paris. I stood next to large fountains full of coins, envisioning fish. i stared at naked nymphs, madonnas, war goddesses, spouting water from their mouths and breasts and hands as if special envoys of the grace of God. Generous. Material. Frozen in an instant of graceful motion, “like a woman ought to be” heh heh. eh?
i was a month from my first fully fledged graceless gushing violent punishing menstrual madness. i was ten.ten years old. a girl does not have very long at all to be a girl. a girl becomes a woman all too soon, thrust into it, pushed painfully, headlong into our lot, our lot of pain.it sure does contain a lot of pain.
a little italian girl does not have long to be a girl. a childish chest begins to expand, stung by the estrogen wasp. all in clear view of the entire world:our mothers fathers sisters brothers men on the street women on the street glaring smiling jeering leering ambivalently staring straight ahead, trying not to look, craning like daffodils to look, or with heads turning slow and sinister like black carnivorous birds. all saw. very few did not see. some took note. some did not.
we stayed in montmarte. i stayed in a little twin bed shoved in a cranny on the third and a quarter floor of an artist’s apartment. the apartment was strewn and hung with the artist’s art. the carpet was sporadically burnt by the artist’s cigarette butts. the view was sublime.
the hugest oldest golden grey stone city of a cemetery. Seen from the veranda. Seen from the street. Seen from above, inescapable, completely mysterious. Incurably there. Death. From every angle. I was ten years old.
Some tombs were like small palaces for the dead. Some bright fresh flowers startled the landscape with their color.
At the picasso museum I saw a thousand more naked women to add to the thousand I had seen the day before. (I saw one thousand naked women every day.) Give and take. (As usual, give and take. As ever. As always.) Thirteen thousand naked women by the time we flew home to California. Thirteen thousand naked women. That is thirteen thousand vaginas (give and take) filling my field of vision with their mystery and shock. Thirteen thousand vaginas in my face. One of my own I found terrifying. One of my own beginning to stir and cause me pain and fear and embarrassment and fear and shame and fear. And great sorrow. And a sense of the inevitable, cruel, inevitable, cruel, inevitable, sad, sad, passing of time.
At the museum of picasso I saw one thousand vaginas and some odd exponential number of breasts. I saw them all with utter confusion in my head and my chest. My grandmother strolled around, my mother, my sister, all strolling around. We strolled around and my unruffled father observed placidly each piece. So much more at ease than me, a room full of vaginas leading into another room full of vaginas, his face as calm as a slough by the sea, and he did not even have one. Who knows what expression my face bore. Might have been slightly green.
In class, now, my professor says: Picasso hated women. Says I: “Hm.”
And at the apartment in the afternoon my grandmother yelled at me in English which probably bored her. And she told me I was no longer a child. I was a woman, now, she said. And I understood my lot. It slapped me in my face, my lot, and I knew it was my own. It stuck to me like shellac. It never left. Could only be cleaned away by something so abrasive I just can’t go near it. Acid, bleach, if I managed to efface my lot I would efface my entire skin. My body would be gone. Perhaps bones would be left, perhaps the bones would dissolve along with every other thing.
I was not afraid when I was with my mother. I was not afraid when I was with my father. Alone with my grandmother perhaps afraid. (Scarlet-coiffed, scarlet-lipped, startling pale blue eyes, beautiful in the way that is extremely rarely doled out, only to the lucky, the very lucky ones who will have a somewhat easier time in their lives, in some way, thanks to it, their insanely strong beauty.) Not brave, was I. I was not brave. I cowered and was tiny in my own body, curled up as small as possible, occupying only a tiny painful corner of my chest. Not brave was I.
I was ten years old. The metro was a claustrophobic tunnel of fear taking me to places I could not pronounce. I did ask my parents, my sister, where to our destination? Where to? And they told me, and I promptly forgot. Every time. All found this irritating. All still do. I am no longer sorry. It has a great deal to do with having been a woman for eleven years andno longer being a ten year old girl. I did not then use strong words or yell or ever get mad. I was terrified and sad. I was only happy when I was not scared and as a little american girl in paris, big big city, every thing in french, french of all languages, I was frightened, an American mouse in an unfamiliar basement as big as a country. An entire country unto itself and even the crumbs looked different, which was fine and delicious. The vastness and the chaos though was jarring.
Happiness was my grandmother’s straw hat, Madeline-esque I thought, with a wide black ribbon. Laying on lawns meant not to be lain or walked on. Croques, lemonade which was not really lemonade. Tarts and the round table, floral cloth on which we ate our simple extravagant meals cooked by sweet and gracious Danielle, so unlike my grandmother, her companion. The days I did not have heat stroke.
The day I was struck down by the heat stroke. Puking everywhere on the bus. Sister revolted. Parents... concerned. Parisians very worried, cared very much. They could see that I was a little girl, just a little girl.
Said I’m fine I’m fine tried to stand fainted. Dad carried me home. No way of knowing the number of blocks. Many. Could only perceive the up and down and swaying motion of what, maybe, thirteen thousand steps. Back to the apartment, into the bathtub, there my inescapable body. Again. Always.
I was haunted almost every night. Jet - lag turned my brain into hell. Nightmares every night. A particular nightmare many nights in a row of sand being sifted through fingers, in a vast anonymous desert and then very suddenlya train rushing by and my dream self calling out perhaps not aloud, crying out inside wondering where my mother was.
Wondering where my mother was. I would have appreciated a leash and a collar. But all I got was pushed away, pushed away, as if there was nothing to be afraid of. As if there was nothing in the world to fear. And in such a mean and thoughtless and preoccupied way. How, how did I not cry. I cannot remember crying. Just hell and trauma. So much trauma that even my mother was impatiently asking what’s wrong.
While ten years old in paris wrote a poem about paris, quoth: paris a nice place to be - all happy warm sunny- the greatest cyclists -- and etc, we came to greet the tour de france. all happy warm sunny. i did not mean it, did not believe it. i still do not mean, believe it. Framed in my grandmother’s house, I see it often. Often I chose unnecessarily to placate all around me. Achieving nothing but the strange sight of watching myself shrink further into the tiny corner of my chest, watching myself bury my face in my hands and my arms and hide and bleed.
Now a woman realizes what she has seen. It was every thing it was bound to be. Many colored, full of organs that seethe. Full of lampposts and cheese, Napoleon’s tomb, racing bicycles, delirious dreams. Cars crashing passionately on every street. A great deal to feel and to see. A strange misguided gift that crippled me. A strange misguided gift that left me with a limp, one that never was quite ‘unforeseen’. Call it paris in the summer call it misery. Call it the undoing and the making of me. Call it a girl becoming a woman submerged in blood and lacking sleep. Thirteen perfume bottles arranged delicately on a shelf in an an apartment none of which belonged to me.
Call it my father carrying me home in assaulting heat, thermometers reading confounding degrees. My grandmother read a thousand pounds of poetry. My sister refused meat and was nearly free of the age of thirteen. I do not remember returning home or how it felt to be home. Only that my heart kept beating. Time kept passing by in crippled crawl or at wild hormonal speeds. Girlhood gone. So long
was all the epitaph could read. So long, because the only language in which I can speak is my own. And that no longer seems worthless and shameful to me. I was never free until I learned that as a child you have no choice and as an adult choice is your luxury. Now I drive my little car along the Bay Area streets and I sit in Santa Barbara on deck chairs in the heat and I can go where I want to go, point a finger anywhere, walk a couple blocks to a cafe. All still flicker or stare, whistle or jeer, smile quietly, or go along their way as is decreed. I go my way in my own body. I still dream, cry, and bleed.
For twelve years I have bled so much it seemed impossible that I could lose so much of any thing. Only now it is not loss it is an offering. Lush ground for some future seed. Carry on, says my father. my mother asks me what I need.
Thousands of miles from Paris. Not as deprived as I used to be, as a girl, ten years old, in her summer of contradicting terms and actualities. Nightmares I can still recall. In English, all my dreams. This is my language. And that is all right with me.