The Beat That My Heart Skipped
When she speaks, it’s with a whisper and rasp, cocooned in unpracticed libido.
A night smoking shisha near Les Halles was how, like the majority of my close friendships, it had begun. We’d commiserated through classes together, this girl and I, and she’d grown so adept at noting my tics that she could tell when I was only pretending to understand something I’d heard her say. “T’as compris?” A pause. “Non, j’ai su.”
The afternoon of my birthday, I joined this girl and a few of her friends–many of them classmates, most of them artists–for a picnic in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
Among our group numbered film enthusiasts, literature geeks and musicians, many of them younger than me, but my fitting in seemed, to me at least, an exercise in seamlessness. Even my having brought Pringles and Orangina to an occasion populated by Spanish Ham, hummus, Lebanese bread, a special sort of cake crafted by one of the young men, and a number of other delicacies, contributed to the general pool of mirth. A pseudo-evangelist from Phoenix, Arizona, who claimed to work as a lawyer for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Arizona, shopped his wares and inquired as to the nature of our studies. He was courageous in his decision to speak to us entirely in French, either with full knowledge or full obliviousness of his grating accent. I feared sometimes I sounded like that, but this friend with whom I’d grown close, assures me, perhaps merely to stroke the ego, that I do not.
Paris in August is ghostly. Churches and tabacs, sacred institutions that traditionally offer solace and relief to longsuffering penitents, are closed. Everyone is on vacation elsewhere. The city is under construction in preparation for their return.
The girl with the whisper-rasp has cancer.
When we met the night we’d smoked shisha, she had been coming from the hospital. We were sitting outside in cushioned chairs, passing the pipe between us when she’d told me, and I’d stared at her. In my mind, a dark and malignant polyp sat on her larynx and every time I prompted her to speak was a wrong I had committed against her. I wanted then to preserve her in silence. The wisdom in her reaction was heard rather than seen, not available to the vessel of the eye. Even trying to capture it now in written text, I am unable to communicate that understanding that was communicated to me. To assume that any affliction has, built in its core, the potential for wisdom is to romanticize suffering, to rob it of its harm and its pain and to turn it into something desired. The penitent with whip-scars on her back. No. This wisdom was threaded with kindness. Each husky, throaty word is a reminder that the thing sitting on her larynx is the same thing that kills people I love. But when she closes her mouth, the thing is hidden behind lips bent into a shy, fighting-against-itself smile.
Maybe her voice is the sound of inevitability. She shows me occasional photos of herself and her family, and in them, her hair is a veritable russet mane. Autumn surrounds her face. Her hair, when I last saw her, was shorter. Still a royal thing, but it thins, and she can no longer grow it to its former length. Maybe her voice is the sound of her dying.
On January 8, 2015, there was snow on the ground at the airport in Istanbul. I was passing through on my way back to Paris after having spent the holidays in the US.
Paris was quiet. Ghostly, in fact. The lights at Charles de Gaulle Airport were dimmed, the stores all closed by the time we came in (past 10pm). The RER was similarly de-populated, the only possible trace of the earlier chaos a cabal of SNCF cops joking on the station platform at Aulnay-sous-Bois. The signs out the window, as we passed station after station, were so familiar they might as well have been English. At Customs, I’d switched to French without a thought and everything moved with the smoothness of routine. Earlier that day, two brothers had murdered 12 people at the headquarters of a satirical French weekly, a 16-minute walk away from my flat.
It felt like August again, only colder.
When I returned to Paris for the second half of the school year, the churches and tabacs were closed.
By February of that year, the city had normalized for me.
However, there were still moments like pockets of miracle that encased me, clouds of thaumaturgy I sometimes found myself walking through. Once upon a time, I thrilled at the history thrumming beneath my footfalls in every alley or down every street I traversed, in every chapel or bistro in which I found myself. By February, it had turned from some artifact into a place where I have lunch and smoke hookah and am late to meetings and study and sleep and run errands and buy groceries and run into friends. The French spoken on the street is white noise. Still, this place is very much a refuge, and my time there was very much a sabbatical. What seems to have happened is a submission of sorts. I don’t feel so much that I’m trying to drive or direct my experience here. I’m not actively trying to retrace Baldwin’s footsteps or revisit the museums I frequented the last time I was studying here or indulge in cultural spectacles I wouldn’t find in the States. I’m instead meeting people and making friends.
Hovering over all of this was my eventual return to the States at the end of the spring semester. Paris had mentally become my home. I’d acclimated to the temperature of the bubble here and that is why this situation is my new normal.
Normal. Gendarmes patrolling the small rues of the Marais in their red berets and their automatic rifles. Normal. Vigipirate signs plastered outside the front entrance to Sciences Po’s Saint-Guillaume building. Normal. Regularly fleeing my quartier for the shisha spot near Place du Châtelet to hear Arabic and be surrounded by brown people.
Gunfire in the 11th Arrondissement. More gunfire in the 10th by Rue de la Grange aux Belles where I used to box.
A journalist friend, based in Paris, told me about the attacks Facebook on a balmy night in November of 2015. I’d returned to the States in May and, by September, I’d settled in New York, working as a civil rights attorney. The last time I’d seen that girl with the autumn-colored hair and the whisper-rasp, the girl who rides her bike everywhere in Paris, she’d been crying and I’d been trying not to.
A bomb had been detonated at the Stade de France.
It was 4 or 5pm my time.
Glued to Facebook and Twitter, I reached out to my loved ones over there, discovering that this was maybe one of the most startling realizations of the night: they had somehow become loved ones over the course of that charmed year. I spent much of the night retweeting locations so that people over there could take advantage of the #porteouverte effort and letting them know where taxis had stopped their counters and were driving people for free.
While over there, the students in our program had created a Facebook group for our program (French, American, and international students), which had now become indispensable. Others, I reached out to via Messenger, and others still, I had to wait until Facebook, in a crucial convulsion of post-modernity, launched its check-in app. At some point earlier in the week, I’d committed to a poetry reading Friday night where some friends would be reading, so I left the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library in the middle of reading about the attacks, while the death toll hovered around 60. And suddenly there I was, in Bushwick, surrounded by some college friends I hadn’t seen in a while and all these beautiful white girls listening to friends read translations of Soren Kierkegaard and poems about Anna Karenina. To be told something pretty that evening. And beneath all of that was an animalistic worry for this girl.
Some nights when I let myself think of her, my thoughts speed me to a park we used to walk by in the 10th Arrondisement by the Canal Saint-Martin. We would pass entire afternoons there with food left over. I never grew out of my habit of bringing anything other than Pringles and Orangina. Right now, I’m a little under 3000 miles from that spot, one of the last spots I saw her. Paris is known to be a bit of a static city. There isn’t the same perpetual hum of construction over there as there is here, stateside. But in this night-dream, I start up top by this one bridge and work my way down. Sometimes, when I do these jaunts, the place I’m looking through, a place I know is always teeming with throngs of people, is empty, a haunted quarter in a ghost town.
I retrace a familiar route along Rue Alibert, then onto Rue Bichat. I stop at where the two meet. This is where they came. On Rue Bichat, at approximately 9:25 at night on November 13th, they fired at the people sitting at tables outside Le Carillon. Then, they crossed the street and shot at those dining inside Le Petit Cambodge. When they fled in their vehicles, maybe the terrorists turned sped against traffic on Rue Bichat, then swung a right onto Rue de la Grange aux Belles past the gym where I used to box.
In the night-dream, our haunts are untouched.
I keep going and the stones are the same, water splashed against their sides, frozen in the act of bathing. There’s no one along the canal. It’s a spring day, the sky a peerless blue. Untouched by clouds. And there she is.
The person on that bike is a bit of a blur. They’re not parked, not resting; they’re in full motion. A light brown blur.
But I know it’s her. Blue jeans and a shining, sand-colored leather jacket, hugging her curves. And that mane. That glorious, massive thing haloing her face. I can’t see that face, just a little bit of cheek and chin. But it’s her. And for a few moments, with the vision flashing behind my eyelids, it feels like prayer.
In this night-dream, the churches and tabacs are closed.
When I think of terrorism, and now in France its seeming inevitability, I sometimes think of her. There is this one moment I return to, after I’d first met her, as we were beginning to grow close, and we were walking one time by Boulevard de Sebastopol into a crowded marketspace flanked by outdoor cafés, and it was early-fall cold and we were bundled in our jackets and she would say something quick in French and then ask “T’as compris?” in that whisper-rasp of hers. And when she’d see my moment’s hesitation, she would giggle and bury her face and hair in my neck.
The morning after the November attacks, I saw a message in my Facebook inbox. I had barely read it before I wrote back the words “I love you too.”