up that crazy corkscrew staircase that’s like a staircase in a lighthouse, maybe, a staircase that does sort of rescue you from the otherworld of the Métro, there underground in the darkness where the electricity sparks blue, where the metal wheels grind so loudly, and the hill of Montmartre itself was surely far above that, and we tried to keep climbing the stairs with his arm around my waist, with my arm around his waist, Alex pulling me close to him, our book packs making it all the more awkward, we laughed and our laughter echoed in the empty cement chamber of the cavernous cylinder for the staircase, a staircase that seemed as if it would never end, up and up and up, until you could first see a bit of milky light and then were almost delivered into the daytime once again, the tiny traffic square with more winter-bare trees, the cafés glowing buttery in the dim air that smelled as if it might snow, an ammonia-clear something in the air, and big, vagrant gold leaves from the plane trees lay stuck to the very black damp pavement here and there, almost a dance-step pattern for us to staggeringly follow through the side streets of Montmartre, which does feel like its own separate village, maybe not like Paris at all, maybe not like anywhere at all, Billy said I noticed things, Billy and I had been engaged since the summer before, and Alex kept tugging me closer like that, and I asked him if the hotel he was taking me to on Rue des Trois Frères was “Tout Confort,” and it was just a question, but when I said that, it did something to him, he had sleepy sea-blue eyes, lashes too big for a boy, he had dimples, he had such an oaky thick mane of hair, repeatedly pushed pack from his forehead with a raking shove of his hand, Alex square-jawed and lankily tall, he definitely could have been a movie star or a rock star the way he looked and he knew it, and he stopped me there, asked me to say it again, and I asked him “What?” and he said I should repeat what I had just said, he was smiling, pleased, and at first I just did so almost as an interrogative, my cheeks maybe puffed-out and my lips probably pouting to get the three little bursts of the syllables in what I hoped was authentically emphatic French pronunciation, “Tout Confort?” I asked, and with that he kissed me firmly, once on the lips, he asked me to say it again, “Tout Confort,” which I did, and he did it again, he kissed me hard again, as I stood there just looking back at him, he told me I was “cute” when I said that, he seemed to like the fact he knew the word cute, he told me it made him crazy to hear me say that, and I said it again as we entered the ramshackle Hôtel des Trois Frères’s lobby, passing, yes, the old gold-on-black plaque out front announcing “Tout Confort,” and at the hotel desk the balding stoop-shouldered man in a gray cardigan was certainly used to renting rooms for the afternoon, he took the bills Alex tugged from the pocket of his jeans, and we climbed the stairs laughing, arms linking us again, to go down the dim corridor with its brown linoleum to find Chambre 46 behind its door which had been painted maroon so many times that the glossy surface of it was ripply, and inside there was the yellow wallpaper, flower-print and stained in splotches, and there was the ancient bidet on wheels and hooked up to a flexible accordionized pipe, its chrome tarnished to green, and there was the tiny chipped oval of the sink and the marred tortoiseshell-veneer furniture, the smell of everything minty from the little bars of blue soap set out on the wobbly glass tray above the sink, and he was starting to undress me already, pulling at my jacket, and I pushed him back, I told him to wait, and I went over to close the drapes for the one big French window that looked out to the grim courtyard’s well inside the building, I looked long enough to see that outside the other paint-peeling window sashes were hung plastic supermarket bags surely with meat and fruit and milk and whatever else needed to be kept cool in them, the impromptu refrigerators of the ghostly people who actually must have lived alone in the cramped rooms of a place like the Hôtel des Trois Frères, I walked back to him, he unbuttoned my jacket, a wool sailor’s pea jacket thing, then started on my blouse, I stood facing him, I said to him softly “Tout Confort” just because I knew he liked it, he still had on his own ratty sheepskin coat and the red-and-yellow scarf remained around his neck like a flowing serpent, baroque, he unbuttoned my blouse, pushed away my bra, too, he started kissing my body, I ran my hands through his thick hair as I stood there, his tongue was wet on my breasts, warm and very wet, “Tout Confort,” I said again, my eyes closed, listening to the silver steam radiator clanking out a huffy staccato as he continued, as he lowered himself down, moved his head lower and lower, the room was very warm, his hands were moving over me as I just stood there, I was almost a statue he was sculpting with the life of his breath itself, as he started fiddling with the single button and then the zipper of my own worn Levi’s, then his fingers were on my ridiculous scant lavender panties, he was nibbling, he was a French boy, not all that bright but he was a beautiful, beautiful French boy, his name was Alex, and . . .

. . . and later, back at the square with the frilled green art nouveau subway station, more golden leaves splattered on the damp black pavement in the streetlight, I left him there, I would take a train during the early-evening rush hour back to the Left Bank and Rue Broca, he said he was going to just walk over to the other side of Montmartre, down the hill beyond the now-glowing white dome of Sacré-Coeur, the stars already big and like matches flickering in the black winter sky that had at last cleared, it was colder, he said he had some friends from the university who lived in the Nineteenth there, almost out to the hissing Périphérique freeway, we kissed, parted, and I went back down the corkscrew staircase and again far, far below Montmartre alone, everything almost a photograph in reverse development of our walking up those steps earlier, except that I was, yes, alone, and somehow I couldn’t just go directly back to Billy now, I needed time, and for some reason and with nothing much to think about, with no direction whatsoever, there in the station I was lost, and before I even got on a train that would weave its way through more of the darkened tunnels again, I found myself thinking of Gérard de Nerval, and if nothing else that gave me a destination, I looked at the Métro map under glass downstairs in the station, I stared at the jigsaw puzzle of its faded colors and the glass itself clouded with scratches and graffiti, and I put my finger to the red dot indicating the Palais-Royal stop, and in the car packed during rush hour now, I rode as the doors repeatedly wheezed open and shut to shuffle the crowd this way and that, in and out, the car smelled of maybe vacuum cleaner innards, half electricity and half merely dust, which is the smell of the Métro, and you have to understand that at that point I didn’t know a lot of things, and the things I didn’t know were things like how I would soon learn beyond any doubt from the other girls in my classes, those French girls who smoked and cursed, who seemed to know everything while I an American girl knew nothing, I learned that Alex was what could be called a cad, almost legendary in that role, he preyed on American girls on exchange programs and he bragged to his buddies who played on his rugby team with him how he did so, conquered such girls one by one then eventually lost interest, as he later did with me, it was a game for him, he singled out any American girl almost as soon as she walked into that lobby of the classroom building off the Rue Censier, and with all the bohemian airs he laid claim to, his seeming to bask in his knowing about those cheap hotels that always looked as if they were right out of some old black-and-white French film noir movie with subtitles, yes, despite those bohemian airs, it turned out that he actually had grown up in ultra-genteel Neuilly in a sprawling posh apartment overlooking the Bois de Boulogne with parents who were both prominent well-to-do lawyers involved in national politics, and, of course, I had no way of knowing then that the lies I told Billy after being with Alex and the lies that I was sure I could remedy in time wouldn’t, in fact, ever be a matter of being remedied in time, and within a few months Billy and I were back in leafy Ithaca again, several thousand miles away from Paris, or maybe a couple of universes away, everything metamorphosing as if in a dream, or that’s how it felt, I took that course in geology called Rocks for Jocks, the professor had everybody buy a special geologist’s hammer with a red handle and a shining steel pick-like head and there were day trips by bus to stone outcrops along Cayuga Lake in the sunshine of buzzing bees and hovering dragonflies, Ithaca, we were supposed to be gathering rock samples for study, but we really were just enjoying being outside like that, I took a course in general political science, nothing more than a glorified junior high school civics class in the government department, where in this case the bored professor himself suggested we forget about the bulky overpriced textbook altogether and simply read a few newspapers online for homework and then discuss in class the next day whatever we had read about current events, summer school was like that, with the lecture-hall windows wide open and the buildings-and-grounds guys somnambulistically riding their snoring lawn mowers in circles and endless circles in the brilliant, chlorophyll-charged sunshine of July and August, Ithaca, and I was the one who discovered the hard lump on Billy’s neck that September, right below his ear on the right side, I felt it in an embrace, he didn’t want to have it checked at first, though maybe he already knew, and he said at first that it was nothing and he didn’t have time to go over to the university health services, he was so busy with his research, and Billy often said he couldn’t believe how lucky that an incorrigible bookworm like him had been to have found somebody like me, he told me I was rarer than rare, he said he sometimes felt that he himself was no better than one of his French Symbolists, Rimbaud or Mallarmé or Verlaine, even gentle Gérard de Nerval, dreaming everything that seemed to pass for a life, no sense of what made up real life, Billy said he sometimes thought he was dreaming me, and I always told myself that I would tell him about Alex, how stupid I had been, how selfish I had been, I told Madison about Alex and she of course wanted to hear all the details, giggling, she said I should never tell Billy, she reminded me that Billy and I were engaged, “He’s your fiancé, for gosh sakes!” but I was going to tell Billy maybe by the end of the summer, I planned to do it, I rehearsed it all, but then there was the lump, and the cheery lying doctors in their neat white lab coats, all of them wearing horn-rimmed glasses, every one of them, or so it sometimes seemed, the doctors talked of remission and told Billy one thing as the treatment began, hopeful, but the blood-count tests and Billy’s body just wasting away told another story altogether, and in a way Billy was already gone, so what would my telling him or anybody else anything amount to, except to say how in that darkness of an early evening in Paris I did get out at the Palais-Royal Métro stop, and there were the guys dressed in baggy red jackets and red baseball caps handing out the free evening papers that were big in Paris then, only sports news and gossipy celebrity news, plenty of ads, there was the very strong smell of the cold and there was the long arched colonnade of the Palais-Royal sort of golden in the evening lamplight, the slabs of purplish paving stones, small shops lit along the colonnade, people walking this way and that now that the work day was done and all of them bundled against the evening’s cold, and I knew that it was here, at this very spot, that Nerval strolled nonchalantly with his little lobster, he had it on a ribbon for a leash, I walked past the Palais-Royal courtyard with the black-and-white-striped columns sprouting at different stubby heights dotting the entirety of its perfectly square expanse, some attempt at postmodern art that looked goofy indeed now that it was no longer very new, I mean it seemed to be trying altogether too hard to be daring and offbeat and, well, postmodern like that, I could tell people were looking at me, they knew all about me, I could tell that even then, and I still couldn’t go directly back to face Billy, I walked, but the very strangest thing of all was that even then I knew, realized beyond any doubt, that maybe for the rest of my life I would only want to be as young as I was then in Paris, and somehow Billy didn’t matter, even Billy’s illness wouldn’t matter to me, I already sensed that probably for the rest of my life I would only want to be twenty-one years old and have a French boy slowly undressing me again in a shabby hotel room high atop Montmartre, a room with its floor of old brown linoleum, its walls with stained yellow flower-print wallpaper, the entire place aromatic with the miniature minty bars of soap, a swaybacked bed with a faded and thin nubbed beige spread, a bidet on wobbly casters that could be rolled under the sink, and maybe, in the end, it was simple, it was just to be so alive like that, and maybe there were no secrets of the sea that Gérard de Nerval’s lobster had heard whisperings of, maybe there were none of the wonders of shopping and the restaurants in Paris that my sister Madison had naively imagined, maybe there was just a girl like me knowing that, yes, nothing in her life would ever again be quite like having that handsome French boy named Alex ask her to say “Tout Confort” again, the girl pouting the pronunciation, as he would kiss her hard on her lips in approval each time she said it, “Tout confort, tout confort, tout confort,” and I finally headed back to the Palais-Royal Métro station to take a train back to Rue Broca, because it was getting late, Billy would certainly be wondering where I was, he probably had already walked over to the Place de la Contrescarpe to see if I was at one of the cafés facing the little traffic circle with its little dry fountain, there where I often studied, and a clock was sounding the hour of seven exactly, probably from some church or from the shadowy but very golden Palais-Royal itself, because how had Nerval put it, expressing it perfectly in that original title of the work that was surely his most important work, as Billy had assured me, or as Billy now dead had assured me, Le rêve et la vie, dream and life, which could just as easily be life and dream, and I think that I do know now all about Nerval, nobody but nobody will ever have to tell me again, and in the Métro station I slid my plastic student Carte Orange through the machine, I pushed my way past the thumping spring-loaded turnstile, and . . .
 
 
 
Photo: Haahr via Flickr