jeudi 18 mars 2010

Little beauties

The view of the mess from where I sit, these days


My youngest stepdaughter once asked me why I like it so dark in the house.

"Parce qu'on ne voit pas la saleté comme ça." Double bonus, not only does the dimness of the house with few lights other than candlelight mask the dust and the dog fur, it also allows me to tell myself that the piles of stuff I have nowhere to put even when I am not renovating one room of the two or three available to us is not really there, just behind and piled on the other sofa.

And I remember the day when that one little lamp on the ledge over the radiator seemed like a huge improvement, replacing, as it did, an old one whose decorative stitching on the dusty and soiled lampshade was coming undone from its punched holes. Someone once told me to be grateful for small things. It was, clearly, someone who had never had very much, either. My natural habitat.

I got up an hour ago and took the dogs out to pee, still in my ancient terrycloth bathrobe. The one I got when I was finally able to paint our railroad apartment in Greenwich and buy things like new bed linens and towels at Bloomie's, feeling better about our housing, but mostly trying not to still feel embarrassed in that town, where no one with my background started out in an attic studio above an alcoholic with maybe the best and the worst of intentions. I chose to concentrate on the better ones.

The workers finishing up turning the old two-room elementary school across the street into three apartments (the teacher's two-story apartment behind the classrooms, one above the other at the front, becoming a duplex), turned on their upturned paint cans, where they were gathered in the sun to have lunch, watched me return to the gate, calling my dogs. They were both off-leash. Daring for a woman in an old terrycloth bathrobe in the middle of the village, but it's mostly a ghost town at 12:30 pm. Except the workers. I was covered, well past my knees and up to my chin, the belt cinched tight. I did my best to exude dignity.

Something I find myself doing more than I'd like.

It was warm. I noticed it first the other night, when I took the dogs out for the last time for the night, coming home from dinner in Paris at Le Carré aux Feuillants on the rue Castiglione, just below the Place Vendôme. A clear evening had turned damp, tiny droplets of water suspended in the air all around us, shimmering in the streetlights and on the tops of our cars. I should have felt a chill; instead, I smelled the earth. Baccarat's nose and mine both worked the damp night air: spring.

All week, the temperatures have risen, to a glorious 64° F yesterday.

"That's t-shirt weather for Parisians," my son told our old friends, visiting from Greenwich. I think that it is t-shirt weather for everyone but those living in sub-Saharan Africa, I thought, but I didn't say anything. It's true that Parisians wear their coats and jackets, buttoned up to the the foulards they wear wrapped around their tasteful, elegant throats, nearly to Bastille Day and get their turtlenecks out as soon as the screen on their Blackberry or iPhone announces September, no matter the temperature.

They do not perspire.

The t-shirts are saved for the grassy areas under the monuments and along the Seine, where they carefully remove the outer layers for public show and expose their skin for the sun warming the stones of the city. In some cases, all skin not covered by the bottom half of a string bikini only. It's the Côte d'Azur's preseason warm-up.

Safe again from the regards des ouvriers inside my house, I thought about how disappointed my husband would be in me that I had done it again, rather than pull on my jeans, retrieving an old sweater from the floor of our room to go out, and opened the kitchen window to let the spring breeze carry the birdsong and the sounds of the péniches in from the Seine, the metal shutters warm in my hands. It's a lovely moment. Later, inside the house, it feels just a little too chilly, the weak sun never really penetrating far enough inside to warm the farther wall, against which I sit to type away on my laptop on the sofa.

I padded from the coffee machine to turn on the computer and head to the WC, followed by Rapide, who does not recognize my right to pee in private, since I accompany her on most of her trips to relieve herself -- she must think it is only considerate of her -- and thought even more obsessively about my ill ease and embarrassment, the twin themes of a life on the shy side of the success that those around me seemed to receive with ease as their due, while I buttress my self-esteem with good temper, trying not to feel more like the well-educated au pair than an equal.

Self-pity and pity. I do not brook either, and I have many well-developed and questionably adequate shielding strategies, which rely mostly on sheer strength of will.

And I know my husband is completely immune to this, and so I am embarrassed even telling him how much it affects me. When I do, he says, "Mais, tu n'habites plus aux States. Tu n'as plus à te sentir mal, et tes amis, ils te connaissent, ils t'acceptent."

"Oui," I allow, "mais, j'en ai encore un pied dans l'autre système, et eux, ils viennent de ça. Il n'est pas facile de se reconnaitre dans le système duquel tu viens et de te détacher."

It's hard. Even if those friends who know you appreciate you and accept you, they are part of that system; it isn't easy to be in and out of it at the same time, and it comes back to remind you that you cannot ever make a part of your experience go away. You cannot make go away the pity felt by those who watched you live, as happy as you were, with your small son in an attic studio. Pity felt can never be taken away. It sticks to you like stale cigarette smoke from a night you wished you'd just skipped.

But, he is French, and this mostly explains it. He comes from an old family with old French values. French values, period, actually. Social class systems and the lack of elevators between the floors seem to go a long way to helping people feel comfortable, even if it prompts unbearable bouts of rudeness from time to time. Quite simply, you know who you are and where you belong, and it mostly works. Few of my countrymen would defend it, at least if they have never lived in such a place for very long. You do not have to be wealthy if you are born of an old family; you do not have to be ill at ease if you chose a bac pro in plumbing or electrician's work to take over your father's business. You might become a doctor or a lawyer, instead, but if you do, you need only be successful at school; you do not need money. The government will pay your studies. You will pay your fees -- 400 euros a year --, and then you will have the status of your profession, your family's friends will always be yours. No one will ask how large is your home.

No one will ask where you pay your country club dues. Or not ask, knowing already that you don't.

No one will pay much attention to the car you drive. (Except my son.)

And the friends who pitied you liked you and your child, only they could not truly be friends with you because friendship is reserved for equals where money counts.

Once, when he was about 7, I took my son to The American History Museum at the Smithsonian. I thought we would be safe here, in contemplation of the past, society at a safe remove, but I received a jolt. There was a part that described the life of women during the late Industrial Revolution, and one sign said that the wives of the great industrialists were expected to manage a staff of domestic workers to make a lovely home in which to raise their children and entertain the powerful guests of their husbands. The wives of the working class, on the other hand, were expected to tend to their children, do the domestic chores, possibly take in paying work and handle, often, the financial matters of the family.

What was there here that I should teach my son, who would hear the lesson the panel sought to teach and ask, "But, isn't that just like you, Mom?"

I checked the date on the panel again to make sure it didn't really say "late 20th century America" instead of late "19th century America".

Who, I asked myself, wrote these signs, and just how out of touch were they with what any social historian studying the Victorian era could observe of his or her present-day United States of America, or England for that matter?

I knew who I was, and I recognized my friends. We had the same diplomas from the same schools, but we were not of the same caste in class-free, materialist America. Education and upbringing had placed us in proximity, social experience and habit had kept us apart.

"Mais," say my friends and family here, "tu parles des langues étrangères, tu as fait des grandes écoles, tu as voyagé, comment ne peux pas tu mériter le respect de n'importe qui?"

Could there ever be any doubt about why I prefer my new home?

And maybe my discomfort and sense of isolation live on only in my soul, like the transgressions of Dorian Gray on his portrait, only much less twisted because it is not intentional, merely the result of life and the kinds of hurts that no one else is supposed to see. It makes them, you know, uncomfortable.

And maybe it is complicated only in my weed patch of hurts from past indignities.

"Of course, we want to see your house and garden," say friends who come to visit.

I dread that, and it makes me realize that perhaps I have kept this blog as a way to bolster my courage, tell the truth without having to risk showing it face to face, to find a way to show the little beauties that keep me going, like Anaïs Nin used her journals to make a novel of her life, finding pattern and meaning in it, and making it bearable in turn.

It was 2:55 am when I pulled down gently the covers on my side of the bed. My husband pushed up on one elbow and turned to try to see the face of the digital alarm clock on the floor below my pillow.

"Il est quelle heure?" What on earth time is it that you are finally coming home and to bed? I would not get defensive.

"Il est bientôt 3 heures du matin." I slid into bed.

"Mais c'est à cette heure-ci que tu rentres? Et Sam, lui aussi se couche si tard?" On a school night, he might have added.

"Je suis là depuis un moment," I exaggerated. "J'ai sorti les chiennes, me suis préparé un bol de chocolat chaud --"

"Mais, c'est pas possible," he said, or something like that.

"Bon," I replied, "On peut toujours démanager à Paris. Ca serait plus facile, non?"

All our friends and family live there, or a lot closer, but this I chose not to add. He knows. He rolled over and swore at the little cat, trying to get under the covers between our heads. I scooped her up, put her on the other side of mine, placed my arm in a defensive posture to keep her from trying that again, held my tongue and thought about the novel the name of which I always forget -- even the author of which I misplace in my memory. It's the one from the period of England's early industrial revolution in which a local doctor falls disastrously in love with the daughter of a wealthy country family. He courts her and wins her love, and then he spends everything they have and beyond to make a home suitable for the lifestyle to which she is born.

There is a single paragraph that is permanently and indelibly etched onto my psyche. The rest of the novel is scenery and story to describe the consequences of this one paragraph that told how it is the china and silver set and the linens upon which you place them that determine whether you may receive those around you. It is not the care that goes into the preparation of the dishes you will place upon whatever you have to serve them, nor is it the conversation you can share that entitle you to participate in society. Oh! How we have descended from our English forebears!

I thought about that all the years we lived in our apartment, with the little porch on the back that looked out over the road in front of the projects, the path to the living room out one of the two front doors in the dim entry corridor at the front of the building and back into the other, or through my bedroom, giving me the choice to turn my bedroom into a sitting room, knowing anyone else would know it had to be where I slept, when I wasn't pretending I had a bedroom somewhere else, or leave it the way it was. In either case, I didn't have the dining room, the china and the silver setting, the linens and the living room I needed to participate.

We could always move to Paris and live in its equivalent of a Greenwich railroad flat, I thought, drifting off to sleep, or we could stay here, where I can keep struggling with myself, anyway, returning from visiting friends and family, driving back up the long black-topped corridor from Paris in the dead of the night.

"It wasn't cheap to take the kids to dinner and bowl," said my son, out of the dark at my side, where he was driving the Fiat home after 2 am.

"No, it isn't cheap to take your kids out for a fun evening," even if the prices are not exorbitant.

One more step into adult consciousness.

There is no hell worse than the one you make for yourself. Or, is that not the very nature and definition of hell?
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