As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
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In Paris, she lived on rue Guynemer. Rue Guynemer is named after a very young and very handsome World War I pilot—she knew, she had seen his photograph in the war museum at the Invalides. In the photograph Georges Guyenmer is leaning on the fuselage of his biplane; he is wearing a leather helmet with the goggles pushed up against his forehead, and he is looking resolutely away from the camera. According to the caption, the photograph was taken the day before Georges Guynemer was shot down; neither he nor his plane was ever found.
A little oasis, rue Guynemer is a quiet residential street located between Boulevard St. Michel and Boulevard Montparnasse in the heart of the Latin Quarter. The only store on the block is a bookstore, and the apartment buildings, like the one she lived in, are large and comfortable turn-of-the-century Baron Haussmann designs. The main attraction of rue Guynemer lies directly across the street from it: the Luxembourg Gardens.
Every day on her way to classes at the Institut Catholique on Boulevard Raspail, she crossed the Luxembourg Gardens and walked by the tethered ponies and donkeys waiting to be hired out for rides, children sailing their boats in the boat basin, young men and women playing tennis, shooting baskets, jogging past her; and always she stopped a moment to watch the same old men playing a game of boule. The routine more than anything else made her feel as if she belonged in Paris and was not just passing through, a foreigner and a tourist. That and her dog—only dogs were forbidden inside the Luxembourg Gardens. The one time she tried, an irate policeman, his navy cape flapping, came rushing over and blew his whistle at her. Couldn’t she read the sign? he shouted. The policeman bore an uncanny resemblance to her ex-husband. Or maybe it was his manner.
Her dog, a small, stubborn terrier, was also named George. Only she—the dog was female—was named after a writer, and the sound of the name when she had to make the dog obey:George! Come here! George, I said, heel! was harsher and less melodic than the French Georges, spelled with the additional and silent and mysterious s. Georges—she liked to say it the French way, opening her mouth and squeezing the air between her tongue and palate, then pursing her lips as if she was getting ready for a kiss.
In Paris, everywhere she went, people were kissing. They kissed early in the morning on their way to buy a baguette, then they kissed some more on their way to work in the metro; at night it seemed to be worse. She saw people kissing—and not just kissing each other on the lips—in cars waiting for the light to turn green; a lot more people kissed underneath the bridges spanning the Seine, their embraces dramatically lit up by the bateaux mouches; they kissed in the movie theaters, blocking her view of the screen; one night as she was walking George, she looked up at a lit window in a building on rue Guynemer and saw two women kissing.
Françoise Sagan, the French novelist—tres riche, très connue, her concierge informed her—lived here on rue Guynemer.
Ah, oui. Bonjour Tristesse.
She had come to France for a change of scene and to learn the language. The fact that she did not know anyone in Paris, she told herself, did not matter. The beauty of the city would be enough, she would not be lonely. Strangely enough, there was no specific word for lonely in the French language: seule, isolée, abandonnée, she could even use the word perdue.
With George pulling at the leash, she took many long solitary walks in her quartier, going from rue Bonaparte to St. Sulpice, to the Place de l’Odeón, exploring the little streets in between—a lot of the streets were named after French writers: Corneille, Racine, Crébillon, and Regnard—then returning home along rue Vaugirard where Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had lived for a few months. Their building had large elegant French windows and wrought iron balconies that opened onto the Luxembourg Gardens; also the setting for the Norths’ apartment in Tender is the Night: “high above the green mass of leaves.” Each time she went by, it was not hard for her to imagine parties there, and, in particular, Zelda, holding a glass of champagne and standing at the window on a warm summer night, looking out with her dark despairing eyes.
Georges Marie Ludovic Jules Guynemer was his full name. A slender young man with the same dark despairing eyes as Zelda Fitzgerald—and it was easy for her to imagine him as well. In fact, she soon had a clearer image of Georges Guynemer than she did of her ex-husband from whom she was separated less than a year. When she thought of her ex-husband—although she tried not to—she found it increasingly difficult to conjure up his face; she could no longer remember whether his eyes were blue or gray. The only feature she could still picture distinctly were his feet. Perfect feet. Jesus feet, she had called them. The kind of feet Michelangelo would have used as a model for his Pietá. One time when they were horsing around, her ex-husband, to show off how strong his toes were, pinched her so hard he left an ugly bruise on her arm.
At the Institut Catholique, where she went to learn French, the classrooms were airless and overheated and most of the students, girls working as au pairs, were a decade younger than she was. After class the girls stood in the street wearing their cheap new shoes with thick heels, smoking cigarettes and waiting for boyfriends. The second week, a Russian student whose long hair was tied back with a rubber band and who smelled of onions asked her out for a cup of coffee. They went to a café on Boulevard Montparnasse, and the Russian student—he spoke no English—told her in his halting French that he had left his family in Moscow to paint. He asked her to come to his studio which was on the opposite side of the city in the 19th arrondisement, and the next evening she took a taxi and did. Yuri’s paintings were of ghostlike chairs suspended in brown air and she walked around his studio, which was also his bedroom, looking at the paintings and saying: magnifique and merveilleux. Afterward, since they both could not and did not have anything else to say to each other, Yuri offered her a glass of red wine which she declined; then as if at a loss for what to do next Yuri pushed her down on his bed. For some reason she could not explain—except perhaps Yuri would say she had misled him—she did not resist him. She shut her eyes and let Yuri pull up her skirt and pull down her pants and fuck her. Later, the only thing she remembered clearly about the incident was how Yuri still smelled of onions and how he wore red bikini underpants—a slip rouge.
The two long blocks that make up rue Guynemer are intersected by rue de Fleurus and every day except Monday on her way to buy meat she passed number 27 where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas had lived. (On Monday, traditionally, the butcher shops are shut and only thechevalines, the shops that sell horse meat, are open, and when she first arrived in Paris, she had mistakenly gone to a chevaline and bought a pound of purple ground meat. At home, realizing what it was, she threw the horse meat directly in the garbage. The horse meat shocked her—she did not even consider feeding it to George.) Monsieur Lacombe, the butcher of the Boucherie Fleurus, gave George scraps and took the time to explain to her the different cuts of meat—he had learned a little English, he told her, when at the end of the war American soldiers were stationed in his village in Normandy. As a matter of fact, every year he still received a Christmas card from one of the American soldiers, a soldier named Jack Patterson who lived in California. Did she know California? Did she know anyone there named Jack Patterson? Monsieur Lacombe asked as he chopped, cut, sliced the meat with efficient neat strokes. In the course of this, Monsieur Lacombe also told her how his family had been very poor when he was a child and how they only ate meat on special occasions, at Christmas and Easter. Now—and lucky for him—he told her, gesturing with the hand that was missing two fingers, people ate meat every day, people even ate meat twice a day. His wife, Madame Lacombe, sat near the entrance of the Boucherie Fleurus. She was the cashier. She frowned when her husband talked too long with the customers; she always referred to him asMonsieur and never by his Christian name, not even when he made a mistake and called out the wrong amount of meat for her to add up.
Monsieur Lacombe retired while she was living on rue Guynemer and his assistant, a young butcher named Jerome, took over the store. Right away, with his pretty blonde wife who wore jeans (Madame Lacombe always wore black) and high heels, he made improvements to the Boucherie Fleurus. He built shelves and stocked them with expensive canned patés, sauces, spices; he bought a rotisserie on which he grilled chickens, and right away too, the quality of the meat fell. In addition, Jerome, overzealous perhaps, cut off a finger on his left hand so that improvements had to come to a temporary halt.
Unfortunately her apartment on rue Guynemer did not look out onto the Luxembourg Gardens but onto a street in the back, rue Madame. Madame qui? she was tempted to ask. Rue Madame was so narrow she had the impression that she could reach out from her living room window and touch the apartment directly opposite hers. The windows of that apartment usually stayed curtained and shut, shuttered shut, and only occasionally, on a particularly warm and sunny day, were they opened. Then she was able to look into the interior of the apartment and into rooms that were heavily furnished and old-fashioned and were painted or wallpapered a dull green. She was also able to see the man who lived there. He was a small fat man and something was wrong with him. He would come and stand at the open window and idly wave his hands or else he would jump in place like a rubber ball—bounce, bounce, bounce; one time, she watched as he took down his pants and masturbated.
In addition to not being able to remember what her ex-husband looked like, she could not remember his lovemaking. Instead, what stayed in her head was that she seldom came; most of the times with him she had faked it.
She was never quite sure how to pronounce Guynemer; she never knew for certain on which syllable to place the accent: Guynemer or Guynemer or still yet Guynemer. Whenever she told a French person where she lived or if she took a taxi home, she had to repeat the name at least twice and the driver or whoever she was talking to would invariably say: “Oh, you mean … ” and repeat the name another way. Each time she thought she finally had it right, someone corrected her.
George Guynemer was from the town of Compiègne. At the American Library on Place de l’Odeón she found several accounts of World War I by American pilots who had joined forces with the elite French Cigognes squadron. As a youth, frail in health, Georges Guynemer haunted the airfields and studied the planes and their motors. He was refused by the army several times, but eventually he was taken as a mechanic and he learned how to fly. It was not only his intense desire to fight but his coolness in danger that singled him out. It was not unusual for Georges Guynemer to fight six or eight or even ten combats in a day and to return to his aerodrome with his plane so full of holes it looked like a sieve, his propeller mowed off by bullets. As the war progressed, he became still more unmindful of danger and took greater and greater risks.
For a few weeks after she had gone to bed with Yuri, when they ran into each other at the Institut Catholique, they continued to smile and say hello but after a while they stopped smiling and after an even shorter while they stopped greeting each other all together. Soon, too, Yuri, she noticed, was arriving and leaving the French classes with his arm around the waist of one of the au pair girls, a tall Danish girl, and she could forget about having gone to bed with Yuri.
When she discovered that her ex-husband was having an affair, an affair with one of her friends, she was both hurt and angry. Also, in a strange way that she did not even try to understand, she had felt relief—relief that now she had a good excuse and she did not have to sleep with him. For six more months, she and her ex-husband had stayed together before they got separated; during that time they continued to sleep in the same bed, and, at night, if accidentally she happened to touch him—her foot hit his calf, her hand brushed his arm—she immediately drew back from him. One time, she woke up to find him caressing her between her legs. Pretending to still be asleep, she let him.
By December the days had grown so short that when she woke up in her bedroom in the apartment on rue Guynemer it was still dark outside at 8:00 in the morning. She no longer lingered when she crossed the now nearly deserted Luxembourg Gardens—it was always raining or drizzling. Instead, her head bent, she walked quickly looking neither right nor left, the brown leaves from the chestnut trees wet and slippery beneath her feet. J’aime, tu aimes, il ou elle aime, nous aimons, vous aimez, il ou elles aiment—conscientiously, she conjugated verbs in her head—je n’aime pas, tu n’aimes pas, il ou elle n’aime—were it not to signify defeat, she was ready to give up her apartment and return home.
Mid-January, a man named David called her. A mutual friend had given him her telephone number. A lawyer, he was in Paris on a business trip; he hoped she was free for dinner one night that week. “Which night?” she asked him, as if it made a difference. They settled on the next night, he would pick her up at 8:00. She gave him her address—she had to spell out Guynemer for him—and he joked about how, except for their unpronounceable names, he liked everything about the French, the food, the wine, the women. Especially the women, he repeated with a laugh, and since she did not answer, he asked, “Are you there still?”
“Yes, I’m here,” she answered stiffly.
When the doorbell rang the following evening, George ran to the door and barked. The dog’s bark was high-pitched and loud. She was in the living room and she did not move. She was wearing a black silk dress with a low-cut back and she was sitting on the edge of the sofa in such a way as not to wrinkle her silk dress; also from where she was sitting she could see the front door and she could see George. In between barks, George was sniffing excitedly at the bottom of the door, her stubby little tail wagging back and forth. The doorbell rang again. Still she did not move. Someone called her name and at the same time knocked on the door. In a frenzy now, George barked louder. The bell rang a third time—a long protracted ring. It rang again and again. Then there was silence. After a while she heard footsteps leaving, going down the stairs. Very deliberately, she got up from the sofa and walked to the front hall. She turned off the lights and went back to her seat on the sofa in the living room. Curious, her tail still wagging, George came over; the dog sniffed her shoes and her legs, up and down.
Georges! she called.
She picked up the dog and the dog, at first, wriggled and squirmed in her lap, then settled down and began to lick her—her hands, her arms, her face.
Although highly decorated and a national hero, Georges Guynemer remained fiercely aloof and did not participate in the good-natured and slightly drunken revels of his squadron mates. About him one of them wrote: “the look on his face was appalling; the glances of his eyes were like blows.” Solitary and obsessed with his planes—his last one was a Spad with a 200 horsepower Hispano-Suiza motor; his gun, the latest invention which fired straight ahead through a shaft in the propeller, thus eliminating the need to synchronize the shells between the blades; and, never content or satisfied with how many enemy planes he had shot down—his record was 54, twice as many as Eddie Rickenbacker’s—Georges Guynemer, she realized with the sudden clarity of someone who awakes from a long stupor, was a virgin.
—Lily Tuck was born in France and has lived in Europe, South America and Southeast Asia. She is the author of three novels: lnterviewing Matisse or The Woman Who Died Standing Up,The Woman Who Walked On Water, and most recently; Siam or The Woman Who Shot a Man. Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Fiction, The Antioch Review, The American Voice, and other publications.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.